The Queer Issue
How much do I care what people think of me? Let's frame this another way: Do I know how many Twitter followers I have right now? The answer is no. I don't know how many followers I have, because I forced myself to take the application off my phone back in January. What would happen if I weren't constantly writing little sentences and sending them out into the world, hoping for a response like a strung-out performing poodle? Sometime last year, back when I was actively noting the rising and falling count of people who subscribed to my sentences, I wrote a sentence about it: "The world is loud."
I've been battling the world with my head lately. The world stretches and flexes around me in various shapes, and I am in the process of deciding exactly how much of it I care to acknowledge. In the past 1.25 paragraphs I have used the term "the world" four times already; the truth is that it's very difficult to find a good synonym for "the world" because I don't exactly know what it is. The world is everything, right? The world is the sum of whatever I can see, and of course this view keeps changing. My old friend Phil, from the band Mount Eerie, has a song where he sings, "OH, THAAAAA WOOOORRRRRRLLLLLD," and the memory of this reverberates in my head whenever I catch myself using the phrase too much. Back when we lived in Olympia together in the 1990s and early 2000s, my circle of friends and I employed a lot of astronomical and geological terms in our attempts to describe the scope of what we observed. I named my band Get the Hell Out of the Way of the Volcano, and then shortened it to simply the Blow, which in my limited exposure referred to an explosion or the wind or a hit in the face. I dismissed all other possible connotations. Our field of view back then was pretty limited: All we could really see was ourselves, the buildings, the lake, the moon, Mount Rainier, and the empty sky stretching above us.
I look back on those years as a pretty exceptional time, one that probably couldn't be repeated unless the internet someday goes extinct. Living in that little town, it felt like nowhere else even existed. When I first happened across Olympia, it was as though I had discovered a secret parallel plane where gravity was reversed and the weirdos were suddenly cool; freaks like me flocked there as refugees from the many places where we didn't fit in. Can you remember what it was like back when there weren't glowing holes of possibility everywhere you looked, in every hand, on every desk? The surface of one's surroundings was solid, opaque. Aside from the escape of a good book or magazine, you basically were stuck wherever you were, so getting your location right really mattered. It was a certain kind of magic to have found a place where we were able to reinvent the world in our own likenesses. I guess the town sealed itself off as a form of protection, like a science experiment in a petri dish, the way Earth floats through space inside its own atmosphere in order to keep the air breathable, keep the temperature correct.
Picture me, walking slowly down the sidewalk, singing out loud to myself, wearing an outfit I probably assembled with my eyes closed, smelling of BO. I'm doing a languorous saunter down the two blocks between my apartment and the warehouse where my friends and I have studios. If the moon was out, I would probably be stopped for a while, maybe in the middle of the street, squinting my eyes to try and perceive it accurately. Among my most vital concerns in those days, being able to see the moon clearly was near the top. I needed to be able to see it as a complete sphere spinning at a measurable distance from the planet where I stood, because this was proof of the much larger order of things, and I needed to get a handle on what was really going on. I wrote a song with the lyrics, "Moon moon, someone said that you're a piece of paper, a piece of paper just pasted on the sky. Moon moon, I've a hunch that you're a giant ball of rock a million miles from me and all the people in my town." The song was a tool for reminding myself of the facts.
Let these lyrics be evidence that I was aware that among the things that existed, there were other people in town, people who weren't like me and didn't think staring at the moon was cool. These other young citizens owned the sidewalks just as much as I did, and somehow our bubbles of self-absorption managed to overlap without popping. They kind of canceled each other out in a way. Here is a somewhat embarrassing example of how insular my tiny world was, within the already tiny place where I lived: I have never listened to Bikini Kill, which is one of the most influential bands to have come out of that town. I knew that they were linked to the riot grrrls, and I could recognize them as important members of the local society, but we moved in different spheres, and their vital concerns were pretty distinct from mine. While I was moonstruck in the street, the Bikini Kill girls were somewhere else in town, staring hard at their own essentials, striving to articulate their own facts. What's funny is that I can of course see the direct way in which the bold feminist gestures of the riot grrrls carved a path of freedom for me to pursue my gentler considerations as a performer, but back then those ladies basically just scared the shit out of me.
