Not Quite Nostalgia (new essay)

Probably the most personal thing I’ll publish for a very long time, written a few years ago:

To save a few dozens charges at iTunes, I’ve begun requesting CDs from the library so I can copy songs from my adolescence that I’ve lost track of over the last twenty years. I brought one home the other week, texting and joking with my wife about the Rock and Roll Music Sound Disc I’d picked up, and asking if we still had anything that would play something so quaint.

One was from the early nineties, the Toadies’s Rubberneck, which came out when I was fourteen or fifteen, and included the song “Possum Kingdom,” the song that I wanted to copy. When I got home I looked at the booklet that came with the CD, and there on the back was a picture of the band, the kids looking barely out of high school, and my wife noticed they thanked their moms in the liner notes. And it struck me that, if the music had been recorded in the early nineties, the band probably had formed a few years before, and so the music itself was borne of the band members’ own childhoods in the eighties.

This feeling of perceiving layers of time simultaneously fills me so much, and always has. It’s not quite nostalgia, and often music is enough to evoke it. You can do it with any band, but I’ve seen pictures of a young Eddie Vedder, surfing down in San Diego or somewhere else only years or months before he joined Pearl Jam, and I backdate his later nonchalance and disdain for fame onto these photos, so that they actually foretell his entire career, these images of a surfer who wants to become anonymous out on the water. And while I’ve never cared one way or another about the Red Hot Chili Peppers, I remember seeing a book about them in Borders ages ago (a statement that is itself drenched in memory and time), and inside it was a picture of the band when they were all young, standing up against some brick wall in L.A. The caption identified a woman in the picture as someone who died shortly after, a woman that the band always mourned, some kind of muse who never got to see them famous.

All of these images and moments conjure the same feeling, and it’s the same feeling that I’m sure Beethoven is expressing in his A minor string quartet, a piece of music I can listen to on repeat for days:

It isn’t quite nostalgia, though, because the feeling also reappears while watching a BBC2 documentary series, The Detectives, which follows the awful ups and downs of sex crime investigators in Manchester. At one point in the show, a minor celebrity from the seventies is about to be arrested for a string of rapes of underage girls, girls who are now in their forties and fifties. Many of his victims recall his apartment back then, and how around one of his doorways they used to scribble their names and phone numbers, or leave cute messages for him. When investigators go to the old flat and begin steaming and scraping away the wallpaper from around that door, you suddenly begin to see these scrawled names, and then the numbers and messages from thirty and more years ago.

Just at this moment there’s a music cue, and sudden strings narrate the camera’s movement over all the names and numbers. It hovers over one message, Cath woz here 29/9/75, and cuts to that woman today, a brief shot of a Cathy working in her garden:

She was one of the victims the show had already introduced, and so the viewer knows how she was abused, and how young she was, and how all of this has affected her life. And just seeing the juxtaposition of her naïve and unknowing teenage scrawl with the shot of her as an older, but still open wound—the same feeling comes over me again.

So no, there’s nothing nostalgic about that, nothing wistful anybody would look back on and wish they could recapture. Yet like the other moments that I mention, I almost always lose it when I watch this clip. It is one of the most astonishing thirty seconds I have ever seen. But why? I think because it is an utterly clear moment which balances the present with the past—or rather, it balances the present with the knowledge of the past. In this case, that balance is between past misfortune and the hopefulness of youth, with a present day middle-age, and and long-lingering pain. But as with the Toadies, this moment of apprehension could also have nothing at all to do with regret or pain, and just be one of those When They Were Young moments. It’s a kind of premonition, suddenly seeing the past but also knowing the arc of the future that’s to come. It is, in the corniest sense—but also the most serious sense, for those victims of rape—a way of thinking, If only I had known.

T. S. Eliot, whose Four Quartets has felt like a part of my own personal scripture since I found it as a teenager, admitted listening to Beethoven’s Late String Quartets while writing the Quartets, and I don’t think it’s a mistake that I’ve come to rely on both. Eliot’s Quartets are saturated in ruminations on the experience of time and memory, and I’m sure I latched on to Eliot because I found that he had articulated something I had been feeling myself, but which as a teenager I could not articulate. One passage from Little Gidding says:

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.  

