Friday, March 25, 2011

Life Before a Lens

We went to a birthday party the other day.  A young friend was turning 40.  It was a lovely gathering, and one of those days for which folks move South.  The air was soft, daffodils nodded sleepily, and trees covered with white and pink blossoms perfumed the air and cascaded petals with every passing breeze. The guests were a mixed lot, generationally speaking.  We were not the only couple beyond 60, and there were a number of thirty-somethings with toddlers in tow; older children in their late teens and early 20s amused their younger siblings. I knew enough about the crowd to know that the photographs being snapped were going to end up on online. “Interesting crew,” I thought. “Young enough to Facebook, and old enough to think about it.”

I taught photography once, at a university long ago and faraway, and have always been fascinated by the effect of cameras on people; on both subject and photographer.  As a photographer, I was well acquainted with the camera as shield.  Despite being more than a little chary of heights, I could peer fearlessly into the most dizzying abyss – as long as I did it through a camera’s viewfinder.  Strange, not? More interesting though, is the effect of cameras on the people before the lens.

The one photographic affinity I can claim with the iconic Ansel Adams is that we both married women who hated to be photographed.  Far more common is the urge to be seen, and seen in a particular way.  Pointing a camera at a group of kids is a transformative act.  They pose, they smile coyly, they smirk, they fain the total disinterest of the Gap kids they see in the magazines and store windows.  In short, they present to the lens the version of themselves they wish to be made public; they perform.

My undergraduate degree is in Theater, and for the first couple of decades of my life my plan was to become God’s gift to the American stage.  God, apparently, had not been informed.  I did, however, learn a great deal about the nature of performance.  I had the good fortune, while studying at Kalamazoo College, to be directed by visiting artist Karl Malden, who had trained under Lee Strasburg at The Group Theater in New York.  Malden, who won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor in Streetcar Named Desire, taught us that performing meant, in part, filling the theater with your character’s personality.  You had to "be" the role so completely that you radiated the character’s essence with such intensity that you “spoke” to the back of the house even while silent.  It is emotionally, psychically and physically exhausting.  And if you do it long enough, it is not difficult to lose track of where the self stops and a character begins.  There are real personal risks to a life spent in performance.  Ask Charlie Sheen.

So, I found myself musing as I looked around the sunny birthday scene, how does a life change when you expect every moment to be captured, chronicled and Facebooked? What is the nature of a life lived before a lens?  What is the result of perpetual performance?  Does “who we become” change when more people know us via a “performed existence” in social media than know us as the result of a shared life in the real world?

This is when I am supposed to lay a little wisdom on you, to give you a thoughtful answer to the questions I just posed.  I would if I could.  Instead, I am afraid I can offer only guesses. My guess is that we put too much stock in photographs these days.  We spend too much time recording and distributing events.  We should be more focused on living the event than on reporting it.

Does that mean we stop taking photographs?  Call for a moratorium on home videos?  Of course not.  Whether we pay the local 15th century portrait painter, or snap a shot with our 21st century smartphone, we will always try to capture the precious moments of our lives in a way that aids memory when memory begins to fade.  And we will want to share those experiences.  But I would caution us about watering the wine.  You sip the best vintage straight.  Perhaps it is the 20th century in me, maybe faint echoes of even earlier times, but I still feel that the most precious memories, the deepest emotions, deserve the honor of, if not privacy, then at least a degree of exclusivity.

You can now “friend” the Pope.  “Yo, Pontiff! Wazzup?”  I think not.  If I have a concern for young people growing up before a lens, "performing" their self even as they construct it, it is that they will lose sight of their precious individuality as they co-mingle it with the other 500 million folks living before the lens.  Against the backdrop of a conflagration, the flickering of a single candle seems insignificant.  And yet, it is quite lovely.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Googling Memory

Our lives are knit up of memories and change.  We mark their course with the artifacts we create; paintings, poems, plays, or simple prose are the signposts we jab into the swirling eddies of our existence to mark the memory of a moment, to capture a perception that was, at that time, true.  A recent experience drove me to reconsider the nature of, and perhaps the validity of, memory.  I am, of course, playing word games to a certain extent.  Yet it is an important word game.  Allow me to explain. 

It starts – as many of my reflections do – in that space between waking and sleep. In youth, it seemed, the bridge between those two pastures was short - the stream was narrow, and on a good day one could simply spring over.  Nowadays, the journey is more studied, as our perception of the world grows likewise more studied.  The waking world seems less inclined to release us.  So we create rituals of transition.  An evening glass of wine, quiet music, a book - gentle inducements to allow the rhythm of reality to recede and make Morpheus welcome.

