Friday, November 27, 2009

Ideas Man Goes to Memphis Part One

Last week, I went down to Memphis for the meeting of the North American Sartre Society. On Saturday afternoon, I cut out of a session to visit two friends who recently moved down to Memphis. They didn't know the city too well themselves yet and they apologized many times for their tour guiding skills, but it really wasn't necessary. My favorite thing to do when I'm visiting a city is just to take it in, which means seeing some of the tourist sites, but also just walking around, sitting in a non-descript corner cafe, visiting the grocery store, looking at the local paper to see the real-estate section. Somewhere in the middle of all that, you might take in the city, but you also might not. I don't mean that you might grasp the essence of the city or you might not. I don't know if you can be any more precise than that you might just take it in.

I have to admit I felt a little guilty about taking the time off, though it was great to see my friend Dr. G.-K. who I've known for almost ten years but who I haven't seen in some time. It's nice to have colleagues who are also friends, colleagues whom you'd like even if you weren't their colleague, and in academia, where your colleagues and friends end up scattered across the country (and more and more often, the world), it's nice to have friends and colleagues with whom you can effortlessly pick up conversations that you've been taking up and leaving off for years and years. And it was also great to meet his fantastic wife Ms. K.-G. in person. She's one of my internet bffs, but we'd never met in person. So it was wonderful to have an afternoon with them and I was more than happy to be taking time off from the conference. The guilt was more about being gone from home at all. I missed the Ideas Clan terribly. It was the longest I'd been away from them since Ideas Boy had been born. And Ideas Woman, Esq. had had an extraordinarily shitty week. The day before I'd come down, I'd wanted to cancel. She insisted I shouldn't, and that she didn't want me to or need me to. I didn't believe her, but I decided it was important to go (for the record, everything turned out fine at Ideas H.Q.)

When you have little kids, you never really have time off at home. Even when you try to take time off, there's just too much that has to be done, and the thoughts of them press in on you. Or you want to lift the weight off the shoulders of the one you love, though you never can fully.

I haven't been going to academic conferences for the last few years. I'd lost the thread of that part of my career, but as it happened I ended up going to three conferences this month. For the first two, I hadn't been gone for much more than 24 hours, so I didn't have time to do much more than just give my paper and attend a few others before heading home. But here I was in a strange city, with the emptiness of my time, and it felt strange, disconcerting. I talked too much about my family and no doubt annoyed the childless and child-liberated alike, but of course it didn't abate my sense of responsibility.

But I've been trying to let myself free when the circumstances are propitious. In the car, as I talked to my friends, and remembered people and events from years ago, I eased into a comfortable peace. We parked downtown, next to an old church and across the street from what seemed to be a church converted into a night club. We walked a short walk to Beale Street, which I was told was Memphis's answer to Bourbon Street. Sure enough, there were frat boys aplenty, college kids in cakey make-up waiting to see Insane Cloud Posse. There was a little boy doing flips and gymnastics in the street, while a bouncer/carnival-barker egged him on from the open door of a seedy bar tarted up in kitschy tourist clap-trap.

Like Bourbon Street, and unlike Las Vegas, it had too much history to succeed at approximating Disneyland. You could still see the dirt and grime that the neon and glam couldn't fully cover over. The street was famous because of its connection with blues culture, the Mecca of the unlikely triumph of a downtrodden people. A down at the heels seediness lingered in the air of the street, the stain of the real. We walked into a huge store, a cavernous duplex town-home from which all the interior walls had been removed, two huge floors of tourist knick-knacks lying alongside bargain-basement items: a T-shirt or stuffed animals next to a dingy used lampshade, a pile of unpackaged light-bulbs or an old plumbing wrench. For a couple of dollars, I bought a few refrigerator magnets for Ideas Girl and the toddler formerly known as Ideas Boy, B.A.(B.Y.) They were tourist tchotchkes, no doubt, but they looked like they belonged more with the light-bulbs and plastic. They seemed like imitation tchotchkes --- souvenirs from the 50s no one had ever bother to clear off the shelves.

