Overweening Generalist

Sunday, July 22, 2012

My Aurora, Colorado: Personal Reflections and the Radical Subjectivity of Memories

[This blog post, while prompted by the Aurora/Batman massacre, is more about the author's memory and imagination. It's autobiographical and reflects only superficially on the heinous crime of a few days ago. - the OG]

Yet Another All-American Crazed Shooting Prompts the OG's Memory
I recently read that Al Franken's childhood partner in comedy writing/performing, Tom Davis, died at age 59. They later went on to concoct some surrealistic-goofy-psychedelic-inspired bits for the early version of Saturday Night Live. I'd read Davis's memoir, Thirty-Nine Years of Short-Term Memory Loss. Davis said that, even before he'd begun his career as a heavy user of drugs, he'd had trouble remembering, and when he'd finished the first draft of the book (which came out in 2009), it was a total mess. Memory problems caused the jumble, or so I recall I inferred. So he and editors decided to order the book another way. I found a deep subtext in the book very sad, though it was written by a fairly cerebral comedian who mostly related anecdotes about people like Dan Ackroyd and Timothy Leary. I did learn that at least one of our 100 U.S. senators had done acid and liked it.

Tom Davis's many-year short-term memory problems: I'm a lot like that. I had a friend I've since lost contact with. He could recall where he was in just about any month and year. I'd say, "April of 1979?" and his eyes would slowly roll toward the ceiling, look off to the right a bit and he'd be silent for a few moments, then begin with where he lived, what he was doing (he was more than ten years older than me, but was a Fulbright Scholar), what events were happening around that time in his social world and then, world events.

My memory of childhood up to the time I began writing every day in a journal (September 1989), is totally unlike my friend's memory. My memory is dreamy, and I sometimes find myself encountering my brain throwing out odd snippets of memory from my childhood and I think, "Was that really me? Or am I imagining this happened?" "I think this happened before that happened, because of...wait...when did that happen? Or am I mixing up two different events?" This is one of the reasons I habitually chronicle my days now. But even logging the day's events and a few reflections in a journal - unless one writes a true diary, like Samuel Pepys or Anais Nin or other famous writers who wrote readable diaries - seems to miss the subjective chains of analog-feelings of that day. The gist, the poetic pith of experienced life at that time, is what I'm tryna say...As the years wag on, those earlier days seem so much more...fictional to me. But they weren't!

When my parents separated, my brothers and I were given the choice of staying with mom, in suburban Los Angeles, where we'd grown up, or relocating to Aurora, Colorado, where my dad had moved. I spent my 16th and 17th years in Aurora.

Reading About the Aurora Massacre and Trying To "Place" It All, Given My Fallible Memory
I'm an extreme owl, so I was wide awake when the news that the midnight showing of the new Batman flick in Aurora had witnessed an unspeakably horrific bloodbath, for "reasons" we're still trying to figure out.

I was working on a few other projects, but the idea of Aurora kept haunting me. Those years when I was 16 and 17, utterly lost, infused my consciousness. Disparate snippets of memory flitted through my mind, and those prompted others. One tries to make things cohere, without invention. I had not thought much about my time there. Why? I don't know. It seems like that kid was someone else. Yes, I admit some sort of quasi-depersonalization here. I guess I needed my dad at 16. I'd come from sunny smoggy temperate LA 'burbs to some section of the country I had no idea about, except Denver was a Big City, and it was a mile high, literally. And that it would snow, and I'd never lived anywhere it snowed.

I had very long hair and was, at 16, about 120 pounds and maybe 5 foot 9. (I was a very late bloomer who didn't max out at his present height of six feet until age 20.) All of my friends in California had long hair. All of them. Look at a picture of the guys in Aerosmith from around 1977: we all wanted to look that cool. We were desperate, delusional, suburban. In Aurora, I quickly found that you're either a Freak or a Jock. My hair meant immediately I was a Freak. It's not that the Jocks beat the shit out of us (although I'm sure that happened); it was more like they didn't even acknowledge our existence. A Jock doesn't want to be seen by other Jocks talking to a Freak. I remember them not making eye contact with me. (Although...<ahem> funny story: I was once arrested with a well-known Jock, but now is not the time to go into it.)

