Monday, September 28, 2015

Memory, Materiality, And An Autographed Photo Of Bert And Ernie

When I was twelve or thirteen years old, my father sent a letter and some paper clips to Bert -- you know, of "Bert and Ernie" -- and got back a signed 8 by 10 inch glossy photo of the two of them, and scrawled across it it said, "Dear Pat, Thanks for the paperclips. They were really keen. Love, Bert."

Even though he was born in 1935 and was thus outside the target demographic, my father loved Sesame Street. He especially loved certain muppets, and especially Oscar the Grouch and Bert. At his University office, where he was Dean of Engineering, he had Oscar and Bert finger puppets out on the desk.

The reasons for my father's love were probably complex. He'd grown up very poor in a family of Italian immigrants, with all kinds of associated miseries, instabilities, and frightening things, and so in one way he loved anything that suggested safety, predictability, warmth, and cleanliness. When he got home from work he'd turn on Mister Rogers. For a time we made yearly pilgrimages to Disney World -- a place where American capitalism enabled us to meet seemingly disparate entertainment goals: my goal of kid-fun, and his goal of seeing the trains run on time. Of course he'd love Sesame Street.

But I'd guess that my father's love for Bert and Oscar was also very specific. He appreciated Oscar's deep contrariness -- the need to be mad and sour when everyone was saying what a sunny day it was. My father was, after all, a man who rooted for The Yankees the whole time we lived near Boston -- just to be a pain in the ass.

With Bert, I'm sure my father admired Bert's nerdiness, way before nerdiness was a self-identification. My father liked to collect color charts for car options, and he kept them in three-ring binders that he'd take down and carefully peruse every so often. He liked to do his taxes, and once caused a ruckus by bringing them to an afternoon family affair to work on.

My father was a fanatic for office stationary of all kinds, and the paperclips were special ones from Germany. They were plastic and colorful and shaped in a funny surprising way. Maybe you don't remember that Bert had a paperclip collection, but he did, so my father put some in an envelope with a letter for Bert saying these were for his collection and he put his work return address: "Dean of Engineering, such-and-so College."

That he got back a signed and personalized photo with reference to the actual paperclips just killed me, I thought it was so awesome and funny. I loved imagining some Sesame Street personnel taking the time to consider the gift and think about the recipient. I loved that they thought a signed glossy with a message scrawled across it was just the thing. I loved that the writing was made to look childlike.

I was thinking about this signed glossy photo of Ernie and Bert this week because Frank Oz was the guest on Wait Wait Don't Tell Me and he's the guy who voices Bert and they all got talking about Bert's personality. And I remembered with sharp pang that the photo doesn't exist any more. It was lost in a fire in 1994, when I was in my twenties and a fire that started in the middle of the night ended up burning our entire apartment building down to the ground.

My father died when I was fifteen, which meant it had already been years since he'd died. I carried that photo around with me, and I talked about it all the time, and I told everyone I knew about how my father had sent paperclips to Bert for his collection.

Especially since the fire, I am usually the kind of person who doesn't care much about things and stuff. I can't deal with clutter. I like to throw things away. I don't keep memorabilia.

But the memory of this photo gave me pause. I feel like I would really, really like to have this photo -- to have it materially and not have just the memory of it.

Normally for me, the memory is enough. But now I think about this photo and there are things I feel I need to see again. Did Bert really say "keen" or might have been "neat"? Did Bert have his eyebrows in his characteristic frowny expression, or were they raised in his characteristic "surprised" mode? Am I remember the block-like childish writing correctly?

As a committed anti-disposophobe, I hate to think that it's the actual material object -- the object, which so cluttery, so easily lost, so fragile, so prone to decomposition, and so ephemeral -- that matters. But I think it might be true.

Monday, September 21, 2015

Sexual Intrusion And Sexual Harm: How Bad Is Bad?

One time ages ago I was listening to a podcast, and this guy told a story about how his wife had been shown some pornographic pictures and how he, the narrator, had completely lost his shit.

As I recall it, they were at some kind of large event -- selling small items or something, at some large theme-oriented fair, or something like that. They'd been separated when the guy went to get food for lunch, leaving the woman in charge of their area, and a stranger, another guy, had approached the woman and started talking to her. Then, just a couple minutes in, the stranger had taken out his cell phone and said "look at this" and showed her some pornographic photos, including, if memory serves, some of naked men with erections. Then he had run off.

At least as the narrator told the story, the narrator's wife was very, very, very, very upset. She was frightened and disturbed. She felt violated. She felt like she'd been the victim of a kind of sexual attack. When the narrator found out what happened he flipped out. He tore off to find the culprit, with the intention of physically attacking him. 

The rest of the story was about how the narrator had come to terms with his rage before he hurt the stranger, and the point of the story was about anger and self-control and not hurting people. But the part that stuck with me was the part about the woman feeling so violated.

It stuck with me because I couldn't imagine feeling so upset about something like that. I'm not judging her reaction or anything -- she has the right to her feelings and worldview. It's just so different from my own feelings and worldview.

