12 Things I’ve Learned from Doing Karaoke for (Almost) 12 Months

My new year’s resolution for 2016 was to go to karaoke once a month. I got a little militant about it. I picked a day: the third Tuesday of the month. Every month. Karaoke Night. I sent out a Google Calendar invite to a lot of people I knew from random walks of life, thinking, what the hell. How many people are really going to show up late on a Tuesday night to a dingy dive bar to sing karaoke. Probably no one. So I invited everyone.

The point of doing this was to practice getting over myself a little bit. A couple years ago my family went on a cruise and my brothers and I all entered the karaoke competition, which my brother won with a killer rendition of “Let’s Get It On” and which I bombed with a flat attempt at Aretha’s “RESPECT.” The cruise was a blast, but inside I was kind of butthurt about the whole karaoke thing, and it kept nagging at me. I’m not a bad singer, but sometimes I take things too seriously. It seemed ridiculous to care so much about something so silly. So with this New Year’s resolution I wanted to practice not not caring, but just being willing to dip in and out of serious and not-serious a little quicker, a little more resiliently. I wanted to learn to take things seriously but also let them go.

In some sense this type of thing is something you could practice with a number of different activities, but karaoke is important because it has this social element: it’s about how you act around people in public. It’s about seeing how good and bad you can be in front of people, testing the limits around each other — how terrible at singing can someone be? How amazing? How drunk? How sober? How freaking awesome? How fucking weird? Also it’s totally frivolous and gratuitous, so it begs the question: how are you going to act in community when things ultimately don’t really matter, and why? Which, not to get too existential but, is kind of like life.

I like thinking about big things and I like having fun with other people. Hence: Karaoke Night. I’ve got one more coming up for the year — the 3rd Tuesday of December is next week — but I’m going to be too busy stuffing my face with egg nog and fudge come Christmastime to write a blog, so here’s some things I’ve learned from this experience for you.

Side note: I know this whole thing is an introvert’s nightmare. That said, thanks to all my introvert friends who came out over the months; you’re my heroes and you make me change the way I think about doing things.

