Aural Sex

I have trouble listening to Pandora in public. Not because of anything that has to do with the service or the UI, although I’ll admit that the microscopic and vaguely gray font in the mobile app doesn’t really help me to decipher what bands I’m listening to when the program veers away from the familiar, but my difficulty has to do with what tracks it chooses for me. I listen to a lot of Nitzer Ebb radio. Shut-up, they’re awesome. Pandora likens them to Nine Inch Nails (perfect), Front 242 (fine), Combichrist (eh), Rob Zombie (lovely), System of a Down (ain’t happening) and a Perfect Circle and Tool. Those last two are the problem. Pandora doesn’t know that I get off on those bands. Literally. So listening to Nitzer Ebb radio on Pandora in public is a bit like using one of those remotely operated vibrator panty toys.I am not kidding.

In March of 1994, Tool’s single “Sober” became a smash-hit in the I’m-mad-at-mom circle, courtesy of a video directed by Fred Stuhr, which featured stop-motion animation conceptualized by Tool’s guitarist, Adam Jones. I wasn’t quite a teenager yet, but I fell in love with the song, the band, and, most of all, the voice of the frontman, Maynard James Keenan. While I will attribute part of my initial fascination to a “centerfold” spread of him in Hit Parader magazine which featured a live shot of him wearing little more than salmon pink lace-up thermal shorts and sporting a mullet-hawk, most of my neophyte sexual urges were tied to his voice.

While the past…oh fuck, seventeen years have been filled with all kinds of stuff, like actual sexual partners outside of my eardrums for yours truly, and more than one new career for Mr. Keenan, I still have a visceral reaction when I hear his voice, whether he’s making mouth sounds with Tool, A Perfect Circle, or his other project Puscifer. (Which has a new album that you should buy.) It doesn’t matter what form it’s in. If it’s his voice, it’s like there’s a gerbil high on methamphetamine in my pants.

But why? My spectrum of taste in men ranges from one extreme (physically imposing alpha males with a penchant for whisky and skirt chasing) to the other (diminutive designer-types who can share pants with me and give me advice about artisanal hand-rolled cigarettes.) It’s not like I’m a super-picky star-fucker and only have a “thing” for singers. Additionally, Maynard James Keenan has always fallen in the “wouldn’t be kicked out of bed for eating crackers or donkey punching me in the act” category based on his physical appearance alone but, my arousal response is mainly centered around his voice, which isn’t linked to any particular image, even this YouTube video of him using his black belt in jiu jitsu to kick a fan’s ass. Honestly. It’s not.

While I’m leery of people who worship celebrities, and I only keep up with popular culture in order to make jokes about it, I find the physical response to a stranger – let alone a specific behavior or product created by one – to be perplexing from a pseudo-scientific and psychological perspective. What if I got turned on by Joel McHale raising his eyebrows, or Guy Fieri stuffing his face? Is there a direct link between particular external stimuli, such as voices or auditory mnemonics, and human sexual response?

A psychological theory regarding the construction of language based upon interactions with ones environment, Relational Frame Theory research has uncovered some evidence that getting turned on doesn’t always have to go hand-in-hand with traditional sexual cues. And while I couldn’t find any documentation to necessarily prove that an album from the early ‘90s can consistently activate the internal faucet controls of my nether-regions, those who study RFT are working towards discovering why some people get aroused by stimuli that haven’t been previously linked to “sexual reinforcement.” I started to wonder if, like the popularity of raves, this response was purely based on chemicals, since it can’t necessarily be attributed to conditional learning or repetitive behavior.

The neurotransmitter dopamine exists in our brains as a jack of all awesome trades. It operates as part and parcel of behavioral functions and cognition, having ties to punishment, motivation, voluntary movement, sleep, mood attention, memory, and prolactin production associated with lactation and sexual gratification. But studies have concluded that the parts of the brain that control our dopamine systems don’t rule over the “hedonic impact” of so-called rewarding stimuli, and they don’t have any real effect on reward learning and association. What dopamine systems do do, however, is prioritize and grade the motivation of these rewards, basically allowing the brain to say that, yup, that sexy crooning might definitely lead to a toe-curling orgasm, or Ryan Gosling’s face would indeed make a lovely saddle.

