[redacted] ex machina
March 12, 2009
(this post depends on embedded audio players which your RSS reader may not display properly (or at all). please click through.)
my favorite part of The New York Times is the Styles section (the Book Review runs a close second). regular features in the Styles section which i enjoy include A Night Out With, The Critical Shopper, On The Street, Fashion Diary — ok, really basically all of them, even the newest addition, the boilerplate advice column Social Q’s. for reasons of length, i’m not even going to go into Dining & Wine or Home & Garden, which i think technically fall under the Styles umbrella (and what an umbrella it is, a Missoni stripe print post-ironically bedazzled with Swarovski crystals!) i subscribe to the Style Magazine’s blog, The Moment, in order that i might read on days other than thursdays and sundays about luxury leisurewear, the vagaries of necktie fit and design, and chanel bags which double as pillows — my favorite feature there is The High Low, which juxtaposes cheapo mall-ready things that i and the rest of the hoi polloi might possibly afford with Styles’ standard designer decadence. i love many things about Styles, especially the name — that silly and superfluous “s” at the end like a bow on a present, a cherry on top. maybe at some point in the past, my fascination with Style and Styles would have been a quirky and interesting tidbit which i could reveal in order to seem chic et au fait. on my list of facebook interests, nestled in between “jogging” and “looking at myself in the mirror,” i might have included “the Styles section” or, if i was feeling particularly loosey goosey, “Sunday Styles.” “oh, really, the Styles section? aren’t you quirky and interesting!” someone might have written on my facebook wall.
however, those (imaginary) times have passed and been forgotten. these days, my interest in frivolous things would likely be described with other adjectives, many of them beginning with “i”: irresponsible, ignorant, idiotic, just to name a few. this is a result of the boring, ugly reasons that we all know, the headlines with which we’re carpet bombed day and night by our various media outlets: the markets continue to crash like paper planes (no one on the corner’s got swagga at all), credit cards are worth less than the plastic they’re printed on, there are no jobs except for the statisticians who are measuring the jobless rate, wars continue to be warred in deserts which continue to be desert-y if, sadly, not deserted. Style, in other words, has been superseded by Substance.
Perhaps America since the depression will never be so young again. I suppose it has to happen it does to any dog that he can never be so young again. But then after they get old they do get young again and so this can happen. It is almost happening in Europe but then America is not old enough yet to get young again. They believed the depression was a depression, before that booms had busted a busted boom is not a depression. I know I was so surprised when a banker cousin of mine said he could not really believe that the depression was a depression although he did believe it and that worried him. When a boom busted everybody knew it, they used to say who is holding the dollar this week, but now for the first time they were taking the dollar seriously. Well. (gertrude stein, everybody’s autobiography, p. 108)
a disclaimer: i don’t mean to create the impression that i’m some banker’s boy or trust fund twit who doesn’t actually have to worry about money, someone like gertrude, who, god love her, could (literally) afford to be careless about cash flow. no, i am not like that; i’m not at the salons, i’m at supercuts, resolutely middle middle class, state schooled, suburban, partially hydrogenated. i don’t have a job now (i could blame this on the recession but that’s not it) and i live in my parents’ guest bedroom (which, per the Styles parlance, i consider to be an “extended staycation”). i describe these things dismissively, since that’s how things are done in the style guide of Style, but don’t get me wrong — i do know how incredibly lucky and privileged i am to have the things and people i have, even if they aren’t bespoke or couture or even vintage, even if my life is off the rack as well as being off track.
and the thing is, i really should worry about money. last year, i lost more hard-earned cash to market forces than i had ever even had before, thousands of dollars, partially because of invisible hands beyond my control but partially because i was busy reading up on A Night Out With Shooter Jennings instead of following important developments in Forex (or, sadly, even knowing what Forex stood for). in a depressive e-mail to a friend after i found out that the money i thought i had was gone, i wrote,
you know that really famous marx quote about capitalism, “all that is solid melts into air?” i had always seen in it in my sort of aesthete english major way, thinking it was such a beautiful image and imagining like this diaphanous golden dust dissolving into the wind (actually, until looking it up for you, i had always thought it was like a pound or eliot line about modernity or god and had nothing to do with marx and money). upon learning that a lot of my money (or more correctly the value of my money) had basically just kind of disappeared without my knowledge, eroded like sand, i thought of it again but in a really horrifying new light and it kept repeating in my head in that kind of way like when you’re really really hungover, like so hungover that you can’t do anything but lay in bed and sort of quasi-hallucinate and your brain sort of catches on like a song lyric or phrase and it just keeps repeating in your head?
