A Sequence of Thoughts Without Any Kind of Order–Ira Sukrungruang

Seven

Lately, time seems to be all I think about on a personal and philosophical level. Perhaps it’s because I notice age slowing down the ones I love. Perhaps I discovered more gray nose hairs in my right nostril and that freaked me the hell out. Or perhaps this awareness of time comes when our sense of self gets challenged, like mine has in the last few months.

When you think about time, you are really thinking about death.

Ninety-one

This should not be a surprise to you: Time rules us. We do not and cannot control it. As much as I wanted to possess superhuman powers when I was a teenager—like slowing time with a snap of my fingers when my eighth grade crush Brenna Murphy—having undergone wonderful changes of the body—ran towards me, I could not. I lived by the laws of time, subjected to a two-month relationship with Brenna that involved hand holding, park kisses, and her chasing me with a butcher’s knife.

Time is an unavoidable fixture in our existence. We live by it. We sleep according to time. We arrange meetings, lectures, and classes by time. We watch our favorite shows and take our medication at certain times. How often do we check the time of the day? How often do we ask, “What time is it?” How many times do we wish for more time to write a meditation on time, a memoir about a certain time of life, or a letter to an ex-wife or a dying parent? How many times have we wished for more time to do all the things we want to do?

It is not surprising then that the English lexicon is infested by clichés of time. All in due time. There’s no time like the present. Time after time. Time and again. Time flies.

Nor is it surprising that writers and philosophers have been contemplating time since the dawn of time.

From Plato: “And so people are all but ignorant of the fact that time is really the wanderings of the sun and the planets.”

Sophocles: “Hide nothing, for time, which sees all and hears all, exposes all.”

St. Augustine in his Confessions: “What then is time? If no one asks me, I know: if I wish to explain it to one that asketh, I know not.”

Twenty-five

The holiday season approaches. The landscape of America changes. The department stores are glittered in silver and gold garland. Santa is everywhere with his jolly cheeks and cotton-tipped hat. Bing Crosby croons holiday songs in the grocery stores, and bells beg for donations in a red pail.

Holidays are ripe for nostalgia. They are moments to assess our lives. We move forward. We move backwards. We think whether this holiday will be better than the last. We begin, as most children do, to dream of new toys Santa will sneak under the Christmas tree next year.

Even as a Buddhist, I’m inundated with holiday moments, memories from years past. A mental rolodex of Christmases and New Years. My father and his new Polaroid. The shutter and flash. The seconds it takes for the picture to materialize. Aunty Sue carving the Chinatown duck, her hands and knife thick with yummy grease. My mother’s soft snores on Christmas Eve after working a double shift at the hospital.

Eight

Before my mother moved back to Thailand, she gave me over two large boxes of photo albums. I went through each of them, trying to remember our former lives, stilled in photographs. What struck me most were not only the photos of our holidays, but my mother’s perfect print next to the yellowing photos. The date. The time. The place.

I’ve seen this impulse to record in other photo albums. What is this need we possess to not only capture the photo, but to log it in with numbers? Do the numbers mean anything?

I am standing in bright neon pants that flare at the bottoms. A blue octopus is on my head. Behind me is the Christmas tree, delicate ornaments glinting from the camera’s flash.  I’m smiling. Two of my front teeth are missing.

Beside the photo, my mother’s writing: Ira, age 3, living room, Oak Lawn, Illinois, 12/25/79. He is happy.

Two Thousand

Every time I see numbers in an essay, I hear Dick Clark’s voice counting down to the new year. I also think of the apocalypse. I know these two things don’t go together.

Thirty-seven

I’ve been through thirty-seven Christmases and thirty-seven New Years. After a while, it’s one big mess. A fun, festive mess, like discarded and torn wrapping paper, like bows and ribbons on your pets.

One Point Eight

Every year I go to Thailand to visit my mother and Aunty Sue. They are eighty, and now time has slowed their walks, hunched their backs, clogged their ears, much to my impatient dismay. Now, I help them in and out of cars. I hold them as they walk up and down stairs.

At the Chiang Mai Airport, they play with an eight-month-old baby, who smiles and gurgles and drools happiness. They make faces at him and coo. They caress the smoothness of his skin.

I watch them and think, this baby is me. Both my mother and aunt are really cooing at me, or a version of me that no longer exists, but one catalogued in their memory, a moment where they have stilled time to relive, a joy that can never return.

But it has.