We went back outside; we turned off of Beale Street and walked past the Orpheum, past tourists milling out front, waiting for the doors to open. We stepped over the stars in the sidewalk, generic stars, stars who may or may not have an actual connection to Memphis. B.B. King next to Mandy Patinkin, Lyle Lovett alongside Engelbert Humperdink.

Ideas Woman, Esq. called me because she'd just picked up the kids from our friends' house, and I talked to them while we walked along the side and then the back of the Orpheum, past a door opening onto the backstage. At the threshold, a striking chorus-girl smoked a cigarette; there were more voices coming from within. But that was all background noise. I was focused on the tinny sounds coming from cell, the shrieks that I suppose must have been words and the sounds of pots and pans. In my mind's eye, I was looking down on our kitchen in Toledo, through the huge glass solarium that we use as our dining room, over the formica to where the kids would be piling up their toys, although they have a sizeable playroom (the original dining room) ten feet away. But they like to be near us.

I said goodbye, and I also said goodnight, because although they wouldn't be going to bed for a few hours, I'd be at the keynote address for the NASS so I wouldn't be able to talk to them then. Most of the conference had been on the University of Memphis's campus, but this would be at the National Civil Rights Museum. I hung up, and we walked down toward the riverfront. To get there from downtown, we had to cross a huge highway, but then, right when we were overlooking the river, which had once been the raison d'etre for Memphis, we were stopped by a chain-link fence that kept us from quite reaching the crest of what we would have called an escarpment, back when we had names for the different features of the landscape, back before huge machines had leveled the descent to give room for the huge highway behind us, where the air whipping against the racing bodies of the cars whistled and where the engines roared back against the wind.

It wasn't too late, but we were far enough east in Central Time Zone that although it wasn't getting dark, the sun was already low in the sky and reddening the whole southwest; far off, the huge river had the same dusky color. Across the river, Arkansas glittered pink, as though it had been dipped in the lambent dew of a giant celestial rose, but when I looked in the sky, the rose was gone, or covered by low white clouds that diffused the sun's warmth (if not its light) over us as well. Nearer, you could see the river's true colors, what gave it the name The Big Muddy, and a few sports boats moving across its surface, some almost straying to the gigantic pylons that connected our brown banks to the rosy banks of the other state, whose color seemed so unreal that I refuse to believe it exists. And yet it was on our side that there stood an absurd eye sore, as Dr. G.-K. delicately called it, the kitschy and grimy, seedy though shining pyramid that honored the city's name-sake. But this pyramid hadn't been built brick by brick over generations and generations by gangs of slaves. And it wasn't the city's raison d'etre. The city was here because of the brown river spread out below us. Though we were blocked by it, we could see the brown earthworks along the low brown banks, where generations of brown hands would have loaded and unloaded all the freight that flowed up and down the river, building the frontier of old America, connecting north and south, knitting together a country so that it could tear itself apart. That was the city's raison d'etre. The pyramid was an afterthought, like the glam built onto Beale Street, caked onto the road to capitalize on the unlikely culture that had sprouted along the banks of that river, the shoots that had sprouted from seeds gathered from across the globe, that took root here and were nurtured here, before they flowed back to the world, mixed with the effluvium of other Mississippi River cities, St. Louis and New Orleans, down from Chicago, that whistled through the airwaves, took wing and flew up into the air, piercing the air like the whistling cars, before hitting the gigantic invisible rose, the ionosphere, and scattering its celestial music over the face of the earth.

We left the river and walked back up. It was so pleasant, the warm fall air and subdued late afternoon lights; we decided to have a drink outside, but not on loud Beale Street. We walked through an alleyway carved out, it seemed, by the demolition of one or two of a row of houses (you could still see the haphazard texture, the seems and floor-beams like a haphazard modern art memorial to a bygone era of brick and mortar architecture.) It was far quieter than Beale Street, and presented itself as what it was. Myriad signs: the big, tree-lined sidewalks, the trolley line running along the street, the substantial building stock so naturally turned out in Art-Deco trimmings, all indicated that this street still was it had always been intended to be; stately, fashionable, prosperous, respectable. Large terraces of dining tables and chairs filled the sidewalks in front of the restaurant that lined the street, though they were empty. We wondered if they were only seating for dinner and whether dinner would be too expensive. But in fact, the menus looked quite reasonable and they would be seating for hors d'oeuvres and drinks --- but not until 6, still a little over an hour away. But G.-K. and K.-G. knew of another place nearby. It didn't have outdoor seating, but it had an open, breezy counter facing the street, and an extensive beer list.

