Summertime means riding your bike to 7-11, loading up on Big League Chew and Blow Pops, then riding down the cul-de-sac in circles until it’s time to head up to your best friend’s house where a plum tree hangs over her pool. It’s the only pool in the neighborhood but you’re all alone, practicing back flips into the deep end. You get out every few minutes or so to grab a fat, purple plum that hit the ground– the pink juice all over your pruney fingers which you clean off by diving into the cold, blue water.
But what happens after puberty? When you trade in your banana seat for a 3 speed? Candy isn’t that appealing, even Coke Slurpees are passe. You hole up in your air-conditioned house with daytime talk shows– Sally, Maury, Jerry, Oprah, Donahue, Geraldo. Your parents urge you to go do something besides eat grilled cheese and watch your hair grow out.
Suddenly they’ve enrolled you in church camp, and you find yourself on a bus traipsing up the mountainside to some unknown compound in the woods. You are alone and you are bored.
I was bunkmates with a two-sister set, Marie and Grace, two black mods from Pacoima. I had a couple of magazines in my bag, and we borrowed a roll of Scotch tape and began posting up cool photos all over the room. I was already into the 60s style thanks to the B-52s and I loved British bands like Duran Duran, Depeche Mode, and the Cure, so it was just a hop, skip, and a skank over to the Specials.
We became fast friends and these girls took me to my first thrift shop– a huge warehouse on Lankershim and San Fernando. I dreamt about it for years after– rows upon rows of racks and racks of cute sun dresses, mock turtlenecks, pencil skirts, chiffon scarves. The first time they took me I must have bought three bags full and it changed my wardrobe from nondescript black cotton to polyester dresses and tights. I rediscovered the thrift store a few years ago, after accidentally passing by as I was taking surface streets home from the valley. It was called Sun Valley Thrift and it was just as amazing as I remembered it, only now it had all the latest trade paperbacks I wanted. New owners bought it out recently and gutted the place. Now it’s clean and organized and pretty much empty except for men’s work pants and bland furniture. A neon sign that says “JESUS SAVES” is hung where all the tupperware used to be. That and a tight parking lot means I’ll never shop there again.
The girls took me to my first show– the Three o’Clock playing at Magic Mountain in the amphitheater. I had on jean shorts, black tights underneath, a black sweatshirt, black creepers with white socks, gold peace earrings. Marie bought me a Who pin to fasten on my shirt to round out the look. “But I don’t even listen to the Who!” I told her. “You will,” she smirked. The show was amazing and I still feel cool, 30 years later, telling people that my very first show was an obscure psych pop band when I was 11 years old.
It was a time where I was between junior high and high school, mod and Goth, Christian and atheist, valley and SCV. The sisters made me tapes with the Yardbirds, Selecter, and of course, the Specials and more Specials. They took me to shows with bands like the Skeletones, Donkey Show, No Doubt (whose singer was a teenage brunette who worked at Macy’s).
During this era, mod/ska was a label that made sense– and the rude boys hung out with the mods who hung out with the skinheads. They drew pictures of boys with fades wearing parkas and big boots riding shiny scooters who never smiled. We got to hang out with an older crowd at church camp– these mod boys in high school who wore striped t-shirts and monkey boots. They let us eat with them at the older kids’ table. We gave each other nicknames– Livingston and Dutch, and I was Parrot. They admired my yellow eyeshadow and loved my dresses. After camp was over, we went on beach trips with them where we dove into the waves, shouting, but then would lie panting on the sand, staring at a shirtless Dutch listening to a portable tape player while he stared at the waves. I was pretty certain I was going to marry him when I grew up, and I think I told him so. They were friends with a pop punk band called The Start who played our church. They sounded like The Clash but sang about being saved. My favorite had the chorus of “Oh, he saved my soul!” over and over. Undoubtedly I have their demo tape dubbed on Maxell Metal somewhere in a plastic box.
I had my first kiss at church camp, too. We had a small army of developing punks and rabble-rousers who gravitated toward each other. There was Ryan, freckled and spindly– braces and abrasive. He loved DRI, or at least he drew the DRI logo on everything. And Steve, who was a goofy goofball with tons of energy who recently found me via social media to tell me he was an Anglican pastor who still loved a good slampit, and there was Bobby who looked like Ricky Schroeder and Alex, the punk chick who wore make-up and bleached her black hair to orange. And then there was Wyatt. I don’t remember his real name, but we called him Wyatt because he looked like Ilan Mitchell Smith from Weird Science. We dated for one day but his hands were sweaty and his kiss had too much spit so I called it off after a few hours. This was the era of Oingo Boingo and KROQ. To this day I can’t hear “Just Another Day” without thinking of being in bed at 3AM, unable to sleep, hearing this song and thinking of how sad I was that summer was coming to an end. The same way I can’t hear Jane’s Addictions “Three Days” without thinking of my last boyfriend in high school who went back to his former girlfriend, but he told me to give him a few days to think about us, and I listened to that song on repeat while I cried away another summer because he never came back.
I don’t know who I would be today if I had stayed with the church. The schism happened one session where I told my youth pastor that I was obsessed with music because we were talking about things that we loved that might not “glorify God.” He told me to get rid of my records, burn them, if I’m not mistaken, and a switch got flipped in my mind, and now and then I developed my philosophy on music and art– that this talent to feel and create is part of the energy force of God, and that even holes-in-jeans metal and baroque Goth is part of a lifeline of creativity and beauty that does not contradict the “Oh, he saved my soul!” ditties of the Christian bands, but that it is its own affirmation. It’s hard to put into words for public consumption without sounding like a sap but I believe our inspiration comes from God/ the goddess/ the universe, etc. so to destroy something just because it’s not “godly” is stupid. And so I stopped going to church, I stopped worrying about my soul, and because we lived in different area codes, I stopped talking to the mod sisters.
Our last church trip to the beach, I had invited a boy I was seeing, whom I met at Magic Mountain a few weeks before. I stood waiting at the church while my friends boarded the bus, telling me to just get on, but I waited, and he showed up thirty minutes late, looking ridiculous with his hairy legs showing from under his powder blue board shorts, his black bedhead uncombed. He didn’t look so cool out of his pointy boots, but I’m a good friend, so I went along with the plan when he said we could hang out at his house instead of hitting the beach. The church leaders had me call my folks and I left a message on the answering machine, then they dropped us at his sister’s house where he was crashing. He played the Cure’s “Staring at the Sea” VHS as he tried to romance me, then he tried to guilt me into doing things I didn’t want to do. I remember I had temporary pink dye in my hair and got it all over his sister’s bed as he tickled me into trying to take the next step. Luckily I had the wit to convince him out of the situation after a close call, and we found ourselves wandering around the air-conditioned mall where my folks picked me up after I collect-called them from a payphone.
Punk and goth won out over mod/ska as we tend to emulate the people who are nearest to us, and the closest mod was a boy named Pierre who lived in Canyon Country who liked to hang out with the goths. Kids these days are so compartmentalized in their scenes that they have no idea that there was so much play between them in the 80s- that most of the “weirdos” liked and accepted each other– that it was only when I got older that people started drawing out lists of what you could dress like, what you could listen to, who you could be friends with, who you could date. So at the end of high school, after being dumped by my long-term Hollywood squatter boyfriend, I found myself in the arms of his best friend, a skinhead from Beverly Blvd. As friends, he was the leather jacket wearing, plaid pants, Minor Threat kind of skin, but after we were in Westwood during the premiere of “Boyz n the Hood” and we got chased down by some angry movie-goers and he got pummeled with a rock that split open his face, something snapped in this boy, and he started dressing smarter with snap caps, v-neck sweaters, pressed pants, Ben Sherman shirts. It was old familiar territory to me, so we tried to make it work, til we tried to hang out with my ex as he was working at a record store on Melrose. My ex had grown his hair out and started looking more like Redd Kross than Red Cross, and he did not approve of our Quadrophenia relationship– my Jimmy and me his Monkey.
But the throwback had already taken hold and I found out one of my favorite penpals was eyeing a cute rude boy at her school. Her hair was long and burgundy. Her clothes black lace and velvet to the floor. She went by “Stigmata” but I toasted my way into her life as we met in person, and decided to become best friends. We went dancing at Marilyn’s, went to shows all over, and befriended anyone we could. We had a tight group who shared Fred Perrys and danced on rooftops in the parking lot. We had nicknames which we drew on white patches sewn to our flight jackets: Blue, Whiskey, Chester, Sharky. I was working at Goodwill and had instant access to the best vintage clothes, and I had the uncanny knack of being able to pick out a Fred Perry by looking at the collar on the rack.
I went away to college with my polyester dresses, my creepers, my pin and patch addled flight, my cat eye glasses. I remember my going away party when all my friends drove up from the east side. We had a water balloon fight and every present I got had drawings and cartoons drawn all over them– of me, of us, and the ubiquitous black and white checked border.
I had spent the spring on the east coast, explaining what a “rude girl” was to these boys whose girlfriends had chelsea cuts or big banged 80s hair. I got ditched in New York, calling my parents from a payphone sobbing, while a bobbed girl from San Francisco gave me her name and number and told me to look her up when I moved to town. However, I fell in with the punk scene up north and when I returned to LA to visit, Blue was a full skin chick. She played keyboards in a semi-famous band, and she was even the type of person to confront “fresh cuts” in the parking lot to hack off their fringe with a pair of Fiskar scissors. We stopped talking after that.
Years later, Brit pop introduced itself with a bright smile and a danceable beat. The punk kids combed their hair down and dyed it inexplicably black. A new scene hybrid emerged with white belts, short pants, button up shirts. We called them “Moths,” a mix of mod and Goth with a love of keyboards and hardcore music thrown in. For me, the dresses and tights never left, but the dancing was back, and so were the skinheads. Only this time the skins were Asian and black, whereas LA SHARP skins were almost 90% Latino with a couple of white boys desperately trying to convince the world they weren’t racist. I stalked a young Filipino until we sealed the deal and I found out he wasn’t as intriguing as I thought (par for the course for dating in San Francisco), as he lived with his parents, drove a minivan, and stole a Ken Boothe cd of mine. I had an epic “mods vs. rockers” party when I gave up the lease for my one-bedroom apartment in the Outer Mission and had a ton of my punk friends’ bands play but invited my new crew inherited through dating, when a punk wearing a cowboy hat got head-butted by a skinhead from Texas. I remember watching the confusion as the politics got weighed– he headbutted me for wearing a cowboy hat ironically! because he’s from Textas! But he’s black. “Do you really like cowboys so much that you had to defend their honor with violence?” I asked my friend. “No. That guy’s face just pissed me off” was the reply. In the meantime I was outside sitting on some poor boy’s rusty Vespa as I developed delusions of ditching the Casanova and becoming a regular at the Orbit Room.
It all turned to mush as Calvin Johnson called me a skinhead for tossing a bottle of Snapple at the Make-Up, my best friend Jared turned into a rocker with a round head of curls, a baseball jacket and a pair of Cons. I counseled young skinheads on the history of the scene as every once in a while, the youngins focused more on the violence and the suspenders than the music and unity. My siblings were immersed in Third Wave ska which was utter shite. Luckily they liked traditional, too so I took them to shows and reveled in having a cool family who traded jackets and got sweaty bouncing around the dance floor together. I realized that after all these years of liking this music and this scene and these boys and this hair and those clothes, the best of all worlds was a mix of all worlds, even if it meant having no community to belong to. So I kept the penny loafers with DM soles, I published the zine that sold at Epicenter, volunteered at MRR, danced at Pop Scene, made out with drunks I picked up at Mission Records, and ultimately sold all my clothes, shoes, and jackets on Telegraph Avenue, got a dot-com job, and started shopping at Old Navy.