Everything they do, everything they eat, is in relationship with the past. It’s in the manner of their speech. In the moments when they begin, “Back then….” It’s even in how they hold me—longer, stronger, never wanting to let go.

A Gazillion

The memoirist, like my aging parents, does not want to let go either. It’s as if she is in a sci-fi movie, where her memories are displayed in front of her. And she uses her hand to arrange them, moves them around, throws some out. She rewinds. Fast forwards. She does this so that she can create a narrative timeline. The first steps of telling a story. The first steps of understanding.

Forty-one

I’ve become a reluctant fan of the writer David Shields, author of the controversial book, Reality Hunger: A Manifesto. I say reluctant because of his stance on the genre of my beloved memoir. If one were to flip through Reality Hunger one would find an array of criticism against chronology and narrative storytelling. One would find Shield’s championing of the lyrical structure of fragmentation and mosaic movements. One would find lines like this: “Anything processed by memory is fiction.” Or, “Everyone who writes about himself is a liar.”

Reality Hunger is Shield’s own manifesto, his way of understanding the world—he has said as much in interviews—but part of me turned into that gruff Chicago boy from ages ago, that Chicago boy defending his turf, his little tiny patch of city green because I had just published a memoir about being raised Thai in America and it was chronological and for the past ten years I have devoted myself to this genre. I was like, what the hell, dude? You best step off.

But what also lingered underneath this sentiment was a voice that said, “David’s right, you know.” He is. To a point.

I didn’t completely disagree with Shields. In fact, I marveled, like him, at essays and books that have challenged the traditional structure of memoir—Lauren Slater’s Lying, for example, or Dave Eggers’ A Heartbreaking Work of a Staggering Genius. I embrace, like him, the “collage” as structure, disagreeing, however, with his assertion that collage is “an evolution beyond narrative,” but rather another option for a writer trying to find form and function on the written page. I found that I loved the books Shield’s loved, like Geoffrey Wolff’s Duke of Deception, and loved the books he didn’t, like Tobias Wolff’s This Boy’s Life.

After reading his manifesto and hearing him speak on numerous occasions—he is quite brilliant—I wanted to see how his manifesto translated into his own work, so I picked up The Thing About Life is That One Day You’ll Be Dead.

Shields uses two threads to tell his story, like a braided essay—one orders the memories he has of his father, never chronological, but fragmented and scattered in no specific pattern, and one discusses how the body ages and begins to deteriorate over time. Let me warn you: If you are a hypochondriac and do not want to be aware what happens at what age, avoid this book. I found myself counting the amount of hair I was losing and gauging my libido on a daily basis.

Despite Shields’ diatribe against chronology and memoir in Reality Hunger, The Thing About Life is That One Day You’ll Be Dead is both chronological and a memoir. (David Shields’ nose is probably itchy right now.) It is not chronological in the traditional sense, nor is it a memoir in the traditional sense. In his book, Shields’ father escapes the linear because there is nothing linear about him. He is an enigma, a delicately curved question mark. Shields can’t reconcile what he feels for his father, whether it is hate or deep affection. His memories of his past jump back and forth through time, in no logical sense. But we are never lost in the book because Shields has given us chronology, has imposed order, by telling us about time in the biological sense. Our bodies—our physical presences—are about time. It is the one constant thing that makes us human.

Twenty-Three

David McGlynn, “Traumatized Time”: One of the magical qualities of creative nonfiction…is its ability to travel through time, to leap without preamble or warning from the narration of particular past events to the immediate and universal present.

One Billion Eight Hundred Thirty Three Million Five

Maybe the countdown to a new year and the countdown to the apocalypse isn’t so different. If there is a beginning then there is an end.

One

I have to tell you this story. And it has to be chronological.

There was once a boy so insecure with his life, he took diet pills, believing that they would magically make him better. But he did not know what better meant. Skinnier? Happier? Normal-er? He didn’t have the sense, this boy, to ask the questions necessary in understanding the self. He didn’t want to understand the self. He didn’t want to be anywhere in his head, where thoughts whirled and stabbed, where shadows sought to suffocate. He wanted a quick fix, a present-moment action. What’s easier than popping pills? What’s easier than taking a handful of them and washing it down with a swig of beer?

Oh, that boy, oh how he smiled and laughed, oh how he was proud that his appetite had shrunk into nothing. It was as if a stone wall had risen up in his digestive system and turned away all thoughts of food. He snacked on one potato chip a day. He drank one bottle of water. And at night, if he was good, he allowed himself a piece of candy, which he immediately hated himself for.

