Nostrand and DeKalb
On a Thursday, many many months ago, I walked north on Nostrand to meet him on DeKalb, but I didn’t know which side he would be on. This was the fourth Thursday in a row I was going to see him. Well, not entirely. I didn’t see him the week before because I got sick and my grandmother died and I liked him too much to bother him with all of that. But I spent the night at his apartment the Thursday before that. And I saw him the Thursday before that, and the one before that. I was beginning to think Thursdays were our days. He probably didn’t think about that at all. He stood on the other side of the street, leaning against the wrought iron fence reading Pale Fire, his bike propped next to him. I hoped he wouldn’t see me as I blindly put my hand to my face, as if that would keep my mascara from running on that unseasonably humid day. I weaved through the traffic cones and potholes, dodging cars as I crossed the street against traffic. We walked across DeKalb, up Throop, and across Flushing. We arrived at his apartment, and before we went up he congratulated me on walking from my place to his, a journey of about three miles.
About a month later I would walk from my place to his, this time alone. I would do this because he had had a bad day, and he was out of cigarettes, and I wanted to fix him, to make it better. I walked because I felt anxious and nervous to see him, so much so that I couldn’t sit still. The anxiety never faded, even after three or four months of seeing each other. Three months after that, shortly after he started to disappear but long before I’d come to terms with our relationship’s demise, I would walk the same route again—across DeKalb, up Throop, across Flushing—in the vain hope that it would somehow bring him back into my life. But it didn’t. I hadn’t seen him in a month, so when I reached Flushing and Knickerbocker I turned around and headed home and didn’t tell anyone what I did with my one day off that week.
I spend a lot of time walking up Nostrand, to catch the G train or to buy the cheap cigarettes. I think about him every time I’m on that street. I remember how nervous I was every time I saw him, and how much I liked him. I remember sitting cross-legged in his bed, reading all of his cook books. I remember how he cooked me dinner, and bought a coffee maker because I told him to. I remember how frustrated I would get when he wouldn’t respond to my messages, but how I would forgive all of that when he pulled me in close and called me his “little spoon.” When he made me feel like I was only his, I would forget how he made me question myself, how I would take days off from work and ignore my friends just to be there when he wanted me around. So when I walk up Nostrand to take the G train to see people who care about me as much as I care about them, I remember what it was like to fall under someone else’s spell and hope that the next girl who falls for him doesn’t lose herself.
A Conversation with Daniel Klag
New York-based musician Daniel Klag has been releasing records since 2010, but making music for much longer. I got to see him play a CMJ showcase last October, and it was one of the most engaging sets I’d ever seen. He released his most recent record Twin Labyrinths last month, and I was fortunate enough to talk with him recently about how he started making music, his influences, his recording processes, and his evolution as a musician.
Listen to his most recent release, Twin Labyrinths, out now on Miscreant Records, here! http://miscreantrecords.bandcamp.com/album/twin-labyrinths
Check out the latest issue of The Miscreant for the interview and many more amazing pieces!
C: What inspired you to start making music?
D: I was in a band in high school, because I was just drawn to this idea of being in a band. I couldn’t play an instrument, I didn’t know my way around anything, so I convinced some other kids who were starting a band that I was going to be their singer. I’m not a particularly good singer and my lyrics were terrible, but I stood in that role. That was my first attempt at music. It was fun and lasted maybe six months. Then I graduated and when I got to college I came to the conclusion that I’m not a good singer, I shouldn’t be the singer of a band, I really ought to learn an instrument. It just so happened that a friend of mine had a bass guitar and was giving it away. So I tried playing around on the bass, playing along to The Cure’s Greatest Hits because it was the one CD that I had where I could hear the bass guitar very prominently and could mimic it, and I started looking online how to play. I was in a number of bands in college playing bass guitar and eventually as people graduated or went abroad, it became really important to me to be able to perform without a band. So for me that meant bass guitar was no longer the thing for me. I bought a synthesizer and started playing around with that, and I had a drum machine and was doing this synth and drum machine music for a while and it slowly evolved into the kind of things I’m doing now. It really started out as this process of “I want to be able to do this,” and then later on “I want to be able to do this without having to rely on anyone else.” It kind of evolved from there.
