Literally the Best Thing Ever: Isolated Vocal Tracks

Photo via
Photo via

There’s a telltale distinction between a music fan and a music fanatic, and it’s in the way each listens to a song. What makes the fanatic different than the fan—next level, if you will—is that while a fan’s love is no less real, it’s usually expressed through some variation of “I love this song—turn it up!” But a fanatic doesn’t stop there—she is compelled to dissect and study the music she loves, listening to details in the recording technique, the effects on the vocal track, the reverb on the guitars. The fanatic is obsessed with the music’s anatomy, while the fan (e.g.: me!) is just bopping along, oblivious to the details, but digging it all the same.

I’m usually happy with my place in fan land. I care more about the emotional part of loving music, not the exact compositional details of any given song. But I’ve been on a kick lately that’s been pushing me towards the fanatic side of things, opening me up to a new way of listening to songs I’ve heard six thousand times. Out of curiosity (or—more often—procrastination), I started searching for the isolated vocal tracks of some of my most-loved songs.

My fanaticism started after I heard the totally unbelievable cover Merry Clayton did of “Gimme Shelter” on our Rookie staff cover songs playlist. I wondered, And how do I find more of the magic she’s made with her otherworldly vocal chords? I learned that she was the backup vocalist for the original “Gimme Shelter” recording; Mick and Merry’s isolated vocal track was posted online, so I hit play, and entered a completely transformed experience of this song I’ve been hearing on radio stations, commercials, and my parent’s stereos since before I can remember. It became a new song to me, and one that totally broke me in half at 2:45, where Merry Clayton solos the chorus, her voice cracking in her performance of astonishing power.

For the first time, I seriously listened to the vocals of this song I had heard hundreds of times before, and I was totally floored. I wanted more.

The most gratifying part of this has been finding the isolated tracks to songs we’re culturally fluent in—the ones that even grandma could probably hum because they’re everywhere, like hearing the isolated duet of Freddie Mercury and David Bowie doing “Under Pressure.” It’s an interesting one to start out with, because the vocal percussion makes this one especially compelling. I had sort of reflexively noticed those noises before, but listening to the vocal track, I can attribute specific sounds to their mouths, which is kind of incredible.

These tracks can get really spooky, too. It gives me shivers to hear Ian Curtis sing “Love Will Tear Us Apart” solo—there’s something equally ominous about both the silent breaks and the dark, haunting tone of his voice. Listening to Nirvana feels the same way—the isolated track of Kurt belting “Drain” is something else entirely when you’re used to listening to the full noise of the song. Then there’s tracks like “In Bloom,” which let me hear the effects on the vocals for the first time.

Noticing these details may seem like a banal realization to the fanatics who have sonically inclined superpowers to notice details like this, but the magic of the isolated track for me is to make these layers apparent for the first time.

And let’s not forget this special snowflake.

Then there are the gut-wrenchers, the heart-rippers, the songs I have loved before but truly taken for granted. John Lennon’s rusty cry in “Don’t Let Me Down” is something enchanting, and incredibly intimate. It feels like I’m overhearing a young couple’s impassioned fight, like they’re on the brink of a defining moment, yelling and scared about losing each other. I adore the rest of the song, and it’s powerful in its full form, but the isolated vocal track has a haunting magic, maybe even more than the final product.

What gets me about these vocal tracks aren’t really the recording details or effects or whatever else a fanatic might be perceptive enough to notice and nerd out over—it’s that I can feel like I’m hearing a song for the first time again, or even hearing a more personal version of it. It’s magical to hear Stevie Nicks really belt out “Wild Heart,” like we’re in on a privileged performance of something legendary, and it’s a gift to hear it with the clarity of isolation.

Listening to these vocal tracks make me feel like I’m overhearing a rehearsal, or even someone belting it out in the shower when they think no one’s listening. I feel like I’m eavesdropping on something private and personal. It’s like stumbling upon someone’s open diary and accidentally scanning the pages, but that someone is the Beach Boys’ Brian Wilson, and instead of embarrassing, its beautiful and revealing and relatable and legendary. ♦

Literally the Best Thing Ever: Antiques Roadshow

Like most people, I never plan to devote my Saturday night to watching people discuss the value of ancient Chinese parasols or collectable porcelain baby figurines. And yet, five episodes of Antiques Roadshow later, there I am: sprawled across the couch, gasping at the screen because I’ve just witnessed a woman find out that the commemorative bald eagle plate she bought at a yard sale for $1 is worth $25,000.

The American version of Antiques Roadshow has been airing weekly on public television since 1997. The original British version is almost 20 years older than that. In each one, a frequently changing group of antiques appraisers and museum curators travel to cities across the country, where people gather in throngs, clutching their most prized found collectibles, hoping to learn that one of their items is so valuable that selling it might change their life, at least for a little while. Basically, Antiques Roadshow is American Idol for old junk that’s been collecting dust in your attic.

It is not a cool show. No one live-tweets it. I never have to worry about accidentally reading spoilers online. But every time I watch it I am filled with undeniable AWE. I am not alone in this—there is a Facebook page called “The Adrenaline Rush You Get While Watching Antiques Roadshow” that currently has 68,529 likes. I don’t really get football, but when I watch Antiques Roadshow I think I understand the thrill a sports fan gets when their favorite team scores a touchdown.

Antiques Roadshow has also instilled in me a kind of paranoid hoarder mentality, the same way that watching an Alfred Hitchcock movie makes you suddenly wonder what kinds of secrets your neighbors might be keeping. When I go thrift shopping, I flip over ceramic plates in hope of finding the markings that the Roadshow has taught me denote high value. I’m convinced that inside every reclusive old person’s home lies hidden treasure. Like, what kind of ancient objects are just sitting idle in my neighbor’s basement? Maybe that painting being sold at the yard sale down the street was stolen from the Louvre 100 years ago! OK, probably not.

Each time I watch an episode, my attitude starts out like, “So what? It’s just a vase.” But then the appraiser starts describing some obscure detail about the piece, like how only three of them were ever made and the other two are hanging out in some distant royal palace, and then I’m like, “HOW COULD I BE SO NAÏVE? I BET THEY’RE WORTH LIKE $500,000” and then the appraiser’s like, “At auction, I believe these would go for around $3,000.” And by now I’m so invested that I feel palpably angry on behalf of the dude who brought the vase to the show in the first place.

If you think I’m exaggerating the drama of these moments, watch this woman’s life change forevermore because of a vase:

This isn’t a quaint show about casual antique-shopping on a Sunday afternoon, OK? This is X-TREME ANTIQUING for people who actually get breathless over the sight of an heirloom blanket. HEIRLOOM BLANKETS. Seriously, watch this guys call a BLANKET a “national treasure”:

Have you ever seen a blanket stir up such passion?

Often, though, people come in with high hopes, only to have them crushed. Like this guy, who gets trolled over his wood bathroom cabinet:

Watching Antiques Roadshow is a multidimensional experience. Each half hour is a history lesson, a sporting event, and a game show rolled into one. Also, it’s full of hilarious moments where people take themselves way too seriously. Like the woman at the beginning of this episode, who calls an ANTIQUE DRIED FLOWER a “poignant, evocative witness to the First World War.”

Sometimes the funnest part of the Roadshow is screaming at the people on it. Excuse me, but you just found out that your 18th-century Qianlong jade collection might be worth over a million dollars, and your response to “Is this going to change your life at all?” is “No”? Ummm.

