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This Recording

is dedicated to the enjoyment of audio and visual stimuli. Please visit our archives where we have uncovered the true importance of nearly everything. Should you want to reach us, e-mail alex dot carnevale at gmail dot com, but don't tell the spam robots. Consider contacting us if you wish to use This Recording in your classroom or club setting. We have given several talks at local Rotarys that we feel went really well.

Pretty used to being with Gwyneth

Regrets that her mother did not smoke

Frank in all directions

Jean Cocteau and Jean Marais

Simply cannot go back to them

Roll your eyes at Samuel Beckett

John Gregory Dunne and Joan Didion

Metaphors with eyes

Life of Mary MacLane

Circle what it is you want

Not really talking about women, just Diane

Felicity's disguise

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Friday
Jul202012

In Which You May Be A Lot Of Things But You're Not Alone

So Long To Wait 

by ALEX CARNEVALE

It all depends on whether or not the fragment of our life reveals the plan and material of the whole.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer

One summer when I was very young my mother had a miscarriage and barely left her bed. My father had ordered a variety of magazines and products concerning her successful pregnancy and he told me to intercept them at the mailbox when I could. Every day she watched more than one soap opera, and since I had very little to do until Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles came on television, I watched them with her, leaning up against the foot of the bed.

I barely watch my actual television now, at least not in the way I did then. Because I knew so little of what made up the world, absorbing the details of how adult relationships worked became an endlessly fascinating activity. I was astonished by the way adults seemed to hold onto their relationships, since long term planning and the endless series of codas inherent in any soap storyline was anathema to my own experience. Indeed, in the children's television of the time, everything existed purely within the realm of an event, a happening, and afterwards the behavior of that moment was rendered incidental.

Watching The Real L Word still gives me the feeling I had upon seeing those soaps for the first time. The Showtime reality show has entered its third season of focusing on the lives of variously successful lesbians in the Los Angeles area, expanding its purview to consider Brooklyn lesbians as well. The Real L Word is the best reality show ever created, and I don't know that it's particularly close.

from left: Romi, Cori, Kacy, Lauren, Sara, Whitney, Kiyomi, Amanda, Somer

Some cultures, perhaps even most, revolve around men. The lives of the women on The Real L Word do not concern men in the slightest. This comes as something of a relief to me, because the novelty of the male form wore off around the fifteenth time I viewed my penis. Growing up almost all of my teachers were women, and the male teachers I encountered seemed impossibly different from men like my father, and that was difficult to reconcile. Although I had little knowledge of it at the time, many of the most significant teachers I had were lesbians.

The distinctive feature of 21st century life, especially in urban areas, is the degree to which it revolves around the lives of the female gender. This is taken to the complete extreme on The Real L Word. Some of the lesbians know and are friendly with men, but the vast majority of these men are gay, and even the ones that aren't dress like Robin and wear exaggerated eyeglasses.

It was easy to think of The Real L Word's milieu as a kind of other world until this season. I have never lived in Los Angeles; I went there once for a wedding but the ceremony was on a boat. I'd last about five minutes lingering in traffic. Even though John Cage says that waiting in lines is an opportunity to practice patience, this is a fucking lie. 

Lauren

This third season of the show focuses on a bicoastal look at lesbian life; you'd be forgiven if you thought there was any other place in the universe. The existence of the New York lesbian is of course different from that of the Los Angeles lesbian. It is hard to quantify this exactly, but color scheme, facial expressions and hoodies all play a major role. In addition, a Los Angeles lesbian is over three times as likely to be a jewelry designer.

Lauren (pictured above) is one such individual. She is tall and a bit slack-jawed; her features are so completely distinctive that it's impossible to mistake the sight of her at any distance. Her jewelry resembles leeches or black prawns. Even though she does not really know Romi, the recovering alcoholic lesbian who was the star of The Real L Word's last season, she feels a budding rivalry with the show's narrow-faced antagonist. This is because she's been fucking Romi's also alcoholic ex-girlfriend Kelsey.

