twenty minutes

if it weren’t for the twenty minutes just preceding everything i ever do, i think i could be quite successful.

but those twenty minutes, they’re a total drag.

it would be better if i had an assistant. someone whose sole responsibility it was to know what i was going to do so i wouldn’t have to know and then everything would be a surprise and the twenty minutes leading up to that surprise would be spent in a blissful haze of unknowingness rather than a maelstrom of knowledge and fear.

for instance, my assistant person would meet me after work, take me to my home, turn on my computer, hand me a coffee and say, and now you are going to facilitate a conversation with the author of a book that you’ve read and loved and we’re going to record it for this here podcast.

and i would be all, ooooooh, what a lovely opportunity. how grand. oh, hello there, author of the book i read and loved. let’s chat!

you see how easy that went down? it’s so much simpler than knowing for months that you’ve taken on something that involves three pieces of technology you do not know to use.

but without my assistant and with that knowledge, instead i manufacture dramas. like, amazingly stupid, ridiculously impossible albeit epic dramas. for instance, as of late, the feature presentation playing in my head has been: what if someone i’m interviewing has a heart attack on air?

come now. let’s be real.

never mind that it’s not even a live show, that is freaking NEVER going to happen.

add to that, the fact that it’s not even a creative scenario as i know i’m drawing heavily from the plot of gary paulson’s children’s classic hatchet, wherein the pilot of a two-person plane has a heart attack and the plane crashes in the canadian wilderness and our hero brian robeson- a kid who was simply on his way to visit his divorced father- is left to fend for himself in the wilds.

we’re talking about a podcast. it is in no way comparable to flying a two-person plane over the canadian wilds. and yet, somehow, in the mess that is my brain trying to come to terms with the things that i find difficult to do, the experiences are nearly identical.

this is why i need an assistant. someone who would tell me the things i need to do only as i need to do them. someone who would take hold of those twenty minutes just preceding everything i ever do.

because when you add those up over a lifetime, that’s so many minutes i’ve wasted. so much time i’ve squandered preparing for plot twists derived from children’s books.

i want to get to a point where i do not do this. a point where the twenty minutes just preceding everything i ever do are as euphoric as the twenty minutes coming just after. those moments where i feel as though i can fly that two-person plane over the canadian wilds, for myself, by myself, entirely on my own.

there are things you know you need to do

there are things you know you need to do. by which i don’t mean the honorable, upstanding things, but the thoroughly stupid, senseless, impractical ones. the things people will warn you away from precisely because they seem to make no sense. or because they cost a small country’s annual budget.

this has come up before. last year i used this exact logic as justification for going to paris for 13 hours. i’m realizing that, for me, the most thoroughly stupid, senseless, impractical things are maybe always going to involve paris.

i’m not sure what to do with that just yet. except go back to paris.

come may, i’m presenting a paper at a french conference on narrative. a paper establishing jackie’s tabloid life narrative as being of feminist importance.

the conference is five months away. so far, my paper exists only as a three paragraph abstract that hits upon jackie’s feminist importance in the vaguest possible terms. this proposition is stupid, senseless and impractical on many levels, not to mention expensive. by extension, i’m ruthlessly gung-ho.

in hopes of finding inspiration, i’ve been wading through the paper piles that have accumulated during the last eight years of research. two dozen legal pads filled with old notes and random musings. that is how i happened upon this, written in february 2004:

“jackie o as feminist icon? fun book to write but too hard to prove. TRUE but no one would believe it. it cannot be done.”

my first thought upon reading this? merde.

my second thought? yes, it can.

(photographs by peter beard)

prague

MM

in things that happened that i did not expect to have happen and yet which it is good to have had happen, i am going to prague. because a paper i wrote- though i’m not entirely sure which one- was accepted to a conference on celebrity studies that’s being held there come spring.

this has done much to hammer home my belief that there is no better possible gateway to exotic(ish) vacations than biography, in general, and jackie, in particular.

i’ve proposed exotic travels to everyone i’ve ever dated (all of them actual, living people), and yet it wasn’t until jackie and i got all serious that the exotic travels came true.

it’s a fact that reenforces my central thesis that jackie is an icon of such elastic extremes that she can be anything you want her to be. for me, at the moment, she functions much like a passport. a glittering ticket to a world whose wonders prove an excellent pallative to the strain stemming from her secondary function as a financial sinkhole.

and so i’m apparently going to prague with jackie to deliver some paper in a palace. file that under sentences i couldn’t’ve even begun to imagine writing eleven months ago.

