I dug out my old passport, circa 1980, a few days ago. The photo showed a strapping clean-shaven blond youth with large blunt scandinavian features, my hair in a ponytail, a cheerful, eager-to-please smile on my face. I was startled to see that I still signed my name in cursive then -- a jerky back-and-forth scrawl with a few awkward swoops. Not long after that I took to signing my name, as I still do, in flowing printed capitals. The whole thing used to be legible. Nowadays there's just "DALE A. ~~~~~~~~" -- it tails off into a wavy line. I signed my county taxes that way, this morning.
I lingered over the picture. I was not happy then. It was in fact one of the low points of my life. I was grinding out an uninspired novel by sheer will power, well-intentioned people having assured me that real writers just crank away regardless of inspiration. I knew what I was writing was worthless, but my ego was clamped desperately onto Being a Writer. It was a miserable time. So why did I look at the picture with nostalgia? I'm much happier now.
Nostalgia is a queer emotion, a collection of emotions really, I guess. There's always dramatic irony in looking at old photographs. I know how the story's going to turn out, but that pony-tailed young man doesn't. I catch the backwash of his anxious hope. The one thing I could tell him that would really appall him, is that I won't be much different in twenty-five years. I'll still be fretting mostly about the same things -- trying to figure out if there's a place for me in the world, falling in love with unattainable people, imagining utopias, squandering time on compulsive pattern-filling. I could tell him that the only thing he's begun that will really have any lasting impact on anyone is his relationship with Martha. I don't think he'd want to hear any of those things. And then of course there's the premonition that twenty-five years from now, I may be pausing again over a twenty-five-year-old passport. The dramatic irony doesn't stop here.