Lauren was living in a house with two women, but she evicted them because her best friend Amanda is moving from New York to live with her. "We're young and we can afford it," Amanda opines as she hoovers a cigarette. "It's something we've always wanted to do." She is very similar looking to Lauren except that she is shorter and wears less makeup when she goes out. There has always been a nascent sexual tension between Amanda and Lauren, but when they lived in the same city before, both were in relationships. Their significant others struggled to deal with the intimacy between the two best friends, and Lauren expects a romance to manifest, or at the very least sex when neither finds a partner.

KiyomiSex is where The Real L Word transcends the boundaries other television shows needlessly impose on their nonfictions. We see sex when it happens, as it happens. Not all of it, but enough to where we struggle to discern the difference between the tree and a drawing of a tree. A fight takes place, a woman comes home to see her girlfriend. Two people wake up, always surprised to see they share the same bed, and the mere novelty of their proximity leads to languorous sex. This is the simplest of human acts, and yet it never takes place in any of our fiction, except offscreen or in a completely unerotic montage.

It's not that the sex in The Real L Word is particularly titillating. Watching it, I rarely find myself the least bit turned on so much as empathically happy for the individuals involved in it, because for the most part they seem to genuinely care for each other. Watching Kiyomi perform cunnilingus in the shower becomes a moment as intimate for the audience as her girlfriend Ali, who moments before had been completely enraged. Sex in this fashion does not draw our attention to something else, it exists simply for its own sake. This is a lesson young men are never taught.

Whitney (left) and Sara

Most often nude on The Real L Word is the show's white, dreadlocked constant, Whitney. She has been the show's central character since it began, both because she knows every single lesbian in the greater Southern California area, and because she's dumped most of them. Whitney derives a certain energy from her interactions, and people seem to feed off this. Despite being a relatively usual looking person, lesbians are drawn to Whitney's brusque sexuality and introvert/extrovert personality, and whatever darkness underlies her unique social abilities. Yet they expect her to conform to a certain type, and when she shows them she is not entirely what they thought, instead of feeling deceived they experience a malingering pity towards her that is very easily confused with sexual attraction and even love.

There exists an entire house full of Whitney's ex-girlfriends: Jaq, Alyssa and Rachel. They console each other, endleslly discussing Whitney and her burgeoning long-term relationship with Sara. (Sara's name is pronounced Sada, for reasons I cannot impossibly imagine.) This woman has achieved what many could not — she has inspired Whitney to pursue a monogamous arrangement with her. This first coda for Whitney's life is shocking considering the nature of her past sex life, but it is the sort of surprise that happens very often on The Real L Word. It is akin to the feelings I experienced watching soaps with my mother: a complete alarm at the unfamiliar situations my favorite characters found themselves in. I never thought Zack Morris would get married, no more than I thought Donatello or Raphael had working reproductive organs.

Whitney and Amanda

I have always been fascinated by what happens to people when you are not there to witness what will become of them. As a child I read too many books and assumed the impression I had of the endings scheduled for literary characters was nothing like actual life. I have found over time that the only real difference between the endings of the fictional characters and their living counterparts is in the number of endings, not in the strangeness. The lesbians of The Real L Word astound me with their capacity for change, in the way they adapt so seamlessly to the changing contours of their lives. I never liked change, whether it was a new school, a new place or a new group of people, not because I did not enjoy the novelty of new friends or situations, but because it meant saying goodbye to the old.

Romi at the house of Whitney's ex-girlfriends

Romi spent most of last season trying to stop drinking. The purpose of alcohol in her life was twofold: to lubricate her social interactions so she could enjoy going out in a large group, and to allow her to enjoy sex with her partner Kelsey. Each time she imbibed she was so inebriated that blacking out and not remembering her actions became a regular fixture of her evenings.

After Romi quit alcohol, she morphed into an irritable and quick-tempered woman. At the same time her sober self was more driven and focused on her relationships and career as a clothing designer. She constantly expressed her disgust with her girlfriend Kelsey's inability to hold a job, and if she came home and found Kelsey drinking a glass of wine, she exploded in a miasma of indignant rage. Television is absolutely the best way to fathom this kind of sea change.

