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three brothers 1978Some years ago, I began writing an autobiography. Don’t worry, you’ll never have to read it.

I didn’t begin it with any thought of publication. I may have worked at a zoo and lived in a coal bin, but my life is not so interesting or important that anyone else should be forced to know about it.

It began with a deal with my two brothers: I’ll write my life if you’ll write yours.

I realized that I didn’t know the details of their lives. We’ve always been close enough that I’ve known the basic direction of their lives, but from the point I left for college 40 years ago, the details became fuzzy. And it is the details that add up to create a personality.

So, I tasked them to write down the major points of their lives so we might better know each other: who their girlfriends were, what jobs they had, what books were important to them.

In the process, I thought, we might also get a different point of view on the shared episodes of our lives in childhood. Perhaps what I thought of as roughhousing, my younger brothers might have thought of as terrorism. Perhaps an uncle I thought hilarious, they might have found tedious.

But writing it has been one of the most engrossing tasks I have ever set myself.

I realize now, too, that this task really began when I visited my aging parents and began asking them all those questions that too many people ask only after their parents are dead. I recorded their recollections on my laptop and wrote up a piece of oral history to send to my brothers. It included family trees for both sides of the family, memories my mother had of her childhood and that my father had of World War II in Europe.Boys April 1956

It was a revelation: Relatives that had been vaporous ghosts in my own memory were brought back to life and their interrelationships made clear.

I came to know my parents much better and began to admire things in them that had been previously obscured by what I had taken to be their faults.

Perhaps, I reasoned, this same sort of thing could be undertaken amongst us brothers.

“Something like 20 pages,” I told them, “It shouldn’t be too hard.”

Neither of my brothers is a writer by trade, as I am. I didn’t want to make it too daunting for them.

But when I began writing my own version, I found that 20 pages was a mere sneeze.

I have now written about 250 pages and haven’t even gotten to the moment when I met my wife. The first 50 pages only get me through high school.

It turns out that writing one’s memoirs is an endless unfolding of  memory. Each tiny recollection is a door that opens into rooms with more doors. And each of these doors open on yet more. A memory, it turns out, is only an iceberg’s tip. Perhaps you recall a family picnic, but as you write about it, you discover you remember the way your mother made a certain sandwich, which connects, more surely than any internet link, with the larger issues of her cooking and the part food played in our family dynamics.Jack in Fla

We are each one of us a Proust waiting to unlock our own brains.

It is astonishing what is buried in the synapses, unused for decades, but still there for downloading.

The other lesson of writing an autobiography is to see the shape of one’s life unfold: What had seemed a jumble of unrelated episodes takes a narrative form and you discover that what you did as a 5-year-old flows with the certainty of a great river into what you do as a 50-year-old. It is all of a piece; the child is indeed father to the man.

It has been a while since I continued writing it: My brothers never took up the challenge. Now, one of them has died; I’ll never learn about his life. The other brother has more important things to do than write his autobiography. My version sits in my harddrive, worked over and rewritten several times, unread by anyone but me. The fervor for self-expression has died down like last week’s campfire.

One of the things that has dampened my enthusiasm is that as I’ve gotten to be an old man, I recognize how useless it is for anyone else to know about my life. It is one of the futilities of age that you recognize how much you have learned over six decades of life, and how little it helps the younger generation, who are feverishly intent on committing all the same mistakes you made, and are deaf to any guidance you may offer. This should be no surprise: I didn’t listen to my elders when I was young.

Perhaps one day, my granddaughters will want to read about their grandfather. I certainly wish I could have talked to mine, to find out more about the long line of people that led up to my entrance on the stage. But when I was young, I had better things to do. It wasn’t until after my grandfathers were both long dead that the wish came upon me to have asked them important questions only they could have answered.Craig in Fla 2

So, for whom am I writing these notes? Clearly, for myself. One doesn’t start an autobiography for the benefit of readers, but for the benefit of oneself, to find and delineate the patterns found in the weave, to discover or create the plot that conveys meaning to the life lived. We have a sense of ourselves not merely through our five senses, but through the remembered narrative we have created of our transport through this single, unexpectedly short lifetime. Pulling the memories out of the doors behind doors behind doors of our synapses gives us the matter for this novel we are writing by getting up each morning.

