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May 20, 2014 | TV, Nonfiction

Person-Character

Amanda Goldblatt

Person-Character photo

I wake up one morning and want to read Woolf. Being a woman writer. Is being a woman-who-is-a-writer something to consider, or. Yet it is not the gender really but the closeness to the skin, and whether others may verify that feeling in their reading of the work, and identify. Being a “woman writer” bears the blunt alchemy of “everything we think about women” + “everything we think about writers” = something imprecisely unsavory. Though this morning I am not interested in thinking about gender, any more than usual; I am interested in ideas of discursive selves, when I wake this morning, or maybe I merely woke up with Woolf on the brain. 

I go sit on the back balcony with a cup of coffee in a mug that says “I AM COMPATIBLE,” against a background of dot-matrix printer stripes. As I move it I think, what if I had merely read it as “compatible” and it was “incompatible” this whole time. But I re-read this mug I have been drinking from for five years and confirm, it is “compatible" indeed. The symmetry gives me no relief.

As I get older I think a lot about the power of a brain believing that it is right even when it is not, objectively. That this is sanity. (And something to do with coming to an understanding of humans as no more than fascinating and well theorized meat-machines?) 

I spend a lot of time thinking about the importance or unimportance of: does it matter if what I believe to be true is not true to others. Sure, duh, but as some kind of interpretive artist (I hold that all artists are interpretive) it’s not a bad ongoing brain mission. When I say “spend a lot of time,” I mean 2 to 7 minutes per day. 

There is a tree three yards on, which is taller than three floors. Dry ivy climbs its trunk and it is the biggest living thing in sight. There is a brown and white pit bull who walks the yard just beyond it. I think of it as “my” tree, and “my” down-the-street neighbor’s dog. 

“My” across-the-hall neighbor comes out her back door to take out the trash, earbuds dangling from her collar. She is supposed to be reading an Alice McDermott book for her book club but she keeps listening to audio books about a dystopic Chicago. “It’s a series,” she says. “There’s no closure.” “You can’t eat your vegetables every day,” I say. “I love television, so I understand.” As with everything I say to strangers, I don't really understand what I mean. 

 

II

When I come back in from reading my husband offers to make breakfast and so I go lie on the only rug in the house, a white shag comfort on the floor of “my" office. Here under an open window I breathe well, and read unsuccessfully for the fourth or eleventh time the first two pages of Woolf's To the Lighthouse. Really I only want to read Orlando again for the first time. Orlando’s mutability is “everything” and when I say “everything” I mean it in both the slang and serious senses. It is a statement about the everythingness of the human being. Sure, transcendence of love/non-essence of gender, but really: the inescapable centrality of the brain to understanding the self. 

As the river melts, the river which was once frozen solid, and upon which took place theatre and revelry: "An old nobleman--for such his furred gown and golden chain proclaimed him--went down not far from where Orlando stood, calling vengeance upon the Irish rebels, who, he cried with his last breath, had plotted this devilry. Many perished clasping some silver pot or other treasure to their breasts; and at least a score of poor wretches were drowned by their own cupidity, hurling themselves from the bank into the flood rather than let a gold goblet escape them, or see before their eyes the disappearance of some furred gown. For furniture, valuables, possessions of all sorts were carried away on the icebergs. Among other strange sights was to be seen a cat suckling its young; a table laid sumptuously for a supper of twenty; a couple in bed; together with an extraordinary number of cooking utensils.”

Perhaps I woke with the taste of this precisely, Orlando in an enjambed disaster, watching what is held to be important held to the chests of those people he will never know, for to know anybody, shivering — 

I am a melting river and the people lost in it and Orlando, looking on. Or whatever. 

 

III

Sometimes I worry about having a degenerative brain disease or the thought of having one. Either way all of our brains begin to deteriorate before we have even a clear idea of who or what we are, sometime in our twenties. We all must submit to entropy, is what I am saying. (Lately I am super fun at parties.) 