I’m sticking with this– a middle-aged woman with highlighted hair who shops the clearance rack at Target. My last hurrah was some unwise purchases at Merc in London when I had the money to buy designer mod clothes but not the scene to show them off in. But I will still sport a Lonsdale hoodie when I’m heading out for a night on the town at City Walk, and I’m half in it for the mod and the other half for the MMA. And only I know I’m cool as I support the scene by picking up the Three o’Clock limited edition cd at Amoeba because if I don’t support their endeavors and remember the soaring crescendo of “Jetfighter,” who will?
“Do you play drums? You look like a drummer,” the girl told me. This was also the same girl who told me I should start doing zines– she was an amateur graphic designer and zines were her way of testing out imagery and typography.
“No,” I said.
“Well, we have a band,” she nodded to her friend sitting on her bed. “We don’t have any songs or gigs yet but we have stickers.” She handed me a sheet full of stickers with a 1950s cocktail flare.
So that was my first band. They wound up developing songs and getting gigs after all. They got a real drummer, you might know her as “The Real Janelle,” and while I watched them from the pit, I thought to myself, “That could have been me.”
I played up the “looking like a drummer” bit as I came home to LA for the summer after living in the dorms during the school year. I had made a lot of friends through the mail and wound up meeting them in person. We went to Jabberjaw, getting there much, much too early in the excitement of it all. We sat out on the pavement with zines in our lunchboxes, talking and laughing.
“Oh, so you’re Bratmobile!” the sound guy said.
We just laughed.
“Cool, come on in and let’s sound check you.”
“That’s not them,” some partypooper doorgirl said.
“Are you sure?”
“Yeah, I don’t know what band they’re in but that’s not Bratmobile.”
Another fake band to add to my resume.
A few weeks later, Tiger Trap and Heavenly came to town. We hustled our way through the growing crowd, looking for a bathroom. Since the show was on a college campus, there were just locked and unlocked doors everywhere. We found an unlocked door with an empty bathroom and then opened out to a bunch of equipment.
“Oh cool cool,” was the consensus. We weren’t the band that night but we were some other cool riot grrrl band (again, not by our lying but just by our not denying the mistake). We stood around and drank the sodas.
Tiger Trap walked in and glowered. I know they recognized me enough from common Northern California shows. The singer returned my Hi without eye contact, then told someone we weren’t supposed to be there. Kicked out, so we left the entire show and laughed our butts off in the parking lot.
The fun of riot grrrl came from the dismissal of all rules and regulations for who gets to create art and music, and who gets to consume it. As I worked on the second issue of my zine, my best friend from high school came over and I explained to her the entire ethos. Minutes later, we were in my garage, pounding on garbage cans, riffing on my little brother’s Stratocaster, screaming and laughing. We knew we sounded awful but we were enjoying ourselves in a way we never had before, with loud, reckless abandon, and that was my first step toward making music for me, not following sheet music or trying to replicate a punk song at my boyfriend’s frustrated insistence.
A year or two later, I found myself in a real joke band. I say “real” because we had songs, we practiced, we had gigs. I say “joke” because all of us had a wicked, satirical sense of humor and we were fully self-aware that we couldn’t play our instruments. Ideologically, we were solid, but musically we were terrible. I think we all clearly would have admitted that we were more like the Shaggs than the Frumpies, but we loved it.
Stephanie was the 17-year-old guitarist who played in “real” punk bands in the south Bay. Tim Yo from MRR was her biggest fan, so I’ll never forget him standing up front at our first show, exploding with applause, then coming up to hug her and congratulate us at the end.
Bianca and Rebecca were best friends. Bianca wrote songs about not being “Hispanic” and making guacamole out of her blood. Rebecca had a Lisa Frank sensibility. When I think of Bianca, I think about how she took me to Mexican dive bars where my margarita got mickeyed, and when I think of Rebecca, I think of a poodle wearing sunglasses riding a pink skateboard.
I should have known better, being the eldest of the group, but instead I provided my bedroom as our practice space, much to the annoyance of the students next door at New College who just wanted to have Socratic seminars on supporting local business models without listening to us caterwauling.
I wrote one real song, with rhythm and lead guitar parts, a real drum beat, lyrics that meant something to me called “My Room.” I think we could have become a “real” band if we had practiced a little more, but we were too busy making zines and coming up with funny lyrics to really commit to the music.
I remember having some out-of-town guests stay with me one week in summer, and as I was getting ready for a show, they chastised me for putting on a dress. “How can you drum in a dress like that? Won’t you be uncomfortable?”
“No” and it doesn’t matter was my response, but I think the fact that even the Canadian women soaking beans in my kitchen criticizing my band was a big indicator about how the world at large saw us.
“Hey you play drums, don’t you?” the boy I knew as the cashier for the dorm cafeteria asked me.
“No, not really,” I replied. It had been a few years, and I knew a thing about humility and defeatism. But I did still have my drumset– tiger striped with a deep green tom, my ex-boyfriend’s old hippie roommate bought it off a church band in the Western Addition for $100.
“Yes she does! She was in a band,” my friend volunteered for me.
“Can you play even a little? We’re forming a band. We want a female drummer. Like the Velvet Underground.”
And that’s how Moe Tucker became my point of reference as they taught me how to drum properly– to use brushes and mallets, to focus more on the tom drum than the bass, and that my slight syncopation would be an asset to this 60s psych/ 80s indie rock type pop group.
Again, practice would have made perfect, and we tried. We had a practice space on Turk St., we jammed in bedrooms, we had gigs in LA, Oakland, and San Francisco. We played the Purple Onion, and we actually hooked up with a couple other awesome, similar bands, so we might have developed a following in time. We covered Tommy James, Huey Lewis & the News, Velvet Underground, and the Kinks. Our songs were about overalls, daguerrotypes, and always lost love. We even had a track on a compilation cd.
At first the name was Piltdown Men, and that drove me crazy, so we agreed on the Piltdowns, but we still had to explain our name wherever we went.
I really like to think of us like the Beatles or the Monkees– and that there should have been teen magazines in tribute to us. We should have had our own tv show.
There was Ed– the Paul of the band. Cute, well-dressed, well-educated in pop music. He wrote the love songs.
Josh– the bassist– the John, cynical and smart, he wanted us to rock more. He wore cop glasses on stage. He was about 6 foot 5.
Ben– the George– a little bit hippie, a little bit mystical. His lyrics were always an enigma. He had the longest hair and always seemed to be faded.
And then me, of course I’m Ringo. I’m not the best drummer in the world. I’m not even the best drummer in the band. I’m funny. I wear silly shirts like Hawaiian shirts, shirts with the word “BITCH” ironed on them. My favorite part of being in a band is after we’re done playing and all the tension is off, and I can sit at a table and be wooed by the mop-topped, black turtle-necked cute boys in the other bands who want to talk shop over a beer.
California Pony Girls
I was living in the Tenderloin, in love with a gay mod boy who was best friend and companion. We’d go dancing every weekend and we’d hit the corner deli mart for dinner. One day we decided to rent movies and found ourselves strolling the aisles, looking for something decent. We found ourselves in the Adults Only section, as he pulled out various titles to make me laugh, and then we found California Pony Girls– a low budget VHS with two women in lingerie with harnesses and horse bits in their mouths as a leering male towers over them.
“Oh my God, this is hideous!” I said, and “But that would make a great band name.”
I tried to get him to rent the video but he refused. “You remember I’m gay, right?” he said, and all irony was lost on him.
I moved back to LA after a bitter break-up and formed my own one-woman band. I had bought a 4-track, now knowing a little bit about music, and I recorded some stuff for some of local kids around my hometown. Back to the garage I went, with the old white Stratocaster. I redid “My Room,” with layered tracks– me on drums, on guitar, lead and backing vocals.
I made a tape for CPG with a hidden bonus track where Owen from Casiotone for the Painfully Alone laid down a funky Casio beat as I plainly and repeatedly stated “I’m gonna kill Jets to Brazil,” even though I really loved the band, the song was more a commentary on their fans than them.
My best and favorite song was a collaboration between me and the singer in my brother’s band The Tagalongs. I was crushing hard on a friend who lived in Brooklyn, but I was living at my parents’ house, broke and bored, so we wrote a song about me getting a job at the mall so I could save money to move to New York. It’s my favorite song I’ve ever done, with Joel on guitar and lead vocals, me on drums, keyboards, and the chorus. We have friends cheering in the background and oodles of inside jokes in our lyrics.
When I cleaned out my tape collection this year, I got rid of everything I could find on Spotify. I kept my mixtapes from penpals and I kept all the demo tapes from all the bands I’ve known, loved, and tolerated. We may be listening to a music made and mixed on computers these days but there was a time when all you needed was an amp, a guitar, something to pound on, a little keyboard from the thrift store, a duct-taped microphone, and a shoe to prop it up. Even though one day I won’t have a way to play them anymore, I feel like these tapes mean more than just musical expression– they are an insight into our emotions and our politics 15 to 20 years ago. There’s a story behind each one and some are embarrassing, some are enlightening, and most are unforgettable if you choose to remember them.
I know it may be hard to tell by looking at me but I teach Science Fiction to 12th grade slackers. You might think it a prerequisite to wear glasses, have a mousy bob, to wear comfortable Easy Spirit sandals, to wear pants & a floral button up shirt while talking about Future Shock and Asimov’s robot laws, but that was the last Sci Fi teacher who I took over for. She decided she’d had enough of grading papers so she went back to school in her 50s to get her masters in library science. Now she shushes kids and helps them set their margins to 1″ in MLA format, and the only time she dips into the SF realm is to help some freshman find the third in the Divergent series.
I knew nothing about Sci Fi when I got hired, which is so typical in the education system. “We have an opening in a sheltered Mod Civ class, how do you do with the ELL population? Never worked with them before? What’s your philosophy on the best way of teaching Aristotle, Socrates, and Plato? What? Your specialty is on the French Revolution, well welcome to the world of SDAIE and the Yangtze River. You might want to brush up on these things before school starts in two weeks.”
I had a perfunctory knowledge of SF being the older sister of a D&D-playing, Star Wars loving uber-nerd, and being an iconoclastic writer, I knew a bit about dystopian fiction, so I bit my lip and nodded my head earnestly when they offered me the job my first of teaching.
What I soon found out was that there is no better class to teach– my first year was rough as I followed the previous teacher’s lessons of worksheets, constant multiple choice quizzes and awkward group projects made out of magazine collages and speculation, but when I made the class my own, and made it surrounded by the idea not of Future Shock– that the world is developing technology at such a rate that Mankind cannot keep up (cue 50s film strip beep here), but instead, my approach was, “How were the Sci Fi writers right? And if they’re not right yet, when will they be?”
We start with a research project where the students get to work with a partner and get to choose from a list of approved authors. We watch a hip, cable tv type documentary which gives them a 50 minute blitzkrieg of Sci Fi culture. I show it to gauge the temperature of the class– will they laugh when they see Octavia Butler on the screen and some flat-billed douche will inevitably call out, “IS THAT A DUDE?” and then I have to hit pause on the DVD player, flick the lights on, and then strong-arm them into realizing that their stupid reaction is actually why Butler had a hard time breaking into Sci Fi, while the rest of her female compatriots were using fake androgynous initials for names to try and get respected in the biz. The only benefit that comes out of the lecture, when it does happen, is that someone will choose Butler as their author project, forcing the kids to stare at her image on PowerPoint slide after PowerPoint slide. “Remember how you laughed at her? Are you laughing at her books about time travel and slavery? You privileged brats, don’t you feel guilty now?” And I just smile and nod.
