Folklore & Dormroom Décor | Digital Traditions

Folklore & Dormroom Décor
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by Beth Hinson. Hinson is an International Studies student in the South Carolina Honors College at USC. This paper was written for the Fall 2007 class "Folklife in America."

I have decided to address a very personal topic, the folklore created by my roommates and me in the apartment we share on campus. A rich and diverse group of traditions, objects, and tales have been building up among the residents of my apartment since we first decided to live together. Traditions have been forming for a bout a year now, starting when we finalized the living arrangements in February. However, most of the significant folklore for the apartment was quickly created upon arrival. Traditions like movie nights were thrown together spontaneously. Other lore and oral traditions have arisen during different shared experiences, from funny moments, inside jokes, and pop culture references. A plethora of material lore also emerged, ranging from maps that decorate the common room walls, pictures on bedroom doors, and even a “Grow Your Own Gnome” kit. Most of the lore serves the purpose of unifying the apartment by recalling shared experiences or interests. Other articles serve to bridge the gap between dorm life and apartment living.

Because it is difficult to view this topic objectively, I have tried to include lots of input from my roommates, the other creators of the folklore. They were all enthusiastic to talk about the traditions we have created so far this year. While it is difficult to fully portray my roommate’s personalities since I know all of them at such length, I have tried to include important details where when necessary. While I am able to touch on much of the folklore crated for the apartment, there is still much more that cannot fit in this paper. Some stories and anecdotes could not be easily understood without significant prior knowledge of my roommates and me. I believe that the traditions I will describe are folklore because they are created and taught in an informal manner, and they are constantly changing. Even traditions that we picked up from another source have been personalized to our tastes and interests.

The actual apartment is fairly nondescript, it contains four bedrooms of identical size, two bathrooms, and a common kitchen and living room. It is located on campus, in West Quad or The Green Quad. The common room is in the middle of the apartment with two bedrooms and a bathroom on each side. These three smaller rooms are separated by a short hall. The apartment is handicapped accessible, so my side has an abnormally large bathroom with a fold down bench in the shower. There are five other apartments like this on the hall, and there are four floors in the building. Our building is the smallest in the Quad.

My roommates and I met in the freshman honors dorm, Maxcy College. One roommate, Katie, was also my friend in high school and roommate last year. The other girls lived on the floor above us. Unlike Maxcy, the social setting in the quad is very quiet and reserved. Although there are many common spaces, few people utilize them. Social interaction with neighbors is extremely limited. The only people who actively use the common areas are smokers and their friends. Unlike the hyper social freshman dorm we all lived in, neighbors did not make introductions at the beginning of the year, and the general trend remains that everyone keeps to themselves. The only neighbors we are familiar with are ones from Maxcy, or who we have encountered by chance outside of the apartment building.

We all decided to live together before winter break, last year. As we were all unfamiliar with how Honors housing assignments would work, everyone set their sights on an apartment on the Horseshoe, near all the other Maxcy residents. However this did not come to fruition and we ended up with the bottom of the barrel choices, West Quad or nothing. We took the spot in a quad but only begrudgingly. While this created some general bad feelings about the living situation at first, they were quickly overcome upon realizing all the advantageous things about living in this unfamiliar place. We were excited about the new building, Maxcy is fairly run down. Janet especially was excited for the emphasis on sustainable living.

At times the separation from friends and acquaintances from Maxcy has been trying, and it is easy to feel isolated when you’re across campus from everyone you knew last year. This has helped to create an even tighter sense of community among my roommates, frequent visitors, and myself. While the folklore I will discuss mostly involves my three roommates, Janet, Kathleen, and Katie, a small group of outside friends are also heavily involved and are familiar with our customs, traditions, and jokes.

My roommates are all sophomore liberal arts majors, a common theme that serves to unify the apartment and lots of its décor. Katie, my roommate from freshman year, is anthropology major and an art minor. Kathleen is an English major with a Spanish minor. Janet is a Latin-American Studies and Spanish major. Our mix of majors and interests has lead to an emphasis on studying and celebrating other cultures. Kathleen and Janet often speak Spanish with each other and insist on trying to speak it to Katie and me as well. This generally is to no avail as we both took German, which we rarely speak with each other.

