Sunday, May 5, 2013

Rooting For Plotlines

Walt has a keen sense of certain rituals. When we go to the fire station, he always wears his red plastic fire hat and blue rubber boots. He knows to cup his hands around his face and lean against the glass, but not to knock on the door or yell. He looks patiently at all of the trucks for some sign of movement: a displaced hose, maybe, or fire jackets on the floor next to the engine. If the firemen are out, we will walk around the building to the golf carts in the back, where he will pretend to drive them for a while, and then come back to check one last time. Rare is the afternoon we don't find someone on shift either coming or going, who stops and waves, opens the door, and lets Walt in to walk around the truck, then climb up into the driver's seat and ring the bell. I have on my phone a series of photographs, mostly in focus, that make in the last year or so a near motion-capture of displaced time. Walt's face thins and lengthens from toddler into boy. He sits higher on the chair now, turns the wheel, makes the fire engine noise ("woo-woo!" and not "ee-nah, ee-nah," the sound of the ambulance), and asks the fireman a series of questions to which he already knows the answer, which is how Walt started the conversation yesterday afternoon.

"What this do?" That's the button that turns the mirror. (Smiling, pointing up) "What it do?" Those are the switches that make the hoses go. (Turning the wheel) "What this do?" Well, that turns the big tires down here where your daddy is standing. "Yeah, it turns the wheels, which makes the bus [sic] go, so the fire man goes to the fire, and he roll out the hoses, and get the axes, and smashes the glass, and let out poisonous gases, and put on the masks for the gases and go find 'Help! Help!' for the man on the room who is trapped!" (Pause, to me) Yeah, that's like the best explanation of what we do that I've ever heard by a kid under five. (to Walt) You really know your stuff, big guy. (Smiling) "Now I see axes?"

I recently read Roland Barthes's Camera LucidaHis formula for how a photograph initiates an emotional reaction in the person looking at it, independent or even in spite of the photographer's intention, makes a lot of sense to me. To Barthes, the selective power of certain images to make a disruption ("punctum") is characterized by feeling and scope. The feeling itself is instantaneous and vivd, but also fleeting and impossible to will with subsequent viewings. Instead, the logic goes, we scrutinize the photograph to locate the disruption: to will ourselves toward its location after the fact. We make a ritual of finding the place in order to better remember it, and with time, perhaps even understand it. Barthes makes a whole separate, and subordinate, category ("stadium") for the polite attention of the spectator to the photographer's intention, which he characterizes as stable, common, and unremarkable. Which is to say, unworthy of consideration excerpt perhaps to the photographer him/herself.

A week or so after I moved to Indiana, I walked with one of Katie's nieces to the drugstore. It was hot and late in the day. We walked west through subdivisions and office parks. The industrial air conditioner in the drugstore, upon arrival, was positively glacial. We passed a row of greeting cards, and all the birthday greetings--balloons, smiling monkeys, big script--were iridescent in the fluorescent light. A country song Katie had liked was playing over the loudspeakers. I had just started this blog, for which friends were emailing pictures of Katie. There was this photograph of Katie and her mom on Key Biscayne in Miami, a candid, with the ocean behind them, and when I looked at it in a certain way, for a split second, I could remember every part of loving Katie, in such clear detail, until I couldn't handle the feeling. I became hysterical: floor, wailing, carpet, fists. Ed and Beth heard me from the kitchen and I remember them running in to ask if I was okay. I remember grabbing for a bottle of Afrin--Afrin!--on the counter to try to open things up a little so that I could breath, which I did, and after a while I was fine and the feeling--the bewilderment, the shock--passed. I was calm, stunned. I looked at the photo again, and toggled through the rest of the series. Nothing.

Willie Nelson's "Valentine" was Katie and I's wedding song. On Thursday, May 8th, it will be nine years ago that we danced to it under tea lights in the loft of a barn in Hobart, Indiana. It was our good luck to catch the apple trees in blossom that weekend, which leant even more bucolic Midwestern authenticity and charm to a day filled with tractor rides, homemade cookies, and, well, barn lofts. Katie hated Valentine's Day, so it was a kind of joke between us to choose the song. The humor tempered some of the built-in sincerity of the day, and carved out within it a private space that was entirely ours. I don't remember the dance very well, or the song; only that we chose it and were happy with it. We were coordinating so many details that day, all of which seemed either to go well or not go well. I was thinking about that song the other day, and found the video below. I didn't realize Willie wrote the song for his son, or that he saw it as essentially a children's song until everyone started taking it so seriously, at which point it became a staple in his live shows, where he plays it unironically to this day.

