Monthly Archives: February 2012

The truth and memories

Memories may light the corners of our minds, but where there is light there is sure to be shadow. The truth about memories lies less in the past than the present and the projected pasts of futures not yet realized. Memories are often more about the things we desire than the facts we observe or the things we’ve done.  In this sense, (re)membering is something we do in the struggle to be present, a constant process of building a useful world out of bits and pieces that survive in our minds from experience or hearsay. Thus it is that memory has two lives in this world, one a utilitarian form determined by the present and the future, the other a matter of art and emotion in the afterglow of things that are gone forever.

The apple and the tree

One of the great memories of my life is my father singing to me a song that I knew only as “The Kodak Song.” However dim that memory may be, it’s held steady for forty years now, changing little and always bringing a sense of warmth and comfort regardless of the circumstances of my life.

Where are you going, my little one, little one,
Where are you going, my baby, my own?
Turn around and you’re two,
Turn around and you’re four,
Turn around and you’re a young [man] going out of my door.

The song is called “Turn Around” and was written by Harry Belafonte, Malvina Reyonolds and Alan Greene, originally sung for a “young girl going out my door.” Perhaps the most beautiful thing about the song, after its haunting melody, is the way it captures the essential act of remembering the future by filling it with the desire of the present.

It must have been 1967, when we stayed at my grandparents’ house in Monessen, Pennsylvania. He sang the song to me in the bedroom my mother had slept in as a child. That was right after my father left the military service. He always said that the main reason he left the service was that the Army was coming between him and his family, and I believe this is true. Yet it’s also true that 1967 was a very good time to leave the US Army if you could, since the war in Viet Nam was heating up and the rumor among officers was that Viet Nam was a deathtrap. In any event, his commission had expired and he had served all the time the Army had asked of him, so there we were in Monessen, staying with my grandparents while my father figured out what to do with his new civilian life.

He was (and still is) a singer, my father. The Kodak song is my earliest memory of his soothing tenor voice, a voice that I inherited but readily admit is not as good as his. The way he sang the song captured both the marvelous awe of a man watching his three year old son get ready for bed and the inevitable sadness of knowing that the boy would one day walk away to live his own life. I’ve heard that voice from him so many times, and I hear it from my own mouth as well, for as apples go I didn’t fall very fall from the tree.

What we choose to remember

William Faulkner famously wrote that “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” That’s because the past is useful. We remember what we want to remember, and we use those memories to shape relationships, to win or survive struggles, to create things both new and old. What we call the study of “history” itself is little more than a formally willful consciousness of past events, and the fact is that regardless of one’s academic training or intentions, we all do “history” from time to time in order to fix up the present the way we want it to be.

As useful as memories are, however, our capacity to remember is ironically limited. In an essay about the meaning of contemporary art in relation to time and history, the Raqs Media Collective sketched the problem like this: “As time passes and we grow more into the contemporary, the reasons for remembering other times grow, while the ability to recall them weakens.” For this simple fact alone, we must choose what to remember and what to forget. Not to choose is not an option, whether we admit or not. For Sigmund Freud and generations of psychologists since (and even some before), what we choose to remember says a lot about who we are. Even if our choices about memory are mostly unconscious, our constructions of memory have consequences.

One effect of how we remember is that some people are left out of history. Others have their stories changed in ways that are damaging and unjust. Memories and histories can turn lies into truths and elevate the emotions of the moment into reasons to cause others great harm. Memory, as it turns out, is as easily an act of violence as it is a beautiful and heart-warming thing.

The story

Not all damage to memory (or history) is bad, however. Thinking about how art contends with the loss of cultures and places, Raqs wrote, “We could say that the ethics of memory have something to do with the urgent negotiation between having to remember (which sometimes includes the obligation to mourn) and the requirement to move on (which sometimes includes the need to forget).”

In this light, any single memory carries with it layers of desire and competing emotions that give it texture and depth. Side by side, our memories impact each other, changing the past again and making it even more difficult to pinpoint true events from times gone by. How I remember my mother’s death affects how I remember my grandmother’s death, even though they happened thirty years apart, and this will affect how I experience death in the future, be it the death of a relative, a friend, or a stranger. When memories fit together with a certain complementarity, they reinforce simpler, more general impressions of past events that become a shorthand for experience and truth, frequently shortchanging both while at the same increasing our capacity to “remember.”