It is revealed in the third season premiere that Romi has spent the past six months of her life in a relationship with a man, her ex-boyfriend Jay. When Romi finally works up the courage to tell a few of her lesbian friends about this development in her life (she's somewhat ashamed and also afraid of how they'll react to the news), she also brings up that she has been putting his penis in her mouth on a frequent basis. Her friends visibly shudder. Some of those who know Romi believe this is the ending to which her life has proceeded apace all along; others are convinced that this simply represents another avenue for Romi to get a disproportionate amount of attention for her behavior. The indeterminacy between these possibilities in her narrative contains all my own hopes and desires about what life might hold.

from left: Splinter, Raphael, Leonardo, April, Donatello, Michaelangelo

When I was a kid, I actually spent time wondering what happened to the Ninja Turtles when their television show went off the air. I even wrote short stories about their lives after Shredder and Krang were buried at the bottom of the ocean together in a gold-plated casket with all the foot soldiers. The turtles could not possibly exist in a state of continual adolescence — although I have to admit I found that an attractive ideal.

The ascent into maturity at first seemed to limit the capacity for change, since all the adults I knew when I was young seemed so completely static in comparison. Of course this was naive. I wondered chiefly what would happen to the intrepid reporter April O'Neil, friend to reptiles and their rodent master. In her old age she would speak movingly about the various intimacies she shared with these otherworldly creatures. The sewer was her Paris. It might have been confusing, if you knew her in both periods of her life, to decide which was the real April or when exactly her ending occurred. The question of what happens to the people you know after you stop knowing them never goes away.

Alex Carnevale is the editor of This Recording. He is a writer living in Manhattan. He tumbls here and twitters here. He last wrote in these pages about Iris Murdoch. You can find an archive of his writing on This Recording here.

 

Thursday
Jul192012

In Which Its Badness Is Thorough And Complex

Compiled from the Minutes of the Bad Movie Club

by ALICE BOLIN

The man who insists on high and serious pleasures is depriving himself of pleasure; he continually restricts what he can enjoy...

— Susan Sontag, “Notes on ‘Camp’”

1. Beginning

July 2011. I found myself unemployed and temporarily homeless in Missoula, Montana, and I had to tap into what goodwill I had built up over the previous two years, bouncing from friend’s couch to friend’s couch for a month, repaying them intermittently with alcohol.

The Missoula summer is in its essence carefree and shiftless, and my friend Emily was letting me stay with her for a few days while her roommate was out of town, despite the fact that I am always randomly breaking her stuff — absentmindedly prying a part off of her computer, or, more horrifyingly, bumping the wine bottle she was drinking from on Halloween, chipping one of her teeth. She still welcomed me into her home, is what I’m getting at, because Emily is a good friend.

We had nothing to do but hang out, so we rented several movies one day, seeking specifically crappy romantic comedies. The first one we watched was a paragon of the genre: 2001’s Head Over Heels follows an art restorer at the Metropolitan Museum of Art who has given up on men. She moves into an apartment with three fashion models and meet-cutes inexplicable heartthrob Freddie Prinze Jr. when his Great Dane sexually harasses her. Her boss at the museum walks into her workroom holding an enormous Titian painting and says, “Look at this piece of crap!” There is a disconcerting plot twist involving the international diamond smuggling business. At one point the models are hiding in a bathroom stall and they get sprayed with feces.

The rest of the time I spent at Emily’s house, we watched more bad movies, including Twilight and Whatever It Takes, an irredeemably boring early-00’s high school comedy starring James Franco and forgotten teen idol Shane West. In this way the Bad Movie Club was born. Over the course of the past year, Emily and I have watched more than twenty terrible movies, sometimes joined by the club’s associate members, Emma and Zoey. Watching things together has marked my friendship with Emily since we met — we are almost exactly the same age and we share remarkably overlapping cultural knowledge. Once, when talking about a mutual acquaintance, Emily said “She’s so Amaya,” and I knew immediately that she was referring to one of the roommates from The Real World: Hawaii. We revisited the runs of 2000s MTV classics Laguna Beach and The Hills as well as Ashlee Simpson’s incredible reality show, most of which (no need to thank me) is on YouTube.

But it wasn’t only mutual nostalgia that spawned the Bad Movie Club.  It was more importantly an appreciation of the good-bad. Not everyone likes bad things, which is something I accept but don’t completely understand. “Why don’t you and Alice just watch a good movie?” Emily’s boyfriend Brett asked her. It’s because the good and the bad hold completely different pleasures, and we consume them for different purposes.