Another common thread among my roommates is a political and social openness. Kathleen and I founded a group that is a campus affiliate of Planned Parenthood, and Katie is an officer in it. Janet is accepting of our group but has strong pro-life feelings. Political discussions are common, but they rarely become heated. We all define ourselves as feminists (most of the time for Janet) and everyone falls somewhere between liberal and moderate on the political spectrum. This openness towards political discussions is shared by most visitors and friends. We have created a small amount of feminist-themed folklore, mainly off color jokes that are not politically correct, mocking the beliefs that we all have. Similarly, politically incorrect jokes about race, religion, or class are common, because we all know that those feelings are not actually held by the joker.

The two most important traditions from the apartment are baking /cooking behavior and movie nights. Movie nights started last year in Maxcy, and were generally planned. This year they occur sporadically, often when multiple residents are trying to avoid doing work. There is little structure to movie nights and often people will move in and out of the room during the film. Frequently there are other activities going on during films, like knitting, painting (from our art major resident), studying, writing, coloring, or eating. With little emphasis on enjoying the movie it becomes predominately a social activity. Kathleen said that for her, some of the entertainment value in movie nights comes from the commentary made during the film and other reactions. Katie characterized movie nights as including these events: eating some kind of food, watching the movie, then viewing internet videos, and taking pictures. Movie nights have become such an important tradition that they made it into our roommate contract. Under noise in the apartment, we have listed that you can ask others to turn down the television, unless it is during a previously scheduled movie night. Janet pointed out that this rule was created after a particularly eventful viewing of High School Musical 2, which was the first big movie night in the apartment. Talking during movies is encouraged. It is almost always acceptable to make fun of the movie we are watching, unless it is someone’s favorite film.

Kathleen cited a viewing of Westside Story during which Janet was coming in and out, seeing only certain parts of the film, which she had never seen before. Her response to the racially charged film was to create sign for each girl’s door that would display a different racial slur, each representing a culture that we were interested in. Janet, a Latin American Studies major, put “Spic” on her own door, “Polack” was placed on my door, and Katie and Kathleen got terms for Italians and Irish respectively. While outsiders would possibly be offended by these flowery, colorful signs, they are used almost lovingly. Anyone who knows Janet would be aware of her love for Latin American culture and know that she would never use racial or ethnic stereotypes.

Baking traditions and food culture have also become an important part of the apartment’s culture.  Kathleen is the main supplier of homemade food in the apartment, she is an avid baker. She frequently makes cookies, brownies, fudge, and cake for various sales, special occasions, or just on a whim. This can become a group activity, when others gather to talk wile she is baking, or after to eat. Janet noted that this different from her experiences baking at home with her mom, because there is more sharing involved.  She also listed the mess and cleanup as parts of the tradition, the mess can be a source of humor. How and which food is shared is also important. This is the main way in which boundaries and manners have been established. Buying “communal” or shared products forces a sense of responsibility on each girl, since there is no set schedule for when to buy these items. Instead we just try to make sure that no one has been uncompensated for buying most of these products. The general attitude about private objects is that they can be shared in small quantities if first asked.

Other traditions that were listed by my roommates include spontaneous clean up time, the ritual of “awkward turtle”, viewing neighbors, watching TV shows, and photo shoots. Some traditions from last year were carried over initially, but then faded out. A prime example is salsa class on Friday nights. This was a very strict tradition last year which involved walking across campus for a 90-minute salsa class. Although we are right next to the building this year, the tradition died within the first month of being back. A new tradition for this year is Ruckus sharing. Ruckus is a free and legal music downloading service provided by the university, and we have used it often in group settings.  Some very obscure songs have been popularized within the apartment through Ruckus. Janet introduced us to the multilingual versions of Avril Lavignes’s atrocious hit song “Girl Friend”, namely the Mandarin version. Janet’s favorite Ruckus memory is from a week when Kathleen’s computer had broken and she primarily used Janet’s instead. During this week Kathleen downloaded lots of her favorite music to Janet’s Ruckus, forcing Janet to listen to it. This period introduced Janet to some music she ended up liking, and other types that she did not like, some of which turned into standing jokes.

Decorations

Decorations in the apartment consist of those on doors, the refrigerator, cabinets, walls and other surfaces in the common room. While some items reflect group values and preferences, others are more personal to those who provided them. They provide a unifying theme in the common room, which is covered in maps and other objects from foreign travels. According to Kathleen, the maps were a good idea because something was needed that all four of us could agree on, and the thing that we most have in common is our focus on liberal arts, especially as they relate to foreign countries. The maps came from Janet’s parents who have a collection of National Geographic maps spanning 30 years. The ones chosen for the walls are rarely just political maps. Most provide a historical, social, or environmental perspective. The maps are a form of aesthetic recycling. They were meant to be purely functional, but we have turned them into posters and decorations.

