Monday, March 9, 2009

Boats, Books, and Dating in the Land Down Under

Raving fans and gentlemen, my name is Chris Lauer and my phone doesn't work.

Years ago, when I was young and stupid, I romanticized the freedom of the cell phone-less life. Freedom from friends, freedom from girls... the freedom to mope around on weekends and read. Positive and negative liberty converged in the absence of that one omnipresent modern convenience. And then I went to college, where everything changed. That's right, boys and girls, I bought a cell phone. Rappers use cell phones. Venture capitalists use cell phones. Impoverished college students, rather than splitting the difference between urban musicians and the uber-rich, spend the better part of their meager cash rations on "staying connected." In general, the term "staying connected" is used by phone companies to make frugal people feel inadequate. Before becoming a strong, empowered, self-made man, I caved to peer pressure and bought a phone.

Cell phones, like weeds, are hard to remove once they've taken root. My phone is an unwelcome extension of my body. But welcome or not, I like to put my appendages to good use. So when I emigrated to Australia for a semester and my phone ceased to function properly, you can sketch a raw image of my disconnected anxiety.

I am utterly lost.

For reasons that elude the problem solving skills of in-store phone company reps, my mobile phone can't call other mobiles. Land lines? No problem! In the pantheon of modern technology, I must have unwittingly aggravated a lesser deity of telephones. As an apathetic/agnostic by birth, rubbing mysterious and powerful spirits the wrong way is not the way I like to do things. I'd rather play Frisbee and eat organic food.

Disconnected, stranded in a strange city on the flip-end of the planet, and really, really ridiculously good looking, I was forced to come to terms with my phone situation. Yes, money is tight. Yes, I earned myself a mean sunburn. And yes, my student card doubles as a library card. So last Friday, rather than head to the beach, I donned my ancient Tevas and set out for the University of Queensland to get free reading material.

Libraries are candy shops for the literate soul. As a general rule, I enter libraries expecting to check out one or two books and leave with a backpack stuffed full of unrelated readings. I pulled out books on Kant and on international relations, on Australian politics and on feminist perspectives of Machiavelli, on philosophy and history, and I went out to the big room to read and, in classic Chris Lauer fashion, dick around on Facebook.

I sat down across from a big, mustached guy--with a poncho, he would have looked like Sancho Panza from "Don Quixote"--and plugged my laptop in to the world across the Pacific. Simultaneously, I cracked into Carr's writings on the 1919-1939 period. In any given library, you're unlikely to find a more dashing, more attractive, more intelligent multi-tasker than yours truly. Obviously I was too much for Sancho. He closed his laptop and went to find less dazzling surroundings. Sancho was not missed. But I wasn't alone for long. I soon discovered I wasn't the best looking person in the library. A slender red-haired girl took a chair at my table. Because beautiful people are a dime a dozen in Australia, I didn't give this showstopper the attention she deserved. But that all changed a few minutes later.

"Excuse me," the bombshell leaned across the table, "is your Internet not working also?" The accent caught me first. Pinched vowels, an almost timid uncertainty about sentence structure, strong consonants. Very cute. Very German. Helping her with her Internet woes will obviously not be enough. I must know more about this beautiful stranger.

"Hi, I'm Chris. What's your name?"

"I'm Jenny. Where are you from?"

Completely unaware that Jenny was a German name in common use, I performed the standard move of all nativist Narcissists and started rambling about all things Alaska. As our conversational tryst continued, I learned that the girl sitting across from me was very likely the most interesting exchange student in Australia (no offense to my fellow Study Australiites). Jenny told me she's student of cultural science, focusing specifically on music subcultures. As a member of more than one music subculture, I decided then that I needed to walk away with her phone number. After an hour and a half of gripping discussions on the nature of music culture and the realization that our music tastes differ very little, we swapped phone numbers. My stomach and heart had switched places, and I left to catch the ferry home.

The pounding sound in my chest drained my memory of the all-important fact that my phone is a mute, and as I walked away down the main concourse I realized that I needed to walk back and forwardly, formally ask this girl on a date, I was accosted by a bunch of quiche-peddling UNIFEM hustlers. UNIFEM is a great program that supports women's rights, don't get me wrong. It's about as objectionable as a hug or UNICEF, both of which it has a lot in common with. But as a college student on both a budget and a mission, quiche would have to wait.