2. Bad

Our interest in bad movies has nothing to do with the current conception of “irony”: liking things that are old, ugly, poorly made, or weird for the sake of novelty. Ironic appreciation is kindred to Susan Sontag’s notion of “Camp” as laid out in her essay “Notes on ‘Camp,’” which “incarnates a victory of ‘style’ over ‘content,’ ‘aesthetics’ over ‘morality,’ of irony over tragedy.” She indicates that though “many examples of Camp are things which, from a ‘serious’ point of view, are either bad art or kitsch,” in its essence, Camp as a point of view is generous. “Camp taste is, above all, a mode of enjoyment, of appreciation — not judgment,” she writes. We on the other hand do not strive to be generous. The mission of the Bad Movie Club is generally mean-spirited, taking joy in laughing at and making fun of other people’s terrible work. Bad movies are often very funny, and the comedy is stranger and more sublime than in something well made.

And watching a bad movie with someone else, there is none of the reverence that enforces silence during movie watching — you can talk all you want without fear of missing something, since the plot likely doesn’t make sense anyway. We do things with other people because we don’t want to do them alone, but sometimes the universe sends you the exact right person to do them with. And Emily is one of the sharpest and funniest people I have ever known.

We can imagine a good/bad graph to help conceptualize the selections of the Bad Movie Club. In the upper right quadrant is the good-good, movies that are both enjoyable and well made, which are obviously irrelevant to the club’s interests. In the bottom right there is the bad-good, films that are generally acclaimed but are in reality hackneyed, boring, or stupid. (NB: Most of the films that are nominated for Best Picture at the Academy Awards would fall into this category.) Since these movies are at best not fun to watch and at worst infuriating, they would never be featured in The Bad Movie Club. (Though time can convert bad-good to good-bad, see: Titanic.)

The sweet spot we are seeking is the top left quadrant, the good-bad, the kind of satisfying awfulness that Lifetime movies don’t even pretend not to be trading in. Frequent sources of the good-bad: films made for TV, films released directly to DVD, films made for and marketed to tweens, films from the 1980s, films from the 1990s, films about dancing, films starring Anna Faris. The Disney Channel is a great supplier of the good-bad, as all of its original movies have outlandish premises, star untalented child actors, feature an overall dorky/dipshit aesthetic, and appear to be made on budgets in the hundreds of dollars.

High School Musical may be the exemplar, with its doubly implausible conceits that the short and scrawny Zac Efron would be the star of his high school basketball team and Vanessa Hudgens would be some sort of chemistry genius. The two are star-crossed lovers, kept apart by high school’s tyrannical cliquishness—one of the songs is actually called “Stick to the Status Quo.” “I don’t think my high school was really cliquey like this,” Emma said while we were watching it. “Was your high school like this?” “Emma, everyone in this high school is singing and dancing,” we said.

Where to find bad movies: Netflix, obviously. In Missoula, there is also Hastings, a western chain of media megastores with a vaguely Christian-bookstore vibe and a huge selection of badly scratched DVDs and bizarre candies. I am also fond of buying movies off of the DVD rack at Albertson’s grocery store. In the fall when I had pneumonia I went to Albertson’s in a fevered stupor and bought a half dozen movies—some pretty good, like Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion, and some very bad, like The Power Rangers Movie and a late sequel to Bring It On called Bring It On: In It to Win It.

In It to Win It is roughly based on West Side Story and follows two competing cheerleading squads naturally called the Sharks and the Jets. It takes place at Universal Studios. A key moment is a late night “cheer rumble” in some old-timey part of the amusement park. One character is a goth cheerleader who wears a pair of fangs at all times. When I was sick I watched this movie with awed attention, and I remembered it as a strange, disturbing and wonderful experience. I was disappointed when Emily and I watched it later and it was actually tedious and absurd, in addition to clearly being of exclusive interest to people with experience in cheerleading. I had to admit it: some movies are so-bad-it’s-bad.

