My PhD in Useless Pop Knowledge

When I really want to get everyone around me up in arms, I’ll talk about going back to school. You see, I have this thing where I love going to school. Most people hate it but I’ve always loved it- I’ve loved buying the books, reading them, taking notes, learning random useless things I’d then get tested on.

In college, I studied everything I could, working my way through departments. While I graduated University of Michigan with an English degree (Dad: “Why English? We know you speak English!”), I racked up courses in Medieval French Literature, Congolese dance, and the statistics of statistics. Then I went to law school. Then, for good measure, I went to business school (I did not just walk to the buildings, I attended and graduated. Thanks for asking, with a moment of silence for the guy who ended our first date when he found out I was educated.)

Now let me tell you about the degree I am most proud of, which is interesting because I never “got” it. It is my self-study degree in pop culture. Because, let’s be honest, more than asking me for marketing advice or help negotiating a tricky contract, my friends call upon me for crucial lifeline-style pop culture answers. I always enjoy getting a call when a friend is at a bookstore and needs a recommendation, or when there is an item on the news and they ask for my commentary because surely I know the trivia behind it. But it really hit home on IM last week.
Jon popped up on my IM nonchalantly:

Sent at 4:34 PM on Thursday
jon: what is nelson's biggest hit?
well jon, they had TWO
"after the rain" is probably numero uno
and love and affection was another.
now, fun fact- their sister (tracy?) was the nun on father dowling's mysteries.
i'm so glad i could play that piece of useless knowledge.
wow. i think you just gave me my next blog post.

(To be clear, I knew from the instinctive quickening of my heart as I prepared to answer that I was being a loser, which is why I answered his question like that)

It’s actually compulsive, this sharing of information. It’s a bit Rain Man of me, but I like to think it’s somewhat charming in that at least I recognize that I’m a dork and that this behavior is in no way normal.

The question is, what do you do with this sort of knowledge? Some have found great journalistic careers and have channeled their information into witty commentary. I’m thinking specifically of Cintra Wilson and Chuck Klosterman. My problem, however, is that I can’t envision making this my life and feeling fulfilled. Ok, let’s be honest, I could totally be fulfilled, I just can’t envision someone would want to pay to hear my thoughts on what really went on between Rick James and Prince or to hear me explain the history of the band Heart.

My bigger problem is that a lot of $ (not always mine) has been sunken (sunk?) into my education (love that I got an English degree and don’t know the right verb tense to use). So when I pause on a legal question but can readily rap It’s Tricky by Run DMC to you, there may be a problem.

I fear that I’m at “Memory Almost Full” (like the Paul McCartney album. He just got engaged for the third time. And yes, this is how my train of thought works.) Something about pop culture factoids stick with me in a way the finer points of due process case law never did. I don’t even remember passages from books I loved as well. The dumber the information, the more likely it is to be stored in my memory bank. See also: lyrics of every Madonna song ever written. When you know the lyrics of her song “I’m Going Bananas” by heart, you have really and truly hit rock bottom.

To be clear, I realize that this habit of mine is highly annoying (I assume) to those around me. I can’t help but pipe in with a factoid (and I hate the word factoid) about a movie or while we’re at a concert. My mind works on a constant cycle of six degrees of useless pop information, and then I say it. I’m like human pop-up video but for everything around me. I mean, I get annoyed just describing my behavior to you.

But what else can I do with this collection of information? I mean, should I really keep it to myself when I know that Kathy Griffin supposedly hooked up with Jack Black back in the day? Or when I know that Rosanna by Toto is named after Rosanna Arquette (who lived with Peter Gabriel as well)? Should I assume you don’t want to know that Lenny Kravitz later produced a really good song for an actress who had been on his ex-wife Lisa Bonet’s show A Different World?

