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Waiting for Somebody
Juliana Hatfield: Gold Stars 1992-2002
In the obviously-tacked-on coda to The Tao of Steve, Dex breaks out of his believably shallow character to sheepishly assert that his three-step program for converting women's instincts into sex, no matter how fat you are, is actually a code for moral living. This is patently ridiculous, not least because the third rule (women pursue that which retreats) has no useful generalization I can think of that isn't already covered by the first rule (eliminate desire). The DVD commentary offers a much more coherent explanation for this direction-change: the filmmakers were worried that without it, the main character would just be too awful. As the main character is based on one of the filmmakers, there is some fairly harrowing self-hatred implied in both the predicament and their film's solution to it, which is another of the many, many reasons to seek out art that was made by actual people, not executives with focus groups.
But if you ditch the third rule, and forget that the ostensible goal of the whole program is insincere sex, the first two rules are the germs of decent, if hardly innovative, ideas about how to live. Eliminating desire, in the film's context, actually means eliminating apparent desire, but if you subject the proposition to a degree of seriousness somewhere between that and monastic vows, you get the useful insight that your existence will be both more dignified and less frustrating if you don't treat your basest wants as the first propositions in every draft of your behavioral code (cf. Urusei Yatsura, also good study material for novice students of Japanese).
A generalization of the second rule, "Be excellent in her presence", would simply drop the audience clause. Although it's sort of depressing that anybody would need to be reminded that they should try to find things to do well, the bulk of cultural incentives at this point encourage a sort of ersatz excellence by brand association (cf. my having a Lance Armstrong watch, despite not owning a bicycle), and even the nominal moral guardians frequently settle for "be true to yourself", which ignores the question of whether you've devised a self to which there's any virtue in being true.
So: try to do some things well, and don't worry about whether they produce obvious or immediate rewards, and you should be fine. It's not an especially nuanced body of scripture, but it will leave your Sundays free, and it doesn't impose any arbitrary dietary restrictions. I've never tried to explicitly itemize my own code of behavior (and I'm not going to start now), but I have a feeling a large part of it can, at least for evaluation purposes, be reduced to this without undue loss of fidelity. And if we can suppose, in the interest of Socratic inquiry, that I have followed such a code, then have I been fine?
Perhaps. Defining "fine" is another problem of similar magnitude. Arguably the main product of any debate of this form is a syllabus for the next, equally inconclusive, course of study. If we let The Tao of Steve reintroduce the subject of women, though, then we may say that I am not fine. I am thirty-five and single. A value system needn't stipulate that being thirty-five and single is a bad state, mind you, and in fact I don't really object to it myself. But I have some projects in mind that would be best undertaken with a partner, and before some age I am undoubtably approaching, however slowly. I'm anticipating objecting more strongly to being, say, forty and single, so I'd like to feel as if the likelihood of that is diminishing with time. I am faced with a logistical obstacle. I meet very few potential partners. Neither my social nor my professional lives entail meeting new people in bulk, and of the people I do meet, the overwhelming majority are disqualified from partner-candidate status according to one niggling criterion or another (the most common being: they belong to a gender to which I am not attracted or vice versa, they already have a partner or are not seeking one, they have already done the projects I have in mind or they are not ready to, or they are in some easily identifiable and irremediable way not the kind of person with which I am seeking to collaborate). It has gotten to the point where if I have two genuine romantic opportunities in the course of a single calendar year, it's been a busy time.