But why is it that I don’t get clitoral convulsions from listening to Josh Groban, or his doppelganger, that hot dude from Maroon 5? I’m not exactly sure, other than the fact that the musical ministrations of both those gentlemen make me want to take pruning shears to my cochlea. Although I’m not likening myself to an amphibian, scientists speculate that certain animals respond in a particular way to very distinct frequencies of mating calls. Some naturalists have even studied a particular species of frogs who emit a distinctive croaky-ribbet when they want to get it on. In their electrophysiological recordings of these frogs’ cranial nerves, they found that lady frogs were excited by different audio frequencies of their little froggy cat-calls. Basically, guy frogs were sensitive to one frequency of the croaks, while lady frogs got hopped up by a different kHz.

I’m going to read into this study and believe that this means that I’m biologically predisposed to want to hump former US military men who make a living creating rock ‘n roll and drinking wine, so long as they hit a particular note. I probably would get a bit wet for Francis Ford Coppola if he sung a little tune.

I’m also going to believe that this is a sort of specific paraphilia, or sexual response that deviates from the norm. The same way that some people get off on leather or the abdominal muscles of fist-pumping cretins from New Jersey, I have a very particular, non-traditional hump response when it comes to one person’s voice. For some reason, when it comes to associative sexual reward learning in humans, a few of us weirdos find ourselves with our pulses racing over some mighty specific, interesting cues.

Okay. But why does biology trump my thought process? It’s not as if I have a particular guy-from-Tool-singing-in-an-elevator fantasy or anything. I just get aroused in a purely physical sense, separate from any mental maneuvering between the ears that are being titillated.

I wrote to the famed Kinsey institute to inquire about my Pavlovian panty response. I didn’t hear back. I sought out a well-credited researcher of disordered female sexual response and asked why biology would kick in and override all social cues only when exposed to one particular external stimulus. I didn’t hear back. I wrote a sociologist-and-human-sexuality blogger…and didn’t hear back. This leads me to conclude three very important points:

1. My question is not all that important.

2. It really doesn’t matter whether or not you have a name like “SlitSlicerx666” or “Girl2Ride44239” as your email address. Mine is very professional (my name) and I still don’t get responses from people with expensive letters after their monikers that indicate their job’s net worth.

3. The only way to uncover the answer is to perform a series of tests. You guys can be the non-Tool listening control group, ok? I’ll just sit here naked and press play on Undertow for the 16th time today. Ah, that feels nice.

Maynard James Keenan, circa 1993

Continuous feedback loop

Maybe I’m just not cut out for this.

I used to write so effortlessly. 2,000 words in an afternoon would be broken up only by scratching the patch and eating a yogurt. I had ideas the way that New Jersey DJs have fistpumps: frenetically, consistently, corresponding with a four-on-the-floor rhythmic beat. I wrote with such tenacity and desperation that it caused my first sponsor to wisely remark that I’d transferred addictions.

I replied that writing had never inspired me to get into a bar fight or steal Cadillac hood ornaments. And it still hasn’t. Yet.

These days I’m lucky if I finish an unpaid piece or project, let alone edit it. The very fact that I shit out one of these posts each week makes me feel like I should be typing it on the hay-strewn floor of a manger while three gift-laden kings follow a star to my location. (Note to all kings: I’d really love an iPad.)

At first I thought this struggle must be inspiration-based, I assumed that I had temporarily lost my spark. There were plenty of streams of piss to go on my tiny pile of creative cinders: the death of my mom, a bad breakup, the loss of my job, a wholly irritating struggle with depression set to a Fever Ray soundtrack.

Then I thought I just wasn’t taking care of my inspiration-making parts, that I wasn’t reading the right books, watching the appropriate PBS documentaries, listening to the necessary podcasts, sipping espresso with the suitable catalyst-commoving crowd. I tried to ramp up my intellectual stimulation. I traveled. I fooled around. I kicked it with bands that I’d liked in high-school. Still, writing wasn’t happening at the same pace, and certainly not with the same vigor.