But most of the time you’re so excited for these people! This next lady was a lifelong Elvis fan. Her friends found a old cardboard cutout in their attic and gave it her. There used to be many of these stand-up figures, but lots of them were torn to shreds by PASSIONATE TEENAGE GIRLS. She keeps it by her bed!

I also love it when the uptight appraisers aren’t afraid to get their hands dirty. Is your bracelet authentic? IDK, LEMME JUST BREAK OUT A GLASS OF WATER, DIP IT IN, AND SMELL IT.

This episode just left me mystified as to what a sock darner actually is, but I think I now need a dozen of them.

I’ve started to build my bucket list around this show. If anyone would like to join me on a road trip to the American Sign Museum, you’re more than welcome.

I like to imagine that when they’re on field trips like that, they kick back together at the end of the day at a Marriott Hotel bar and have passionate arguments over the worth of Fabergé eggs.

When I moved away from home without a TV, I worried that I wouldn’t get to binge-watch Roadshow anymore. But now that I know every episode is online, I am no longer afraid. To me, Antiques Roadshow is a timeless classic whose value will never diminish in my heart. ♦

Literally the Best Thing Ever: The Sims

Illustration by Dylan.
Illustration by Dylan.

The first time I encountered The Sims was at my friend Monika’s* house when I was 10 and I overhead her mother complaining to mine that Monika’s older sister was spending six or seven hours in front of the computer playing this new game, and that she wouldn’t even get up to eat. This is a state I would soon come to recognize in myself, but at the time, I just wondered how a person could go that long without food.

Because my parents didn’t let me play video games, my previous experience with virtual reality had been very limited: There was a girl down the street I was friends with strictly for her Nintendo 64 (and her awesome snack cabinet) and an ancient version of Oregon Trail that my classmates and I played at school. So when Monika and I went into the study to beg her sister for a turn, The Sims was like nothing I’d ever seen before. The lot, or game board, that her sister had made was a modest brick house for two parents and a little Sim girl, who had her own attic room with sky-patterned wallpaper and a grassy green carpet. Monika’s sister wouldn’t let us play with her (if she wasn’t stopping for food, she certainly wasn’t about to do it for us), but the game looked so cool that I hounded my mother until she broke down and bought me a copy of my own.

I quickly came to love customizing little family houses, picking wallpaper and furniture, and living out the scenarios I’d painstakingly created for my Sim characters. Because of the nearly infinite possible worlds you can build, The Sims seems hyper-complicated, but the main idea of the game is actually very simple: You create these virtual people called Sims, then you design and control the direction of their lives, for better and/or for worse. What I adored most about the game was that it was a contained, tiny universe that I was in complete control of—and what else can you say that about when you’re a child? In The Sims, no one had to spend their weekends learning Polish and then going to Sunday school, like maybe some people did in reality.

At age 10, I was already a control freak, and most of the games I made up for myself had to do with the creation of new little worlds. Like, I would walk around my garden telling myself stories, repeating parts of them to myself until I felt like I had gotten them perfect, exactly the way I wanted them to sound in my head. So it’s probably not a surprise that I approached the lives I created in The Sims the same way, although the game didn’t let me be as perfect as I wanted to be: There are no levels to advance through, and, most frustrating of all to me, no finite way to win. The game only ended when my 1999 iMac crashed.

My mom thinks it’s embarrassing for me to admit that I still love The Sims at 22, but I would like to point out that I have seen Sims blogs written by people of all different ages—not only kids and teenagers but also bona fide adults, some with real-life children of their own. It’s not just the young folks that enjoy a little virtual role-playing every now and then! Just ask Liz Lemon, self-professed Sims devotee:

In my own real life, I’m always discovering friends with a secret love for The Sims, too. My roommate in college, for example, once confessed to me that she loved downloading Jane Austen–era costumes for her Sims and then staging re-creations of Pride and Prejudice with them, which also speaks to the fact that for every person who plays The Sims, there’s an entirely different way of going about it. Although the game’s possibilities are basically endless, in my vast experiences with The Sims, I’ve been able to narrow down three general types of players:

1. The Destroyer
A player who spends most of the game ruining their Sims’ lives, either by creatively killing them or by putting them in strange and cruel situations. One of my friends plays Survivor with her Sims by dropping them onto a lot with just a refrigerator and a toilet and letting them fight it out. Usually, twisted experiments like this quickly lead to chaos. Your Sims pee everywhere, frantically waving their arms in the air in futile pleas for your help, until they die. It’s the quickest way to lose the game, since your Sims have no access to food (or anything else, for that matter)—but that’s kind of the point for Destroyers. Personally, I find this mode of play a little boring, but for some people, it’s a way to take out real-life aggression without actually hurting anyone real. “When I was bullied in elementary school, I used to make fake Sims for the people who had been my friends and just fuck with their lives,” admits my friend Ryane.

2. The Creator
Players for whom the joy of the game lies in the stuff. They build crazy-beautiful houses, get creative with the interior design, and add the most eclectic furniture. Then, instead of actually moving Sims into them, they prefer to share their masterworks online. Creators may also specialize in building whole themed towns or custom objects, like haute couture Sims clothing, or historically accurate furniture for those of us who prefer to play period Sims, like my old roommate and, on occasion, me: I definitely had a Little House on the Prairie Sims phase (I won’t tell you when). There are also the extremely dedicated Creators who taking their Sims-ing to the next level by using the game as a medium for re-creating music videos. These efforts can result in masterpieces like this nine-and-a-half-minute re-enactment of Lady Gaga’s “Telephone.”

3. The Lifer
A Lifer tends to his or her Sims with gentle care as the characters grow up, get jobs, have kids, and grow old, then the Lifer plays the next generation of the family. Whether you’re like my friend Sarah, who’s interested in creating stable suburban-family arrangements (her vast Sims neighborhood comes complete with a granola family that practices yoga), or you’re more into making lasting romances happen, a Lifer sticks with their Sims through their whole life span (usually around 90 days).

I’m a Lifer through and through. I never drowned my Sims in the pool or starved them by deleting the doors to their kitchen. My world was populated by good computerized citizens, all dedicated to achieving whatever goals I’d programmed them to want. I would write out elaborate bios for them, draw floor plans for their perfect homes by hand, and assign them daily schedules to keep them on track for success, whether that meant a life of crime (which is a real career track in The Sims) or a big house filled with Sim children. My favorite thing was to make big, well-organized families and happy little farms. And I hated it when the game sent spontaneous disasters like fires, accidents, or eternally leaking sinks my way—basically anytime it was clear that I couldn’t control everything.

Sometimes striving for perfection in The Sims meant I slipped a little in keeping up with my actual responsibilities, but I mostly kept my priorities in order. But as I got older, those real-life obligations increased, which is probably why I don’t boot up the game nowadays except for during vacation or the summer. Being an IRL control freak takes up too much time to devote much of my perfectionist energy to The Sims.