Dementia is on my mind because often I stay home alone and have lots of time to think about thinking. And also because recently my grandmother has become the darling of student social workers at the elder home on account of an intersection of three things: her intelligence, her increasing dementia, and the high quality of her delusions. Usually, they say, people are less smart or less demented or less specific. They do not say this but they mostly mean this, with their attention. What all this attention means to my grandmother! They work with her twice or three times a week, gratis. Ask my mother, her daughter: she has been waiting all her life to be the center of attention like this! 

One or two years ago my grandmother began to tell a story about the time the Black Panthers came to disrupt the school in the Bronx where she was an elementary school teacher. They over-turned each classroom and prim teach face, except hers. Said one Panther, the big brother of a student: “Not that one. Don’t touch her. She took care of my baby sister.” 

Everything about the truth of other people is never more than anecdotal anyway. Thinking about the craft of nonfiction or fiction or life means understanding that, and forgetting it, and then remembering it again. Even the comprehension of breathing is interpretive. I cannot stop thinking about this, even though it is an undeniably “so what?” situation. 

My mother visits the elder home four times a week, but like everything in my grandmother’s life, it is never enough. If it is a pretty day and my mother can’t come, she feels twice as bad: no one but she ever thinks to wheel my grandmother into the sun. 

I think, when I am old and demented, perhaps I will be at the center too, the center of something, of people, who are also all decaying. Perhaps then. It is a want I don’t want. I am a lady with no verve for great audience. That is a lie. I am a writer who wants reading. 

This year my mother is missing Mother’s Day at the elder home because my father and she are coming to visit us. “Ma,” my mother says. “Mother’s Day is when all of the kids who never come, come. Your kid comes on all the other days.” 

“I was allergic to the fetus,” my grandmother will say often about her second pregnancy, when anyone is paying attention and the subject of pregnancy is on the table or even tangentially viable. “I was that fetus, Ma,” my mother, my grandmother’s second child, will say, if she is in the room. 

 

IV

I confess I like to watch things that don’t watch back.  Ever since I read that watching a television show can give you the same endorphins as spending time with friends, I've really pled my case with the screen. I have a laptop and a smartphone and they can both offer quite an experience. I’m not a “fan” of television programs. I just like to be alone together.

I had just finished graduate school and was very satisfied with myself when I first connoitered with her funny face. Probably in my apartment on Melville in St. Louis still, that summer I swiss-cheesed my left leg crashing my bike into a curb. I also had a really good tan, which is maybe why I wanted to peep some California skin-brethren. 

The Hills was an MTV reality show about life after high school in the fast-paced make-noise non-film LA industries: your fashions, your music promotions, your public relations. It was about being a young woman who is watched by everyone. Despite my tan it was only after a bourbon or two that I could pretend to be that watched. A pretty, clean blonde named Lauren Conrad was the star of The Hills, officially. But to me she was the least interesting part. 

As Lauren’s co-worker at Teen Vogue Whitney Port’s role was to watch Lauren, and to listen, as Lauren flipped verbal coins about bad boys and work trips and being “on the list.” Whit nodded with her mouth open a lot and made sounds of listening through her nose. Of course she was the one who I cared to care about. I was a listener, a watcher by nature, too. I redressed my leg when the scabs opened up and then watched another episode. 

 

Like Lauren, Whit was telegenic, but drawn-in, orderly, buttoned. Her nose is not delicate. People talk about the length of her legs on the internet; she is given to wearing shorts often like any good southern California girl. Give a Modigliani model a bleach job, send her to a well-respected southern California private school, have her do volunteer work and professional development on alternating weekends. 

An internet commenter compared Whit's on-screen presence to conservative, monotone Ben Stein. It is not without truth, I must admit, but perhaps her lack of on-screen charisma is what provoked me in the first place. What was she doing there! She was a black hole of histrionics, even; sucking out the melodrama like it was ice coffee through a straw, (two or three Splenda’s, probably). What does it mean to be a woman writer? What does it mean to be a woman reality star with a good head on her shoulders! 