C: When you joined your first band in high school, what were you listening to as a teenager that made you want to start doing that?
D: I think there was a big disconnect between my musical interests and my band mates. I was on a big 1970s punk rock kick—Ramones, Clash, etc. My band mates were a few years younger. I know one of them was super obsessed with blink-182. There was this commonality of this idea of “punk,” but we didn’t have the same definition of what that meant. While I was in high school, I saw the Red Hot Chili Peppers play and the opening band was Blonde Redhead. The audience was horrible, not appreciative at all. I immediately went out to the local record store in Princeton and bought two of their CDs, and came home and listened to them thoroughly. I did a little Internet research, and discovered that they sounded like this band Sonic Youth. So I went out and bought some Sonic Youth albums and everything branched from there. Because Sonic Youth is so involved in underground indie rock as well as this experimental avant-garde community and I branched out and discovered lots of new things.
C: I feel very weird calling your music “drone music,” because to me, that has a weird connotation. What do you call your music?
D: Yes, I’ve certainly used the word “drone” to describe it, but “drone” has different definitions for different people. Same thing with “ambient music,” or “new age music.” I tend to shy away from the term “new age,” I think it’s got a sort of connotation that I wouldn’t apply to what it is that I do. But there are some people that define drone as pure La Monte Young-style—a sustained note or chord and nothing else. So it’s a pure drone and I like to think that I provide more than just that. And ambient music as defined by Brian Eno is “music that is equally suitable for active or passive listening.” I like to think that I sort of inhibit that realm a little bit.
C: What drew you to the genre of ambient, or synthesized sound?
D: A lot of things came together around the same time for me. It was functional. I needed to be able to do music without others. So initially, like I said, I was doing drum machine and synthesizer music and I was trying to sound a lot like the band Suicide, or a 1970s synth and drum machine and vocals duo. I recorded a number of demos in that style and eventually listening back to them I decided that I wasn’t really good at making beats. I took out the drums and decided that I wasn’t very good at vocals and my lyrics weren’t very good so I took those out. I was left with the synthesizer which I was happy with so I was like, “Okay, I’m going to explore this world of tone.” At the time I was only using synthesizer and then later on I moved to other instruments as sound sources. But at the same time more of this ambient-sounding music. I was sort of discovering bands like Tim Hecker and Fennesz and Growing and Brian Eno, and the list goes on. It’s partly functional, and partly because I happened to be getting more and more into things that I had been hearing.
C: You took the name Twin Labyrinths from a Jorge Luis Borges story collection. Are you frequently influenced by literary works, or was it for this particular record?
D: When I’m working on something new, I’m often influenced by whatever art or music or literature I happen to be immersed in in that particular moment. So if I saw a movie recently, maybe the tone of that movie seeps into my subconscious as I’m recording. I find often that it’s whatever I’m reading at the time is involved the most. I think that’s just because when you watch a movie, it’s an hour or two and then you move on. If you’re listening to an album, it’s a half an hour or an hour, and then you move on. But with a book you can be invested in your book for a week, a month, six months, depending on the length of the book so when I’m in the middle of reading something and the world of what I’m reading gets into my world, I’ll come across something and I think, “Oh, that’s a neat idea,” I’ll make a note to myself—“this would be a good song title for something.” Or, “this would be a good thing to explore, this idea of ‘blah,’ let me see if I can translate it to music.” My first EP was called Leaflet, influenced by reading the novel House of Leaves. And then the next album was Weird Fiction, which was influenced by reading a collection of weird fiction—Lord Dunsany and H.P. Lovecraft and guys like that. And then, Inner Earth, there were some themes of Borges and some other exploration of these ideas of the infinite and then I continued that thread on to the Twin Labyrinths album. Whatever I happen to be invested in at the time kind of sneaks its way in.
C: How do you choose the art for your releases? Do you do it yourself, or do you work with anyone in particular?