even though i can push myself to make these alternately flippant and emo acknowledgments of the world we live in today, i can’t change my interests as easily as my facebook profile — just because credit default swaps and treasury agreements and bailout provisions are the “in” thing to care about now doesn’t magically make me as interested in them as i am in hundred dollar cashmere cable-knit dog sweaters and the incredible restorative qualities of touche éclat. another disclaimer: i am not nor have i ever been particularly stylish and i don’t spend money on much of anything, much less expensive clothes, trinkets, and/or baubles. i’m not a super shopper or fashionist (this is the m. singular of fashionista, right?). no, i enjoy Styles vicariously, like some men read Playboy for the articles. even though i can recognize its ridiculousness, well, you know, the heart wants what it wants and so, valiant in my vanity, i read on. i continue to enjoy the wealth of wealth which is arranged store-window like within the confines of Styles, despite the fact that for the foreseeable future i won’t be able to afford any of the things profiled inside, not least of which the precious commodity described in my favorite feature, Modern Love.
there was an interesting thing about a Modern Love essay recently (ED: i started writing this post in january so that “recently” is kind of a stretch at this point). the essay itself, some cutesy piffle about swinging or not swinging or whatever, wasn’t particularly interesting or good, which is not at all uncommon for Modern Love essays and is in fact probably more rule than exception. personally, that doesn’t bother me — as we’ve established, i like cutesy piffle. however, the essay did have a disclaimer which was not common or boring or cutesy but interesting and good. here it is:
this addition is somewhat reminiscent of the disclaimer (“interview conducted, condensed, and edited”) which was added to deborah solomon’s times magazine interviews in 2007 after tim russert, ira glass, and amy dickinson alleged that solomon misrepresented interviews with them, specifically that she recontextualized their answers by attaching them to new questions which she added after the interview or selectively edited and combined parts of their answers to create new answers. excited by this the new disclaimer, i immediately scanned google blog search for coverage of it. i was saddened to find that no one had given this development in attempted accountability the attention i felt it deserved — are close readings of Modern Love another casualty of the recession?! of the few commentators who took note of the new addendum, sadie at jezebel was glib (“‘All dialogue in Modern Love is based on memory?’ Yeah, memory and a few hundred hours of Friends”) and overall was too busy yukking about how totes stabby the essay made her feel to worry much about the ramifications of its disclaimer.
the nytpicker, a blog which obsesses about all things times, took a slightly more in-depth look at the disclaimer:
What does that mean, exactly? How does the NYT define “memory” — does this mean writers can reconstruct decades-old conversations in perfect quotes, and with impugnity?
Has the NYT just enabled a new group of memoirists with faulty memories to present their stories — without any quibbling allowed from misquoted participants in their lives who remember things differently?
the nytpicker emailed his comments to the editor of the Styles section, trip gabriel, who responded at length:
The disclaimer isn’t new. We’ve run variations of it every two or three months for about a year. Even though most readers surely understand that personal essay writers don’t record the real-time spoken words of people in their lives (usually), we thought it would be useful to spell this out, given that Times readers do expect that in news stories quotations are verbatim.
Most of the dialogue in “Modern Love” is paraphrased, not quoted. But even if it’s between quotation marks and recalled from memory, the editors make clear to contributors that events must be real. For example, we don’t allow pseudonyms or composite characters.