Recently I’ve analyzed the way I see my future unfolding in the land of make-believe between my ears. I think about writing in a different, quieter town, I imagine sunrises with a cup of coffee and some breakfast, I hear the projected clicking of the keys punctuating the morning’s march into afternoon. In conversations with friends these days, I often cite my desire to live in a forest-ensconced cottage, to disconnect from big city living and become a bit simpler, at least in my everyday requirements. And while part of this bizarre illusion incorporates a career in aromatherapy, social circles organized around drums, and the incongruous use of ‘y’ in particular words that contain ‘men,’ the main thing that I’ve noticed is that, in my ideal fantasy life, there is no Internet.

Now, of course I’m not predicting the rapture, and I don’t see myself shrugging off all that I hold dear, signing up for an AOL address and going back to an unwieldy PC. But I do think that my imagination successfully diagnoses my writing problem, and it also explains why I get up close to 5AM in order to attempt to write every day. The continuous feedback loop of approval that I have manufactured for myself on the Internet has supplanted my ability to earnestly create.

Yeah, you’re the problem.

If writing previously gave me the satisfaction of, at very least, completing something, Tumblr can do the same thing in 1/18th of the time. Find a picture of a small animal wearing a hat and, surprise! Hearts are yours. And hearts feel good. Hearts feel (almost) as good as writing something, looking at it, and tooling around the words until they are good enough to send out into the world and be rejected or otherwise forgotten about. Twitter? Struggle to fit that dick joke into 140 characters and, whew, all that hard work will get you some retweets, some ‘at’ messages, maybe a DM and a few stars. Approval is yours! In less time and with less effort that coming up with that essay idea or writing an article about the history of snuff.

While I absolutely adore the people I’ve met as a result of the various blogging platforms and social networks I use, Internet has killed the writer in me. Nearly all of my inspiration, ‘ah-ha’! moments, and humor have been fed to the multi-headed hydra of Tumblr, Twitter, WordPress, Google+, Facebook, Flickr, and assorted comments. Instead of becoming a better writer with a more masterful grasp of language, metaphor, and flow, I’ve become a purveyor of snark and a popularity-hungry awkward kid, desperately trying to get her bad joke interjected into the fray. All I want is to belong, man.

But that desire for approval and to be liked (and “Like”d) has absolutely decimated the very thing that got me interested in the Internet in the first place. Originally it was a platform for my writing, a place where I could more-or-less effortlessly display my latest attempt and get feedback. That ouroboros consumed its own ugly tail ages ago.

So now what? Do I move out of Manhattan and structure my entire life differently, dole out my Internet usage like methadone, put up place-holding posts to indicate that I’m taking a day, a week, or more in order to really hone my skillz? Or do I suddenly delete all of my pages and join that “real” circle, bongos in hand?

Perhaps it’s like I said, that I’m just not cut out for this. Every day I see content generated by cute little goth teenagers that I follow, multiple posts, some with (horrendously spelled and incorrectly used) words, others with photos. These kids play on the glowy box between going to school, working part-time at the mall, and dealing with their various obligations, be they social, familial, or otherwise. How can they find the time to fuck around on the Internet and I, a well-worn adult with previously established time-management proficiency, cannot? Is it a failure on my part to play the game right or, as I’ve feared all along, is this an indication that I’m not really that much of a writer at all?

These are heavy questions, to be sure. And I’m sure I’ll find the answers eventually…once I’m done searching for a photo of a Chihuahua in a sailor suit.

How Not to Make a Decision

I like being told what to do. At least when it comes to large life decisions, like where to live, what to have for dinner, or which quarterback to choose for my fantasy league.

Last weekend I was in Pittsburgh, looking for potential apartments, yet the move was still pretty hypothetical in my head. There were too many factors that kept a U-Haul in the realm of harmonica-playing unicorns, flying profiteroles, dancing squirrels and butterflies with teeth. Then I saw an apartment that was on the very block where I had said I’d wanted to live, a stone’s throw from a yoga studio, a vegan restaurant, and stretch of tattoo parlors.

The owners of the apartment are friends of a friend.
The place is being refinished and outfitted with all new appliances.
The price is absolutely right, being less than my monthly maintenance in New York.
And the move-in date coincides perfectly with when I could be there.

So I found a place. Moving is a serious possibility. So now what?