I find that I do the same things in actual adulthood as I have always done when playing The Sims. The kind of obsessive behavior I used to work out in the game manifests itself in endless list-making where I constantly write and rewrite the tasks I have to complete. When I played, I didn’t use cheats (mostly, anyway). Instead, I got satisfaction when my Sims achieved what I wanted them to the old-fashioned way. But this didn’t mean I was patient about watching my efforts paying off—sometimes I played the whole game on 3x speed to get to the next achievement, zooming the game’s clock ahead to the job promotion or other big life event I’d worked so hard for my Sims to accomplish. And now, as an adult, my head is always five steps ahead of where I am in my life, so that I can’t relax and enjoy the things I’ve achieved. I just graduated from college, and instead of enjoying my new freedom, I’m constantly making lists of potential new professional opportunities to put on my résumé! I’m always waiting for the next big moment to hit, hitting refresh over and over, trying to live life itself on 3x speed.

I know, of course, that there’s no definitive way to win life, or to be totally perfect all the time. And even though it sometimes makes me anxious, keeping that in mind is a comfort. It helps me recognize that real pleasure doesn’t come from impatiently waiting for my next major personal milestone to roll around, but from the process of living. So the next time I sit down with The Sims, I’ll try to take my time and remember what was fun about it when I was 10, when I could barely figure out how to make my Sims go pee, and I loved it anyways. Instead of rushing them toward their next achievement, I’ll take my Sim kids to the park, sit back, and try to enjoy the virtual breeze. ♦

* Yes, we’re both Monika with a K. I haven’t invented some elaborate alter ego to create other fictional people with, though that would be impressively demented.

Literally the Best Thing Ever: Aerosmith’s “Crazy” Video

Collage by Sonja.
Collage by Sonja.

It was the summer of 1999. I was 13 years old, in eighth grade, and horny. I spent my afternoons reading alone in my bedroom, curtains drawn, while outside I could hear my parents fighting so violently that sometimes the neighbors had to intervene. I was the target of their violence often enough that it was a relief when they directed it against each other.

I was always disappointing them. I wasn’t brilliant enough academically to satisfy their expectations, nor was I as docile and subdued as they felt a “good Indian girl” should be, and they heaped guilt on me for these shortcomings. I also had another, secret source of guilt—my shame about touching myself and liking it.

I remember the first time I felt horny. It happened early that summer, and it was a feeling I couldn’t explain; I just waited till it went away. I had been brought up in such a repressed household and in such a repressed society that it didn’t even occur to me to touch myself. Sex education was unknown in most Indian schools at the time, and the very idea of a teenage girl masturbating was too shocking for anyone to talk about publicly. Everything I knew about sex came from books by James Joyce, which my parents unknowingly let me read because A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man was a Penguin World Classic. I was hopelessly sheltered, and taught that someday I would grow up and marry a guy my parents found for me, have two and a half kids with him, and live happily ever after. I didn’t question it.

My first and only moment of rebellion had occurred three summers earlier, when, in the absence of parental supervision and high on hormones, I had practically run wild. My mother had been away in Delhi, my father too drunk to care, and my grandparents too old to do much about anything. I ran around in ragged clothes and played cricket (the national sport of India) with the neighborhood kids, coming home only for meals and to watch films on cable—in which adults kissed passionately and they showed boobs—late into the night. I was constantly on the lookout for something forbidden to do. One day I broke my big toe while playing on the roof, and then proceeded to climb a half-built skyscraper with my broken toe. The next week my mother returned home and my summer of abandon was over. But its flame still burned deep within me. It wasn’t until halfway through the summer of 1999, when I was 13, that it exploded into an inferno. The trigger? My best friend.

I had known Shia (let’s call her Shia) since I was 11, but we’d only recently become close. It started with music, as most things do when you are a teenager. I remember the battered tape she thrust into my hand one day, a copy of Pink Floyd’s The Division Bell, and insisted I listen to. I wasn’t particularly excited; I preferred boy bands. But one afternoon when I got home from school, after being shouted at by my mother, feeling absolutely miserable, I popped the tape into my tiny boombox and hit play. And the world was changed forever.

Shia and I started hanging out all the time after that, talking about music, boys, parents, and books and giggling about the guys she was seeing, while I secretly wished that some boy, any boy, would fancy me for a change. That, however, was a pipe dream—I was taller than everyone in my year, boys included, and the fattest. Boys looked at me only to laugh, and when they actually talked to me, it was just to get to know Shia—pretty, frail, delicate Shia—better. But while I was jealous, I didn’t love her any less for it. And I loved her a lot. We spent all our free time at school together, arm in arm, and when we got back home, we would talk on the phone for hours.

Soon after Shia and I became friends, Maya (let’s call her Maya) joined us. Maya was a skinny little thing with a crop of wild hair, dirty shoes, and dishevelled clothes from running around playing basketball all day. She was a total tomboy, interested only in sports (and occasionally girls). She was the one who introduced me and Shia to the concept of sharing physical affection. This is something I had briefly experienced the year before with my then best friend—let’s call her Lina. She was a small, birdlike girl who would put her arms around me at the slightest provocation. When eighth grade came around and we no longer shared any classes, Lina began distancing herself from me, but I always remembered how soft she felt in my arms and the surge of warmth that would go through me whenever I held her. I marveled at how someone so bony could feel so tender.

Even now I remember the day of our group kiss. Shia, Maya, and I had gotten into the habit of chastely kissing one another on the cheek, and we thought nothing of it. One day, during our meager 15-minute lunch break, we were all happily sucking on ice lollies when Maya pulled Shia and me close and tried to kiss us both on the lips at the same time. Suddenly I had two orange-flavored mouths on mine, slick with saliva and melted ice. It ended too quickly for me to process anything, and afterward we all giggled nervously. But something shifted subtly after that. The three of us were still thick as thieves, but there was an added layer to our friendship. We became more physically comfortable with one another. I would casually caress Shia’s back while talking to her, or cuddle into her while we sat side by side, and generally touch her in a million and one ways. We never did anything overtly sexual; it could all be placed firmly in the realm of affection—intense affection, but still on this side of the friendly/sexual borderline. At that point I had no clue that the comfort I felt when touching my best friend would feel more or less the same as the pleasure I would derive from touching my first (and only) boyfriend 12 years later.

My family got satellite television in 1999, and I quickly became hooked on the music channels. One day I was watching one of them after school—probably MTV India—and I saw a video that completely rocked my little world. It was the video for Aerosmith’s song “Crazy,” and it was EPIC. A six-minute, sixteen-second narrative from 1994, it tells the story of two teenage girls, played by Liv Tyler and Alicia Silverstone, who cut school to go on a road trip. Presumably best friends (because who else would you go on a road trip with?), they begin their journey by stripping off their button-downs and flinging them into the wind (don’t worry—they had demure white camis on underneath), and singing along to the radio at the top of their lungs. There are some shenanigans at a gas station, where they flirt with a couple of dudes in order to stuff their bags with free snacks and sunglasses, and they squeeze into a photo booth together, coming out a few seconds later wearing different clothes. They slip a photo strip into the cashier’s hands on their way out; his expression is enough to confirm the nature of its contents.

From there the girls make a stop at a strip club on amateur night. This, unsurprisingly, is the scene that really captivated my 13-year-old imagination. Silverstone, dressed in a man’s suit and hat, makes an entrance with Tyler, who is giggly and girly in a crop top and white flares. Tyler takes a turn onstage, and while there’s a whole audience watching, it’s obvious she’s performing for just one person: her best friend.

