We Are Not Evicting Time

David Bowie’s death lent a surreal start to the year 2016. As a young teen, I was an obsessed Bowie superfan: 1986 through ’88, his discography to date was a constant in my Walkman. I still have a copy of the Rolling Stone 1987 cover issue, tattered but intact. The Glass Spider Tour at Kemper Arena in Kansas City was my first live concert (my dad was my date). I watched and re-watched Labyrinth and The Hunger until every snippet of dialogue was etched in my skull.

Though my music interests diverged long ago, when I learned of Bowie’s death in January, it felt like losing an old close friend.

Recently I had some time to reminisce upon my Bowie years as I’d archived them. I found the glossy concert programs, several carefully-clipped NME articles, that old Rolling Stone issue. I’m happy I had a few artifacts like this to prompt memories. I found the nostalgia trip refreshing. My fangirlism back then, as silly as it seems, was absolutely earnest, unabashed. And as it spanned such formative years, Bowie fandom was a joyful state that mitigated difficult experiences. The pubescent hell of junior high. A wholesale move across the country with my family.

Reaching back over three decades, connecting with this younger self through paper records brought to mind the meaning of a personal archive. I’m a record-keeper by profession. Perhaps archiving is in my blood? I’ve kept a private journal in some form since 4th grade. I have a stash of favorite letters from the pre-email olden days. Band flyers. Friendship books. Newspaper clippings. Zines and more zines. Maybe I’m just a hoarder with narcissistic tendencies.

Either way, the library of my youth’s remnants remains a powerful source of introspection. I visit it rarely these days, during this busy phase of life. But as with this recent Bowie-motivated sojourn, I always feel renewed after spending some time among these historical records. I enjoy gazing backward upon life – not for long, just a little while. Even when I stumble across mementos of the more discomforting or sorrowful events of the past, I’m reminded that time’s passage allows perspective. Given time, mere survival of one’s darkest moments may prove the brightest proof of perseverance.

My personal archive reminds me where I’ve been, who I’ve been, and the strength of my own resilience.

I consider these helpful notes-to-self in a brutal post-Bowie era.

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Red Herring in the Hot Tub

I had a long, sleepless night during my kid’s recent bout with a nasty mystery illness. Late-night DIY diagnosis effort: I googled “rash,” “fever,” “children.” Try it yourself some time for an authentic sense of this paranoia-piquing experience. I lay awake for hours next to my itchy son, thinking.

I mentally backtracked through his every known experience over the past week, reverse-engineering recognition of symptom onset and contagion opportunity. Was this a virus passed on from that sick kid at the grocery store? An allergy to the new mattress? An eczema reaction to the kiddie hot tub at our neighborhood public pool? I scrabbled through my memory for signs, symbols, dire foreshadowing. There’s a story here somewhere.

Hindsight apophenia: finding all possible past incidents of should-have-seen-the-signs that one’s memory can produce. When put to its most evil purpose, hindsight apophenia is a boundless source of regret, blame, and self-doubt. This seemed especially true at 1:00 AM, in bed next to a feverish toddler.

But at its most beneficent, hindsight apophenia makes for great stories.

Artistic conventions of storytelling invoke an apopheniac mindset. Foreshadowing, symbolism, poetic language echoing a theme – all these devices play on the reader’s self-induced superstition, the viewer’s sense of foreboding. A writer weaves a story beyond mere linearity by reverse-engineering a path to the big reveal. By crafting parallels with plot clues, symbols, and semiotics. By putting to use the mind’s natural propensity for apophenia.

A storyteller assigns meaning to the seemingly random, and then enforces the semantic weight of this crafted pattern through the story’s outcome.

Readers and viewers appreciate – and expect – a pattern of meaning to lead us to the finale of a novel or film. Random stimulus like that found in real life is called a red herring in a story’s universe. No red herrings, we futilely ask of life. We ask this in vain, and we know it, and yet our best stories unabashedly reinforce the apopheniac mindset. Keep looking for those signs, our minds concede upon finishing a particularly satisfying tale.

There’s a story here somewhere, we think as we venture out into the chaos.

Profane Space

By necessity, I’ve had to dispense with all former notions of writing’s preciousness. During this busy phase of life, I don’t have the luxury of fretting about sacred space or grand expanses of uninterrupted time. I must swiftly, flexibly invoke a writing mind-frame when the opportunity arises. Waiting room at the doctor’s office. Park bench over lunch hour. Dark living room, pre-dawn insomnia.

I like it.

There’s no time for overthinking, because this – the lunch hour, the early hour, the office wait – is it. In this stage of my life, this is genuinely the kind of time I have to write.

Mad skills are required to take advantage of these pockets of time: colloquially, literally mad. I keep hypergraphic notebooks with me, and I leave them around my home. They’re in the car, at bedside, sitting on the kitchen countertop. I write down bits and pieces of story-thoughts whenever they arise. In my head, I troubleshoot plot holes during my commute to work and run through dialogue out loud. Regularly,  before I fall asleep at night, I visualize entire scenes.

When I finally get that open lunch hour or bout of insomnia, I gather notes and thoughts. I try assembling them into some sort of piece. A scene. A beat. A chapter. Maybe just a paragraph.

Hypergraphia. Obsession. Cathexis. Compulsion. Creating this story has invoked insanity, with no sacred space to keep it confined.

I like it.