Making decisions is something I consider to be as difficult as space exploration done by the blind or ending the NBA lockout. Easily frightened, stubborn, and fond of routine, I don’t enjoy the notion of change. But I couldn’t let an opportunity like this pass me up without analyzing it ad infinitum, so I figured I’d employ a series of tactics that would allow for me to make a measured decision. The first would be to make myself a snack.

While eating a yogurt I decided to carpet-bomb my friends with pleas for advice. How did they cope with serious choices? Most of them have “real” jobs and legitimate love-lives, so I figured that they knew some things that I obviously did not. Whatever “Become an Adult” memo they’d received had skipped my Inbox and was marked as Spam.

One of my friends told me about how he once used a decision matrix in order to determine whether or not to go to Iraq. (Really.)

When I heard decision matrix, I thought, “Whoa.”

Turns out that’s a pretty appropriate response. For those of you who, like me, are more familiar with eenie-meenie-miny-moe as a manner of selection, a decision matrix is a method of multi-criteria decision analysis that utilizes options and weights assigned to different variables. Basically it combines the numbered ranking of constants with some rudimentary math.

Concocted by British engineer extraordinaire Stuart Pugh, the original decision matrix was created as a process to help select from design options. From what I was able to glean from the Internet, there are standard grading systems, some basic multiplication, mild addition, and then, if all goes well, you’re presented with a pretty straightforward way of coming to a conclusion: numbers. The higher the value, the more obvious your choice. Here’s an example:

Er…This one was a little bit more clear:

Okay, so I got a little bleary-eyed when I saw the formulas and stuff. To me, math translates into the visual equivalent of Charlie Brown’s teacher’s voice. But I tried my best to create a decision matrix, with my two options being Move to Pittsburgh and Stay in New York. The criteria were Saves Money, Allow for Skill Development, Creative Environment, and Causes Anxiety.

Although I had to use my fingers, my computer’s calculator, and an app on my phone, I was able to complete the formula using the given method. I assigned weights of importance to the criteria and then ranked them according to place. Then I multiplied the weights by the rankings and added them all up. Each time – and there were two attempts at this, one that factored in Hot Tattooed Boys and Walkability as aspects of the paradigm, one that did not – Pittsburgh won.

Being still uncomfortable with the idea of relying on my dearth of mathematical skills as grounds for making a massive life decision, I created a good old-fashioned pros vs. cons list. Again, Pittsburgh had more pros (which included that it’s quieter than New York, surrounded by nature, cheaper, has an arts community that’s within walking distance, and there are several tattoo parlors mere blocks from my potential apartment) while New York matched it blow-for-blow with cons (a few choice cuts: my best-friend left, it makes me anxious, there are too many people, and my dad and I no longer seem to get along.)

Again, Pittsburgh was the victor.

Still itchy, I took two blank index cards and folded them in half. On one I wrote NEW YORK, on the other I wrote PITTSBURGH. I put them in a large salad bowl, mixed them up, and blindly picked. At the end of the Ray Charles impression, the card I held the card pointed my compass slightly northwest. And yet I still felt like I was wearing steel-wool underpants.

If I were the same impulsive, carefree whippersnapper that I was when I packed up and moved to Portland in three weeks, the decision would have been made and cardboard boxes procured from the garbage chute. But I couldn’t just commit to the ’burgh, as much as I liked the town. A dear friend with a logical mind asked me a very simple question that put the conundrum in perspective.

“Is it New York versus Pittsburgh? Or is it New York versus Anywhere But New York?”

Hmm. Well, there’s only one way to find out.

At the end of next week, I’m heading up the New England coast with my slightly disturbed poop-eating puppy. So far I know that I’m heading to Massachusetts and Vermont, but I’m willing to detour anywhere within driving distance. If you have any suggestions of where I should call home, or if you happen to be nearby, let me know. I’d love to employ the Internet to help me go on this adventure, beyond a simple Google and tag search for “tattooed boys in the northeast” and “towns that would make a good home.” And, in spite of John Walsh’s warnings, I’m always game to indulge in burritos and fro-yo with strangers from the Internet. Hit me up: AinsleyDrew at the gmail one.