#ThrowbackThursday — On Sex, Drinking, Drugs, and Immunity to Peer Pressure (or “How I Spent My Winter Vacation”)

At this time two years ago, a little before this blog even existed, I was gallivanting around Hollywood on my winter break of senior year. No, I wasn’t just partying it up; I was researching. Mostly for my novel-in-progress, which is set largely in Hollywood, and which I was working on for my undergraduate thesis in Creative Writing. Since the purpose of the trip was research, I was able to submit a detailed proposal for the trip and its expenses to the Macaulay Honors Opportunities Fund, which was approved, which means that this trip was (for the most part) paid for by my school. Thanks, Macaulay!

I’m just saying, it was legit research. Most of the showbiz stuff isn’t in this piece, but Social Scientist SM is in full glory here, so enjoy?

This was originally published as a Facebook note on January 27th 2013.

 

On Sex, Drinking, Drugs, and Immunity to Peer Pressure (or “How I Spent My Winter Vacation”)

 

At the Hollywood Boulevard hostel where I stayed during my first and last weeks out here, the girl who works the front desk is an aspiring actress from Chicago named Erica Castillo. She has a breezy, loose-limbed confidence, an intriguing mixture of friendly, big-eyed innocence and smirking cynicism, and was branded by her manager as a cross between Amy Poehler and Emmy Rossum, though I’m not 100% sure what that means. (See her demo reel here: http://vimeo.com/52838412 [EDIT FROM THE FUTURE: That link goes nowhere now, but here’s her IMDB page   and a clip of her doing some standup comedy] [FURTHER EDIT FROM FARTHER IN THE FUTURE: I found her new demo reel! http://vimeo.com/77290419]).

I told her how I was out in Hollywood on my school’s dime to research the novel I’m working on for my thesis, and asked if I could interview her.

She said sure, so on Tuesday night I claimed the office’s four-legged stool and sat there tossing out questions about the industry and what it’s like to be a no-name actor looking for work in Hollywood.

“Ninety percent of actors aren’t what you see on TV or the movies,” she clarified, in case I was laboring under that misconception. “Ninety percent of actors are me.”

That is, going out for auditions a few times a week or a few times a month, getting maybe 1% of what you audition for, whether it’s film, TV, commercials, photoshoots, or voiceover, living in some super cheap apartment, possibly with a roommate, working some other gig like being a waiter or a tour guide or a front desk hostel staff worker to occupy your time and/or pay the bills.

The whole time I was interviewing her, people kept popping in and out of the office to do lame office things like check in, check out, drop off car keys, sign up for airport shuttles, make reservations for next week, etc. Erica handled them all with ease, keeping up a steady stream of informative banter as she filled out their paperwork — “Yup, got your reservation right here, here are your sheets, bring ‘em back when you’re done, checkout’s at eleven, your room is just upstairs to the left, there’s a free breakfast every morning from 8 to 11,” and so on.

The last thing she’d often mention was: “You can sign up here for tonight’s all-you-can-drink limo tour, it’s just ten bucks. There’s one at 10 PM and one at 11:30.”

Check-ins would often look confused, and I’d pipe up, “It’s about an hour tour around Hollywood in a limo that winds up at a club or a bar, and you don’t have to drink if you don’t want to — I’m going and I’m not gonna drink.”

[My parents would not approve of my participation in such activities. Abba, you can stop reading now.]

*

The hostel offered these cheap “Tipsy Tours” three times a week, on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Fridays. I’d left this tour to the last minute, realizing at some point Tuesday morning that if I didn’t go that night, I wouldn’t get to go at all, because Wednesday was Hostel Karaoke Night, and I’d be flying back to New York on Thursday. So I signed up for the first slot on the 10 o’clock limo.

Some might question the logic of going on an all-you-can-drink limo tour with a bunch of rowdy teenagers/20-somethings and having no intention of drinking, and some might think I’d probably give in and have a sip of something at some point, but those people just haven’t met me.

Yes, my parents would probably be appalled at the opportunities I could have taken advantage of these past couple of weeks, being out here on my own without any supervision. Although most of this isn’t THAT different from your typical college campus.