So we walked towards it. We were getting closer to the sports arenas and convention centers, and again the surroundings shifted, alternations of big parking lots, big parking garages, and big buildings to hold the passengers of all those cars, all done up in the same dull brown brick that every city in America had become enamored with in the 80s and 90s, when they wanted to find cheaper ways to compete with the big, cheap big-box culture overgrowing America's exurbs.

Across from what I believe was a basketball stadium was what looked like a massive sports bar. It had a big electronic billboard that flashed: Eat Here! Drink Here! Play Here! Win Here! Oh, I asked, does Memphis allow casinos? No, G.-K. said, he was pretty sure it was like Dave and Buster's, Chucky Cheese for the over 21 set. I said that I found those places disturbingly infantalizing. I'm no big fan of casinos. Despite a healthy interest in a) probability and b) deception, and a belief that I deserve to get rich without doing anything for it, I've never been much of a gambler. Though I played a lot of cards in high school and college, it was rarely for money and even then only for a few bucks. The one time I did some real gambling, the whole Atlantic City thing, I won a couple hundred bucks, but I blew most of it buying everyone drinks (I actually think Dr. G.-K. was there for that, though it was before either of us was doctors. But that's all another story). Anyway, the point is that though I find casinos a bit depressing and I don't really go for them, I get the point of them and I understand the appeal. And they are what they are. Those Dave and Buster's things seem all wrong. Dr. G.-K. agreed with me and compared it to ch__d p_rn (hopefully my clever use of dashes will keep disgusting weirdos from wasting their time on my blog). How far the analogy works, I'll leave my reader to decide. Being decent human beings, that wasn't where we went.

The bar we were going to was maybe a half-block away. It wasn't too crowded and though in certain respects its decor skirted a little too close to, let's say, Applebee's or T.G.I. Fridays, it had the basic layout of a German beerhall, with big, long tables. A long counter ran along the length of its side, and it opened up to the street. So, although we weren't outside we still had the warm breeze, the soft light and autumnal smell of November in the South (September in Toledo). The place was maybe a quarter full. The only other people at the outward facing counter were leaving right when we got there. We had been sitting and talking for maybe five minutes without anyone coming over to take our order, and it was getting close to the time I'd have to leave to get to the keynote address. So Ms. K.-G. and I went off in search of help. The biggest group in the bar was a cluster of girls assembled in one corner, all wearing plaid "school-girl" miniskirts and tight tops, all heavily made up, too. My first thought was surprise that they'd been allowed in, so it took me a moment to realize that they were the bartenders. We hadn't escaped infantilization after all.

We were planning on just giving them our order right there but when we told them we'd been waiting one of them sheepishly insisted on bringing us menus. She had a miniscule frame beneath her tight pink shirt. A undoubtedly heavily padded bra worked mightily to shove her modest breasts together, struggling to display them front and center. Ms. K.-G. knew from a friend of hers who'd worked there that the bartenders were supposed to present themselves like they would on a date. I think our bartender had succeeded perfectly, with her unironic artfulness that tried to mask a lack of sophistication through studious composition, her look seemed less that of a 21 year old playing at being 16 than a 16 year old playing at 21. When I was 16, I would have fallen for the whole story, and lusted after her mightily but never dared to ask her out. When I was 16, I had wanted to be grown up too, but I was too acutely aware of the pretenses of my own shtick to think anyone else might buy it. Of course, when I was 16, our bartender would have been my daughter's age. Back to Chuck E. Cheese.

