June 26, 2009

White Noise

One element in the waiting room of any psychiatrist, analyst, psychologist, clinical social worker, and the like that I've noticed in my 30+ years making the rounds of various shrinks has remained constant: the white noise machine.

The device never changes its look, purpose, or sound. It's an off-white-to-beige circular plastic item about six inches in diameter and four inches in height, tethered to the wall by the inevitable extension cord, generating the same reassuring whoosh.

Everything else about the venue differs: from shrink to shrink, whether in shared office space or solo in what is now considered a home office, and used to be called the den, has changed over time. Innumerable faces hold countless certifications, and my sister/fellow-patients wait to enter or exit the closed office. Waiting room magazines bear new titles, cover lines, and dates, and even the type of bulb in the table lamps has gone green.

Still, white noise is white noise is white noise, to paraphrase Gertrude Stein badly. No one has come along with explosive technology to change anything about the machine, and it serves its purpose just fine.

Alice likes that in an a machine, that consistency. You never need to reboot white noise, just unplug it and move it to the next electrical outlet for your convenience.

Then again, if Alice could reboot her head, to make the synapses and neurotransmitters move in the alignment they may have had when Alice was a baby, before all The Troubles with Alice started, when she was a child, she would try to advance her techno knowledge to do so.

Technology and Alice faded out as partners circa 2001. Prior to that, Alice, oddly enough, was on the cutting edge -- online since 1993 successfully (vs. the 1985 inability to be pure techno junkie with the 300 baud modem); owner of PCs for 25 years, learned of untold number of operating systems.

Now? Alice wants everything simplified, as she would do so in her head. Alas, what is intuitive to Alice vs. the population at large spans a large gap.

In the meantime, Alice has made the leap into 21st century webgrrl. How?

Alice joins Facebook

Never say never, apparently. After about two years of rejecting invitations, Alice has given in. Web 2.0, here she comes. Or some variation and with major hesitation, Alice has decided to approximate a social networker.

She wonders if anyone else thinks Facebook is junior-high-school note-passing on steroids. Or high school folks simultaneously ducked out for a smoke of whatever substance pleases.

With enough "friends," Alice has discovered, on Facebook you're never alone. Hearing from someone you know, however vaguely, seems akin to to the result of tossing spaghetti on the wall and hoping some of it sticks. In real life, Alice believes if you have five true friends, you are blessed.

On Facebook however, it's all about quantity. "What's on your mind?" my opening page asks. Usually I don't think the answer suitable for public consumption. If you really want to Go Ask Alice, ask her here.

Among my questions: does Facebook actually bring together people who want to be rediscovered in one's life, or does it bring up parts of the past we'd really rather not acknowledge on a Wall.

Most of my Facebook "friends" are people I know personally, in real life. The rest are my blogging friends, whom I have known in cyberspace for many years.

Alice is very much a result of her breeding: she was raised as an anachronism, as it turns out. She wants a separate personal and professional life, boundaries of the 20th century that seem to be indistinct in the 21st century. And, like The Velveteen Rabbit, Alice wants to know what's real.

On Facebook, Alice finds communication somewhat detached. It has been prettied up with more applications than Alice will ever understand, and lots of icons that make much better sense in real life, i.e., getting someone a drink, rather than giving them the Facebook equivalent.

If someone handed you a photo of a glass of wine, there isn't anything to swallow, except metaphorically, and Alice isn't so sure Facebook addicts retain the ability to distinguish metaphor -- a polite and perhaps inexact term for our "secondary, simulated reality" -- for "first-degree reality."

She finds one determination best made in the pages analyzing Don Delillo's White Noise. It has been explained as follows:

"In 1983, French philosopher Jean Baudrillard wrote Simulations. In it, he maintains that the postmodern world privileges simulacra over reality; we believe our secondary, simulated reality is more real than first-degree reality.

"His classic example is that Disneyland, a fantasy world, seems more real to us than the real world. DeLillo utilizes this idea throughout White Noise, focusing on a nation reared on the simulated reality of the media which even had a former actor (Ronald Reagan) as President at the time."