So, my autobiography is unfinished; it may remain so. I learned what I needed by the doing — I sifted through the first 35 years of my life to find the turns and bends that led me to this now. The subsequent 33 years have taken their own shape through the living. The only person I would wish to share them with has no need of my notes: She lived those years with me.

I would, though, love to read her version of those years. Perhaps I will attempt to persuade her to write her autobiography. It would be enlightening to compare notes.

Mrs Semendinger's second grade 2
I recently came across a photograph of my second grade class and something odd happened.

I hadn’t thought of these young faces in more than 50 years. Yet, as I looked into their faces, their names popped into my brain. Where those names and faces had been stored, I have no idea: some forgotten warehouse in my mind, like the scene at the end of “Lost Raiders.” These were faces from nearly 60 years ago, and in their fresh-faced innocence, they barely show the traces that would line them even in their eighth grade graduation photo. 8th grade class 1961

I left behind my life in New Jersey four years after that second photo, going off to college and what seemed to me to be “real life.” I wanted to forget New Jersey — more exactly the banality I saw in the suburban stultification of my home state — and dive into the deep end of art, music and poetry.

But now, a half-century later, I saw the faces in that picture and names I have not uttered in 50 years reappeared magically, jogged out of the synapses of my brain like dust between the floorboards.

What connects, ourobouros-like, our lives now with our lives then? The disconnect seems immense: There is so little of then that survives into my now; yet, the person — the sensibility I am — is a continuous existence, a line drawn without the pencil once being lifted off the page.

There is a danger, when looking back, to fall into the miasma of nostalgia. You see it all over the internet: “Share if you remember when the milkman delivered milk to your door?” and “Remember when cars had running boards?” Rotary phones? Party lines? As the American population has aged, PBS stations ask for money to a soundtrack no longer of septuagenarians playing Glenn Miller standards, but now to septuagenarians singing doo-wop music and recalling, with a wistful gaze on their faces “the music of our times,” as if this shared experience created an us-vs.-them world in which we remain the good guys, who really knew the score, and they are the johnny-come-latelies who have ruined it all. Patti Page

So, it is easy to make fun of the elderly, watching reruns of Lawrence Welk and wishing music still had melody, like the tunes of Patti Page and Perry Como. Or the Beatles and Barry Manilow. Or, sometime in the future, of Nirvana and Coldplay.

Nostalgia is a trap we should avoid. The past was not better than the present; it was different. I, for one, would not wish to retreat to a time when segregation was enforced by police, when women had to wear girdles, and when everyone, everywhere, at every hour of the day, sucked cigarettes.

What interests me in that second-grade photograph is not a warm, fuzzy nostalgia, but a hard, difficult and confusing problem: How much of that is me, is still me? How complete is the link between that little boy and this old, bearded senex? What is the mechanism of selfhood? How come a flash glance at an old picture can fire off a neuron after a half century and cough up the name of a Linda Muth or a Lenny D’Angelo. Why do those names persist in the neurobiology of a 67-year-old writer, who has left them all behind? And what else is buried under a lifetime of experience, ready to be excavated by a chance trigger?

A few years ago, my wife and I were visiting her hometown in North Carolina. We stopped at a gas station to refill the car and she got out to go into the quickie-mart. Inside, while standing at the cash register, a voice called out behind her, “Carole Steele, do you remember me?” She turned around and saw an old man, cue-ball hairless, nearly toothless, with a vast beer belly and dressed in denim overalls — clearly an old farmer. “Thomas Bullins,” she said, in instant recognition. “What happened to your red hair and your freckles? And how did you recognize me?” Carole was now 70 years old. “Your hair,” he said. When they were in the first grade, little Tommy Bullins used to steal the ribbons from Carole’s pigtails.

He smiled that toothless smile, and Carole reached up and kissed him on the mouth. Some vast and unnamed chasm had been spanned in an instant.

