Friday, January 18, 2019

comparing roles with prince frederick

"Amazing what one is, really."

It is one of those seemingly throw away lines in The Madness of King George. A film that walks us through the universal question of "Who am I?"

Once a month a group of us "grumpy, old white guys" convene at some unlucky restaurant where we hassle the staff and ramble on about a list of topics that inevitably include medications and the cheapest way to get things done locally.

Yesterday we met at Papa Gallo's on the beach in San Patricio. Because I had not yet managed to do my early morning walk, I decided to hoof the four miles to the restaurant. It is an easy amble.

Last year my friends Nancy and Roy bought me a Prince Edward Island t-shirt on their cruise to eastern Canada. It is quite spiffy -- as you can see in the mirror image.

Several people commented on the shirt on my walk. Most were compliments. But there were two questions that confounded me.

The first came from a Canadian woman with whom I am acquainted. She stopped me to chat and asked: "I thought you were American. Are you from Prince Edward Island?"

I chuckled and asked her if I had been wearing Che Guevara t-shirt if she would ask me: "How is Fidel doing?"

My analogy was too arcane.

She said she could not figure out why someone would wear a place-oriented piece of clothing without being from that place. She felt that type of clothing is designed to show pride of place.

I understood her point. But, I see national or regional emblems emblazoned in the most unlikely places, making people look like the equivalent of those "see-where-I've-been" maps on the sides of Air Streams and Winnebagos. I am guilty of that particular bit of one-upsmanship myself.

In this instance, though, I told her I have not even visited Prince Edward Island. The shirt was a beloved gift from friends.

Because I can never let one explanation stand when I can come up with five, I told tell her, in one sense, I am from Prince Edward Island. My mother's father's family lived there about a century in the 1800s; about the same time my mother's mother's family lived in Quebec. So, in a manner of speaking, I am from there. Give or take a generation or three.

So, off I went trying to make up walking time. Only to be stopped by another Canadian friend. "Hey, you can't wear that shirt. You're an American." We laughed.

Then, he got a bit more serious. "Are you trying to disguise the fact that you're American?"

I have been asked that before when people ask where I am from originally. My natural response is "Oregon." Several people have commented that that sounds as if if I am hiding my American roots. And I know exactly what they are saying.

I am not someone who has trouble confusing myself with the government in The States. And I cannot understand people who conflate their personality with their national governments. It makes no sense to me.

A reader once complained that she was getting tired of people trying to politicize everything. I agree with her. And I hope we do not waste a lot of time today fixating on politics. Because all of this is leading to a far more interesting point. At least, I find it interesting.

The breakfast conversation went along the lines I would have anticipated. Medical conditions. Brexit. The attempted coup in Gabon. Why Beethoven is considered great.

I do enjoy those joustings. But yesterday turned out to be quite different because we had a new member amongst us. John.

He had fallen into a coma for four years. When he awoke, his memory was a shambles. He could remember events in his early youth and infancy that he is not certain he could access before the coma.

He described his memory of recent years as too often containing pictures in his mind that have combined with a soundtrack from a different year. As if a mischievous film editor had been at work. Both memories are accurate, but they combine in an odd fashion.

His description started an interesting conversation. Scientists know a lot about our bodies -- and next to nothing about our minds. They do know enough, though, that the video analogy used by most people to describe their memory is not an accurate description of memories.

Memories are deconstructed in the mind and require re-assembly. As John's experience would verify. It is why we can remember a person's face, but we cannot locate their name card in our memory file. The two pieces are simply stored in different portions of our memory.

One of my favorite Umberto Eco novels is The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana. The conceit of the story is that an antiquarian book dealer loses his large portions of his memory because of a stroke.

His personal past has been obliterated. He has no memory of his wife, his name, or even his face. But external stimulae cause him to remember historical names and dates, and substantial chunks of Dante, Shakespeare, and T.S. Eliot.

Then, in an attic, he discovers a treasure trove of cultural items he has collected over his life. He hopes that reviewing the items will help him recover his memory.

His project fails. He concludes all he has done is to re-discover the memory of a generation, not his personal memory. A jumble of cultural texts, high and low, simply does not add up to who we are. It is an exercise John has been going through.

That brings me back to that Prince Edward Island t-shirt. It does not reflect who I am, other than the fact that we all use clothing in our attempts to display to the world how we would like to be seen. Similar to Prince Frederick's Bishop of Osnabruck medallion, our costumes certainly do not reflect who we are.

That little t-shirt has a far more important meaning, though, than simply being a prop in The Steve Show. My friends invested a bit of their love in that purchase and then handed it along to me. And I am now the custodian of that piece of our relationship.

Prince Frederick may have been amazed at "what one is." I try to focus more on enjoying people for who they are.

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