I just can't picture dirty pictures having that effect on me. I suppose if there were no people around and a guy did that and then stuck around I'd feel frightened. Certain guys in certain sexually charged situations can become scary pretty fast, as I wrote about in this post about being in a lingerie store with a nervous guy, because they give you the feeling they're going to fly off the handle. But this story didn't seem to have those aspects at all. They were in a big crowd. He showed the pictures and ran off.

Together my friend and I run the Society for the Philosophy of Sex and Love, and occasionally people send us things that are weird or inappropriate or whatever. One time someone sent a long series of photos of himself in various poses, in various themed bits of costume, showcasing his penis in a variety of moods. Far from being shocked and upset, I was inclined to view this email somewhat in the light of a gift: it made me laugh, and when I showed it to my friends it made them laugh.

The wide range of different reactions people have to things like this is, I believe, one reason we find it so hard to come to conclusions about the moral quality of actions like the stranger-with-the-phone. I mean, what he did was wrong, and not nice. Sure. But was it a little wrong? Or very very wrong?

I feel like people often a sense there should be some kind of general answer to these kinds of questions, like we should be able to work out a moral principle, with a clear and justified bright line, and apply it across the board. But I doubt that's possible, partly because what causes sexual harm to people is so variable.

Monday, September 14, 2015

Writing Ruins Everything

Adélaïde Labille-Guiard, Portrait of a Woman, via Wikimedia Commons

There's a whole school of thought out there that says writing can be a form of therapy: if you experienced something bad or complicated or painful, you can write about it, and this will allow you to process your feelings and move on.

I never thought much about this idea until recently, because -- well, I'm not sure why, but part of the reason is probably that when I feel discouraged or unhappy in a substantive way, it's almost never consciously linked in my mind to something that happened in the past. It almost always takes the form more of general melancholia/what's-the-point/this-goddamn-vale-of-tears and not oh-this-thing-that-happened. Writing about that would just be blah-blah-blah-blah-blah.

I had occasion to think about it recently, though. For reasons having nothing to do with therapy and everything to do with oh-maybe-that-would-be-interesting-and-fun, I took a couple of memoir writing classes through the Gotham Writers Workshop. To my surprise, I found that writing about things made me experience them in a worse way.

For example, for one assignment I wrote a really short piece about how when I see an ambulance rushing somewhere with its siren on, I'm often reminded with a jolt of the night my father had a heart attack, when I was fifteen. Because we lived in a condo complex with complicated intertwined streets, as the ambulance was on its way the suggestion was made that I should walk through the dark quiet streets to the entrance to flag them down and show them the way to the house. And that's what I did.

I wrote about this experience, and I wrote about learning a few hours later that he had died. I wrote about how when I would see an ambulance on its way somewhere, I would often be cast momentarily back to the fear and sadness of that night, and I would picture some other family, waiting for this ambulance, and I would imagine their fear and sadness. I wrote about how I would often then be briefly suspended in time, reminded of the fragility of human life and human happiness.

The teacher liked the piece. She suggested I might submit it to be published, in an online literary forum for very short pieces, after making some revisions. As I made the revisions, I had a mix of feelings. The changes were improving the writing as a piece of writing, but at the same time, I felt like crafting the narrative into the right sort of narrative meant shifting my understanding and perception of what had happened and how it had felt.

Its a recurring problem for me with writing. When it comes to memoir, the shaping of a narrative feels a lot like lying. Every piece I ended up writing for those courses, I felt like I had to turn a series of "well, I don't know, there was this, but there was also that"; things were happening that were unrelated but felt important; who-the-hell-knows-what-is-going-on into some story about How I Changed or What I Learned.

After all that narrative shaping, I felt like I had trouble getting the confusingness of the original memories back. Instead, I had these new memories, organized in a neater, tidier, more standardized, more McMuffin kind of way.

It was like the old messy and less interpreted memories had been overwritten.

After I revised the short piece about ambulances, I submitted it to the forum my teacher had suggested. A couple of weeks later they rejected it. Honestly, when I found out it was rejected, I wasn't as disappointed as I'd thought I'd be -- I almost had a sense of relief that the mood of that piece wasn't a mood I'd be putting out into the world. But still. Being rejected always sucks.

Now when I see an ambulance, instead of thinking about fear and sadness and the fragility of life, I'm reminded instead of writing this piece, and I'm reminded of the experience of having it rejected.

In a way you might think this would be an improvement, replacing a very painful and sad memory with a merely annoying one. But it doesn't feel like an improvement at all. It feels like a total loss.

Monday, September 7, 2015

Happy Labor Day And See You All Next Week

Hello readers, partly because I spent the weekend at this mini-conference at William and Mary honoring philosopher Alan Goldman, I regret to say I won't be able to post today. I can, however, share this picture of a large insect that I took while I was visiting Williamsburg. Doesn't it look like it has a teeny tiny smiley face?

I hope everyone is enjoying labor day! I'll see you all back here next Monday.