  1. Karaoke begets karaoke. This is like how when someone collects elephants, everyone buys them elephant shit forever: once people find out something’s your thing, it becomes your thing even more. Karaoke “once a month” often turned into karaoke three or four times a week. Because I don’t have kids and even though I have important goals and hopes and dreams and other responsibilities I don’t have energy for them after 9pm and anyways, who am I to turn down another opportunity to tap into my 90’s music roots. I know the world is burning down around us, but this is how I spent my year.
  2. Neutral territory is key. If you’re bringing together people who don’t know each other well, it’s nice to have something really random to connect over. I feel this way about soccer or hiking or other activities, but karaoke is nice because you dont have to be in shape or worry about different skill levels. Again, you’re allowed to be bad at singing, that’s part of the point. Plus, even if you come to just hang out, it’s still a free show on top of your normal night at the bar. It’s just enough different-than-usual and just enough no-pressure. I do enough random stuff in my life that I know people from all kinds of social spheres, and this year it was cool to see different people connect over this single shared factor: that I begged them to please don’t let me be alone on Tuesday and come to karaoke.
  3. Be particular. When I picked Tuesday nights at 9pm, it weeded out a lot of my friends. Some people were like fuck no! Tuesday? Karaoke? Are you crazy? And some people were like HELL YES, see you there. This isn’t unlike anything you make a hard fast arbitrary decision about. This is why I write fiction: you don’t talk about everything, you talk about one thing. You sing ONE song. Make it good, make it important, make it fun. It’s okay if people don’t agree or come! But at least you’re having a conversation point with them. “Let’s hang out sometime” doesn’t always turn into anything, but “Karaoke with me at 9pm on Tuesday” results in a lot of hard nos and yeses and also a bunch of maybes, we’ll sees, next times, I’m scared but I’m interesteds — it enriched my friendships with people I still haven’t seen in months as well as people I see all the time.
  4. Welcome the surprise. Often I would target and harass people into coming to karaoke with me; other times I wouldn’t and let me tell you — the best feeling in the world is showing up thinking it’s just going to be you, yourself, and your Merlot and then having people walk in who I never thought would be available or interested in the least come join in and turn a regular ol’ night into a bright sunshiney day.
  5. Don’t judge a book by its cover. It’s not a consistent rule, but it’s not uncommon for people who look very capable and put together to really suck at singing — and for people who seem weird ASS at first, second, third, and every glance to be really kind of incredible. I also love seeing what songs people pick — you can usually guess the country people, but every now and then a little Asian dude will slay an Otis Redding song or an old decrepit-seeming lady will go HAM (Hard As A Motherf*cker) on Missy Elliott.
  6. It’s okay to be bad at things. Again, I’m not terrible at karaoke. Usually some drunk guy will come up and tell me I’m the second or third best singer in the bar… which I always appreciate (remember: Tuesday night. “Bar” = 7 people). But no matter how good at things you are, there’s always someone better in some way. Someone who can sing and dance, someone who knows all the words to “Bootylicious”, someone who sucks way worse than you at singing but is clearly way braver than you ever will be.
  7. Read the crowd. Some nights, you really want to sing a lady ballad, but the bar is full of weird alterna-bros. Pick Audioslave instead. Save Celine Dion for nights when there’s a bunch of boring looking girls being quiet in a corner and they will come alive. Sometimes you should just sing what you want to sing because you had a bad day and who cares; other nights you can feel the competition in the air and you should bust out one of your all-time top-5 greatest karaoke hits. Is it crowded and busy? Don’t pick anything longer than 3 minutes.” Is it super slow night with one old creepy guy in the corner? Go ahead with “Baba O’ Riley” in all its million-measures-musical-break-glory; be my guest, break a leg.
  8. Tip your bartender. Bartenders are always putting up with shit, but even more so on karaoke night. Double tip if it’s a slow night and they sing.
  9. Tip your KJ. He has heard this song a trillion times and he may or may not hate it. He’s working hard just like we all do all week. He’s putting up with your shameless self-escapism or self-discovery. I always forget cash so I try to drop a $20 when I have one. KJ Rob rules.
  10. If you’re alone in a bar, do not talk to someone else who’s alone in a bar. Talk to a couple, talk to a group. Never talk to someone who’s by themselves because they’re just as weird and needy as you and the combined neediness is too isolating for two people. I’m not saying be a cold asshole — smile and high five them for their song, but do NOT engage or your evening will implode.
  11. If you have decisions to make karaoke will help you. On the fence about breaking up with someone? Quitting your job? What life is really about? You will get affirmation (or at least strong opinions about) whatever it is you need. It’s like therapy, only grounded in zero standards. So ask away, but just remember the kind of people who are doing it are people who are at karaoke on a Tuesday night because they’re a little bored and a little lost and a little hopeful and a little idealistic, just like you.
  12. It’s okay to be by yourself, but you are never alone. I cant tell you how many times I thought I was going to be there by myself and somebody I knew showed up. Or, just as frequently, no one showed up and I made friends. Give it another couple songs or another couple sips and you’ll all be family — the karaoke spirit is an all-inclusive force. It sounds cheesy, but people are people, and we’re all in this together. If I had a dollar for every time I had that thought doing karaoke this year, I could tip EVERY bartender and KJ in every karaoke bar in the world.


5 Books That Made A White Girl A Little Less So

There’s this essay by Chinua Achebe called “The Truth of Fiction” that talks about how reading and writing fiction can change and affect our real world in serious, important ways. I keep a copy on my desk and try to read it quarterly at minimum. It’s from this book of essays, which I’ve never read but cannot recommend going out of your way to read enough even just for this essay. I can’t believe it was written in 1978 and the world is still the way it is but… here we are, still trying.

didn’t know how to personally deal with all the racism-based-violence that’s happened in America recently, so I started making an effort to read more about black people. It feels like kind of a cop out because — me sitting in a comfy chair reading when other people are attending rallies, forming coalitions, volunteering for change? But this Chinua Achebe essay made me believe that by reading fiction I could actually change myself and therefore actually subtly affect change in the world around me. When I thought about it, I also realized the fact I even thought racism was a problem was simply just because I’d read books about black people that made them feel real and human to me, even though I didn’t know a lot of black people firsthand myself. Here are five books I’ve read over the past eight or nine years that have helped me become a different person in the way that I view (and hopefully treat!) others who look different than me:

