Well it’s almost been a full year since my last post, and it wasn’t even that great a post, so I figured, there’s no time like the present to be a little proactive.
The truth is I hadn’t been challenged as much with my own Specialness of late. Perhaps I was finally starting to think that I might be coming to grips with being an average member of society–not a stand out, not highly verbal, not impressive for knowing all the state capitals (which is much more impressive when you’re in 4th grade than it is as an adult–it’s amazing how many adults know their freaking state capitals). I also have had kids–little, actual, non-virtual, children, and there’s nothing like being a parent to realize that you’re not as special as your own parents told you you were. Because now there’s just no question that you’re taking a back seat to the much more needy, much more exciting, much more full-of-potential and…um..special little people in your house. Becoming a parent can temporarily offset the inconsolable condition of feeling too special to deal with the mundane problems of life! Ah, but “temporarily” is the key word. If there were any permanent cure, do you really think any of us would hesitate to take it?! Actually we might hesitate, because we’re ambivalent about being special–that is, we kind of DO want to keep the disease– which is part of the problem in the first place.
The Relive Box. Illustration by Julien Pacaud for the New Yorker
All of this is to say that I was in what we’ll call remission, when I read “The Relive Box” by T. Coraghessan Boyle in the March 17th edition of the New Yorker. Where was the March 17th edition of the New Yorker? In the bathroom, of course, where a friend told me all New Yorkers live. Why did it take me six months to read it? I was getting to it! The title caught my eye, though I don’t always read the New Yorker fiction. Special people like to get considerable mileage out of the time they put into reading, and if it’s the New Yorker, this usually means soaking up lots of information about something not all over the news but still relevant enough to be impressive to use in conversation. ie.
“Well, Cory Booker is a man on the rise, but did you know that the educational transformation he began in Newark has kind of ground to a halt, particularly when Baraka was elected as his successor, not Shavar Jeffries?”
“How do you know all this?”
“I just do.”
Fiction can of course come in handy if it’s impressive-sounding, like a previously unpublished Fitzgerald short story, but this doesn’t hold true for writers you’ve never heard of. T. Coraghessan Boyle? I don’t even think he has the chance to become a famous writer unless he changes the name. But the title…that title. Could it really be? Another person has imagined a not-too-distant-future world in which one of our core issues as Special people, living in the past–longing to return to long-ago successes, loving one’s past more than one’s present because it’s easy, contained, unassailable and never-to-be-returned to–could someone else have made that the subject of a short story? Could someone else…a real author…not a Nabokov or Fitzgerald but still, he was published in “The New Yorker!”…be also fighting this demon, and exploring it via the written word? The answer was yes.
Since most of you likely did not read–you were too busy trying to get a leg up on others and were reading non fiction or IMPORTANT fiction; I know, I’ve been there–let me give a quick summary. A father narrates to us a period of a few days in his deeply troubled life. His wife has left him, and part of his coping is to spend hours each night on his recently-purchased Halcom X1520 Relive Box with In-Flesh Retinal Projection Stream. Essentially, Memory Porn, this latest gadget (which comes out in generations like any cellphone) is somewhere between an x-box, a computer, a viewmaster, and a movie player. By stating a date and time, it can run the film of your life back for you–so that you can “Relive” moments of extreme elation, humiliation, and everything in between as many times as you can stand it. The metaphor of pornography, and the avoidance of reality, runs through the entire piece; if you had any doubt, there are painful moments like the below, when the narrator’s daughter walks in on him using the Relive Box:
…”I can’t believe you,” she said. “Do you have any idea what time it is?”
Bleary, depleted–and guilty, deeply guilty–I just gawked at her, the light she’d flicked on when she came into the room transfixing me in the chair. I shook my head.
“It’s 6:45 A.M. In the morning. The morning, Dad.”
I started to say something…
“What?” Katie demanded. “Were you with Mom again? Is that it? Like you can be with her and I can’t?”
“No,” I said, “no, that wasn’t it. It wasn’t your mom at all…”
A tremor ran through her. “Yeah, right. So what was it, then? Some girlfriend, somebody you were gaga over when you were in college? Or high school? Or , what, junior high?”
And his daughter is right. The dad isn’t even going back to the mother, but rather to pivotal scenes from relationships previous in an avoidance even of his recent past. Is he trying to look for a pattern? Punishing himself? Numbing himself? A combination? It’s a little later that one of my favorite passages comes:
…She’d come looking for me, dutiful child, motherless child, and found me not up and about and bustling around the kitchen, preparing to fuss over her and see her off to school, the way I used to, but pinned here in this chair, like an exhibit in a museum, blind to anything but the past, my past and nobody else’s, not hers or her mother’s, or the country’s or the world’s, just mine.
I won’t tell you how it ends–though you can probably tell this story is more of a meditation than an O. Henry-style plot thriller. The important thing to note is how Boyle has developed a literal embodiment of the Specialness curse, exposing our unique mix of narcissism and self-loathing. We are passionately, obsessively, and sometimes erotically drawn towards our past. It offers so many comforts. If we succeeded in something–say had a great comeback, or made a clutch lay-up, or kissed the girl, lost ourselves in the dance, impressed the world with our [fill in blank], then we can get our jollies from reliving that moment. But what’s more, if we failed in something, if we lost the girl, missed the chance, choked on the shot, let ourselves be humiliated by someone–we can still get our rocks off. We can relive the failure, breathe a sigh of relief that it’s over, believe that since we failed then, the pressure is off now because all is ruined, and, in general, still get an enormous rush from the reliving. Remarkably, whether it’s our failed past or our triumphant past we’re reliving doesn’t really matter. Any form of our past is STILL safer, and often sexier, than our current circumstances, because the present is pregnant with possibility and opportunity to fail and be witnessed failing. The present is terrifying and often exhausting to Special people. It’s also, of course, the only place where we can do anything to change our situation–hence it comes filled with pressure and expectation. If the Relive Box ever comes out–and it’s hard to believe Google isn’t working on it–Special People, led by yours truly, will be the earliest adopters of the technology.
So what do we do when we want to visit the Relive Box (which we all know we have without needing the enabling technology)? As your humble guide and fellow sufferer, I of course have no answer to this. The past is too comfortable to think we can really avoid looking at the Box. We will look. It’s our comfort food. When we do, though, can we try to focus on the feeling, and not the event itself? Why, Oh Guide to the Gifted, I can hear you asking, would we do that? Isn’t this the same thing–perhaps even worse and more seductive? It’s not. To remember a feeling, of success at least–of closeness, or passion, of solving a hard puzzle, of learning something new, of helping someone, to remember the feeling without the specifics is to be hungry to feel it again. When we go to the Relive Box, let us try to not to get caught up with the past event in our own life. The event is dead. The feeling, though, is still alive, and can actually motivate us in the present.
We won’t be able to do this every time. Still, for every nine times we look at a past glory and think, “Why can’t I have that again?” if we can once think, “How can I feel that way again?” we’ll be making some baby steps towards progress. Example: When I painted that pear, I felt accomplished. What can I do today to feel accomplished?” It’s a challenge, not a fallback.
Now stop Reliving all alone in a dark room you perve. Go out and live!