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Posts Tagged ‘memory’

Who can truly ever explain how the brain works.

You’re standing in the kitchen making yourself a snack and there’s something in the movement, the rhythm to your actions, that suggest a certain cadence. You hum it, and then the words come, words to a song you haven’t heard or really sung in over 30 years, maybe closer to 40. The song is solid in the memory, firmly planted, and when you get to the end you remember something else about it, something that has attached itself like a footnote all these years.

“I don’t like that song. That’s not the way you’re supposed to speak.”

That would be my mother, complaining about the technically bad grammar tagged onto the end of a counting song from Sesame Street. That the song and my mother’s comment could be so firmly rooted and interconnected after all these years, that’s the mystery of the mind. But did I remember it correctly, was my mother right to have been alarmed?

Thankfully we have the modern Internet to help us remember what we remember.

Yup, it’s still there, just as I remembered it: “You can’t do like Roosevelt do!” And while I can see what bothered my mother about it, I also recall that it sounded right to me. It sounded right because I heard people talk like that. It might have been grammatically incorrect, but kids and adults talk wrong all the time. I also remember thinking that to say it any other way wouldn’t fit the beat of the song (I have always had an inner ear for lyrical beat) and that sometimes you have bend the words or drop words to make them fit. This is no less true of poetry, and in fact it’s all over Shakespeare’s (and other lyrical poet’s) artificial contractions to force-fit them into their meter. O’er ramparts we watch, when it’s Over we’re meaning. That sort of thing.

What my mother may have actually been offended by was the mimicry of urban slang, a borderline wariness that I might not know or understand the difference between proper speech and the patois of the ghetto. What she should have been concerned about was a two-year old puppet boy with a voice so deep that he might have easily replaced the bass position in a doo wop band. Or maybe it was that voice, deep and rich with authority, that she was afraid would sway me into thinking it was okay to talk the way Roosevelt talk.

In the end, those fears were unwarranted. I grew up speaking and writing just fine.  Eventually.

Because I’m Roosevelt Franklin. Yeah, yeah. yeah.

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Hmm.  I began this series a long time ago and never got around to the third part.  In Part One I talked about the magic of maps, and Part Two was about reincarnation and past life resonance.  Part three is a little slipperier and probably why I had put it off saved it for now.  It concerns nostalgia and why we crave it the same ways we do fiction.

Nostalgia is an ugly concept for some people as it tends to represent a fair amount of wistfulness, a sentimentality, a yearning, often of a time and place that in all reality was never as golden as memory portrays it. This the fallacy of back-to-basics thinking, that somehow if we could go back to simpler times that everything would be better. It may be a much deeper psychological desire to break from our current reality in an effort to feel more in control of our lives. And for those who see themselves more pragmatically, more as realists, the nostalgic is nothing short of turning out backs on past in an attempt to ignore the hard truths learned from it. Nostalgia is, to some, nothing less that mindless escapism.

Memory is fiction, a professor once told me in the context of a class on the memoir. Or to quote pop songwriter Harry Nilsson “You see what you wanna see, and you hear what you wanna hear. Dig?” But we tend to view memory and nostalgia as a personal viewpoint. Where one’s memory of events might differ from another’s we see discord, each view colored through the lens of individual perspective. But what if – and ‘what if’ being the key component in storytelling – what if we could visit the past in a way that was physically approximate yet general enough to include all? What could be learned from a backward-looking utopia that can be applied to our current lives, that could tell us something about ourselves?

This is the Disneyland Theory writ large.

Walt Disney unabashedly embraced nostalgia for entertainment purposes, for business purposes, but also as a way of creating a utopic vision of the past that could be experienced the way it might have been. He was clear that he wasn’t attempting to whitewash the past so much as he was trying to capture the essence of it. In this way his amusement park is the visual equivalent of igniting the imagination the same way a smell can rekindle specific memories of time and place. There are some smells that can instantly remove me from the moment and take me back forty years and instantly unlock moments I haven’t thought of since they first happened.

One of Disney’s early visions for the park included a big top circus that would have smelled like sawdust and cotton candy and been void of the rank carnies and drunken clowns. This circus tent never happened for practical reasons but it can’t be ignored that Disney was attempting to actually distort the experience of a big top circus rather than create an inviting fantasy. His personal memory as a child was not of a circus as it might have been but how it really was – full of scary, ugly adults that intruded upon his experience. There was no blind nostalgia, and his attempt to recreate an ideal circus based only on selective details would not have worked. And he had to know this on some level because he didn’t attempt to let his personal nostalgia enter into the design for the rest of the park.