The bad-bad, found in the bottom left quadrant of the good/bad graph and comprising movies that are neither well made nor entertaining, is like a trap laid for the Bad Movie Club to fall into. It’s often obvious that a film will be bad from its premise, its DVD cover, the people starring in it — and most bad movies are a reliable delight to ridicule. But then you rent The Last Song, a Miley Cyrus vehicle written by Nicholas Sparks and featuring the same maudlin trope that has been employed to manipulate teenage girls from time eternal: cosmic true love complicated only by external factors, most importantly, cancer. Miley plays an unruly emo teenager-slash-piano prodigy who has just been sent back to live with her dad, Greg Kinnear, at his beach house. There are lots of meaningful shots of a piano she beat up with a baseball bat, because psychology.

She falls in love with a preppy pretty boy, played by Miley’s real-life fiancé Liam Hemsworth, who she meets on the boardwalk, there’s an entire subplot about them rescuing baby turtles, and, sorry for spoilers, Greg Kinnear dies of cancer.  There is one hilarious scene where Miley screeches along to Maroon 5’s “She Will Be Loved” and Liam Hemsworth is astonished (“She can sing, too!”), but generally The Last Song is an awful slog — slow, pointless, depressing. And how were we to know.

3. Camp

I said that the purpose of the Bad Movie Club is basically different from that of Sontag’s Camp, which “[finds] the success in certain passionate failures,” but that’s not completely true — in some movies we’ve watched and in the way we received them there is an element of Camp at play. Here I endeavor a hazy distinction between the basic good-bad and two other categories of bad movie, the campy and the beyond-bad. In “Notes on Camp,” Sontag differentiates between Camp and “just bad,” explaining that when something is just-bad “it’s often because it is too mediocre in its ambition.” This is helpful when considering specific Bad Movie Club films that, while terrible, have a certain grandness and their own kind of integrity, as if they are a complete vision: they seem to be pristine artifacts. I can think of no better example of this than Showgirls.

Following the rise and fall of Las Vegas exotic dancer Nomi Malone, Showgirls exhibits the quality of Camp that Sontag calls “seriousness that fails,” and that we might more simply call melodrama, in spades: its many dance sequences are dazzling and insane, and it is full of random, horrifying violence, like when Nomi’s best friend is gang-raped by a singer she idolized. Of course, it is also so rife with graphic nudity and sex that the word “gratuitous” doesn’t even apply, since it must be part of the film’s point — it is Sontag’s “stag film seen without lust,” one of the most overtly pornographic non-porn movies ever made, and it is not even remotely sexy.

Camp is likeable: although generally in the Bad Movie Club we are not seeking the good in the bad, but rather the bad in the bad — it’s funnier that way — there are some movies we have watched that, somewhat by accident, we like. One is The Crush, in which Alicia Stone plays a fourteen-year-old version of Glenn Close in Fatal Attraction — she uses wasps to attack the girlfriend of the man she is obsessed with (wasps!). Sontag says of specimens of pure Camp, “in their relative unpretentiousness and vulgarity, they are more extreme and irresponsible in their fantasy — and therefore touching and quite enjoyable.” This extreme quality, some sincere ridiculousness, makes campy movies a little better than bad — or lets them transcend these classifications altogether, as in Sontag’s words, Camp “turns its back on the good-bad axis of ordinary aesthetic judgment.”

The beyond-bad seems related, although it is not Camp for important reasons: it can involve melodrama, but it most often lacks the sincerity and enthusiasm of Camp. And films that are beyond-bad are notable mostly for their extreme place on the “good-bad axis,” so it is unlikely that they would ever transcend it—they are only enjoyable insofar as one can note and comment on their badness, but insofar as one can do that, they can be extremely enjoyable. These are films that are so ill-conceived that their very existence is, in short, confusing.

There is Mac and Me, an unfortunate rip off of E.T. where the main innovations are that the child who befriends the alien is in a wheelchair, and the alien is icky rather than adorable. The movie promotes Coca-Cola and McDonalds in a way that feels pathological, and there is a jarring five-minute dance sequence at a McDonalds featuring Ronald McDonald in his first film role. I think also of Gigli: some movies are such infamous disasters, and then you watch them, and they are as dreadful as you could have ever hoped.

