31 January, 2019

Black Celebration: A Personal History of Goth

Can someone join a subculture without knowing it exists? Is it possible for a single person to comprise a sub-subculture — a clique of one? These are questions I contemplated a lot, based on how I spent my teens and young adulthood.

The riotous colors of 1993 hurt my eyes. Worse yet, its hot dance-poppy tracks (think: Haddaway, Tag Team, Ace of Base) burned in the open cut of my deepening depression. I rejected all of it. The alternative was literal: alternative — as in, alternative music, as in, more specifically, grunge, which to most minds meant Nirvana, a band I could barely stand. Mainstream culture left me feeling conspicuously out of place. Aimless and alone, I stumbled down the gloomy, unlit path of goth.

Before all-black clothes and eyeliner became my daily wear, I'd never heard the word goth. It's likely that I encountered the iconic look — the pitch dark hair, the deathly complexion, the silver-buckled, -spiked, and -chained accessories — in a movie, on TV, in a book, or on the streets of a foreign city before adopting goth's dark splendor for myself. But contrary to what you'd expect, I never set out to dress that way. My transition was organic, a product of several factors.

I came by the pale skin honestly, thanks to genetics and insomnia. Being an overweight tween had inclined me to wear black, which seemed to slim away a bit of my huskiness. The mysterious, the Romantic, the (I'll just go ahead and say it) Byronic had always compelled me. Temperamentally speaking, autism spectrum disorder and major depression made me standoffish. Through my father's broad musical tastes and penchant for nightlife I was exposed to pulsing, subversive-feeling stuff that struck nerves I hadn't known I possessed. Shut in my candlelit room, writing tormented poems while darkwave beats, borrowed from my dad's music library, trembled from the stereo, I was like a caterpillar in its cocoon. All the stuff swirling around in there was bound to solidify into some new form of life eventually.

I emerged as a beautiful black butterfly shortly before turning fourteen. As my personal mythology has it, the trigger was seeing a daytime talk show on which a "troubled" teen spoke about why he wore that ghastly makeup and black velvet, lace, and leather. The dramatic monologue he delivered, about coping with darkness by embracing darkness, was my own angst given voice. Before that epiphanic Oprah episode (or whatever it was) I'd believed myself alone in feeling this way. In the egocentrism of youth, what teen doesn't think he's the first, the only — even when that exclusivity is to his detriment? Regardless, from that day forward, every time someone asked why I dressed all in black, I answered in one of two ways: either "Color is nothing more than trumpery and lies," or "Because the price of tomatoes has fluctuated again." I was a blast at parties. (No one invited me to parties.)

Better than any other lesson, school taught me that I did not fit. The adjective peerless implies good — unequaled, unrivaled. But I dropped out of my academically prestigious high school in large part because I had neither equals nor rivals. To be an outcast, that is, to be cast out, you have to first be in. I'd joined no clubs, hitched myself to no teams, took part in no extracurriculars. I'd walked to classes unaccompanied, literally on the fringe. Except in the eyes of one accidental girlfriend who mistook my awkwardness for cool, I was a non-entity.

I was eventually old enough for the clubs that, if only one night a week, played the darkwave and industrial (i.e., goth) music that lured palefaced youth out of seclusion. In preparation, I'd powder my nose, smear my eyes with kohl, take one last appraising look at myself in the mirror. My studded collar and high Doc Martens looked suitably fetishistic. My silver rings glinted. My lacquered fingernails reflected darkly. I'd head for the car, slipping a Djarum Black from its box. I'd light the clove cigarette and inhale. I'd turn the ignition key. I'd crank up the music and drive.

The parking lot would be scattered with vehicles and little groups of black-clad twenty-somethings, all rendered paler than normal in the sulfurous light. Most showed up every week, drawn by the camaraderie of other gothic oddities. The DJ was basically irrelevant; no one ever really danced. Like me, they huddled at the periphery of the dance floor and watched the poseurs do their thing. The poseurs were the worst. The poseurs were whoever they suspected of wearing color during the week, and anyone deemed insufficiently cool. Which was everyone.

Inside, the club's red lights would smooth and unblemish every face. "This Corrosion," a Sisters of Mercy song so stereotypical as to be almost a joke, would crash along while everyone feigned indifference. I'd stand, drinking my nonalcoholic drink, not talking to any of the people milling around, ignoring me. Many hugged each other, displaying affection more freely than you might expect from people wearing spikes and claw rings.