I wait and see how they deal with death– Huxley asked for a massive dose of LSD on his death bed, Asimov died of AIDS– how do they death with sexuality– Delany is gay, Wells was a sex addict– how they deal with pop culture nuances– Ellison wrote for the Twilight Zone series, King wrote Carrie– and inevitably, I can identify the lazy kids right away– they choose Verne, Burroughs, Crichton. And I know immediately who are going to be the coolest kids in class– they choose Atwood, Dick, Stephenson.
We watch clips from The Handmaid’s Tale. Kids bring in their instruments and play songs dedicated to Philip K. Dick’s paranoia. I’m always jotting down notes on a scrap of paper about what to read next: Dandelion Wine, Mona Lisa Overdrive, Barefoot in the Head instead of circling scores on their rubrics. Inevitably some marginalized kid will fall in love with H.P. Lovecraft and the two of us will shiver and squeal about Cthulu while the other 38 humans in class will have no idea about the depths of fear and despair. This year I had a kid list the website of the Church of Satan in his Works Cited. His citations were correct so he got credit for a reputable source, but I shook my head the whole time. “Did you really just cite the Church of Satan in your project?” I asked him when the lights came on. He smiled sheepishly. “Okay, then!” I said, as more than a few kids started rubbing their rosaries under their desks and saying their Hail Marys as I calculated his score. C- because it was one week late.
I know I disappoint the professional geeks. They see the Leonard Nimoy record propped up on my wall, and they want to talk Tribbles. I let them wear their Naruto headbands in class and encourage their explanations of Dark Matter from Dr. Who. I explain Hard Sci Fi and Soft Sci Fi to the masses, and I can register the disappointment in their eyes when I say Soft Sci Fi is best because Hard Sci Fi is annoying and dull. I don’t read books that take place in a series. I like the classics, and when I try to encourage independent reading, I always add a rule-breaker to the list of common district-approved classics: Gates of Steel, Childhood’s End, Ender’s Game, oops! Snow Crash– sorry about that sex scene. Yikes! The Female Man– sorry about that sex with a robot scene. A Scanner Darkly– whoa, this book blew my mind. Sorry for those of you who chose that book who have never read a book on your own before and had to experience that one without a pacing calendar, study guide questions, or Spark Notes to explain it. But those are my favorite moments when I think to myself that I’d rather teach Myth and Folk, then I find a book that reminds me that Sci Fi is fertile ground for experimental fiction. As I told Sci Fi fanzine legend Don Fitch, “I teach Sci Fi to high schoolers!” He told me that teaching Sci Fi goes against its very principles, that is inherently against rules and the authority of the classroom, but we make it work. As long as I have the kids under 18 get their parents to sign a permission slip when I’m nervous.
I love teaching Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 because the kids connect with Clarisse. I guide them into this with a series of well-timed journals and discussions about book banning and addiction to technology. Are you a Clarisse or a Mildred? I silently ask them. Do you sleep with your sea-shell radios in? Do you love your tv more than your family? Do you diet to double digits? Do you alter your sensibility for a temporary and shallow happiness? Or do you want to take a walk outside after dark? Talk to your uncle about life and the universe until 2AM? Do you want to ask “Why?” of your teachers or do you want to just lose yourself in your Snap Chats and your Tweets, one eyeball on the clock because this class is so lame and once this class is over, and then school will be over, and then graduation and then college, then career, then family, then retirement, then death. Everything and everywhere is better than where you are now. I put up a silkscreened print next to my clock that says BE HERE NOW in all caps red block lettering. Enjoy this life now. Look around and talk to the people next to you, listen to what happens in class, take a vested interest in the here and the now because this minute is living and breathing.
My favorite unit is short stories though by then the dystopian themes have become old-hat: nonconformity, consumerism, alienation, the appreciation of the small and beautiful leads to the sublime. But during short stories we talk about the Other, we (I) mock the classic space opera hero via Ursula LeGuin, we talk about sexist language and careful diction: “manmade star,” “booby prize,” the captain is a woman, we find out on the penultimate page. We talk about the pain of childbirth, women in combat, why the black guy or the guy in the red shirt dies first in movies, I read them Tyler Durden’s speech from Fight Club. We bring in advertisements, looking for how we’re manipulated by marketing and advertising. At this point, they’re convinced or they never will be. Either J.G. Ballard is a genius or an old, meandering British perv. I top off the unit with a refresher on the business letter, accompanied by Gordon R. Dickson’s “Computers Don’t Argue”: I show them a clip from Summer School, as Shoop has always been my teaching hero and Chainsaw is my ideal student, when everyone gets new RayBans by writing in to the sunglasses company. We mail off our letters and get gift cards and coupons in the mail, though I have to say that the economy hit that unit hard as most kids get nothing as customer service has dwindled to naught in most companies, so the days of a package full of anything for free is now over. The best we can hope for is a generic letter and maybe 20% off at Innout.
Their own short story accompanies this unit and I have read more than enough stories about post-apocalyptic war-torn environments where Hunter or Jake and all his pals are suddenly military commandos looking for any signs of life. I prep the story by making them research current events every other week– I tell them that anything goes as long as it’s within the two-week period and that it’s from a reputable source. It is my favorite day because I kick back in my director’s chair as they talk about putting gold in one’s poop, an artist who grafted an ear to his arm, planets and stars being discovered, 3-D printing of guns and hearts, and life-enriching opportunities to check out electronic conferences or star-watching at the Griffith Park Observatory.
I used to finish with Jurassic Park, as the kids remember being terrified by the movie when they were little, so it was the perfect way to round out high school– to take this dinosaur story and then apply our social criticism chops to what Malcolm and Hammond have to say about capitalism, greed, and scientific progress. We would top it off with recreations of their favorite iteration– where kids donned bandanas and air soft guns, stalking in their lush backyards, looking for plastic dinosaurs found at the Dollar Tree, where one football player did an interpretive dance representing Dennis Nedry’s death at the hands of the dilosophaurs. But these days the kids are even more reluctant to read than they were 10 years ago, so last year when I taught the book, I found myself cajoling the kids into discussing the motives of InGen, Henry Wu, Dr. Grant. I knew they weren’t reading. They were failing the quizzes, and they didn’t care. So why am I teaching a book I don’t even like that much for the 10th time when they don’t care? So this year I switched to Brave New World.
I told them openly that if they refuse to read and to discuss then I might as well teach a book that I love so at least one person in the room will be having a good time while the rest of them clock-watch and hide in the back row, waiting for the movie I show while we’re working on drafting essays at home. So I went whole hog, and I will tell you– the kids still didn’t read, the quiz scores were still deplorable but the discussion were ace. I played them “Mother’s Little Helper,” I taught them more about Shakespeare to unlock the allusions to Hamlet, Othello, Romeo and Juliet, and the Tempest than I taught my AP Lit class. Somehow talking about the savage reservation segued us into talking about public breastfeeding which lead into some kid bringing up free bleeding, and I’m standing there, allowing their soon-to-be-adult minds to form opinions and hash out their passions in a safe environment. We talk about dating and relationships, the self-flagellating tribes of New Mexico, EDM, heroin and Xanax, Pussy Riot, test tube babies and cloning, Henry Ford and the benefits of genetic engineering.
No matter the book, the last essay is an argument about cloning. Thanks to the new common core standards, I present some articles, some film clips, I encourage their own research, then kick back and observe the results. After teaching this class thirteen times, shuffling through thousands of terrified anti-cloning essays, this year I found that all but one essay was about the benefits of cloning. Despite showing them Gattaca and Michael Bay’s The Island, the consensus was that cloning and genetic engineering will lead to a longer, happier, healthier life for everyone involved, despite the high number of failed clones and the potential for misuse by an unregulated market.
And I think back to Future Shock, where technology outpaces the capabilities of a human’s comprehension for dealing with the ramifications of scientific advances, and I know that I am a victim of Future Shock, as my Mildreds, my Montags, my Clarisses, my Franklins, my Hathaways, my Bernards, my Leninas, my Fannys see me as a Faber– a relic from the past with a little bit of knowledge, a typewriter, and a suitcase full of dirty clothes, ready to help them escape from society’s clutches by taking that Freudian trip down the river to be reborn into a world where books are good and friends mean more than the Spot Bargain or the newest model of the parlor walls.
So don’t blame me when this generation grows up and begins to rule the world– I did my part– but when they pass bills to develop superhuman soldiers and encourage robots to suppress the ghost in the machine to become nannies and dogwalkers, I warned them but this is their future, not ours.
“Attention, punks! Zorro calls to you,” I wrote on a piece of lined notebook paper. “Punks” because I didn’t know the proper name for the genus of people I was looking to attract as penpals. I didn’t know all the labels for the sub-sections of death rock, new romantic, etc. so I just figured “punks” was a nice umbrella term for anyone outside the mainstream.
“Zorro” because I also wanted to convey the idea that I was looking for people dressed all in black who had a love of mystery, but my symbolism went amiss as the mail from Star Hits started piling up, letter after letter addressed to “Zorro.”
I was looking for like-minded people through the mail, as I was making that fearful crossover from little kid to teenager. It was unbelievably awkward, as my only exposure to alternative culture was through MTV and the occasional “how-to” fashion page in the magazines I read because they featured Duran Duran on the cover. I was a big time Durannie, in love with Nick Rhodes. In fact, I clearly remember sitting on my bed, staring at the solo posters of my favorite guys on my wall- Nick, John, and Simon, and I started crying. Simon had just gotten married, and Nick was engaged. Through mother’s intuition, my mother climbed the stairs to my room and found me wet-eyed in bed; she asked me what was wrong. I explained that if Nick gets married, we’ll never be together. My mom laughed a little patronizingly and told me she felt the same way about James Darren. But, I thought, it’s not the same. Once I grow up and become famous, Nick will fall madly in love with me. He just needs to wait 10 more years til I finish junior high, high school, and somehow develop a career where we will bump into each other at a ski lodge in Switzerland.
I was pretty convinced my whole young life that I was going to do something big when I grew up. I just never figured out what, so nothing ever became of it. I grew up in an era when They told You you could be Anything you wanted– an astronaut, a ballerina, an actor, but They never said anything about Talent, Skill, Perseverance, and Practice. So I grew up thinking that one day, I’d be a famous singer or a writer or an actor or a model. I didn’t have talent or connections, and I had no discipline for practice– I’d played the piano and the cello with the zeal of a hostile troll. I remember walking uphill, both ways, to my piano instructor’s with her schnauzers bounding in the backyard and never learning anything I liked. We must have played “When the Saints Go Marching In” one hundred times, though at the end, I did learn “Fur Elise” and I can still play the opening bars to that, much to the surprise of anyone nearby. I gave up the cello once I got a car and realized I could go places in my car, while my poor cello instructor lugged her practice cello across town and was ringing our front doorbell to no avail. The thing is when you’re young, you have hope. You have this idea that “one day” things are going to work out in your favor and you’ll realize all the frustration and loneliness and defeat would pay off. Now as an adult, my priorities have changed, and I look around and think, “This is it. Enjoy it.” It’s my very own Peggy Lee existential crisis. There is no hope that I will somehow be “discovered” and will become a stand-up comic or that I will suddenly become a master of the palette. But don’t worry, I do know I could always go to an Open Mic night and give it a whirl. I could take art classes until they have to wheel me into the common room at the home, but that idea of Making It Big and somehow Becoming Famous and bumping into Nick Rhodes just isn’t going to happen anymore. I gave all my Durannie gear to my friend’s older sister who was still in love with the band– my giant posters, my picture discs, etc. I kept my albums, though, and never stopped listening to them. I remember she was on the bus when I dropped a pile of stuff in her lap– this same bus where we’d line up outside it and we’d sing “Wham Rap” from start to finish without making a mistake.