I know what you’re thinking- I really need to just apply for a job with E! and call it a day. And maybe I would, but I think I’d be ostracized by my colleagues for being too into it. And no one wants turf war with Ryan Seacrest (Who is dating Julianne Hough. Who followed her dance career on DWTS with a country singing career. Ryan is exec producer of the Kardashians… You see what I mean? SERIOUSLY. GET ME HELP.)

It would be scary if someone could ever see inside my mind. The other day I was watching Community and laughing at Abed, a character so consumed with pop culture that he’s almost cartoonish. But then I realized there was nothing to laugh at, what I was looking at him with was sheer admiration because his movie knowledge was on lock in a way mine isn’t… yet.

I’m realizing this is just my blessing and my curse, this talent for knowing and retaining, often against my own will, the completely useless. For now, I will continue to collect this information subconsciously (and, through Celebrity Trash Book Club, consciously) just in case any friends end up on a quiz show and need a lifeline, and to establish first draft pick status for 80’s Trivial Pursuit or bar trivia.

I may not know what to do with it yet, but I will find a good use for this superpower.

Wedding Season: The Plus One Conundrum

The wave of weddings in my late twenties (not my weddings, other peoples') passed over us as quickly as it came. But like a tsunami, I've noticed another wave coming. Lately with each week's mail there's been another beautifully done invitation, another announcement of happiness, and... another "& Guest" to answer to.

I should preface by saying this: I have never taken a date to a wedding. Never. While I have gone as people's dates, I have never taken someone myself. Not to my best friends' weddings, including the one where I was Maid of Honor. Not even to my own sister's wedding. At major events like these I have always preferred to fly solo, which allows me to do my social butterfly thing, catch up with old friends, and be free of the obligation to cast a backwards glance at a guy who may or may not become miserable when I can not be torn from the dance floor, which guilt on my part would only be compounded if he has done me the courtesy of wearing a suit, eating hotel chicken, and doing a stream of disgusting kamikaze shots at the bar with my always-hyper friends.

Now, until recently this "free agent" policy was a smart strategy. In many cases it was de facto, i.e. I wasn't invited with a date, and thus the paradox of choice was removed. Being "plus zero" often sucked in that, after moving across the country, attending weddings of old friends or family required much travel and someone to carry my stuff would have been nice. I'll admit it, it sometimes irked me to not be invited with a date, the implication being that I could socialize well with people I had not glued to myself. The nerve! But ultimately it wasn't a huge deal- I'd show up at the wedding and sit at the table with a bunch of other single friends, and be the loud, fun table, and make a great weekend of it.

I'd say the turning point on my no-date policy came at a cousin's wedding where I was older than everyone seated with me... by a decade. At one point a relative who thought he was being very cute began to lay into me about having seen me "hit on" a guy at my table. I snapped back that I was just making conversation with the guy who by the way was the only one at the table who had graduated high school. Give me a freaking break. But there was a crack in my always-perfect plan, and it had begun to reveal itself.

My policy took another hit when my sister got married a year and half ago. While I could have brought a date, the thought of taking one to my younger sister's wedding would have put too much heat on the poor guy (Persians being how they are, they might have panicked on my behalf and maybe tried to throw me in for a two-for-one ceremony.)

Anyways, preceding the wedding, my younger brother and I had a conversation that went like this:

Me: "Are you bringing a date?"
Him: "No. Are you?"
Me: "No. Ok good."

So imagine my surprise when the evening of the wedding I'm sitting with friends, enjoying the festivities, and my brother strolls in late with, not just a date, but a gorgeous model-amazon of a girl. Not only had he brought a date, but he had brought the type of date that makes you NOTICE that he had a date. And I didn't. The closest I came was my parents' dog Toby, who was wandering the lawn dressed in his finest tuxedo tee shirt.

At this point, I began to be more thoughtful about the purpose of the "and Guest" portion of wedding invitations.