Although I looked the part, my club experiences were from a certain standpoint no different from school. Perhaps recognized by sight, I remained unacknowledged, unknown. I returned, week after week, in the hope of making a friend, yet lacked the wherewithal to break the ice. After a few hours, I'd go home feeling more alone than when I arrived.

Online newsgroups and IRCs (Internet chat groups) opened the world of goth to me, in the form of band recommendations, links to clothing boutiques, recipes for cocktails, lots of biting social criticism, and tips for coloring everything, from clothes to flowers, black. Goth's online contingent was even more fiercely cliquish and territorial than the clubgoers, but as long as I didn't try joining in, I could slink along the virtual periphery, reading their tips, quips, and laments, and silently judge those self-appointed arbiters of gothic taste and macabre fashion.

I couldn't stand those elitists' mentality, the way they gazed down with gother-than-thou scorn from their obsidian tower. I soon disassociated myself from the lot of them, the online contingent and their real-life counterparts. I continued to dress the part, and certainly didn't give up the music I loved so much, but I wouldn't permit anyone to mistake appearance for substance. For instance, my father was on the phone in the next room one afternoon, talking to a friend about me. I heard him say, "He's too goth to go see Mrs. Doubtfire with us." Without getting up from my computer desk, I shouted, "I'm not goth!" And I meant it. However, this irony was not lost on me: in my browser window was a man in black lipstick, modeling a very tall pair of boots beside a crying angel statue. That picture made me really want to buy those boots. Deep down, I was goth as fuck. No impassioned arguments would change that.

A thousand essays and academic papers have been written with the title "What Is Goth?" Debates over what (or who) does and doesn't qualify as goth continue to rage on the Internet. Goth is what was once freely called a lifestyle — heavy on the style. It's precisely this quality of insubstantiality that I believe has made it so difficult to define. It's shallow, and you can't base an ethos, and certainly not a philosophy, on black clothing and minor-key music. So, what happens when the kids who dress in impractical, pseudo-archaic outfits and head for the club, as I once did, realize the vacuousness of this aesthetic ideal they've built their lives around?

I chose to dance to the beat of my own drum machine. I toned down the eyeliner. I put away the spiked leather collar. I embraced my ungothly geekiness full-on, with Frisbee in the park, They Might Be Giants on my stereo, and posters of the periodic table of elements in my kitchen. I grew up and all but forgot about the subculture that had seemed so tantalizingly close to my heart.

It sounds like a riddle: I clothe myself in shadow but will not be overshadowed. My sound is dark as night itself. I am forty and still love The Nightmare Before Christmas. What am I?

24 January, 2019

A Guy Just Can't Get Settled

January's been a busy month. Exactly twenty days after our unceremonious exile from one side of our housing unit, Hopper and I were served another eviction notice this morning.

Today's move was rumored for a couple of weeks beforehand, Phase Two of ERDCC Great Glorious Plan to consolidate workers on whichever side of the prison their job is located. For reasons obscure, all canteen workers now must live specifically in 6A. A week back, Hopper lost his industry job, and I took a promising position in recreation (more about which I'll say later), placing us at the top of the bed broker's list of possible victims.

I was reading when a guard dropped the news: "You're moving." We packed yet again. We grumbled yet again. We pushed a cart with a wobbly caster yet again. Away we trekked to 1A, the former ad-seg unit at the other end of the camp, where sliding doors and stainless-steel toilets remain standard. The crash and bang of doors is going to be an issue. Extra-powerful flushes, not so much. At lest they aren't making us adjust to a whole new cellmate to boot. Hopper's perfectly agreeable and I'd like to keep him awhile.

We live like hermit crabs here, packing at a moment's notice and going wherever they tell us to go, just to curl up until the next big idea by the powers that be. Prison sucks.

23 January, 2019

Crafting the Personal Letter: My Second Gavel Club Speech

The second project in Toastmasters International's "Competent Communication" workbook is to give a speech that follows some kind of order — chronological, spatial, logical, et cetera. This morning's Gavel Club meeting marked my second time as a scheduled speaker. I gave the following seven-minute speech on a subject I happen to know quite a lot about. It went a little like this.

Good morning Gavel Club and guests, especially the generous Mr. De Jarnette, who volunteered to be here while Mr. Curry's out of the country.

By a show of hands, who here writes personal letters? Okay, and how many of you get replies thanking you for being so engaging, so entertaining, that your letters are passed around for people you don't even know to appreciate? I write a lot of personal letters and actually do get that kind of response. Today I'm going to clue you in on some techniques for writing the kind of correspondence that someone you care about will want to show around, possibly to people who don't even know you. That's the true power of the personal letter: to bring people together in a meaningful way, to bridge a gap of time and the broadest distance.

