One of the consequences of being an older psychology student is that you get to interact with fellow students who are half your age. This can be tricky to navigate, because you have high stimulus value. You are, like, as old as their parents. But you don’t want to remind them of their parents, teachers, bosses, etc.
The worst thing you can do is to try and be like them. Because you’re not, and they’ll just end up thinking you’re creepy. The best thing to do is to just act normal. If you do so, in most cases, the age differential melts away, and everybody can just start co-existing as students–mutually concerned with things like classes, assignments, grades, etc. No one gives it a second thought. Every now and then, though, something happens to bring it back into the foreground.
This type of disconnect recently happened to me with one of my fellow psychology interns, R—. She looks vaguely like Kristin Davis, the actress from Melrose Place and Sex and the City. She wears a wristband commemorating some unknown cause. Or maybe it’s an ionization bracelet, or other piece of magical jewelry. If she could, she would light scented candles in her office and bring in a Tiffany lamp, which she probably would drape with a silk shawl. It might be accompanied by some crystals, which reflect the light in various pleasing ways. Crystals are an important metaphor for her, because they encompass both structure and individuality. During seminars, she’ll doodle on her note pad. Then stare off into the distance, seemingly self-absorbed. “Responding to internal stimuli,” as psychologists say, albeit in a different context. In the right light, her skin has a kind of translucent quality to it, making the veins in her arms look especially blue. She is an expert at twirling her pencil between her fingers, a skill I wish I had. Often, when asked to give her opinion, she’ll shrug her shoulders, purse her lips, turn her head just so, give a wry smile, giggle, and say she doesn’t know, as if to make a light of it. She’ll borrow a book from you, and then never return it (this drives me crazy). Or, when you’re out getting coffee, she never seems to have any money, so she lets you pay for it, then never pays you back. If she was an animal, I would have to say she’d be an amphibian, possibly a newt.
Most Fridays, we go out to lunch as a group. This can be frustrating, because somehow she became the delegated restaurant selector, and she can’t make a decision. “This place looks fine to me,” I declaim, as authoritatively as possible. She quickly looks it up on Yelp. “Hmmm, I think there’s somewhere better down the street,” she replies. So we perambulate aimlessly to the allegedly-better place down the street. We wait, then we wait some more … not because Place B is any better than Place A, because Place A now has a line, too. Rather, because it’s time for lunch, so now everybody’s out to eat.
Then comes the ceremonial reading of the menu. “We’re not ready yet,” she tells the waitress, who already is realizing she’ll miss turning the table in time for another group. A lot of indecision about what to eat. As if Dining Experience A is going to be that much experientially different from Dining Experience B. Orders having been placed, she loves to “check in” using Facebook, and presumably rate the establishment later on the aforementioned Yelp.
My theory about this is that her concept of time is displaced by her highly refined culinary-aesthetic sensibility. The experience of the meal, with its attendant connoisseur-type features, is far more important than mundane considerations like, say, getting back to the office when we’re supposed to. This also might account for her remark one day that she was “commitment-phobic.” I think she meant it with respect to boyfriends, but it all kind of hangs together. Why fall in love with Boyfriend A when Boyfriend B–a much-improved version–might be just around the corner? It would be difficult to organize a date with her, because she might just blow it off.
I’m a good observer of people, in a phenomenological sense. Little details about them. Not so much a good judge of their character, though. R— looks well put together, well tended-to. Here’s what I imagine. She has a closet full of expensive clothes as well as a lot of other stuff. Although she’s not quite there yet, she’s well on her way to owning 100 pairs of shoes. She was helicopter-parented; they sheltered her when she was young because she was hypersensitive, and believed that everyone must have prizes. They still may support her, at least to some extent. She fatigues easily (and knows down to the hour how much personal leave time she has available, taking all of it). She took French in high school, and learned to play the flute. When in college, she had a boyfriend who was much older, possibly even a professor. Their break-up was inevitable but traumatic. She enjoys looking at pictures of herself. She has an active imagination, and is prone to imagine herself in a variety of extravagant contexts. She has spent a lot of time being bored, which she dreads. She’s fascinated by herself and is the most interesting person she knows. She’s not necessarily narcissistic or self-absorbed – rather, naively un-self-aware. This is her natural mode of being, and it never has occurred to her to be any other way. An enigmatic, sylph-like creature. I kind of like her. She can be sassy in a louche, New York-kind of way, and she might be a lot of fun to hang out with … maybe talk about poetry, or the fate of mankind under late-stage industrial capitalism … can analysis be worthwhile? Is the theater really dead? It’s unclear, though, how one ever would find out.