And so I have, recently, succumbed to what I've always felt was the abject last resort in this area and signed up with an online personals service. It has long been my position, far longer than this ignominy has been available online, that filling a dating void with datable strangers is a solution in only the most superficial and useless sense. It's not the lack of dates that bothers me; I am quite content to do things by myself. And dating strangers is, to me, exactly backwards. I want to find out what sort of thing a person is before I decide whether I want to invite them into any part of my life. The modified version of Dex's model is, in fact, how I always expected these things would happen: you try to do good things, in the course of doing those things you meet other people trying to do good things, you discover commonalities in your goals or tactics or whatever, and at some point you decide whether or not to take the next step. Or, put less obtusely, you meet, you get to know each other, and maybe you gradually fall in love. Or maybe not. The point is that the provocative questions come, if they come at all, late enough that there's some hope you'll be prepared to answer them. Blind dating, by omitting the most important part of the process, requires the relationship to develop under the constant specter of questions it is not ready to address. "Well?", the context demands at every minor cadence, "Haven't you made up your mind yet?" This is not healthy pressure. I've always supposed that for me it would actually be self-defeating. If I have to answer that question about a person I don't really know yet, then all I can do is measure them against preexisting criteria I developed for (or from) other people, which is a rigged test anybody would fail.
The online incarnation of this grisly ritual is a vast improvement on the twenty-five-word newspaper ad in terms of information content, at least, but brings its own complement of uglinesses. One of them is a classic UI dilemma: the options you're presented with influence the decisions you think you should make. The more fields and checkboxes there are, the more of them you think you should fill in, both in describing yourself and in describing what you're looking for. The profile-correlating exercise around which online personals services are constructed encourages, if not requires, an inane shoppers' approach to match-making, all the more so in cases where the defaults are anything other than "it doesn't matter" (and especially in cases where "it doesn't matter" isn't even a choice). The forms demand an unhelpful specificity, and don't let you distinguish between rule-out criteria and all-other-things-equal preferences, and set up an interaction grammar in which you're not really allowed to question other people's postulates. They provide for first meetings in which the first order of business is validating the other person's self-description and checking for violations of your implicit terms of use, which doesn't help you become people to each other at all. Worse: the computer system rewards overspecification, the human systems reward open-mindedness. The people you would really fall in love with will almost always fail half of what you thought were your tests. You're not casting for a prom photograph, you're looking for a life partner.
Or that's the theory, anyway. I have actually filled out profiles on two different online services. When preparing the first one, however, I failed to overcome my distaste and distrust for the medium, and thus generated, in blanks intended for straightforwardness, a spasm of painfully passive-aggressive evasiveness that might as well be in an invented language. Lest you think I am exaggerating the degree to which my ambivalence is manifest, here is the first draft of that first description:
Angela rides away in Jordan Catalano's red convertible, and Brian is left standing there. We never get to find out what happened to them. But I can guess. Brian mellows noticeably in college, once he discovers, in a new context, exactly how smart he is. Social grace, like calculus, turns out to be a lot less complicated than you think, and largely a matter of disabusing yourself of the conviction that it's a skill only other people have. His emphases slowly shift from test preparation to photography and music. He falls into a series of odd computer jobs after college, and ends up something like Rob Fleming after the book, finally starting to think of himself as a grown-up, still obsessive but less solipsistic. There are girls, of various aspects and durations, but none of them ever quite displaces the memory of Angela. Angela, for her part, gets progressively more intense and then, rather suddenly, less. She too discovers that being smart isn't nearly as draining once you stop doubting yourself. She keeps writing, in the way that avalanches "keep" sliding downhill. She is drawn to boys who can answer questions, and then frustrated when they don't seem as willing to ask them. Some experiments are inconclusive, and by 30 or so she's turned out a lot like a post-trial, pre-wedding Harriet Vane, self-contained half from self-reliance, but also half because she tends to intimidate people. Brian weighs on her mind, too. They weigh on each other's.