To remember, which seems to us like no work at all, is no such thing. And yet here it is, our memory, providing for us the threads that connect each piece of our lives together into a story. Eric Kandel, reflecting on his life as a Holocaust survivor and Nobel Prize winning biologist and pioneer of memory studies, says that memory “gives us a coherent picture of the past that puts current experience in perspective. The picture may not be rational or accurate, but it persists. Without the binding force or memory, experience would be splintered into as many fragments as there are moments in life.”

Those fragments would be impossible organize without stories, and we write those stories every day of our lives, writing and re-writing not so much to make our lives perfect as to make them livable. In the end, the stories that knit together our memories become the memories themselves, completing the transformations of past into present, present into past, desire into reality.

Notes and Credits

My first camera was a Kodak Instamatic.  It was originally my grandmother’s, and she gave it to me when she got a new one.  I was in the fourth or fifth grade and remember taking pictures of the French Quarter with it on our field trip there.  Somewhere in my house, among my things, are a set of old photographs taken with that camera, but alas in my many moves I have either lost the photographs or have packed them away in some old box stuffed somewhere in a corner of a closet or under my bed.  I looked around for some time, but to no avail.  Likely I will find them not long after publishing this post.

The photograph of me and my father was taken by my mother in 1966 when I was 2 years old.

Faulkner’s “past is never dead” quote is from Reqiuem for a Nun (Random House, 1951).  The Raqs Media Collective is a New Delhi-based multi-media contemporary art group founded in 1992 by Jeebesh Bagchi, Monica Narula and Shuddhabrata Sengupta. They operate across varied media and are active in the international contemporary art world.  The quotes above are taken from an essay, “Now and Elsewhere,” in the e-flux journal What Is Contemporary Art? (New York:  Sternberg Press, 2010), p. 49.  For the Kandel quote, see p. 10 of his In Search of Memory:  The Emergence of a New Science of Mind (New York:  W. W. Norton, 2006).  An interesting post on the Kodak Song, which helped me gather context for the essay, comes from “Nicholas Stix, Uncensored,” in which he sorts out some mysteries about the song’s authorship and speculation as to who is singing the song in the commercial.

Selling memories is big business. Kodak used the song “Turn Around” to create an iconic television advertisement that itself is a classic memory for many in my and my parents’ generations. Kodak sold their cameras as memory machines, using the flawed but commonplace idea that memory is an act of freezing the present and keeping it, like frozen leftovers in Tupperwares, for some date in the future. A recent advertisement by Disney features families videotaping themselves in the theme park and finishes with the tag line, “Let the Memories Begin.” The time that rewrites every line of our lives is the present.

As I had was collecting ideas for this posting and putting together the initial paragraphs, news broke that that Eastman Kodak, Inc., was filing for bankruptcy.  On June 22, 2009, Kodak stopped making Kodachrome, its legendary film that has filled so many memory books and inspired the classic song by Paul Simon.  The power of Kodak’s product in our society can be seen in the comments on the company’s blog – quite stirring and heartwarming.

There are an endless (or seemingly endless) number of Kodak-related videos on Youtube.  In this one, a woman demonstrates how to use her grandmother’s Kodak Brownie box camera from 1922.  After the company filed for bankruptcy, Time Magazine collected 10 of the most memorable Kodak commercials on its Website.  The memories have piled up, and its striking to consider what a major force Kodak was in the forging of memory for three or four generations of Americans.  At the height of its run, Kodak created a remarkable pavilionfor the New York World’s Fair in 1964.  The photo below was taken by Doug Coldwell and can be found on the Wikimedia Commons.

And now, at long last, I give you Dick Cavett giving you Barbra Streisand.

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Filed under fathers, ideas, life, media, memory, sons, truth

The truth and words

Of Writers and Authors

Words are everywhere.

They surround us very much like the air we breathe. Sometimes they are visible, in bookstores, in grocery stores, or on bill boards. Sometimes they are invisible: you see the leather seats, but not the word luxury. Words are many things, even as they represent many other things. Words change lives. They make you stop, push, pull, sit, wait, and be quiet. Words can kill as easily as they create.

As children, we learn magical words – abracadabras and shazams and open sesames. As adults, we learn that all words can be magical in one way or another, whether manifest, latent, silent, or spoken. Some of us fall under words’ spell. We become writers.

In this world of words, there are no strays. For all the words in the world, we can make a few observations:

Somebody wrote the words.
Somebody will be paid for them.
Somebody will claim to be their author.