Literally the Best Thing Ever: Cemeteries

Illustration by Leeay
Illustration by Leeay

I’m kind of a scaredy-cat—when I first watched The Ring I was too afraid to go into my garage or basement or anywhere I might see that terrifying death-omen girl for a over a week. And yet I love cemeteries, for so many reasons. They’re spooky but not too spooky—you might see something, but at least you are out in the open and can easily escape if stuff gets too intense. Also, since my spiritual beliefs are kind of a make-believe work-in-progress, I’m fascinated by the afterlife. When I’m feeling reflective or lost, I think an encounter with something otherworldly will provide me with answers or special guidance. And since cemeteries are generally so quiet, they’re a good place to go when I’m seeking peace. But more often than not I’m seeking a thrill among the tombstones—whether it’s catching a glimpse of something ghostly that will leave me with a story tell or that electrical charge of being somewhere you know you’re not supposed to be after dark. Here are some of my favorites:

Jewish Waldheim Cemetery, Forest Park, Illinois

I snuck into a cemetery for the first time in November of my sophomore year of high school. I was with my friends, and we were bored and stoned. The air was cold enough to make my nose red after 10 minutes or so, but I ignored it so I could inhale that amazing scent of fallen leaves.

The Chicago suburb of Forest Park is really close to where I grew up, and it has a ton of cemeteries. Jewish Waldheim Cemetery has a gate and fences, but one night my friends and I noticed a construction site next to it, which meant we could probably sneak in. We hid my friend’s car behind a backhoe, walked through a muddy ditch, and we were in. I was hanging out with a new crowd and dating a guy I didn’t really like, so I wandered off on my own. That’s when I caught a glimpse of something white and felt compelled to follow it. I would learn later through reading and discussing on local lore that a lot of people had seen and followed white lights in that cemetery. My boyfriend called out to me, but I pretended not to hear him, my eyes on the white light that appeared and disappeared on the ground, leading me deeper into the cemetery. I followed it until I couldn’t hear my friends’ laughter or see the glowing red embers of their cigarettes anymore. I knelt down and examined the nearest headstone; the name Hazel was engraved on it. Hazel was also the color of my eyes; I became convinced that it was some sort of message. Maybe Hazel the ghost had something to tell me, or maybe she was my guiding spirit! Before I could fully take in my surroundings, my friends caught up with me. I didn’t want to share Hazel with anyone, so I just laughed and said my eyes were playing tricks on me. The next summer when I got my license, I drove back to that cemetery on several occasions and searched high and low for Hazel’s gravestone to no avail, but the thrill of seeing something that might have been paranormal and the idea that someone from the Great Beyond might want to communicate with me inspired years of cemetery adventures to come.

“G.R.,” Sun Prairie, Wisconsin

“We’re going to G.R. tonight, if you want to come,” Simon* told me. I was seventeen and I’d moved to Madison, Wisconsin, after graduating high school early, hoping for a fresh start. Simon, the 23-year-old goth guy I’d met the night my roommate and I snuck into a University of Wisconsin dance night, definitely was an adventure. We’d gone to parties, nightclubs, an abandoned house and now…whatever this was.

“What’s G.R.?” I asked.

“It’s a cemetery in Sun Prairie. We just go there to drink and hang out. It’s up on this hill and there aren’t really any houses around. Plus,” he whispered, “I’ve seen some things.”

I hadn’t seen anything ghostly since Hazel, so I was game.

G.R. (which stood for “Grim Reaper,” so named by Simon and his friends for the big pine tree that resembled the Angel of Death) was smaller and more isolated than any of the cemeteries I’d haunted in high school. I instantly loved that—it felt classically creepy like the rural cemeteries in black-and-white horror movies like Night of the Living Dead. Simon and I thought we saw supernatural phenomena there once. We kept seeing eerie white flashes in the fields that lined the edge of the cemetery. “I don’t think we should go out there,” he warned, pointing at the lights. “I just get the feeling those spirits are malevolent.”

“But she’s not,” I said, pointing to another white light that was closer to us, illuminating the trunk of a tree. The lights in the field were like little orbs, but this one was different. Though it wasn’t quite human shaped, the curve at the center reminded me of a woman’s hips, and for a split second I thought I saw a female face and long hair. It was near my favorite grave, one I just felt drawn to: Louisa Fehrmann, November 1847 to January 1936. It was a small headstone, strangely positioned behind the large family monument. Maybe that’s why I connected with her; I assumed she was different, maybe a little bit of an outcast, like me.

I took numerous pictures in front of her grave and wrote poetry under the tree where thought I saw her. I promised her that I would write a story about her, and I did, sort of: In my first book, one of the main characters is an outcast from a small town in Wisconsin with shimmering white-blond hair. Her name is Louisa.

Lake Ripley Cemetery, Cambridge, Wisconsin

“It’s like the ultimate goth playground,” I would later tell my college friends. “There’s a cemetery, a lake, and an actual playground. Swing, swim, and get spooked. It’s the most perfect place on earth!”

Though I always felt somber and introspective at G.R., I was open to adventure at Lake Ripley. My friends and I spent more time at the lake part than the cemetery part; it was perfect for night swimming (not a lot of people want to sneak through a graveyard to swim or skinny dip). Once my friend Bran and I decided to swim all the way across the lake; we got halfway across before we realized oh yeah, we’d have to swim back. I also spooked myself by thinking about how HUGE the fish must be out in the middle where it was 40 feet deep, so I turned back; Bran laughed loudly, but followed.

Glen Forest Cemetery, Yellow Springs, Ohio

The only time I got truly scared in a cemetery was in Ohio, where I lived for a year when I was 18. There was a nature preserve on campus, thought to be a magical place where ley lines intersected and faeries resided. My friend Kirsten and I were interested in paganism and supernatural lore, so we spent a lot of time there. One night, we decided to scope out the cemetery next to the glen. As we walked up the road toward the entrance, we noticed something about Kirsten’s shadow was strange: The shadow of the chain she was wearing on her wallet kept twisting even though the actual chain was barely moving at all! As we got closer to the entrance, we saw white lights in the graveyard. We paused to make sure and they appeared even when there were no cars going by, and they did. As we reached the entrance, those lights turned red and a black figure appeared. We conferred, blinked to make sure our eyes weren’t playing tricks on us, but no, we both clearly saw a dark, human shape—a shape that zoomed toward us before we could set foot in the cemetery!

We ran off in terror, but we went back the next night, and we saw our shadows on the ground run away from us! This still didn’t deter us, and we went inside. The thing that scared us off that night was an actual person, an old man who lived in the house next to the cemetery. He came outside and clapped three times; we thought maybe he was calling a dog, but no dog appeared. He looked like he was going to speak, but then he vanished into his house and all the lights on both floors went out instantaneously!

I never had good feelings about Glen Forest Cemetery, and there were no muses or spirit guides waiting there for me. Drawn to the dark forms and eerie lights, Kirsten and I went back again and again for the thrill.

