I Got No Idols

Because I am, for the most part, emotionally numb, my main objective in seeking out worthwhile art is find something that provokes a real emotional experience. It’s not that I glide through life like a sociopath so much as I, like Homer Simpson, squeeze my emotions into a bitter ball that I then unleash on unsuspecting innocents, like that time I hit the referee with a whiskey bottle. Remember that? When Daddy hit the referee?

The wonderful thing about the vast artistic world is that I can pick my poison. What do I want to feel? There’s a movie, or a book, or a song, or a painting, or another work in another medium that can unlock the feelings I’ve taught myself to repress. That, for me, is the value of art. As someone who purports to be an artist, I can attempt to express myself in hopes that someone will relate to whatever I put out there. I really do try to do that, even if it generally takes the form of pornographic songs. As an appreciator of art, I can allow stranger(s) to evoke in me what I keep hidden. It’s a good system.

Around a decade ago, my friend Ian recommended Juliana Hatfield’s then-new album Beautiful Creature. I was dubious — I had vague recollections of “My Sister” and “Universal Heart-Beat,” but I knew very little beyond that. Nonetheless, I took a chance, and I had one of those rare revelatory experiences that I wish I had with everything but rarely do. I feel like I spend the majority of my life playing handball against the drapes, to use Adam Carolla’s expression. One of my few strengths is the ability to read people, but I rarely feel like that’s reciprocated. That, ironically, probably roots back to my emotional repression. I want to be understood, but I’m not putting out the right vibes.

I took an acoustics class, and one of the only things I remember (aside from creating a standing wave using string) is that human ears are designed perfectly to receive the frequency of a baby’s crying, and our brain is designed to either take action or feel extreme discomfort when hearing that sound. (This is the only instance where I could really buy into the whole Intelligent Design argument, but that falls apart when I consider the design of our sinus cavities. I mean, for fuck’s sake, what kind of benevolent deity would cram all of our mucus into an area the size of a thimble, then let it drip down our throats?)

Fuck, I’m trying to get deep, and I’m distracted with sinuses. The point I’m trying to make is that Juliana Hatfield’s music struck both a literal and figurative chord with me, like what she was putting out was specifically designed to be received by my ears and absorbed by my brain. And before it sounds like I’m getting ready to take out President Reagan on her behalf, let me just say that this whole analogy sounded a lot less creepy in my head. I’m just trying to say that certain music by certain artists hits certain people on a gut level. It’s hard to begrudge people who love music I can’t stand if the music makes them feel the way Ms. Hatfield’s music makes me feel. Like I’m not alone, because somebody else out there feels the same way I do and is equipped with the talent and honesty to turn that feeling into art.

Based on lyrics or interviews or other assorted bullshit, I wouldn’t profess to know what’s really happening in her brain. When I read her memoir, When I Grow Up, I was struck by the synchronicity of our neuroses. Everything made more sense, in a somewhat depressing way. I wouldn’t wish the depression, low self-esteem, codependence, and sometimes debilitating anxiety on anyone. On the other hand, it felt good to know the music I related to so deeply wasn’t all just a bunch of bullshit. (A few years ago, my mom was sort of devastated when she read a memoir of Janis Ian that revealed “At Seventeen” was a crock of shit.)

Recently, Ms. Hatfield started a pretty cool, fan-supported initiative. We donate money to help her record a new album, a lot of it goes to charity, and we can support her directly and get some fun perks like rare recordings, a workbook, artwork, and so forth. I was excited to help, but like the misguided attention whore that I am, I pledged to (among other things) Skype with Ms. Hatfield for 15 minutes.

“Finally,” I thought, “a chance to tell her the impact her music has had on me and turn her into an awkward but like-minded friend.” Friends! With my musical idol! Could you imagine it? Braiding each other’s hair and swapping CDs and complaining about movies and comparing shocked notes on New Yorker articles about Scientology. When it seems like we’re always stuck in second gear, when it hasn’t been our day, our week, our month, or even our year, we’d be there for each other, prancing in New York City fountains and watching TV and stuff. I pictured it all in a mental montage set to the Beach Boys’ “Friends.”

Then, it occurred to me that I’m a spaz. I’m terrible around new people. I do one of two things: (1) I turn into a crazed motormouth whose malfunctioning filter inevitably leads to saying something almost comically offensive, or (2) I totally withdraw, because I’m terrified of turning into the motormouth and making things worse. Usually it’s the latter, but both cases end in prolonged humiliation.

I pledged for the Skypportunity and immediately regretted everything except the part where I donated to directly support an artist I admired. What a fool I was. Why would Juliana Hatfield want to be friends with a fat, pasty dork hundreds of miles away? I wasn’t the only one on the planet who related to her music, and I was probably the least interesting of her fans. Who wants to be friends with a guy who does nothing but complain about movies and read 150-year-old books about the dangers of a powerful chancery court? Jesus, I’m not even my friend. I wouldn’t even be worth having around in sort of an amusing, jesterly way. Eeyore wasn’t the jester — Tigger was.

But I took a cue from Fonzie and decided to keep my cool. “She’s a normal person,” I told myself. “We’ll just have a regular conversation like normal people. I won’t fawn over her or try way too hard to be likable and end alienating her. I also won’t dump all my emotional bullshit on her because she seems like she’d get it. She doesn’t need to put up with that. I’ll just do my most convincing ‘normal person.’”

