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
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
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
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
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
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
Thats what I mean by pharmakon. Dont bother to write