These statements hold true for all the words we can see in the world. The exception is for private words: the letters, personal journals, notes or emails that people write to specific somebodies or to no one at all.  Under closer scrutiny, however, this exception falls away, for private words tend to become public when the opportunity cost of maintaining their privacy exceeds the actual cost of making them public.  Or put differently, when the public value of private words exceeds their private value, it’s only a matter of time before they become public.  Paid or unpaid, words have value, and those who claim authorship will hold that value dear, whether money is on the table or not.

The interesting thing about the above referenced somebodies is that they are not always the same somebody. Any stroll past the bestseller shelves in a bookstore (or surfed across the pages of Amazon.com) reveals a fundamental division of labor between writing and authorship, and the authors are always paid more than the writers. Additionally, agents, editors, marketers, and publishers also share in the take from any well-written (or at least well-selling) set of words. Just how the writers fit into this is an open question, because our society’s fetish for authorship is indeed a pretty solid hedge marking the boundary between our enacted reality and the real labor that makes it possible.

The Truth and the Ghost Writer

The truth and the ghost writer, January 19, 2012

To tease out these issues was the purpose of “The truth and the ghost writer,” a book reading that took place on January 19, 2012 in Park Slope, Brooklyn. The event was part of the Brooklyn Reading Works program that takes place every third Thursday of the month from September through May at the Old Stone House, a restored Dutch farmhouse that was part of the Battle of New York in 1776 and later the original clubhouse for the Brooklyn Dodgers baseball team. Every year, for three years running now, I’ve been asked by the Brooklyn Reading Works creator, Louise Crawford, to come up with the program for one the events. For this year’sprogram, I gave myself the challenge finding ghost writers for a book reading.

The four writers on the panel were Keith Elliot Greenberg, Sarah Deming, Alisa Bowman, and James Braly. They are all writers who have managed to pay their bills with words. They each brought experiences both of ghostwriting and solo authorship. They each had rich stories about the care and feeding of clients who as often as not were testy and uncooperative. They each operated with something of a code of honor and professionalism of conduct, meaning that they don’t reveal their authors, and they work hard to make sure their authors speak honestly and understand the consequences of their words. This doesn’t mean they don’t embellish, but there seems to be some slippage in the ghosting process that you don’t have, say, in the writing of memoirs (viz. James Frey). Veracity and verisimilitude are but two ends of the ghostwriting candle, with a lot of wax in between.

Keith Elliot Greenberg

Keith Elliot Greenberg

Keith was the Indiana Jones of the group, a swashbuckler who went deep inside the lives of pro wrestlers in order to coauthor their autobiographies. His work fed a long and stormy relationship with Ric Flair, known as the greatest pro wrestler of all time, who blamed Keith’s book for the demise of his marriage. It was a classic case of the author not understanding the consequences of his words when printed — specifically the humiliation his wife would suffer with the public revelation of Flair’s amorous adventures. Flair said that he’d told his wife about these affairs long ago, but he didn’t realize that she figured these stories would go no further. Keith can report Flair’s name – also Classy Fred Blassie and Superstar Billy Graham – because he alone of the panelists scored deals that put his authorship on the book cover. He also coauthored a column for Jesse “The Body” Ventura. Overall, Keith has written over 30 books and in addition to the professional wrestlers, he has nurtured an eclectic stable of authors including homicide detectives, women’s self defense instructors, and children’s rights advocates.

Sarah Deming

Sarah Deming

Sarah was the ying and yang of the evening’s presentations. Her experience involved the marriage of opposites in a way that felt natural and not at all at odds. Her authored work includes a children’s novel, Iris, Messenger (Harcourt 2007), and (in process) a memoir of her relationship with her mother, a bipolar woman whose kidneys were destroyed by Lithium. Sarah donated a kidney to her mother and is now writing the memoir with her, each alternating the voices of the chapters. Her ghosting was in porn, specifically erotic novels based on the lives of real nude models. The standup moment in her presentation was her comparison of the ways in which porn and children’s literature are the same, taken from an essay she wrote about writing.

“People have commented on the apparent contradiction of writing both children’s fiction and porn. They think I’m being cute when I say they have a lot in common, but I’m not. Both are underrated genres that aim to please, not to impress. Roald Dahl wrote that children’s literature is unique in that it does more than merely entertain, it teaches children the habit of reading and increases their vocabulary. It has, in other words, a utilitarian, developmental role. So does porn. My message is pretty much the same to both children and adult readers: live in your imagination, accept all kinds of people, and let go of shame.”