Well now that The Second Wave of Weddingism is happening, it's time to readjust my strategy. And to add to that, I've been invited to upcoming weddings in the most gorgeous of places. The prettiest inn in San Diego! Or wine country! I think the time has come to take a partner in crime to enjoy these magnificent events my friends put on. But I don't want to just do this on the fly. Picking a date out of thin air is a habit I hope I left behind in my sorority date party days.

So, for these purposes, I am devising a Potential Wedding Date Questionnaire. It's a work in progress, but here's where I am with it so far:


1) Do you own a suit?

2) Does it still fit you?

3) Can you hold your liquor?

4) Can you hold mine?

5) If presented with a situation where 100 people around you rise and do the Electric Slide, what would you do?

6) Do you have weird eating restrictions that might hamper my ability to respond to an RSVP card with dignity?

7) Do you know/have you slept with the bride? (insert name)

8) Do you promise not to push me onto the dancefloor when the bouquet toss happens? Do you agree with me that that part of the night is not funny?

9) Can you make conversation with strangers just enough to be comfortable, but not so much that you pick up someone else while on a date with me?

10) If I promise you freedom to use the bathroom or wander the premises as needed, do YOU promise never to choose to leave me at a juncture in the night that happens to be a slow dance when all other couples have gotten up from our table?

Since I'm still tweaking it, I might end it with a few open-ended questions if I'm feeling whimsical... What makes you feel like you are the right applicant for this position?

How Do I Love Thee? Let Me Text the Ways.

I've said I’d write about this before, and here it is:

Technology will be the downfall of romance.
I’m sure I’m not the first to say it, but hopefully someone soon will be the last. It's something I've thought about a lot, and finally was motivated to put down (ironically in e-format). I needed to address the situation after hearing an ongoing stream of horror stories: Reading a tone wrong. Realizing that the guy you have so admired doesn’t have basic spelling on lock. Being sent a text clearly meant for someone else. Being sent a photo that begs to be forwarded to your entire address book.

I am particularly sensitive to the intersection of technology and romance for two reasons- one, I myself am guilty of relying (too) heavily on electronics for communications. And two – I am extremely sensitive to the way people communicate. Whether it's because I pick my own words carefully or if I’m just the sensitive type, I choose every word I use specifically because it’s the word to use, and I assume others do too. (This is a really, really bad idea. Just trust me.)

Someone already established that men and women hail from different planets, and adding techno-translation is frankly a problem we all don’t need. Yet, we increasingly rely on technology to communicate with the people we are bringing into the innermost parts of our lives. On the one hand, we over-rely on it, and on the other, we ourselves become guilty of the over-reveal. Can we preserve a little mystery, people?

The following is (sadly) only a partial list of electronic communications that are throwing a wrench in it for all of us.

The most common guilty pleasure. You know you do it. Texts can be cute, we think! They’re a way to tell someone, in a limited number of characters, how you’re thinking about them. They’re offhanded, they’re fun! But here are the catches:
a. Technology is not reliable.
Now, I think a lot of people use this fact as an excuse (“Sorry! Never got your message!”), but it’s gotten so bad that recently my friend and I had to decide to “roger” this or that so we know our texts went through (cough cough, SPRINT). Sad state of affairs for 2011, but it is what it is. So when you send a text, it’s become a little more of a message in a bottle than we previously anticipated. Which creates a dilemma when there is an awkward pause. Did you make an off-color joke and get silence back? Now you’ll never know if you pissed someone off or if they didn’t get it at all.
b. You are minimized to a few sentences.
Bcuz u b turning women off with u letters instead of words.
Look at how dumb Twitter can make people look. Texting does that for you every day. Writing on the fly is the quickest way to show someone that, if you aren’t paying attention or if you're limited for space, you can look ignorant of basic grammatical rules. Ok, that’s not a dating dealbreaker (for most people), but I’m just saying, it doesn’t help. And don't even get me started on sexting.
And then there’s the whole tone thing. No one has developed sarcasm font, which I have been pushing for for ages. Women in particular are guilty of hanging on those sentences, unable to read tone. Was he kidding? Was he serious? Now she won't know, but she'll save the text and ask 23 of her closes friends. Ay.