We didn’t have the zeal the baby boomers did for the Beatles, but I loved Boy George the minute I saw him, but I thought he was a girl at first– he gave off an Annabell from Bow Wow Wow vibe but when I found out he was a guy, he became infinitely cooler. We loved Kissing to Be Clever and even made wedding rings out of foil that we decorated with red, gold, and green glitter. I know our parents thought we were insane, and then we gazed at the cover of the Madness album, trying to figure out which member was the cutest. When my parents bought me Cupid and Psyche 85 for Christmas, my cousin was remarking how the dark haired lad in the band was the cutest, and it just seemed like blasphemy because everyone knew that Green Gartside was the dreamiest.
I wanted to be a video director more than anything. I was glued to MTV and how each song told a story. The songs without stories needed one so I spent hours in my room every day with my headphones on and the volume cranked up, imaging what the story was. My parents bought me a new stereo system for my Christmas and/or for my birthday every year, as I went through them, wearing them down, wearing them out, after hours of playing. I remember their punishment for me was not grounding, but was taking my headphones away. One day I was listening at 3AM with a pair of headphones that came free with a system, but the quality was awful– the ear pads were sponge not leather, and you could barely crank them up without hearing staticky distortion. My dad walked in on me mid-dance– as I always pantomimed what I imagined the actors/ singers/ musicians should be doing in my video– and just simply stated, “I can’t believe it.” It was an addiction. I remember how mad I was at Scritti Politti’s “Perfect Way” video– because that’s what I considered my 12 year old director’s style, and how could I make it big as a director if it’s all already been done before? I was right. Every video after that had the same slow-motion, distorted, impressionistic style, so I needed something else. I was convinced I was going to direct all the way up to college– I was beyond pissed that Fugazi refused to make videos (at the time) because I knew I was a perfect fit for them and I had a version of “Runaway Return” which would win me an Academy Award– but then I took my one and only film class, told my dad I wanted to direct, and he told me to hang up the phone, drop out of school, and move back home. He wasn’t going to spend money on a degree in film when he could just get me a job on the set immediately. But I want to be a director! I don’t want to be a PA! And there we go– delusions of grandeur. I’m going to be Nick Rhodes’ wife and a famous director, but I need to find that major Chutes & Ladders cheat that propels me from square 28 to 84.
I got my parents to buy me the usual teenybopper magazines– Bop, Tiger Beat, etc. but there seem to be less D2 and more New Edition, so I started looking at import magazines– I got them to buy me Star Hits, which became the sacred word, as Star Hits had the perfect blend of humor, fashion, idol worship, and slightly off the mainstream focus. I remember putting $12 worth of change in an envelope to buy an import magazine with the Cure, Duran Duran, and Depeche Mode, but no one told me it needed extra postage. The magazine never came, but the Boy catalogs came like clockwork. I loved looking at the pictures of Madonna, even though I was outgrowing her music, and I loved reading Bold Type’s article– a strange advice/letters to the editor column with a charismatic and sardonic writer who went by the name “Bold Type.” I remember one particular letter about someone who kept putting money in a machine with badges (1″ buttons) and they kept getting a Buzzcocks button every time, and they wondered who the heck the Buzzcocks were. (1. this was before the Internet– do you remember when you heard of a band and you had to ask around to find someone who actually had some music by them? 2. I remember being slightly scandalized by the name “The Buzzcocks” and I wondered if it even was allowed to be in print in a major magazine.) I always imagined Bold Type as a man– a big, stocky guy with a mustache, a button-up shirt, and a cigar, when really it must have been some cheeky staffer in boat shoes and highlighted hair. But Bold Type told the letter writer to go to the record store and buy a Buzzcocks album because they were really good. And so I did too, and that’s how I wound up with my copy of Singles Going Steady.
I don’t know what I would have done without Tempo Records. I was constantly begging rides to go to Tempo, just so I could peruse the aisles, Pretty in Pink style. The people who worked there were gods. They knew everything about music, they had cool hair, they were in bands, or supported bands who played gigs in the valley and Hollywood. To this day I know that a tape that costs $6.99 will wind up as $7.44 with tax. Many times I showed up with a bag full of change that amounted to exactly $7.44. I scoured underneath the couch cushions and begged off change from my dad’s pockets. I remember telling them that I wanted Depeche Mode’s Some Great Reward in every format possible, and that’s when a clerk told me it was smarter to buy new music to try it out instead of buying the same awesome album in CD, cassette, and record. My favorite Tempo story is when I asked for a ride but everyone was busy so I got on my 3 speed and decided to ride my bike along the newly cemented roads from my house to Tempo. And I made it, and I carried The Three O’Clock’s Sixteen Tambourines on vinyl in a plastic bag bumping against my handlebars the whole way home.
It was Star Hits, MTV, and USA’s Night Flight that got me into music. No one else I knew was into the same music as me. My friends were still happily trotting down top 40 lane as I saw the B-52s’ “Legal Tender” on tv one day and it changed my entire life– my aesthetic, my music, my reason for being. My friends all thought it was hilarious that I was obsessed with this quintet with beehive hairdos, songs about quiche, and “heavy…equipment!” To show my devotion, I took my copy of Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” and smashed it over my bedpost. My friends all gasped. “But that’s a really good record!” they admonished, and they were right. I knew it was stupid to take a stand against all mainstream music, but I wanted them to know I was serious. I was going to follow what I called “Modern” music (because I had no definition and no other label). I had my own version of new wave I tried to piece together with the clothes my mom would buy me at Clothestime– lots of pastels, lots of bangle bracelets, surf shirts, baggy shorts, Vans with no socks, and short hair like a boy’s with plenty of mousse. There was a girl at Clothestime who wore black lipstick and had frosted hair shaved on the back and sides. She was cheerful and friendly, and my mom always went to her for advice in picking out clothes, but when I crawled over to my parents’ bed and asked them if I could get the same haircut as she, they dismissed my desire for a complete make-over as foolishness. That said, I had done the same thing a few years earlier, when I approached their sleeping bodies to ask if I could change my name to Jennifer because I was sick of how unique my name was, and how I never could find any stickers or pencils with Kelli spelled right.
My best friend had an older sister in high school who loved Adam Ant the way most of us loved Duran Duran, and it wasn’t a big jump from the shiny suits and bangs in the face to leather pants with a peasant shirt puffed open. I loved Adam and the Ants like nobody’s business, and some of my best memories from my youth are when we took a camping trip when I brought along “Kings of the Wild Frontier” and “Seven and the Ragged Tiger” and we played those tapes non-stop for days. But something about Adam Ant’s sexuality rubbed me the wrong way– Duran Duran seemed to hint at it (unless they were chasing a half-naked babe through the jungle while she panted) but Adam was pretty overt, and it was a little much for my burgeoning hormones so I love “Friend or Foe” a million times more than “Strip,” which I listen to with fondness but also a little Puritan pearl clutching.
We were waiting in line at Magic one day as we spotted a group of darkly clad teens waiting for the Electric Rainbow across the way. “Oh, look!” my friend’s sister said. How cool. They wore army jackets, black bandanas, heavy black eyeliner, black lipstick, hair dyed black or crimped orangey-red. “What kind of music do they listen to?” I asked her, as the source of all hidden musical knowledge. “Dark stuff,” she replied. “Heavy metal. Ozzy Osbourne, stuff like that. They’re called Death Rockers.” No way, I thought, remembering the case of tapes from the desert. They looked too cool– they didn’t look like my shirtless neighbors, with their mullets and their torn jeans, the scowls on their freckled faces, their middle fingers in permanent flip-off-mode in my direction. “Yup, I wouldn’t hang out with them,” she said, and I accepted it. For a while.
Then like most kids figuring out stuff on their own, I decided to dress up as “death rock” for Halloween. I wore my dad’s boots, a pair of crepe black pants, a black button-up shirt, a long black and brown checked coat. I hairsprayed and hairdried my hair up in a crown and found black spray hair dye at the local drug store. I gave myself black-tinged bangs, and I used my mother’s eyeliner to draw heavy black lids and thick black lips. It was Halloween so no one seemed to care, except the boy in the rolled up jeans and lopsided hair in my science class. He traded seats with someone to sit by me. “You look good like that.” Oh, really? “Yeah, you should dress like that every day.” No, I mean, I’m just a poser. Isn’t it weird to just show up to school in all black out of nowhere? “No, I mean, everyone’s got to change some time. Why not just do it now?” Why not, indeed. So I did, and this guy became my best friend, and the two of us pushed each other– silver jewelry, t-shirts from the swap meet (where you would buy the t-shirt first because it was cool, then you’d go to the record store and buy the album, hoping that the band was cool– this is how I found out the Damned was awesome, but the English Dogs– not so much– so if you see an old picture of me in an English Dogs shirt, you can know that I am purely wearing it for the lamest reason– because it looked cool, because I did not like the band). We got our parents to give us rides to Hollywood to buy pointy boots, and at this time a small group of other kids all started to make their own discoveries into this unknown world, then I started picking up periodicals whenever I went– Interview, ID, LA Weekly– and I made it my business to know a lot about music and alternative fashion.
No one knows how much mail you receive when you put a classified ad looking for penpals in Star Hits but I think at one point, I was getting at least thirty letters a day. A lot of the letters started off the same: “I don’t know if I’m a punk, but you sound cool anyway,” and that’s when I learned that punk was its own species– that punks were highly illiterate and liked to drink and fight and break stuff. My friends in the mail were elegant in lace bodices with huge hair and massive record collections. My mix tapes from this era are what made me who I was– I heard about bands even the cool, jaded clerks at Tempo had never heard of. We ordered albums specially and this is how I found Marc Almond’s solo career after being the crushworthy front man of Soft Cell. Then I saw him on the Some Bizzare show on Night Flight and realized that I loved him with the same intensity as my love for Nick Rhodes. But wait, he’s gay? Gone were my notions of moving to England and becoming a break-out start. I could admire his red sequined devils horns from afar. But the reality of forging my own music and my own identity was becoming more real.
In elementary school I started writing short stories about a group of orphans who stayed together in a big house– this was before Party of Five and the eldest was a beautiful pink-haired singer named Moonshein. A few years later my version of Moonshein showed up on Saturday morning cartoons as Jem and the Holograms– only she was rich, while Moonshein was modestly middle class, but I don’t have anything to show for it because when my stories got passed around the classroom, the teacher confiscated them and threw them away. I do remember the premise, the brown lined paper I used, folded in half and stapled, maybe it’s my first zine.
We’ve Got a Fuzzbox and We’re Going to Use It taught me that girls could make music, and you could have a core group of awesome girlfriends to hang out with and be goofy while making music. I felt that me and my friends were our own version of Fuzzbox– dressing crazy, going to the amusement park, having a ball. We added plastic kids jewelry to our repertoire and anything ugly. I bought a vinyl, orange purse on clearance at Clothestime and it became my signature piece– I added green spraypaint and buttons to it. I also collected keychains, and we got our ears pierced as high as our parents would let us. We added pettycoats and colored tights (not just black and fishnet) but orange fishnets, Mary Q stripes. I added in my own paisleys and 60s style– I had my grandma bleach my hair white and cut my hair into a bowl shape. I wore little Bobby Brady sweaters with pea coats and black & white checked skirts, John Lennon specs, cat eye glasses, creepers and Docs. This was the time of Doctor and the Medics and the Dream Academy, so we blended Goth and mod in a whimsical way, not like the dour-faced “moths” of the mid to late 90s, but the psychedelic Partridge meets Adams Family of the late 80s.
