Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Eruptions from the Past

My sister would have been fifty-five years old, today. It's as difficult to imagine her being fifty-five as it is to imagine John Lennon being seventy. The good die young, / And those whose hearts are dry as summer dust / Burn to the socket. (If anyone should know, it's you, Mr Wordsworth!)

I grope hesitantly towards a new life. Or more precisely, maybe, I grope towards an old life that I never really lived.

Strange eruptions from the past. People prate about the evils of Facebook, its transcience and inanity – as if all this doodling were not transient and inane – but its real powers are just beginning to reveal themselves, and – to confound all of our knavish tricks – they turn out to be historical powers. The dead past isn't dead, Faulkner insisted; it isn't even past. And nothing proves it like old friends from high school or college surfacing, and tagging you with pictures.

My friends Norman and Marcel, from my hippie free school, had started up a design studio in Seattle. I visited them, and here is a polaroid picture of me examining a polaroid picture there. (Ask your grandparents what a polaroid picture is.)

Notice the luxuriant hair and scanty beard: now the hair is scanty and the beard is – well, at least respectable. That was my favorite shirt. A strange pale green, a color without a common name. A knit turtleneck. I always shoved the sleeves up over my elbow. I imagined, at the time, that it gave me a raffish yet practical look. You roll up your sleeves to drop your pretensions and get to work, right? But to me, this photo is all about pretension. I was in awe of Norman and Marcel. I knew that they understood the world of visual art in a way that I never would. They had passionate responses to design that I never understood, or rather, understood just enough to know that my eye settled for the hackneyed and conventional, while they were stirred to go beyond that to things more complex and more important. No doubt I had been looking at graphic designs all day and pretending to be able appreciate what I was seeing. I was out of my depth, bewildered by the big city and my sophisticated friends: I was just a yokel from Springfield, after all. I longed for the glamour of Seattle, but I knew I wasn't really up to it. I couldn't hold my liquor, I got confused by dark bars with pointy lights that lit nothing up, and I got maybe a third of their jokes, though of course I laughed at all of them. I pretended to be a writer, because that's almost cool like an artist, so long as nobody reads the grandiloquent, hectoring opening chapters of your plotless and unfinishable fantasy novels, and of course there was small danger of that.

So little, so little has changed: I still long to be one of the cool kids, and I still never will be, and I still will cultivate anything but my own garden.

Maybe it's not too late, though. Maybe all this fuss is to some purpose. And I find sometimes, to my surprise, that some of the people from my past remember me with affection, rather than contempt. I walk through dim hallways of memory, searching for doors, searching for clues about how I should have lived my life, how I should live my life now. I think I have to treat that awkward young man more gently, soothe his touchy pride, and coax the real stories from him, the stories he was always too ashamed to tell.

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