In Gigli, Ben Affleck and Jennifer Lopez are untalented gangsters who have kidnapped a mentally challenged man, and Ben Affleck falls for Jennifer Lopez even though she is a lesbian, and if you could not guess from this synopsis, it is offensive to the mentally challenged and to lesbians. One hallmark of movies this bad is that they are indescribable: I can recount the most ludicrous scenes, but that would not communicate how pervasive the badness is. But I will tell you that in one scene Ben Affleck breaks a teenager’s laptop and shouts “Suck my dick dot com!”

But no movie the Bad Movie Club has watched epitomizes this indescribable quality like The Room. I remember distinctly when Emily texted to ask if I’d ever seen The Room — I had never heard of it, and she told me it was a very weird, famously bad movie, which is really the only helpful description of it. Later, in her living room, I looked on with horror as just seven minutes in, the film launched in to one of the most patently un-erotic sex scenes I’ve ever seen. “Oh yeah,” Emily said, and I thought she was going to say something to reassure me. “There are like three more sex scenes. And they’re all really long.”

Things only get more deranged from there, but to write precisely how would take volumes. The Room is possibly the worst movie of all time, and no detail I would provide could give a full picture of why — Entertainment Weekly called it “The Citizen Kane of bad movies,” and its badness is thorough and complex. The plot looks flat, if a bit overwrought on the page: it is a psychological drama about a virtuous man and his duplicitous fiancé; she cheats on him with his best friend, eventually driving him the man to suicide. Many of its funniest lines — “Oh hi, Mark;” “You think about everything” — are completely neutral out of context. The allure of The Room is concentrated in its writer/director/star, Tommy Wiseau, an obvious maniac with a lilting Eastern European accent (though he claims he was born in New Orleans) who has the look of an aged body builder with caveman hair.

Emily and I have watched The Room together three times, and it remains as inexplicable as ever. New wonders await with each revisit, lines we previously missed that are like perfect golden nuggets — e.g. “As far as I’m concerned, you can drop off the earth. That’s a promise.” It is the icon and the apex of The Bad Movie Club, and it’s the film I like best. The Room is not only good-bad; it’s the best bad.

4. End

The Missoula summer is here again, and I’ve been looking listlessly at the dry hot sky, and it’s just as big as they would have you believe. Summer is the time when I wonder most about friendship, since it is when I am most surrounded by friends, idyllically, barbequing against a genial mountain backdrop and inner tubing on the Clark Fork, the big, calm river that flows through the center of town.

Summer is also when friends start to leave. Post-adolescent life is essentially transient: there’s the morbid sense that you could go anywhere and do anything, and your friends are always leaving you for grad school, for jobs, for romance, for no reason. Emily moved to Iowa at the beginning of July, and it’s left me with a lot of time to think. When someone you spent almost every day with is suddenly gone, it becomes clear that friendship is to an extent about occupying time — a kind of entertainment.

And most people’s company is at least minimally enjoyable. Missoula’s most famous poet, Richard Hugo, once wrote of “some wretched town/Where friendship is based on just being around,” but in truth, every town is that town — friendship is proximity, and our friends are restricted to the people we could possibly know. We take what we can get. It is the mystery central to friendship that amid all the luck involved, and with the fact that most of us would rather hang out with just anyone than no one, at so many points in life we chance to meet the best people, people we couldn’t love more.

As I float down the Clark Fork this month, I stare abstractly at the trees, the birds, the water, the sun, and I’m thinking about Frank Ocean and Pretty Little Liars and Magic Mike, pieces of pop culture as far removed from the river’s natural glory as its gets, an escape from the escape. And when I get off the river, I will probably have a new text message or two from Emily about Pretty Little Liars, our recent mutual bad-TV obsession—not about her road trip to the Midwest, or her family, or her feelings, or her life.

Enjoying the same culture for the same reasons — like mutually seeking the bad in bad movies—is another kind of lucky proximity: what a person likes doesn’t necessarily say anything about who a person is, how good or how bad, how worthy or unworthy. But for two people to be friends, they have to have something to talk about. I am reminded of Camp’s neutrality in regards to content in Sontag: the ideas that a work is “about” are arbitrary and the way those ideas are expressed are paramount, because Camp is crucially a way to enjoy art, whether high or low, good or bad.