The beer-menu, however, delivered on its promise. It was fantastic. I was curious to try barley wine, which I'd never had though it seemed familiar (Later, I realized I associated it with the drink Odysseus gave to Tiresis when he'd wanted to talk to the dead). I don't know if our 16-year old server was aware of this connotation (I would have been, not that it helped to get any dates), but no matter. She hadn't ever had the barley wine. I wondered what it made it wine, but she hadn't the slightest idea, just knew it had a higher alcohol content than most beer. Later, I learned it was fermented in basically the same way as a sparkling wine, which makes sense. I ordered it despite not knowing what I'd be getting and drank it while we watched the afternoon darken itself away. It was quite good, hoppy and heavy, like a stout, but not so much nutty as sweet, like clover honey perhaps. Because it was called "wine," I'd wondered if it would be still (I didn't know about the champagne comparison yet), but it was lightly carbonated.

We were all lethargic. Not sleepy, I think, at least I wasn't. But it was around the time a Latin town would be reviving itself after siesta, and there was that feeling of waking from a dream into a dream-like state, where the significance of things melts away and everything floats to the surface. The significance of things depends on the flow of time, but there are times when it flows quite slowly and the present simply floats about with just a loose connection to past or future. I found myself drifting into a mood --- what was it? If I were by myself, or not enjoying myself, I might call it depression. If I were cut adrift in the nineteenth century, I might call it melancholy. But neither of those is precise enough.

Sometimes it it is important to be precise about emotions, although emotions are not themselves precise things. I think Pierce was on to something when he described emotions as simplified hypotheses about complex states of affairs. One defect in theories that understand emotions as affects, things that happen to us is that even when those theories make emotions constitutive of knowledge (as Spinoza does), they fail to account for how this simplified quality of emotions can itself be a constructive feature, and how it can be refined without being rejected. Most of the time we only need to be a little bit precise about our emotions to make sense of what they are doing for us (I'm planning on eating because I'm hungry. I want to celebrate because I'm happy). But it is often helpful to be a little more precise (I am angry, but when I realize I'm not so much angry at you as at the hurt I feel I change my attitude towards that anger, towards you and towards myself). And sometimes it is helpful to savor an emotion, which is different than just having an emotion. Beer or wine don't exhibit that great a range of flavors, and there's a wine-y flavor and a beer-y flavor that I can enjoy for what it is. But by getting more precise in my descriptions, by refining my understanding of how I react to it, and by developing concepts in which to imagine and distinguish my tasting, the act of enjoyment becomes richer and more pleasurable.

It would be a dishonor to use a word as simple as depression or melancholia to describe the mood I was settling into, although they effected my body in similar ways. They imply a certain lowering of one's excitability, a lowness, a slowness, a quiet. In the wrong contexts, these can be depressing, they can make you melancholy. But perhaps this was the right context. I had been so stressed out for such a long period prior to my trip down to Memphis, between grading and writing. I had been planning on getting more work done during the downtime on my trip, but I'd forgotten my power cord. This had sent me into a panic because I hadn't finished typing the paper I was giving, and so I'd had to hurry and type it up in the hotel's business center. I hadn't had the time to settle into feeling comfortable with the paper before I had to give it. But everything had gone well and now the forgotten power cord meant that I couldn't do that looming work even if I wanted to. I might as well enjoy myself. I had just sent out a round of job applications, a process which is hellish in the best of worlds, and which I was ambivalent about anyway. Why not make my ambivalence work for me, as an excuse for not worrying? These worries would return to me tomorrow, but the conversation, the different surroundings, the pleasant warmth, the exotic familiarity? Why not just enjoy these. I was so worried about Ideas Woman. Her week had been so shitty, and it wasn't the kind of self-contained shittiness that one simply had to go through. I was worried about her, and I knew she needed me. And I wanted to be there for her. I hadn't wanted to leave because I'd wanted to be there for her. But it was the weekend, and I couldn't do anything now anyway. Why not enjoy myself and renew myself? I was worried about the Ideas Kids, who I missed, who I usually pick up from school, who I often get ready for school, who can be difficult to handle on the weekends. The last time I'd been gone, things had fallen apart somewhat, and it was difficult for me not to worry that that would happen again. But I knew that Ideas Woman regretted how that had turned out as much as I did. So why not allow myself to forget it? I have a friend who says that if you properly understand stoicism, it becomes the same thing as epicureanism. And I think that's perhaps right, at least in the proper context. Here is that context: when the world is adrift, when it stops moving, at twilight, when the sky is growing dark but there is still light, and the light is deep blue. When the color of the sky is coming through the light and touching the earth while the sky darkens. A punctuated time, present, set off from past and future by commas. I felt as though I were in that punctuation mark, as though I were in a comma.