Decorating with the maps also provided a group bonding experience within the first few weeks of school. The process was labor intensive, as the room was first wall papered with these maps. However after one night of rain the maps all came down and we were forced to be more selective about which ones were placed on the walls. For Janet the build up to and memory of this first decorating session is an important piece of  apartment history. The most popular maps have people on them, such as the “Peoples of the Soviet Union” map or the “Celtic Europe” map. Both discuss the peoples of different lands in a fairly outdated manner. According to Kathleen, the peoples of the Soviet Union map stuck because it is funny and poorly written, “It reads like a travel guide”. It contains some outlandish descriptions of ethnic groups, like saying that Jews are a frugal people who make lots of money. Some maps have been personalized with the addition of stickers or pictures. People on some maps have become characters in the apartment. For example, the “Celtic Europe” map contains a naked Viking who appears to be skipping over Italy. They naked Viking has become a commonly referenced character, along with the “Saucy Koala” from the Australia map. The characters that stuck were generally discussed as the maps were going up at the beginning of the year. Unlike some other folklore, few if any, outside of the apartment are aware of their origins making them an exclusive bond shared by roommates. Different maps have been assigned to individuals as well. If one starts to fall down it is the “owner’s” responsibility to fix it. Often, when the World War II in Europe and North Africa map falls, I am called to come fix my Nazi’s or Swastika’s. This map was assigned to me because of my interest in the Holocaust and WWII history.  

Door decorations were typically created as sets, one for each girl’s door. They are mostly physical manifestations of our pop culture obsessions. They are also reminiscent of the door art which was extremely popular in Maxcy. While there is little of this on doors in the West quad, we have used it throughout the inside of the apartment. For example, each bedroom door has a picture of the “Potter Puppet Pals” on it. These signs were created by Katie, using an internet program that allowed her to pose the characters and add dialog. According to Katie the signs were determined by individual’s favorite scenes or traits that were connected to the scene. Other door art reflects the individual’s interests, jokes that have been played on them, or notes left by others. Kathleen’s door is probably the most diverse in kinds of decorations. It contains many notes left by others, an order form for a disgusting looking doll, some functional reminder notes.  

Katie’s door displays several pictures of cats with funny captions on them. She has also placed posits with some of her favorite quotes on them. Katie says that the quotes, from the TV show Psych, reflect her verbose sense of humor. Katie’s’ cats have spread to other doors when she thought they would be appreciated. She attached a sign to my door with a serious looking cat that has been labeled “Clark Gable Cat”. For me, this reflects Katie’s love of all things associated with Gone With the Wind as well as silly looking animals.

Decorations on the refrigerator are another highly social form of art . They represent some traditions carried over from last year, as well as new ones. Most serve as jokes appreciated by the group, or art created in a group setting. A set of “Pick-up line” magnets that Katie purchased at the beginning of freshman year are prominently featured. They are often rearranged to crate new phrases, sometimes ones that we have heard used. A recent addition is the Disney Princess coloring pages. They were created during a viewing of Robin hood Prince of Thieves. Most were done in the typical fashion, but Janet took lots of  creative liberties with two, personalizing them to reflect her concerns about mid terms, her loyalty to USC,  and a quote from a movie she had recently viewed. These coloring pages are reflective of our love of Disney movies, as well as our penchant for participating in child like activities. They were an excuse for a fun group activity and also a way to personalize a large section of the previously blank refrigerator. In posting them on the refrigerator we were able to participate in the grand tradition of hanging children’s bad artwork on the appliance, even though we are fully capable of producing more proficient pieces.

One of the most popular items on the refrigerator is the ad for a perverse looking porcelain doll, Baby Jasmine. I brought the ad after finding it in the mail over the summer. After Janet and I discovered that were both received it and were shocked by the extremely ugly baby doll being marketed as a “collectors item”, we placed it in a common spot. The order form has been filled out with Kathleen’s information and placed on her door. Jasmine has become almost character in the apartment, allowing us to mock some parts of culture that we find strange, such as doll collecting.