D: I’m not much of a visual artist. I know what I like, and I know when I see an image that’s striking and can say, “This is great.” The last two releases I did, the artwork was done by Nathaniel Whitcomb. He does all the artwork for the website Stadiums and Shrines. He’s also done some album art for Teen Daze and a couple other bands. I met him through my connection with Dave Sutton from Stadiums and Shrines and reached out to him when I was doing Inner Earth and asked him if he’d be interested in doing the artwork. He did it, and I really liked it so I reached out to him again. The cover of the new record—I’m blown away by it. I was really happy with the way it turned out and I honestly think it’s one of the better things of Nathaniel’s that I’ve seen recently. Before that, for the Weird Fiction record, my friend Ashley is an illustrator and I asked her to draw something. It fit very nicely with the theme of the album. The EP I did before that, the label did all their own artwork so they just presented me with it, and I said, “Okay!”
C: So we talked before about how you went to Hamilton College upstate. Were you involved in the music scene there? What were the biggest differences between working with music upstate and being down here and doing it?
D: So I was involved, I was the music director of the radio station there. By my senior year, I was in charge of the concert bookings there. My friend founded the Independent Music Fund my freshman year, and he was its first president. Then he graduated and I became the John Adams of the Independent Music Fund. This guy, Ben, was incredibly charismatic and somehow able to get a lot of funding for these events, and part of it was the college was really interested at the time, and I think they still are in providing entertainment for students that don’t require alcohol. They were willing to throw a lot of money at us to provide entertainment for students, and we were happy to take the money and spend it on our favorite bands. Hamilton is located in central New York and it’s close enough to New York that you could contact New York bands and have them come up for a one off show but it’s also far enough away from things that if a band is touring and they’re coming from Montreal and they’re maybe going to Boston or New York, it’s like a stop halfway between so if they had a free date in their touring schedule where there’s this vast emptiness that is upstate New York, we can swoop up a band and say “we saw you’re touring, do you want to stop by Hamilton while you’re on your tour?” So we were very lucky to get some good bands. The thing I’m the most proud of is that we booked Grizzly Bear before they made it. I think we paid them $300. This was the fall of 2005 so it was after they put out their first album but it was almost immediately after they became a four-piece, so they were reworking those songs as a full band. They slept in a tent in the field behind our dorm. Three of them did, the other one stayed in a hotel because he didn’t want any part of that. But the other three guys were like, “we’re going to sleep in a tent in the woods.” I was really happy that we were able to do that. They opened up for another band, I’m forgetting who it was, who was much less impressive. I was blown away by their live performance. It was much more intense than I was expecting from hearing the songs that I had heard leading up to my booking them. I was really happy that happened. My band actually opened up for Andrew W.K. What an intense, fun night that was. That was really cool because other than these bands coming through every once in awhile, you’re pretty isolated. There’s not a ton to do, unless it’s some college party or going to the local Mexican restaurant or going to shows at nearby colleges. So the fact that we were able to see all this music that we were excited about for free and get to meet these people because we organized it was a lot of fun, and it gave me some sort of leadership experience that was helpful in moving forward as an adult.
C: Was there a community of student bands? Was there a good space for that? When I was upstate most of my social life revolved around going to basement shows and the like. Was there a lot of that?
D: The thing about Hamilton is that there weren’t really houses. The school is small enough that everyone was able to do that. I don’t think I knew anyone who lived off campus. But there were these spaces that we could book. At the time there were a lot of jam bands, which wasn’t my interest but since there was such a small group of bands that were playing often we would be playing shows with these other bands because there were only five bands on campus and we were one of them. There was a time where I was in three different bands at the same time because they needed someone to stand in on the bass guitar and I was like, “Well, I’m not very good but I’ll do it…” Occasionally we would open up for a band that was touring through, and other times we would do a Halloween show and book this space and throw a little thing with just a bunch of our friends and the other bands. But it was good practice for eventually moving to a city and trying to do shows at proper venues.
C: Speaking of “proper venues,” what are your favorite spaces here for either playing or just going to see shows?