Forest Home Cemetery, Forest Park, Illinois

When I moved to Forest Park at 24, I made jokes about the zombie apocalypse occurred; if it was coming, there were cemeteries all around me, so I was screwed. Most of the tombstones at the front of Forest Home belong to gypsies; they’re marked with crescent moons and hands, palm out, and their relatives visited regularly to leave coins and flowers and bottles of beer and wreathes of flowers shaped like bottles of beer. Emma Goldman is buried there, and there’s a historical marker that pays tribute to the Haymarket Martyrs. In the back, near the river that floods when it rains too much, is an unmarked grave that contains the body of Belle Gunness, one of the first female serial killers—or it might be the body of one of her victims, they still aren’t sure. I learned all of this on an annual walking tour given by the historical society, where I also learned that when the cemetery was created, it was viewed more as a park; people from Chicago took long horse and buggy rides to spend the day picnicking with their dead relatives. Forest Home was close to my house, huge, not a lot of people visited, and it was considered an actual park? When I heard that I got the idea to start jogging there. It was open to the public but sometimes the maintenance workers looked at me funny; I never ran through a funeral or anything (if I saw a funeral I always I steered clear out of respect), but I guess they still thought it was weird. Being there during the day meant I didn’t see anything strange, but I was there for peace and reflection, not for thrills. Well, this time, anyway—I still peek around every tree, searching for those dancing white lights, waiting for another spirit to show me something spooky. ♦

*All names changed except those belonging to the dead

Literally the Best Thing Ever: Boarding School Bad Girls

Illustration by Ana.
Illustration by Ana.

When I was in ninth grade, I got to fulfill a major fantasy of not just myself, but I would guess lots of girls who watch TV and/or read fiction: I was sent to an all-girls boarding school. We were living in Saudi Arabia, where the American schools didn’t offer coursework beyond the ninth grade, so a lot of families sent their teenagers to college-prep schools abroad. I could just picture the halls of ivy and the sprawling green, which I imagined would be the backdrop to a picturesque teen rebellion that I felt must be right around the corner for me.

Can you blame me? I grew up watching ’80s sitcoms like The Facts of Life, a show about four teenage girls living at Eastland, a fictional boarding school. While I probably had the most in common with Tootie Ramsey, the youngest of the girls and the only African-American among them, my favorite character was Jo Polniaczek, an edgy badass who showed up at school on a motorcycle, carjacked the school van to take her friends out partying, and became valedictorian of her class. She was never better than when her tough-guy bad girl locked horns with mean-girl bad girl Blair Warner:

Today I can trace my fascination with boarding-school bad girls back to Jo. It continued with Flirting, an Australian coming-of-age movie starring Thandie Newton and Nicole Kidman. Their characters, Thandiwe and Nicola, were the quintessential boarding-school bad girls (I hope you can tell that to me this kind of bad is good), skipping classes and sneaking boys into their dorms, and they became role models to me—especially Thandiwe, who breaks most of the rules to be with the adorably awkward lad she loves from the boy’s school across the pond. She’s smart, self-assured, funny, and confident. I wanted to be just like her.

Here, watch these two back-to-back scenes, and you’ll see why I was so obsessed with these girls (also watch for Naomi Watts as one of the “good girls”:

In reality I was more like the Naomi Watts character—kind of a goody-two-shoes. My fear of disappointing my parents or reinforcing school administrators’ stereotypes about people of color kept me in line. As I agonized over SAT prep and AP courses in pursuit of admission into my first-choice colleges, I sometimes envied schoolmates who were brave enough (and often privileged enough) to get away with partying with college dudes on the weekends, cutting their uniform skirts into microminis, smoking cloves in the woods, and maintaining full bars in their dorm-room closets. While I didn’t really have an interest in booze or college guys (yet), I yearned to let loose in my own way (if only I knew what that was!). And as excited as I was to enter the glamorous and debaucherous world of boarding school, I was also a bit scared. Boarding schools, I knew from television, housed some of the world’s richest, naughtiest, and snobbiest kids. I wondered if I would ever fit in as a minority and technically an international student. I tried my best to channel Thandiwe, who embraced rather than feared being an outsider, and who acted first and asked for forgiveness later when unfair obstacles got in the way of what really mattered.

When we were choosing where I would go, my parents focused on admissions statistics and the “spiritual values” of each school. I, however, was more concerned with finding a place that fit the boarding-school archetype in my head, the one that had been placed there by Tootie and Thandiwe and so many others. I had been such a well-behaved kid to that point; I wanted to find a place where I could finally let go and explore who I was when I wasn’t necessarily following all the rules imposed on me by my parents. Alas, my school visits were nothing like Sally Draper’s—I didn’t get drunk or high or invite boys over. The schools’ student ambassadors were on their best behavior, so I never saw so much as a cigarette during my visits. It was hard to discern which institution would give me the best opportunity to become acquainted with the more adventurous version of myself that I was sure was somewhere in me.

That changed when I finally picked a school and became a student. I chose a school that no one else I or my parents knew would be attending, the better to reinvent myself as a “bad girl.” It was an Episcopalian school in the mid-Atlantic that had been opened by bluestocking feminists in the 1800s known for its rigorous curriculum and friendly spirit. And I encountered my share of bad girls: girls who ignored our curfew, who would sneak out of the dorms at midnight to take horses out of the stables and go on night rides, who skinny-dipped in the pool during off-hours and stayed out to watch the sun come up. I longed to follow their lead, but it turns out that I just wasn’t a bad girl at heart. I think the “worst” thing I ever did was get my roommate to forge my name on the breakfast sign-up sheet each day so I could sleep in. (I still smile when I think about that.) I was too concerned about getting into a good college, too afraid to incur the wrath of the dreaded disciplinary committee, to do anything worse. One thing I did not foresee about boarding school was just how many rules there were. If I didn’t wake up on time, make my bed, empty my trash, attend formal meals, show up for mandatory sports practice, or dress like a clone in my preppy schoolgirl uniform, I could expect to lose privileges and miss out on my beloved outings to vintage stores or the movies on the weekend. But when I remember the stomach-churning anxiety I went through any time I broke even the tiniest of school rules, I regret not taking more risks back then, when the odds for youthful redemption were still in my favor.

Which isn’t to say that I was a shrinking violet. I found little ways here and there to express my independence and to stand up to authority, mostly by channeling my righteous angst into activism. I spoke up against injustice on campus and in the world in class and in the school paper and organized students around issues like racism and human rights. I don’t regret any of that.

You’ll be happy to learn that I loosened up a lot after college. I still wouldn’t call myself a “bad girl.” But I’m a lot better at speaking my mind, being confrontational, being spontaneous, and enjoying myself. I break a lot more rules than I did back then, because I understand the consequences better. And even though I will never match their outlaw glory, I know I owe it all to those brave and beautiful bad girls from boarding school. ♦

Literally the Best Thing Ever: Elvis Impersonators

Illustration by Suzy X.
Illustration by Suzy X.

If you could choose to be anybody in the world besides yourself, I can see why you might go with Elvis Presley. There are myriad reasons for this, but here are the major ones: He’s one of the most beloved cultural figures of all time. He could dance and sing like a grunty Southern angel of pure gyrating sex. He very shirtlessly starred in scads of supremely chintzy Technicolor movies called, like, Clambake (that one took place on the beach and featured a song also titled “Clambake,” the lyrics of which were about—what else?—clambakes). And, of course, he got to wear those jumpsuits—have I ever been as covetous of any other article of clothing as I am of the King’s amply rhinestoned one-piece marvels? Other than superheroes, I’m pretty sure no one else could ever look that dashing and natural in a red cape—which isn’t to say that there aren’t plenty of people who try. Although my adoration for Elvis himself is massive, never-ending, and true, even more of my heart cells are dedicated to the people who imitate him—those whose own Elvis worship is so overwhelming that their very being begins to meld with his. I am talking, of course, about Elvis impersonators.