It did not matter that his friends began worrying about him, how shallow his cheeks became, how his moods were erratic, how he wasn’t losing weight but starving weight off of him.

But look at him. He was beautiful—wasn’t he? People loved the new him—didn’t they? Look at him. He had lost fifty pounds in two months. Look at the ladder rungs of his rib cage. Look at the veins that worm through his hands. Look at his face that has become skeletal.

Look. Look. Look.

The story of this boy is chronological because it is a story of his body. It is a story about the changes of his body—inside and outside. Because his body was once fat, and day by day, his body expelled that fat. Time did that. His body recorded time. His body felt it.

But chronology is also important because there comes a moment when the boy finally registers fault. We need that moment of redemption, of change, because when the boy decides what he is doing is detrimental, is a marker of change in his life. And then begins the process of healing, and the process of healing takes time.

Two
Cormac McCarthy, All the Pretty Horses : “Scars have the strange power to remind us that our past is real.”

Seventy-seven

In Bernard Cooper’s essay, “Marketing Memory,” he states that if you want to preserve memory in its purest state, do not write a memoir. Suddenly, your past becomes a book—shaped, contained, revised and revisited language.

Imagine memory as a big messy glob of clay. A writer then begins to work at it. Press and fold. Cut the excess. Give detail to where there was once nothing. We do this for hours, days, years. We live in our heads. And finally, by the end of it all, our messy memory is not a blob of clay. Finally we have something presentable, readable, compressed, conflated.

The detritus of our clay?

We throw it in the trash. We discard it because now there is no use in keeping something that doesn’t serve our narrative.

One Thousand Ten

The ball dropping. The bomb dropping.

I’m sorry I keep coming back to this.

Happy holidays.

Thirteen Point Thirteen

Let’s get right to it. Writing a memoir, writing chronologically, is an unnatural act. David, I agree with you. But the artist makes the unnatural seem natural. The artist, the good artist, creates her art in such a way we do not question veracity. We just live it. We just follow. We say, Take us wherever you please.

Sixty-five

Lidia Yuknavitch, The Chronology of Water: “Events don’t have cause and affect relationships the way you wish they did. It’s all a series of fragments and repetitions and pattern formations. Language and water have this in common…All the events of my life swim in and out between each other. Without chronology. Like in dreams. So if I am thinking of a memory of a relationship, or one about riding a bike, or about my love for literature and art, or when I first touched lips to alcohol, or how much I adored my sister, or the day my father first touched me—there is no linear sense. Language is a metaphor for experience. It’s as arbitrary as the mass of chaotic images we call memory…”

Ten

How does one talk about time when time loses meaning? As person who has gone through depression, I begin to notice, retrospectively, that time has no significance. You are late. You miss meetings. You don’t take the medications you should to get better. You sit in stasis, frozen, a body without a mind, a body without control. You no longer sleep. You no longer eat. Your mind—forever timeless—consumes you, but you spend every moment in this whirlwind of non-linear thoughts.

This is not reserved for the depressed. How about memoirs about abuse, addiction, illness, life-altering accidents, death? How does time affect the narrator? How does time affect the structure of a book? As writers, how can we remain faithful to chronology when our internal chronology is in so much flux?

The answer: we can’t.

I’m not kidding.

As a writer, you are battling two things that prevent this: 1) memory and all its flaws 2) capturing a time in life where time no longer exists.

Einstein said the distinction between the past, present, and future is only a stubbornly persistent illusion. A memoirist is creating an illusion. This is as post-modern as it gets. The writer of memoir is creating a simulacrum, like reenactments of crimes on Court TV. As Buddha said, “Do not dwell in the past, do not dream of the future, concentrate the mind on the present.” And it occurs to me that all memoirs are seen through this lens. Our pasts are filtered through the gaze of the present, and it is this present that begins to sift, sort and build that narrative.

Eighteen

When I was four, I peed on Santa’s lap at Ford City Mall in Chicago. Or was I five? Or three?

I’m forgetting.

But this is not forgotten. I peed on his lap. And he was pissed.

Ten Thousand Eight Hundred Fifty Nine 

The writing of a memoir is about not letting go. It is not the western psychological therapy of writing it down to expel thoughts and emotions. It’s just the opposite. It’s about writing it down to understand and live and relive and learn. The writing of a memoir is what Lauren Slater wrote once in an interview: “I, for one, expect my readers to be troubled; I envision my readers as depressed, guilty, or maybe mourning a medication that failed them. I write to say, ‘You are not the only one.’”