D: I really like The Silent Barn, in particular the previous space. I like the current space too, but I have a lot of good memories at the old space. I was really lucky in that when I first moved to New York it was right at the time when Todd P was at his peak doing bookings at places like Silent Barn and later on Market Hotel and these outdoor spaces in Brooklyn, basically wherever he could get a spot for a couple of hours. It was really cool to see bands in a kitchen or in a living room or in a basement. I’ve been to some of the larger venues and I tend not to have as good a time in spaces like that. It’s not so much the space, or maybe it is the space—I just tend to have a better time when it’s a smaller and more intimate feeling. I really like The Issue Project room. I actually haven’t been to the new space since they moved, but their old space was this really cool silo and they had ten speakers in the room and I saw a couple of really amazing experimental performances there. The Stone in the East Village is great. It’s just a tiny room, they don’t sell any drinks or merchandise. If it says eight o’clock, the show starts at eight o’clock. So you show up, you pay five dollars or ten dollars or whatever it is, you sit down, you see one band, and that’s it, and then you leave. I like that it’s straightforward and you know exactly what you’re getting yourself into.
C: Have you ever played there? What’s your favorite space to play?
D: No, I would love to play at The Stone but the way they do their booking is they book residencies, and so they’ll pick an artist and have them play every night for a week or two and bring in their friends and do different combinations of duos and trios. But I think it would be really fun sometime. I enjoy playing at The Silent Barn, at the new space. I think my favorite show of recent memory of playing was there. Recently I met Dan Goldberg, who performs under the name The Spookfish and organizes these mountain shows in upstate New York where a group of people will go and meet in Grand Central Station and take a train an hour or so north to Cold Spring, go for a hike and have several bands play along the way, and then take a train back. I did one in September or October. I think he’s up to 12 or 13 of these shows that he’s put together. I’m doing one at the end of June, so that’s really fun. It’s kind of an uncommon space. My other favorite performance series that is now kaput was Diamond Mouth Surprise, run by a couple of guys in their apartment off the Lorimer stop on the L train. They would do this thing where they would bring in maybe one or two musicians and maybe a couple of poets or a video artist and have this multimedia variety show once a month. I don’t know anything about the poetry community but it was really cool to see a poet and then see an experimental guitar player and then watch a couple music videos. They were always well curated and eventually they outgrew their apartment and moved to La Sala, which is in the back room of a Mexican restaurant in Williamsburg. And then they stopped doing it a year or so ago, I think they had sort of reached out to all the artists that they really knew and so they didn’t want to keep doing the same show over and over. They were really happy with what they had accomplished. I looked forward to going to those shows once a month and there’s a Diamond Mouth Surprise-shaped void in my life, but it’ll be okay.
C: What do you think are the greatest differences between listening to your tape and seeing you play?
D: On a tape or a record, or online there are distinct songs—five to ten to fifteen minutes long that have a definitive beginning and then you go to the next song. When I play live I tend to not have breaks between songs and choose a set list such that everything kind of runs together seamlessly in one long way and instead of these shorter distinct arcs, having one big sound arc. I think it’s also a different experience listening on your laptop speakers or your headphones versus in a room with a good PA. There are certain bass notes that I can turn the distortion way up in a live setting such that it rattles the whole room. You can’t get away with that on a cassette because it doesn’t translate. There’re a couple little snippets that I only do live, and I tried doing a recorded version and it wasn’t the same.
C: What’s your recording process like from start to finish?
D: I write and record at the same time. I start with nothing, and I’ll take an instrument, usually a guitar or bass and start by tuning my guitar to some weird tuning so that when I play an opening chord it sounds really neat. I’ll just experiment and say, “That sounds cool!” Then I’ll just start recording distinct notes or chords and build a set of building blocks to play with in the computer. Once I’ve got a sizeable amount of sounds, I’ll start piecing them together. It’s a lot of trial and error sequencing things. I’ll play a note and say, “That sounds good, what’s the next note?” There are the twenty notes I’ve recorded and I’ll try them out and see what sounds good next. And just taking these blocks I’ve created and slowly building them, it’s almost like building a sculpture out of Legos. And then listening and saying, “Maybe I don’t really like that piece,” and deleting it, then making more sounds that I think will go in. And once things start coming together, I’ll mix and fade things in and out. I often will do this whole process and record a song and two weeks later listen back to it and not like it at all, and delete the whole thing and start over. It’s kind of frustrating to invest a lot of time in something and then it not turn out the way you were hoping. But that’s what happens with trial and error approaches, there will be error.