For the record, it isn't lost on me that the model of a town where nobody thinks about anything but themselves is pretty much your basic provincial village, and that as much as it might have functioned as a haven for some, it could also be viewed as a particular kind of hell. I'm sure one reason that our little biosphere was left in peace was that, to a certain degree, we must have been insufferable. Gaining this perception, transitioning from the inside view to the outside one, can be awkward. In 2004, I moved to Portland and started slowly becoming aware of all the things that existed, about which I had no awareness, and I encountered that slight nausea that comes from realizing you've imitated something without even having known about it. Portland has an insularity of its own, which makes it a fairly gentle transition from village life, and I took it slow, to be sure; I didn't open the door of my mind particularly quickly. It would still be years before I could stomach a New Yorker article or even, let's be honest, the Oregonian. But the bubble of security of my old home was broken. My delicate atmosphere of self-assurance and fearlessness, an Eden in blissful ignorance, was over.
Upon my move to Portland, the things that I did (in this order) were: (a) made some catchy electro-pop songs with a computer whiz, (b) bought a laptop and started a blog, (c) made a huge multimedia performance piece that was more complicated than self-revealing, and (d) got my heart spectacularly broken by a sophisticated girl who was open to everything except, ultimately, me. I remember wandering around Portland at night with my shredded heart, not bothering to look upward because the sky was too much to deal with; it loomed so raw and punctured and terrible. The fabric of daytime was being perforated as well. I bought a digital camera that recorded video, and I was constantly looking through it and recording what I saw—moments that I used to experience directly I now collected as little objects to be relived on another occasion, by myself or by someone else. It was a way of displacing time; now could also be later, and my isolated moments could be known by others. Everyone else seemed to be doing it, too, and that was handy because I was lonely as hell and very much in the mood for distractions. The catch, though, and this was a big one, was that the cameras could at any moment be aimed at me. At any moment, I might be on the record for what I had said or done, which meant that the potential audience for my actions could be infinite. And this is how the world began to stretch, as the limits of possible exposure expanded into unimagined territories, and my field of view filled up to the brim with information, which accumulated around me in so many unseemly hoarder-piles. And I guess it's been like this, a little bit out of control, for a while now.
"The thing about making something is that you have to keep looking at the thing you are making, and it's a lot like looking at yourself, and it can get weird." I wrote this on Twitter sometime last year. For the past two years, we have been making a new record for our band, the Blow, and on a music-industry timeline, you know, two years equals about two decades. For a long time, people asked us when the songs would be done, and then at a certain point everyone stopped asking, I think because they fear the album might never actually be finished. Will the record ever be finished? Yes. It is in fact done, and my bandmate Melissa Dyne is in the other room of our apartment here in Brooklyn, listening to it as I type this. It is coming out in the fall. Is there any good reason why making this album has taken so long? Maybe I just really enjoy looking at myself.
Melissa doesn't care much for looking at herself, I think. We live together, in the gay way, and in six years I have never once caught her checking herself out. Two years in our apartment in Portland and four here in New York, and she barely seems to register the fact that we even have mirrors. Me, I am always staring at myself, trying to figure out who or what I am. The bathroom mirror is for up-close facial, the full-length in the living room for working on dance moves. I ask the standard questions one asks when looking at oneself: "Do I exist?" ("Yes, strangely, it appears that I do.") "Do I look older than I used to?" ("Yes.") "Am I pretty?" ("Maybe. Keep looking.") Melissa also doesn't seem to care a whole lot about being looked at by other people. She isn't kinky about it like I am. She doesn't get addicted to the beam of a hot eyeball. Hence her comfort with performing on a riser at the back of the room across from my spot on the main stage, with the audience in between us. It's not that she doesn't know how to command attention when she wants it. Just yesterday, she permed her hair into a deep '70s yacht-rock fro, and at an event recently where Brian Eno was present, instead of attempting to chat him up, she just stood where she was in her soft pink motorcycle jacket, emanating coolness, and then Eno turned his electric blues and gave her a solid once-over. I, meanwhile, gripped my plastic wine glass tightly and forced myself not to do anything spastic.