Every editor of personal memoirs has become all too aware in recent years of the capacity for fraud. We have a rigorous editing process designed to prevent this…
on the surface, i like the new Modern Love disclaimer for all its connotations of frey and burroughs and the contemporary controversies of fake memoir which trip gabriel alludes to in his final paragraph. more deeply, though, i like it because it’s true: all (reported/recorded/transcribed/written) dialogue is based on memory, and this is true of Modern Love and modern love and everything else. it was true in the past and is true now, though in different ways.
in the past, all dialogue was based on memory. before edison invented the phonograph and daguerre and niepce invented the photograph and the lumieres the motion picture camera, all the records of dialogue and speech and existence which we now possess were based on memory. we have written accounts, sure, not to mention our paintings and sketches and statues, but how can we know for certain that those who have preserved our past were able to capture it with complete and total accuracy? we can’t. have you ever tried to transcribe speech? i’ve done it a lot for television recaps in this space quite a bit. i’m a quick typist and good listener, but trying to transcribe someone as they speak naturally is not the easiest thing in the world to do. i can only imagine how it was even more difficult before the invention of personal computers and, before that, the portable typewriter, how hard it must have been to try to capture what someone was saying with a fountain pen or quill frantically dipped and redipped in ink, to do it without the ability to stop and pause and rewind. on important occasions, i’m sure multiple writers were attempting to transcribe the speeches and dialogues and important events and that thus they could compare their accounts to try for a greater accuracy, for a more complete truth. i’m also sure that, since they each possesed a subjective perception and memory, that there were differences between their records. how do we know who was right? we don’t — all we have are subjective memories. so many of the foundational documents of our history and society, to varying degrees, are based on the whims and (conscious or subconscious) ideologies of the memories of their writers. the histories of ancient societies, speeches from cicero to abraham lincoln, the new testament — these are just a few of our important documents based on fallible, malleable, mutable memory.
today, all dialogue is still based on memory. it’s just that the kind of memory has changed. now, instead of the subjective, squishy memory of the brain, we have the hard, “objective” memory of silicon and metal and magnets. when you go to buy it at the computer store, they call it “physical memory” and this is the connotation which fills the popular imagination, of memory not being flighty and ephemeral as we experience it but solid, sturdy, standing firm against time and influence. they call the new hard drives you can get for your laptop “solid state.” it’s all kind of the way you can’t remember your friend’s birthdays but facebook never forgets them. to feed that memory, instead of the soft and trickable eyes and ears and senses of the past, now we have cameras and microphones and sensors, mechanical senses that don’t lie, that don’t forget. the way there are pictures of you on facebook that you don’t remember taking. when ira glass and amy dickinson made their allegations against deborah solomon, they were able to do so because their interviews were recorded. this was what allowed them to prove their case, a document: objective, unimpeachable, verifiable truth. you can make copies of it, you can play it over and over and it doesn’t change, it doesn’t degrade, it doesn’t disappear because you backed it up in multiple locations. the document, the record, that’s what we trust, not the memories in our heads but memory held in RAM and IDE and SATA. the way i can’t remember my brother’s phone number because my phone remembers it for me. dialogue is now more and more based in memory, our memories are based in memory, are of and about memory, are metamemories of long chains of email messages that we look at over and over again, of photos favorited on flickr, held in paperless bookmarks which can’t be lost. once i broke up with a girl on facebook and this would be rude and trendy except that the majority of our relationship was on facebook, too, in inboxes and on walls, scribo ergo sum, all of our connections on some server except for a few times when we were drunk and especially this one time when we went to a party and she whispered something when people weren’t looking and i can remember how her breath felt against my ear but i can’t remember the words she used. all dialogue, in Modern Love or modern love or elsewhere, is based in memory. it’s just that the format varies, that each storage medium carries its own message differently.
“I came across Matthew Perry’s page and added him as a friend,” says Kirsty, “and within about a day he added me back. He would answer right away any questions I would ask about Friends, his career, where he grew up. That made me believe that yes, this could be him. Pretty fast it became very intense, where he would message a dozen times a day, complimenting me. He sent me flowers a few times. He would tell me that he loved me. I would tell him that I loved him. A lot of times Matthew would talk about how much better things would be when we were together. When my husband found out and demanded that I end the relationship, it was very difficult to resist, so my husband and I separated.”