It seemed like a good strategy, but I felt that nagging pull to deluge her with everything I’ve ever thought about telling someone I’ve spent years idolizing. I mean, if you met God, would you be like, “Hey, man, did you see Rabbit Hole? It was real good.” Or would you be like, “HOLY FUCK GOD IT’S REALLY YOU HOW COME YOU NEVER GAVE ME THAT 10-SPEED I PRAYED FOR?”

That’s the same pull that causes me to withdraw. Instead of splitting the difference between cool and manic, my eyelids snap shut like window shades with a NO SALE sign, and I do my best impression of Ralphie Parker on Santa’s lap. “A football?! What was I saying?!”

Saturday morning, I tried to distract myself by catching up on newsy periodicals. I find the news really boring but necessary, so it’s very easy to not get as distracted as I would with something fictional. My mind kept wandering. “Say this. Say that. Tell her you’re friends with Elizabeth Elmore and you lol’ed at the description of her in When I Grow Up.”

Finally, the time came, and I had the panicky sensation of not being able to say anything. What if I just stared at her for 15 minutes while she wondered if the video froze?

I did talk, but I was awkward and withdrawn. She tried to get me to ask questions, but I knew I’d ask something retarded. She changed the subject to me: “Tell me about who you are.”

Now’s your chance! Win her over with your boundless charm and rapier wit!

“You don’t want to know about me,” I murmured. What the fuuuuuck?! Why did I say that?! I mean, she probably didn’t, but when did that stop me from dominating a conversation with my favorite subject (me)?

And she took me at my word. It was too late to go back and say, “Wait, let’s go back to talking about me.”

But I don’t know. Maybe it was a normal conversation for two people who have just met. I made a half-assed joke that every song should include vibraphone, tambourine, and Moog synthesizer (I forgot to mention bass harmonica). She brought up the Mellotron, arguably the coolest device in the history of synthesizer technology. I felt cool that I knew what it was. I actually want to buy one, but I’m not made of money. Yet.

I started rambling about The Cardigans. She said she toured with them at Lillith Fair and announced that Nina Persson is very nice. You can never tell with those icy Nordic types. I tried to explain why I didn’t like A Camp as well as The Cardigans and failed. A Camp is actually pretty cool — just different, and I fear change.

The subject turned to allergies, because somehow, I can’t have a conversation with anyone without discussing allergies. She’s caring for a rescue dog, which she gleefully showed off. I was pretty excited, but I have intense pet allergies. Last year, I decided to try my hand at standup comedy. Then, I decided it wasn’t for me. One of my “bits” (that’s what they call them in the biz) was about going to an allergist. I thought about launching into it, but it’s one thing to make an audience of disinterested open-mikers uncomfortable with the disgusting details of my doctor visits, but I didn’t want to freak out Juliana Fucking Hatfield with graphic descriptions of doctors shoving chopsticks up my nose. See, these are the thoughts that go through my head and cause me to clam up. I have no control over what I might say, so I force myself to say nothing.

Then we talked about Exit Through the Gift Shop a little bit. And before I knew it, she announced I had a minute left, and suddenly I was letting it all out, gushing like a lunatic about how much her music meant to me. I was babbling. I knew what I was saying made no sense, but she reassuringly said she got it. Did she get it, or was she just humoring me?! Holy fuck, why did this have to be so stressful?! Why can’t I just be like a regular person and have a conversation without reading everything into everything and assuming every word that comes out of my mouth will sully me in their eyes? Or does everyone do that and I’m not as special as I like to pretend? Fuck if I know.

Afterward, I thought of a thousand ways the conversation could have played out in more satisfying ways. But I’m just not that guy.

Here’s the guy I am: Months ago, in the elevator of the rented offices for the Chicago International Film Festival, a fellow critic — a peer, if you will — struck up a conversation about the film I’d been watching. I answered his questions politely but without elaboration. I didn’t ask him anything. I didn’t engage. We walked out together, and he started down the street slowly, like he was hoping I’d catch up and continue the conversation. Instead, I stopped next to the building, pulled out my cell phone, and called Sara. I didn’t even care if she was around. I just needed a visible excuse to stop me from walking, stop me from catching up to that guy and potentially making some sort of friendship with a perfectly nice, normal person.

What the fuck is that? Is it that I can’t connect, or that I’m afraid to connect? Have I been so crippled by bad relationships and fizzled friendships that I don’t have the balls to carry on a simple conversation about movies with a guy who is also interested enough in movies to be trolling the CIFF press office? Or is it just the same thing that has tormented me all along? “I wouldn’t want to be part of a club that would have me for a member.”

Maybe I’m just putting too much stock into things like this. Why does everything have to start as some sort of profound moment of connection? Every friendship that I’ve had that’s endured has started in comically innocuous ways. Not everything has to mean everything, right? A conversation can just pass the time between a downtown office building and a foul-smelling subway station. It doesn’t have to be rife with expectations that overwhelm me and ultimately defeat whatever lofty endgame I’ve ascribed to it.

Fuck. Now do you guys understand why I have panic attacks? You can’t put the weight of world on every moment of life without it driving you nuts. Time to just start popping Xanax and letting life happen for awhile. See you at the other end of a 12-step program!

Posted by D. B. Bates on April 25, 2011 10:36 PM