Friendship is neutral to content: as a medium it isn’t about anything. It is a vessel that can be filled with whatever, and maybe the more whatever that whatever is, the better. Two people can cultivate a lot of closeness when they meet on neutral ground: a movie, a joke, a mountain town, a text message, a Dairy Queen, a day off, all the things that life doesn’t seem to be but is. There’s so much I can’t say simply to Emily about how much I miss her, so let’s not talk about it, let’s keep talking.

Alice Bolin is the senior contributor to This Recording. She is a writer living in Missoula. She tumbls here and twitters here. You can find an archive of her writing on This Recording here.

"Mr. Bones" - Tiny Victories (mp3)

"Gravitron" - Tiny Victories (mp3)

The latest release from the Brooklyn band Tiny Victories is Those Of Us Still Alive, which you can purchase here.

Wednesday
Jul182012

In Which Fainting Is The First Of Many Symptoms

Consciousness

by MOLLY O'BRIEN

A woman fainted on the subway this morning. The Q plunged into darkness after rattling over the Manhattan Bridge, and then it happened. I didn't see it. There were too many people in the way. What I saw were the reactions of every person who watched her faint. New Yorkers are inured to public displays of affection and celebrities. Nothing shocks them except the sight of someone losing consciousness.

It didn't take long for her to revive. "She's blinking, that's a good sign," said a woman near me. "Are you all right?" asked thirteen different people. "I'm fine," she said. I caught a glimpse of her − thin, with red hair and that telltale pale post-faint face. Then she disappeared again, so I pricked my ears and listened.

"Did you have anything to eat this morning?" asked the man who stepped into the role of chief caretaker.

"Yeah...yeah, I did."

"Has this happened before?"

"No, it hasn't." For the rest of the ride, a group of commuters gently surrounded her, asking little questions, like pediatricians. I got off at Herald Square and thought about her for the rest of the day. I hope someone had the good sense to steer her toward orange juice.

I am a fainter, so all other fainters are kindred spirits to me. St. Valentine is more than a representative for affianced couples and beekeepers − he's the patron saint of fainting. And we need him! We fainters are at the mercy of the world: we are fine, and yet we’re a whoosh away from unconsciousness; we are hypersensitive to the conditions that spell our downfall (hot weather, dehydration, long periods of standing and walking). We understand how dangerous it is to be exactly our body's height from the floor, and how dangerous it can be to be alone. Someone caught that girl on the subway before she hit the ground. Public places are better places to pass out. Sure, public fainting means public embarrassment, but things end up worse when you are by yourself.

The first time I fainted, I was nine years old, combing my hair before school. It was hard to get any time alone with five other family members sharing one tiny bathroom, so when I got the mirror to myself, I set to work on taming the cowlick that sprung from my bangs. Combing it down, combing it down...the next thing I knew, I was sitting in the carpeted hallway and my mother was looking into my eyeballs: "You fainted."

Because it was the first time, I didn't recognize any of the hallmarks of passing out for what they were, all of those freaky sensory things that tend to occur on the way down, and so I couldn’t remember what happened, not now, not even then. My mother was concerned, and yet I believe I was sent to school that day. Why should I have stayed home? I hadn't vomited or bled. I was fine. Much of the work that comes after fainting involves discerning your post-fainting state: either you are 'fine' or 'not fine.' Chipper demeanor, dilating pupils? Fine. Grey-green face, colorless lips, bad case of the shakes? Not fine.

A couple months later, it was summer and I was at a basketball day camp, miserable. Before the day's scrimmages were the brutal warm-ups. The Catholic school's gym was hot, and I hadn't drunk enough water. "High knees!" said the coach. (In my memory, he is a sinister guy.) Across the floor, I hoofed it, hustling, high knees, high knees...and then the sounds that reached my ears turned wonky, bouncing basketballs sounded like drops of water in a lake, the coach's whistle seemed very close and then very far away, and everything before my eyes went shimmery, then black.

This time I wasn't as lucky: I fell face-first on the hardwood and busted my lip. The adults thought I had been warming up with such intensity that I had kneed myself in the face. Ha! Like I'd ever muster that kind of enthusiasm for this sport, I thought. I felt bitterness toward basketball, glee at getting to leave camp for the day and adrenaline from collapsing and reviving. The nausea and overwhelming fatigue that set in after fainting didn't register.

