Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Flat Aaron

A few weeks ago while walking on the Mall, Neil, Ann, Brian and I encountered a Flat Stanley. He was laminated, rolled up into a tight tube and wedged in between the openings in a makeshift gate surrounding some DC grass restoration -- a most futile effort, to be sure. Ann noticed him first, and she and I, having each read the books knew immediately what he was. We debated whether or not to take the character and send him off to others, thereby making use of the great skill and most relevant trait of Flat Stanley--namely his capacity to travel and visit places and people.

In the books, Stanley is literally flat. He is bi-dimensional (or at least nearly so). His character is not flat, though. He is a kid, he has traits, he is imbued with enough energy to be capable of moving along a plot, no matter how simple.

Flash forward (or backward depending on whether you accept my previous Stanley anecdote as a point of temporal reference or whether you prefer to use this moment as your guidepost) to earlier today. While waiting to fly standby to Pittsburgh so as to fly to Baltimore and then eventually to get to work, I dropped 5 dollars on a New Yorker. I have to admit that as a liberal elitist, I'm something of a sham. I've never really read the New Yorker. I tend to find the cartoons unfunny, or at least only as funny as a well trod pun. That is, I recongize within it the effort at, and elements of humor but it does little to stir in my merriment. But, today I decided I should get the New Yorker. I should pretend to be erudite and well read, and maybe like with so many other things in my life, the act of pretending might make it so. I trudged through some letters to the editor, and movie reviews. I read bits and pieces of articles which promised to help me in my quest to be cool, in that tweed jacket and brandy snifter way. Or at least in the Volvo driving, best-Lithuanian-restaurant-knowing, kid going to Bryn Mawr way. All in all my first few hours with the magazine were well spent and I found myself thinking quite seriously about ordering a subscription. There was no shortage of postcards with which to indulge this impulse, and so I vowed to mail the post card when I arrived in Pittsburgh.

The love, affection and "if only you gave it a chance" appreciation that I feel for Cleveland has never extended to its Pennsylvania doppleganger. I have little love for Pittsburgh, though honestly I have no real experience with the city. They field a team against whom I routinely root (Steelers) and, really that's about the extent to which I consider the city. We landed there around 11:30 and I dutifully sought out the Post Office. It was staffed by a man whom I can only imagine was trying to win some sort of Milton from Office Space look-a-like contest. In the course of walking to the Post Office I passed two separate TGI Fridays and two Wok 'n Roll "restaurants." First off, Wok 'n Roll is just a horrible name. It's offensive to both concepts which it inelegantly mashes together. Neither food nor music deserve the slight they receive at the hands of this waste of space. But why the Pittsburgh airport needs two of these is beyond me. Out of curiosity, I investigate a nearby map, and find that not only do the fine residents and visitors to the city of Pittsburgh need Wok 'n Roll, but they four of them. Because God forbid one ever be more than 350 feet from a depressed high school drop out wearing velour making awful asian food.

I also have to say that the Pittsburgh airport is really estatic about its own existence. Signs everywhere inform you "There was a farm...That became an airport"
I keep wanting the banners to become imbued with musical abilities: "There was a farm became an airport, A-i-r-POR-T. With a whoosh whoosh here and a TSA there." This celebration of the conversion from farm to a shoddy midwestern airport is beyond me. And to use the passive voice, "became an airport" it's like the airport sprouted up because of some natural process. It's like they watered the field with airplane fuel and magically a runway blossomed.

But I digress. After getting some food (from Au Bon Pain) I settled in to read more of the New Yorker and wait out the layover. Another confession, and one that fits well with what I've already said about the New Yorker. I know nothing about Gertrude Stein. Honestly, nothing. I routinely get her confused with Gloria Steinem. That's how little I know. It's embarrasing and clearly stands in the way of my goal of erudition. But lo and behold, the New Yorker serves up a bountiful feast of Gertrude Stein, a really frickin' long essay. The premise of the essay, by Janet Malcolm is an investigation of her lover (news to me, sorta knew she was gay, no clue the woman was famous) Alice B. Toklas. Judging from the writing, and certainly confirmed by the photos Alice was not a looker. A friend (a friend!) describes her a looking witch-like. So you get the sense that she might have some insecurities living with this 20th Century icon, and having friends call her ugly. It'd get to me, I figure.