Then it was not summer anymore and my tan was gone and my scabs more or less healed. I moved to another apartment, which was on a large hill. I taught composition to extremely bright students with varying levels of interest in listening to me. Weeknights I went to a bar a neighborhood over to grade their rhetoric. One Wednesday at the middle of fall there I met the man who would be my husband. 

All at once I was flush with love and even still each morning as I returned to the apartment on the hill and ran an old episode or two of The Hills in the background while I showered and dressed for work, and even though I was so flush with love, still I could not get a hold on the frantic romance of Lauren Conrad. Nor did I care for the contrived series-long assaults against the idea of female friendship, wherein into every friendship was written a guiding narrative of competition or jealousy or judging. Even Whit could care less. On The Hills she revealed that she would be moving to NYC to pursue a fashion label, and to star in her own spin-off. 

They called the output The City. There Whit often contorted herself in a half-caring smirk. She was made to suffer various fools, rich enemies and upstart roommates who liked to party too much. She did not, it was clear to even the casual viewer, really care for her on-screen boyfriend, a generically handsome Australian who made terrible ‘yacht rock.’ The show lasted two seasons. By the time it was over, I felt bereft, and wrote her an unfinished epistolary lyric essay.

 

V

An excerpt:

So just you wait: all of this dog-and-pony shit dies down; you’re thirty; you’re considering a Cultural Studies PhD. 

You’re licking your lips less often and you’re using the word “meta” more often.  

Maybe you like boutique loose teas; you haven’t lost your affection for Bags. Okay. You are from California. 

Maybe you rescued a pit bull from the ASPCA and you have some really nice condo in some up-and-coming ex-industrial hood with concrete floors and tasteful mid-century furnishings. 

You buy micro-greens and heirloom everything from the farmer’s market and you do it in a vintage gingham frock with a motorcycle vest over top. 

Walking in the sun, you feel freshly fucked, whether you are or not. 

You’re still making clothes, but, like, not in a commercial way. You’re making outfits for your favorite Virginia Woolf characters. You can’t get that ice banquet scene from Orlando out of your head.

You’ve transcended. 

This is when you’ll find Love, when you know how to make Love poached eggs, swirling those loose yolks in petite vinegar gyrations.

It’s clear: I wanted for her a mix of her and me: her matte glamour, our watchfulness, my casual liberal nerdiness. And I wanted us both to be happy. 

 

VI

There is academic scholarship about the labor principles in the formation of the “person-character,” someone who is paid to be a character while enacting a job. In the case of Whit: first an intern at Teen Vogue, later a fledgling designer. (See also: when Real World producers started making the cast members do something besides drink and make-out and fight.) 

I am a person-character only in so far as everyone in the social network game is a person-character on the internet; only most of us are not paid for our on-screen labors. See: any quickly-written column exploring the effect of Facebook on feelings of jealousy and schaednfreude. 

(Hey, remember when the nation all started using “schadenfreude" at the same time? What year was that? 2007? 2006? Or did it only seem that way to me.)

What is interesting to me, and more worthwhile to think about: Whit is a person with both a fictionalized life narrative and a “true”/“real” life narrative, playing out at the same time. 

For a person like my grandmother, with dementia, the “real” life narrative recedes as the self-styled fiction comes to the fore: it is what makes her so interesting to the social workers. The less detailed the “real” life narrative need be, the more comprehensive power can be devoted to the story. So what I wonder is what it was like to be a person and a person-character simultaneously, to be paid to be a version of yourself. Reality stars have surely popularized this condition. 

I can think of no other parallel to reality stardom except dementia. 