I grew leaps and bounds though the mail– finding out about obscure bands, making friends with people who lived nearby, and they became my friends as we discovered clubs together– Helter Skelter and Marilyns, and some became legendary in my mind though I never got a ride there– Zombie Zoo and Fenders. My other friends had dropped out, discovered other scenes, got lazy and disappeared but one penpal and I became inseparable and made the somehow seamless transition from death rock to ska one easy summer. These women I met through the mail changed my perception of everything– I remember dreaming about mail, getting playing cards in the mail, hearing about artist collectives where like-minded people all lived in the same house, and they all were reading Samuel Delany’s Dhalgren and wanted me to read it too. The girl I loved the most was from Texas. Her name was Pixie and she sent me the best tapes, she had the best handwriting, and she got me into buying expensive stationery and got me particular about the type of ink I’d use. I catfished someone once too, as this girl was convinced I was a guy, even though my reply to her letter was signed Kelli, not Zorro, but she was so lonely and insecure that I pretended like I was this hot new ro guy with long white hair and a hook nose– like Lucius Malfoy– to make her happy. I had taken the picture someone had sent me and passed it off as my own (the name on the back was Kelly so it was close enough). After a few letters, she called me out, that I had put some fingerprints on the letter with a stamp pad and her friends said my fingers were too small to be a guy’s. I apologized and wanted to be friends but she hated me. And all of that happened through the mail– we didn’t need no filmmaker from New York to drive up to my parents’ house in a rented Subaru. Although I think I did call her on the phone to explain (she gave “Kelly” her number before) but she hung up on me, and I still feel terrible, though I had a friend many years later who catfished people on purpose around the same time as my debacle. She and her friend pretended like they were male Durannies and took a classified in Star Hits. If I, a little Soft Cell freak, got 30 letters a day, imagine what professed male Durannies got. She told me they got thousands of letters and they were hilarious. She wanted to do a split zine with me about our experiences– this was before the tv show Catfish– but I couldn’t do it. I feel guilty to this day.
I have piles of Star Hits magazines now, with no plan on what to do with them. I have boxes of music paraphernalia that no one cares about. If you do care– you have the same boxes in your garage. If you don’t care, I can’t make you. So I had this ingenious idea to cut them up & include them in a zine all about how influential music has been on my life, so each little photo has been sitting and waiting in a box, in a storage unit, in a walk-in closet, in a garage for years, just to make you take a look at this faded photo of Marilyn or Visage or Henry Rollins or Siouxsie, just to enjoy its power in changing the course of direction in a little girl’s life.
I had just moved into the SFSU dorms the day before. It was a whole new chapter for me. I had never had a roommate before, and it’d been years since I found myself all alone without a friend in the world. I had seen the boy from my dorm room window. He was sitting alone and seemed to emanate stink like Pigpen. He later told me he was planning on wearing the same shirt for a year straight without washing it. The shirt, a faded black tee with a stretched out neck, claimed “ALCOHOL RUNS MY LIFE.” I wasn’t sure why that shirt would be the one he chose to devote a year to– including wearing it under a smart striped polo shirt when he went out to eat with his elderly parents from Del Mar.
Our first date was to ride the bus up to Alcatraz. We both were from Southern California but he had friends in the East Bay so he knew more about the city than I. But neither of us knew how cold it would be, so we wound up holding each other at the bus stop in North Beach, literally out of coldness, but then, like how some of the best relationships start, we looked at each other like, “Okay, let’s do this.”
Things were sticky between us, as apparently he was seeing some babe in Oakland a few months before, so when he told her he was going to SFSU, I think they both thought he was doing it for her, but when he showed up with me at a party, that plan of action fizzled out. No one ever liked me, which I can say with a bit of flippancy now, but it hurt me for years that when I’d go to parties with him, I always felt like the odd man out. Many of the punx called me “That SKA GIRL” because I had spent the previous year skanking in the trenches with my homies back in LA. The first time I went to 924 Gilman St., I was wearing my flight jacket with all my pins and patches, because that’s what you do! You wear your flight to shows! But I was mocked and ridiculed for following the rules of an unfavorable subculture, instead of abiding by that subculture’s rules of nonconformity.
To make matters worse, Riot Grrrl was a controversy. In the Bay Area, Riot Grrrl was a faux pas. Members of the band Spitboy actually came to the first Bay Area Riot Grrrl meeting to shut it down. They said they didn’t want Riot Grrrl in town, because the original riot grrrls they met on tour were hostile to them, so we compromised– and I think about it with my teeth gritted now– I hopped on the BART and followed a small gaggle of razor-chopped-haired girls in patchwork skirts out to Ashby Station. I walked behind them about 15 feet as a couple of teenage gangster boys told me I needed “a big black dick up my ass,” and I walked about a mile to the punk house where the first meeting was to take place, trailing behind them. This is Riot Grrrl? I thought. If it’s really about empowering women and making friends, I’m not sure why they didn’t just turn around and say,” Hey, are you going to the meeting? Come sit/ walk/ talk with us.” But that’s the Bay Area for you. I have never been more excluded, shunned, and ignored than the 8 years I lived there. And why didn’t I introduce myself to them? That’s what I’ve learned in my years since then– to just jump in and introduce myself when I want to make a friend, but back then, I couldn’t figure out why they knew I was behind them for 45 minutes but they didn’t say a word.
In any case, it was decided that having a Women’s Group at all was more important than the label, so we just called it the Bay Area Women’s Group, and it was an important part of my transition from ignorant teenager to self-assured woman. We had vegan potlucks, clothing swaps, and talked about herbs and speculums. I don’t think they ever really trusted me, though. Wearing cat glasses was a political statement, and as long as I wore barrettes and mary janes, I was never really part of the you-can’t-come-to-the-potluck-because-you’re-wearing-leather-boots crowd. They did encourage me to get a copy of Our Bodies Our Selves and I learned that eating a ton of vitamin C can help bring your period on early.
Because I was a part of it all without really being a part of it, I met infamous people all the time. Most of them were fine, but some of them were assholes. LIke the guitar boy who went to shake my hand then quickly swept it across the side of his head. “What is this? Silver Spoons?” I asked him, but it was a time where there were girls who were cool, then there were the rest of us who were lame and who were making a lot of noise. I distinctly remember Cool Girls, then girls like me who were complaining about not enough women in bands, that the boys were cavalier in their casual sexism, that girls should stand up front and not be stage dived on. We were hopelessly uncool but the more they considered us uncool, the more we fought to be considered cool.
A few years in to living in San Francisco, it all clicked and I started having it all figured out. First of all, forget the East Bay. Hypothetically it was fun there because everything was all ages and revolved around drinking in alleyways, but the city was better because people were nicer– they had a harder edge to them, but they were all vulnerable once you cracked the veneer. I liked the bars better because you had something to do between bands.
The simplest lesson I learned is something that I struggle with now– that the easiest way to adapt is to not care, and people will be your friend if you don’t care if you’re friends with them, you’ll get the job if you don’t really need it, and the funniest is to forgo the shower– I took a shower every morning and would show up to school or work every day with wet hair, but up north, the longer you go without a shower, the more physically appealing you become. No, really, I tested out my hypothesis and it’s true. So maybe that’s why people in Oakland didn’t like me– I couldn’t watch the stink of the suburbs off me. I didn’t want to drink a 40 in the parking lot across the street, and instead of just nodding and laughing at Cool Guy’s story, I wanted to tell my own story.
Pigpen boyfriend broke up with me a few weeks into our relationship, so I was left to my own devices. With my small taste of Riot Grrrl, I tried to befriend girls at my dorm– one girl looked like Lady Miss Kier from Deee-Lite, others wore overalls with their glasses and their Docs and Goody hair products– but no one wanted to hang out. In those first few formative weeks where I was bonding with my boyfriend, they were making their own clique with no room for someone else. I ate lunch by myself in the student union’s basement every day between classes, and then I saw a girl who looked like me– bleached blonde, floral vintage dresses, chunky boots, a backpack with buttons and patches on it. Before college, I thought I had a unique style, but then I learned that my style was our style– that most of the girls who had interests and politics like mine inexplicably dressed like me. Like the time I went to Gilman and saw a photographer there taking pictures of the “Riot Grrrl Movement,” of girls in polyester dresses with glasses and plastic jewelry and I thought to myself, “Yes, I belong! They’re just like me!”
I went up to this girl and pointed to the OLY GIRL patch on her backpack. “What’s Oly Girl? Is that like Riot Grrrl?”
She looked embarrassed and knowingly glanced at her shorn-headed friend. “No, Oly is Olympia. A town in Washington.”
“Oh, sorry, ” I said. “I just like your style! I figured you might be a riot grrrl.”
“No, I’m not,” she said, “but I do like the music.”
“What music? I thought it was just a political thing.”
And then the education began. We walked back to my dorm where she looked through all my cds and records. I had a huge L7 poster I bought in Philly of a dominatrix in a leather bikini straddling a client. At the time, I didn’t think much of it, but my hippie roommate’s hippie mother said, “Oh you’re trying to shock me with this poster. Well, I’m not shocked.”
“That’s okay. They’re just an awesome band.” And then her daughter got me into listening to the Indigo Girls before bed but I just couldn’t follow suit with her penchant for sleeping naked.
“Ah, Hole! Oooh, Babes in Toyland. This is all good stuff,” my new friend said. “But it’s not Riot Grrrl.”
So what’s Riot Grrrl?
“It’s like Heavens to Betsy, Bratmobile, Bikini Kill.”
I’d heard of Bikini Kill. I saw a small article on them in an issue of Sassy magazine. They sounded magnificent– the lead singer sang about oppression while wearing a bikini, fishnets, and gogo boots. They sounded amazing but I never could find their albums at Music Plus.
“Okay, let’s go to Epicenter,” my new friend grabbed my arm and led me to the 26 bus.
Epicenter was a collective punk rock record store– the first time we climbed up those stairs to what looked like a doctor’s office hallway, I knew I had entered another world. She loaded me up with tapes and vinyl. Superchunk, A Wonderful Treat, Nation of Ulysses. Her first impression of me was that I was some weird, socially awkward freshman, but then she realized I was just a kid who had never heard of these bands, had no idea about this part of the scene. I must have spent $60 that first day, and I remember being confused that you brought up the record sleeve with no record in it, and the staff would go in the back to find the record to prevent theft.
I owe a lot to her because somehow I wound up in the East Bay again because she lived in Berkeley, so while Pigpen was partying it up in warehouses turned co-ops, I was down the street sneaking into bars with her, meeting her infamous friends. The biggest controversy was Green Day– did they sell out because they signed to a major label? Nearly everyone said yes, except one girl who said they could make an album on a major without selling out their beliefs. This same girl got both of her upper arms tattooed and it looked so weird– this pasty white girl with these huge colorful tattoos. She spent the night with different boys and then complained to our Women’s Group that she got yeast infections from wearing the same tights day after day. The solution? Plain yogurt up the coochie. And then Jawbreaker was being courted by a major, and then Rancid, and then my friend who lived in this cute house with all her 50s furniture and her optimism on life got a bit sour.