(photo by cbs news staff; STR/AFP/Getty Images) 

allegations

barris marilyn monroe reading

tracy weiner- whose writing biography class constitutes the sole semester of biographical training that comprises the biography concentration of my masters degree in the humanities- once said: the biographer has the power to control perception.

that sounds a bit maniacal, but consider the case of the horrible things jackie allegedly said at random deathbeds.

as a biographer, i’m under no moral obligation to discuss the horrible things jackie allegedly said. i can’t remove the random deathbeds from jackie’s history, but i can erase the horrible things she may have said there. i can leave them out altogether and you’ll never be the wiser.

i can just as easily bring them up without any context and leave you thinking jackie’s a callous, intolerable bitch. i can make you ask, jackie, how could you stand at a random deathbed and say such a horrible thing?!

or, i can contextualize the random deathbeds and show you how the horrible things jackie said there were entirely warranted and were, in fact, not so horrible.

i can make the horrible things jackie allegedly said at random deathbeds look entirely within her character or completely out of it.

i can also cushion them with the word “allegedly,” so before you even hear that jackie said horrible things at random deathbeds there is already, in your mind, some shadow of doubt.

when it comes to your thinking on the horrible things jackie said at random deathbeds, i hold great power.

(presuming, of course, that you care about jackie and that it is of some importance to you whether she was one to say horrible things in general and at deathbeds in particular.)

as is nearly always the case, the story of the horrible things jackie may or may not have said at random deathbeds is important not so much for what it says about jackie as for what it says about us.

the core revelation of tracey weiner’s writing biography class was that there are practices- be that chronology, word choice or whatever- that biographers use to manipulate our thinking on a subject and impose their own beliefs.

though non-fiction masquerades under the auspices of being entirely true, it truly isn’t. it’s perception. and opinion. and a whole host of personal biases.

and so biography is maybe as much about the biographer as about the subject. within the genre, there’s a great deal of clucking over this. it’s often labeled a handicap, though i don’t think it always is.

i crave examples of female adventure, of women deviating from the expected.

from the first, that is the lens through which i have seen jackie. it’s a view that’s been missing in both the biographical record of her and her iconic persona and one that, i think, is integral to our understanding of who she was. it can’t be a coincidence that, time and again, when discussing her publicly, her children evoked her love of adventure.

i look upon hers as the most significant female life of the american twentieth century. i date that significance to the onassis years. and i base it on her fictional alter ego’s narrative journey through tabloid magazines.

all of that deviates from pretty much every existing line of thought.

that heroine though – the rich kid from newport who married a pirate and moved to greece and allegedly said horrible things at random deathbeds- she, my friends, is completely kick-ass.

but people like their icons boring. they like to play it safe. they prefer that their former first ladies be quiet, kid-gloved and kitten-heeled rather than wandering capri barefoot and without a bra.

even jackie’s biographers are skittish when the story strays far from her iconic image. in the case of the horrible things jackie allegedly said at random deathbeds, they hand over the anecdote like a hot potato, thrusting it upon the reader at a chapter’s end.

the schelesinger tapes evoked a similar sense of disquiet. jackie was catty! jackie had opinions! oh my god, jackie held a grudge!

as far back as the 1960s, when confronted with evidence of her humanity, the world has recoiled.

in taking on a set series of meanings, our cultural icons are supposed to be safe and sterile and silent. they are not meant to change but rather are fixed images, trapped like han solo in carbonite.

culturally, this is an important process. but it’s also one that biography should counteract.

the biographer has the power to change perception.

but can the biographer rewrite a myth?

(photos by george barris)