One Half

I just asked my mother to end this for me. She asked me what the topic is. I told her time and Christmas and writing.

“Tell them,” she said, “that everyone dies.” Then because she is Buddhist and believes in reincarnation, she added, “But you get to be in line again to do it all over.”

The memoir writer is in line again and again. The memoir writer defies time. She goes back, goes forward, stays still. She relives, recreates, reimagines. It’s a ride, you see, and a memoir writer can’t get sick on it. She has to get in line again and again, before what? Time runs out? Time stops. Time stands still?

Impossible.

Maybe we are all waiting for something to drop.

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A Gentile Deconstructs “Johnny Lingo”–Lynn Kilpatrick

I grew up, from fourth grade until I graduated high school, in a small town in Southeast Idaho, Pocatello. In grade school, I went to a public elementary, downtown, by the name of Bonneville. The majority of people who live in Pocatello are Mormon, or members of the LDS church.

In grade school, we often watched film strips. I am nostalgic for the film strips, with their accompanying tape deck soundtracks, which beeped when you needed to advance the film. But my concern today is a film, an actual film that was projected on a screen and came on reels. I think we watched it in both fifth and sixth grade, but I can’t be sure.

The film, “Johnny Lingo,” is the story of a Polynesian trader who comes to a small village to find a wife. The obtaining of a wife, in this culture, necessitates bargaining with the local currency: cows. Some of the older village women stand around and brag about how many cows their husbands gave for them. The woman this trader wants to marry, Mahana, is widely viewed as being ugly and worthless, that is, the trader won’t need very many cows in order obtain her hand in marriage. Her father, therefore, asks for three cows, just to insure that if he has to bargain down he will get at least one. When the trader shows up to bargain with the father he shocks everyone by offering eight cows for the woman. Eight cows! The village is astounded.

He is supposed to come with the cows the next day, and many villagers assume that he will simply not show up. But he does, and he gives the eight cows and receives a wife in trade. Capitalism at its finest! He then takes his wife off on a trading trip.

When he returns from the trip with his wife, everyone is surprised to see how beautiful she is. Her father says that maybe he should have gotten ten cows for her. He was tricked! Ha ha ha! She’s a ten cow woman. But only the wise trader knew that.

Now, let’s imagine how this movie might seem to a ten-year-old girl in Pocatello, Idaho who, for the record, is not Mormon and, honestly, does not fully understand Mormonism. I was a Presbyterian. My grandfather was, at the time, a Reformed Presbyterian preacher. The RPs don’t believe in cards, or music (they sing their hymns unaccompanied), they do believe in fire and brimstone, and, if memory serves, kindness. We went to the United Presbyterian church, a more liberal, less rigid version of the same faith.  My father may have stopped going to church by this time, but my mother still took me and my sisters to church on Sundays. I liked church well enough. I even helped out in the nursery.

I was somewhat of a tom boy; I had short hair and I often word corduroy pants. I was sometimes mistaken for a boy. I liked to hike in the hills behind our houses with my friend Annette. I did gymnastics sometimes and played tennis. I liked swimming. I liked to read and I sometimes typed stories on my dad’s typewriter. In fifth grade, I refused to learn the multiplication tables on the grounds that I would never need to use them. I was sent to the euphemistically named “resource room” until I learned them, which took me approximately two days.  I was, for all purposes, a pretty normal non-Mormon girl.

It doesn’t seem plausible now, but I didn’t know the movie was a Mormon movie. When I looked it up (and found it on The Mormon Channel of YouTube), the credits it clearly states it was produced by Brigham Young University. Maybe in fifth grade I had no idea what BYU was. But that’s not the point. The point is, what was I doing watching a Mormon movie in a public elementary school?

To my mind, the moral of this movie is: you should try to find a man who will pay eight cows in order to marry you, for then you will know your true value (eight cows), and then you will feel worthy of eight cows (which, translated, means, what, about $15,000 per cow in 1960s dollars, so $120,000 or a literal fortune?). Once you feel worthy you will become outwardly beautiful. Therefore, if you feel ugly or are ugly, it is because you don’t value yourself enough or because no man has paid eight cows for you. Because, if a man had paid eight cows for you, you would instantly become beautiful. To which, I ask, where is the man with eight cows?