And here Eliot says it much better than I did above: that sense of balancing the ignorance of the past with the knowledge of present; but also the power of reimagining the past with new knowledge and new meaning; but also the feeling that, to use William Faulkner’s words—and whether for victims of crime, or just of someone looking at old photos—“The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” I have written elsewhere about this perception, and even there I couldn’t help quoting Eliot:

Patrick Leigh Fermor, in his memoir of walking from Holland to Constantinople in the 1930s, writes at the opening of his journey about visiting a local Dutch church, and then laments his quick departure from town: “Except for this church, the beautiful city was to be bombed to fragments a few years later. I would have lingered, had I known.” Indeed, the greatest meaning comes not in what we apprehend, but in those same moments later taken for misapprehension. Throughout life there is the narrative of what we think is happening, all while underneath it is the accumulation of memory and its impact upon a future moment, which will reveal what was “really” happening.

So that there is no way of knowing, even if we do linger; the knowing can only come later, the knowledge can only come when we realize that, as T. S. Eliot said, “We had the experience but missed the meaning.”

The school

When I try to discover where and when and why I first started thinking this way about memory and the past, I realize that the question itself is an expression of that feeling: it is a search for origins, a search for reverberation and continuity, as if one’s life actually were a coherent narrative. And of course I can suggest an origin if I want to: it was when my family moved from the Ohio city I was born in, Euclid, to another one almost forty miles away, Geneva. This was because of my dad changing jobs, and there was a good year or so when I knew the move was likely to happen, and another year or so when it became real, when we began driving to this new town and looking at houses.

We finally did move when I was in the sixth grade, during the fall of that year. My mom was a teacher at my gradeschool, and since she didn’t want to find another job despite the move, I saw no reason to stop going there either. My brother, a year older than me, felt the same way, so that the three of us drove forty miles to school each morning, and forty miles back at night. While I tried to keep up old friendships, and sometimes would have sleepovers and spend weekends at someone’s house, pretty soon it was clear to me that I no longer belonged quite as I once did. One time in the seventh grade, when I was joking around and delaying the moment when our teacher would let us go for the day, one of my friends snapped and said something about how he actually had things to do, that he wasn’t just going to be hanging around the school for a few hours before he could go home, like I was.

The woods

I’ve never been one to take criticism very well; I don’t know how other kids grow up with nearly constant verbal abuse from their parents, and so hearing these words from a friend pretty well destroyed me. It hurt even more because I knew it was true, and when school let out I went and hid in the boys bathroom. Perhaps I cried, but I just remember staring at the floor. I had to deal with the fact that by staying in that school, not only was I was delaying the moment where I might call Geneva home, it was also becoming obvious that Euclid was no longer home either. Combine this with my refusal to make friends in Geneva, and how I quickly took up reading from the sixth grade onward (and writing the year after), and it should come as no surprise that from then on I began to look back on my early childhood in ways someone twice my age might. In lieu of a real home, that backward glance was where I found refuge.

Robert McCammon » Robert R. McCammon's BOY'S LIFEI also became attached to books and music and movies about childhood—like Stephen King’s The Body (and the movie version, Stand by Me), Robert R. McCammon’s Boy’s Life or Dan Simmons’s Summer of Night, The Beatles’s “Mother Nature’s Son,” or the movie The Sandlot—even as, strangely enough, many of these stories were actually about kids my own age, not the age I had been before we moved. And as it happened, I could see my old house from my gradeschool parkinglot, and between them was the patch of woods I had played in for so many years. This fact had once been a happy accident, but now became an unfortunate one, so that my return to school each day immediately created and reinforced this bizarre perception of the past and the present existing atop each other, simultaneously: I had a huge wellspring of memories associated with these places, but those times were gone even as those places were still there.  