You might think, because I'm telling that story in this context, that I know where you and I fit in it, or at least where I want us to. But I don't. I have a sense that we're in there somewhere, but many days I think I've always been more Harriet and Angela than Rob and Brian, so maybe it's you that owns a record store and understands irony. Even if we say I'm Brian for a moment, it's not clear what he needs. Is he looking for another Angela, or for somebody completely different, to change how he remembers her? Arguably his idealization of her wasn't actually that much more mature than Angela's fascination with Jordan, anyway. I'm not as unbalanced as Rob, so I don't need you to be as stable as Laura. You probably don't actually write mysteries, and I don't have a peerage to complicate things. But the premise, at least, is that we both believe the best characters in stories should not settle for anything less than each other. It seems somewhat implausible to me that this is how we'll meet each other, and you could contend that by writing a blurb that needs a bibliography and still doesn't tell you what color my eyes are or whether I like "fun", I'm not even giving the possibility a fair chance. But it's not fairness I'm after, it's awe. What about you?
I have read "profiles" less cooperative than this, but not much, and not often. On the service where I filed this one, I have not paid the fee to be able to initiate contact myself, and to date it has elicited a grand total of zero responses from anybody else. I guess I'm a little bit surprised. Is there really no audience for a wildly out-of-place philosophical aside with unglossed My So-Called Life, High Fidelity and Lord Peter references? On that service, apparently so. A few days later I went back and glossed the references, after all, but it didn't help. It also surely doesn't help that on that service I did not post a picture, and didn't fill out much of the multiple-choice section. Even I can tell that I don't really want to be there. But there's little incentive for me to go back and revise or expand, because I've yet to see anybody on that service who I wanted to meet, anyway.
I won't name the second service, but it's attached to a fairly prominent online periodical, and while I actually don't read the site in question, it's at least the sort of thing you'd expect people like me to read, so the user population ought to be better self-selected than on the first service, which is exclusively match-making. On this second one, I played along a little more. But only a little. I did put up a picture, but I'm not really recognizable in it. I filled out the forms more completely, but I used write-ins for just about everything, which screws up the matching engine. I paid the fee, and so far I've sent and received a dozen or so messages in each direction. Sadly, they form very few connected pairs. Most of the people who have responded to my profile, I have not been interested in at all, and apparently vice versa. I've garnered one first-date out of it, in which (to my relief, frankly) there was no particular chemistry. I am playing out the remainder of my account, I think, just trying to get out of the experience without any damage. It's exactly as ineffective and unpleasant an approach as I anticipated, but at least now I can say so from experience.
Actually, it's a little more unpleasant than I anticipated. I didn't account for the emotional toll of reading through profile after profile that aren't what I'm looking for. It's frighteningly easy to forget that these pages represent distinct human beings. The mass of single heterosexual women between the ages of twenty seven and thirty seven who live within twenty-five miles of Cambridge, Massachusetts, as portrayed in the collation of their personal ads, is disheartening. Even in the dozen cases where I was interested enough to send notes, they were notes I couldn't find reasons not to send, not notes I was actively inspired to write, or held out specific hopes for. It is painfully obvious that most people are woefully ill-equipped to describe themselves, or what they're looking for, and although the kinder interpretation is that they are interesting people coping unevenly with an awkward format, the composite impression proffered by reading their profiles in succession is that they have no idea what makes any one of them unique, and don't even necessarily think of this as a flaw. If they are being excellent, in their lives, they are not describing it in their profiles, and are thus not doing it in my presence. Instead, there is a parade of wearying cliches. They are warm and fun. They are comfortable with themselves. They love the outdoors. They like to be spontaneous. At least a quarter of them "appreciate exploring everything life has to offer" (a phrase which has nearly become a rule-out for me all by itself). At least half of them have two cats. Two thirds of them claim to have read David Sedaris' Me Talk Pretty One Day, and about half of those I suspect haven't read anything else (the few willing to admit that they only read magazines are refreshing, but that is a rule-out...). An alarming number of them are apparently convinced that they could not form a sustainable life partnership with anybody shorter than 5'10" (even when they themselves are considerably shorter than that). They cannot punctuate, but they know their weight to the pound. They enjoy good conversations and they like to laugh, but I'm guessing that jokes involving the word "tautology" will have to be explained. They are tired of the bar scene. They like adventures. They are looking for "great guys", by which I think they mean warm, fun, outdoors-loving, comfortable-with-themselves 5'10" Sedaris-skimmers who appreciate exploring everything life has to offer, like cats, don't mind or don't notice missing commas, and have no killjoy serious side to get in the way of the laughing.