Alcohol — there are clubs and bars everywhere on Hollywood Boulevard and Melrose (where my other hostel was), and the hostels supplied beer and vodka every night on the Tipsy Tours and for karaoke and the Monday night barbeque. So I could have taken advantage of that.

Drugs — Just some examples: I had a conversation in one of the hostel lounges about global and European economies with a German political science major while he was trying to roll some joints. On my first night, the Australian DJ in a different lounge told us her boyfriend was coming by and if we needed anything from outside — she emphasized “anything” three or four times; it was kind of hilariously unsubtle — he could bring some. And when I told one of the girls that I was planning to head to Venice Beach that day, she said she was getting a ride and could see if they had room for me, but “would you mind if we’re all smoking weed?” I laughed and told her I didn’t mind; I just wouldn’t smoke any. (There wound up not being room in the car, so I went to the beach the next week.) So I could have taken advantage of that.

Sex — Plenty of guys started up conversations with me, told me how cute/beautiful/breath of fresh air I am, complimented my unusual clothing choices. Some were even native English speakers. One outright asked me out despite the engagement ring I was wearing that day. And I had my own private room in each of the hostels I stayed at, and there were condoms in the vending machine, and I think it’s obvious how I could have taken advantage of that.

Maybe it’s weird that I didn’t feel at all surrounded by temptations. None of this tempted me in any way; it’s all just part of the scenery. So knowing myself, I knew I could go on an all-you-can-drink limo ride and not have any concerns about feeling pressured to do anything I didn’t want to do, drinking or otherwise.

So we went out in this limo van.

*

It was a party limo, with lights inside that pulsed in different colors, and a stereo cranked up high, blaring the popular hits from “Call Me Maybe” to “Moves Like Jagger” to “Tonight We Are Young.” Seats were arranged in a kind of U formation around 3 walls of the back compartment, with the fourth wall occupied by the ice bucket/trough with the Styrofoam cups and all the beer, vodka, soda, and cranberry juice awaiting distribution.

Ten of us squeezed in on the squishy leathery U bench, and I wound up between an Argentinean with hipster glasses and a girl from Japan, who it turned out had met each other previously in New York around New Year’s and now fortuitously wound up in LA at the same time. I didn’t accuse either of stalking the other, because I’m polite that way.

Other folks in the limo included a couple of German girls, a male friend of Argentinean Hipster, a blonde in smokey eye makeup and crazy-high heels who generously offered me the last of her mixture of vodka and cranberry juice (which was certainly not her first drink of the night, and which I declined), a very pretty boy from Croatia wearing a  bright blue shirt that said “Keep Calm and Come to Rab” (which he explained to me was the name of the Croatian island that he’s from and he told me I should totally visit because it’s “the most beautiful place on Earth” and I said I’d think about it), a guy who barely spoke English who checked in while I was in the office interviewing Erica, and an American with a close-cropped haircut who works on the live show version of “How to Train Your Dragon” (which I did not know existed, and was told is a very bad idea to watch while on acid).

So the obvious pro of loud music is that there’s no such thing as awkward silence. The obvious con is that you can’t have a conversation without shouting, and my throat knew it was on the verge of getting sick, so I tried to keep my shouting to a minimum. People were in fact trying to talk to each other, but it would have been uncool to ask someone to turn down the music, ergo: shouting.

It’s easy to find something to talk about in a crowd of new people like that. “WHERE ARE YOU FROM?” “WHY ARE YOU HERE?” “WHAT DO YOU DO IN REAL LIFE?” are all pretty good standbys, and then you follow up if the answer was interesting enough, or volunteer your own information. Japanese girl asked where I was from, I told her New York, and Argentina boy told me about how “f**king freezing” it was in Times Square on New Year’s Eve, and I told him how I was all warm and toasty that night, watching the ball drop on TV with a bunch of friends, and he said that was smarter, and I agreed and pointed out that you can still kiss whoever you want at midnight whether you’re indoors or outdoors. They asked what I was doing in LA, I told them I was researching a book and that my school was paying most of my expenses. This tends to impress people, and stimulates further conversation.