Some may accuse me of being intentionally obtuse. But let’s imagine a ten-year-old girl and try to give her a sense of “building the self-worth of others” (the sub-title of the film). How is it done? Through stating, “Hey, Mahana, I noticed that you are really good at sorting shells. Good job!” or observing, “Mahana, you are very nice to others. Way to be a friend!”?

No.

Self-worth, in this narrative, is obtained through others placing an external, concrete monetary value on you. And not just on you, but on your role as a wife.

Self-worth, in this scenario, is found in obtaining the love of a man, a wealthy man (who else would have eight cows??), and having him decide that you are worthy.  Then, through some magic of alchemy, he pays eight cows for you, and you then become an eight cow woman (that is, beautiful and therefore worth eight cows).

Before anyone claims that we can’t expect a movie made in 1969 to reflect contemporary theories of female self-esteem, let’s remember that The Second Sex was published in 1949 and The Feminine Mystique was published in 1963. Also, I don’t discount the idea that we should perhaps not look to the Mormon Church for progressive ideas about gender.

Maybe adulthood consists of a series of reminisces whereby we imagine the world different than it was, better somehow, with clearer signals pointing the way we should have gone. Maybe building the self-worth of others should be as easy as eight cows. And maybe “Johnny Lingo” contributed to my burgeoning feminism.

In retrospect, I can correlate my first insight on the arbitrary nature of sign and signifier with my first viewing of “Johnny Lingo.” For what is the establishment of Mahana as an eight cow woman but a tautology of the purest nature? Johnny Lingo pays eight cows for Mahana, therefore she is an eight cow woman. If I say the word “beautiful” and then point to something, anything, a fish perhaps or a cow, then I can link the two in the arbitrary chain of meaning that, I, as speaker create. If anything, “Johnny Lingo” reaffirms the right of the male to decide meanings, worth, signifiers and signified.

Within Mormon theology (as I understand it), each man, upon death, will enter into his own kingdom of Heaven. It is up to him to call his wife by a secret name she is given when they are sealed in the Temple. The children they produce during their lives will also join them in this heaven, which explains (partly) the emphasis on having many children. (More children = more heavenly creatures). Of course, I don’t understand how the male children (who get their own heaven) and the female children (who would be in their husbands’ kingdoms) end up with their parents, but that is neither here nor there. The important point is that Mormon theology is built upon the idea that each individual man can be the patriarch who decides value and meaning within his own realm.

It makes sense, then, that a trader named Johnny Lingo could decide Mahana is an eight cow woman. His deciding makes it so.

I suppose, as a ten-year-old girl, I could have taken this movie as a sign that I was in control of my own destiny. I wouldn’t let anyone tell me I was a three or a one cow woman! I would say, “I’m an eight cow woman!” and it would be so.

Instead,  I poked endless fun of the fact that cows were the currency of choice. I had seen cows on my great uncle’s farm. There were cows on the outskirts of Pocatello. But to say someone was an eight cow woman in 1978 would be essentially saying that she would make a good farm wife. Better to say she was a Mercedes-Benz woman, or one worthy of eight pairs of Jordache jeans.

But, wouldn’t it have been a much better moral (and frankly, a more interesting movie), if when Johnny Lingo appeared with eight cows to purchase her, Mahana instead rejected the entire transaction? She should throw off her wrap, revealing a warrior uniform of her own design, yell some insults in her native language (the equivalent of “Fuck you, mothafuckas!”) and run off into the trees. When we next see her, she would be dirty, and perhaps uglier (by cow standards) than in the earlier scenes. She would be hunched over a fire, cooking some fish she caught with her bare hands. She would look up from the fire and smile, before ripping the fish apart and devouring it.

This, then, is what it would mean to be a worthy woman. To recognize the external value system as arbitrary and capricious, and then to replace it with another system of meaning that is equally arbitrary and capricious (as they all are), but one whose terms are set by those within the system.

I could not have articulated my objections to the film when I was ten-years-old, but I objected to the film all the same. I was walking around in a system that valued blonde haired, blue-eyed Mormon girls. That valued those who accepted the system rather than those who questioned it.

This film taught me that I should seek, above all, to be an eight cow woman. I didn’t even like cows. At the time, I didn’t like fish either. But I did learn something from the film. I learned to recognize that a system wherein commodities were exchanged for women was a flawed and inferior system. And, I did reject it. I would be a thousand-thoughts woman. I would be a hundreds of books woman. I would be a million-word woman. And I would decide what those words were worth.