We walked in that comma back to the car, down Beale Street, where the crowd had grown thicker and the lights brighter. We were in the car for a short time before we saw the back of the National Civil Rights Museum, the massive gray bricks of memorial public architecture. It was totally dark by now, and I realized I was going to be a little late, and felt a little guilty about that. It was time to start thinking like an academic again. I was beginning to leave the comma.

When we turned the corner, Dr. K.-G. started to try to tell me where the entrance was, based on his memory, because cars were blocked from getting too close. For a brief second, as it moved from comma to conference, I heard my mind say: "What an odd place for a shitty motel." But instantly, of course it hit me. Of course I knew that they'd preserved the facade of the motel Martin Luther King Jr. was staying at when he was murdered. And of course I'd seen that very motel countless times before. Of course I knew exactly where he'd been standing when he was shot without having to see the large memorial wreath hanging from the wrought iron balustrade.

My mind had been thinking it had seen countless motels just like that one before. I have no idea how many motels I've stayed in just like that. Cheap, squat two story buildings with uneven plaster and big plexiglass windows, air-conditioners hanging beneath them. I could fill in the interiors without seeing them, the row of two double beds with comforters that looked like Las Vegas carpet patterns, green or maroon or blue carpets, smooth, glossy wallpaper for easy wipe down, a double sink through a doorway at the back, the small white or yellow bathroom off of that. I'd stayed in that motel on every trip my family had taken, crammed into our station wagons. There is nothing more familiar...

I've been to many so-and-so was shot or was born or slept or died here spots, but few of them felt so familiar. There are so few Americans that we truly revere, who we hold in awe and reverence. Most of them lived so long ago. If we see the remnants of their lives, they belong to a world that is not our world, whether it's the stately majesty of Jefferson's Monticello or the humble rusticity of Lincoln's frontier. This was my world. It might not be my children's world anymore. Although they'll still see these faded motels on the sides of highways, we don't really stay at places like that. Our smaller, more modern and secular family travels much differently than my family did, and inhabits the world much differently.

And yet, here was the place where perhaps the last great American was murdered (I'm not saying martyred, though that's true too. I'll have a chance to explain why I avoid that word in the next post perhaps). I've taught his Letter from Birmingham Jail to countless students in my philosophy courses. The next week, we'd be reading some of his later writings on social justice. I'd heard his speeches and been moved by them and used them as a model. There are so few people we reverence, and here was where the last great man was murdered, where he met his mortality.

I was taken aback by just how profoundly moved I was. I hadn't been expecting this. I hadn't been thinking about it at all. There was nothing about the sight that should be so moving, but I felt filled with the weight of America's memory. I had left my own personal coma and entered a sacred space.

I stood there, overwhelmed. What's more, I wasn't clear exactly where the entrance was. Fortunately, a few people I recognized from the conference were just then walking over, people around my same age who I'd hit it off with pretty well and been hanging out with some. They had skipped out on the previous session like me and were walking over from an adventure that involved a bartender. I started talking to them and I said that I found the place surprisingly overwhelming. "Why?" One started to say, but then changed to "Oh, I hadn't noticed," because he noticed the uncanny ordinariness of where we were, and they all grew silent.

