Fame Junkies

Had dinner with Michelle Friday night, went back to my place, and she left on Sunday. Awesome weekend.

I’m

reading a book called “Fame Junkies” which was recommended by the similar Drew Pinsky book I recently read about narcissism. It’s a super-depressing account of people who are obsessed with celebrities and/or becoming celebrities (Low point: kids who pay $10,000 to go to conventions to meet talent agents). I got to chapter 5, “The Desire to Belong,” and I had a light bulb moment. Two recurring themes suddenly came together in a way for me that is so obvious now but I didn’t make the connection till I read this book.

My first running theme is that I hate celebrity culture. I really despite reality TV (except shows based on true talent) because it’s just a bunch of narcissists trying to get undeserved attention. The desire to be famous without accomplishing anything fame-worthy is one of the worst ills in society today.

My second theme is the basis for this entire blog, my desire to connect with people. To make real friends, real relationships, and to stop being so isolated and lonely. Perhaps it’s obvious where these themes intersect, but “Fame Junkies” really made it quite clear.

The author, Jake Halpern, describes the psychological concept of a “para-social” relationship where television gives viewers “the illusion of a face-to-face relationship with the performer.” Because of the explosion of celebrity culture, Twitter, Us Weekly, etc., people have developed far more of these relationships than they used to. But the key here is that the relationships are illusions. You don’t really know Paris Hilton.

This increase in pretend relationships paralleled another change in American society. People are lonelier than ever. The number of people who describe themselves as lonely quadrupled in the last few decades. People remain unmarried longer these days and most significantly, the number of people who live alone has gone from 9.3% in 1950 to 26.4% in 2004.

The collision happened when psychologists asked subjects who felt lonely questions about celebrities. The lonelier the subject, the more obsessed he or she was with celebrities. I guess if you’re lonely, your innate desire to belong makes you pursue the only type of relationship you can, a fake one with a celebrity. And I don’t think it’s much of a leap that some of these lonely people see becoming a celebrity themselves as the cure to their problems. Thus, what they’re really hoping to do is to trade one fake relationship with others.

I never got into the celebrity culture because to me it just seemed so obviously fake and unfulfilling. I don’t know them and they don’t know me. But, and here’s the rub, I was still lonely, isolated, and depressed, like a lot of people my age, living alone in a big city without a support network of friends and family. So I did the only thing I could think of… I came up with a plan to talk to strangers. Some connections were brief, others have been lasting. But they’re all real.

My usual caveat: I’m not genius, I don’t have it all figured out, I have a lot of work to do, I wish I had more friends, etc., but the point is, I’m trying. I’m out there in the real world talking to real people. If everyone stopped watching Jersey Shore and knocked on their neighbor’s door instead… well, think about it.

The Talk to Strangers Project, One Year Later

I started this project exactly one year ago. To say it’s changed my life would be as obvious as the preceding sentence, given the title of the post. On a quantitative level:

  • I have talked to maybe 200-300 strangers;
  • I have had three girlfriends (Chloe, Jennifer, and Marny);
  • I have gone on dates with at least three other women;
  • I have gone to several parties (more than five, less than ten);
  • I have been beaten up one time;
  • I have been rejected by dozens of people who didn’t want to talk to me (and not all of them were waitresses);
  • I have one dog.

On a qualitative level, I am more observant. I’m a better listener. I am more empathetic. I am far more confident. I am not afraid of talking to people in authority, people at parties, and people just standing there minding their own business. Maybe in the back of my head, the idea that it’s all part of “The Project” gives me the courage to break the societal taboos and initiate first contact. Whatever the reason, I am better able to shrug off missteps and focus on the connections.

I never knew how hard it would be to make friends after college. That being around so many people in a large city like Los Angeles could be so lonely. It makes me sad when I think about all the other people out there feeling the same way that I was, but doing nothing about it. Just sitting in their apartments, hoping someone is going to knock on their door to borrow some sugar. That only happens in 1950’s sitcoms. No one really knocks on anyone’s door. You have to knock on theirs.

Having a “family” of friends is so important. I mean, it’s not like I go cry on Gunther’s couch while we do each other’s nails. But just having someone who knows me makes me feel like I’m part of the world, not watching it from the outside.

Do I wish I had more friends? Sure. Do I wish they were as close as say my friends growing up? Of course. People in the 20’s and 30’s have shit going on and you can’t spend an hour every day in study hall going over the day’s events.

Relationships-wise, I can’t tell you how much it means to be dating again. For a while, my self-esteem was so low, I was starting to question how I had ever had a girlfriend in the past. It’s just hard meeting people. And like I said, inertia is your enemy. I could easily imagine ten years slipping by and being even more lonely and bitter.

It’s not like I’ve made a love connection. I mean, things are going well with Chloe, but she’s such a sweet girl, I wonder sometimes if there’s ever going to be something more… explosive about our relationship. Maybe it’s my pining away for Michelle that makes me unable to see Chloe as a keeper. She’s certainly a lot better than Marny and Jennifer. But even those limited relationships were invaluable in building up my self-esteem and making me feel like a legitimate contender for love.