I'm going to miss the American version of "The Office," which concludes its nine-season run next Thursday. It is the last show I remember watching about which I cared more than my own life. I was highly suspect of the show at first. I had loved the UK version and I worried my affection for the one might betray my fidelity to the other. Then, I was bored and lonely, grieving, and easily overwhelmed. I had a lot of time on my hands. I loved "The Office" almost instantly. I watched the first three seasons in a couple of weeks, right up until the season 3 finale, and it was so good, Pam's speech (which I blogged about a few years ago) and Jim's coming back from New York, and Ryan's promotion, and Michael's self-defeating power grab; everyone with the chance to be so happy. Of course, then, I was cheering for plot lines, in spite of myself and, also, in spite of what I knew writing, art, and television, much less life, could be. Which meant that how I watched television changed that year, in a way I'm not sure it's changed back since. Then, I allowed television every kind of indulgence so long as it reassured me that the moral order of convention was not entirely gone from my life: marriage, but also comeuppances, modesty, and continuity. Certain truths, within a spectrum.

I don't have a lot of specific memories of watching television with Katie, but I do remember watching the British "Office" that first year in Miami, on a DVD from Netflix, late at night in the early winter, with all the doors and windows that faced the water open on our first high-rise apartment. The room was, for once, aired out, cool and dry and dark. We were on break from graduate school. Probably, it was around the time of our trip to Key Biscayne. We watched the season right through to the end, to the bittersweet finale in which David was fired, Gareth was promoted, and Tim tried and failed to win Dawn. What a train wreck, I remember thinking. The stakes were so low for these people so, surely, they deserved some consolation. At the very least, I deserved the chance to watch them be, finally, happy. But then, the British "Office," right to the end, didn't soft-peddle it resolutions at the expense of a certain humanity. The series was resolved, on its own terms, to perfection. What came next in the Christmas special was something else entirely, a postscript, to which the rules didn't apply. I remember Katie and I agreeing that there was no logic to such happiness that did not also contradict the pathos that made the show feel real. It was a fake happy ending, not a real one, and we were sure we knew the difference.

In one of his Lannan Foundation interviews, Robert Hass says that it is wrong to have an elegiac attitude toward reality. He means the realm of language, but it's an interesting take on television, which is maybe the most elegiac form of popular entertainment. It fixes a contemporary moment into a near-past, and when a show succeeds, it draws out the gap between present and near-past until the viewers feel safely nostalgic for the moment, and seek constantly its restoration. How easily, in the televised life, sentiment becomes sentimental. Liberal expansiveness becomes conservative nostalgia. The colorful friend becomes the caricature that sells all the better the real suffering of the hero. Perhaps the most glaring aspect of a show's continuing success is how it restores the asynchronous moment within the fluid past. Characters die off or marry. Businesses boom and bust. All the while, circumstances stay in constant flux; they change, without really changing. How American, the Soviets used to say, that American jazz can fix so many creative expressions into the monotonous and repetitive structures of the key and chord. How jazz-like, our ensemble-driven, multi-narrative, single-camera contemporary television show.

My life is not on any screen I'm watching, which is what makes photographing Walt at the fire station so challenging. Even when I get him right, I can only express that success in the broadest terms to anyone else, a picture of something they'd want to see, with the effect of making unremarkable and indistinct the boy I know and love in this fixed, fleeting moment. I feel this way when I write about Katie. It is a kind of un-reality to feel exempt from one's sense of failure; from the certainty I, or we, might have, with time, done certain things better. I have written about Katie for the last six years, and I am trying each time to find a way into and through something that seems to have no clear beginning or end. Even now, I'm fairly certain that what I am describing is not a television show about an office, but instead, a memory, my memory, colored and tempered by my own sense of feeling and need for sense. It would be too neat to say that when we were 26 and watching "The Office" in Miami, I was desperate for those hypothetical occasions that life has since rushed in to tonic with real ones. I didn't know that could happen, then. After Katie died, I couldn't imagine what any continuation of a life would look like. I could not imagine ever being remarried. But, of course, I am remarried. Life has continued, and I do love it. I am rooting for certain outcomes, and keeping whichever memories, however they seem to fit into whatever I know of a life, whatever they might mean, because it is what I know how to do.


Karen C. said...

Beautiful, John. This: "Then, I allowed television every kind of indulgence so long as it reassured me that the moral order of convention was not entirely gone from my life..."
resonates with me and why I so look forward to that 22 minute show every night, whatever it may be. (Currently laughing through Up All Night)....

hguhf said...

Beautiful, John. This: "Then, I allowed television every kind of indulgence so long as it reassured me that the moral order of convention was not entirely gone from my life..."