A part of me thinks it's a wonder I get any responses at all. If that's what a "great" guy is like, I'm a sorry excuse. I'm warm and fun at times, but those are hardly my defining personality traits. I'm fond of the outdoors primarily as a way to get from one indoors to another. I'm not self-loathing, but I'm certainly not content. I'm 5'8" at best, I read books that are too heavy to carry with you while commuting, I hate at least as many things as I like, I could happily live out my natural life without ever cohabiting with a cat and I care about every last fucking semicolon. I can probably make you laugh until you hyperventilate, but if you're not saying anything, it's not much of a conversation. Not only have I always hated the bar scene, I do not drink and never did. "Laid back" and "down to earth", they also say they want, and I'm never sure I know precisely what those terms imply, but I strongly suspect I am neither. I'm intense and pretentious and I insist everything mean something. I am the kind of person who will set out on a multi-year quest to become fluent in a radically foreign language just because he's frustrated at not understanding the lyrics of what will undoubtably prove to be silly pop songs. I am the kind of person who will write a totally unsolicited, materially uncompensated music-review (sort of) column week after sleep-deprived week for no better reason than that when you're trying to understand things, it helps to take notes. I will alienate the friends you only pretend to like. I'm hardly against adventures, but I define myself by what I create, not what I experience.
And yet, I'm a functioning member of society. I have no obvious psychopathic tics, my hygiene is good, I have a real professional career, I own a house, I can drive a stick shift, I cook, I'd rather wash the dishes by hand than listen to the dishwasher, I love my family, I want to have kids, I know how to throw a boomerang so it comes back to me, I hold doors for old people, I yield to pedestrians at crosswalks. I am a diligently moral atheist, and I will order the scariest thing on the menu and like it. I don't believe in personal ads, and neither would the person I'm looking for. I fear there is no method to insure that we will meet. I will continue trying to be good at the things I try to do, and hope they're doing the same and one day our efforts intersect.
All of which sounds guardedly encouraging, but is by way of explaining how I come, Monday night, to be huddled in a corner of the Middle East trying to keep a wave of caustic depression from forcing me, for the first time, to walk out of a concert before the musician I came to see has even begun playing. It's very crowded, it's very hot, and Dave Pirner has just played an earnest opening set of his startlingly dreadful new solo material. I am reflecting on the fact that since I hadn't bought his album yet, and now won't, in a sense this concert has already paid for itself. But mostly I am depressed, circularly, because I now hate club-venue concerts so much that I am seriously considering walking out on one of the performers about whom I have the strongest feelings. I am depressed because the woman who is about to take the stage, if I can hold on long enough, is at once my best example of how I imagine people could meet, and the most damning suggestion that my fantasies are completely inoperable. I would like to report that I am over my crush on Juliana Hatfield, but even before I see her tonight, I realize I still am not. It's not a constant subject of thought, but whatever it is I heard in her voice one night, nearly four years ago, I can summon it again by anticipation. I know little about her, but more than enough to realize that these online services are as unlikely to cough up people like her as they are to attract people like me. By all accounts, including her own, Juliana is not warm, fun, outdoors-loving or entirely comfortable with herself. I think it's reasonable to expect that trying to share a life with her would be a trial. Surely any one of these warm, fun women who ask for nothing more than an occasional "adventure" would be a safer bet. But what Juliana has done in songs designed for other things, and none of these other women have accomplished in personal ads supposedly devoted to the effort, is depict a complex and difficult personality whose complexities and difficulties I find viscerally compelling. You can argue, if you like, that forming an emotional attachment to an artist based on their work is unhealthy, but it can't be a tenth as unhealthy as culling through online-personal profiles as if they're resumes for a clerical temp position, and my friends encouraged me to do that.