Besides the connections I’ve made–personal, casual, romantic–I think the most important thing that’s happened over the last year is that I like who I’ve become. I knew this me was in there somewhere and I like that it’s taken over. I’m funnier now. I’m not afraid of saying the wrong thing because I don’t over-value people. I’m not saying I don’t value people, I just value them accurately. I feel like I used to be on eggshells all the time hoping I didn’t annoy or piss off a friend or a girlfriend and lose them forever. Ironically, I’m more likely to speak my mind to people now and I think they like me better for it.

Anyway, it’s not like I’ve achieved some sort of goal. There’s still a lot of work to go. But I am starting to think of my life in interview terms: where do I see myself in five years? In ten? Before, I was in survival mode: How do I cure my debilitating loneliness and get some goddamn people in my life? Now, I feel like I’m out of the woods and I can start to think about where I want to go.

Thanks to all the people who I’ve met over the last year. And thank you to all the wonderful people who’ve written to me, telling me their stories. I feel like I’ve met you, too.

Stay tuned, there’s still a lot of strangers left to talk to.

 

Home Sick

I’m home sick today, which means that I’m feeling pretty awful because the fact is adults still go to work when they’re just a little sick.

It’s just a bad cold, but whenever I’m sitting in my apartment with a cold, I can’t help think back to being a kid and having my mom take care of me. Add to that the fact that it’s a rare rainy day here in L.A. and it totally takes me back to Pennsylvania eating grilled cheese sandwiches and tomato soup in bed.

Maybe this is a sign of where I am in my life and what I want now. I’m not as much interested in scoring with hot chicks as my number one priority. That was the primary mission in my life for the last ten+ years. And it’s not like I’ve sated my appetite. I definitely could use a few more erotic encounters. It’s just that I’m more interested in sharing my life these days. Taking care of someone and having someone to take care of me on days like this.

Authenticity

Gonna lay some deep shit on you here, so if you’re mostly following my blog for the stories about beat-downs and bitchy waitresses, you might want to skip this one.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about my college philosophy class on existentialism. We read some Heidegger and while at the time I couldn’t understand anything he was talking about, lately his concept of “authenticity” has been floating back up into my mind.

I’m not going to go into the philosophy of it (mainly because I forgot or never knew what Heidegger was talking about–I got a C in the class). But basically how I think it applies to talking to strangers is to just “be” in the world. That means never stepping outside of the moment and planning the next move, commenting on the moment I’m in, or reliving some other moment.

Okay, that sounded really douchey. Here’s what I’m talking about. Your phone rings. You answer it. It’s a telemarketer. He doesn’t say “Hi, I’m a telemarketer,” but you instantly know anyway. How? Because the first words out of his mouth sound rehearsed, fake, or just not in the moment. Even if he says, “Hi, may I speak to Fletcher please?” I still can tell it’s someone trying to sell me something and not a friend I don’t recognize.

When I’m trying to start a conversation with a stranger, I desperately try to avoid saying something rehearsed, too clever, or rehashed. No “material.” That means almost everything I say is going to be less clever or interesting than if I just used a previously successful segue, but that’s the only way to keep it real.

So nine out of ten times conversations start with simple innocuous questions that I really want to know the answer to, like, “What’s that?” or “Is that any good?” Once in a blue moon I manage to say something funny right off the bat, but that’s pretty rare. Oddly, not trying to be funny or interesting usually leads to much more funny and interesting conversations. As I’ve mentioned before, it’s mostly about listening.

Anyway, those are my deep thoughts on this Friday morning. If only I were as good at this as I’m making myself out to be.

Three Strikes

Lately I’ve felt like I’ve come such a long way being able to talk to strangers that I’ve almost perfected the art.

Such hubris always presages the fall and sure enough I bit it big time Saturday night.

I actually went to a party at Scott’s new place (we’re friends again). I went alone, which would have been really weird a year ago, but now my experience talking to people has made me so much more comfortable going places alone. Anyway, I was having a pretty good time catching up with Scott and meeting some of his friends. Then I decided that it was time to talk to women.

I haven’t spoken to Jennifer since last weekend but in my mind I feel like that is totally over. And though I did have lunch with Michelle on Friday, she’s still seeing that loser, so I felt like I had the green light to try to meet someone new.

I had noticed a cute girl with long blond hair. I waited for her to stop talking to her friend then I went up to her. I said, “Hi. I’m Fletcher.” Usually that’s about as much as I say in these situations. Any more and it seems like a line, or material, or just rehearsed. Not natural = lame. Anyway, she said her name was Kylie.

I asked her how she knew Scott. She said she didn’t, she knew Charlie, that actor guy who hooked up with the waitress from Q’s in the bathroom. Anyway, Kylie and I talked for a while. (Some people have written in asking how these conversation go, or more specifically, how they get started, and that’s about it. Hi. How do you know X? Not very complicated, but that’s what’s so non-threatening about it.)

I had talked to Kylie for about forty minutes when I asked if she’d like to go out some time. She smiles and says, “Sorry, you seem nice, but you’re not my type.” I laughed, “What’s your type?” and she said, “Don’t take it personally. I just usually go for like really good looking guys.”