There have been many kinds of Elvis impersonators over the past half-decade or so: There are perfectionist Elvii who would inject peanut butter and bananas into their veins if it could somehow alter their actual DNA to more closely resemble his, and also more abstract ones who embody the idea of “Elvis” through their own entirely interpretive ideas of what he represented: queer Elvises, biologically “female”-bodied Elvises, and Elvises of color. There are the ones who look like him but don’t sound like him, and vice versa. There are low-budget Elvises that perform weddings in all-night Las Vegas chapels, as well as ones that won’t come out of their dressing rooms for less than a few thousand dollars per single performance. As even Uncle Jesse from Full House knew, anyone can be Elvis. All you have to do is adore him (and maybe put on a cape, but no pressure). John Stamos wasn’t the only important uncle to slip into Elvis drag: Ryan Gosling, who rivals Elvis as one of the greatest dreamboats the world has ever known, has said he was inspired to become an actor by his own Elvis impersonator uncle. You basically have to show mad respect for this thoroughly Bedazzled and pompadoured art form—without fake Elvises, your life wouldn’t have RG’s disgustingly beautiful face in it, and what kind of life would that be at all?

Out of all of this world’s great many Elvis impersonators, my ultimate favorite happens to be the one Elvis himself also loved most. When I was 16, I discovered Andy Kaufman, who was a comedian, my spiritual husband, and the king of ersatz Kings, through YouTube videos of his appearances on Saturday Night Live in the 1970s. His comedy was deeply brilliant and weird and had nothing to do with straightforward joke-telling or slapstick. I immediately fell hard for his work and watched everything else of it that I could click on. In some particularly dope Andy K. videos, he starts out by earnestly delivering botched impressions in a terrible made-up accent. He says hello, introduces himself as a president or other famous type, then says thank you and moves on to the next non-impression. Then, for his final imitation, everything changes. He says, “And now I would like to do the Elvis Presley,” in a funny little accent, turns around, quickly fixes his hair and clothing. When he turns back to the crowd, he is Elvis.

The bumbling impressionist is totally gone—instead, he sounds, moves, and has somehow transformed his persona to the point where he even looks exactly like him. When he sings “Don’t Be Cruel,” it’s crazy, unexpected magic, just like the performances of Elvis doing it himself are. Andy’s impersonation is easily one of my absolute favorite things in the world.

But not all poser Presleys are as strict as Andy Kaufman was when it came to trying to perfectly emulate Elvis’s actual presence, nor do they pretend that he was a flawless dude, as I know I’m personally prone to doing (see my initial sex angel remark above). Elvis Herselvis, aka Leigh Crow, has been doing a drag king act as Elvis since the early ’90s, and sometimes includes winking acknowledgements to the extensive drug use that eventually killed the King. This isn’t to say she doesn’t respect him, or that he’s less important to her than he is to other, more staunchly reverent impersonators. In an interview with Wicked Women magazine, Crow described how becoming her own version of Elvis helped her become more attuned to her identity: “Being able to put on a male persona and play Elvis has definitely helped me to find out who I am…because of this I now feel very comfortable going out socially in femme drag.”

El Vez, a Mexican-American Elvis impersonator whose name translates as “the time,” is another of the best performers out there. While his voice is an exact match for Elvis’s in his covers of the King’s singles, the lyrics of the songs themselves feature stylistic tweaks that convey a Chicano-power message. The chorus of “Dixie Land, An American Trilogy” become “Look away, East L.A.” “In the Ghetto” morphs into “En El Barrio” and details the experiences of living in low-income Latino neighborhoods, and “Suspicious Minds” becomes “Immigration Time,” an indictment of U.S. immigration policies. As El Vez himself says in the Elvis-impersonator documentary Almost Elvis, “Elvis Presley is the American dream, but you don’t have to be a white man in your 40s to be a part of the American dream.” El Vez’s interpretation of Elvis brings with it an expanded idea of what American glamour means, and of who is considered worthy of embodying it. Needless to say, it totally rules.

Usually, when someone tells me they’re into something, that’s exactly what they’re doing—telling me, in words. Elvis impersonators communicate their unique, subjective kinds of love for the King by actually living inside of them, and it’s an incredibly special thing to see. They’re turning their brains inside out and slathering them onto their bodies for the rest of us to see. They physically represent the idea that many different people can appreciate a single artist and his or her work in vastly diverse ways, and that each Elvis impersonator’s relationship to the man whose identity they are swaggering around in is very much their own. It’s a specific and beautiful experience to absorb all the distinctly personal reactions to art that Elvis impersonators make into public spectacles. Long live the King(s). ♦

Literally the Best Thing Ever: Open-Source Software

Illustration by Kelly
Illustration by Kelly

I’m about to show you how to be a total badass rebel and fight the power—just by changing what computer software you use. Computers are everywhere and everyone uses them, but not a lot of people seem to wonder why and how they work. The computer companies like it this way—they don’t want us to think about computers, they just want us to spend all our money on them. How did this happen? How did the computer industry get so much power over us, and what can we do to get some of that power back? It’s all about educating ourselves to make better choices. We’ve already covered hardware and how you can make your own computer, so let’s dig into what makes your computer do the things it can do: software.

First, a few definitions: Hardware is the physical stuff that makes up your computer: the processor, memory, keyboard, monitor, etc. Software, on the other hand, is basically an instruction manual for your computer, telling it what to do. Your operating system, the browser you’re reading this on right now, your word processor, and all your games and apps are software. The instructions inside that instruction manual are called the source code. When you are “writing” a program, you are writing the source code. Here’s an example of some source code for a small program that tells you if a number you’ve entered is odd or even:

main() { int n; printf("Enter an integer\n"); scanf("%d",&n); if ( n%2 == 0 ) printf("Even\n"); else printf("Odd\n"); return 0; }

An operating system is a cluster of software that runs the whole show, managing the hardware and the software and getting them to work together efficiently. Windows is an operating system; so are Apple’s Mountain Lion, Snow Leopard, etc.

When the first personal computers were being developed in the 1960s and ’70s, computer users were computer lovers who had fun testing the limits of computing and programming. They were hackers—which doesn’t mean people who illegally modify computer software or break into secure systems; the term was originally used (and still is, by tech enthusiasts and other badass rebel types) to describe people who are just interested in modifying computers to make them run better. Back then, if you wanted your computer to do something, you had to write the source code yourself. Very few people were thinking about making money from coding; it was just about exploring and learning. So what happened?

First, in the early 1970s, everyone started using a new operating system called UNIX. The upside to this system was that it allowed multiple simultaneous users (so even though a university might have only one powerful computer, different people could use it from terminals all over campus at the same time) and it made writing reliable code easier. The downside was that the system was owned by AT&T, and AT&T realized they could make a ton of money by licensing the software. This started the whole idea of a software license, which you often have to buy once a free trial on a piece of software is over. You don’t really OWN licensed software when you buy it—you are simply purchasing the right to USE the software based on the maker’s specific terms. If you owned the software, you could look at the source code, which would empower you to play around with the program and modify it to suit your needs. Licensing turns the computer user into a computer consumer, with no power to change the code in any way.