I remember the Jocks well. Sports is almost a religious pursuit in Aurora, and the Jocks all had buzz cuts or very short hair, and lifted weights, played on the teams. The girls could be cheerleaders, flag carriers, pom-pom girls, and members of about two or three other Jock-like groups. It was important for a kid to feel they belonged to the right group. The Jocks owned the school. I was not in their world, and Freaks and Jocks occupied entirely separate worlds. All in all I think, in my dim emotional memory of Aurora, that it was basically dominated by WASP-y rednecks. (I think the demographic has gotten much more African-American since I left.)

I had a best friend and few others. But then I'd always been the kind of kid who had one really close friend, and we spent almost all our time together. I remember we took a badminton class together at Aurora's Gateway High. When you go to high school in Aurora - or at least when I went there - the day's almost entirely indoors. I'd grown up spending a good part of all my school days outdoors, when it was sunny and warm year-round. How odd to go to a high school so overwhelmingly carpeted.

In this badminton class, one fine - probably snowy - day, my best friend and another Freak decided to slip away into the area of the gym between the outside and the inside: you leave the gym via heavy doors and enter a small, dark cramped space filled with chairs piled up, and gym equipment, folding tables, etc. Possibly a locked door leading to a box office. Another set of heavy doors lead to the outdoors. We thought this was a safe place to smoke some pot before we returned to hit the birdie with the Jocks and some pretty girls who'd have nothing to do with us because we were Freaks. A gym teacher - a former Mr. Canada winner in bodybuilding, a Mr Demski with a 50-inch chest - caught us and we were suspended for a week. Which was a relief. My dad knew it, too. And when it came down to it, I acquiesced to the vice-principle at Gateway High School, who thought I'd be better off in the "continuation" school across town. With all the other Freaks. So I did that.

Dream-like Memory and Psychogeography of Aurora
Often we'd skip school and play pinball all day at one of the two vast indoor shopping malls. The police would often kill an hour of their day by stopping us, asking what we were doing, why we weren't in school, where did we live, where are our parents, why do we look so strange, etc. They'd act like they were going to arrest us. On what charges? Minors, loitering, truancy, acting suspiciously and there had been some crime in the area we had nothing to do with. Now I realize we were a good way for them to kill some time. We didn't have cars and hitch-hiked almost anywhere. Often some adult that picked us up had pot to smoke, or wanted some of ours. We'd "thumb it" to Del Mar Park, and sit around on a picnic bench and smoke dope and listen to older hippies with names like "Pinky" (who was a legend, I can't remember why) regale us with tales and knowledge, things we couldn't possibly learn in school. I remember a lot of learned arguments about who were the better rock guitarists: David Gilmour, Ted Nugent, Frank Marino, Robin Trower, or Hendrix. I brought up Jimmy Page and got shot down as a novice, not a valid connoisseur of lead breaks. Van Halen would explode in a year or so; Pinky and his friends had never heard him at this point. Anyway...

The first day I had to go to the new giant high school (where you must be either a Freak or a Jock), I didn't know anyone. It was terrifying. A bus picked up the kids in the neighborhood and drove them the three or four miles to the school. But because the weather was fine and I didn't know anyone on the bus, I chose to walk. I even chose to walk home, though I'd gotten to know some kids in my neighborhood and they strongly urged me to take the bus with them. Walking was a way to be with my interiority. Then, a blizzard hit one day during school hours. I had on long underwear, jeans, two pairs of socks, and heavy boots, like all the kids. And a big down jacket and woolen hat. I thought I could make it home, no problem. I had never lived where it snowed.