Alongside my early attempts at short stories, in high school I also began to write about my childhood and turn it into fiction, and in some way to relive it. And this was similar to how I began writing a few years earlier: back in Euclid my brother and our friends down the street had begun following around a supposedly strange family who lived nearby. We made up stories about them, and made prank calls to their house. After we moved, my brother and I sent cassette tapes back and forth to our friends, now narrating and telling more stories about these people, who very quickly became evil, or had supernatural powers, and who meant to do us great harm. These stories are where I started writing, and it’s no surprise, I don’t think, that writing has always seemed to be performative somehow for me: that’s how it began, after all, recording what were essentially scripts and trying badly to make up voices for each of the characters.

Then, over the summer between my sophomore and junior year in high school, I drove back with my mom to Euclid so she could get something done at the school. This may have been in the week or so before the new school year began, when she was preparing the room for another year of second graders.

I tagged along because I was writing a small novel about an old man’s body, found dead in the woods behind his house after the Fourth of July, and the police investigation into his death. The backyards and the woods that I imagined (and indeed the fireworks display the story opened with) were modeled the ones I had grown up with each year in Euclid. Leaving my mom at the school, then, I walked through those old woods where I had spent so much time, and back where I had placed my fictional man’s body, I found a mess of broken beer bottles and other trash. Some of it was useful, and I still have a bag of it, including a pack of muddy playing cards; but the sense I got from that walk through the woods was that it was no longer mine. Other kids had broken these bottles here, or scattered this trash. The woods also appeared much smaller than I remembered it being as a child, and it even seemed less dense, as if many of the trees had been chopped down.

The Story of Psychology | Morton HUNT | First EditionAfter this I walked to mile or so to the Euclid Public Library, where I took out a book on two subjects I then wanted to devour: psychology, and the Tarot. I don’t think I read either book, but what I also did while I there was look through the microfiche machines at the obituaries for the few years before we moved. One of the members of that family which my brother and our friends had made the main characters of our personal mythology had supposedly died while we were still living in Euclid, and now some five years later I wanted to see if it was true.

When I found his obituary, that feeling of not quite nostalgia me again. While this man probably hadn’t died in any of the lurid ways in which we had since imagined (my contributions to these early stories had me borrowing freely from The Omen movies), he had still been someone’s brother and son, and he had died when I was ten or eleven, even as he still lived a weirdly fictional life in my own and others’ minds. Walking back to the gradeschool from the library, I passed up the bus-stop where we used to ride our bikes and scream in the faces of anyone waiting there for a bus; but this time, and since the bus-stop was in front of the high school, I was the one who got harassed. There were three or four kids on bikes; I don’t remember much about them except that their energy felt threatening, and I must have just turned towards them, because one of them asked me what the hell I was looking at. Combined with finding the obituary, and the evidence of other lives in the old woods, I suddenly found that I could safely, if belatedly, no longer call Euclid a place I recognized. Geneva was my home, and whatever of Euclid that remained would only live on remade in my stories.

By the end of the next summer, I had my drivers license. My mom always reminds me that I wasn’t that enthused to get it, and indeed I got it almost a year after I was able to. This has always surprised me, since from that moment on I’ve taken so much solace and meaning from the act driving, from the road, from travel, and I wonder if some of the miseries of adolescence would have been alleviated if I’d gotten my license as soon as possible.

Of course, the first place I took a long drive to on my own was to my old grade-school, and to the old house in Euclid. I then drove to the Mentor Mall nearby, and bought a new pair of tennis shoes at Footlocker, and a few CDs. One of these was Bush’s Sixteen Stone—which is one of those CDs I’ve begun getting out of my library lately; and one of the most vivid memories I have—from that summer or any time at all—is driving home from Euclid and Mentor, and stopping at a McDonald’s somewhere. I went through the drive-thru and parked along the side, listening to the Bush CD through the portable CD player that was plugged into the car via one of those cassette tape converters. I tried on my new shoes, I probably ate some chicken nuggets; it was an early July or August evening probably, the sky was getting dim and red, but still hazy and humid. I don’t remember if the AC worked in the car or not.