What traces of the six-year-old Tommy Bullins remained on the wrinkled, pudgy, puffy, weathered face that Carole could see so immediately? “There is an X on the faces of all the Bullinses,” she says, “that I saw in the gas station.” Not an actual X, but a lineup of features that suggested an X there, that signaled that this was Tom Bullins.

I don’t know the mechanism for memory. I’m not sure anyone does. But I know its persistence, and I know that somehow that persistence is necessary for the development of a self — that sense that the boy is truly father to the man, that the me in New Jersey 60 years ago is the same me in the mountains of North Carolina now, despite all the midden of experience that has piled on in the intervening years. Would my mother recognize the little boy in me now? I know that Carole recognizes the little girl in her 50-year-old daughter; in fact, she hardly recognizes that Susie is all grown up.

We push through time like snow plows, leaving a cleared path behind us. That wake is our selfhood. Longfellow School Teaneck back

Through Facebook, I recently reconnected with a boy (now man) I first met in kindergarten at the Henry Wadsworth Longfellow Elementary School in Teaneck, N.J. He now lives on the other side of the continent. When my family moved from Teaneck to Old Tappan and I began the second grade at Charles De Wolf Elementary School in Old Tappan, he was there, too, his family having also moved. This makes him the person outside of family that I have known the longest.

The contact brought up a welter of memory, of playing in a rhythm band in kindergarten, of taking those daily naps on the classroom floor, of seeing him and other classmates singing “Sailing, sailing, over the bounding main,” and of walking every day — at five years old — the half mile from home to school, and later, walking back. The entire geography of my tiny life was back before me: the A&P I passed on the way, the firehouse on Morningside Drive, the ballfield outside Longfellow school, the deli, the stationery store, the old grocery with its sawdust floor, the Italian pushcart merchant that wandered up Farrant Terrace calling out his wares, the two collies that lived down the street that scared my younger brother, who thought they were lions — the inside of the closet in my home, with its lathe-and-plaster walls. A whole world wells up. Where has it been sitting? Why is it all buried in there?

A few years ago, I began an autobiography, not for publication, but to share with my brothers in a group project: They would write theirs, too, and we would get to know each other better — what they had done after leaving home for college, and we lost daily contact.

The thing that most astonished me about the writing was that every memory I retrieved was a room with three other doors, and behind each of those doors was another room with three more doors, on and on, like some Borges story. I was dumbfounded at the amount of information that was still there to be recovered. Many were not anecdotal stories, but rather, sense memories, bits of things and locations that fell back into place when recalled.

It must be the same for everyone. I know that when I ask my wife to tell me about her childhood, she can go on for an hour and we have to stop, but the next day, we can start again and there is an endless stream, an bottomless well of material. In her case, it sounds all like a Faulkner novel and I have tried to write it all down. A fool’s errand: There can be no “all,” because it never seems to end. I write it into my laptop as fast as she can speak it, but I’ll never have the time to go back and edit the notes, because the next time, there are all-new stories, and another cast of characters.

I want to save as much as possible, not for publication, but for the sake of our grandchildren, so they can have some sense of their grandmother. If her stories can become part of their memories, then their interior lives can retreat five generations, back to Carole’s grandparents, who were so central to her life.

In the end, this has given me a powerful sense of the onflow of life, of the piling on of detail, of the continuity, not merely of selfhood, but of family, of history: a line that Carole calls “the long man,” which reaches back past Eve and Adam, past Homo habilis, back to our reptilian life, back to our eukaryotid beginnings, all a wholeness. Ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny. The author, age 20 months

I see the scrubbed face of my old picture, holding my favorite ball, and I see myself now, aged and worn, and there is an odd reversal: The baby photograph is now six decades old and the ancient me is brand new. And in some inexplicable way, they are the same.

 
 
 
 


RW ca 1975Although almost everything I write is in some way about myself — I call it all “Nilsenology,” after all, very little is overtly autobiographical. I am by nature rather private. But there was a moment in my life when I realized I could be private by being completely open: that if I put it all out there, it would be possible for me to be left alone, no one would have to pry.