"Not right now, amigos. I have bigger fish to fry."

"But the quiche is free! We had a meeting earlier and we have all these leftovers..."

"You're giving away old quiche? Sounds dangerous, edgy. No way I'm eating any."

So I turned tail and ran from those cosmopolitan-minded hucksters back into the library. There was Jenny, walking back to her seat from the water fountain.

"Hey, you seem like a busy person, but would you like to go see a movie sometime?" Sometime? My, my. My A-game has slipped after two months in the frigid north, cooped up with no alluring women to ask on dates. Open-ended time options are the bane of the dater's existence. Tomorrow becomes next week, next week becomes a busy schedule, a busy schedule becomes a never. My tact has failed me.

"Yeah, definitely!"

"OK, great. See you!"

My brain is convinced that this is the last I'll ever see of this amazing lady, but my heart desperately hopes it isn't.

I pass the quiche brigade again. "You sure you wouldn't like some quiche? It's heaps good."

Had I listened to Natalie Portman's rap anthem more recently, I would have swatted that greasy egg pie out of his hand and shoved him into his associate quiche-disher. But my mind was at peace and I was one with a turbulent universe, so I risked my digestive system and took their damned quiche.

"You can't take a quiche without taking a pamphlet." Cheeky bastard, inducing me to litter. I'm wearing foot gear long since forgotten by civilization that my roommates frequently criticize. To the untrained eye, I look either impoverished or edgy. I wish I could be edgy. Very obviously, I will not be donating to UNIFEM until I strike it Oprah-rich in the legal world years from now. I take the pamphlet and eat the worst quiche of my miserable young life.

Moving on: I'm on a boat and I have a hard time avoiding allusions to T-Pain and The Lonely Island. I wish my voice would auto-tune like T-Pain's, and my desire to spray Santana '73 cham all over the deck is hard to control. Kant is my companion on this big, turgid, watery road. "The Perpetual Peace" seems oddly ill-suited to the weekend that followed.

Friday night is placid, casual; standard fare for a man stripped bare of initiative. But Saturday morning I received a text message from none other than Jenny the German girl. She asked if I wanted to see a movie later.

There was a smiley face in the text message.

A smiley face.


Not only is this girl fascinating, I'm now convinced that she likes me as much as I like her. Cue problem: my phone can't communicate with other cell phones. I take a shot at placing a call: I'm greeted by a cheery female voice that informs me, with a thick Australian accent, that my call cannot be connected.

Fuck you too, robot.

I sent her a text message, but with no way to know if I got through to her, I got antsy. Minutes pass like kidney stones. An hour goes by. No response. The German girl who sent me the smiley face has forsaken me. So I cave: I read her number off my phone and dial her from the land line. I get an answering machine. If this girl is anything like me, she never checks her voice mail. Despondent, I slink back to the couch and try to learn a thing or two about cricket, convinced I've ruined a fine evening.

Cricket reminds me of my attempt to learn bridge. In the comics section of the morning paper, there was always a segment on a particular bridge problem. Having no prior knowledge of the game, and coming in with preconceived notions of how card games should be played (i.e., like poker), I was hopelessly lost in the bridge world. I'm no closer to understanding the game today than I was before I spent two weeks shoddily reverse-engineering a game I cared nothing for out of the newspaper.

Cricket and I have the same problem. I get that there's a ball guy, a bat man, and a smattering of dudes who stand around scratching their junk. I get that the ball guy is trying to break sticks, which annoys the bat man. The bat man slaps the ball and the nut-scratchers, ever fond of balls, try to grab it. There are scowls. There are tears. The score reflects the scowl-to-grown-man-breakin
g-down-and-crying ratio. The goal of the game is to get the entire opposing side to throw up from sheer disappoinMY PHONE IS RINGING! IT'S HER! IT'S RINGING!

"Hey! How're you going, Jenny?"

"What?" she asks. Australianisms don't translate well over the phone.

"Hi Jen, what's up?"