I can’t really think of a reason why being drunk or tipsy or buzzed would have been necessary to make the experience more enjoyable. I assume maybe my posture would’ve loosened up, maybe I would have felt more at one with the music, maybe everything would have seemed funnier or more interesting, but it was pretty funny and interesting all on its own.

I was repeatedly asked if I wanted a drink, was repeatedly asked where my drink was, was repeatedly offered toasts that I could not return since I didn’t have a Styrofoam cup to raise, and when everyone did that cheesy thing where they hold out their cups and bump them together, like a toast that goes around the semicircle like a domino effect, my lack of a cup caught everyone by surprise. I bopped the cup of the guy next to me with my pinky finger instead.

The limo stopped a few times to let us out for touristy things.

Grauman’s Chinese Theater (which I’d already seen several times but never at night), where Hollywood stars throughout the ages have imprinted their hands and feet into the concrete.

Mulholland Drive, the view from which, if you’ve never seen pictures of it, looks like a black backdrop dusted with bright glowing gold glitter. There was another car parked up there and I met an Asian boy named Kevin and we talked for a good five or ten minutes, but I don’t recall the conversation beyond that my book and reason for travel was mentioned and tipsy Croatian boy kept telling Kevin to visit Rab and also said I dressed like I should be “a, a what-you-call-it . . . artist. Artist for the movies.” (Thanks, Croatian boy. I think.)

And lastly, we returned to Hollywood Boulevard and were dropped off by an “Irish Pub.” The driver left to pick up the next shift of Tipsy Tourists, but the bouncer wouldn’t let us in because he’d seen members of the group drinking the last of their alcoholic beverages on the sidewalk, and apparently there’s a rule that if you’ve been drinking outside, they won’t let you in? Okay, then. (I did tell the bouncer, “I haven’t been drinking at all; I’m stone sober,” but I didn’t have any interest in leaving the rest of the group to go into some random bar.)

So we all trooped down Hollywood Boulevard, where there are no shortage of other nightclubs and bars. One of the German girls said she knew a great one, so we passed by and ignored a bunch of others, including one with an overcrowded stretch of sidewalk in front of it and police doing crowd control because I guess some band was having a concert or something inside.

The guy I wound up walking with was the American with the almost-shaved head, who was drawn to me by either my sparkling wit and personality, or by the faux leather black corset-ish top I was wearing over a long-sleeved purple shirt and a blue ankle-length skirt, or by my ability to actually speak English, or possibly a combination of all these. Let it not be said that I am a one-trick pony.

We talked about anything and nothing, from the idea of celebrity, to what constitutes dressy clothing for guys vs. girls (me: “if you’re a girl and you put on a skirt, you’re automatically fancy”), to the fact that paying too much attention to the stars on the Walk of Fame means that you miss everything going on around you, to his job working the live shows of “How To Train Your Dragon,” which had just recently been offered a deal in China so he might be heading out there next.

“So you don’t drink?” he asked at one point. “Like, at all?”

“Nope, I’m boring like that,” I said cheerfully, and he laughed.

*

I have to admit that it was a little surprising to me how having to say, “I don’t drink” approximately five thousand times in the course of two hours didn’t ever make me question my convictions about that. Sometimes my lack of sensitivity to peer pressure and my lack of a need to fit in surprise even me.

In this case, there were probably two main factors at work.

Number one: my usual superiority complex/contrarian nature. I’m not the type of person who thinks that if everyone is doing something, it must be cool. In fact, it’s generally the opposite. After being conditioned by numerous friends, family, teachers, and classmates telling me that I’m of above-average intelligence (I was never picked on or bullied in school, because even the kids who didn’t like me respected my brains), I’m suspicious of anything popular. It’s as if I think that if the average person likes it, it must be stupid, because the average person is stupider than I am. I know how that sounds, believe me, but I never said I was humble.

