Monday, September 27, 2010

Suburbs of Our Discontent

My kids, like most kids, love to hear stories about themselves. While I have a few great ones I can recall with total clarity, most of them have wandered off Memory Lane and taken a tragic plunge into the gaping mental abyss, never to be seen again.

But how can I admit this to my youngest child when he asks me what he liked to eat when he was a baby, or what he liked to play? We went through a technical glitch there for a few years where we couldn't figure out how to work the digital camera, and the video camera from the mid-'90's had broken. So I don't even have pictures.

Still, I tell the stories. I piece them together from flashes of memories and construct a pretty decent semblance of a narrative for them. ("You were always such an active baby—that's how you jumped off the bed and onto your head!" (or maybe I dropped you by accident/knocked your IQ down 10 points/traumatized you/traumatized myself).

Shakespeare understood how this works— how powerful and inescapable these narratives can be: Richard III's mother never lets him forget what a pain in the ass he was when he was a kid, and no amount of posturing will let him rewrite that story; Hamlet's version of how God-like his father was survives to the end—even after the ghost of Hamlet Sr. shows up in his nightgown; Roman History needed Caesar Augustus to have conquered a great equal, so Antony gets remembered as a great war hero instead of a love-sick fool who couldn't find his asp with both hands. (I know, I know, he used a sword, but I couldn't resist the pun.)

My husband and I were interviewed last week for an NPR show called The Story. We sat in a booth with these big old Princess Leia headphones on and remembered all sorts of stories together about how we met, drove cross country, lived in two different places to start our academic careers, and then how we survived (and didn't survive) tenure. They spoke with us for about an hour and a half, but the finished product was 25 minutes long. They did a pretty great job editing our stories down for dramatic effect to create one overarching narrative. But things inevitably were lost in the process. And even as we told our stories there were points where I thought we were embellishing details, contracting time, finding themes, because that's how we make sense of our stories and save them—even if we can't say for sure that the order of things, the specific details, are all 100% true.

I'm glad we got a chance to record that part of our history together. Even if it is, in the end, more of a story.

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