In the ’50s and ’60s, the American telephone company Bell System licensed EVERYTHING—the telephone was theirs, the signals were theirs, and even the words transmitted through their wires were theirs—and so any word that was spoken to you over the phone didn’t legally become “yours” until it left the Bell System mouthpiece and actually entered your ear!

The new MacBook Pro is the least hackable computer ever made, since Apple intentionally made it impossible to upgrade or replace the hard drive or the RAM, or even change the battery. Many of the services we use (like Facebook and Gmail) restrict our freedom by not being transparent about selling our information and making money off of us, but they won’t let us tinker around with their tech. We agree to these stipulations when we accept the legalese on their terms and conditions forms.

In the 1980s, a group of computer activists joined forces to fight for “free software” (free as in freedom, not as in no price). The free software movement was started by a programmer named Richard Stallman in 1983, and its basic ideology is that all computer users have an ethical right to access source code. A lot of programmers think Stallman is too radical and weird; he will only use the Leemote Yeelong laptop because it runs on 100% open source software, and when Steve Jobs died Stallman notoriously blogged, “Steve Jobs, the pioneer of the computer as a jail-made cool, designed to sever fools from their freedom, has died.” In 1998 a new group formed called the Open Source Movement (under the umbrella group Open Source Initiative). It’s basically the free software movement minus all the dogmatic philosophy; all the OSI wants is access to the software source code.

If you have the source code and you know what you’re doing, you can tinker with any program to make unique improvements and see exactly how the program interacts with your computer. For open-source proponents, it’s about building on other people’s ideas and sharing your own, collaborating to create software with more flexibility, fewer bugs, higher reliability, and lower cost. If you’re interested in using open-source software on your own computer, here’s a quick rundown of some alternatives to popular software you’re probably using already. These programs are easy to find and download, and they often work better than the proprietary versions. You don’t need to learn code to use any of these programs, and it is good to support free software!

Word Processing:

LibreOffice vs. Microsoft Office

Microsoft has to add new features to their software in each new version to keep consumers coming back, so the interface just gets crazier and crazier to fit everything in. If you find this annoying, then LibreOffice is for you. It strips Office applications down to only the essential features so you can just focus on your work and still save in any format you need (.docx, .doc, .pdf, etc.). Here’s an illustrative comparison:

Microsoft Word toolbar (What are all these things? I just want to write!):

Screen Shot 2013-07-16 at 6.55.47 PM

LibreOffice toolbar (Simple! Clean!):

libre bar

Photo Editing:

GIMP vs. Adobe Photoshop

Comparing GIMP with Photoshop is like comparing a Best Western with the Four Seasons—both basically have the same stuff, but one is clearly way better than the other. GIMP has almost all the same tools as Photoshop, but they just don’t work as well. If you’ve never used Photoshop before you won’t know what you’re missing, but if you learn Photoshop first and then try using GIMP, it can be a very frustrating experience. The main problem with GIMP is that it’s just as complicated as Photoshop, but not as powerful. If you’re looking for a simpler, free version of Photoshop I recommend Pixlr, a browser-based Photoshop clone. Pixlr is not open source, but it is free (while Photoshop costs $700!).

Drawing Programs:

Inkscape vs. Adobe Illustrator

These are both vector graphics editors, which are useful for making digital art, graphic design, logos—but they are different in many ways. Inkscape shines in its simplicity: It’s powerful and has lots of features, but it’s also easy to learn and use. Illustrator is more difficult to navigate if you want to do simple things like distorting a shape, but it has Inkscape beat if you want to print with true CMYK and Pantone colors. If you just design for the web, Inkscape should meet all your needs.

Search engine:

DuckDuckGo vs. Google

If you are concerned about being tracked, having ads targeted at you, or any of the other ways that Google gets and uses your information, you may want to consider DuckDuckGo. It doesn’t have all the bells and whistles of a Google search, but it gets the job done without snooping around.

Web browsers:

Mozilla Firefox vs. Safari/Internet Explorer/Google Chrome

Firefox is the only easy-to-use and -install open-source web browser out there. Luckily, it is also a great browser. One of its major benefits is that because it’s open-source, people are constantly making add-ons for it. (An add-on is an additional [usually free] piece of software that adds features to your browser.) Greasemonkey, Adblock Plus, and Video DownloadHelper are all great add-ons developed for Firefox (Adblock Plus has also made it to Chrome). Internet Explorer has always kind of sucked, and Safari isn’t much better. Chrome is fast so I still use it, but only in “incognito mode” so Google can’t track me. Firefox is a bit slower than Chrome, but they are fighting hard to keep open standards on the web. Open standards are important because they help make the internet an even playing field, allowing anyone to understand and develop websites and apps no matter what browser, hardware, or software they use. Firefox also has a mobile operating system coming out that will allow more people in the developing world to use smartphones and web-based apps.

I’m not saying you’re evil if you choose to use licensed corporate software instead of open-source, or that you’re a mindless consumer. But if you choose to stick with Windows or OSX or what have you, it should be just that: a choice. The whole point of freedom is that it’s up to you! ♦

Literally the Best Thing Ever: Cool Older Sisters of ’90s TV

The Cool Older Sister is an unknowable creature who thrives in her natural habitat, a bedroom plastered with posters of bands that you’re not cool enough to listen to, talking over her own personal phone with her boyfriend, whose name is probably Rider. She subsists on a diet of tiny, forced bites of mom’s homemade meatloaf, trendy vegetarian food, and cigarettes secretly smoked in the girls’ bathroom. Her favorite hobbies are sneaking out of the house at night and reading feminist literature.

I will never be a Cool Older Sister. I’m the youngest person in my family and will remain so forever unless my empty-nest parents decide to adopt in the near future, which is unlikely. I will never have any impressionable young minions following me around. But even without those reasons of time and biology, I will just never be a Cool Older Sister, because (1) no matter how old I get, I will ever reach her level of sophistication and mystery, and (2) the capital-C, -O, -S variety of this species of human exists only on TV, specifically TV shows of the 1990s. Here are four of my favorite COSes.

1. Judy Funnie

judy funnie

Judy is older sister to Doug Funnie on his namesake show. She’s usually made out to be a total freak, but that’s only because the whole town of Bluffington is a bunch of SQUARES and she really knows what’s up. An aspiring actress and a true beatnik, Judy is never without her signature dark sunglasses and beret, even when she’s doing karate. Her head is even partially shaved, which is basically the equivalent of flashing the anarchy symbol for children’s television. Unlike Doug, Judy doesn’t need a whole 20-minute storyline to figure out her feelings—she’s not afraid to make her opinions known, even if that means performing her own original poetry at a school assembly to get people to listen to her.

2. Debbie Thornberry


Debbie often gets a bad rap as the shallowest member of the titular family on The Wild Thornberrys, mostly because she resents her parents’ decision to avoid a traditional suburban lifestyle in favor of being nomadic wildlife explorers. I know that sounds so cool, but, look, she just wants some normalcy. Imagine how hard it is to make friends when you have to constantly move from wilderness site to wilderness site in a trailer with your family and their pet chimp. Despite the fact that she has easier access to the actual Amazon than she does to, Debbie still succeeds in keeping up with the trends better than most girls living in civilization. She somehow she manages to have a new issue of Teenage Wasteland with her at all times even though the family has no permanent address, and she manages to keep her wildly curly coif looking perfectly geometrical with the help of her own homemade shampoo. Plus, her sarcasm game is unbeatable (“Excuse me while I go find a container for my joy”).