A medium like Twitter, where you can write something and immediately check to see if it's gotten a response, radiates a pretty strong charge for someone like me. The naked impulse to get people to look at you can be more compelling than the work of giving them a good reason to do it. When I first started using Twitter, I didn't even realize that response was an option. I hadn't yet found the page where you can see whether people have favorited or retweeted you, and in these blissful first months I just threw out sentences and simply didn't think about where they landed. On the day I discovered the window where I could see if people were watching me back, a weird new dimension opened up. Unlike looking into a mirror, where one faces the mysterious presence of oneself in an atmosphere of stillness, checking to see if one is being watched by an intangible audience is a disco affair, with the attentions of the imagined viewers (Twitter, the press, guests at a cocktail party) flashing and teasing and threatening to disappear. But sequestering myself isn't a long-term solution. If it were, I'd be back in Olympia with an unpaid internet bill, instead of living here in New York City, which is basically the Twitter of cities, in an apartment two blocks from an address that Jay-Z name-checks in his song "Empire State of Mind." ("Took it to my stash spot, 560 State Street.") The feeling of living and working here is one of being on the map, in the crosshairs of the camera. People want to know what you are working on because there is an expectation that one knows at least a little bit about almost everything; people want to watch what you are doing, so that they can add your endeavors onto the heap of everything that's happened so far in the entire history of human activity.
"It occurs to me that maybe I should have used my twentysomething youth privilege for something more significant." "For the most part I spent my 20s trying to dress as ugly as I could while still reading as generally attractive." I wrote both these sentences on Twitter last year after watching the HBO series Girls, and every time I reread them I crack myself up, so there's one reason not to abandon the social media. What was I doing for all those years in my 20s? I saw a photograph of myself recently from that era, and I was actually shocked by my appearance, how much I truly did not care how I looked. I'm wearing some kind of granny bra that gives me the physique of someone much older and a skirt with the waistband rolled up so that my belly hangs out over it. My hair is insane, and my eyes look very wide-open and so incredibly tender. I know I had mirrors back then, but I guess they weren't about appearance, or maybe appearance wasn't about being pretty. Appearance was about existing, showing up, letting yourself be as much of yourself as you could muster. (I might add, as well, that getting people to want to sleep with you without using your appearance to do it is a pretty great confidence builder.)
At one point, some years after the aforementioned photo, I built myself a fort out of theater curtains in the recording studio at the warehouse building. The recording studio was a massive room filled with sunlight, and I hated to miss out on daylight, but I loved spending time inside those curtains. I covered the interior surfaces with pages from the 2001 Sports Illustrated swimsuit edition, and I wrote a song in there called "What Tom Said About Girls." The song is written from the point of view of a guy, who explains that men look to the glow of hot women as a distraction from the terrifying depths of outer space that surround our planet. I like going back there in my mind, lying under the pictures of bikini girls, steeping in my own atmosphere, singing the lyrics to myself. "There still exist on this planet plenty of dark places, and who knows what's lurking there. I'm a man among the movement to fill it in with a pretty face. Light it up like a billboard on the hillside, with a g-girl on the horizon!" As far as I can tell, life is an ongoing challenge to figure out how to keep being here with the greatest degree of potency, and you get to decide which here it is, in which you want to show up.
The real answer to why the album took so long is that we made it while living in a world with very little available space; we created more space for ourselves to work with out of the material of time. In order to take hold of time, which can be difficult to get a handle on, we had to zoom out in perspective—far enough out to see the big noisy city as a small point of light on a medium-sized sphere; even farther out to perceive the thousands upon thousands of illuminated satellites chattering back and forth, rotating in circles, keeping each other posted, keeping track of the time; and even farther still, to the point where we could see the orbit of one much larger, quieter, heavier satellite that glows less flashily, and sometimes doesn't glow at all, just hangs there alone in the dark. This satellite told us not to sweat it, that the amount of time we were asking for was not so much to ask for in the big picture.
Khaela Maricich is a writer, artist, and one-half of the band the Blow. She writes about herself and other things at khaelamaricich.com and tweets @thebl0w. She grew up Catholic on Queen Anne Hill and tried not to be gay, but it didn’t work.