That’s not exactly how I think nowadays; I’ve said in previous notes that I do my best to understand others, and I understand why a lot of things are popular even if I personally don’t like them very much, and I am a fan of many popular things. I just try to look at my fandoms with a critical and analytical eye, as I do with everything, so that I don’t feel like I’m being sucked into some mass hypnosis. Like, I’m a huge fan of Chris Colfer, but I will freely admit that I didn’t think the children’s book he wrote was anything particularly special.

The second factor here, and just as vital if not more so, is the company.

These kids are travelers. Hardcore, backpacking, thousands of miles from home, up a creek without a paddle travelers. With the exception of missionaries and the Peace Corps and such, you don’t travel to new places in order to change them. You travel in order to observe. To see things as they are. To come in contact with people who think or act differently than you do. To appreciate and accept new and unusual things as is.

So no one’s got a vested interest in corrupting me, in trying to change my drinking habits or anything else about me. To them, the fact that I don’t drink, don’t smoke marijuana, don’t display my body even though I certainly have what to display — the fact that I am outside the norm in these ways is something that makes traveling halfway around the world worth it. None of these characteristics make me better or worse than anyone else; they just make me different, and when you’re traveling, “different” has a place that it might not when you’re living your day-to-day life at home. “Different” gets filed neatly away in an “Interesting People I Have Met While Traveling” compartment of the brain, without prejudice.

*

We eventually made it to the club, which was called “Angels and Kings.” I almost didn’t get in, because I hadn’t realized I would need ID, and had left my passport at the hostel. Luckily, I found my expired driver’s permit in my wallet and it sufficed to prove my age. I know, I know, I really need to get a license.

The club itself was kind of a media-blaming conservative gun advocate’s dream — the décor glorified criminality and violence in various ways: a wall was covered in an enormous poster of celebrity mug shots, a fake ram head mounted high behind the bar had antlers that morphed into machine guns. Wicked cool visual, questionable message.

 

 

 

It was high ceiling-ed and very dimly lit, with candles on every booth’s table. The walls that weren’t painted black were mirrors, and the music was so loud that even shouting directly into someone’s ear gave you only a 50/50 chance of being heard.

“WHY DON’T YOU DRINK?” American guy asked.

“I DON’T LIKE THE TASTE!” I answered.

He nodded, satisfied. Argentinean Hipster’s male friend offered us both cigarettes, and I shook my head.

“YOU DON’T SMOKE, EITHER?”

“NOPE!”

“SO YOU’RE LIKE, REALLY PURE, HUH?”

“YUP, THAT’S ME, GOODY-TWO-SHOES ALL THE WAY.” I grinned. “MY DAD’S A RABBI.”

(Funny how people think that explains everything.)

I went outside with the two of them for their cigarette break, which I’m pretty sure is just the cool kid way of being able to have a decent conversation in the middle of a party without admitting, “This blows. I’d rather talk to you than stare at you and yell.”

We stood at the curb and the two of them smoked. Fortunately, the wind was blowing the smoke away from me so I didn’t have to smell it. I mentioned that I’d need to head back soon because I could tell I was getting sick and wanted to get some rest.

American guy said, “You know, I drink so much that I have a pretty hard time telling when I’m sick or when I’m just hungover.”

“Yeah, I don’t have that problem, since I never have to worry about what substances I put in my body.”

Conversation veered to facebook posts made while drunk, and American guy said he thinks that between midnight and six AM, facebook should force people to solve a math problem or something before letting them post.

“I’ve learned that if I’m drunk and I have a really strong opinion about something, I should NOT post it,” he said.

We went back into the club, and the guy who’d given out the cigarettes tried to talk to me about how awesome the music was (apparently it was Muse), but I could barely hear him and didn’t have the heart to tell him that no matter what he said, I didn’t think I’d ever like this music the way he did.

Japanese girl (who was underage so I’m not sure how she got in) came up next to me and typed on her phone: “I like club but I don’t like the music,” and I said “Me too,” and asked if she was planning to leave soon. She was, but she wanted to go to another club before going back to the hostel.

So I said goodbye to everyone and headed back by myself, texting a friend a brief recap of the evening that was nowhere near as detailed as this.