 

the dead clown’s knot–B.J. Hollars

clown

The clown informs the room that he requires a bit of assistance.

            “Who here,” he asks grandly, “might assist me in holding a rope?”

            I am the one he selects, not because I possess any particularly impressive rope-holding skills, but because the “room” happens to be my living room, and this happens also to be my birthday party.

            “Young man,” Chuckles says, “please hold this rope as if your life depends on it.”

            In my four-years of life, my life has never depended on anything, though I know I am meant to hold the rope tightly, which I do, gripping either end until my knuckles turn the color of Chuckles’ face paint.

            When he questions me further—“Are you sure you’re holding tightly?”—I tell him I think I’m sure.

            Moments later, when the rope slips magically from my fingers into his, I feel a lot less sure.

*

            Chuckles the Clown died at 6:00a.m. on a Tuesday in the winter of 2004.  He was 49-years-old.  I was 19 at the time, an oblivious college freshman enrolled in my first creative writing class, anxious to learn how to construct a life in fiction.

At the time of his death, Chuckles and I hadn’t seen each other for 15 years, or so I thought, until my mother revealed that Chuckles had been a member of our church for most of my childhood, that for a few years we likely crossed paths every Sunday.

I remembered him in retrospect—just some curly-haired guy named Charlie who regularly wandered the church foyer following the service.  Sometimes he had a cookie in his hand, sometimes a cup of punch.

Without the face paint or the polka-dotted jumpsuit serving as clues, how was I to guess that the man from my church was my clown?  Charlie’s greatest trick was keeping his other half hidden, muffling the part of him that seemed to make him whole.

*

            In the evenings, after removing the face paint and the jumpsuit, Charlie hunches over his ham radio.

Hello, he calls into the microphone.  Is anybody out there?

Nothing but static calls back.

He tweaks the knob a half turn to the left, to the right, then makes a move to adjust the amplifier.

Maybe if I just boost the frequency, he thinks, then maybe someone will hear.

He listens for whispers in the static in the hopes of hearing a voice.

Okay, let’s try this again, folks.  Testing 1, 2, 3, 1, 2, 3.  If anybody out there hears my count, go ahead and give me a holler.

Static.

Will somebody give me a holler?

Static.

Please, somebody, give me a holler.  I may be in need of assistance.

*

            “Let’s give this young man a hand!” Chuckles cries.  My partygoers do.  I smile modestly, though I am not sure what I have done to deserve their praise.  After all, my only task was to hold tight to a rope, though by trick’s end I failed even in doing that.

            “A souvenir for my assistant,” Chuckles says, whirring the rope into a knot, “for when you tie the knot.”

            He hands it to me.

“Thank you,” I say.  “I love it.”

I do not love it.

If it was a balloon animal, perhaps I would love it, but what use do I have for a knot?

*

For years, when the face paint comes off, Charlie spends his evenings shrouded in radio glow.

He tweaks the knobs, then tilts his head sideways as if he himself might serve as the antenna.

Hello again, folks! he calls.  Anybody out there feel like shooting the breeze?

The static is all but unbearable now.

Charlie wonders how the world can even hold so much static.

Hello? he retries.  Hello hello?  Hello Hello Hellooooooo?

He waits, and when that doesn’t work, he’s back to tweaking knobs, twisting them a quarter turn this way, then that way, listening for the moment when the tumblers click into place.

He tries this for an hour, then two, but the tumblers never tumble.

Perhaps it’s a problem with the modulation, he thinks, or the signal, or worst of all, the antenna itself.

Will the repeater repeat my transmission? he wonders.  Will the repeater repeat my call for assistance?

Adjustments are made, but the cancer remains an echo in his body.

How’s this? he asks, speaking directly into the microphone.  Is this better?  Please, someone, tell me if I am better now.

*

            At the conclusion of my birthday party, my mother sifts through the wreckage of the wrapping paper in search of Chuckles’ knot.  It is nothing to look at—just some knuckle-sized knot pulled tight from a shred of white rope.  Certainly it is no balloon animal.

Nevertheless, my mother saves it, placing it into a box on her bedside table where it will sit undisturbed for 20 years.  Then, one night, I disturb it—slipping it into my pocket alongside a ring.

That night, when I drop to one knee and ask my girlfriend to marry me, I don’t ask her to marry me exactly.

What I ask is: “Will you tie this knot with me?”