Sitting down with Kirsty for the first time, Dr. Phil says, “I have so many questions I don’t know where to start. Why did you think that Matthew Perry would be on Facebook chatting you up for 11 months?”
“In the back of my mind I flip-flopped back and forth,” she explains. “I did have a lot of conversations that weren’t specifically about him being Matthew Perry. That wasn’t what it was based on. It was more about our everyday — or my everyday life.”
“Do you have friends in your real-world life?” asks Dr. Phil.
“Yes,” Kristy says with a smile.
“Did they say, ‘Come on. You’re not talking to Matthew Perry. This is some nut job telling you they’re somebody they’re not’?” he asks.
“Yes, they did say that,” she says. “It got to a point where I was so involved, I wanted to find out the truth, and I wanted to find out who it was and why they would invest so much time, you know, talking to me.”
“But, you bought into the fantasy, though,” Dr. Phil says skeptically.
“At first,” she says, “absolutely.”
“And, you were married,” says Dr. Phil. “And what impact did this have on your marriage?”
“I had had problems in my marriage before this,” she says. “My marriage had been going downhill for quite a while, for a few years, and I think that’s why I let myself become involved, because it was somebody who would listen to me, somebody who would pay me attention, somebody who would send me flowers, somebody who sent me a necklace, somebody there who would give me advice and ask how my day was, and that sort of thing.”
“Every single day, I would question Matthew Perry. I would look him up online to see what he had been doing, to see if it corresponded with what he told me, as far as going out, what events he might have been at. Matthew had all the right answers.”
“You called him Matty, right?” Dr. Phil asks Kirsty.
“I called him Matty, yes,” she says.
Dr. Phil says, “That was just your pet name for him because y’all were that close.”
“We were that close,” she agrees.
So, I told them that I need to warn them that my husband’s going to go to the police, and to find out the truth, and, ‘You need to come clean and tell me who you are,’ and it turned out that it was a teenage girl from the U.K.”
“Do you think you were incredibly naïve and gullible to have bought into this at all?” asks Dr. Phil. “Because you bought into it pretty much for a long time.”
“I did,” she says. “I let it go for — 11 months it was before I found out. On the days that I did buy into it and allow myself to go with it, it was a lot easier that way, and it was fun and exciting. When I did find out, it was a huge, huge relief. The last few months, I think I basically hung in there just to find out the true story.”
“But you bought into it for a long time,” says Dr. Phil. “What’s your relationship with this 16-year-old-girl now?”
“I still talk to her now.”
Dr. Phil turns to Kristy. “When you confronted this girl, when you found out who she was, what did she say?” he asks.
“She told me that she didn’t want to tell me the truth before because she thought that I would stop talking to her,” she says. “She didn’t want to let me go. She says that she’s in love with me. When I found out she was 16, yeah, I was mad. I knew that it wasn’t Matthew Perry. I was relieved that I finally got the truth. Then I became curious as to who the person was. And I mean, I remember what it was like when I was 16.”
“But is your relationship with her maternal at this point?” he asks.
“Oh, absolutely,” says Kristy. “I feel very protective of her. Like I said, I remember what it was like. When you’re 16, your emotions are crazy!”
though she’s known for oversharing, julia allison’s favorite literary tool is actually redaction. a google search for “julia allison [redacted]” returns almost 8,000 hits. julia redacts for a number of purposes, most of them common and boring. her most common and boring reason for redaction is when she’s using a reader e-mail as the substance for a post but doesn’t want to reveal the reader’s identity/contact information. her second most common and boring reason is when she’s quoting a conversation or describing a date with a guy who doesn’t want his identity revealed on the web. for julia, redaction serves the purpose of hiding the person’s identity and at the same time adding some air of, i don’t know, professionalism or maybe journalistic integrity to her blog. it’s like by using this official-sounding word she’s granting herself some modicum of its authority, as if she’s not the one doing the redacting, as if it’s done by some Editor, some mysterious figure who is controlling everything from behind a curtain and keeping hidden certain mysterious and important details. as if we’re reading the pentagon papers instead of some stupid thing her date said at dinner. i’m not sure when julia allison started redacting — i’m not enough of a JA scholar to dig back to the first instance — but she’s been doing it for a while, and, like i said, it’s often common and boring. however, by far the most interesting redaction that julia’s done took place near the end of last month, when julia redacted God.
