Bureau of Complaints

Audrey Thompson

My last newsletter brought complaints. William complained that I only wrote about him so as to avoid writing about myself, which is true; the whole point of the newsletters is that I have no news of my own to tell. Jessica rejected my bulletproof anti-sitcom argument on the grounds that nothing happened in Seinfeld either, so what was the difference if people in Manhattan did nothing or if my friends and family and I did nothing? (On these slim grounds, she has already offered me an Emmy.) Not exactly complaining but not exactly celebrating, Bryan noted the unwarranted focus on William in the previous newsletter. However, he was constructive in his response. No doubt next time, he indicated, I would do a better job. Perhaps I might wish to focus on Bryan exclusively, merely mentioning William in passing.

“You could write about me shopping,” Bryan suggested.

“Yes, I suppose I could,” I said. “I could talk about you at Fred Meyer’s.”

Bryan did not even try to disguise the pity he felt for someone who thought that “shopping” referred to Fred Meyer’s. “Not Fred Meyer’s,” he said. “Have me shopping for jewelry at T. P. Gallery or shopping for digital cameras wherever Ivan got his.”

Bryan plans to get a new digital camera soon, and it will be better than Ivan’s. At Donna’s and Frank’s house the other night, Bryan brought along his digital camera to take pictures of Quanah, so Ivan went home and got his digital camera to also take pictures of Quanah. This could seem complimentary to Quanah except that, ever since Ivan got his new digital camera, he has been taking pictures of everything from piles of rocks to neighbors who until now had known him only as a faint, flickering shadow moving between the car and the house.

Brian’s Mom, Quanah, Brian Wall mislabeled as a pile of rocks

Normally, I am wary of Ivan buying more stuff. We have what some might consider a surplus of motherboards and glow-in-the-dark souvenirs, not to mention five hundred plastic chip clips and many, many tools for taking things apart. We used to have dozens of cat toys, too, except that I threw most of them away. The cats do not like cat toys. Ivan likes to shop for cat toys, however, so we compromised, and now he buys dog toys for Woody, who lives next door and adores toys. Six months ago, Ivan happily purchased a new pink Kitchen Aid mixer with which to make pineapple-upside-down cake, although I did point out that it is not strictly necessary to have a new pink mixer before one can make pineapple-upside-down cake. Ivan said that the mixer was inspiring, however, so he bought it. He even bought some pineapple. After four months, I ate the canned pineapple. The mixer is still sitting unused on the counter.

Like I say, I don’t encourage Ivan to buy more stuff, but as it turns out I’m glad that he bought the digital camera. He gets out and about a lot more, now. Although I myself have known our neighbors all along, Ivan was afraid to talk with them till he got his new camera. Then one evening Glenn and the girls came to the front door to borrow something. Ivan ran to get his camera, and a relationship was born.

Kanyon and Rayn
Kanyon and Rayn

Now Glenn checks with me periodically as to what new stuff Ivan has. He was quite interested in the pink mixer. “That sounds nice,” he said.

“It’s nice, but we’ve never used it,” I objected.

“Does Ivan bake?” asked Raegan.

“No,” I said.

“But think how nice the mixer must look on the counter,” Glenn pointed out. Now that he and Raegan have actually met Ivan, they are great supporters of his.

“Actually, the mixer looked nicer when we had it in the middle of the living room floor,” I said. “Less cluttered.” If we’d had the digital camera back at that time, we could have taken a picture of it.

Pink mixer
Simulated Re-enactment

As soon as Bryan discovered that Ivan’s digital camera was larger, more up-to-date, and more powerful than his own, he resolved to trade in his current camera for a new one several grades better than Ivan’s. As far as I can tell, neither Bryan nor Ivan knows much about using cameras, but they know a lot about shopping for them. It is that gadget thing. Bryan also longs for a tool belt and thinks Doris should get him one. “You don’t have any tools,” she points out to him. “I would get tools,” he promises her.

When I insisted on Fred Meyer being the locale for the shopping story, Bryan assumed that it was because I had never been in any shops other than Fred Meyer’s and therefore could not write a convincing story about shopping at Macy’s or Cartier’s. Although he claimed that he had never been to Fred Meyer’s, he offered to help me fictionalize the event. “You could call it ’Indian Hunting and Gathering,’” said Bryan. “It would show me picking up a chicken in the meat aisle. ’Look, Madge, I have found us a chicken,’ it would say. Next it would show me in the vegetable aisle. ’Now I have found us some salad.’” Bryan was so busy making up stories for me to tell about him that he didn’t wait for me to explain that I already had a story about him at Fred Meyer’s. Also, he wanted me to talk about Indians cheating at golf at the Oglala golf tournament, although this is not something I could very well fit into a newsletter. In any case, I told him that I didn’t believe it. He said for me to ask Donna. “Where did Donna get her information, though?” I asked. He pretended not to know.