Alisa Bowman

Alisa Bowman

Alisa was the consummate professional. Soft-spoken and serious, she blended personal reflection and self-deprecating humor as she told her story. After starting out as a staff writer at magazines, she was offered the job of writing a book for another writer who had too many other time commitments. In addition to her skill as a writer, it turned out she was good at channeling the voice of another person, and more ghosting offers came her way. She quit her day job when she realized could make a lot more money as a ghost, and in her first year she doubled her income. After seeing her titles — but of course not her name — on the New York Times bestsellers lists, there came a time when she wanted to make a go getting her own name on that list as author and writer. To do so, she began to write a sex advice column, entering her own world of swashbuckling ying and yang until the day came when she realized she was becoming someone she didn’t want to be. The ghost, as it were, became her own ghost and she didn’t like it. Other flirtations with writerly fame have followed, but mainly she’s returned to ghosting as a master of a craft that requires satisfaction with the act of writing itself. To date, she has ghosted over 30 titles, 7 of which have wound up on the New York Times bestsellers list.

James Braly

James Braly

James was the panel’s reluctant one, whose skill and natural storytelling ability keeps the work coming even while he’s not entirely sure this is his true calling. He told a tale of how a neighbor’s ghost hijacked him from the unwanted drudgery of ghosting a speech for a corporate client. It had happened that while James was writing, this neighbor jumped ten stories to his death in the courtyard. Some time later, James found himself scrambling into bed with his young sons, chased by the neighbor’s ghost and hoping that real ghosts wouldn’t attack children. As one ghost taunted the other, James closed his eyes and hoped that his boys would not follow their father’s footsteps, even as he continued down this path of channeling the spirits of others for a wage. Unlike the others on the panel, James’s ghosting work doesn’t much involve books. He writes speeches, presentations, and other communications for corporate clients, including the world’s 144th richest man. He hems and haws about it, but he keeps doing it even while he leads another life as a performer in his own (really) self-authored, autobiographical one-man-show that has been seen around the world to rave reviews. The show has been optioned for film.

At the end of the presentation, James told how he has finally come to terms with this profession that he wouldn’t wish on his children. In that story, he told of interviewing a series of architects and designers for the renovation of his Upper West Side coop, the same apartment where the aforementioned tragic ghosting incident occurred. The designers each came to him with grand plans for his apartment that reflected their own distinctive styles, but this was precisely what James had hoped to avoid. He wanted, he said, a solid renovation that would be tasteful and reflect the character of his apartment and his life. The best designer for his home would be the one who simply vanished into the work itself, leaving nothing but the renovation. It was at that point that James realized he was ghost writer and that it was okay.

Notes and Credits

James Braly’s website can be found here, with all you need to know about his show, “Life in a Marital Institution (20 years of monagamy in one terrifying hour).  Alisa Bowman’s website is here, in which she helps you understand her story and what she can do for you.  Sarah Deming’s blog is called “The Spiral Staircase,” and she has another website about her work here.  Keith Elliot Greenberg can be found on Huffington Post and elsewhere on the Web, including this Youtube video about his book on John Lennon.

The photograph of the stop sign comes from a site called “Funny Free Pics,” which can be found here.  I was looking for a stop sign and chose this one because of the street sign, “Washtenaw Ave.,” which is the main drag of Ann Arbor, Michigan, where I did my doctoral studies.  Also, I like the graffiti, which is ironic-cute-pointless in a way that reminded me of the 1980s in Ann Arbor, though I admit that I think this sign might just come from Washtenaw Ave. in Chicago.  I can’t quite tell, but it’s a word that ambiguously reminds me of my past on a sign telling me to do something (which I will do, to be certain) defaced with words that make me roll my eyes.

Photographs of the Brooklyn Reading Works event and the four writers are posted courtesy of David Kumin, a friend of Keith’s who sent me his pictures of the event.

Many thanks go to Louise Crawford, who organizes the Brooklyn Reading Works and is the founder of the Brooklyn Blogfest. Her blog, “Only the Blog Knows Brooklyn,” was a touchstone of community information for the Park Slope for many years and continues to provide postings of Hugh Crawford’s photographs and other news. Her community presence is an inspiration to me.

The venue for these readings and many other events in Park Slope is the Old Stone House, which features a regular calendar of community events.  The OSH is maintained by a non-profit organization that reflects the best of community-building in our world.

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Filed under ideas, money, Park Slope, truth, vanity, writing