tem: Twenty-seven boxes of Valentines candy, cost $298.
Item: Fourteen talking robotic birds, cost $112.
As April 15 gets closer and closer, my tax preparer, Mary, keeps calling, asking, What is this all about?
Item: Two nights at the Carson Hilton in Carson, California, February 21, 2001.
Mary asks, why was I in Carson? The twenty-first is my birthday. What about this trip makes it a business deduction?
The Valentines candy, the talking birds, the nights in the Carson Hilton, they make me so glad I keep receipts. Otherwise, Id have no idea. A year later, I have no memory about what these items represent.
Thats why, the moment I saw Guy Pearce in Memento, I knew finally someone was telling my story. Here was a movie about the predominant art form of our time:
All my friends with Palm Pilots and cell phones, theyre always calling themselves and leaving reminders to themselves about whats about to happen. We leave Post-It notes for ourselves. We go to that shop in the mall, the one where they engrave whatever shit you want on a silver-plated box or a fountain pen, and we get a reminder for every special event that life goes by too fast for us to remember. We buy those picture frames where you record your message on a sound chip. We videotape everything! Oh, and now theres those digital cameras so we can all e-mail around our photosthis centurys equivalent of the boring vacation slide show. We organize and reorganize. We record and archive.
Im not surprised that people like Memento, Im surprised it didnt win every Academy Award and then destroy the entire consumer market for recordable compact discs, blank-page books, Dictaphones, DayTimers, and every other prop we use to keep track of our lives.
My filing system is my fetish. Before I left the Freightliner Corporation, I bought a wall of black steel, four-drawer filing cabinets at the office-surplus price of five bucks each. Now, when the receipts pile up, the letters and contracts and whatnot, I close the binds and put on a compact disc of rain sounds, and file, file, file. I use hanging file folders and special color-coded plastic file labels. I am Guy Pearce without the low body fat and good looks. Im organizing by date and nature of expense. Im organizing story ideas and odd facts.
This summer, a woman in Palouse, Washington told me how rapeseed can be grown as a food or a lubricant. There are two different varieties of the seed. Unfortunately, the lubricant type is poisonous. Because of this, every county in the nation must choose whether it will allow farmers to grow either the food or the lubricant variety of rape seed. A few of the wrong type seeds in a county, and people could die.
She also told me how the people bankrolling the seeming-grassroots movement to tear down dams are really the American coal industrynot environmentalist fish huggers and white-water rafters, but coal miners who resent hydro-electric power. She knows because she designs their websites.
Like the robotic birds, these are interesting facts, but what can I do with them?
I can file them. Someday, there will come a use for them. The way my father and grandfather lugged home lumber and wrecked cars, anything free or cheap with a potential future use, I now scribble down facts and figures and file them away for a future project.
Picture Andy Warhols townhouse, crowded and stacked with kitsch, cookie jars, and old magazines, and thats my mind. The files are an annex to my head.
Books are another annex. The books I write are my overflow retention system for stories I can no longer keep in my recent memory. The books I read are to gather facts for more stories. Right now, Im looking at a copy of Phaedrus, a fictional conversation between Socrates and a young Athenian named Phaedrus.
Socrates is trying to convince the young man that speech is better than written communication, or any recorded communication including film. According to Socrates, the god Theuth in ancient Egypt invented numbers and calculation and gambling and geometry and astronomy . . . and Theuth invented writing. Then he presented his inventions to the great god-king Thamus, asking which of them should be presented to the Egyptian people.
Thamus ruled that writing was a pharmakon. Like the word drug, it could be used for good or bad. It could cure or poison.
According to Thamus, writing would allow humans to extend their memories and share information. But more importantly, writing would allow humans to rely too much on these external means of recording. Our own memories would wither and fail. Our notes and records would replace our minds.
Worse than that, written information cant teach, according to Thamus. You cant question it, and it cant defend itself when people misunderstand it and misrepresent it. Written communication gives people what Thamus called the false conceit of knowledge, a fake certainty that they understand something.
So, all those video tapes of your childhood, will they really give you a better understanding of yourself? Or will they just shore up whatever faulty memories you have? Can they replace your ability to sit down and ask your family questions? To learn from your grandparents?
If Thamus were here, Id tell him that memory itself is a pharmakon.
Guy Pearces happiness is based entirely on his past. He must complete something he can hardly remember. Something that he may even be misremembering because its too painful.
Me and Guy, were joined at the hip.
My two nights in Carson, California, looking at the credit card receipt, I can remember them. Sort-of. I was posing for a picture for GQ magazine. Theyd originally wanted me to lay in a pile of rubber dildos, but wed reached a compromise. It was the night of the Grammy awards so every decent hotel room in L.A. was taken. Another receipt shows it cost me seventy bucks in cab fare just to get to the photo shoot.
Now I remember.
The fashion stylist told me how her Chihuahua could suck its own penis. People loved her dog until it ran to the center of every party and started honking its own wiener. This had cleared out more than a few parties at her house. The photographer told me horror stories about photographing Minnie Driver and Jennifer Lopez.
Oh, now the memories come flooding back.
After the photo shootwhere I wore expensive clothes and stood in a movie studio mock-up of an airplane bathrooma movie producer took me to a beachfront hotel in Santa Monica. The hotel was big and expensive, with a posh bar that looked out at the sun setting over the ocean. It was an hour before the Grammys would start, and beautiful famous people were mingling in evening clothes, having dinner and drinks and calling for their limousines. The sunset, the people, me a little drunk and still wearing my GQ make up, me so professionally art directed, Id died and gone to Hollywood heavenuntil something dropped onto my plate.
A bobby pin.
I touched my hair and felt dozens of bobby pins, all of them worked halfway out of the hairsprayed mass of my hair. Here in front of the music aristocracy, I was a drunken Olive Oyl, bristling with pins and dropping them every time I moved my head.
Funny, but without the receipts, I wouldnt have remembered any of it.
Thats what I mean by pharmakon. Dont bother to write this down.