We stayed outside for a couple minutes, quietly. I took a grainy, underexposed photo on my cell phone and sent it to Ideas Woman, with a brief caption of what it was. I looked around. It was like a silent movie set, an old motel ripped out of its context (because the area around it had changed while it had not), there wasn't much to distinguish it on the outside, at least not in the dark. I looked up at the sign that would have held the room's cheap rates or a wedding announcement or a message welcoming the Shriners or Boy Scouts or whoever was converging there. It said "I have a dream. MLK" It should have been so schmalty, so contrived. But it felt so, so real.

We mulled around quiety for a couple of minutes, and then we went through the doors in the bottom corner of the motel, where the office would have been. And we entered a museum.


DOCTOR J said...

I've struggled with whether or not it's even appropriate to "comment" on this piece, given it's nature... but I just found it so incredibly moving, and so incredibly well-written, that I wanted to at least comment upon a few of the more spectacular parts.

1- I particulary enjoyed your reflections on your family-- how you experienced being with them and being away from them... being with them even as you're away from them. As someone who lives sans spouse or children, I am very aware of exactly how foreign these experiences are to me. And when I hear my peers talk casually about their "family life," it often sounds too packaged, too precious, too rehearsed, too what-one-is-supposed-to-say.

2- Your account of encountering the Mississippi also really resonated with me. I've grown up beside the Big Muddy and have often thought that that nickname couldn't be more appropriate to the thing itself. That's what the Mississippi is-- it's BIG and it's MUDDY. (Aside: Many years ago, when I was playing in a band, my bass player used to say of songs that we really nailed: "That song is a big as the Mississippi River!" That's a simile that I still use today, and that I feel is lost on people who think I am only making a comparison of magnitude. It's "big" in so many other ways.) And I'm glad you got to see it at sunset, which is one of the greatest things this city has to offer. The Mississippi at sunset, as far as I'm concerned, is a phenomenon that simply cannot be exhausted in language.

3- My FAVORTIE part of this story is your attempt to describe (with precision, as you note) the emotional experience of lingering "in the comma." That is simply one of the best pieces of existential writing I've read in a long, long time. And you're so right. It's not quite depression, not quire melancholia... but not merely not those emotions, either. It's an absence that, nonetheless, has a very real, "felt" presence. It's between. Between nostaligia and anticipation. Between sadness and satisfaction. It's a truly "suspended" moment, but a moment that protracts a little too far beyond what we normally allow "moments." Your description made me think of the moment just between the flow and the ebb of a wave encountering the shore, or the momement when the progression of a pendulum switches over to its regression. Only there is no natural phenomenon that can hold that moment as something independent of the ebb or the flow, the progression or the regression, in the way that lived-experience seems able to do. (Or maybe there is... maybe this is what we experience in the protracted "moments" of sunrise and sunset, the contamination of beginning and end of day and night.) Simply brilliant account there, Ideas Man. And absolutely beautiful.

4- Like you and your family, I also have memories of staying in places that look very much like the Lorraine Motel growing up. I doubt my young nieces and nephew have had that experience or ever will. I expect that when they get old enough to appreciate these things, their experience of the Lorraine Motel will also include a profound sense of familiarity-- but it will only be the familiarity lent them by the image of that place and that balcony. They will be familiar with it as the products of American public education, products of American civic identity, perhaps also as Memphians. But that will always be a kind of borrowed familiarity, not really "theirs." And so, in a way, that motel will never be an ordinary place where something extraordinary occurred. It will always only be an extraorinary place. And I think something of the place is lost in that.

I'm really looking forward to the next part of this series.

Devin Zane Shaw said...

I almost feel like we were in two different cities because I didn't have a good chance to wander around.

I hope you don't mind that I posted a link to this piece on my blog.

Devin Zane Shaw said...

Quite an evocative piece. I wish I would have had more time to take in the city.

I hope you don't mind that I linked to your piece on my blog.

Ideas Man, Ph.D. said...


Not at all. Thanks for linking! At some point (at this rate by part 5 or 6 or so) it'll get back to Sartre...

And then by part 8 or so karaoke.

Devin Zane Shaw said...

I completely missed the karaoke...