Indeed, in casual research for this work, I discovered that Whit majored in gender studies at USC and it is possible or probable that she read some Woolf. I wondered whether watching her I had smelt the feminist on her. We can smell each other, you see. I wondered whether watching her I could divine her “true" life through the film of her dramatized life. I examined myself, trying to figure out why watching reality television is still something I do not believe a truly “serious" person, a person who traditionally marginalizes oneself by merit of how much they value the mind, would choose to do,

I am having a fantasy about publishing this essay with Whit’s annotations haloing each line. Tell me, Whit, where I am right and wrong. I am interested in how my interpretation of your person-characterhood wrongly or correctly cleaves to your own narrative interpretation of your own life. Please. You can use the Microsoft Word “mark-up” function. If you don’t know how, I’ll show you. 

 

VII

To be a person who thinks, who thinks about thinking too much, who has a predilection for television and can be neuro-romanced by characters, even television is exhausting. Increasingly it is less about turning off my brain, or having a “social” experience. Increasingly it is about projection, in the way that media is always about projection or escapism, either way; it is about the viewer and the viewer’s self and their interpretation, and not about the characters or the makers of the media. As I said before, I suppose, all art is interpretive. Only recently has my viewership become strenuously same.

In casual research I also learn: in 2013 Whit became engaged to man who was a producer on The City, a man who no doubt saw her as successful on-screen before her knowing her off-.  I am very interested that Whit will marry a man who was partly in charge of her public interpretation. Or, I am interested in this idea. I am less interested in who she is functionally, day to day. However I would like to know what Whit would think of this disparity of interest. For she is a real person with real thoughts, “who has something to say,” as she said in an online interview. The interviewer kept looking away from her when she spoke and an internet commenter found this frustrating. 

 

VIII

A text is a text, and person is a text, and a mediated person is a text about text, and the person reading the text is a text, and so on. (I ain’t scared of holding onto post-modernism for as long as I need it.) 

My grandmother is a mediated text, a person mediated through her dementia and also the more clear versions of her perceived by those around her. My mother, unglamorous and uninterested in being glamorous, has found peace in understanding her own mother’s breadth of self-creation. It does not devalue my mother, the fact that my grandmother proclaims that she was “allergic to the fetus,” instead my mother can see it as an essential trait of the way my grandmother need see herself: a pregnant woman is known for gestating an expected baby, while a woman allergic to the fetus may still be the subject of the sentence. 

A woman allergic to the fetus need not cede the floor.

It is within my capacity to think about very “serious” things (dementia) and very “flip”’ things (television) at once and this is part of my interpretation of myself, mediated through the medium of the essay and any readership it may receive. I am writing about reality television and dementia and Orlando, I say, when my husband asks what I’m working on. It benefits me to say this to him, to put it plainly and provocatively. So that he will understand, that I am still a thinking person despite all the television. 

 

IX

“I love you more than you’ll ever know,” my grandmother says at the end of each phone conversation. “I do know,” I am accustomed to responding. “Because I love you that much too.” 

Where do I learn about the qualities of love. From lived life or more “serious” arts (books, film), not television. There is only so much nutrition a televised life may offer. It is not everything. It is mediated life, a mirror. Stories we tell about our selves are mediated, and their perpetuation may drain us, too. Let every sense come upon us ravenously. 

To you I may seem full of shit, but that is an inessential opinion. Increasingly, in aging, in early aging, art is a vehicle for thought, when once thought was only the origin for art. It is harder for me to fall in, easier to map or collate. 

What better spark than an episode, a package, featuring characters easily tracked. 

I am offering you, the reader, what I have, in language that pleases me, in a structure that invites a more objective comprehension. I choose that which is interesting to me, as evidence, as illustration. Take what you want, if anything herein pinches or strokes. If you take nothing that is entirely your choice. 

Virginia you're a phantasm. Whitney you're a phantasm. Granny you're a phantasm. All we women we're phantasms. All we people. Matter is mutable as the imagination has options. I don’t care if it’s obvious; it’s true. 

 

image: http://dressmeblog.me/denim-on-denim/


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