3.Olga Pataki


You know how when you’re little you imagine that being a teenager will be so glamorous? In your mind you won’t have acne or bad hair or sweat glands, just really coordinated outfits and smart boyfriends/girlfriends and admirable goals. And then you discover that most people over the age of 75 don’t even have those things? I blame characters like Hey Arnold!’s Olga Pataki for that crashing disappointment. The feminine and polite older sister of cynical tomboy Helga (a very cool girl in her own right), Olga shines as a straight-A student and volunteer to the community. She’s so perfect you almost want to gag. But she proves that Cool Older Sisters are, deep down, just like us. When Helga gets jealous and secretly adds a B+ (gasp) to Olga’s college report card (lol), Olga cries for days and reveals that she’s sick and tired of being the perfect child, or, in her own words, a “wind-up doll.” Which is kind of the universal experience of being a girl, isn’t it?

4. Clarissa Darling


Ughhhh I actually feel a little upset that I probably never be as interesting as Clarissa. For one thing, she basically invented classic Cool Older Sister style. A basic rule of the COS handbook is that you must always wear things that would look ridiculous on anyone but you. A peasant blouse and bike shorts? Have at it. Oversize leopard-print button-down with a floral-print vest? THE WORLD IS CLARISSA’S FASHION OYSTER. Another basic requirement of being a ’90s COS is a deep-rooted love for grunge music—Clarissa name-drops the Violent Femmes and Pearl Jam throughout the series. Unlike most other shows about figuring out the ins and outs of growing up, where the Cool Older Sister was a mysterious figure who flitted in and out of the protagonist’s life, Clarissa Explains It All made the COS its star. They even made a special-edition VHS commemorating all of the fights she had with her little brother.

Here’s to all the Cool Older Sisters of the ’90s. May they always make time to give us advice and braid our hair, and then dramatically sneak out the back window to do way more important things than we ever will. ♦

Literally the Best Thing Ever: Neil Young

Illustration by Marjainez
Illustration by Marjainez

I feel most like myself when I am alone and making wishes. Being young is a whole lot of that, but sometimes I get tangled in busy things and anxious breathing and forget what my comfort zone is: aloneness and longing. When I need to be reminded, I listen to Neil Young. He’s the Canadian-born symbol of my personal Americana, where part of me believes I’ll have my own Broken Arrow Ranch someday, where home means quiet and fame is a farce.

When I was 12, I was given the thing I most wanted for Christmas: a record player, plus whatever albums my dad’s side of the family thought I should start with. A ragged copy of Neil Young’s 1972 album Harvest was among the hand-me-downs from my aunts’ college days, and after a few listens it became the only one that mattered. “Heart of Gold,” a candid song about being alone and yearning to connect with another person, made me feel, somewhat ironically, less alone. “Keep me searching for a heart of gold…and I’m getting old,” Neil sings, but he doesn’t sound bitter about not having found it yet; he sounds weary from his search, but with a genuine (if tattered) faith in humanity. The song “Alabama” taught me that “the devil fools with the best-made plans,” and that truth got me through the next few tumultuous years of my life.

I think I was in 11th grade when I bought my own copy of Everybody Knows This is Nowhere (1969), Neil’s first album with his backing band Crazy Horse. Here were even more songs that were astonishingly similar to my feelings, as enigmatic and intensely personal as Neil’s lyrics are. The title track is a hymn of homesickness that I regularly return to. Although I would never describe my literal home as “cool and breezy,” that’s how I think of my mental fortress of solitude—and how I hope I might describe a future physical dwelling where I might be able to finally relax. I burned a copy of a friend’s Live at Massey Hall CD and stashed it in my mom’s glove compartment to turn every grocery run into a deeply emotional experience. In high school I was pretty good about going to bed before I’d regret it in the morning, but those nights when I failed, the YouTube search bar plus “neil young demo rare” was usually to blame. “Everybody’s Alone” is one of my favorite songs that I found that way. I presented “Love in Mind” in theology class at my Catholic high school when we had an assignment to bring in something we thought we could use as a prayer. I really fell in love, or something. Fell into understanding, maybe.

Neil Young’s music is so much loneliness, which is something I understand. Being young is a whole lot of that, too, and that’s what makes me feel at home in his songs. Just like me, Neil does know happiness: He has been in love, achieved world fame, bought a ranch, shared it with dogs. Still, no matter where he is in life, his art still lives in longing. Like me, he finds comfort in aloneness.

There’s a lyric in the song “On the Beach” (from the 1974 album of the same name) that goes: “I need a crowd of people, but I can’t face them day to day.” The first time I heard it I was going through that overwhelming period of life called teenagerhood, and I related so hard that it just about knocked me over. I know I need other people, and that some part of me always longs for belonging, validation, closeness, congratulations. But there’s still nowhere more comfortable to me than solitude. The crowd of people is everything that I think I want, but I always need an escape hatch to somewhere I can be alone and hide. Being alone breeds longing, but pining for something always feels better to me than striving for it does. Alone time gives me space to wallow in longing, which is my natural habitat. I think Neil feels the same way: “Even when I’m happy,” he once said in an interview, “I write about being lonesome.”

Four summers ago I checked Jimmy McDonough’s 2003 Neil Young biography out from the library. I had read John Lennon’s the summer before, and it had filled in so many blanks about the era and the life that his songs came from. I got to see the musical legend in a real-life context, to understand how his work intertwined with his fame, his image, his childhood, his activism. I started to hear his music as a response to the world he lived in, and my appreciation for it was deepened and enhanced. I wanted to have that same experience with Neil Young and his music. For so many years his songs were like lullabies to me, security blankets I curled up with when I needed soothing—but I knew nothing about what they were supposed to “mean.” As I got older and craved understanding more than comfort, I started to wonder what he meant when he told us to “look at mother nature on the run in the 1970s” in “After the Gold Rush.” When he sang, “Don’t let it get you down—it’s only castles burning,” I wondered what his burning castles were. There were more than a few times in life when I heard myself in “Cowgirl In the Sand”, but differently each time—whether it was turning 18 and realizing the power that was being “old enough now to change [my] name,” or growing out of childhood to understand what it was “to be a woman and to be turned down,” or being 15 and awkward and hoping I was a diamond in the rough, or a “ruby in the dust.” But I wanted to know: Who was this cowgirl really? Who was she to Neil?

I don’t remember the exact moment when I decided to close the book, but I never got farther than the first few chapters. Not because it wasn’t well-written or -researched, but because I realized that unlike with John Lennon, I felt too close to Neil already. Biographical facts weren’t going to get me any closer; I already understood his heart. Actually, that’s not quite right—I don’t know Neil Young at all, but his music makes me understand myself. Knowing more about him isn’t the point.

I’m an analytical person; when I feel something, my brain wiggles around trying to objectify, rationalize, and explain it so I can make sense of it. This is how, by and large, I understand the world…but not all of it. The people and things I find the most magical are the ones that I allow to remain mysteries to me. I let myself love them without trying to figure them out, because I think any attempt at analysis would unravel the magic threads that connect me to them. Neil is exactly this to me. There is something about his music that I can’t explain, a connection that I can’t quantify with answers and explanations. Neil escapes the churning gears of my brain, and I follow him, “out of my mind, through the keyhole in an open door, happy to find that I don’t know what I’m smiling for.” ♦