What we do find in Disneyland is a general nostalgia, a composite of ideas from the past presented into a seamless pastiche that allows the South Pacific to merge with Old West which fades into New Orleans. There are details that suggest these different parts of the world, at different times in history, but rather than being sanitized they are simply an armature upon which park guests use their own experiences to complete the imagery. Rather than remain a passive observer of this nostalgia, as with the circus, guests move around and place themselves within the settings. Sitting in a small boat between a galleon and a walled city one doesn’t observe pirates at siege so much as one is caught in the middle of the experience: cannons roar, cannon balls splash the water (and park guests in the boats), the smell of water mingles with the mineral oil smoke in the air. There is no way any park guest could be reliving the personal nostalgia of events from 150 years previous. This is all part of the collective nostalgia.

We call on this collective nostalgia all the time in fiction. We rely on details of time and place to paint a picture in the minds of a reader as a way of gaining entrance to the story. Books that fail to provide enough details are viewed as inferior, books that are inaccurate to our knowledge and sense of setting are dismissed. But fiction is more than a collection of details and facts, it includes emotion evoked through words and actions. We take out own experiences and emotions and insert them freely as surrogates into the fictional characters we read about and, in turn, come to see through the character’s eyes.

It isn’t too much of a stretch to suggest by using details to tease out our own personal memories and experiences that Disneyland employs the elements fiction to allow us to view the past through a lens of our creation.

Every time I go to the park I have a strange dissociative moment at the beginning of the Pirates of the Caribbean ride. As the boat leaves the dock and drifts through the faux bayou, with the LED fireflies on wires just above the surface of the water, drifting past the concrete banyan trees, I can’t help but feel like I’m floating though someplace I used to visit as a boy. But I never grew up in the south, never spent any days in my childhood floating in a boat on calm waters at night, never saw a banyan tree or fireflies until I was nearly 30 years old… but I had seen and done all these things before in fiction. The nostalgia of place that the ride provided was built on a base buried deep in stories, and together the fiction of literature and the fiction of place fused to become something that was at once very real and totally imaginary. But I had experienced it, felt it, and it churned up an emotion that was not at all unpleasant.

The memory is fiction, the fiction, memory. The nostalgia becomes the real, and vice versa. And what we learn is the value that can be gleaned from nostalgia is no less “true” as the resonant details of fiction. Nostalgia doesn’t ignore or rewrite history, people do by trying to manipulate nostalgia for their own purposes.

Yes, I know there are plenty of people who hate Disney, Disneyland, and everything the corporate Disney empire touches. Admittedly, I am at times conflicted because I think Disney and Co. get five things wrong for every one thing they get right. Maybe the ratio is higher than that. But where Walt Disney himself was involved the decisions were a little more personal, more intuitive, less calculated, which I think is why the park works on a number of levels for visitors. Granted, cultural mistakes have been made, history seemingly subverted, but not to the point of revisionism. Not initially at least. I’m not a Disney apologist, both the man and the organization have committed grave mistakes in the past. My point is only that, as an idea, using nostalgia as a lens through which people can revisit and experience the emotional truth within the fiction is not a misguided or evil approach. It is simply another way of looking at story.

Disney, the man, was a storyteller, and he knew how to churn up the emotional elements better than most. He understood this in animation and film, and he understood this to the core in designing the park that bears his name. The lasting success of Disneyland comes from a recognition that providing people with a physical location on which guests can overlay their own narratives – or even invent new ones – is a thing that feeds the soul. Stories, connection, memories, sensations, experiences… they are the things we actively seek out, and in doing so we build upon a certain level of nostalgia that is both personal and universal.

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How is a blog like a diary? How like a diary is a blog? Why is a raven like a writing desk?

Trolling the “next blog” button occasionally yields some interesting things you wouldn’t have encountered otherwise. In one post there was an examination of the idea that a blog is the modern equivalent of a diary. Fair enough, but what was interesting was the idea that by blogging one begins to live for the blog, rather than using the blog to record what one lives. A bit like the scrapbooker who spends so much time documenting their children’s lives they fail to notice they aren’t really participating in the activities they document.

It is also one of those battles I have with myself concerning photography. I love photography, as an art form and as an activity, but there is a troubling voice in my head every time I bring the camera to my eye where I am battling between capturing the right and perfect moment and simply enjoying the moment without a camera. In Europe recently I found myself taking fewer pictures than I imagined because I was more enjoying the moment. Almost begs the question whether one is better off taking pictures when ill-at-ease or detached.

It’s the attachment that sparks the interest but kills the involvement. The desire to share with the world is the lure but the documentation kills some of what it records, including the reporter, in the process. Perhaps that was the meaning behind the fear that indigenous peoples have against photographs stealing bits of the soul. Something is lost in the taking.  That is the verb, after all, to take a picture.  To remove a moment of time from its surrounding moments.

What drives us to record all these things we think and see and feel? And why isn’t reality enough, why do we seek out stories of imaginary people and places created by others? What is it about our lives that it isn’t enough to live them, that we seek out virtual worlds and virtual communities, bonding with like-minded people while shutting out an entire world of possibility that surrounds us?

How is a diary, a blog, a photograph, a novel like a prison?

And why do we crave it so?

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