depending on your opinion of JA’s mental acuity, you could see this naming convention as either a reference to the unutterable or to the villain from the harry potter books. the posted conversation was a reminder that julia has now gotten religion. this was first revealed in january in a (relatively) lengthy post in which julia described how she had found [redacted]. however, she didn’t dwell on her new spiritual life because right after she had to go to davos to hang out with founders and watch power point presentations and after that was fashion week, which was so crazy for her, as always, and then it was her bicoastal birthday bash with her BFF randi zuckerberg, and really overall she’s been so busy that there just hasn’t been much time or space to write about [redacted], not even on twitter!
here is julia’s description of her epiphany, in full:
i’ll forgive you if initially you can’t read this confession as genuine and true and instead read it as another example of attempted self promotion. i mean, i’m a big julia booster but when i first read it, my reaction was, “hey julia, i just watched the religion episode of Oprah’s Best Life Week, too!” what she describes is a flighty, vague, noncommittal kind of spirituality — it’s Cosmo spirituality (the 12 hottest new prayer positions! 37 tips for getting closer to [redacted]! kabbalah beads – trend or transcendent?!). her Commandments aren’t about religion and aren’t even really about spirituality and aren’t even really about secular humanism, they’re just kind of Not Being An Asshole 101 (this is, of course, a lesson that some people still have to learn). as in all the other guidebooks and “journey stories” which fill the bestseller lists, here julia attempts to neatly codify her spirituality into chapter headings and messages, to make it relatable, subscribable, saleable. it comes off as more of a pitch for her Chicken Soup For The Oversharing Soul than a genuine expression of faith. so yeah, honestly, when i first read her confession, i saw it as a kind of a desperation move almost, since for all the axe endorsements and syndication deals, it doesn’t seem that julia’s site, nonsociety, is as succesful as she once dreamed it might be. julia’s spiritual revelation, in one sense, seemed to me like a desperate grasp for relevance, a last ditch effort to rebrand — if she couldn’t be carrie bradshaw candace bushnell, could she be liz gilbert instead?
but does that mean her revelation isn’t also real? the other important moment in julia’s life lately, the only other moment when she publicly prayed to [redacted], was when she lost her iPhone in san francisco.
the julia allison commentary blog reblogging julia, which has reappeared after going quiet for some time, ended a recent post by saying, in a characteristically creepy direct address to julia, “i am certain you are grateful to me to be the custodian of your memories.” thought it pains me to admit it, the writer of reblogging julia is, in a way, a custodian of julia’s memories. other receptacles and storage devices for julia’s memories include julia’s own tumblr and twitter and flickr and vimeo and facebook and et cetera. another of Julia’s palaces of memory is her iPhone, which is why it was so Tragic for her to lose it and such a Miracle for her to find it again. another is my google reader feed and the cache of images i’ve cut from her website for use in this post — there are pieces of julia’s memories sitting on my hard drive right now and i got them for free and i can keep them for as long as i want.
when i was in college, i wrote a paper for this sorority girl drug dealer (my first and only paid writing job) about SETI@home, which was and is the largest distributed computing project in the world. what distributed computing means is that millions of people download this program and use it to contribute the power of their home computer to analyzing huge amounts of data downloaded from these giant radio telescopes which are constantly searching the heavens for signs of life. julia’s memories and the interpretations of those memories are, in their own way, also distributed, streamed from servers. this is not to call her a cyborg or anything — i think that posthuman aesthetic is ridiculous and tres gauche, just an excuse for nerds to strap their blackberries to their arms and pretend that the world is becoming Star Trek. yet there is something special about julia allison with regards to this. the thing that’s special about her, though, is how ordinary she is, how much like us. anyone who is on the internet is distributing themselves in some similar way — julia is just taking it to extremes.