I stopped smiling. “Oh. Okay, well, nice talking to you.” She actually tried to apologize for how that came out, but I said it was fine. But when I went back to get another drink, I was really upset. What an ego crusher!

I was ruined for the rest of the night. I tried to talk to two other girls but everything came out wrong. Awkward. Desperate. One of them said, “I’m here with someone” thirty seconds into the conversation. The other said, “I’m getting a drink, I’ll be right back,” and never came back.

Now maybe if I were a really good looking guy…

Hall Pass

Went to see “Hall Pass” last night with Paul.

The movie mostly sucked. There were a few laughs but the Farrelly Brothers were showing their age. Just seemed like a movie from 15 years ago.

Anyway, the movie didn’t start on time and the audience was getting restless. When it eventually did start 20 minutes late, and after 15 more minutes of previews, the movie turned out to be “No Strings Attached.” People in the crowd started getting up to leave. We checked our ticket stubs and we were definitely in the right theater. Pretty soon people were shouting and eventually they stopped the movie, came out, and explained there was a mistake. They would put the right movie on asap.

But a funny thing happened. After all the shouting to the projectionist, and before “Hall Pass” started, people started talking to each other. It was a cool phenomenon to witness if you’re tuned into these things like I am. Strangers were commenting on the fuck-up with each other.

I have found the hardest part of talking to strangers is finding that shared experience to comment on. If and when I do notice it, it is always a perfect in. It has taught me to be more observant and also a better listener. And it was cool to see it in action all around me.

New Year’s Resolution

I got a head-start on my resolutions back in July when I started this whole project but I guess my main thing now is to keep at it.

The most surprising thing I’ve found since I started talking to strangers is that it’s a two-way street. I guess I thought when I started that I’d accumulate friends, girlfriends, acquaintances, and interesting stories to enrich my life but that I’d remain largely unchanged. But what I found is that I’ve become different. You can’t interact with people in the world and not change as a result. Some people bring out the best of me and I like being with them. So I think this project has been good for me in more ways than I anticipated.

Now if only Elevator Girl would dump her perfect boyfriend.

Christmas in L.A.

The Holidays are especially tough in Los Angeles because everyone abandons the city.

Since no one is really from here, it becomes a ghost town which is nice I guess for traffic but mostly it just seems post-apocalyptic.

Scott is taking off again and so am I in a few days. Growing up, Christmas time was fairly close to the Norman Rockwell ideal. Snowball fights, fire in the fireplace, hot chocolate… Everyone I knew stayed put because they were already home. Here, no matter how many people you meet and how many friends you make, it never seems like home. It’s like Los Angeles is one big office. You go to work here but when the lights go out, there’s no one home.

Lost Angeles

Being back home was weird. I haven’t been back since I started the Project and only now do I realize how inter-related the Project is to the city itself.

In Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, I know a lot of people. Most of my high school friends still live there and when I went out to the supermarket or the gas station I kept running into people I knew.

So it occurred to me that it’s probably that way for most people in the world. Even in the 21st Century, most people still live in the same place where they grew up. And the idea of talking to strangers would probably seem weird to most people in that situation. Because first of all, there aren’t that many strangers if you live in a small town in Indiana. And second, when there is one, of course you talk to him, if not to make a new friend, then at least to ask, “What brings you to Indiana?”

But in Los Angeles (or New York or any big city for that matter) it’s different. No one is from here. Or at least it seems that way. Everyone is a stranger. And especially in Lost Angeles, people live in their little cocoons, driving to work, sitting in an office or cubicle, living in a faceless apartment complex. Only in places like this does the Project even make sense.

I’m not saying I want to move back home. I like it here. It’s just that living in Los Angeles feels like the first day of college every day. You don’t know anyone but it seems like everyone else already knows each other.

But I think I’m finally starting to feel like a native. I’m finally making friends, dating, going out into the world and seeing what happens. Not only am I planting roots and growing a community of people who I like and who like me, but I feel like I’m starting to become the person I want to be.

I’m sure this all seems very lame but I guess the Holidays do that to you. Makes you reflect on your situation and what you have to look forward to in life.

The Olden Days

People often romanticize the “good old days” when there was no indoor plumbing and you could get your head cut off if you didn’t bow to a samurai.

But there is one thing about the days before TV and the internet that I do think was kind of cool. People talked.

A hundred years ago, on a Saturday night, sure, maybe you might go to the theater or something if you were rich, but really what people did was sit around talking to each other. You’d pay a visit to your friend and discuss the events of the day, politics, literature, philosophy… Okay, maybe it wasn’t this intellectual all the time, but people did talk to each other.

Now we live in such an isolated society. Fractured and disconnected. I’ll give you an example. Kyle at work told me to call Samuelson about a discrepancy in some income statement. But instead of calling him, I sent an email. I mean, going over to his office, that would have been insane. It’s practically twenty yards away. But even calling him was too personal. Too much human interaction. Even that level of contact was shunned in favor of something more impersonal, an email. How messed up is that?