Monday, July 1, 2013

Perception Over Time

I was telling my daughter a story yesterday, something she’s heard before. It happened when I was a kid, around this time of year, after the 4th of July. A neighborhood friend and I took a cigarette inside the house, lit it on the stove and promptly dropped it onto the linoleum in the kitchen where it scorched a black, thin mark. I decided to tell my mom that we had lit a sparkler left over from the holiday. I figured she’d still be angry, but much less so than if she thought it was a cigarette.

But wait, my daughter says. I thought it was the other way around: you told her it was a cigarette when it was a sparkler. I think about this for a moment and the tiny twinge of hesitation I felt while telling the story makes sense. You’re right, I tell her. It was the other way.

And it got me thinking about a theme I return to again and again, in my mind and in fiction, the way each person’s perception differs from another, the way each of us can construe our own reality by the way we see and remember. This happens on an individual basis and collectively, when “histories” are recollected and reinforced within a group. And sometimes, this “truth” can change over time.

Why was I remembering my own story differently? I have to believe it’s because of cultural norms. When I was growing up, lots of lots of people smoked. Every house had an ashtray in the living room; people smoked in doctors’ offices, in stores, on airplanes. Basically, everywhere. Even though my mom wouldn't have been pleased that my friend and I were smoking, it wouldn’t have been that big of deal, not really. But bringing a hand-held firework into the house would have incurred her incredulous rage. Or so I thought. I decided the cigarette was a safer bet. I’d still get in trouble but not as much.

Thirty years have seen cigarettes, at least in California, become vilified and virtually outlawed. If you want to puff now, best that you head behind your place of business, into some alley if you can, and smoke back there. Most parents today would probably be much less horrified with the sparkler scenario. Personally, I wouldn’t be happy with either one, but would worry more about losing my house from the sparkler than the cigarette. But even that’s subjective because I’d wager many more homes have burned down from lit cigarettes than dropped sparklers.

This idea of perception and whether or not a true reality can ever be determined is endlessly interesting to me. It’s empowering, knowing that we can decide what to believe and it’s enslaving sometimes too, always perceiving through the lens of our own subconscious, beliefs and experience.

Sparkler or cigarette, what does it matter? Isn’t the story about a kid trying to avoid punishment? But as I grow older, it’s becoming about a lost time and place too and those details seem important because it was part of my childhood. It will be interesting to see, over time, if my daughter tells the story, what aspects of herself will be included and what will be altered or left out. I suppose if she remembers and tells the story at all, it will be a good thing.


  1. Kids are great:) Though it seems you nailed the core of the story being about a kid trying to avoid punishment. Isn't the freedom of the story teller to create endless variation in terms of drama and ornamentation and have the essential truth shine through? As it does in myths.

  2. Wow! both your post and Ahen's reply have such depth of understanding. The fact that histories change and evolve goes hand in hand with the freedom of the story teller to tell it however it works for her. Still, knowing the facts, is important on a number of levels. The old adage says, if we don't learn history, we are doomed to repeat it. On the other hand, life cycles round and round, year after year, generation after generation, and "there is nothing new under the sun" no matter how we tell it.

  3. The search for the "essential truth," the "facts"...I think this is what we're doing when we're creating art. At least that's what I tell myself in lofty moments! Thanks for your thoughts, ladies :)


"As soon as we express something, we devalue it strangely. We believe ourselves to have dived down into the depths of the abyss, and when we once again reach the surface, the drops of water on our pale fingertips no longer resemble the ocean from which they came...Nevertheless, the treasure shimmers in the darkness unchanged." ---Franz Kafka