Some men try to convey tone with emoticons, but we all know that is really just tough territory. Note: avoid putting noses in your smiley faces at all costs.

Email represents a problem that exists with technology as a whole. That is: not everyone is on email the same amount. Someone told me about a teenager they know who sleeps with her phone ACROSS HER EYES so if it buzzes with news (text, email) she will wake up. The point is, we’re all connected to a different extent.

I have a desk job and many people I know do too. So we respond quickly to most emails. They are a welcome break from spreadsheets, powerpoints, and emails that make your eyes roll. So yeah, given the choice between reviewing someone’s latest report and reading a juicy email from a friend, I’m no dummy. I’m gonna hear that “bing” on my personal email and get happy. And the fact that I type 100+ wpm makes it easy for me to respond quickly - and sometimes, at length – to you. It doesn’t mean I’m in love with you. Well, it might. The problem being that it probably gives that impression regardless.

Last weekend my friend and I discussed the intersection of technology and dating at length. We imagined (remembered?) what it was like dating back in a day when people went on dates, then had a week of silence in between and didn’t think anything of it. Because it was NORMAL. She pointed out that, back in the day, a you would never expect the other person to check on you in the middle of her workday. People had their own lives, which they could then discuss on a scheduled date. They did not have a constant thread connecting them to the boring minutae of each others' days.

No matter how busy a person is these days, you could be a surgeon on the fields in Africa, and the person you’re dating expects that, since you have a phone on you, you will be connected. Today, knowing that you can reach someone at virtually any point, there is an expectation there. The fact is, yeah, sometimes we leave our phones on the dinner table, sometimes it's on our desks, but not always. Having access to someone's phone isn't the same as having 24/7 access to them. Or is it?

As if we aren’t all reading too much into everything anyway, non-communication becomes a void, a failure, if someone we like isn’t responding. If someone texts someone else and doesn’t hear back for 4 hours, it becomes an implicit statement of disinterest. Which is, frankly, insane. Check yo’self before you wreck yo’self. And yes, I just said that.

Stalking is a fine line, my friends. My people and I have debated at length the propriety of doing a Google search on someone before a date. I am anti. When I have Googled (rare) it has been because someone told me to or because I need a picture. Ok, and maybe to check that there’s no outstanding criminal situation.

The technodilemma we’re facing in the day of Google is that much of the fun of first dating-- the revelation stage - is taken away. When someone tells me where they’re from or their education or about their travels, I get to enjoy exhibiting genuine surprise. My friends cannot always say the same. (I’m sure they fake it well) But what Google has you doing is creating even more preconceived notions, one way or another, about the person. The organic getting to know you process is totally obliterated.

And don’t even get me started on the Facebook friend add. You don’t bring your high school yearbook on a first dinner date, do you?

I think we can all agree that, in the day of social media, privacy is gone. One girl I know decided to break up with a guy because he "checked in" somewhere with another girl while they were dating (in her defense, he’s obviously an idiot). Social media gives us a venue to cross-check what someone tells us about themselves, because most people don't even realize where they are inconsistent.
This becomes highly problematic after a date, after a relationship, if someone posts something vague but unpromising. You will automatically read into what it means. (“You’re so vain” is about all of us, honey.) Even worse if they are blatant about it. And yes, for a minute I felt a wave of regret for the blog posts I’ve written about certain dates. But just for a minute.

Well, the good news is I can identify the problem. We are relying on modern technology to communicate where we’re all still getting the hang of said technology, much of which has only appeared in our lives in the last decade. The bad news is I’m not sure I have a solution in a world where online dating is on the rise, everyone has a laptop, and the new iPhone model is like crack on the streets. Obviously we’re online all the time, we’re on our phones all the time.

I don’t want to get crazy, but maybe we can mix it up and go old school once in a while. Didn’t you hear? The ringing of the phone is the new mating call.