We decide to go on a date later that evening. Not just any old date. Not some lame maybe-hook-up-at-a-party date. Not for this one. She's a dinner-and-a-movie girl. In looking up movie times, one film catches my eye. What could be better than Slumdog Millionaire? It won awards.

This is the same reasoning people use to justify Nickelback.

I have a history of choosing bad first-date films. When I was in high school I went on a date with a beautiful bright young lady who had just turned seventeen, who could, for the first time, watch R-rated movies in theaters. What could be better than watching an R-rated movie in a theater?

Whenever I ask that question, the answer isn't "nothing."

She decided to turn seventeen at the unfortunate junction in human history when the only two R-rated films on the big screen were Doom and Saw II. Fully loaded with popcorn and Sour Patch Kids, we settled in for a nice, uncomfortable, romantic first date to the opening credits of Saw II.

Raving fans and gentlemen, torture porn is never an acceptable date option.


After the gut-wrenchingly terrible cinematic miscarriage that was Saw II, we went for a walk and made tiny icemen in the seafood section of the grocery store. Good, lighthearted fun. I walked her to her car and got a peck on the lips. For the next week, I rode around on a cloud. A week later, she and I put the ugly business of Saw II behind us and had another--better--date.

There's a reason I study history. A great and very famous man whose name escapes me once wrote that those who forget history are doomed to repeat it. It was probably Jesus. Maybe Professor X. My lesson from that fateful evening was that you do not take pretty girls to jarring movies, not at first. Or maybe Martin Scorsese, maybe he said it.

"Slumdog Millionaire won awards. It'll be a great date movie!"

I can see my mother now, warning me against taking a girl to Slumdog. My mom's a real peach. "You'll regret it. You won't get any!"

Too bad for me and too bad for history. To Slumdog we go, and a mere five minutes in I regret the choice. Slumdog Millionaire (Warning: I spoil the ending) is a story about a super-poor kid from the Mumbai slums who wants to impress a hot girl. She's a perfect ten, and he's the South Asian equivalent of Corey from Boy Meets World. The next two hours are filled with beatings, electrocutions, poop, senseless killings, rape, boiling acid, gun play, and the Indianized version of "Who Wants to be a Millionaire." In the end, the main character wins big on a guess and uses his 20 million rupees--roughly US$400,000--to run away with the gorgeous Latika, who for reasons I won't explain loves this goofy, abused bastard.

Sounds good for a date, aside from everything leading up to the last three minutes of the film.

If there was any chance I had of holding this girl's hand that night, Slumdog blew it for me.

No. Wait. I'm going to assume responsibility for my actions. I blew my chance at holding her hand.

Raving fans and gentlemen, I encourage you all to breathe deep from the misadventurous wellspring of my inexperience. We study history for a good reason: so we don't screw up the same way twice. I didn't learn my lesson, but you can learn from me. Never forget. Be ever vigilant for critically acclaimed movies. Slumdog Millionaire is a fine work of art, a beautiful piece of cinema, but a TERRIBLE date movie.

Afterward, we walked back to her house and talked about life and music and travel and adventure and Australia and Europe and Alaska and culture and Tolstoy and Ben Kweller and Circa Survive and... and...

And then I got a hug.

And then I got in a cab.

And then I confessed the whole evening to the cabbie.

And then he told me to bring a crowbar next time.

And then I told him I didn't understand.

And then he, in the Socratic way, brought me around to the understanding that crowbars were intended for opening a woman's legs.

I decided my cab driver was not a romantic.

It was a fine hug, but I'm left with the residual notion that I blew multiple chances for hand-holding or even the errant smooch. Why? I don't know. I couldn't say. Perhaps I should have brought a crowbar.

But I'm glad I didn't. See, books, history, and romance all share something in common: they take time. History unfolds over the course and span of days, months, and years, and is studied in minute detail for decades as patterns emerge and weave their way into cohesive narratives. Books demand a patience and mental involvement that far outstrips any television series or movie, that lets the avid reader construct vivid wordscapes across the vast plain of imagination. And dinner-and-a-movie girls don't always smooch on the first date.

And you know what? I'm cool with that. I read every day, I study history carefully, and I can wait until next time for a kiss on the cheek. Maybe longer. Raving fans and gentlemen, my name is Chris Lauer, and, like so many good things, this too will take time.

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