We begin at the beginning. Looking at a blank sheet of paper, some guys take one look at it and mentally freeze. It might seem obvious, but quite a few people neglect to put a date at the top of the page. Why is this important? There are a couple of reasons. The first is to fix its place in time. It gives your reader a concrete reference point. They can see this and think, "He wrote this on Wednesday." If they happen to pause for a moment and think back to what they were doing on this particular date, it means that they're already engaging. Tiny details like this matter. Also, success in writing a standout letter means that the person it's addressed to hangs on to it. A really good letter is a meaningful keepsake. The date anchors your letter in time, just like on a precious picture in your photo album.

People let the page and the idea of letter-writing bully them into doing things a particular way. To give someone a memorable, moving, or entertaining experience, you've got to break with the norm. Give them something new and a little different. Just like with writing a speech, your opening sentence should pique curiosity. This is where a lot of guys get stuck. I cannot even tell you how many times I've heard someone say, "I don't know what to write about, because nothing ever happens — it's the same thing, day after day." They're letting the events of their day control the contents of their minds, which sounds pretty miserable, if you ask me. Why limit yourself?

Start with a thought, an inspirational quote, a random fact, a weird dream you had, a news item — something that jump-starts your mind and gets you moving. Whatever you do, do not begin How are you? I am fine. Not only is that not entertaining, it's a dead end. Where can you possibly go after that, except right on the track of relaying events: This happened, then this happened, then this happened. True, you've got to put some facts in your letter, but too many people forget that it's a letter they're writing, not an article. Leave the reporting to the news media. A great letter is made up more of impressions and ideas, the content of a mind. Give opinions, recap an interesting conversation you recently had, write out a poem or a rap, tell a story. What makes a letter personal is how you express yourself in it.

There are three things that your letters should always include. The first? Description. You want sensory stuff: sights, sounds, smells. These are relatable things that put whoever you're writing right into the factual content of your letter.

The second thing is paragraph structure. A lot of letters are just these long big blocks of words, one thought rammed up against another that might not have anything to do with the one before it. On this goes, right down the page. If you indent or insert a line break when you're about to change subjects, a reader will absorb more of what you're trying to get across. The organization lets them pause and consider what they just read.

The third and most important feature of every good letter is curiosity about the recipient. Ask questions! Invite their opinions on subjects you believe interest them. You know how good it feels when someone expresses an interest in your life? Give your recipient that feeling. Always remember that your letter is for another person. It should interest and, if possible, entertain.

You don't have to be a great writer to write a great letter, you just have to keep these five things in mind: put the date at the top, include ideas and opinions, use lots of description, organize your subjects, and ask questions. I promise, the responses you get will be positive.

Like the letters it encouraged my audience to write, the speech was well received.

07 January, 2019

D-Wing Exodus

Rumors of the move had circulated for weeks. High muckamucks allegedly wanted A-Wing of each housing unit at ERDCC to become an honor dorm. This would mean an en masse cell-swap for those of us in incentive wings 1B, 3B, and 6D, and the GP inhabitants of 4A, 5A, and 6A — an operation involving a total of 432 prisoners. The purported reason was that houses full of well-behaved prisoners require less work by staff; most other houses are full of psychos, creeps, and assholes. But since 6-House already had one so-called incentive wing, moving us from D-Wing to A-Wing seemed so phenomenally nitpicky as to be absurd, like some obsessive bureaucrat's dream of perfect order. What difference could it make, which side of the house we're on? I wouldn't believe it until a guard told me to pack my stuff.

That happened first thing, Friday morning.

Pandemonium ensued. Beginning at 7:30 AM, all 144 prisoners in A- and D-Wing simultaneously packed and moved their worldly belongings out one set of doors, and straight through another. The activity, noise, and proximity of so many people in such a small space had me on edge, fighting back anxiety, as my cellmate and I waited for a cart with which to schlep our stuff.

Although it finally came, promising relief from the madness, a disaster occurred. Owing to distraction, I'd set my precious typewriter in a precarious spot. One nudge by my cellmate's footlocker, as we lifted it onto the cart, sent my typewriter crashing to the concrete floor. Plastic pieces scattered. A chorus of hoots and curses went up. Being in full Self-Control Mode kept me from freaking out at the potential loss of this irreplaceable asset. I decided to wait, deal with the tasks immediately at hand, then, later, plug in Old Faithful and see if she still worked. A neighbor handed me a little piece of the typewriter I'd missed. I accepted it from him with what probably looked like disinterest.

