And As Importantly, Am I Fit To Sit On It?
Funny how the dots sometimes get connected. I posted a tweet about Marshall McLuhan on this, the 100th anniversary of his birth. A friend of mine saw that tweet on Facebook. She sent me a message saying she knew McLuhan’s son, Michael, and that she’d once sat on McLuhan’s couch at a coffee shop, in Owen Sound. “Interesting,” I thought. “Wonder if that couch’s energy made anyone who sat on it instantly smarter. Or clairvoyant.”
Couple of clicks on the internet, a phone call from my cell (on which I pressed a little button and was able to record the conversation) and I had an interview with McLuhan’s son Michael.
Twitter. Facebook. Google. Cellphone. Internet blog. Voila. The mediums are the message. (The media are the messages would be grammatically correct, but not so clever, no?)
Michael happened to be en route from the Owen Sound area, where he pursues his career as a photographer, to a Toronto event marking the anniversary of his famous father’s birth.
“Is it true,” I asked him, that one of your dad’s old couches made it’s way to a coffee shop in Owen Sound?”
“It was actually the couch out of the livingroom,” he replied, with a chuckle.
It was pretty old and beat up so I actually put it out on the curb for pick-up. I’d thought of recovering it at one time, but it was quite costly. But, the landlord of the coffee shop came by and suggested he could find a really warm and loving home for it, so that’s where it went.
I paused. I felt excited. I actually felt like I wanted to go and sit on Marshall McLuhan’s old couch and, yes, would drive to Owen Sound to do it.
“Is it still there?”
“According to my wife, it’s not there any more.”
“Aw, that’s too bad,” I replied.
“No, it was pretty old and ratty, you know? It was 50 years old. I’d put it in the basement for the kids to romp on.”
Stymied. Can’t hope to receive any magical, prophetic insights from the cushions upon which the great thinker had once sat. Obviously, that couch was much more a symbol for me than it was for Michael. “It was just a couch, you know?”
Just a couch. And I suppose Marshall was “just a dad.” More on that couch later. First, some of Michael’s insights into his father, merely one of the greatest thinkers in communications history.
McLuhan On McLuhan
Could Marshall McLuhan have envisioned Twitter?
“Absolutely. Twitter is a Marshall McLuhan phenomenon.”
When we think of McLuhan, two phrases immediately come to mind: “Global village” and “medium is the message.” At one time, they were called, or characterized, as theories or possibilities. Or even bunk, as was certainly thought by more than a handful of McLuhan’s contemporaries. For Michael, his father’s assertions never were in question.
“I’ve always seen it as a statement of fact, and not a theory. He wasn’t a futurist, by any means. He said in order to perceive the future one only has to live in the present. Problem with most people is they live in the past.”
Michael McLuhan feels some frustration surrounding the mythology of his famous father.
“There are a few things that are different from the public persona. In terms of the last couple of biographies…they’re picturing him as a more eccentric, if not nuts sort of person. He was very sane. He was very kind, very loving and very generous. He was very loyal to his friends. I think it’s wise for the world at large to go with the scholarship that’s out there, in terms of his work, and ignore a lot of the peripheral crap.”
Did the chattering naysayers bother his father?
“It was something that he was quite used to living with. Did it make him happy? No. But if his work wasn’t infuriating people, then he wasn’t doing his job.”
The conversation wound back toward the object of my obsession, the old couch. Did McLuhan allow his family to, as many of us do, perch on the old chesterfield and watch some boob tube?
“Of course he did. We watched television as a family. We gathered around the tv almost every night when I was a kid.”
Hard-hitting news, documentaries and brain food of that ilk?
“Perry Mason, Have Gun Will Travel, Car 54 Where Are You?, The Ed Sullivan Show… I don’t think there were a lot of news and documentary shows on at that time…late 50’s, early 60’s.”
Marshall McLuhan’s esteem for the visual medium (McLuhan would admonish me for that, he declared it a medium of audio and that the visual was less important) began to wane, says his son.
“By the late 60’s and early 70’s, he had a lower and lower opinion of television. He did move the TV into the basement. But all the kids had left home by then.”
Still, one can’t help but notice the possible symbolism of that move.
But wait…Back To That Couch
After my conversation with Michael, I’m not deterred. Maybe his wife is wrong. Maybe that couch is still there. So, I called The Bean Cellar, in Owen Sound, and spoke to the owner, Kay Robinson. Heartbreak. And hope.
“No, it’s not here, anymore. We had it for 3 or 4 years, but it’s gone.”
“It was a tacky, blue, floral patterned couch, in pretty rough condition. I’m sure it was wonderful in it’s day, but it was pretty worn out. “But I wanted it because of what it was, who it belonged to.”
Did she think the couch had any special karma?
“My then future daughter-in-law thought it was special. She was going to university at the time and did many assignments sitting on that couch because it made her feel inspired.”
Yes. The medium IS the message. In this case, the medium being a 50-something year old blue floral couch. Still out there. Still being honoured for what it is and for the man and family it once belonged to. Because Kay told me she didn’t trash that couch.
However, she can’t remember who got it. Just that it was someone who wanted it, like her, because of what it is and who it belonged to.
Somewhere in this great global village, Marshall McLuhan’s old family couch lives on. But where? Can the social media that he predicted, and exists today, help me find it? Tweet me. Facebook me. Email me. Get me on LinkedIn…. You know what?
We should dispense with all those “verbs.” Whenever we want someone to contact us, we should simply say “McLuhan me.”
Because the man knew the message.