This came after several personal catastrophes in the 1970s, a year of fleeing to Seattle and then returning, tail between my legs, to North Carolina. I was basically homeless, no job, no ambition, no career, no future. My friends Alexander and Mary Lou had offered me a room in their house in Summerfield, about 10 miles north of Greensboro, N.C., and gave me a year and a half to recover. My life is in debt to their generosity. Aside from cooking and maintenance — part of the agreement — mostly what I did was write letters, rather like Moses Herzog, going through his own crises. In a single month — March of 1980, I wrote 500 pages of letters on my aqua-colored plastic portable typewriter, using a tree stump as a desk by the barn out back of the house. I am including one of those letters here. 

It was during this time I became a writer. Alexander in Summerfield NC

Alexander in Summerfield

In the first year I spent back in North Carolina, I worked for Manpower a total of six days; I substitute taught at a school for juvenile delinquents a total of about 15 days; I worked at The Carolina Peacemaker, the black weekly newspaper in Greensboro, for two stretches of three weeks each; I shot two freelance photo jobs. The money from that, from my income tax refund and $600 I made selling my Hasselblad camera is everything I earned and lived on, November 1979 to November 1980.

Alexander had given me his old Ford Falcon. It was a dark blue bomb, with no heat, no windshield wipers and a hole in the floor under the driver that let you see the road flash by under the chassis. When I had some money, I could fill it with gas and try to find some extra work.

But I really never had any money. I managed to live for a month on $20 and use the change for the following month. There were those few Manpower stints — one working in an electronics hardware factory was as close to Dante’s hell as I ever hope to know: My job for 8-hours a day was to collect the vacuum-molded plastic sprues from the individual machines and carry them back to a jet-engine-noisy room where I dumped them handful by handful into a grinding machine that chewed them back into pellets that could be reused in the molding machines.

I enjoyed my retreat from society; I enjoyed it too much. But I wrote so often for that year and a half that, although almost nothing was published (and what was published was only bits and pieces for the black newspapers), I reckon the beginning of my existence as a writer from that time. 

I took a perverse pleasure in my poverty, I got down to my lowest point: a point that remains one of the cruxes of my life, the node or nodule of meaning around which I build a sense of my selfhood. I had no job, no prospect, old ragged clothes, a jalopy but no money for gasoline. It was icy cold, December, no heat in my room. I had exactly two nickels and three pennies to my name; nothing more was coming. 

A few times, my poverty grinded me into pellets, too. In December, 1980, I wrote this letter:

When I read about the poverty in Dickens or in a monster Russian novel — read about stealing an overcoat or sleeping in an icy room with no heat — I respond out of recognition. C’est moi.

Take for instance, last Wednesday. I got up early, watching my breath condense before me and feeling my lungs disabused by the frigid air. I planned to drive downtown on the last gallon of gas in the car. It would not be enough gas to get me back from downtown. I was going to stop at the Plasma Center and donate — sell — my blood. My conscience bothered me terribly, but I could see no other way out. I had borrowed money from friends and I never liked the feeling, and my friends, Alexander and Mary Lou — my “family” — were so short of money themselves that they were borrowing off their credit card.

So I got in my car and headed for town. The car has no heater, so the half-hour’s drive to Greensboro was as bad as trying to get out of bed in the morning into air cold enough to preserve a mastodon. In town, I kept trying to put off going to the Plasma Center, first by going up to my old office at the Peacemaker, and then by seeing my old boss at the camera store, where I had worked in the early ’70s.Peacemaker

At the newspaper, I found them late for press because the typesetting machine was busted. I fixed it for them, saving them a $75 IBM service call, but when Rosie, the editor, asked me to stay and help proofread, I said I had another appointment.

So I went to see Bill Stanley at the photo shop. His face lit up when he saw me. “Well, look what the shit drugged in,” he said. “So, how’s it going Richie? You still living out in Summerstone? Didja have a good vacation?” A wry smile tortured his face as he explained to his current helper, “Richie here has been on vacation for … How many years is it now?”

The helper  sat passively, probably thinking if I was any friend of Stanley’s, he’d better stay out of it.

“Hey, you want some lunch?”, asked Stanley.

“I’m afraid I don’t have any money.”

“Shit, I didn’t ask you if you had any money. Listen to what I say, willya. I asked if you wanted lunch.”