The reason that I wanted to tell a story about Bryan in Fred Meyer’s was not to add authentic local color to the story. It was because it really happened. Although Bryan and William do not seem to have grasped this principle, the whole point is that my newsletters tell true stories, not made-up ones. The first shop that I was ever in with Bryan was, in fact, a Fred Meyer. Bryan had come to town to see if he might want to apply for a job opening. This is not uncommon for people applying to jobs at the University of Utah, particularly scholars of color. They apply in stages. First, they meet our faculty at some neutral site, like Chicago. Then they talk with some of us on the phone. Then they come to visit. Then they come back to visit again, bringing their partners and families. Finally, they send in their applications, always reserving the right to withdraw the application at any moment. In short, they do not just throw themselves wholeheartedly into the idea of coming to Utah.

Anyway, Bryan had come to check out Salt Lake City, and he had been spending most of the day with Frank and me. No one had told us that Bryan is a shopper. It is not good to have dedicated shoppers who wonder if they are going to like Salt Lake City spend the whole day with Frank or me. Actually, Frank is more of a shopper than I am. One time he offered to give me a ride home from the office and then, on the way, he said, “Do you mind if I stop at this store to buy a new suitcase?” As long as we were going to have to go in a store anyway, I bought a small suitcase myself. I did not actually need it and have never used it, but it seemed a waste to go in a store if I was not going to buy something. This way, I reasoned, I would not have to go suitcase shopping at some later point in life.

Anyway, after a whole day with Frank and me, Bryan was getting desperate, so he said, “Can we stop at Fred Meyer’s?”

“Sure,” said Frank. “What do you need there?”

“Film,” said Bryan.

“Oh, in that case, we’ll just wait in the car,” said Frank. “The film is right by the cash register at the east door. I’ll drive straight to that door and you can run inside and we’ll wait in the car, and it’ll be over in a flash.”

“Actually,” said Bryan, “it may be a while. I only said that I needed film for an excuse. What I really need is to shop. I have to go in and see what I might need. It could be anything. I just need to look around.” He sounded a little stressed.

Frank and I looked at each other meaningfully. “We had better take him home to Donna,” we said. When we got Bryan home to Donna, he practically fell into her arms with relief. “I was so shopping-deprived that I had to trick them into taking me to Fred Meyer’s!” he complained.

“There, there, we will go to the Park City Outlet Mall tomorrow,” she told him. “Tomorrow will be a better day.”

Given his prominence in this newsletter, presumably Bryan will find it more satisfactory than the last one, albeit still far from adequate. It is not possible for me to address all the objections that are raised to my newsletters, though, particularly those that go to the very core of what the newsletters are about. For the most part, the complaints I have received regarding my newsletters have noted false representations, glaring omissions, and the overall structure of the storyline. Some complaints are more sweeping, however. One friend — I will call him “Mickey” — has objected less to any specific claims made in particular newsletters than to the whole idea of my showing other people stories about my friends and family. “I think that people would have to know your family the way that you do, to really understand these stories,” said Mickey.

Now, I am sympathetic to the view that other people may not be interested in stories about my family, although most of the other members of my family would be astonished by this idea. From their perspective, they are more or less Everyperson and their doings are therefore of general interest. What I take issue with is the notion that I myself understand my family.

My family knows that I do not understand them. Periodically, they check to see whether I am getting the gist of things. In her letters, my mother tends to address me as if I were a foreigner unaccustomed to the local idiom. Yesterday, she sent me a cryptic email ending with the words, “Can you follow all of this? Love, Mom.” In fact, I could not follow it, but when she wrote back later to explain, the explanation was just as confusing as the original letter. Defending one inscrutable reference, she told me breezily that the phrase was as normal as Chuck talking about sock monkeys, which says something right there, because I do not consider it normal at all for people to talk about sock monkeys. Trying to make other things sound normal by comparing them to the normalcy of conversations about sock monkeys falls short of persuasive.

Over the years, I have learned to play along with family conversations as if I understand them, thinking that perhaps later on they will make sense. About a month ago, I realized that this had become a habit even when I am not with my family. On the plane coming back from a conference, I was watching the movie K-Pax but not understanding a word the actors were saying because they were speaking in Spanish. I don’t speak Spanish, but it did not dawn on me for some time that I might be missing significant parts of the movie. I figured that everything would come clear in due time. About five or six minutes into the movie it finally occurred to me that perhaps I had the earphones hooked up to the wrong channel and that, on a different channel, the actors might be speaking in English. This was not my first intuition because in my family there is no separate channel. If you don’t understand the channel you are on, you are out of luck.

As I say, I will not be able to address all the complaints and charges levied against these newsletters. All I can do is continue in my scientific quest to represent reality as I know it. If Mickey knew my family and friends, he would realize that I am doing all that a person can do.


By the time that readers get to the end of this newsletter, Bryan says, they will have forgotten all about him and instead be caught up with thinking about sock monkeys and Mickey and my mother and brother, and the whole point of the story will have been lost. So I am letting him have the last word. As usual, it is yet another complaint.

Brian and Quanah


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