Walking home, alone, in a blizzard? I got lost. I couldn't see the horizon. At the time, Aurora was filled with neighborhoods west of I-225, but east of it: vast stretches of flat fields, covered in what looked to me like wheat, but wasn't. I knew if I followed a main drag, Mississippi, I'd hit the big new middle school and its very large flat open fields of grass that surrounded it. I usually cut through the fields to get to my neighborhood. I was disoriented; in the white-out and blowing snow-cold I couldn't tell how far I'd been walking, and I couldn't see anything on the horizon. Few cars were on the road, and the road was covered in snow, so I at times wasn't sure I was even headed in the right direction. I began to panic. Oh, why didn't I get on the bus? I'd be home by now, in our brick house, warming up by the heat-vent, watching old re-runs of the 1950s Superman show with George Reeves, who died by gunshot at 45, officially a suicide, although some suspect murder or an accident. That show had the worst actors I'd ever seen on TV, so I was naturally fascinated.

I remember hearing the traffic for I-225, which was below a bridge that I walked over. Then, I happened onto the middle school. If I could just navigate through the blowing snow and wind across the field, I'd make it.

But the snow picked up. I was freezing, the snow was high and my walking very slow. You sink with every step in the piles of new snow. Every step is a minor digging out of the previous one before you take another step. I was starting to think I wouldn't make it. My face felt frozen, the wind was loud and swirling (as I remember it). In the field, I lost my way. I couldn't orient by sight. But I knew I had to keep walking or probably die. They say people fall asleep in the snow and cold and die peacefully, but I think my dad would be really upset if he had to tell my mom I'd died walking home from school in a blizzard. I was both scared and embarrassed at my naivete. All the other kids were wise to blizzards, having grown up with them. I had never thought a three or four mile walk could be so treacherous. Especially a flat walk.

There are very few hills in Aurora. The flatness was somehow menacing. In the many years since then, when I've thought of my years in Aurora, the flatness of it now seems like a distinctive feature that somehow relates to the meanness I encountered there, and the hardened sex-role stereotypes that the kids all adhered to. But I'm not sure why. Maybe it's just my nervous systems's groping to storify, to make sense of my past. But maybe flatness and vast tracts of open fields, as far as the eye can see, do effect the "character structure" or "local consciousness" of the populace and maybe the flatness and the six months or so of intermittent freeze-your-ass-off have something to do with the psychogeography I experienced. Or maybe it's certain gene pools that ended up there. Or all of the above and seventeen - thousand other things? (Then again, there were some awfully nice people. People who were nice even to a stick-figured and mentally ethereal 16 year old kid with a massive mop of hair. I do not wish to make things more simple than they need be.)

I remember seeing the houses lining Troy Street and knowing I was going to make it. When I got home, I felt euphoric. I remember taking my pants off and they were near-frozen; they began to stand up against the wall near the heater, then crumpled, as if exhausted.

Revisiting the Old Neighborhood(s) Using Google Street Scene Maps
Oh, my. I remember moving back to my hometown for my senior year in high school. My friends wanted to know what "Colorado" was like. They laughed when I told them that most kids there, when they found out I was from "California" immediately assumed all we did was surf all day.

I'm sure most of you have done something similar: after the Aurora shooting, with the concomitant cascade of memory shards flowing through my nervous system, I decided to look up my old address and "see" it via Google's street map thing, which, I can't get over it: is really trippy to me. I looked at my old house. I haven't been back there in nearly 30 years. It looked different, but pretty much how I remembered it. There were those gutters, so unlike the ones I grew up with in LA. I remember stepping into the gutters in the morning after a snow, and the ice would crack and you'd hear it continue to crack all the way down the street, punctuated with a few periods of silence. I "traveled" down the street via Google and took the route I would have if I walked to that high school (Gateway) that carried so many unpleasant memories for me. It's not far from where the shooting took place. What was staggering to me: all of those vast open wheat-like fields were now tract houses, Best Buy, Chuck-E-Cheese: the franchises that grow in suburban Unistat like bacteria in optimal, petri-dish conditions. No open space was left. It had been almost all open space, or as the capitalist mind says: "undeveloped." ("Growth for the sake of growth is the ideology of the cancer cell." - Edward Abbey, if I remember correctly.) I tried to imagine how different my blizzard-walk-home would have been now. I found it hard to reconcile my longtime psychogeographic memories of the space between home and school, and what it looked like now. As I write this, I remember the feelings I had, using Google's amazing mapping technology in the hours after the shooting, and what a bygone era for Aurora I have, carrying around in circuits of neural pathways in my brain.

