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Nicest Kids in Town: Not Actually So Nice May 21, 2012

Posted by Conventioneering in essay, review.
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Cover of The Nicest Kids in Town I’ve been getting interested in classic rock and swing, apropos of nothing, particularly the culture surrounding rock n roll fandom, and so I asked the internet (meaning: various social networks) about what books they could suggest on the history of rock n roll. My Facebook feed enthusiastically suggested  The Nicest Kids in Town as an example as the book to look at. When I picked it up, it looked exactly right: a look into Dick Clark’s American Bandstand, and specifically into the race tensions surrounding it. The book’s premise is that contrary to Dick Clark’s claims that his show helped American racial integration, in fact American Bandstand helped reinforce racial segregation and never truly integrated. Fascinating stuff, I thought, this could be an interesting ride. So I put in an Interlibrary Loan request and checked it out.

Boy was I disappointed. I didn’t even get past Chapter Three.

Delmont does indeed talk about rock n roll, American Bandstand, and race relations. The problem is that he barely talks about the former two at all. Rock n roll and American Bandstand are, at least in the first three chapters, mere footnotes to another discussion: that of integration in housing developments in the 1950s. This, too, could have been an interesting topic, save that Delmont adresses it in the driest manner possible. There is no personal touch here, no look at individual stories, nothing to make me care about these events. There is, instead, a lot of dry statistics about housing developments in the 50s, about legal procedures and specific laws and rules put into place to reinforce segregation, and an awful lot of politics and examination of the weasel words that government officials used to pretend that they totally weren’t segregating anyone, and were totally integrating people, see?

The way the book is advertised, I was expecting a close look at personal struggles and at the youth culture. I was expecting testimonies by individuals, a look at the youth scene and how the teenagers of the time felt about this, with the politicking as the backdrop and background information. There is a little of this personal touch, but only just a sprinkling, a tiny bit about house parties held in people’s basements, about the local skating rinks… but these are glossed over, barely mentioned. It’s a shame, too, because these touches are where the book shone for me, the only thing keeping me reading before the narrative plunged back down into another long discussion of Philadelphia zoning laws.

I understand that dry history books absolutely have their place. This book is important in that it takes a much harsher look at race relations in 1950s Philadelphia. The problem is that this isn’t what the book is marketed as, and I suspect that a marketing agent must have looked at it and gone “We can’t call this ‘Zoning Laws in Philadelphia in the 1950s’! Hey, why don’t we play up that American Bandstand thing you keep mentioning, relate it to rock and roll? People love rock and roll, right?” Maybe I’m wrong, maybe after Chapter Three the book starts to actually look at youth culture and American Bandstand and race, but it sure didn’t look like it; it looked like Yet More Housing Discussion. In any case, even if it did, the prose style wasn’t enough to engage me.

It’s an excellent resource if you need to do historical research or background information on housing developments in Philadelphia in the 1950s. Not so much if you’re looking for some light summer reading on the trials and struggles of young rock and roll fans in the ’50s.

Privileging the Normal October 27, 2010

Posted by Conventioneering in Armchair philosophy.
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The thing I hear people complain about the most when it comes to fan conventions is the smell. I will never, ever understand this. It’s a stereotype, an ugly one, and I don’t think it’s at all true. I have never noticed any untoward smell, and I have a rather sensitive nose (such that a friend of mine once remarked that my ability to find food carts on city streets seemed like some kind of superpower). A fan convention is no more malodorous than rush hour on your average public transit, or indeed any other large and crowded gathering of humans. I think the stereotype comes in because people assume that nerds have terrible hygiene. On average, I think nerd hygiene is no worse or better than the hygiene of any population of humans – some of them will smell funny, most won’t, and that’s that. Conventions, perhaps, get that reputation because the vast majority of the attendees are staying for three days in a hotel room and not sleeping, but again, I’ve never noticed a convention as being any worse than any other large gathering. Indeed, most concerts and dance parties I’ve been to have been far worse.

Perhaps it’s because society privileges the ‘normal’. The Smithsonian Folklife Festival is ‘normal’, so no one is going to complain about the dust or the sweat of a few thousand tourists in the Washington DC summer sun. A Boyscout Jamboree is ‘normal’, so no one is going to complain about the smell of unwashed adolescent boys wearing peculiar uniforms. But a fan convention is outside the norm, so when you have to stand in line behind a girl with huge plastic wings, a kid in an orange jumpsuit with little whiskers drawn on his face, and a guy with a gigantic plastic sword, you are going to complain about these damn nerds getting up in your life and disrupting your every day routine. Again, to use the Folklife example, or DC’s Cherry Blossom Festival – you probably have more people around during those events, and they are probably going to cause more problems with lines, empty ATMs, and traffic, but you can see the geeks. Or in regards to the smell – if you’ve traveled a few thousand miles to get to your favorite convention and you have to deal with a guy in line with you who smells like seven day old socks, you are going to notice him more. You will blame it on him being a nerd. Yet you probably have a co-worker you have to deal with every day at your boring nine-to-five job who smells as bad if not worse, who never showers, and who is for the most part a normal guy whose idea of ‘fandom’ is to go to a Sox game. It’s all a matter of perspective.

