Monday, September 12, 2011

Andy Whitfield and My Primacy Effect

Today, the bit of entertainment news that I've been dreading for a year: Andy Whitfield, star of the series Spartacus, died yesterday. He was 39, he died of non-Hodgkins lymphoma, and damn, he was one of the few men on screen to really light my fire.

Sure, as Spartacus he was not just chiseled but principled; but I now know that for me, what really got me going was that Andy Whitfield -- specifically the two-and-a-half to three inches of his face including and framing his ever-so-slightly hooded, wideset grey blue eyes, his unmanscaped brows -- triggered in me was what's known among social psychologists as "the primacy effect." Just that slice of Andy Whitfield's face reminded me of the first man I ever loved and was loved by, of the first time in my life where passion and safety co-existed.

When I see an image of Andy Whitfield, I see someone else, I am somewhere else: on Ocean Beach together at dusk marveling over the miracle of falling in love, waiting for him to roll up his sleeve as he did every time he held my hand, the way he carefully wiped his shoes on the doormat. Time travel in the face of a stranger, if for an instant.

Thank the primacy effect for how vividly you remember your first kiss, your first heartbreak, your first sighting of your college roommate's shoes, your first taste of beer. First experiences sear our brains unlike any subsequent ones -- the intensity of the emotion and the novelty form "flashbulb memories" that will light our way until our deathbeds.

Strangely, I had a dream about this man from my past last night, probably just hours after Andy Whitfield -- let's face it, a stranger -- died, but many hours before I read that he had died. And it was a sad dream -- one in which I felt helpless, worried, and nostalgic.

I'm no mystic, but I wonder what to do with that sliver of coincidence, if one can even call it that. It's as if a perfect stranger, on his way to the great beyond, stopped by to say, "This is the last dream." This particular primacy effect of mine, the trigger linking one face to another's, a TV screen to some of the most meaningful moments of my life -- will now forever be overlaid with sadness that such a talented stranger, who by all accounts was a lovely person as well, died too young.

Goodbye, Andy Whitfield.

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