In the meantime, Pigpen and I got back together, and he decided it didn’t matter if his friends didn’t like me and we stuck to the city and its bar scene. We started volunteering at Epicenter where for the first time, I started to make friends and to feel like I really belonged. Then I started working at Blacklist mail order and Maximum Rocknroll, and the more time I spent in the city, the less I liked the East Bay– except for its awesome record stores– Amoeba (before it turned into the soul-sucking conglomerate that shut down all the other stores in its path), Rasputin, Mod Lang, etc. and decent vintage clothing shops and cheap pizza along Telegraph.
When people write books or make movies about Riot Grrrl, I feel weird about it. For me, it was more of a struggle than a triumph. It taught me to become a writer on my own terms, and not to wait for some publishing company to find me or to hope some literary agent will represent me. It taught me to give women the benefit of the doubt and to try and support each other first, before tearing each other down from insecurity or jealousy. And these are things that still define my everyday life, even now. However I feel like most of the support I felt was in the mail– writing letters and exchanging ideas with girls from other states and even other countries. In person, I felt like I didn’t have the support I needed, and that whenever I came across people in or on the fringes of that scene, they were unwelcoming, judgmental, and standoffish. But mostly I feel envy that I wasn’t part of it all from the beginning. That I got involved when it was all becoming passe and that I didn’t have those revolutionary moments. I just remember girls breaking in to Epicenter, wheatpasting all the records, writing SEXIST CLASSIST RACIST in black Sharpie on everything, and then, in true Epicenter style, a worker altering it all to SEXY CLASSY RACY which is why I loved it there so much. I was part of the cynical aftermath, not the trespassing vandals.
I have a hard time looking at the famous old photos because it was never just pure fun or empowerment for me. But mostly it’s just envy because everything we did was tinged with an eye roll. Every time there was a meeting, someone wanted to shut it down or derail it for their own ego by “calling people out on their shit”– the equivalent of jockeying for power and control. The only time I really saw it work was when I was away from “home,” when I was back in LA & its friendly take-you-as-you-are scene, when I was traveling with friends in Chicago when all the zine writers played games and acted like little kids in the best way, at the Riot Grrrl Convention in Omaha when we danced our guts out, in letters where we found camaraderie and in art where we expressed ourselves and supported each other in a scene that said we didn’t matter.
I like that I’m a food snob, that I appreciate the aesthetics of unwashed hair, that I can take public transportation anywhere without being scared (my only fear is if I miss the last bus/train of the night), that when I meet another woman I want to get to know her as a person & not compare/judge/evaluate her in comparison to who I am as a woman, that we listened to rad music. But please don’t ask me to watch “The Punk Singer” without feeling equal parts nostalgic, proud, and disappointed. It’s just…complicated.
The first time I went to a night club, I was with my dad. Khaki shorts, canvas VANS, a short, permed haircut, fifty gold bangles climbing my arms, a pink T&C shirt. We had taken photo booth pictures in the video arcade, separated from the rest of the family, we went exploring, looking for the origins of the booming bass.
In the middle of the park, a bandstand was set up with smooth concrete floors. Teens from all over LA county where swaying on the dance floor. They wore black stirrup pants, heavy black eyeliner, short bleached blond hair with dark roots, long bangs lazily covering one eye. They swayed to the bass, feet planted in one spot with the occasional kick up of one Kung Fu-slippered foot.
We watched them on the edge of the crowd. My dad in his polo shirt, matching khaki shorts, sensible footwear, and well-groomed mustache. I didn’t know the music they were playing. It was dance music, but it wasn’t the kind of music I thought cool people would dance to. Later I found out it was Debbie Deb, Egyptian Lover, File 13, Grandmaster Flash, but at the time it was so unfamiliar to me, a kid who knew about alternative culture by sneaking glimpses at MTV. MTV was right next to the Playboy Channel which was right next to the Disney Channel on my parents’ black box. For some reason I felt guilty when I watched videos of the Smiths and the Cure, as if I was doing something wrong– growing up too fast, maybe, dipping my toe into some sort of melancholy philosophy I didn’t think my parents thoughtI was ready for. So I’d flip the channel past Playboy up to Disney whenever I felt an adult was going to enter the room, as if it was porn, but it was just a bunch of skinny English guys moaning about love and loneliness.
“I see some good dancers out there,” I murmured, knowing that I needed to bond with my father in some way to show my appreciation for letting the ten-year-old me watch the cool kids in their natural element. He laughed. “I don’t!” he replied. I shook my head. I guess I didn’t either but I was in awe of the other life that I never knew existed– one with fog machines, strobe lights, cigarettes dangling from apathetic fingers. There were those of us who had Magic Mountain passes who came to the park just to dance, to socialize, instead of kids like me who rode Colossus backwards three times in a row, whose friends pocketed the cheap rings from the souvenir stand by the carousel. who ate salted pretzels and tried to get as wet as possible in the fountains and on the water rides.
I became one of those kids when they moved Contempo dance area to Back Street, where the club became a major attraction for the entire north-western side of Los Angeles. There was a cordoned off maze of a line to get in– the club was protected from the families and the thrill seekers by huge walls where murals of cityscapes were painted. You had to rope around the line to get in, just like it was a ride itself, and many a sweaty teen bopped their heads in line as they followed the metal fencing around to the entrance.
It was an awesome dance club like in the movies and tv shows, but better because it was free (with paid admission to the park), and because it was all ages, so at any point, you’d be dancing to Taylor Dayne and you’d see someone brought their little brother in as a joke. He’d dance around like an amusing little monkey, we’d all cheer for him, and take pictures on our cheap cameras on loan from the photo dept. at school. Everyone was there– gangbangers, high-haired tunas, the punks, the goths, security guards, friends of ours who worked at the park who’d show up in their striped polyester pants suit to come say hi.
It is here where I learned to appreciate a good dance song–my husband teases me about my blatant love for pop & dance music– because to me, a good song is a good song, so I love Doug E. Fresh and Bell Biv Devoe only slightly less than I love Siouxsie and the Banshees and the Cocteau Twins. My best friend loved it all–I think she loved Power 106 more than she loved KROQ, even though she had a dyed hair, a ratted bird’s nest for hair, and sloping cat eye liquid-lined eyes, and pointy boots with shiny buckles up the sides. We met people every night because we lived in town, so we befriended any out-of-towners who looked like they should be our friend. Back then, the freaks stuck together, so if we saw each other, we made friends immediately.
I met my husband there. He was sitting alone on some steps where we hung out by the pizza place (where you could get a free pizza if you found someone’s discarded tin & you returned it to the cashier pretending like you dropped “your” pizza on the ground and could you get a replacement). Mostly we sat outside the club when the line was long, waiting for the line to die down. He was skinny, pale, with big Robert Smith hair, dressed in all black despite the 90 degree summer heat. I remember I was the one who’d recruit people to our posse, so I told him to hang out with us. He said, “Why?” in a brooding, existential way, and I said, “Why not?” We wound up taking him to a party with us that night, crammed in my friend’s mom’s car, because why not? And he became our best friend and then my rebound boyfriend, and then the love of my life 10 years later.
So the 80s and early 90s to me are a mix of punk and death rock and dance music. Pigbag and Heaven 17, Ready for the World and Trans-X, the Information Society and Newcleus, Trinere and Nu Shooz, I know they can never have a dance club at Magic again. Magic got the reputation for being a gangster haven a few years after Backstreet opened, so they closed the club, and heightened security. The only music that plays over the speakers now is the Looney Tunes theme, because they’ve revamped the park to be more family-friendly. But now when we walk toward the entrance, I see the sheriffs station where we used to spend at least 30 minutes every Saturday night while they searched us for spikes and studs and weapons because of our big, hairsprayed hair and our leather jackets. I think about the times where roving families of tourists would take pictures of us to wow their friends back home, and how I developed a love of fake strawberry-scented fog pushed through random vents, and how “Theme from a Summer Place” will always remind me of ripped fishnets and teaching Bobby Trendy how to apply foundation in the girls bathroom after his parents dropped him off in the roundabout.
I remember lying in the back of my parents’ car, it didn’t matter which car, except, I guess, it couldn’t have been my dad’s, because he had a Fiat Spider and the backseat had just enough room for a cough and a puff of smoke.
I remember lying on my side, thumb in my mouth. My dad telling me, “Just because you can’t see me doesn’t mean I can’t see you,” then waggling his eyebrows in the rearview mirror. I’d pop out my thumb for a minute, then I’d have to find a new angle to hide. I was a rapid thumbsucker– they even put this prescription iodine solution on my thumb to keep me from sucking, but I’d just diligently suck all the iodine off, and then the beautiful thumb would still be there with just a twinge of sourness.
I remember listening to the Beatles’ Abbey Road in the backseat of my parents’ car. We didn’t listen to music much in the car, but once a wayward box of cassette tapes was found on the road outside my grandpa’s house, we started listening to music all the time. When we found the box, we were mystified. It had a faux brown leather outside, and when you opened it up, like a traveling trunk, rows of cassettes on either side peeped out at you with their black background and the name of the band in all caps white. Unfortunately these were bands we’d never heard of, but being the only people my grandpa knew under 40, we inherited the tapes.
Those tapes scared me. Billy Squire, Ozzy Osbourne, Black Sabbath, Led Zeppelin. Each tape had some Satanic imagery crafted in code on the cover– I will never forget one called MOB RULES, and the cover featured these swamp men who looked like monsters from the deepest caverns of my fear. I kept the tapes, even though they scared me, because this was the time in music when rocknroll was a dark and dangerous threat. I had a poster of KISS on my bedroom door that I won at the state fair, only to find out later that KISS stood for KNIGHTS IN SATAN’S SERVICE. There were dirtbag heshers who lived across the street from us. They didn’t wash their hair, and they dissected live cats in their driveway. They must have been hanging out in underground tunnels spraypainting pentagrams and burning effigies of the neighborhood authority figures. This was the time when you could play a record backwards, and we did, and there’d be hidden messages to kill yourself or kill others. A skinny man in studs and leather was on trial for making young kids crazy with his music. And here was a whole collection of these tapes, ready to maim, mutilate, or brainwash the listener. And my parents willingly handed them over to me since I seemed so fascinated with them. I never listened to them. I just stared at their covers.
This is why I didn’t understand why there were Beatles tapes– They seemed to be other-worldy, in a good way. I didn’t know about the Manson Family or the gruesome “butcher album” until much later. My parents took the Beatles tapes from the abandoned tape collection and left me the rest. I didn’t know much about the Beatles, but once my parents put on Abbey Road or The White Album, I knew I loved them. And the songs I loved I made up movies in my head for “Back in the USSR,” “Maxwell’s Sliver Hammer,” “Bungalow Bill.” But there were a few songs that scared me– “Wild Honey Pie,” “Number 9,” These songs seemed to be related to the screaming and mind-melding rocknroll that represented the dark side of music. Funny how “Helter Skelter” didn’t bother me, but to this day I can’t listen to “Wild Honey Pie” without checking over my shoulder, looking for a bloody maw and a cast of characters more frightening than the graveyard singers at the Haunted Mansion ready to drag me away.
If it wasn’t for those two albums, I don’t know if I would consider myself a Beatles fan, but as time went on, the Beatles were as ubiquitous as milk (which I didn’t drink, either). I had a tiny musicbox with a painted harlequin clown on the front that played “Yesterday.” My first CD was The Beatles Live in Hamburg, and I remember asking my dad why. He said I loved the Beatles, Did I? I did not. He also bought me Wings Band on the Run. Did I like Wings? Absolutely not. I hitched a ride down to Music Plus to buy my 3rd CD, and the only one I actually wanted, Cabaret Voltaire’s Microphonies.My dad was adamant that CDs were the wave of the future, but after that I bought Tears for Fears The Hurting and I was done for CDs for a few years after that. If I can’t find everything I like on the format, I reject the format. I recall my mom buying me a copy of Pearl Jam on CD, and then I just kind of acquiesced and transitioned over to CDs.