So why do we privilege the normal? Why is it that traveling thousands of miles to see a favorite baseball team or spending thousands of dollars on a ticket to a concert perfectly fine behavior, but spending forty dollars to go hang out with friends for a weekend and catch up on the latest Marvel releases is ‘weird’? Why is the stinky co-worker at work well… it’s not okay, but why is that reek associated with fans when it’s clearly a larger problem? I meet more fetid normal people than I do geeks. So why the stereotype?

It’s a pervasive attitude among nerds too. Nerds are shy about their nerdiness. The other day I had a conversation with a girl I know who I think of as a non-nerd, as an ‘outsider’, but it turns out she plays World of Warcraft and used to play Ragnarok Online; she hung out on Gaia and had a few hundred dollars worth of rare items before her account got hacked into and then banned. We talked about online gaming and trolling, about our latest Tumblr finds and wallpaper, but the second other people walked in the conversation stopped, and she started talking about boys and booze again, and I just retreated into my normal shell (I have little to say outside fandom, most of the time). There’s a kind of embarrassment, which I’m guilty of myself. I don’t like to admit that I have a huge Transformers collection; I don’t like to admit that I waste most of my free time pretending to be fictional characters on the internet. Even in my writing I try to avoid the subject, to pretend that my obsessions aren’t as deep as they are. It’s embarrassing. It makes me feel somehow less of a person.

I know why I do this, at least in part – as a child I, like every other nerd on the planet, got bullied for my geeky interests. But the reason I got bullied for my geeky interests stems from that very problem – we privilege the ‘normal’.

I think I’m talking about a problem that hundreds of others have spoken of before, and in a far more eloquent manner. Doubtless some well-meaning person will link me to a dozen essays and websites and books on the subject.

For now I’m going to end this little ramble.

Note: the first person who ‘corrects’ my uses of the words ‘geek’ and ‘nerd’ in here gets punched and/or banned I swear. Take your grammar nazi attitude and go back to the MLA.

A shackle and a safeguard October 14, 2010

Posted by Conventioneering in Armchair philosophy.
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I lost my watch today.

This is horrible. This is a big deal. This is something I can’t handle, something I hate. Not simply because the watch was nice (it was) or because it was extremely expensive (it was), but because I’m a watch person.

This is hard to describe. In this day and age, almost everyone I know uses their cell phones to check the time. I find this awkward. You have to fumble around in your bag before removing the phone, get the screen to turn on, check the time, then put it away again. With a watch, you just look at your wrist. And the watch has other functions, too – mine had a kitchen timer in it that I used for my laundry and eggs and cooking. My phone does this too, but my phone isn’t something I want to have to have nearby when I’m dealing with hot oils or tomatoes or whatever. As for laundry, having the timer on my wrist is a far better way to get me to remember. I don’t carry my phone with me constantly when I’m home, or even when I’m out.

But there’s a second level to this. I have attention deficit disorder (specifically, ADHD-I, or, adult inattentive type). I make no secret of this. There are times when I will zone out, lapse in attention, or be elsewhere. This makes my relationships difficult – I already know that all of my teachers this year are frustrated with me, not to mention many of my classmates, because I simply cannot always control what I am and am not paying attention to. I can’t sit still. I draw or write in class.

As such, I’ve always had trouble keeping schedules. I live a life of paradox. On the one hand, I need structure. I need to have people tell me what to do, where to be, how to behave, because without that I get completely lost. I need to be told multiple times, over and over; I need to set schedules and calendar dates and things need to be regular otherwise I get hopelessly lost.

The watch was a lifeline. The watch was both a shackle and a safeguard. In college it was the only way to know when I had to be somewhere – I’d program alarms into it, check it every five seconds. This is when I need to be in so-and-so’s office. This is when I have such-and-such class. At work, it was the only way I could remember reliably when my breaks were, and when I needed to be off them, so I could go out for lunch or outside. When my watch broke, I was completely lost, often too late or too early for everything. Once I missed a break entirely.

On a psychological level, I need it. The watch is safety. The watch is the only way I can schedule my life. When should I be at the train station? What time should I get up? I live and die by that circle on my wrist.

I hope I find it. I’ve torn apart my house searching, but still there is no sign. I cannot afford a new one.

In the meantime, I feel lost, adrift in time, and I check the back of my wrist, searching for stability.