In 2009, we in Wonderland live with the white noise of our nanny-state governments. Which makes more pollution, bus exhaust or five minutes of second-hand tobacco smoke? Alice knows which way her vote is going, and it's not going in favor of Rudy and Mike, those key window dressers of her day.

Times Square didn't used to be Disneyland; it was a real, honest in the grittiest sense, place where Broadway and 42nd St. connected. Cars and pedestrians only, thankyouverymuch. Until now, when Mike has seen fit to shut the intersection to cars and spread out lawn chairs instead. Surely there are better places for lawn chairs -- Central Park comes to mind.

Lawn chairs aren't called "street chairs" for a reason. Note to Mayor Mike's office: move the damn chairs into a park. Don't leave them clogging the intersection. It's not as if there will be less traffic; it's just that the drivers are going to hit the road rage dial faster and faster as the traffic piles up.

And those horns blaring? A driver with road rage is not going to go forth under the white noise radar. No, horns blast white noise back to the shrink's office, where they work.

A few more words on White Noise:

"DeLillo says the idea for White Noise came to him while he watched television news, and realized that toxic spills were becoming such a daily occurrence that no one the news cared about them -- only those affected by the spills cared.

"We can see this idea play out in the airborne toxic event in White Noise, when people are upset that the media pays their crisis little attention, but it emerges in subtler ways when DeLillo examines the consumerist, technological atmospheres of death we create for ourselves -- from our living rooms to our cars to our supermarkets.

"DeLillo also takes a look at several more typically postmodern ideas -- ambiguity of identity, waste, racial heterogeneity, the family -- and gives them his astute, humorous spin. Though most readers find his view of American society harsh and pessimistic, others see the ending of White Noise -- with its bonding through consumerism in the face of death -- as subversively "uplifting."

Facebook is all about bonding, however ingenuously. We write on Walls; therefore we exist. We have some semblance of a connection with humanity. Yet Alice still hears streams of shrink-office white noise boxes, even as the air conditioner at home imitates the sound.

There is a gap, between what we write and what is real, or, more precisely, what we want to reveal and what seeing us in person would reveal. Into that gap floods white noise in all its manifestations, keeping us with one foot in Disneyland, and only one grasping the floor that is genuine and tangible and no imitation of anything but itself.

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June 05, 2009

D * I * V * O * R * C * E -- again

It is once again that time: Two and a half years into wedded, well, marriage, and bliss is not on the brother's list. Divorce is. Lawyer and joint custody are on mine. Finally, I have a niece, and I want to be damn sure that she knows me, knows her NYC clan. I am assured things are being taken care of. God, I hope so.

After announcing he and Kay's mother were divorcing, no messing around with trial separation or anything to that effect, the brother says, "I never should have married her."

"You say that every time," I replied, this being divorce #4. #1 through #3 didn't make much of a difference in my life. After the first or second, I stopped trying to get to know the wives. There would always be a woman; the hope was, the brother wouldn't try marriage again.

This time it matters: the brother has a daughter, my niece. My only niece/grandchild, and I want to make damn sure I will get to be part of her life. In truth, I want her the hell out of Tiny Town, Sleepy Southern State, and north of the Mason-Dixon line, where at least she will learn who won the Civil War.

(Our mother, raised in North Carolina in the late '40s/early '50s, was taught it was The War of Northern Aggression, and her teachers were hazy on how it played out.)

Perhaps I should have spotted a clue at Christmas, when the brother made reference at a party to his "current wife." Here today, usually gone tomorrow... but not this time, not with my niece in the picture.

I'm hoping my niece's mother -- until the papers are signed technically she remains my sister-in-law -- and my brother will remain on good terms and I will have the luxury of being the aunt/grandma to K. She is my link to the next generation, the only genetic one I will ever have.

I imagine all the things I want to show my niece, what I can do in my capacity as New York aunt that her Southern mother, half my age, may never have the ability to do and that might not occur to my brother. I want K. to feel special around me, around our mother, around everyone in her orbit.

It terrifies me that there could be any other options.