A Memoir of a Life in Fandom: Part 1 – Cat Paper City

I’ve known Angelina for about twelve years now; she is from Delaware, I from Tennessee, but we always kept in pretty close contact though we’ve never lived in the same city. She lives in Philadelphia now, and last weekend came into New York to get out of town and relax for a couple days. After picking her up and window shopping around Manhattan for a while, one thing lead to another and before we knew it, we were plopped in front of my flatscreen watching Phantom of the Opera: Live at the Royal Albert Hall on Netflix. We spent the rest of the weekend watching Phantom adaptations with another of our old friends from the Old Days, Elisa. Angelina had meant to leave early in the afternoon, but we were having such fun, rifling through Elisa,s extensive Phantom collection and laughing the adaptations away until the wee morning hours where, despite having work the next morning, Angelina had to catch the 3 AM bus back to Philly.

Twelve years later, and my past as a weepy-eyed Phantom “phan” is still echoing into the present.

Me, Angelina and Elisa in 2010

I sometimes have moments of reflection on how the Internet and fandom has shaped my life, and what my life would look like without it; the honest truth is I cannot imagine what that life would look like, who would populate it or what I would do with it. Angelina is only one example, a friend I made online twelve years ago through fandom that I’m still good friends with today. So much of my current life stems either directly or indirectly from my doings on the Internet, the trends that fascinated me and the things I was a fan of. I wouldn’t know any of my best friends, would never have met my boyfriend, and would not work for Channel Awesome but for some thing I was a fan of at some point.

The Internet is an integral and interesting aspect of modernity, but one that is still much maligned and eschewed as “not real.” Relationships that you make online are still widely considered inferior to the “real kind.” Friends you make online are widely considered shallow, fickle and temporary. If you, like me, say that you write online for a living, or create videos online, you sometimes get asked when you’ll get a “real job.” As much as the Internet has wormed its way into our lives it is still considered not real, inferior, and often a waste of time.

I don’t believe this is true. Well, it can be true, but not always. So this part marks the start in a nine part memoir-style blog posts that details my life in fandom, how it influenced my interests, lead me to the people I knew and still know, and in in many cases lead me the jobs I’ve spent most of my adult life doing. I’ve found that while the things you love might feel like a waste of time, you find, sometimes, it ain’t necessarily so.

Part 1- Cat Paper City
I hear a lot of generalizations about the children of alcoholics; that they tend towards extremes, that they’re often obsessive compulsive, that they’re often really messy, that they’re prone to Borderline personality traits, that they have a great sense of humor. In my experience I feel like children of alcoholics are a group of special snowflakes that it’s difficult to make generalizations about, but if I had to make one I would say that we’re well acquainted with loneliness. We aren’t always abused in the traditional sense, but we become accustomed to being, in some form or other, alone.

I don’t want to start this off with a weepy treatise on how my mother and father never understood me, but they had difficulty understanding me, primarily because they had such a hard time understanding each other. Children are intuitive creatures, and internalize the chaos around them to the point where, to them, the chaos seems normal. Looking back on it now, the Cold War at home probably contributed a great deal to my tendency to retreat into my own head.

From a very young age, I had a tendency to get obsessed with things, and from a very young age, my mother hated that about me. It wasn’t until I was much older that I was able to articulate why; because that was what she hated about my father. My father, too, got obsessed with things, which usually took the form of projects and doomed-to-failure businesses. I think the first thing I was really a “fan” of was cats. The animal, not the musical.

I know, right? Ironic, considering how much I hate cats now. But when I was in the first grade, I was obsessed with cats. Cats were my spirit animal. I would run around on all fours. I would create little paper cats, and little paper cities for my cat friends to live in. My favorite paper cat was named “Hot Lips,” and true to his name, he sported a big set of luscious red lips. I still consider this my greatest comedic innovation to date.

Being seven at the time, I didn’t see how the Cat Paper City living in my desk at school might pose a problem, especially when I was more preoccupied with Cat Paper City than I was with addition or subtraction. My first grade teacher, Mrs. Pfeiffer, was young yet, and I think I was in her first class ever. Not quite knowing what to do with the girl with the desk full of paper cats named Hot Lips, Mrs. Pfeiffer called a parent-teacher conference.

I remember not understanding what I had done wrong. Perhaps if I was in some sort of artsy school or Montesorri thing, this situation might have been handled differently, but this was Tennessee public schools in the twilight of the Bush years (the first set). Moreover, my mother really hated my more obsessive traits that reminded her of my father. And when she got sick of me pleading my case for why Cat Paper City was important, she ripped it out of my desk, crumpled it up, and threw it away.

That was the moment I learned to be ashamed of the things I liked.

One can be too obsessed with ideas, characters, and intellectual properties, and throughout my childhood and adolescence I certainly was, but it’s only now looking back as an adult that I can ascertain why; my fantasy worlds, my Cat Paper Cities, were a defense mechanism of sorts. I would invest in these made up worlds because there was  something painful and isolating about my real world. This set up some cognitive dissonance that I struggle with to this day; the ideas, concepts and characters I like are comforting to me, and yet they are also a source of shame.

The razing of Cat Paper City didn’t send me tumbling headlong into a depression, but I think the tense animosity between my parents must have worn me down over the years because as I crept towards adolescence, my humors became more melancholic. My mother, always a big proponent of better living through chemistry, put me on every anti-depressant imaginable. By the beginning of ninth grade I had no friends, and as a result was more invested in my anti-real world obsessions than ever (at the time, it was KoRn and Tori Amos. Shock, I know.) I was overweight and my once-clear skin had betrayed me. I was the ultimate cliche of the unhappy adolescent, the depths of my special flower misery known only to me. Most of all I was desperately lonely, sheathed in my own insufferable tendency to obsess over things. The ideas, books, characters and celebrities that I fixated on were both a source of comfort, and a source of shame.

Some people do have an addictive personality that makes them more apt to get involved in online fandom. And indeed, some people take it to unhealthy extremes. But I think a shared trait in many, if not most, people who get into online fandom is that feeling of childhood isolation. Something about the real world is cold and incomplete, so you go into your imagination and the imaginations of others in order to feel complete. To some people, like my mother, this is beyond comprehension. Yes, the real world sucks and is horrible, but deal. Live in it! To others, this is the only way of being, and besides, Mom just didn’t understand My Beautiful Suffering. So I’d turn to my angry music as a source of comfort and pathos. After all, KoRn and Limp Bizkit understood My Beautiful Suffering! My mother hated it, of course, but I kept my fixations to myself as best I could. I didn’t want another crushed Cat Paper City on my hands.

During my sophomore year of high school some well-meaning Christian acquaintances of mine, convinced that my misery was due to the lack of Jesus in my life, paid for me to go on a Young Life trip to New York. I certainly had no interest in the Young Life part, but who was I to say no to a free trip to New York if all it meant was putting up with a wee bit of proselytizing for a week? I mean, it wasn’t a bad week. These girls were not malicious; again, they just didn’t really understand me or how I thought, and they thought that perhaps by bending my interests from KoRn to Jesus they might make me happy. They were well-meaning, and sometimes I feel a little guilty that their investment didn’t pay off. I did not find Eternal Salvation from that week-long trip to New York.

I did, however, find the two disc Original Broadway Cast recording of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Phantom of the Opera…


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