Once we were discussing a patient in a group we co-facilitated. “I think he’s bipolar,” she said. “I wonder what that’d be like,” I asked. “First you go bankrupt. Then your wife divorces you. Then your children hate you,” she replied. This seemed so–emphatic–that I almost asked her if it was based on personal experience. But then I thought better of it.
Anyway, for some reason, previous generations of interns at my site have seen fit to post framed pictures of themselves (as a group) on a certain wall down the row of offices that the interns inhabit. These pictures have a peculiar feature. Since there’s no continuity between internship classes, nobody has any idea who they are. Not even the staff knows. [There’s a sculpted head of somebody in the lobby, and nobody has any idea of who he is, either. I’ve seen patients at the facility rub the head, as if for good luck.] If the function of the pictures is to commemorate that year’s interns, they do a poor job. This being the case, it stands to reason that there must be some other motivator for the posting of the internship class picture.
So R— comes into my office. “We should do a group photo for the intern wall,” she said. The above considerations quickly coming into focus for me, I replied, “And why exactly is that?” “Well, everybody before us has done it, so we should, too!”
I gravitate strongly towards people who are enthusiasts. It’s hard enough to be the proponent of a project, much less an advocate for it. Especially when it’s based on flimsy logic. “I know!” I said. “We could do a group selfie, and use that.” R— considered the prospect. “Possibly,” she said. “Though we also could just get somebody to take a picture.” I wasn’t sure if she meant with a cell phone, or with a camera; either way, it fell into the non-selfie genre.
By now I was getting curious, so I meandered out of my office and, for the first time, actually looked at some of the pictures on the wall. “These don’t look like they were shot on a mobile,” I said. “They look pretty professional to me. Look at the lighting, in particular.” No doubt about it, someone had gone to a lot of effort to take these pictures. “R—,” I said, turning to look at her. “Yes, David,” she said, like we were going to have some kind of a formal conversation. For some reason she liked addressing me that way, almost petulantly. I said, “I want you to know that my suggestion we take a selfie was meant in an ironic, post-modern kind of way.” “What do you mean?” she asked. “I thought it was a good idea.” She said this like she meant it, non-ironically and certainly not post-modernly. “It’s like, um, you know, the technology’s there, so we might as well use it.”
This really perked my ears up. Relationships between technology and culture are, like, another one of my favorite topics. “In a way, that’s begging the question,” I answered. “Actually what happened is that people conceived a demand to take selfies, and then the digital camera technology followed, to enable them to do so. It’s not at all clear that companies such as Apple would have accelerated camera optics at the pace they have, or for that matter even bundled cameras with cell phones, to begin with, had there not been selfie-like demand. Telephones and cameras, it’s not like it’s some kind of natural combination. History is full of technological innovations that were doomed by the absence of software–the Betamax, digital audio tape, the mini-disc … (analogizing software here to the consumer’s experience of using the product) … (also assuming she knew what those were) … and don’t forget the selfie stick–a single-purposed technological item, devised solely to improve the selfie experience.” [A recent article in the New York Times states, “… there is general agreement that selfies are a form of expression that may reveal more than the taker intended, no matter how flattering the filter used” (Murphy, 8/9/2015, “What Selfie Sticks Really Tell Us About Ourselves.”] I could have gone on like this for a very long while.
“David,” she said. I could see she was temporarily taken aback. “That’s like the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever heard.” A gratifying reply, tending, as it did, to bathe me in a warm bath of validation.
Next thing I knew, there was the picture. Not a selfie, alas, but a rather fetching group photo taken at the intern graduation lunch. With one exception, which was that I wasn’t in it. It’s like “poof!” and I had vanished. Or maybe I never even was there, to begin with. Whatever the spin, it seems odd and ragingly insensitive, especially for would-be psychologists, who supposedly are concerned about everybody’s feelings and what not. They look like they’re having fun, or at least what passes for it. Just look at them … so innocent and naïve … just wait until reality slaps them across the face with the wet tail of a cold tuna fish … we’ll see if they’re still smiling, then. No matter how well intentioned, how can they relate to people twice their age, who have experienced a lifetime of serious mental illness? Especially when they’re off taking pictures of themselves?
On reflection, I think I’d much rather be gently forgotten by real people using their real memories. Or, be remembered for making an impact in some other, more meaningful way. Rather then have some semi-permanent reminder of me posted on a wall somewhere in a place I’ll probably never be again, only to have passers-by scrunch their foreheads and wonder, “who were those people?” A sorry state of affairs, indeed, when not even tangible evidence–a photograph–is sufficient to prime their recollection. If they even pause, to begin with. I certainly hadn’t noticed the pictures; until this incident, they never had entered into the field of my visual perception. And I’m sure my memories of the place likewise will compact into a thin strip of celluloid, say a dozen or so colored slides, which I then can take out carefully and examine at leisure.