One of the most dynamic decorations in the apartment is the Bitch Board. This is another tradition started in Maxcy that we carried over and made our own. It started around finals first semester when the Maxcy hall association posted a wall size “Bitch Board” in the lounge. The board was available to all residents so they might air their complaints about finals in an anonymous and fun manner. Our board is only poster board size, but is identical in purpose. The complaints reflect a new set of worries, most from the beginning of the semester, and many about the new residence hall. However, the board is rarely used for serious problems, most stick to light hearted complaints. We have agreed that big problems are not bitch board appropriate, instead they would be awkward. Katie said that she uses it if she can find a funny way to word her problem. Kathleen characterized activity on the board as coming in spurts. For her it can also serve as a reminder of problems she has had. Janet also said the board serves as a reminder of things that have happened to each girl.  Another decoration that frequently changes is the dry erase board. It contains some funny story, set of jokes, or anecdotes that relate to current things going on with roommates. It first was a tribute to High School Musical 2, then it was making fun of one of Kathleen’s favorite songs. My roommates said that it serves a similar purpose to the Bitch Board.

Pet Substitutes

One of the most favored objects in the apartment is the “Grow Your Own Gnome” that Kathleen bought at the beginning of the year. It has occupied a clear Tupperware container on top of the TV or end table for most of the year and has been a constant source of amusement. It was named Mystery after a character from a TV show we were all watching at the beginning of the year. The real Mystery is a sleazy guy who claims to be a master pickup artist, and was training other men to become pickup artists themselves. Mystery had an affinity for strange and outrageous clothes, which we all mocked, especially his crazy hats. The justification for naming the gnome after him was that they both wear large, ostentatious hats. Mystery has come to function almost as a pet for us. He occupies what is basically a makeshift aquarium, he is a dynamic object, because his size, color, and shape constantly change.  A recent addition to Mystery’s tank is a “grow your own skeleton”. After we all attended a showing of The Rocky Horror Picture Show, he was named Tim Curry. Although this new toy has been the source of some amusement, he has not become a big deal in the way mystery did. Janet explained that she did not feel as connected to Tim Curry (the skeleton) because the name we gave it was not one she cared about as much. While Tim Curry was named after a one time group activity, Mystery stood for a tradition that lasted for a couple months.

Neighbor lore

Unlike our residence hall from last year, apartment style living is decidedly antisocial. There is no emphasis on knowing one’s neighbors, unless they are causing you problems. This is a huge departure from the close quarters of a small freshman dormitory, where everyone knows what everyone else is doing. Consequently, there has been a false creation of the community that is lacking from these new living arrangements.

The center of this neighbor lore can be summarized as Lonnie lore. This specific type of joke or oral tale involves the across the hall neighbor Lonnie, who remains a stranger to all residents of the apartment. My recollection is that on the first night the name Lonnie was spotted on the door across the hall, and the first Lonnie tale began. Although no one has ever met Lonnie he remains a central person to the oral traditions of the apartment, and mainly serves a way of joking about the fact that our building is so abnormally antisocial. Lonnie was picked as the subject of this attention because of his slightly unusual name. All the roommates agreed that Lonnie stood out on hall full of Matthews and Kevins. There is a standard format for Lonnie jokes and stories. One of the most common forms of Lonnie jokes occurs when someone is at the door. After letting them in, you would express disappointment in the person not being Lonnie. Actual sightings of Lonnie are also prime material for jokes. If you see Lonnie in the hall or Russell House, you might joke that you had a moment, even though he doesn’t know you at all. A central point in Lonnie lore is his remaining a stranger. If one of us were to become aquatinted with him, he would have to become a real person and the personality that we have created for him would disappear. Kathleen said that for her, our treatment of Lonnie is akin to making him into our own celebrity. Katie was similarly of the opinion that if we ever actually met Lonnie he would not live up to the hype. She also pointed out that all “Lonnie lore” conveniently ignores the little information we do have about him, such as the fact that he is engaged.

Other neighbors have generated folklore, namely Lonnie’s roommate with whom three of our occupants had an awkward encounter. We were introduced to him through a mutual friend in the restaurant in West quad. As we later discovered he was having a bad day and was acting very antisocial. Consequently one roommate, Kathleen, who is afraid of silence, made a rambling speech at him in hopes of opening him up. Unfortunately he just seemed to be disturbed by this. The meeting was so memorable that it became a folktale in the apartment. It is often brought up in other awkward meetings, when excerpts will be recited to the unsuspecting party. Katie’s version of Kathleen’s monologue was transcribed onto the dry erase board in the common room. It’s last line sums up the reason for the drawn out meeting, her fear of silence.  This last line includes inside knowledge that only close friends or residents of the apartment would have. Every time the story is told, lines change, but the point is always the same.