I hold onto one end of the dead clown’s knot and offer her the other.

            “Please,” I say.  “Tell me you will.”

*

            We married—for better or worse, till death do us part—and paid more attention to the knot than the man who tied it.  His death did not warrant a national day of mourning.  After all, Chuckles wasn’t the most famous clown to die.  He wasn’t even the most famous clown named Chuckles to die.

The most famous Chuckles died on October 25, 1975, on an episode of The Mary Tyler Moore Show in which another Chuckles the Clown met his tragic/humorous end in a manner ripe for laughter:

Dressed as a peanut, an elephant ate him.

After receiving the news, Mary Tyler Moore watches in horror as her colleagues in the newsroom trade jokes on Chuckles’ unimaginable death.

Newsroom writer Murray Slaughter quips that the tragedy could have been worse: “You know how hard it is to stop after just one peanut!”

Amid the laughter, news director Lou Grant turns to find a mortified Mary watching on.

“We laugh at death,” Lou explains, “because we know that death will have the last laugh on us.”

*

Hello all you listeners out there!  Are you out there?  This is Chuckles signing off.  But before I do, what do you say to one last joke? 

Static.

Why did the clown cross the road?

            Static.

Anyone?

Static.

To get better reception!

Static, still.

*

            When Chuckles needed assistance in the winter of 2004, I was sitting wide-eyed in my first college-level creative writing class.

            “What makes a character?” the professor asked.  “How do we make a character come alive?”

            I’ve lost the notes, but I still remember the gist.

            How a character only comes alive once you dream him into being.  But sometimes you don’t dream him as much as remember him, modeling your character from some person you used to know.

For example, take a clown you met when you were four and then cement his face with paint.  Next, give him a name—Chuckles, for instance, or Charlie—and strive to make that character round.  How does one make a character round?  For starters, give him a hobby—amateur radio, perhaps—and then flesh him out further by giving him a family and a profession and an obstacle to overcome such as cancer.

No.  Scratch that last part.  Do not give him cancer.  Why would you ever want to give him cancer?  Give him some more manageable obstacle, like being eaten by an elephant.

But please, not cancer.  Anything but that.  It’s hard enough to make your character come alive without giving him a death sentence.

*

What use do I now have for the knot?

None, except to untie it; to take that rope and suture a story as if my life depends on it.

My life does not depend on it.  Neither does Charlie’s.

What is life anyway but a joke we tell in an attempt to drone out death?

I don’t need laughter, just a radio receiver that cuts through all the static, something to move me through my feedback loop when all it does is repeat.  Because in truth, all I have of Chuckles is a memory that metastasized, leaving me to wonder how many times I’ve relied on feedback rather than relaying the memory properly.

Perhaps what I need more than a receiver is an antenna to help me find the frequency I lost so long ago.  Though maybe I never even had that.  Maybe what I once heard was the myth of a man I’d constructed in fiction, just some curly-haired guy with a name and a hobby, nothing more.

Listen carefully and I’ll tell you a truth: there are limits to the frequencies we can reach. The human ear—despite its range—remains ill equipped to untangle the static from the echo.

 

Victory at Culloden–Scott Nadelson

My daughter, three, has recently taken to using the word “actually” whenever she wants to convince me of something I won’t likely believe. “Well, actually, Daddy,” she said the other night, shuffling into my office ten minutes after I put her to bed, “I’m not sleepy at all.” Then she let loose an enormous yawn.

One of my colleagues does something similar, only he prefers the phrase “in fact”: “Maybe the students don’t, in fact, want as much feedback as we’re giving them.”

In both cases, I recognize that the actual, the fact, has little connection to verifiable truth. But is it any less real?

Yesterday, when my daughter tried to persuade me that, actually, she was no longer hungry for her dinner but had plenty of room for one of her remaining Halloween treats, I recalled a trip I’d taken to Inverness, which happened to coincide with the two hundred and fiftieth anniversary of the Battle of Culloden. I was on my way to the Western Highlands, where I planned to climb windy peaks and down pints in the most remote pubs I could find, but when I heard about the planned commemoration, I decided to stick around. It was 1996, and I was twenty-two; after living in Edinburgh for most of a year, I knew only the basic details of Scottish history, but I assumed that marking a crushing military defeat and the loss of hope for independence and self-determination would be characterized by somber reflection.