To me, the Beatles were best represented by “Twist and Shout” which was getting new life after Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, but I wasn’t having it. True, I did trade my first real boyfriend a rare Christian Death 12″ for an entire box-full of Beatles re-issued albums, but that catchy yaya repetitive ilk pre-1966 does nothing for me. If it wasn’t for a mod revival in the 90s, I would probably not even call myself a Beatles fan. But the first time I saw Yellow Submarine on the big screen at the Castro and I remembered how comforting Rubber Soul was during a lonely afternoon, I realized that I loved Sergeant Pepper’s and not only because I loved the Bee Gees movie version adaptation, and not just for veiled drug references or the beautiful sounds of the mellotron and Candy Flip’s “Strawberry Fields Forever,” but because they became amazing after that Fab Five moptop nonsense.
I have tried to get my little one into the Beatles, but he’s not having it. He’s grown up playing in a hallway with a collage tribute to John Lennon as my son’s father has a special affinity for the Beatles because of his own father. They met John Lennon in Central Park when my husband was a baby because he had bought their old family home back in Europe. So in the store-bought collage, there is a small photo of my husband as a baby sitting on John Lennon’s lap, while Yoko Ono has a finger out to let my husband grasp it, while we sways her other arm in the other direction, holding two burning cigarettes out of his grasp.
Now liking the Beatles is akin to liking Star Wars. Everyone has seen it, and if you haven’t, you’re a freak of nature. Everyone likes something, and if you don’t, you’re inhuman. Although I will hit up Breakfast with the Beatles on the radio whenever i can, I still fell asleep watching the Beatles Love at the Mirage, but listening to demos and out-takes doesn’t quite do it for me the way the original songs do. So for me, here are my 5 Fab Five favorites:
- Martha My Dear
- Paperback Writer
- She Said She Said
- Golden Slumbers
I know, you’re thinking: “Wow! I thought all teachers love having summers off.” But it’s not true. For some of us, summer is frustrating because it’s a break in our routine. And for those of you who believe autism is primarily genetic, I will admit that I love my routine. In fact, my classroom runs on routine. Vocab Mondays & Fridays; writing and/or grammar Tuesdays & Thursdays. Essays graded by the 5-week report card. Copies queued up for the copier before 2pm. Out of there by 2:30, home by 3:00, pick up the boy at the bus at 3:10 (the bus arrives at 3:16).
So summer mucks it all up & what’s most frustrating is that the rest of the world runs on routine when I’m home “off.” So maybe I can stay up until midnight watching movies, but my husband still has to get up at 5:45, so he can’t stay up with me. I could sleep in til 9 AM, but then I’ll be up way past when he goes to bed, and I get anxious when I’m the last person awake. To me, 10:30 PM might as well be 3:30 AM. If I’m not asleep by 10, I’m wide-eyed and paranoid. My son, he has summer school, so maybe I could just take off and go to the beach but I’d have to drive my ass back to pick him up from school by 11 AM. Think about weekday LA traffic and you’ll know that I’m not going anywhere between 7AM and 10AM. And my friends, those bastards all have jobs, so while I’m ready to hang out & go get brunch and talk about books, they’re off punching the clock. I’m actually seeing a hypnotherapist about this issue in preparation for this upcoming summer. One of her suggestions, besides the neuro linguistic programming, is for me to make friends with other teachers, but most of them I know either 1) have small kids so they can’t hang out or 2) are child-free and are partying it up and down the coast, enjoying their time off, acting like what I imagine a “real” teacher would act during summer. The worst are married teachers, because, screw them, they have two incomes AND they both have summers off so those jerks are always taking cruises or are zip-lining around South America.
I’ve never liked summer. Well, when I was a kid I did. Summer was a trans-formative, magical time. You could do whatever you wanted (see staying up late, sleeping in, hanging out with friends, going to the beach) and then somehow, those weeks off would turn you into a brand new person. Your hair would be significantly longer. Your skin darker. You’d have a brilliant Grease-like love affair with some boy. Not to mention back-to-school shopping to finish the trick. But as an adult, I love the season but not the lag between semesters. My first year of teaching, my husband was working, so I sat at home. Occasionally I went to the beach by myself but I was always too afraid to go in the water because 1) no one would be watching to nab me if I got pulled out to sea 2) no one would be watching the blanket where my phone, car keys, and wallet would be hanging. And then, of course, traffic. You can’t leave your house til after 10AM and then your husband gets home around 5, so you need to beat the traffic that kicks up around 1:30. So sure, you could go to the beach from 10:30AM to 1 PM, but mostly I didn’t even take the chance. But I remember that first year, I got so bored that I planned out trips to surprise my husband. “We’re going to Vegas!” “We’re going to Puerto Vallarta!” It was all I could do to stay sane– book trips & then make him go with me on the pretense of a 2nd/ 3rd/ 4th honeymoon.
The following year, and all years since, I have been occupied with my son, so summers have been awesome but difficult. Awesome because all 3 of us would stay home & I have beautiful memories of us getting a kiddie pool on our back patio & all of us sitting in our underwear or naked in the pool on the hottest days. Difficult because my son loves media more than he loves the air he breathes, so to get out and do something is a challenge, and also the fact that we were existing on my salary made it impossible for us to do anything really fun. We always went into debt another $5,000 each summer, just from normal summer expenses, like barbequing and the occasional overnight trip to Palm Springs or San Francisco.
So when my husband got a job, I was relieved to not have to dig ourselves more into debt– the only way we survived my husband staying home with our son is by racking up debt on every credit any bank would give us– however I lost my partner in crime. And weirder is our last summer together, I was ramped up on high anxiety and insomnia, so we were broke but I made us always leave the house & do *something* to keep my mind occupied. It will definitely be a summer I will never forget because I made us ride bikes every single day from 10 to 20 miles each morning. I made us all go to the beach numerous times. I made us swim & barbeque & drive around to make sure I stayed a few steps ahead of my worry & fear of the unknown.
No one really knows where my anxiety came from. I have my suspicions but I won’t commit them to words that can be used against me in a public forum, but one theory is that when I realized that my heretofore completely dependent on me non-verbal autistic son started to take care of himself– feed himself, dress himself, go to the potty by himself, brush his teeth by himself– that’s when a flip in me switched and I (and other professionals, I’ve seen a few!) believe that I have a preemie mother’s version of PTSD. In that I had a horrible pregnancy with 7 months of bedrest & countless people telling me that my baby was going to be born dead or severely disabled, and then a traumatic time raising my toddler, and then… he suddenly started to become a child. A boy who laughed and kissed, who would reply to a question with a phrase or a sentence that wasn’t a line from a tv show. And then I was allowed to drop my guard and allow myself to feel all the fear and pain and disappointment of all I had been through those six years that I had been bottling up and denying because I just had to survive one more day. You can’t wallow in your pain of the past when the present is just as painful. But when there’s a glimmer of sunshine after a huge storm, that’s when I start to bawl and I can’t stop.
So all those years of taking care of my son kept me busy but when he now tells me, “Go sit over there” and “I’ll sing this song by myself,” I know he doesn’t want me hovering around, his replacement best friend since he can’t maintain a friendship with other kids, and now I feel like I’m on my own. Thankfully last summer I had a reprieve in that I attended a lovely and trans-formative training for teachers & writers, and before the institute, I mapped out a routine for myself via tabling on Microsoft Word, just like I do for my unit plans, including a Mon Wed Fri routine that differed from Tues & Thurs. So I survived last summer, but I have nothing this summer.
Part of me wants desperately to find something to occupy my time, to look forward to, but so far, everything is out of town or cuts into my responsibilities with Saki. I could go to Boston for a seminar on teaching the Holocaust through writing. I could grade AP essays in Kentucky. I could teach at a writer’s summer camp for teenagers, but I want to be home for my family. I don’t want to leave them behind and I don’t want to put Saki in summer camp against his will again.
So, for now, I am looking forward to the Portland Zine Symposium. That will be my mid-summer break that I so desperately need. I’m good in June because the time off is so new, so I wind up reading a ton of books and catching up on all sorts of things I’ve neglected during the year. I’m better in August because it’s my birthday month and our school starts so early, so I spend the first two weeks of August trying to live it up before school starts again. But July is my weakness because it’s weeks and weeks with nothing to do, no one to hang out with. So I’m hoping that the trip will be enough to get me through the month. I’m also thinking of taking an extension class or a college class in the mornings just to sharpen the saw– to get me out of the house but home early enough for when my men get home.
But I’m hoping admitting this is an issue with me will help. That I’m getting professional help. That it’s not just a funny neurotic quirk. Now I openly tell people, “I literally go crazy during summer with all that time off,” and they laugh, and I reply, “No, I’m serious.” So now I’m telling you this and admitting that even here in February, on the verge of a thunderstorm, with my 5 week grades just posted a little while ago, I’m still thinking about summer. That on August 13th, I was already thinking about June 3, 2014, but I still have my planned out routine from last year and I have a plan to aggressively pursue friendships with other people lazing about their lives– mothers, teachers, unemployed people. I might bike the 20 miles by myself but dammit, if I’m not paying for private swim lessons for my son once a week until that boy learns to swim because there is nothing I would love more than to spend my mornings writing and cooking, and my afternoons reading by the pool while he turns into a little golden fish puckered with chlorine.
Okay, I’ll admit it. I’ve been training Brazilian jiu-jitsu for a few months now. I don’t like to talk about it because my feelings are overwhelming positive but they’re also very personal, and I don’t know if I can really capture the experience without major self-censoring.
Yeah, you know, the Internet. I don’t want my teacher or my partners reading this stuff because there’s a lot of silliness and awkwardness in mixed martial arts. No one else seems to write about it, so to write about it is to acknowledge it, and I’ve always felt that if you are allowed to sneak into a subculture, it’s bad form to write about it in a way that is less than exuberant.
That said, I’ve been rolling a list in my mind of all the things that drive me crazy about training jiu jitsu.
Another cavaeat– I’m a white belt with one stripe right now and I make no claims to be any sort of expert or to have any particular knowledge on the subject other than the very simple basics. I’m still learning how to sit properly on the mat when we’re receiving instruction, so this is just my own list of my pet peeves. My brother told me “what happens on the mat, stays on the mat, ” so I’m probably violating every nondisclosure line item in the imaginary rule book, but I plead ignorance.
1. Teeth brushing. In every other physical activity I’ve participated in, teeth brushing is voluntary, and in fact, general hygiene wasn’t even an issue. In yoga, you’re in your own space. MMA you may get close enough to get a take down with your head jammed into their stomach, but in BJJ, you are literally in each other’s faces. Not all the time, but enough to notice what someone had for dinner, which is what’s annoying about training with the occasional teenage boy. Some of them have no concept of personal hygiene and more than once, I’ve considered tapping to being on the verge of gagging because of someone’s garlic breath.
2. Farting. Do you know how hard it is to eat vegan and then go to class and not fart? Do you know what it’s like to hold a fart in for 45 minutes, only to have it escape when your blue belt partner rolls you unexpectedly? Luckily this has only happened once, and my partner was gracious enough to pretend like nothing happened even though I literally farted in this man’s face.