“I’d love some.”

“That’s more like it.”

I was hungry as a dung beetle. I hadn’t eaten any breakfast since there was nothing in the house, and I couldn’t afford to stop at Dunkin’ Donuts for coffee and a cruller. So we left the kid in charge and went across the road to Matthews Bar and Grill, the regular lunch spot.

Mat’s is another story. It is run by a Greek, Mihaious Daskilakis, and his wife. Everyone calls him Mat and calls her Mrs. D. When I first worked at the camera store about 10 years ago, she was a knockout, looking dark and earthy like Irene Papas. And even now, she is good looking, though the years have filled out her rump and her hair is mostly grey. And she can still barely speak English.

She is pleasant to the customers, but a termigant to Mat. He is a thinner version of Mel from Mel’s Diner, with black hair. He speaks a broken English and types amusing menus because of it. Mrs. D is unspeakably jealous and the waitress, though it is a new one every few months is invariably over 300 pounds. Mrs. D has last word in hiring waitresses. Once, when she was back in Greece for a family visit, Mat hired a good-looking, friendly, intelligent woman. She lasted until Mrs. D got back and was gone the next day.

The food at Matthews is slophouse diner food, drooling with grease. And the coffee, which I grew to love, is officially classed as a carcinogen by the FDA. The waitress has to pour it from a reagent bottle. The daily lunch special is something like meatloaf with a choice of two vegetables — from a list of peas, corn, okra, cottage cheese, french fries and “You wanta da gravies?”

“I’ll have the meatloaf,” says Stanley, “and okra. Just okra. Hold the other vegetable. And I want only one piece of bread.”

“Coffee?”

“I guess so.”

“And you?” She turned to me.

“A cheeseburger, with lettuce and tomato. And coffee.”

“Izatall?” butts in Stanley. “Have what you want. Shit, man, don’t be bashful.”

“A burger is all I need, but thanks, Willie.” I always called him Willie or William; everyone else called him Stanley.

As the waitress sets down the coffee, its surface swirled with grease or detergent, I thought, cripes, just like Henry Miller, bumming meals off the old buddies. And it was true that the burger was all I needed. Probably all I could have stood. My stomach had shrunk out of disuse. (Oh, I eat well enough at dinner, which I cooked, but breakfasts and lunches are often meager or non-existent.)

“Do you think the Old Man might need some Christmas help?”, I asked.

“Yeah, it could be. But you’d better ask him. I’m too close to retirement.”

I didn’t ask what that might mean.

“Has he been around yet today?”

“No. He’s out on his rounds now. I dunno if he’s coming downtown.” Willie slurped his coffee like an air raid siren and began sopping up the last of the gravy with the half-piece of bread he had left.

I knew I couldn’t put off my errand any more, so I thanked Willie for the meal and walked out into the cold and up the street to the seedy storefront that served for the Plasma Center.

I have given blood many times, but it has always been a free donation at a Red Cross bloodmobile. I strongly believe that is as it should be. I am appalled by the idea of selling part of me to make a buck. It is almost like “percentage slavery:” If I can’t sell whole human beings, at least I can sell of parts of them — or parts of myself, anyway.

It’s all too mercenary. But I was desperate.

What a marvelous word: “Desperate.” I had not a dollar to my name and no hopes of getting any. My clothes were wearing out and I was skimping on food. I was hitting on old friends for a meal. I was wearing summer sandals because they were all I owned and my feet were stiff with cold. Without the money from selling my blood, I doubted I could even drive home, let alone look for a job.

Behind the reception counter was a fine-looking woman of maybe 18 or 19. She looked surprised to see me: I was dressed in my Sunday best — my good pair of trousers and my last clean sports jacket. Even so, I must have looked a class apart from the derelicts who habituate the joint. Puzzled, she asked, “Can I help you?”

“Yes. I’ve given blood before …”

“So, we draw out a pint and then extract the red blood corpuscles and shoot them back into you. Then we have to do it all again to make a whole pint of plasma. If you have ever felt faint after giving blood, you won’t feel that, since we give you back all your red blood. The whole process, the first time, takes at least a hour and a half. We pay seven dollars the first visit, because of the physical, and eight dollars each time after that.