  1. A Long Way Gone by Ishmael Beah. I often wonder about the kind of person I would be had I not taken an African Lit class in college. This book is the autobiography of a former Sierra Leone child soldier, a topic that was kind of buzzwordy around the time (think Invisible Children and Kony 2012)… I mean I saw this book for sale at Starbucks, you know? But just because it’s sort of trendy doesn’t mean it can keep you from crying for hours and hours in your dorm bunkbed, which I definitely did. Social justice as a trend — uf, I have a lot of thoughts about that for another time. The point here is, this is a story of what it’s like to be 12 years old and have totally normal desires (family, friendship, excitement, adventure, activity, praise) and then have them totally warped. It’s an extreme story (burning down villages to kidnap kids and give them drugs and machine guns to work on some larger political scale), but this book breaks it down to a level you can relate to because you were 12 once. Makes me think about how different our lives can be even though the cores of us are so the same.
  2. July’s People by Nadine Gordimer. This book is short and impactful, something you can read on a long afternoon, and I probably should do so again because now that I’m writing about it I’m realizing I don’t remember it too well (not necessarily a raging endorsement I know but seriously it was good I’m sure of that). It’s a family story, and done so in a way far richer than something say, Franzen writes of families. I mean add in having to deal with apartheid and suddenly everything becomes more sinister, critical, and meaningful, right?
  3. Native Son by Richard Wright. Not only am I not well versed in other races’/nationalities’ histories; I’m often equally ignorant of my own. My understanding of Cold War history & communism is still, despite more than one high school World History video project, elementary at best. Native Son helped me learn more about the way all these traumas intersected at once and manifested on a super specific level (i.e., the task that all great fiction should strive for). This is a violent and stressful book — it took me three months to read just because of how much it was all affecting me — and that’s yet another perspective it seems important to consider; the point of view of someone who commits violence. Tough book that’s well worth it if you can stomach it.
  4. The Fisherman by Chigozie Obioma. Buahh, this is my favorite book recently. I need to stop lying to dudes on dating apps with this Steinbeck spiel I have on autopilot. The Fisherman actually reminds me Anna Karenina in the sense that it’s a family story, it dips really darkly and deeply and devastatingly for most of the book, and it has this moment of redemption that balances things out and re-sets the scales in the end. One bad habit I realized I have as a white person is thinking that all Africa is the same for all time — villages, huts, women carrying water on their heads, blah blah blah. Reading this book helped me learn the dimension and eras of other countries, namely, Nigeria in the 1990s. Little things like the fact that someone in Africa has a paper wall calendar like I have behind my desk… I dunno, that’s what helps other cultures feel real to me. Details like that help break down these sort of round, vanilla stereotypes we have in our heads — that’s how and why fiction works.
  5. Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi. I picked this book for our latest book club and I feel badass about my decision because the book was pretty great. This is a multi-generational book a la something like One Thousand Years of Solitude, and it’s rad to read that sort of book from an African perspective (versus Latino or Russian perspectives like I’ve read before). This was one of those books where I was kind of humming along in it, and then all of a sudden I felt this gut wrench in my stomach, not because something so exciting happened on the page, but because something happened and I was distinctly aware of how much effort it took (families, years, travel, trial, tribulation) to get to that point. That’s why reading and learning history is so important — you realize the magnitude of actions; it’s not just these one-on-one or two-on-two interactions, but these culminations of all these people and all these events that all went into something. That magnitude is powerful. Besides, history is a different culture in itself! May we keep learning from it so that we can make ours brighter, better, and more gentle in the future.

Honorable Mentions:

I realize these are all mainly Africa-centric selections, and there is a lot of good African American literature out there too. The Confessions of Nat Turner by William Styron and Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave by Freddy D himself are two that come to mind; Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God was probably my earliest brush with the tragedy of slavery in America. I know there’s tons more — any other suggestions?