The new cell, when we reached it, stank like a mead hall. Vikings had left their hair and detritus everywhere. Hopper, my cellmate, swept up two dustpans of the stuff — the remnants of a Viking funeral, for all we knew. There was evidence of fire. The underside of Hopper's bunk had DAVE LOVES DE'S NUTS! written on it in soot. The last occupants had been two very classy guys. We purged the place of their residue with only about three and a half hours' worth of sweat. Fully settling in will take a bit longer.

As for the typewriter, it's unusable. I'm hoping that prison ingenuity can help me find a fix. Because it's not the brand and model currently sold by the prison canteen (an almost useless piece of crap), ERDCC won't let me send it out for repair. So I've got a grievance to file and desperately hope that I win. Meanwhile, my long-delayed novel (and so much else) will have to wait a while longer still. I'm trying very hard not to panic.

03 January, 2019


My mother's apartment, where I can allege to have lived in my tempestuous mid-teens, was in a six-unit walkup. It was nice enough, just old and not as well maintained as it deserved to be. Cherry wood floors and accents couldn't compensate for a structural problem that made half of my bedroom look to be gradually splitting away from the rest of the building. On the south wall, a crack ran from ceiling to floor, like a vertical canyon. The plaster patch job was sub-par and had to be hidden behind an abstract charcoal artwork seven feet high.

Those richly textured walls were flimsier than they looked. There were many afternoons when I had to turn up my stereo, even when I wasn't in the mood for music. It was the only way to drown out that damned Cranberries album the next-door neighbor liked so much. The vocals he contributed to Zombie were hard to overpower. That guy had enthusiasm.

The floors insulated no better. Downstairs lived a couple, an artist and a musician, with no idea how much of their private lives telegraphed upward: indistinct conversations, arguments, moans of pleasure from biweekly love acts. My own day-to-day constituted a string of inconceivable conditions that were, at least on the home front, less sonically varied. If the couple heard anything of me, it was all heel-clops on hardwood, some melancholic music, the rolling of my desk chair, the connection-establishing screeches of dialup Internet. My mother probably made even less noise than I did. I don't know. At that age, I stayed on the move. Home was for computing, for eating, for bathing, for sleep. Mum had a boyfriend and was sometimes out. I didn't entertain guests.

By contrast, the couple downstairs always seemed to have company, gaggles of creative types spilling out their back door and onto the building's wide wooden landing. Coming home sometimes meant apologizing my way through those crowds. Their smiles were enviously easy, lubricated by Coronas and Heinekens. Social groups were tough for me. I clammed up in a crowd, overwhelmed by stimuli. I believed that a normal person might stop by and say hello, Ned Flanders-like. "Hi-diddly-ho, neighborinos!" Then he'd stay a while and gab. Well, okay, even I knew that normal people would consider the friendliness of the Simpsons' cheery neighbor unacceptable.

Coming in late was my habit. I had another, worse habit then as well, which confused my hours of waking and sleeping, and left me bedraggled after days of high flying. With feet safely back on terra firma, I'd undress and shower in the dark. I never bothered turning on lights. Nighttimes were nice. Meditative. Solitary. Recuperative.

Bathed and dried, I'd shrug into my robe and swing open the bathroom door. I loved how the apartment's cool dry air would swirl in, pimpling my follicles as the chill passed through me. It always felt like a renewal.

On one night that I recall particularly well, along with the chill that poured in was noise — the muted, bassy sounds of the party below. Quite suddenly, I very much wanted to be down there, in the company of people I'd never met. Of course, I couldn't possibly bring myself to go and introduce myself. I'd be the odd man out, on so many levels. I stood there, listening, for a full minute before an idea came to me.

Where had I seen it done before — a bad '80s comedy, some black-and-white suspense film? Barefoot, I took a flat-bottomed glass from the kitchen cabinet and padded to the dining room. Beside the table I knelt and set the mouth of the glass against the floorboards. While my knees said no to the unforgiving wood, my palms said yes, meeting its surface and relishing its coolness. Much like my mind, my body was not in accord with itself. My ear touched the base of the glass. The cold shock of it made me rear back. I set my ear down again, this time better prepared, and strained to hear.

The sound dispirited me terribly: the thwump-thwump of my own elevated heartbeat, imparting secrets I already knew.