C: Do you do your recordings in your apartment or in a studio?
D: I record at home. Usually I try to set aside an hour or more of time. I can’t do it every day, just with life but if I do know that I’ll have a couple hours of time to devote, I’ll clear everything off, set up the computer, set up ProTools, pick out whatever instruments I want to use and just work. That’s something I really like—because of the style of music I do, I don’t have to have a studio because I don’t actually have to record anything with a microphone. I can just plug right in to my keyboard. I don’t need to get a practice space where I am essentially paying a second rent a month so that I can go and play music. I can do that here with headphones on and not bother the neighbors. It’s very nice to be able to do everything at home and not have to worry about my band mates saying “It’s time to rehearse, where are you?” I can just do it whenever I find little chunks of free time.
C: Do you ever want to collaborate with any other artist?
D: I have. I’ve collaborated a few times with my wife, doing a few live things. We’ve not collaborated recently. I just think we have a different ear for music and so what she thinks sounds good and what I think sounds good—there’s very little in the middle of that Venn diagram. I think the last time we performed together, the week leading up to it, our practices were getting very frustrating and I don’t think we want that in our lives, so we haven’t really collaborated that much. But she’s a really talented guitar player and keyboard player, and it just doesn’t work well with what I do. I recently collaborated a couple times with Ben Felton, who records under the name Blood Revenge and he’s a guitar player. His music is pretty similar to what I do but he does it all with live looped guitars and effects pedals. I’m going to be playing a show in Cincinnati in a couple weeks where the idea is that we’ll be performing with each other, but I don’t know what’s in store but I’m prepared to kind of go with it. I did a show in Atlanta maybe a couple months ago where the premise of the show is that they invite six musicians and randomly pull names out of a hat and assign you duos and trios to play together. I played with a drummer, which I haven’t played with in a long time and it turned out really well. Having not heard my music before, he figured it all out and it went really nicely together. I’m welcome to do those kinds of collaborations. I tend to prefer to do them live and in an improvised way only because I don’t know that I have a lot of time to devote to starting a band with a person and planning on writing songs and working on them and refining them and recording them. It’s kind of hard to find time to do that and be fair to your collaborator.
C: Who or what are you listening to right now, old or new?
D: I think last year was a big Six Organs of Admittance year, so I’ve been listening a lot to that, and some of Ben Chasny’s other side projects. I’ve also been listening to a lot of Jim O’Rourke and some of his side projects. I listened to a lot of Dirty Three this year; I really like some of the guitar sounds they’re able to conjure. I’ve tried to mimic it and it ended up sounding nothing like Dirty Three.
C: Do you find it’s difficult to not totally mimic exactly what you’re listening to? Are you able to disconnect what you’re making from what you’re consuming?
D: I don’t know that I could accurately imitate anyone if I tried, just because of my process and the tools that I have used and the particular effects, which I tend to be drawn toward. It’s hard to do if you make instrumental music. It’s hard to establish a style for yourself that is uniquely your own without just sounding like whatever software you’re using. So if you happen to be using a particular keyboard, your band sounds like another band that uses that keyboard. I think in my approach of using mostly guitar samples with specific effects applied to those sounds, I think I’ve been able to establish my own sound so when I’m pursuing that it’s been hard to mimic others even though they’re kind of influencing me or the structure of things. I don’t think my output ends up sounding like other people’s output.
C: Where to from here? Are you actively recording another album? Are you touring?