But it remains a fantasy, and the communication remains one-way, and this remains not my answer. Somebody will displace her, and probably it will be somebody much better suited for me. Somewhere in Somerville, right now, a Korean sculptress is packing up her gear for the exhibit she's going to start mounting tomorrow, and on her distracted lunch break she will be standing in front of me in line at Whole Foods when the registers freeze up for ten minutes. Just long enough for something to prompt us to exchange URLs.
In the meantime, there's a concert and an album. I manage not to leave the club. I've usually preferred Juliana's solo shows, but the current band (Juliana, bassist Heidi Gluck and Blake Babies drummer Freda Love, which trio also has an album in the works as Some Girls) is almost as spare. The sound is poor, as usual, and I don't stay for the whole set. I've come, apparently, to be reminded of the parameters of my dilemma, and depression isn't exactly the right response, but it's close.
Gold Stars 1992-2002 is, like much of Juliana's work and anything that requires her to confront herself, conflicted and unsettling. In part it is a straightforward retrospective, including most of the obvious moments from her six solo albums: "Everybody Loves Me But You" from Hey Babe; "My Sister" and "Spin the Bottle" from Become What You Are; "Universal Heartbeat" and "Fleur de Lys" from Only Everything; "Sellout" from the Please Do Not Disturb EP; "Live It Up" and "Sneaking Around" from Bed; "Somebody Is Waiting for Me" and "Cry in the Dark" from Beautiful Creature; "Houseboy" and "My Protégée" from Total System Failure; the "Every Breath You Take" cover from the Beautiful Creature/Total System Failure bonus disc. I like the last three of these much better than the first three, myself, and the representative songs from the first three are precisely the ones I'm least interested in hearing again, so I can't recommend the collection on those grounds.
But there are seven other songs. The least of them is a sad, wheezy cover of Neil Young's "Only Love Can Break Your Heart". The two most anticipated ones are "Mountains of Love" and "Fade Away", from the never-released 1996 album God's Foot. "Mountains of Love" could have been a b-side from any of the early records, it seems to me, and "Fade Away" is darker and noisier, but without the rock confidence of the later records. I don't know how well these two songs represent the whole lost album, but I'm guessing that it would not have hastened my conversion.
And at the end of all this there are four new songs recorded last year. "Don't Walk Away" is unhurried and unexpectedly buoyant, perhaps showing the lingering effects of the Blake Babies' reunion sessions. "Your Eyes", whose little country-ish tinges point up its deft, John Denver-ish songwriterly touches, may be the best single demonstration of how far Juliana's craft has progressed since Hey Babe. "We Will Rise Again" goes one step further, adding twinkly piano and ending up sounding like a lost Phil Ochs protest song discovered in a park on a quiet Sunday afternoon. And "Table for One", stranger still, is lilting, observational and folky, somewhere between Suzanne Vega and Lisa Germano. I've never been especially fond of the presumption implicit in putting new material on a greatest-hits album, and these inclusions are particularly curious because they cause the pacing of this album to plunge over a cliff. The energy level increases pretty linearly all the way through the Total System Failure songs, falters only slightly in the Police cover, and then goes into free fall for the last five tracks. Is this a prize for the patient, or a jab at anybody who couldn't be bothered to buy the original albums? Some of each, I suspect. Same with the liner notes, which oscillate between earnest commentary ("As long as we feel pain, there is hope", for "Universal Heartbeat"; "Food and people, the two things I can't seem to live without", for "Table for One") and the surreally obvious ("I have never actually played the game of Spin the Bottle", "The French are not known for their great rock music", "It's a song about a backdoor man"). These are human impulses, I think: to tack on codas, to undermine, to annotate, to re-set. They are the burdens you take on when you create anything, the constant nagging sense that it could be improved or disclaimed. The same things are true of people, too, of course. But the songs hold still.
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