*

“I like to consider myself pretty flexible,” I’d told Erica earlier, when the interview was winding down and I felt it was only fair to reveal some of myself now that she’d revealed so much of hers. “I’m open to a lot of experiences and possibilities that plenty of people aren’t. I just don’t drink and don’t do drugs; I think that’s reasonable.”

She snorted and replied with sarcasm fit to rival my own, “Yeah, cuz everyone’s always like, ‘Man, I really missed out on all that meth I didn’t do. All that pot I didn’t smoke. Imagine all the possibilities…’

Exactly.

 

______________

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Heroes

I originally posted this last week as a note on my facebook page, but it sets the tone for this media-criticism-oriented blog, so I figure it’s worth a repost.

Image

It’s Martin Luther King Day, so I feel like I should write something. Because for some reason, Dr. King’s story and assassination struck a particular chord with me when I was younger. More specifically: he used to be one of my heroes.

I remember cramming for the SAT II subject exam on American History in eleventh grade. I hadn’t taken the course, but I wanted to get the exam out of the way, so I was racing through a review/practice test book, attempting to learn the entire curriculum in a few weeks. Decades zipped along in bullet points — World War I, the roaring 20s, the Great Depression, the New Deal, Pearl Harbor, World War II, and so on until the Civil Rights Movement.

Everything was treated with the same cursory lack of depth. African Americans did this, did that, Dr. King said this, organized this boycott, led this demonstration. All the stuff you learn in elementary school. But even — or perhaps especially — in the review book’s simplistic format, you could feel the momentum, the change, the progress, and it was kind of exciting.

And then the section ended with the briefest: “King was assassinated in 1968. The impact he had on the Civil Rights Movement cannot be measured.”

And that was it. Not another word about him.

I remember reading those two sentences and my own reaction completely blindsided me: I started to cry.

I once impulse-bought Dr. King’s posthumous, unauthorized autobiography at Barnes and Noble, because it was right there on the table and I just had to have it. I went around reading it for weeks afterward and always made sure to have the cover facing outward when I held it, because I wanted people to know who I reading about, because I took such pride in it.

We take pride in our heroes. We fancy that who we admire, who we idolize or value or remember, says something about our own character. I’ve become hyper-aware of this during my past couple of weeks in Hollywood — there are literally thousands of stars embedded in the pavement on the Hollywood Boulevard Walk of Fame, and you cannot possibly take pictures of all of them if you want to get anything else done. You have to pick and choose, you have to prioritize. Who is worth stopping for? Whose star is worth taking a picture of?

And then comes the question: Why is ANY star worth taking a picture of? It’s a hunk of concrete. You could probably google any star you want and find it in five seconds; why bother stopping and snapping your own photo?

For me, I think it’s about personal pride. I think each star that I’ve personally chosen to take a picture of says something about me, or about someone I care about. I took a lot of pictures of old-time movie stars’ stars, not because I have much of a connection to them, but because I know my mother loves Cary Grant and Jimmy Stewart and Katherine Hepburn and Gregory Peck. I took some pictures of stars that reminded me of friends who are fans of those actors/musicians/etc. And of course I did come across a bunch that have personal significance to me because I am personally a fan of them: the cast of the original Star Trek, Rascal Flatts, Kevin Bacon, Tim McGraw, Neil Patrick Harris. (And then there are pictures taken ironically because you kind of can’t believe so-and-so has a star on the Walk of Fame: Kermit the Frog, Big Bird, the Olsen twins, Charlie Sheen.)

My point is, we at least partly identify ourselves by our heroes. If I’m a fan of old-time actors, I figure it says that my tastes run toward the elegant and the classy. If I’m a fan of the cast of Star Trek, and can recognize all their names from Shatner to Doohan to Nichols, it means I’m a nerd. If I’m a fan of celebs like George Takei and Neil Patrick Harris, it means not only do I value their talent; it means I value and respect the work they’ve done for the LGBTQ community. And so on.

And here’s where I’ll stop using the word “hero,” because, as I mentioned in my last note, I don’t believe in heroes.