D: I typically don’t tour. I have to travel for work quite a bit and what I try to do is when I go somewhere for work, I try to set aside one of those evenings when I’m in another city to try to play a show while I’m there. It’s really nice—it’s like touring but I don’t have to pay for it, and it’s not as draining as being on the road for three weeks or six weeks or however long. I get enough enjoyment out of just playing in New York or just playing these places I happen to be going anyway that I don’t feel the need to have to tour. I know other bands who put out album just as a means so they can hit the road and do another tour and I don’t know that after six or eight or ten weeks that I would really enjoy myself traveling that much. I’m happy to just play a gig here or there. I try to play once a month, and that’s really enough for me. I am in the midst of recording new music. The album that was just released in April was finished in November so even before it was released I had started on the next thing. So right now, I’ve just got one track I’m working on. It’s not clear to me yet whether this will become a full album or a single or an EP or something but I’m happy where it’s going right now. I’ve got a solid five minutes of music. It still needs to be mixed, but I’m happy the direction things are going in. I’m constantly releasing something and working on the next thing. Hopefully it will not take a year or two to finish. It’s hard to predict how long these things take. It’s the same in that I’ve tried to establish this style or voice, so I’m still using the same approach to recording. I’m starting to use some piano samples, which I haven’t done before, though they’re so manipulated that only I know that they’re piano samples. I don’t think anyone listening would notice. This particular thing I’m working on is sounding a little bit cleaner than some of the crunchier stuff I’ve done recently.
C: What is your earliest memory of music, of falling in love with a particular song or artist as far back as you can remember?
D: I think it might be that experience, that first time seeing Blonde Redhead open for Red Hot Chili Peppers and Foo Fighters. I remember getting those CDs and going home and putting them on my stereo. Usually in the past when I listened to music I would be on the computer and music was playing or doing my homework and music was playing. I think it’s the first time I remember at age 14 or 15 or however old I was just playing an album and listening to it straight through with no other distractions and just trying to hear and digest everything. I didn’t get a lot of it. There were certain songs where I thought it was pretty cool and there were other times where I didn’t know where they were going with it. I learned to appreciate some of those weirder moments and then actually actively seek out bands that only do the weird stuff.
Last night I missed my stop on the train. I took a different train than I usually do. I had a stupidly exhausting day at work, but it was nothing a two mile walk through lower Manhattan couldn’t fix. If asked, this is what I love the most about living here. I wade through a lot of stupidity on a daily basis, but I can get some pretty easy therapy by picking any direction and walking until my legs give out, free of charge. Lately I’ve been taking the same foot path—14th Street to 1st Avenue, and then all the way down to Chinatown. I like walking down 1st Avenue, because I’ll fondly remember the night I walked up 1st Avenue, on my way to my standing karaoke date at a bar in Williamsburg, after a great show at Rockwood. I walked to the L while talking on the phone to my dad. He told me that my grandmother was dying. I couldn’t believe I was losing one of the most important women in my life, but I felt like I was on the best terms with my parents that I’d ever been. I walked past coffee shops and remembered standing outside, unable to walk any further until I composed the perfect text message to whichever boy I was communicating with at the time. I’ve written a lot about how various street corners are so meaningful to me, and 1st Avenue is no different.
But I digress.
I missed my stop because of the man sitting next to me. He was reading Moby Dick. I know that because I leaned forward to see the title on the spine. I’ve never read Moby Dick (a shameful admission for someone with an English degree), but don’t worry, it’s on my list. It’s been on my list since I was sixteen. That one high school English teacher, the one I’ve talked about at length—who had influenced how I read, write, listen, speak since the day I first walked into his classroom in 2007 loved Moby Dick. I say “loved” because he died in September. I listened to his favorite bands and wrote him a letter he’ll never read and reached out to old peers I hadn’t spoken to since I graduated high school, but I never picked up Moby Dick. But I saw a stranger enjoying it so thoroughly on the F train last night and I remembered I should read it. I wish I could tell him that I made it back to my apartment much later than intended because I was too busy watching someone read. He’d be so happy that someone else out there viscerally loves that book as much as he did.
But I digress.