Pop Culture-related Lore

Most folklore from pop culture stems from television shows or videos found on the internet. References to these clips which have become popular among our apartment, are often made in fitting situations outside of the apartment, and have become a kind of inside joke. Some TV shows that have been very influential sources of folklore include, The Search for the Next Pussycat Doll, The Pickup Artist, and America’s Next Top Model. These programs are connected by their placement in the reality genre, and by their general lack of any intellectual quality. Instead of being quality shows they have proven to be fun and entertaining shows to watch in a group. Janet characterized the shows as ones she would never watch on her own, but that are fun to see with a group, especially when mocking is encouraged.

During group viewings of these programs interjections and mocking of characters is allowed and sometimes encouraged. Since all of the shows are reality competitions they try to teach contestants lessons each week. These lessons have become qualities that are frequently referred to among the roommates. For example The Pick Up Artist contains an entire vocabulary for talking about picking up women. We have made this vocabulary our own, using it in situations where a man may be unsuccessfully trying to pick up a woman or even in ones where it does not apply at all. In the show the term “day game” is used to describe how a man would approach a woman outside of a nightclub/ bar setting, in a grocery store or park. Terms from other shows include “creating a persona” and being “fierce” these are often used with great amounts of sarcasm, for example: “Wow, those pajamas are fierce” or “Is being mean part of your persona?” Phrases such as these ones have become part of our vocabulary, but have meaning only in context of the television reference. They serve as inside jokes and ways of communicating with each other when others are around.

Other traditions and practices from pop culture involve videos from YouTube. Some the favorites include Saturday Night Lives’ parody of Dora the Explorer, variations of the rap song “Soulja Boy”, and a SNL skit about prom dress shopping. These videos are generally found by one girl, and then shared with others. The ones that really stick are usually viewed by all residents at the same time. References to them become a way of identifying who is in the group, or in on the joke, and who is not. Again, vocabulary from these skits has become part of our everyday conversations. While an outsider might not recognize the meaning or origin of the phrase “whycome?” it is used within the apartment to make any statement lighthearted and silly. It was derived from the SNL dress shop skit, in which the girl’s mother asks “Whycome my baby can’t get that dress?” This phrase stuck with all of us because we have heard similar statements made in real life, with similar inflection and bad grammar. Videos such as these ones are often viewed after some other group activity, when one girl decides she needs to share a video that the others would appreciate.

Videos are also shared through Facebook, but this can make the viewing process more of a solitary one. In an example of the group nature of internet videos, Janet recently postponed watching a video Kathleen sent her through Facebook. Janet received the dancing cat video over Thanksgiving break, watched a little of if and then decided to wait to finish it because she wanted to watch it with other people. She said it looked funny so she waited in order to watch it with Kathleen. Videos that are viewed in a group setting are very likely to become part of the apartment’s customs. In this case, as they viewed the dancing cat they reenacted the dance and later sang the song as they watched it again. By celebrating this as a group experience it is likely to become a tradition to perform the cat song and dance when the right moment strikes.  Janet noted that YouTube parties have become a random occurrence, but once they start they become a pretty big production. There is a certain structure to these events, generally new videos are shown, then old ones that we are all familiar with. There are certain expected responses from the audience. It would be odd if we did not recite the words or act along with videos that we have seen before. There is a recognized audience, roommates or close friends. These performances would never take place around people we do not know, who would not understand our sense of humor.

Conclusion

Most folklore in my apartment serves as a mechanism for bonding my roommates and me as a group. We use it to celebrate things we all enjoy and to make fun of things that have caused us problems. Our material folklore shows the mixing of interests and tastes that occurred from living in such close quarters. And although much of our lore started somewhere else everything has been personalized to apply to us. Maps reflect favorite singers, areas of study, even character traits in animals. Our use of language from popular culture has become something that only we can understand and recognize. While a few others friends are aware of most of the lore, most was created by the four roommates. Tales about neighbors allow us to joke abut the difficult transition from one kind of living situation to another. The building we live in has become part of the folklore, by virtue of its distant location, idiosyncrasies, and social setting. Creating folklore has given us rules for acceptable behavior and shaped how we interact with each other. Most group activities are likely to be incorporated into our folklore, from watching a movie to having an unfortunate conversation with a neighbor. Folklore of our creation has become an integral part of our everyday lives.