Either on that drive or another shortly after, I found talk radio and call-in shows on the car stereo. I already had a love for late-night talk-radio, borne at first by the ear infections that used to keep me up at night. The ability to hear other voices talking while I was struggling to sleep quickly became a necessity; and now, when this comfort could also be found in a darkened car at night driving by myself on the freeway, it struck me with the force of revelation. I started writing poetry soon after, and those first poems were all about solitary driving, and the long road. Listening to that Bush CD now, there isn’t much I care for except for the song “Glycerine,” which of course is the one with the refrain, “Don’t let the days go by.”

And yet, maybe even narrative, this origin story, is too thin to stand up. I do wonder if the source of this strange emotion and attachment I’ve given to time and memory is even older than the moment I moved from Euclid to Geneva. It seems almost too convenient that, just at the moment when I had enough of a past to reflect on—and just at the moment when the ability to reflect on it became a conscious one—I took the opportunity and ran with it. After all, I grew up in a house filled with books, and have written many times about sitting alone in the attic in Euclid and paging through The Timetables of History, comprehending hardly anything but the hugeness of the past presented in a marvelous and unending grid of dates and events.

The entrance to King Tutankhamun tomb before British archaeologist ...There were also other books, too, one about Howard Carter’s excavation of the Tutankhamun’s tomb in the early 1920s, and one of the photos included in the book was of the entrance to the final burial chamber, and how it was still secured with a fastening of rope more than three thousand years old. Or there was John Toland’s biography of Hitler, and the photo of the future Führer as a baby. While I was equally ignorant of just what Egypt and Hitler were, and what they meant, there was still a sense, even in my youngest self, of the awe, that these pictures produced. Whether that a knot could hold a door closed for so long, or that you could have photos of a person charting their entire life, or just in realizing that a horrible person had once just been a baby, and here was a picture of that baby—these thoughts also struck me with the power of revelation.

It could have begun there; but it may have begun, actually, with sports. Always a fan of baseball—a sport I played until my junior year in high school—I began collecting baseball cards around the age eight or nine. Very soon, my brother and our friends were making frequent visits to a local baseball card and comic book shop, and I always went looking at the oldest and most expensive cards that were kept in their own protective sleeves, and under glass. I became aware of the most valuable baseball card of all, the 1909 Honus Wagner, which by the late 1980s was already worth $500,000. These earliest baseball cards are more properly called tobacco cards—at 1.5×2.5”, they fit easily into a pack of cigarettes, and the Wagner card became so valuable because he didn’t want to encourage kids to smoke, and requested that his cards no longer be produced. Honus Wagner was famous enough that he could make such a request, so that those cards that had already been made immediately become sought-after rarities.  

BenderBut it turned out it wasn’t the Honus Wagner card I wanted anyway; it was really just the past. Because when our family went to the only baseball card show I can remember going to, I was able to afford a 1909 card for a player named Bender, who played for the old Philadelphia Athletics. The card is scuffed at the bottom, so that until Wikipedia existed I always thought his name was Pender, not being able to see the bottom of the B. It turns out that nowadays you can find out an awful lot about the career of a player known to history at Chief Bender, a man who was born on an Ojibwe reservation in Minnesota. But none of this was known to me back then except his picture on the front, and the message on the back which told me that Piedmont was “The Cigarette of Quality.” I still remember finding the card and buying it, and looking at it constantly, for years, and sometimes even taking it out of its protective sleeve.

The idea that I was holding something from 1909 was completely enthralling, and I still carry it with me everywhere, in my wallet. And when my young daughter got a hold of that wallet, I realized that while I was indifferent to her throwing around my license and credit cards and receipts, I took Bender’s card back from her immediately. Its effect on me is still the same. And knowing that I can push that emotion and that perception of history and memory and the past back at least to the age of nine, I’m sure that if I thought about it I could think of an earlier moment. There has to be an earlier moment. There always is.