The doctor probably poked and prodded, and my mother probably warned me to stay hydrated, but that was it. For a long time, I was afraid there was something very wrong with me, and I'm sure this is an anxiety common to all fainters − fear of the Ambiguous Symptom, the Unknown Illness. Part of the problem was my reading habits at the time. So many young adult novels I consumed featured kids with leukemia or brain cancer, scary and chronic and debilitating illnesses that obliterated childhoods, snuck up on the kids in small and terrifying increments. It was a just matter of time: sooner or later my fainting would manifest itself as something less vague and more toxic, something incurable. In my mind, the fainting was the first of many symptoms.

I had a couple of close calls throughout adolescence, but I was always able to waver on the edge of consciousness and hold on. It takes effort to tamp a near-blackout down to a mere dizzy spell. Here is how you do it: you have to put your head between your legs and breathe deeply and stay still. It's the same posture required of someone doing a Cold War duck-and-cover drill, and it calls a lot of attention to yourself, even as you are making yourself smaller. Water or juice − preferably orange juice, which packs in the most sugar − is crucial, but in the moment, consuming either is a disgusting chore. In the moment, it is impossible for you to want anything, crave anything, wish for anything. There are no petty desires. There are no desires at all. Is this why religions require fasting to the point of lightheadedness?

I turned seventeen and donated blood at the first opportunity. Doing so was a badge of honor at school − it meant you were older and not afraid of pain. Afterward I felt fine, grabbed a cookie, walked out of the gym, and got lunch. Then I put my head down on a cafeteria table for forty minutes, reeling, as my corn dog grew cold. My boyfriend was confused − did I want to go to the nurse? Should he get someone? No, no − I tried to explain, mumbling into the plastic tabletop, that going anywhere or getting anyone would result in my having to stand up, and standing up meant fainting, this was certain. I rode it out, but I was so exhausted from the effort that I curled up in an auditorium chair and slept through play rehearsal that afternoon. And I regretted the waste of a precious corn dog − still do, to be honest.

By the time I was a legal adult, my fainting did not terrify me the way it did when I was a kid. Sometimes it was funny and absurd. I gave blood again, like a masochist (hey, the Red Cross promised a free half gallon of ice cream to donors) and fainted in the waiting room at the Elk’s Club, landing in my friend’s lap, where she giggled for a few moments before summoning help. I fainted on my first day at my work-study job at a campus dining facility; I was mushing economy-sized cans of tuna into a hotel pan when I went out like a light. This time, the student supervisor caught me. Fainting makes me a lot like Blanche DuBois, only instead of depending on the kindness of strangers, I depend on their quick reflexes.

The last time I fainted was serious. Summer break was approaching, and I woke up early to bid a friend goodbye. On the way up the stairs, the warning signs appeared: blurred vision, fast heartbeat, whooshing in my ears. I should have parked it right on the stairs and waited; instead, like a fool, I tried to run back to my room. I woke up alone on the floor of my suite’s bathroom, head throbbing, a scrape on my right cheekbone. My arm was sore from breaking my fall. I could have broken that arm, or bashed my brains out. If I had stayed unconscious, someone would have seen my legs poking out of the doorframe and taken action. But it was just me, alone. I was not concussed, though I had a headache that lasted for 48 hours. It could have been so much worse.

The poor girl on the subway. She kept having to say she was fine. But let’s not forget the poor witnesses. I have never watched someone die, but I can imagine that watching someone faint is like watching someone die, a little bit. The fainter is there, and then they are there and not there at the same time. That’ the one hazard of fainting in public – scaring the living daylights out of those who watch you do it.

Fainters: when your witnesses ask you if you’re okay, say so. Tell them you’re fine. Then after you’ve collected yourself, ask them if they are okay as well, because when witnesses ask you if you are okay, they are really asking themselves the same question.

Molly O'Brien is the senior contributor to This Recording. She is a writer living in Brooklyn. She tumbls here. You can find an archive of her writing on This Recording here.

"My Heart Is Dead In NYC" - The Tower And The Fool (mp3)

"How Long" - The Tower And The Fool (mp3)