3. Little cuts and bruises. LIke magnets, where do they come from? In MMA, you know “Ah, this huge bruise on my thigh is when that girl went for an inside leg kick and I didn’t block it fast enough.” In BJJ, you are in a whirlwind of sweat, limbs akimbo, hair everywhere and random squeezing and pain. Then you get home and notice little purple splotches on your forearms, little papercut like holes in your fingers, and a vague notion that your head hurts. Oh yes, didn’t your partner kick you in the face when going for a shoulder lock? Now that sounds familiar.
4. Hair. Every woman who trains BJJ will admit that hair is the number one nuisance when it comes to training. Men have to worry about wearing the best fitting jock strap, but we women are constantly fretting about our hair. French braids (one or two?), top knot bun, high ponytail, two side braids? No matter what you choose, one misplaced hand going for palm-to-palm grip under your head will pull out your elastic or worse, pull out your hair by the chunk. I’ve always been vain about my hair but now I can’t afford to be. Wispy piles of it bunches on the mat like innocent tumbleweeds. One brown belt tells me, “Just shave your head” whenever I balk that he’s on my braid. And between rounds, if you watch carefully, you’ll notice that almost every woman flips up onto her haunches and immediately grabs her hair to redo her ponytail, bun, or braid before the next round begins. I have no idea how the most successful women in MMA do it and how their hair stays perfect on tv. They must have some insanely tight braids going on, and no YouTube tutorial I’ve seen yet has gotten me to that level.
5. Being a wallflower: The most awkward part of BJJ is not the few minutes before class starts when everyone is circling up and talking, and you’re wondering what to say. The most awkward part is not finding a partner for drills because generally there’s at least one cool person to work with– another white belt or a friendly purple belt who’s willing to show you the ropes. But the most awkward part is finding a partner when you actually free train, or spar, when you’re actually grappling with someone for 3, 5, 7 minutes, and it’s a less secure bet. Usually you start with the person you did the drills with, but then the instructor commands, “Switch!” and you have to find someone new. I feel like I’m in an odd position because I’m not new enough for everyone to want to train with me because I’m easy to beat, but I’m too new to really offer much of a challenge for the more advanced students, and being a woman makes it weird for the younger men, and being an older woman makes it weird for everyone, I think. So many times I will sit on the side of the mat and try to look approachable. I’m an extroverted person by nature so it’s a challenge to not go up to people immediately but I never know what they’re thinking– are they down? Luckily my studio houses a ton of humble, friendly people, and a few women, so I usually only sit out for a round or two before I see my opening and I charge up to someone and hope they won’t reject me.
6. Periods: Acknowledging this may get me benched forever, but there is nothing weirder than figuring out if you should go train or not when you’re on your period. You remember all those ridiculous tampon commercials where women are running marathons and swimming in pools and “feeling secure”? How we laughed at them? Well I’m not laughing now. I actually read a funny blog where this woman listed all the different ways you can protect yourself (and your partners), like wearing an extra pair of shorts, she even said wear a pad and a tampon (which reminds me of ridiculous birth control suggestions like taking the pill & making your partner wear a condom), but it is a weird thing. I still put a lot of stock in Ayurveda (you can take the girl out of the yoga studio but you can’t take the yoga out of the girl), so on the first day of my cycle, I tend to stay home and commune with my womanliness, but then the next few days, I’m like, “Ugh!” and then I buck up and by the time I’m out there on the mat, I forget everything except “Oh God, I gotta get this sucka offa me!” and “Wait, gimme that arm!”
7. Cauliflower ear: I figured I’d never have to worry about this because I don’t really know what I’m doing, and it seems like only the most seasoned veterans have lasting physical effects, but one day I noticed that my ear was sore and it wouldn’t stop hurting, so upon further examination, I noticed that part of the cartilage was red and swollen. When I pushed on it, it felt hard and tender. When I showed everyone, mostly they were excited that I had a battle wound, except for one guy who said, “Aw, you don’t want that!” But I pointed out that my husband said it was “cute,” so I’m conflicted– I like the idea that what I’m doing is legit– I’m not doing the corporate gym version of BJJ, but real BJJ, but seriously, I am not down for sticking a syringe in my ear in the parking lot to drain out fluid before class.
8. White belts: I know it’s silly to be a white belt complaining about white belts, but seriously! So many white belts have no control and just want to go apeshit bananas when you’re training. They don’t let you breathe and get butthurt if you get them in a compromising position. I also get annoyed by the wb’s who are friends with each other and who only train with each other so it leads back to #5, wallflower with cauliflower ear-ness.
9. Where do I put my hands? My toes? I’m getting the hang of this now but for the first few months, I had no idea how to protect my extremities. My favorite brown belt would balance me on his legs like I was a kid playing airplane, but the next minute he’s flipped me and I’m supposed to know to roll, but I don’t, so I put my hands out to catch my fall and I crush my hands. No kidding, my hands are my bread & butter, but it was kind of thrilling to walk around with numb, tingling hands for a few days. I just can’t believe I didn’t break anything as I caught my fall and bent my fingers all the way back as I lurched onto my face hitting the mat, leaving a huge red bruise on my forehead. Toes are weird too because your toes can also be bent in weird places getting stuck on the mat when the rest of your foot has decided to head in another direction. So I’ve learned to keep my hands near my chest unless I’m going for someone else’s extremities, and I’ve learned to keep my toes flat to the mat, not curled.
Which leads to…
10. Pedicures: You can’t paint your nails and do BJJ. Well, I guess you could, but for me, I like to apply a nice coat on my toenails and let it sit for a few weeks. In BJJ, my toenails are constantly dragging against the mat leaving a huge reverse skidmark on my toes. It’s usually the big toe and second toe, and yet I’ve never seen the polish smeared on the mat. Then again, I’ve never looked for it either.
So now you know why I brush my teeth, make sure my toes and hands are flat and sans polish, why I don’t really care if my hair gets pulled, why I’m more liable to introduce myself to strange people– especially if they’re tattooed, sweaty, and are north of 200 pounds. And why I’m always eating a nice steak or a couple of chops before class. Not for the protein, but more for the steadiness it gives my gut.
Despite all these, I have to say that my training is a blast, and every night I’m either ecstatic or on the verge of tears. I can handle someone else’s random hair in my mouth, the strangely sweet smell of a worn gi an hour into training, the suffocating claustrophobia you feel when someone who looks like your dad has got you in a mean full mount, and I love the idea that I am watching less MMA now that I’m training it. We only watch the fights when women are headlining now and now when I watch, I’m not frustrated by the ground game– hoping for an astonishing, highlight reel knockout. Now I watch hoping for the take down so I can see some professionals working it out in ways I can imagine I can kind of understand in a moment of clarity.
It’s good stuff, but then again I haven’t had the pleasure of experiencing staph infection or ringworm, so the adventure continues…
I had decided that since I bought most of the records from that store, it only made sense to return them home.
I should have gone to Berkeley, I really should have. But I was the first person in my family to go away to college (and finish college), so I didn’t know when the SATs were or when apps were due or that I needed to do extra-curricular activities all throughout high school, not just cramming in a bunch my last year: creative writing, journalism, yearbook, AP lit– sounds like a dream schedule to me now, and I remember my counselor telling me I didn’t need to take math or science my senior year because I wasn’t a “math person.” I also remember them pushing me to take CPEG (college prep English grammar) instead of AP because they thought I wasn’t “ready” for an AP class. And then I got a 5 on the exam, even though I thought the teacher was a wimp & ditched most of spring semester. And now I teach the damned class, but that’s enough. The idea is that I should have gone to Berkeley but I was too scared to apply so I only applied to one school where I knew I would get in: SFSU (San Francisco State University).
Most of my freshman year was all about the east bay. The first day after we moved in to the dorms, I met my would-be boyfriend. He was sitting on a bench, smoking a cigarette. He was adorable– with tousled blond & green hair with dark roots and dark eyebrows. He wore a spiked dog collar and incongruously had a Madness patch on his chocolate brown work jacket.
“Are you a riot girl?” he asked me, blowing out smoke, surveying my polyester zip-up dress, my leather mary janes and white tights, my bleached white bob and my electric blue cat eye glasses.
“What’s that?” I said, sitting down next to him.
“Um, well, it’s like a punk rock feminist,” he replied.
“Yeah, then I guess I am,” I confirmed.
From that moment on, we were inseparable. His friends didn’t like me, though, because I wasn’t really a riot grrrl. I was a rude girl. The year I took off between high school and college, I found myself reverting back to the scene I loved in junior high. I loved 60s fashion (hence the dress and glasses) and ska music. I even had a flight jacket donned with pins and patches from all my favorite bands, including a Minor Threat patch, which I thought was as funny and as incongruous as my future’s boyfriend’s Madness patch. One Friday night dancing at Marilyn’s, I got in a fight with a femmy rude boy. “Nice Morrissey patch!” I scoffed. “Nice Minor Threat patch!” he quipped. But punk & ska made sense to me in a way that it did not make sense to anyone else. Especially my crusty boyfriend’s friends in Oakland.
“Hey, rude giiiirrrrl,” they teased. I wore my flight to Gilman the first time I ever went to a show. “Rude grrrrrrl!” they screamed, tottering with a 40 ounce in their hands, hands dirty from drinking in the abandoned field across the street.
I bought myself a peacoat, but I still wore a fred perry and a pair of black and white creepers to Blatz shows.
The man behind the counter wore a fred, and it immediately made me feel safe. Why is it that we belong to a subculture that scoffs at materialism and brand-worshipping yet sects of our subculture hold up fashion trends and labels in the same mindless way? Why are there rules for dressing like a 70s street punk? Why is Fred Perry a label that’s okay to wear but Guess is not? We don’t even play tennis. And I know that I have the skinhead ethos drilled in my brain about how working class kids wanted to look nice on a budget to reaffirm their style and their substance, so when I see a Fred Perry, my brain goes, “Cool, a fred! This guy must be cool.”
The little laurel meant to me that the man behind the counter might understand my collection, whereas the ironic buttrockers in LA don’t appreciate it. In LA, they go through 50 titles and keep 10, offering me $20 trade. Up north, I had a feeling they’d know who Comet Gain was, The Headcoats, Mecca Normal. And I was right. The man flipped through my boxes with sweat forming at his hair line. As we wandered around, I saw him pulling out records and calling people over. I tried to keep my son’s hands off the merchandise (“No we are not buying a $27 used copy of Toy Story on blu-ray!”) but wanted to see where the “No” pile was. The “No” pile would be all that would ever be left of my 7″ collection as I don’t listen to vinyl much, and 7″s never.
He called my name over the PA system, and I slinked to the front. I saw my record collection in tiny stacks. “Which is the no pile?” I asked meekly, hoping the Russian fairy tales record I bought in Moscow would still be there.
“We’re taking everything!” he said. “You have some great stuff. You have, like, every Holly Go Lightly single ever released!”
“I know. I used to be a collector,” I replied.
“Is $300 cash okay?” he asked. I said yes immediately. I just wanted it gone. Every time I cleaned the living room, there were those annoying boxes– where do they go? Where do I put them? Am I really going to list each damned title on ebay & hope that some old school riot grrrl collector would “buy it now”?
So we returned to the car, my father-in-law, my sister-in-law visiting from Prague, my husband, and my son, my empty cart. I put the cart in my backseat and held the cash in hand.
I hoped the records didn’t just wind up in some balding hipster’s collection. I hope some 19 year old girl who just moved to the city from the suburbs finds my Fifth Column or my Corn Dolly or my Huggy Bear and buys them all, listening to them on her little stereo in her little dorm room on her little campus at the beginning of her new life.