julia ends her spiritual confession, as she ends so many of her posts, with a call for submissions, as it were, a request for her readers to “join the conversation” and e-mail in with their thoughts on the topic she’s proposed so that she can then use those thoughts to generate more posts which she can then use to call for submissions which she can then use to generate more post and et cetera. this content creation strategy has served her well, even if at times it’s a bit annoying for her most devoted readers — it sometimes seems that in julia land, the rest of the world exists only to generate content for her time out new york column. however, if she’s always asking others for their input so that she can use it for her output, if this is true for her writing and her life, why should her religion be any different? in other words, why shouldn’t she crowdsource her spirituality?
the reason i like julia allison is that she’s a writer. (she’s been less of a writer lately and more of an image poster but i hope that will change soon.) if you’re familiar with julia allison, you might not think of her as a writer, as fitting our notion of the Author bent over a table scrawling deep thoughts deep into the night. by definition, though, a writer is just someone who writes things, and i don’t care who you are, i feel pretty confident that julia allison has written more in the last couple years than you have. i’ve written over a hundred thousand words on this blog and i seriously doubt that’s any competition for julia. her SOP is to just post, post, post, to fill as much space as possible with her words and images. yes, that’s quantity over quality, but just because there’s a lot of something doesn’t mean that none of it’s worthwhile. at the same time, quanity in and of itself doesn’t necessarily beget quality. just because julia’s a writer, that doesn’t make her a genius or a poet or a philosopher. i mean, these are the last two books that she’s read:
yes, so julia is reading a new-agey spirituality book and some book about how tech stuff works. those us of us who write and read, which i’m going to assume is anyone reading this far into this post, know that your writing and reading, if they’re really important to you, become your way of seeing and thinking and acting and being, your interface with the world. knowing that julia’s knowledge base is what it is, that she’s reading these self help books and techy tomes, isn’t it completely natural that her spiritual epiphany took the form that it did? does that make it less valid? not to get into the whole high-low po-mo thing here, but do your spiritual feelings count for naught if you read nicholas sparks instead of dostoevsky, if you read the message bible instead of the king james? as a writer and reader myself, i want to say yes, of course, i want to say that genre fiction and self help books cannot get you to heaven (if it exists), but i don’t think that’s really true.
the other problem that people might have with julia’s revelation is that they think it’s not real, that she’s not really a believer, that she’s just trying to monetize faith. this is a concern which seems valid but is, of course, completely unverifiable. none of us can truly know if julia allison is faking her piety, not even an expert and custodian of memory like reblogging julia. even if her post was written in the spirit i described, isn’t it possible that in the writing of it she believed in something, if only for a second, or if the writing changed her and made her believe something which she didn’t before. isn’t it possible that even if some reporter got her on record to admit that it was all just a lie, if we had “proof” that she was lying, isn’t it possible that somewhere inside she might actually believe anyway? just like there are many julias outside of her, distributed over networks social and otherwise, couldn’t there also be many different julias inside of her, one who sees getting religion as a good career move and one who genuinely believes in something and one who really wants to genuinely believe in something and so on and so forth? maybe she’s struggling to reconcile them and is doing it the only way she knows how, by posting, posting, posting. maybe it’s that what seems to be crass, money-hungry rebranding is actually the struggle for self definition, or maybe that this binary is not an either/or proposition but a both/and.
an afterthought: one of the stupidest parts of julia’s nonsociety website is the advice box. the premise of the advice box is user participation and content generation. in theory, users ask the nonsociety girls probing personal questions and this drives a “conversation” or “discussion” which generates lots of pageviews as well as enlightening and enriching all involved. in practice, the advice box is mostly filled with a lot of people asking meghan asha what kind of digital camera they should buy. occasionally, people will also ask mary rambin what kind of makeup they should buy or whether a certain fashion trend is “in” or “out” or if colonics hurt. however, even within this dark corner of a broken site, there are manifestations of faith, hope, and love — there is, as they say, “beauty in the breakdown.” these moments of wonder/transcendence/kindness mostly come from julia, i think, but can even arise from the lesser bloggers on nonsociety, megan and mary. for example, here is mary rambin using the broken user content generation tool on her stupid, ugly, side-scrolling website to do a nicer thing for a total stranger than you’ve probably done lately.