To save money on transportation, I walked the five miles to Culloden Moor, and it turned out to be a good decision. Cars and coaches jammed the road most of the way. Hundreds of people, maybe thousands, sat on the lawn around the visitor’s center and lined up in front of the battlefield. Families ate picnics and played games on the moor, with no thought, it seemed, that the blood of fifteen hundred clansmen had once seeped into its soil.

In the visitor’s center, a dozen or more paintings depicted scenes from the battle, and in all of them the sky was ominous, dark clouds seeming to rise up from the line of Redcoats, as if smoke from their muskets had blackened the whole world. But today the sky was unusually clear, the sun strong enough for me to take off my jacket and roll up my sleeves. The men dressed in traditional Highland tartans were sweating, and a number had sunglasses perched on their noses. Many of the younger ones also wore heavy beards, though their ancestors in the paintings were all clean-shaven. They looked less like Jacobite rebels than extras in Mel Gibson’s Braveheart, which had come out a year earlier, and which depicted battles that took place four hundred years before the one at Culloden.

The official ceremony began with speeches by the mayor of Inverness and a Scottish MP. Then a parade of MacDonalds and Mackinnons, Camerons and Fergusons, Stewarts and Urquharts, each clan with its own set of drummers and Gaelic chants. But all this seemed rushed and perfunctory, the march winding no more than half a mile through the manicured grounds around the visitor’s center before petering out.

And soon I understood why. The real event, the one for which everyone was impatiently waiting, was a re-enactment of the battle itself. Or, I should say, a partial re-enactment. The moor was cleared and the young bearded men in Highland dress lined in formation on its western edge. Photographers readied cameras on tripods. An old guy with big red ears sticking out on either side of a Glengarry cap—a stand-in for the Bonny Prince, maybe—called out orders. The men drew swords. Another order, and they raised their faces to the bright sky. In unison they let out a long, desperate, fearsome shout, their neck muscles straining, faces going red. Then they were charging, bare legs pumping through heather and grass, swords lifted or jabbing, kilts fluttering. Cameras clicked on all sides, and the crowd let out a cheer almost as bloodthirsty as the battle cry.

After running about thirty feet, the warriors pulled up short. The crowd shifted a few dozen yards east. The cameras were repositioned. The charge started again and then stopped. It went on this way until the men reached the end of the moor, far past the marker for the enemy line. There were no Redcoats in sight. No one acknowledged the spot where the Duke of Cumberland’s soldiers would have met the charge and slaughtered the clansmen. In this version of the battle, as far as I could tell, the Jacobites won, the Stuarts rightfully returned to the throne.

For years I laughed about the absurdity of the one-sided re-enactment, its shameless reinvention of history. I dismissed the sincerity of those who’d organized the event, who, as far as I could see, had no commitment to the truth. But now I’ve begun to think about it differently, especially in light of recent political developments in Scotland, the fact that in less than a year, the Scots will vote in a referendum on their independence.

The words “actual” and “re-enact” share the same root, coming from the Latin actus: to act. So maybe the actual isn’t just what has happened; it’s what you do, what you perform, what you can make happen. For my daughter and my colleague, what’s real, what’s fact is the imagined outcome of desire. “Well, actually, Daddy,” my daughter said while munching the Kit-Kat I gave her despite knowing she hadn’t eaten enough dinner, “I’ve actually got room for two treats.” A few days later, my colleague popped his head into my office and said, “The students don’t, in fact, seem to mind that I’ve stopped commenting on their drafts.”

The news reports I’ve read about the Scottish referendum have all credited Braveheart with the surge of national spirit among young people, who grew up with the image of William Wallace leading a ragtag band of tartan-clad ruffians against King Edward’s army and shouting “Freedom!” just before an axe falls on his neck. And though that film, too, is a questionable re-enactment, with plenty of historical inaccuracy, overblown rhetoric, and excruciatingly hokey Hollywood melodrama, it has primed the collective imagination for the possibility of change. Its simplified version of the actual, one with clear heroes and villains, with exaggerated emotions and obvious gestures, has ushered in a possible future that might not have existed otherwise.

On Culloden Moor, those bearded men in kilts, swords raised, battle cries tearing from their throats into the bright sky, weren’t recreating Bonny Prince Charlie’s devastating defeat and the end of the Jacobite Rebellion. They didn’t care about the Stuarts’ right to rule. They were playing out the fantasy Mel Gibson had dramatized for them on the big screen, one in which they were actually strong and determined and prepared to sacrifice for their ideals, one in which no one stood in their way.