I missed my stop because I was too busy thinking about the last time I saw someone read on the train. I see people read on the train every day. They stare into their book (or tablet, I guess) and go from page to page, blocking out the chatting and sighing and muffled music coming out of nearby headphones and subway break dancers but maintain that self-awareness that keeps them from smiling at the funny parts, or grimacing at the sad ones. But the last time I saw someone read on the train, and I mean really read on the train, was the night before I left Chicago for my second year of college. I’d finished up my last day at my summer job slinging coffee at a Starbucks near Northwestern University. I was on my way to meet a few friends for our last night together. We had nothing big planned, just a visit to Lake Michigan, and maybe some light drinking. But all three of us were going to say a “goodbye” that none of us wanted to say. So I get on the southbound red line, and no one is in the car but myself and a young man in a suit. He’s a few seats to my left, wholly engrossed in his book. His eyes almost popped out of his head as he turned each page. He laughed out loud, completely unaware that anyone else was in the car. I so badly wanted to know what he was reading, so I leaned forward to check out the title (as I had done so many times). I couldn’t see it, so I leaned forward a bit more and cocked my head a bit to the right, knowing full well how foolish I looked. I still couldn’t tell, but he saw me. I was paralyzed with embarrassment. My eyes went wide and I blushed furiously, but he smiled and held up the book so I could see the cover. I half-smiled and said thanks, and stared at my knees trying to make myself as small as possible. He could tell I was embarrassed, and got up to sit across from me. I said sorry over and over again for my voyeurism. I told him I was curious because of how much he was into what he was reading. He said that that’s just how he gets when he reads something good. He falls in love with every word. He asked me who my favorite authors were. I told him to read Zadie Smith, he told me to read Italo Calvino. I told him I wanted to be a writer because I was “bad at talking.” He told me I wasn’t. I couldn’t tell you what he was reading, but I can still remember his name, where he was going that night, what he did for a living, and that he didn’t have a cell phone. I didn’t miss my stop that night, but he almost missed his.
Every day I want to ask every one about what they’re reading. I want to know if they like it, who their favorite character is, if I should read that book too. I’m not confident that anyone else would be as inviting as that stranger on the red line four years ago. I doubt he remembers me, but I’ll never forget that. You never forget watching someone fall in love.
Roommate on a date.
Eating chocolate in my bed
Is this adulthood?
The cyclists whiz by
Parades of almost-boyfriends
Who all look the same
Too windy for this
hike. Many apologies
to all those I flash
I’ve listened to this
song eight times in the last week
I should call my mom
I talked about my
dad way more than anyone
should on a first date
I think in haiku now, apparently
Last week someone sent me a request from the New York Times calling for haiku submissions relating to New York City. I never much liked poetry (owing to how I’m terrible at writing it), but haikus are pretty simple, right? So I left a few of my own in the comments.
I think I’m going to try to write a few every day as an exercise to keep my thoughts clear and succinct (hah. As if.)
How I met ‘How I Met Your Mother’
With all the backlash and criticism and YouTube recuts and reviews and support and general nostalgia surrounding the recent series finale of ‘How I Met Your Mother,’ I’m thinking more and more about my relationship with that show, despite it airing over a week ago.
I found ‘How I Met Your Mother’ a bit late in the game. In fall of 2012, I was about to start my last year of college, and I was really sad. I use sadness as a punchline to most of my jokes, but this was a real and tangible sadness. I felt the kind of blue you feel when you look at the last three years and realize you aren’t where you want to be because you’re not sure where you want to be, and you begin to convince yourself that you’ll probably never get there anyway. I had no true sense of direction (much like everyone else my age), and I felt incredibly lonely for the first time. I had some close friends, and three fantastic housemates, but something still felt missing. I knew what I was longing for, even if I wouldn’t admit it to myself.