I can't say I was surprised about the development, intellectually. We all know this is What Happens. When I left Aurora for good, never to return, I recalled reading that it was the fastest-growing city in Unistat at the time. Indeed, it has doubled in population size since I lived there. There are now 325,000 or so. When I lived there, there were two high schools, but they were planning to build three more very quickly. And they have. They did. It's to be expected. And yet my perceptions were jarred. I had had "my" Aurora, one which I thought about fleetingly over the years, as if it were a dream. And in some sense, it may as well be a dream...

Late July and August in Aurora - this time of year - the weather is so beautiful! It'll be 74 degrees and dry and sunny and the Rockies are in 3-D, framing the western horizon, and you want to throw a frisbee in the park all day long and look at girls. And then an odd thing often happens: suddenly a carpet of high dark clouds appears off towards the Rockies. These clouds roll in, darken the sky, and it stays pleasantly warm at 4 in the afternoon, but it hails for 15 minutes, then almost as suddenly, the clouds have moved on, and the sun begins to set, and it's beautiful...the small hailstones now melted into the ground. I don't know if it only did this, sorta freakishly, when I lived there, but I do remember this as magical.

                     Here's a shot of the interior of Cinderella City, Englewood, Colorado.
                     It's near Littleton, and when I lived in Aurora, it was the largest 
                     indoor mall in the US. I ate some tainted cheese at their Taco Bueno
                     and got Salmonella Heidelberg, was in the hospital for nine days, 
                     and was discharged at 79 pounds, after nearly dying. Not that you'd

Littleton and Aurora and Colorado Springs: I Have No Analysis
A few blogs back, I wrote about the poet Noel Black. He'd gone to school and tried to "make it" in San Francisco and Brooklyn, but eventually made his way back to hometown Colorado Springs, where, poet-maverick that he is, is not only where he grew up, but where he'd still like to be, despite it being one of the most right-wing places in Unistat. He thinks the city needs people like him, and I think he's probably right. He faces animosity there, but he's a psychologically tough guy, having been raised by a lesbian mother and a father who died of AIDS. Black is made of sterner stuff than I; I grew up in a very conservative town in the sprawling 'burbs of Los Angeles and, though my father has since relocated back and lives there, I find it creepy to visit. They probably need people like me, but I am too cowardly to volunteer...What am I? Some sorta martyr? Not that I'm calling Noel Black a martyr...

Back to my memories of Aurora and Colorado.

My father was an outside salesman, which meant he drove a lot and took clients out to lunch, made deals. Once every couple of weeks - as I remember it - he had to drive to Colorado Springs. It was a long drive from Aurora. I remember him telling me I might have a rough time if I lived in Colorado Springs. This was around 30 years ago. I didn't understand immediately what he meant, but he implied they don't like skinny young guys with hair down past the middle of their back there. Now when I think of it, I find it hard to believe I was once so sheltered and naive. Apparently, Aurora was a nice place to weirdos like myself, compared to Colorado Springs.

When my parents were still together, in the suburbs near Pasadena, my brother and I knew two other boys that were our age. We shared baseball card collecting as a boyhood fascination. I remember their dad was a long-distance trucker who was gone for long periods. Eventually, they moved to Colorado, a year or two before my dad moved there. Five or so years later, when my brother and I moved to Aurora, my dad said he'd found where my childhood friends lived, in Littleton. He looked them up in the book, called their mom, and asked if it was okay if he brought us down to see her kids. A sort of reunion. My dad drove us to Littleton - not that far from Aurora - and dropped us off, saying he'd pick us up in a few hours. My memory of that day is hazy, but I do remember that the brothers seemed to be forcing it in embracing us and the memory of their old lives in California. They asked my brother and I if we wanted to go cruising. We said sure. They weren't old enough to drive, but they had a car, and somehow, they were driving.