I think that people are people, and that elevating others to a higher plane is just setting yourself up for disappointment. Everyone screws up, and if you look hard enough, you can always find the ugly side of people. So if you hold someone to a higher standard and expect more from them, you’ll probably just end up feeling betrayed and let down. Illusions are comforting and reassuring, but I prefer the truth, and the truth is that people are flawed.

For the record, here’s useful distinction from a writing blog I once read on the difference between “imperfect” and “flawed” — imperfections are innocuous, like pimples or clumsiness; they show that the character is not a perfect construction, but they do no real damage to anyone. They are comfortable and safe and too many writers use them because of that. Flaws are ugly and unpleasant and cause genuine harm and pain to others. There is nothing safe or comfortable about them and writers are reluctant to use them because of that. Truly believable characters must have flaws, because all people have flaws.

I can’t remember where or when I first learned that Martin Luther King Jr. was a womanizer who cheated on his wife.

I do remember feeling devastated when I found out. And I remember feeling angry, not at him, really, but at the people who left that out of my education and exalted him so much, and at myself for falling for it when I already knew that what you see in history books is never the whole truth. (I learned that lesson when I was about 10 years old — I had, several years earlier, read a kiddie biography of Andrew Jackson that extolled his virtues and leadership capabilities, and so I thought for a few years that Andrew Jackson was a pretty awesome dude. And then in fourth grade I was assigned a report on the Cherokee Indians, and read about the Trail of Tears and how Jackson disobeyed the ruling of the Supreme Court and consequently led thousands of people to their deaths. To say I was pissed at the nameless author of that kiddie biography for failing to mention this would be a charming understatement.)

We feel betrayed when our so-called heroes fall. Betrayed by them and betrayed by the world that somehow conspired to raise these people in our consciousnesses, when they were in fact unworthy. I’m sure there are plenty of people out there who right now are feeling this way about Lance Armstrong, who have felt this way about any athlete who cheated or has been strongly linked to cheating, whether it was Mark McGuire or Sammy Sosa or Roger Clemens.

I think it’s important not to let the ugly human flaws undermine people’s legitimate achievements. Does Dr. King’s tireless work for civil rights, a cause he died for, somehow mean less because he was a cad? It shouldn’t, but honestly, it’s hard for me not to feel like some of the shine is gone. Is the money Lance Armstrong raised to fight cancer somehow tainted? Does the cancer care where the money came from? “Yo, cancer? Do you care that this money that’s killing you was raised on the basis of an athlete’s falsely inflated reputation and image?” Cancer: “What? I can’t hear you, too busy being killed over here . . .” *gasp* *choke* *gurgle*

But it’s not easy to separate the person from the achievement, and the feelings of betrayal from the actual crime.

A commonly proposed solution to such a dilemma is “empathy.” Empathize with your fallen hero, and be forgiving, and then perhaps you can still appreciate their legacy without the dark clouds shadowing it.

This may surprise some people, but I’m not big on empathy. I was not blessed (or cursed) with an abundance of it. The fact that I cried while reading a history textbook that one time was shocking to me. With very rare exceptions, I am not one of those people who can feel someone else’s pain.

I was, however, given an abundance of understanding, which is not the same thing. Empathy is emotional; understanding is rational. I understand so many things that I cannot fathom emotionally. I can recognize patterns and draw parallels and see people’s behaviors and environments and common themes threaded repeatedly through human nature, and the circumstances surrounding people’s actions, and just get why they do what they do, no matter how outlandish or inexplicable it might seem to some. A relatively new acquaintance once said to me, “It’s like you’re reading my mind from the future and saying things before I think them,” and a different friend once said of my writing, “It’s like, these are my thoughts, but you’re wordifying them.” I don’t in any way claim to speak for everyone, but I seem to have a knack for getting inside people’s heads using nothing more than logic. I understand things, but I can’t empathize.

So that’s my approach to heroes, or to the people society might consider to be heroes. I try to keep them firmly on the ground so that they remain people, and people can be understood, either rationally, or (if you happen to have the wiring for it) emotionally. Understanding is the first step to forgiveness, and forgiveness is one of those vital life skills that isn’t taught in school but is needed to survive, because not only are all people imperfect, but they are also flawed.

Happy MLK Day.