so i guess now i’ll “start to have conversations with you about spirituality” just like julia, that i’ll participate in the meme. ironically with regard to this particular one, the word “meme” comes from that meanie atheist richard dawkins, who, according to The Source of All Earthly Knowledge Wikipedia, coined the term back in the seventies to describe “how one might extend evolutionary principles to explain the spread of ideas and cultural phenomena.” dawkins derived meme from the greek word mimema, meaning imitation. mimema is the result, the end product, of the act of representation, mimesis, a word which has been used and abused by philosophers and literary critics and art historians since probably roughly ancient greece.
really, though, this etymology of meme is unnecessary. after all, what a meme is really and truly about is me me me, whether it’s twenty five random things about me or only just one non-random one. when trying to start her religion meme, julia allison proposed talking about turning the other cheek. she had a few responses to her thread but then that was a like a month ago, which is like a year in meme time, so dated, lol. also, i don’t care to discuss turning the other cheek — it seems like a pretty common sense thing to me, cheek turning, and if julia didn’t understand it, i don’t know why she just didn’t look it up like everybody else. it’s also kind of funny that she chose “turn the other cheek”, considering one of her more secular obsessions. anyway, because of all this, instead of talking about julia’s common sense principle, i thought i would talk about something else, about the way that i pray, which is neither common nor sensical, though possibly principled.
it’s hard to talk about it, though. i’ve been trying to write this section for a while and it’s been a lot harder than the other parts, i’m not sure why. i’m kind of scared, i guess. i don’t know what i’m scared of exactly. maybe that if i say exactly how i pray that [redacted] would know that i was revealing my prayers partially or mostly out of an egotistical desire to impress people or build my myth, not simply of the goodhearted impulse to share with others, to create a dialogue, to start a conversation. [redacted] being all-knowing, [redacted] might be angry with me and might decide to punish me like in stories in [redacted], like [redacted] might suddenly make my prayers not count anymore, make them not worth what they once were. that’s scary, so that’s maybe the fear.
the style of my prayers has evolved over the years. the first story i wrote in college that was really worth anything was this story called “the christian experience.” it was about a bitchy teenage girl who worked at this store called the christian experience where, every hour, the staff did a tableaux vivant of the crucifixion scene and then after the crucifixion turned the cross into a location for photo ops — you could get your picture taken on the cross, get it printed on t-shirts, post cards, etc. the story went over really well — my class and the teacher loved it and i loved that they loved it. i thought i had really done this clever thing, merging really sensual descriptions of spiritual feeling and angst with these deconstructionist ideas about simulation and performance and “experience.” i was so proud of the story, it seemed like i had finally made this thing worth being proud of, a document that could stand against time and represent me.
and now i look back at it and there are parts that i still kind like, maybe more out of nostalgia than anything. but there are big chunks of it that seem embarrassing to me. the characters all seem like cartoons to me, big and theatrical, and the dialogue is so stagey and stylized and unrealistic. i look back at my earlier forms of prayer and i feel the same way. my early period prayers were so mannered, so baroque. there were various yoga-inspired body position changes, repetitions and permutations and combinations of prayer words — the prayers went on like overlong art films. eventually these evolved into my blue period prayers, which were less complex and high-minded but mostly emo epistles about why doesn’t this girl like me and why can’t i be normal and like everyone else and will i get an A on this test, like honestly praying things like “dear god, help me have a good time at this kegger on friday night.” embarrassing, the way you look back at old videos of yourself and hate the way your voice sounds.
but even though i don’t like them always, personally, i could never use anyone else’s prayers to pray. to do the hail mary or our father or whatever, i just don’t get that. for me, that kind of prayer would be like doing karaoke or being in a band that only played covers. my prayers have to be my own words, i think. they have to be a personal expression, and like all my personal expressions, they have to meet my standards. in writing classes they tell you don’t be afraid of shitty first drafts, there’s an essay with that title. but you are, still, even if you say you’re not. like, in some way, i want my prayers to be brilliant and amazing and “formally innovative,” i want my prayers to be good enough to be blurbed on back covers and excerpted in the readings section of harper’s. embarassing, like i said.