The American Duty: Live Blogging My Vote

wp-1465261613292.jpgTomorrow is the California primaries and I have a LOT of problems. Most of them are the people whose names are or aren’t in the candidate slots, but that’s neither here nor there. The best way to explain my political standing is by telling you that I cannot remember who I voted for in the 2008 election. Nobody believes me but it’s true. I started college at a pretty conservative university in 2007 and came in talking about getting some recycling bins on campus and voting for Obama (also “relative truth” but I learned to keep my mouth shut about that pretty fast). When election time rolled around, one of two things happen: I either a) caved to the surrounding pressures of my conservative community and voted for Bush, or b) voted for Obama despite said surrounding pressures. I think (and hope) the latter, but unfortunately I can’t be certain — because either way, the decision strained my integrity and stress levels so much that I repressed the memory and nothing short of cognitive behavioral therapy (which I’m currently too poor to experiment with) has helped me recover it. I think my college boyfriend may know, since he was with me at the time, but he unfriended me on Facebook so… it remains a mystery.

Some other good backstory to my political beliefs is that I really feel strongly not only that everyone should vote, but also that everyone should vote in as much of an informed position as they can (I know you can read things forever and forever, but as long as you can come up with like, 3-5 good reasons for making a decision, that sounds like a good starting point to me). Last election (non-presidential, something local), I spent an entire Saturday researching every single candidate — their websites, news articles about them, bad stuff about them, good stuff, stuff from both sides, their social media profiles, blah blah blah. So good for me, right? Well then I forgot to mail the ballot. Strike 2 for being a good American.

So this time I’m determined to vote properly, but I’m still having some mega issues. The backstory to this particular election is that when I registered in Sacramento, I had this “brilliant” idea of registering Republican so I could vote for somebody besides Trump, but then when I got my Sacramento County absentee ballot, the names on it made me so disgusted and sick that I couldn’t bear myself to look at it or think about it anymore. This is why it’s 6:23p.m. on the night before my ballot is due.

But wait, there’s another problem: somehow I have TWO absentee ballots. I mean I know how — I was previously registered in Alameda County, where I’m from, because I was moving around a lot at the time; and now that I live in Sacramento I finally registered here. But I also don’t know how in the sense of, aren’t there a million people working on these things making sure everyone is only voting once and keeping track of who is registered where and when and why etc? Shouldn’t someone have noticed I had two ballots somehow and done something about it or rather, just not sent me a second one in the first place? I guess I always thought or trusted that by this point in American history where this whole system would be pretty smooth by now. I mean I remember hanging chads and all that but this is the age of Twitter and and hoverboards and microbrews so I guess I was hoping for a little better by 2016.

The good news is that my Alameda County ballot is a registered independent ballot. The bad news is I’m not sure I can use that ballot. Investigation time! My first set of questions is a sci-fi situation: did I clone myself? Are there now 2 separate registered Melissa G’s? Is it that easy? Am I at the porthole of a parallel universe? If I fill both these out, will I be able to go in and out of another life? My second set of questions, all wormholes and galaxies and transmogrified twins aside, involves my voting options: is this predicament actually a moment of grace where I can actually use my Alameda County independent ballot and NOT vote for any of these Reps like I in some moment of blind stupor (read: paralyzing fear of Trump from some Facebook article I read while hyped up on too much caffeine) thought would be a good idea? Can I use either of these ballots, or is one “more real” than the other? If I vote using the wrong one, will my vote not count (horror of horrors especially after all this stressing)?

6:26 p.m. holy shit I almost mixed up the ballots in the pile of stuff on my desk. Hallelujah the Republican one is red at the top. Crisis averted

6:38 p.m. Google is super confusing on all this but I found this website that allows you to check your voter registration by county. This is great! I learned that I am indeed officially registered to vote in two counties! But, as all these forms and envelopes are reminding me in thick black print, VOTING TWICE IS ILLEGAL. I would say I wouldn’t even think about it, but I thought about it. So time to figure out which one I should use.

