Sunday, March 27, 2011

Spider-man, "Meanwhile," and Memory

Note: This is a personal essay

Slumped over on our sides, elbows stuck in our sleeping bags, my brother and I read Spider-man comics in the domed tent that smelled of burnt pine sap and wet socks.

We had spent the day jumping from rounded rock to rock along the shore as waves rushed in, leaving faint lines of seaweed and masticated clam shells to graph the lake’s energy. Our sister chased after us, yelling for us to “wait a stupid minute,” but we continued up the shore, climbing among the ancient boulders, following the faint lines of flotsam to stagnant pools, reliving Spider-man’s adventures in “meanwhile.”

“Here comes the Green Goblin,” I said, sliding off a boulder and splashing ankle deep in a pool of icy water. My brother and I crouched close to the surface to examine the black water bugs--their thin legs stretched across the surface, hovering over the film of bacteria and insect larva. In an instant, they darted away from us toward the lipid ovals of mosquito larva, living drops of oil. We tried to capture these living accidents in plastic sandwich bags or empty candy wrappers. They were elusive, sensing our movements—the vibrations of our organs, those mortal frequencies, gave us away, the animating essences that only these creatures, spread eagle before us, could register—one furtive moment begetting another and another and another, connecting all things among poorly tuned strings.

Returning to our tent, we dumped our wet shoes outside and tossed our socks over our daypacks, and flopped down on our sleeping bags. We grabbed the comics our dad had bought us at the campground convenience store and began reading: “The Green Goblin has returned . . . .”

Spider-man fought the Green Goblin, trying to keep him from destroying the city and his family. They battled over the tops of tall buildings; they crashed into concrete pilings and glass windows, the scenes coming alive in hazy drawings swimming in flat primary colors. Spider-man and the Green Goblin bellowed nebulous insults and cheeky puns at each other, tainted with a malevolence that at that time was titillating, but would become real at one than another job—a poison curling the tongues of the fearful and ambitious, hooking the gait of the misbegotten.

*My attempts to swallow that bitter swill failed, and I am here, wine in hand, thinking what you now are reading.

I was enthralled by Spider-man’s battles, imagining a life of danger and soft-focused heroism—no one really gets hurt, no one’s life is actually in danger. Like Spider-man, I wanted to exist on these terms: smart enough to do well in school and strong enough to compete physically. “Let me lift it.” I understood no bifurcation between mind and body, as would seem expected of me later. Society seemed to hold apposed experiences in opposition: either this or that, but never this mingling with that--life as process. And that process, as we all know, is so often lit with failure and tragedy, experiences those silly comics foreshadowed.

*A willow switch tracing the trail a doomed snail makes, and off to the side a child laughs.

While following these battles, I noticed the word “meanwhile,” hazy in a pink box above Aunt May’s withered image. The Green Goblin had knocked Spider-man unconscious and the Goblin was glowering over him, quipping, “How’d you like that Spidy?” The Green Goblin’s lean muscles popped like the segments of a tootsie roll, nothing like the juiced physiques in contemporary comics, secondary sexual characteristics gone off the rails. In this cell, “meanwhile” was accompanied by the depiction of an ill Aunt May pondering Peter’s whereabouts. The squiggly lines of the image made her appear to quiver, a visage, a ghost, a mere fading thought.

*“What are you gunna do now?”

“What does meanwhile mean,” I asked my brother, who, being six years older, knew about such things, about how a word begets an idea, and an idea furtively changes the world.

“It means two things are happening at the same time.” Aunt May, then, was worrying about Peter at the same moment he was being beaten unconscious. Later in life I might’ve asked about prophecy or the terrifying dimensions of coincidence. But then, toes in the slick sand, the immediate enveloped my time and was all of place I could manage. I hollered and it echoed; I fell and it hurt; I asked and was answered. Just then I could sense that when I was so were those I knew.

Yet Aunt May’s concern was comic, not near as visceral or obscene as the fear I’ve seen in my mother’s eyes. The multitude of experiences contained in them caused me to quake. She had looked down allies and glimpsed the dark corners of houses I wished never to inhabit. With “meanwhile” I knew reality ticked along on different levels and at different frequencies and nothing could be more unsettling. The beginning of the loss of control—the first lasting whispers that I was not all that important.

*"I never know how you feel. How you feel about me. You are so scared."

Yet along with that sinking feeling came the realization that memories mattered, that they were worth capturing and keeping. I think my brother had known this and we both sought those kitschy trinkets among the tourist shops that crowded the campground gates. With cents dredged from between the hot vinyl seats or from under the partially melted console, we bought pins, spoons, or cap guns. And these fragile toys were no longer just playthings; they now pulsed with ideas that linked our gallop through hawthorn brambles to the men we might become and those kids we would soon leave in the Black Hills, or on the shore of Lake Superior, or at the bottom of the Grand Canyon. Nothing we did would be isolated. Instead a long string of effects would follow each increasingly self-conscious cause our halting steps initiated. Like Spider-man, what we did mattered; however, unlike Stan Lee we’d have little control over the arc that narrative followed.

*“If you have to leave, where will you go? What will you do? Will you take me with you?”

Monday, March 21, 2011

The "Creepiot"

Our students often offer provocative insights about issues we rarely consider. This happened the other day when my students and I were having one of those obligatory discussions about facebooking and apparently insipid facebookers. Sometimes so witty and easy to laughter, my students mentioned a type of Facebooker many of them have come to despise. After some word play and maybe a little noun wrangling, we decided to call this person a "creepiot." This term combines the word "creeper," a voyeur who visits sites just to eye-grope, and "idiot," someone whose behavior is devoid of self-reflection. My students feel that this person represents the kind of degeneration overuse of  Facebook may cause.

Of course, my students were having fun, developing the term "creepiot" during their heated discussion of Nicholas Carr's "Is Google Making Us Stupid" (2008), in which he explores the effects internet technologies are having on our cognitive abilities. In essence, most weren't convinced that these technologies are making us stupid, but they did feel that they are making us lazy, maybe a little boring, and certainly too insular. And, as with many witticisms, something real still stains the tongue after the wine is drunk.

The rosy residue is the encouraging thought that my students see the limits of these social media--that too deep a reliance on these architectures, constructed by those who don't have our best interests in mind, can undermine one's intellect as well as a more organic relationship to one's community. To much facebooking can lead, they feel, to becoming a viewer rather than a reader, a passive consumer of images rather than a developer of ideas, and this loss of one's intellectual and social capacities leads to the incestuous union between the creeper and the idiot, the "creepiot." You might take a moment to check the bend of  your fingers. Now I need to facebook my friends.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011