On the night before classes were supposed to start, in between picking out the perfect “first day of school” outfit and mapping out my re-caffeinating strategy for the next day, I opened up Netflix to distract myself, to make myself less anxious in the hopes of getting one or two hours of sleep before classes started. What followed is pretty standard for any Netflix user—spending more time adding shows and movies to your queue than actually watching anything, while scrolling past all of the recommendations saying out loud to no one in particular “nah, not really feeling a comedy/drama/dramedy/critically-acclaimed movie/dark comedy/social and cultural documentary/etc. tonight.” I landed on ‘How I Met Your Mother’ because it seemed like the kind of stupid comedy that I didn’t have to think too much about, and it wouldn’t get me so hooked I’d be up all night.
The first few episodes were as goofy as I’d expected. I did my standard Google searches: “josh radnor height,” “josh radnor girlfriend,” “josh radnor gay,” “neil patrick harris height,” “when do we meet the mother,” etc. and I kept watching. And pretty soon I was done with the first season, and then the second, then the third. I kept my new obsession as much of a secret as I could. Regarding taste, television is right under music (and possibly above books) in terms of receiving judgment from one’s peers. In a world where everyone around me is watching those “critically acclaimed” shows like Breaking Bad, Mad Men, and The Wire, I couldn’t exactly proclaim my love of a mid-2000s CBS comedy (with a laugh track, no less) from the rooftops. But I couldn’t give it up.
I saw an uncomfortable reflection of myself in Ted, the “I” in the show’s title. He was an architect by profession, in his mid-20s (at the start of the show), and finally ready to settle down, marry a nice lady and have a couple of kids. I was none of those things, but I still felt like we had lots in common. He watched his two best friends get engaged as I started to watch my own friends pair off (though in a far less permanent way). A season or two in, I tweeted some terrible joke about how Ted calls himself an architect but we never actually see him work. It was more a comment on how television writers give their characters impossibly trendy jobs without having them work for it, but in a way my comment masked my own security about my professional future. I called myself a writer, but in between school and work and drinking and crying, I wasn’t doing much writing that I could be proud of.
I continued spending more time with these characters. No one was home the day I watched the episode where Marshall’s father died. I cried loudly while lying on the couch and called my dad to tell him I missed him. I watched the quality of the show deteriorate at a rapid pace, but I still couldn’t stop watching. Ted became a caricature of the character once written for him, Jason Segel seemed barely present most episodes, and I cringed at recycled and half-assed gags. Though I couldn’t believe it would last through that ninth season, I watched it until the very end. When asked why I stood by that show, I always said the same thing. Firstly, I like shows with running jokes (see: Arrested Development, New Girl). Secondly, I always appreciated its earnestness. Even when it was terrible, it was earnestly terrible. It fostered a community of fans who, above all else, appreciated its earnestness. We were a group of people who were proud of what we liked, no matter the low-brow stigma attached to it. Much like other shows I love with prominent fandoms, we felt at home in that world.
I watched the finale last Monday, and I expected it to be terrible. It fulfilled every single one of my expectations, and then some. I defended my choice to watch the entire series until the end to my roommate, and I heard myself say what I would say to anyone else: I owed it to myself to stick it through until the end. I’m in charge of my relationship with that show, which means I can remember it how I want to remember it. I can watch the last season once, to see the moments leading up to Ted meeting the Mother, and I can watch the last episode to see what becomes of them and then I don’t have to think about how much the ending differed from the ideas I had for these characters. Much like how many Harry Potter fans ignore the last book’s epilogue in favor of creating their own stories for their beloved characters, I can focus on how these fictional friends helped me through my last year of school. I’m the kind of person who wants to see myself in every piece of media I consume, so I can feel more normal about the way I behave. I had Ted to teach me that it was okay to be lonely sometimes, and picky other times. He was a very flawed character, or about as flawed as sitcom characters could be. So far more than showing me a reflection of myself, I used ‘How I Met Your Mother’ as a form of escapism. Though cited as an unrealistic possibility by most, the idea of five friends moving to New York City to pursue their individual dreams (and actually succeeding) was something I desperately needed when I was 21. I needed something to tell me it would work. And while I’m not truly a professional, I’m here, with enough pre-season 9 episodes of ‘How I Met Your Mother’ to play on repeat until I can’t even stand to look in the steely blue eyes of Neil Patrick Harris ever again (which isn’t likely to happen).