While reading this article I'm sitting in the a-ergonomically designed chairs that all airports get from the airport version of Costco. These long rows of chairs with faux-leather pouches that offer little support and less comfort. Directly behind me is some sort of college field trip cum conference. These kids (and they're finally now young enough relative to my age that the term seems apt) are, I later learn, from Towson State and are by even the most generous measures vapid. One guy, the "funny one" is regaling his friends with stories of how dumb he is. And saying, "Sometimes I think I'm the definition of stupid." But you know, people who say that really don't believe they are dumb. They want for someone to either laugh, thereby ensuring that everyone knows it is a joke, or for someone to counter this assertion and offer even faint praise. In this kid's case, he gets laughter. The less reassuring of the two remedies, but I wonder if it's not the one his friends' believe he most deserves.

I tune out their conversation and return to Stein. Turns out, in what has to be a pretty cool idea, that Stein wrote an autobiography of Toklas that is mostly made up and mostly about how great Stein is. How is that for self-absorbed. You make someone else's life a measure of how amazing you are. Their only purpose is to reflect back the rays of your sun like radiance. In transitioning into the discussion of Stein's approach to biography the author of the article offers this great little paragraph on the way that minor literary characters exist within their works.

The minor characters of biography, like their counterparts in fiction, are less tenderly treated than major characters. The writer uses them to advance his narrative and carelessly drops them when they have performed their function...Unlike the flat characters of fiction (as E. M. Forster called them), who have no existence outside the novel they were invented to ornament, the flat characters of biography are actual, three-dimensional people. But the biographer is writing a life, not lives, and, to keep himself on course, must cultivate a kind of narcissism on behalf of his subject that blinds him to the full humanity of anyone else. As he turns the bracing storylessness of human life into the flaccid narrativity of biography, he cannot worry about the people who never asked to be dragged into his shaky enterprise.

It's a tremendous paragraph and sets off in my all kinds of terrible and amazing thoughts. I start to think about the many random people whose names I neither know, or barely remember who populate the stories on this blog, or the memories I cherish. How many people are there who are flat characters in my life. With what arrogance do I assume that they are simply minor characters, people whose only reason for being as far as I can ascertain is to stimulate some comment, some thought, some emotion in me. In 27 years how many people have I only seen as part of my story, not independent agents in their own. And, even worse, can I help but see others this way? For how many people have I been, will I be, a flat character. For how many people will my entire existence be like a rock thrown into a pond--important only in its capacity to create a ripple, and then be absorbed into nothingness, with only that momentary disruption to record its existence. (A little weighty, I grant you, but rest assured I wasn't nearly as sad or despondent as these recollections might suggest)

It's about this time that the guy behind me starts to talk about losing money at the Casino. Apparently they went to Canada and did some gambling and he's bragging about how he lost money. This is a softer version of the game he played earlier. He is trying to mask what is, and must be, an unpleasant thing--losing money--beneath a veneer of boastful disinterest. "Ha, I lost money, but that's okay." Now I realize, odds are (awful pun, I know) he doesn't really care too much about the loss. But it fits with what comes next. As I next pick up the strand of their conversation he's talking about his "pride" (his word) in breaking the stick with which he was "spanked "(his word, mine would be beaten). He talks about how it's great that he was strong enough that the stick broke over his legs when he was being "punished" (his word again, beaten would be mine). He's laughing and joking with these friends and he tells them that when his Dad would spank him he'd instruct the son to make a diamond on the bed. Now I can't see what he's doing with his hands, but I'm certain he's forming a little diamond with them. And then his Dad says for him to "put your nose in the diamond." Giving an unobstructed shot at his kid's ass. The guy keeps joking and says, his Dad was funny because he'd fake a blow, so the child would tense in anticipation and then as soon as his kid stopped then he'd spank him. Everyone is enjoying the story, finding it funny. Finally the kid (who was a child when spanked, and is still today) says that he's really glad he was spanked as a kid. He's glad because "I have all these funny stories."