6:46 p.m. Googling and not finding much, only that college students are not allowed to register to vote in two places, which I’m assuming goes for everyone, because why would college students get special privileges just because they can do a kegstand? Starting to get worried that if I blog about this I’ll get in trouble somehow? For being illegally registered? Also starting to get worried about internet trolls giving me either a) a super hard time for some of my inane chatter and views and b) instant answers or links to websites with answers that will solve all my problems the second I post this and mail off my ballot (don’t worry — I’ll wait til tomorrow to send it off so answer away, friends & citizens).

6:48 p.m. Thinking about crowdsourcing this on Twitter or Facebook but do not feel like dealing with the social ramifications of it (or the ensuing black void I feel in my soul when no one ends up responding, pick your poison). Also getting stressed because an old grad school friend and his wife are coming through town for dinner and 42 minutes is not a lot of time to make an informed decision about the future of America.

6:49 p.m. Giving up. Calling Dad. He says go with the one you registered with last (Sacramento). He is at dinner with four of my uncles and my cousin and they all concur. So we’ll go that route — Sacramento ballot it is.

6:51 p.m. (Staring down my Republican ballot and fighting back tears)

6:53 p.m. Big girl panties on. I can always fill it out and not mail it. Or fill out both, and then go talk to some nice person at the polling place, and have them help me mail one and shred the other. Why didn’t I think of that before? Of course the answer is both/and. I’m an American! I want it all! Sweet, we can just have fun with this blog now and work on the other ballot later and let somebody else help me IRL when the morning comes. And then I can get one of those I VOTED stickers. And then I can feel real American.

7:02 p.m. There is no way I am going to get all this research done before Z & E get here. If I just write in Bernie Sanders on the Republican ballot does it count? I don’t even need to Google that to know the answer. Actually wait, yeah I do.

7:04 p.m. God there are so many damn websites on this stuff which is great, yay public information, but it’s kind of a lot to figure out and how do I know which is right and wrong and dated? Read all the time stamps and compare them I know I know but dinner ain’t gonna eat itself

7:06 p.m. Resorting to process of elimination. Trump is a big obvious NO, that’s the whole reason I’m in this mess in the first place Cruz is out, right? And Kasich? If Kasich is out why did Schwarzenneger vote for him? Who the hell is Jim Gilmore? Oh he’s from Virginia forget that. Why aren’t there any women on this? Fuck it what’s good enough for the governator is good enough for me.

7:09 p.m. I literally feel like dirt. Dirt my dog shat in. A lot

7:10 p.m. On to County Central Committee Member. There are 3 women on this! Woohoo! Except if they’re Republican they’re probably like Sally in Scandal. Google search comparing the “Retired Literacy Coordinator” (first thought: yay reading! second thought: sounds old. third thought: that’s ageist. fourth though: old people can be wise) with the “Legislative Assistant.” Literally all that comes up for both of them is “not enough information.” Goin’ with ol’ lady Reading Rainbow here & hoping we all get more free books out of this. By the way what is a County Central Committee? Thank you Wikipedia (this is about the Democratic party but I’m going to assume the Republican side operates the same way. Dangerous assumption but Z & E just texted, 10 mins to go!).

7:19 p.m. Just realized I could vote for 4 County Central Committee Members. Voting for everyone except Jim, the only white man (and perhaps not surprisingly a retired engineer).

7:20 p.m. Holy f*ck there are 3 more pages of this and Z & E are 8 minutes away. My initial inclination is just to vote for whichever senator candidate has the coolest looking job but they all have pretty cool looking jobs. I feel like making jokes about all of them. Since when did this turn into a comedy blog? Pamela Elizondo caught my eye (Green party preference, “Environmental Healing Consultant) but then this is what I got out of Google so nevermind. I don’t even disagree that much it’s just mostly the grammar and formatting stresses me out

7:25 p.m. Still no decisions reached. Skipping this page.

7:26 p.m. Hell yes Doris Matsui for Congressional District 6. And hell yes Z & E are here. Peace out it’s dinnertime, I’ll leave you guys in suspense. Stay tuned to hear what happens when I show up with 2 ballots at the polling or mailing or whatever place tomorrow!