physically, the way i pray is this: i kneel in the center of my bed, so that the top of my head is touching the edge of my pillow. this isn’t the basic hallmark card kid kneeling by the side of the bed, but it seems pretty standard to me. the only maybe weird thing about my prayer position is that before i kneel, i take my glasses and put them on top of the pillow so that the lenses are facing me. this is a fairly recent stylistic tic of my prayer — i don’t know exactly where it comes from. all i can think of is that in byzantine icon paintings, the icon has a direct relationship with the prototype it represents. in other words, icons are representations of things but also the things in themselves — to kiss an icon of the virgin mary is to kiss a painting but also to actually kiss her. so maybe, i don’t know, the glasses are something like that, like i’m opening a visual channel with [redacted], allowing [redacted] to see me prostrate and whispering into my pillowcase. although on the other hand, there’s something symbolically self reflexive about it, too — like, me looking at me, so that maybe that’s all my prayer is, too, me talking to me, nothing [redacted].
although after writing all that, i guess practically it’s just that pressing my face into my pillow while wearing my glasses is both uncomfortable for me and bad for the glasses.
it’s hard to observe yourself praying in order to write about it, i’ve found out. because if you’re observing yourself you’re trying to be outside yourself or at least be aware of the outside of yourself, kind of, to note sensory data and capture impressions, but when you’re really praying you’re so far inside yourself that all of that other stuff kind of goes away. i guess it’s that in some ways prayer is an escape from self consciousness, but then, on the other hand, when you’re praying all you can do is be conscious of your self — there’s nothing to distract you, no sounds, no images, no people, no e-mail to check. there’s only you and you things you’re thinking and what or who ever [redacted] you’re trying to have a conversation with.
when i pray, first, i pray for [redacted], then [redacted], then [redacted], then [redacted]: all the members of my immediate [redacted]. i cycle their names in order, saying a blessing for 1,2,3,4 – then 2,3,4,1 – then 3,4,1,2 – then 4, 1, 2, 3. in this way, i guess i hope to show [redacted] that i’m praying for all of them equally, that i’m not playing favorites. the blessing that i say is that i pray for all of them (including myself, though i put myself last) to be “happy, healthy, safe, alive, and unhurt.” i say it like that, in that order, in that combination. that sequence of words evolved organically over time, i’m not sure how. i guess what it is is i’m just trying to cover all my bases with [redacted]. like, if i just prayed that [redacted] would be happy, then maybe they might be happy but brain damaged or having cancer or something. and if i just prayed that [redacted] would be healthy, well maybe one of them would get mugged or their house would burn down and they would be okay, but that be still be horrible. or that [redacted] would be healthy, safe, alive and unhurt but would still be unhappy, that might the worst. so that’s where that came from, i guess. i guess it’s the idea that [redacted] is very detail-oriented, almost like i’m a lawyer working out a contract with [redacted] and i have to make sure every clause is covered.
i don’t know, the fear of writing about my prayers, maybe, is that if you reveal the secret to the trick, then it’s not magic anymore. maybe it’s that my belief in prayer is partially a belief in the power of language. like, magic spells in ancient myths and stories for children, the way they work, words making things happen, that this particular combination of words and sounds, arranged in just such a way, expressed in only this particular way, that it can do something, that effect can affect. belief in spells is childish, of course, and silly, but so is belief in [redacted] and prayer, in a way. and i guess the magic i’m talking about isn’t just spiritual magic, either, but the way magic tricks we know are fake can still seem magical unless we know how they’re done. the way that if they’re done well enough they can seem real even though somewhere subconsciously we know that they’re not — the way we just silence that doubt for the length of the trick. i guess the really good magic trick would be one that completely laid bare its artifice, all of its inner particulars, each bit of subterfuge and falsehood, but that still seemed magical. that seems an almost impossible thing to do, though — maybe something to pray for.