I don't know this guy. I only know the back of his head, his meaty shoulders, his pierced ear and his military style buzz cut. He could be a Nobel Prize winner in 3 years or a Subway manager. All I know about him are three anecdotes. All I know, comes from these stories and my guess that he spends a lot of his life doing just what I've heard, trying to avoid dealing with actually unpleasant thoughts and experiences (losing money, wondering about your intelligence, being hit) by pretending they are a badge of honor, by immunizing himself from them by celebrating them. And as I listen to him I realize he's only ever going to be a flat character in my life. He's a person who I will write about, whom I will imbue with some extrapolated characteristics, some conjecture and some literary license. I know then, as I know for certain now, that his story will interweave with mine only a little, only this once. That he's going to be a flat character in this blog, maybe a little more well rounded than some, but flat all the same. That I'll write about that intersection but in the end I'll do so in part to celebrate and congratulate myself on being able to write, to see connections. I'll perform the Passover Miracle, I'll take something round and complex and full of energy and flatten it for the sake of speed and expediency and convenience. And none of this is to say I should do otherwise. The fullness of our lives are defined in opposition to those we never or barely know, it is how we know what is our story and what is not.

So I come back to the idea of the Flat Stanley. The great gift of being able to be anywhere, everywhere that comes with being flat, can only occur when you are simply a tangent to the life of a full person. A flat character, a person who simply moves the plot of our life along must lose their agency, at least in our eyes. They are primarily relevant in that they affect in us a reaction.

I left Pittsburgh and made my way back to DC. Worked for a few hours and was readying myself to head home when started an instant message conversation with Jen. Fairly normal conversation until we started to talk about our different understandings of the status of our friendship. We came to realize we had different expectations. I wanted us to be friends in a way similar to how we had been before and she did not. She felt it was wrong to force that to be the case, that breaking up is a sign that we are not meant to be close. I realized in the conversation that she is right, and that much of the stress I feel about that relationship has been made worse by trying to recreate a friendship that feels forced, or at least presumptious.

I realize that no person is fully multi-dimensional in another's story, that we are all flat, just to differeing degrees. And so today, in many ways I went from being, at least in my own mind, a real full character in her story to a Flat Aaron. And that she is now a Flat Jen. Not to say I'm as flat to her as the guy in the airport is to me, but just that in her story I'm a rounded past and a flat present. I'm a point in time, or a line connecting two different moments, but not a full multi-dimensional character. It's not that we won't be friends, or won't chat, or that we dislike one another--not at all. It's just a realization of the transition, we're no longer the full deep characters who drive a biography we're the flat characters. I'm saddened to lose the depth and fullness, to feel in some ways (irrationally, really) rejected again, but like Stanley there is something very freeing in flatness. I think in many ways I've been searching off and on for the permission to flatten her, and be flat myself. I've wanted to be free of the burden of mattering in her story, and free of the burden of giving depth to her role within my own.

I'm blessed to be full-bodied in the stories of my many friends and family, people like my parents and Jess, Mark and Kadie, Brian and JKD,Liz and Libby, Paul and Stacy, Neil and Aaron, Dave and and and etc. And while this blog is often the story of my life, and certainly the story of my view of my life, I like to think my story has room for, and really requires, the fullness and richness of the lives of my many friends and family--people whom I love and who make my autobiography one well worth living, even if it's not always one worth writing.

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