My own ritual combines a home-grown mode of meditation, blending traditional Reike with some type of “structured mental meandering.”  The nature of the latter shifts depending upon my mood. I have written of the lake where I often take myself.  However, recently, I have been wandering the grounds of my childhood home.

I have clear memories of only one house from those years.  I lived there from a year or two after my birth until my first marriage in 1969.  I have been revisiting the days when I was seven or maybe eight years old.  Old enough to play outside unsupervised, but young and small enough to explore the secret pathways and hollows concealed among the shrubbery.  To me it seemed a world leapt full-blown from the pages of The Jungle Book.  Evergreen branches screened me from the street beyond, and stealthy creeping allowed me access to the full sweep of the front of the house. Bird’s nests occasionally grew in the branches, and squirrels scolded my intrusion.  I have enjoyed the return.  Eventually, I mapped our yard, and pushed out into the neighborhood, poking into corners of dusty memory.  Tasha, the name of the boxer who lived two doors to the west.  A bouncy dog, probably more playful than threatening, but still uncertain in recollection.  The alley to the east - did one or two houses intervene?  Relax, see it.  Ah - a duplex! No wonder the confusion.

It was a somniferous diversion that eased me into slumber for quite awhile, a green and golden ramble through portals nigh unto dreaming itself.  And then the reverie stumbled into wide-awake-world.  "Google Earth", I thought.  If I really wanted to know which lane connected to what alley and where one backyard stopped and another began, well, there was an app for that.  And I used it. It was a strangely disorienting experience that I cannot recommend - but probably not for the reason you might suppose.  For many, wandering past your childhood home will prove disconcerting because your home may have disappeared beneath a McMansion or into a Mall.  Would that were the case.  Mine had merely shriveled, dried up like the shell of cicada, still clinging to a limb but desiccated and empty.

The neighborhood was recognizable - eerily so.  The lots that had been vacant when I was a child remain so more than 50 years later.  The alleyways dissected the blocks.  Stroking the mouse allowed an Alice-in-Wonderland recreation of my bike ride to school.  Everything was smaller, lacking in mystery, devoid of wonder.  I was, at first, deeply saddened as if something quite lovely and once loved had died in my absence.  I had not known and had neither grieved nor said good-bye.  But then I realized that this was not my neighborhood, that structure was not my home.  Oh, the latitude and longitude were, no doubt, correct.  Google gets the numbers.  What the app does not understand is the transformative power of memory.  And that was when I realized that I was not, technically, talking about a memory – I was talking about a memoir.

Memory is what one is supposed to testify to in court.  I was here or there and did this or that at this time or another.  Memory can testify to behavior, just as Google can capture digital representations of the street where once I lived.  But that was not where I traveled when I envisioned the house in which I grew up.  When I lay abed, roaming the world of my childhood, I was wandering through a memoir.  The differences are, as the world of publishing occasionally reminds us, significant.  But I am quite ambivalent regarding the notion of which representation is more “truthful.”

The author who presents a memoir as “factual” is subject to public censure as a liar and a fraud.  Perhaps so.  However, I am inclined to assert that memoirs are more “truthful” than memories, than the “facts” contained in a pristine autobiography.  Memoirs define the truths we distill from memory.  After considerable reflection, I am convinced that memoir is the idealized-self interacting with the distorted-other in a way that results in a preferred outcome which increases harmony.  Memoir equals reality reconstructed. 

I am aware of the problems with that assertion, particularly if it were to find its way into law or public policy: “So you see, your honor, while I did not, in the cold light of the facts, actually purchase the vehicle, don’t you agree I look great in it?”  That is not where I am heading. 

I am moving more in the direction of memoir reflecting that which we should have learned from remembered events had we been more thoughtful, more attentive to the surrounding harmony.  Memories and memoirs are both the product of recollection and interpretation.  Interpretation is mandatory because no input is merely recorded in our brains.  Input is always woven into the tapestry of meaningfulness that is the ongoing product of consciousness.  Perhaps a good way to think about it is that memory is the raw clay, the actual “facts” of the event.  The lessons we learn from the experience over the course of our life, the way we fit those lessons into our chord, into the harmonic life we create, that is memoir.  Memoir is memory, glazed and fired.