We ended up sitting in the back seat while the two brothers of our childhood, and a friend of theirs, sat in front. They all scared me. Somehow these sweet brothers had, in five years, turned into some sort of white trash gangsters. I remember seeing a gun. I remember something about lots of undying animosity to the blacks in town. Our sweet boyhood friends had morphed into something I'd never encountered: juvenile delinquents with the potential for violence. We drove around the lower-middle class suburbs of Littleton, aimlessly, stopping every now and then so my old friends could talk to someone, without getting out of the car. I don't know if they were dealing. Maybe. I was too naive to understand what was going on. I remember wishing my dad had not contacted them. I was out of my element. I didn't even know how to fake being "cool" around these guys, who I can't believe I had known as such innocent, sweet, goofy, fun-loving kids only five years ago.

My dad, on the drive back, asked us if it was good to see our old friends, and I think I said yea, it was great. The way I remember this episode: I didn't have the language to tell my dad what I was feeling, so I let him know he'd been a good dad for reuniting us.

When Columbine happened, I was forced to think of that day again.

I have no decent analysis about my psychogeographic memories of Aurora and Littleton and their now-infamous massacres. All I can say is I don't understand why a citizen should be able to own an assault rifle. (And that, unfortunately, the NRA has far too much lobbying power in Unistat, a trivial observation at best.) All I feel I can predict with near-certainty is that We will finally have a serious national dialogue on guns and violence, until we forget about it in about six weeks, and then the next crazed shooter goes off, probably around Thanksgiving.

This is just one way some of my memory seems to work. Errr...how 'bout yours?

Here's Nobelist Daniel Kahneman, ostensibly talking about the cognitive "problem" of happiness, something we all want. I think he has some absolutely fascinating things to say about our experienced selves versus our remembered selves. It's 21 minutes, but, I think, "worth it" (<------that "time as money"metaphor yet again!), if you have the time:


Eric Wagner said...

Great blog. It really made me think. I consider this my favorite piece of your writing. I also enjoyed this piece by David Thomson: http://www.tnr.com/article/film/105280/aurora-and-batman .

michael said...

Thanks for the Thomson piece. I'm right there with him, but I ain't a-holdin' ma breath about Unistatians and gun-violence.

And I'm really glad you liked this piece. As usual, I had planned to write on one of four or five other topics, but the feelings about Aurora just started me typing.

Writing this piece felt markedly different than any of the other 202 blog posts for the OG. As I wrote it, I felt a wide range of feelings wash over me, and it was surprisingly intense. I think that, after the 2nd paragraph, I entered a weird trance and just typed and typed. There were a couple/three periodic breaks to meditate. I had had ZERO idea what I was going to say beforehand; all I knew was that the Batman shooting in Aurora had me thinking about my time as a 16-17 year old there, and I sort of..."needed" to write something. It was oddly cathartic.

I wrote and wrote and suddenly noticed 3 hours had passed... that's why I think the effort to narrative memories and thoughts/feelings/sensations put me in a trance. There's that part of "me" that wants the writing to be readable and enjoyable, but some other part of my "self" was operating there, too. VERY strange!

Even though I put that disclaimer in first - that I'm not writing about guns and the Aurora in the news - I thought some people might think it was cheesy, as if I were trying to capitalize on the massacre. But actually, I felt weirdly compelled to get that stuff out there...if only so "I" could see it.

I learned some interesting things about myself by writing that piece, and maybe foremost: how I hadn't realized how different aspects of the category MEMORY are such a main theme for me. Maybe others had seen this before I had; now I know.

This piece had me feeling like a fiction-writer at times, because, as I wrote, my feelings about that "me" at 16/17 seem so remote. It's as if I'm writing about someone else, some character I dreamed up. But it really WAS me. So weird...I don't think I've adequately conveyed the oddness of the totality of feelings that washed over me as I did that blog-post.

Anyway, I'm very grateful for your kind, kind woids.