“But the doctor’s already gone for the day, so we can see you whenever you can come back.”

A real disappointment. I was hoping for at least $10. And now I was in town with no way to get out. So I drove out to Guilford College, where I had been doing some work in a professor’s darkroom. I thought I might as well get some production out of the day.

But when I reached into my coat pocket to get the car key, I found $4. A drop of luck hits the day! And as I drove towards Guilford, I tried to remember where the money came from, why I should have $4 I hadn’t known about. Then I remembered: I had picked up a few groceries for Mary Lou and she had given me a tenspot to cover them. This was her change that I had forgotten in my pocket. After a short moral argument with myself, I pulled into a self-serve gas station and bought $4 worth of gas.

The darkroom I use at Guilford is built in a short corridor running from the drama department’s studio/stage to the outside of the building. The corridor is unheated and unfortunately very public. The enlarger and supplies have to be locked up in a giant metal cabinet in a corner of the room. I had brought a portable electric heater to warm up the air and I plugged it in and started setting up my chemicals.

Just then, Matthew’s coffee reached overflow in my bladder, so I walked across the stage and into the dressing room, where the nearest mens’ room was. The dressing room was filled with costumes and makeup. Old bobbies’ uniforms and patched cutaways. I relieved myself and as I was leaving, I noticed a line-up of shoes under the clothing rack. I looked at them and they all seemed to be normal size — much too small for my feet. But one pair was larger than the rest. I picked them up and looked them over.

They were a very plain pair of oxfords, a little worn, with tilted heels, but not badly scuffed. On the sole was a Salvation Army pricetag for $2.25 I sat down on the linoleum and tried them on and, though they dug into my heel a bit, they fit. Another short moral argument and I wore them out of the dressing room. Providence and a lax conscience had provided me with the pair of shoes I needed.

I have always thought of myself as honest. It it true that I stole a few paperbacks from the drugstore in New Jersey when I was in high school — mostly for the illegal thrill of it. But since then, I have been basically honest. Not that I ever felt particularly proud of it. I feel strongly in my bones that we are all capable of enormous crimes. The human heart is foul and devious. I don’t abide with those happy-face people that feel humankind is basically “good” and has only been driven to crimes for socio-pathological reasons. We are all potential murderers. That we don’t kill, for the most part is incidental. We all could.

Henry David ThoreauI believe most great writers — probably most great people — have understood this. Gentle soul Henry Thoreau says of himself, in Walden, “I never knew, and never shall know, a worse man than myself.” If my crimes are paltry — a stolen pair of worn-out shoes or a pocket of unreturned change — then it is only, I think, that I have not had the opportunities that others have had. I was not born to the Third Reich or to the Inquisition. It is easy for me to abhor the enormities of Auschwitz from my distance. It is easy to feel that I could never allow it to happen here. But I am fooling myself, as others do themselves continuously. Evil is, as they say, banal and everyday. My conscience will bother me little about the shoes: I needed them. What glib rationalization is harder to come by to steal someone’s silverware? To murder the pissant who robbed me of my redhead? To rape and pillage a whole country?

I know of few people more gentle than myself; slower to wrath, slower to find fault. I live much of my life according to “Judge not, lest ye be judged.” But when I found out how my redhead’s new husband had forbidden her to communicate with me, I felt such a welling of bile that I know I could have murdered him. I saw red. Reason drained from me. For those few hours, as I wrote the first and only vicious hate letter of my life, I was a murderer. I know in my heart that though I would likely never actually kill anyone, I was nevertheless capable of hating with a passion that rationally allowed murder. Nothing is more false than the myth propounded by the NRA that “the criminal element” is responsible for murders and rapes. Murders are committed by fathers, rapes by uncles. The Mafia really touches few of us in any direct way. If there is a criminal element, it is in each of us — a Caliban in our hearts.

And I believe that if we are to live morally — to refrain from blowing the face off our brother-in-law — we must acknowledge this beast in our bosom. If we behave morally because we believe ourselves moral and good, then what is to stop us from punishing those who are not, in our eye, also moral and good? But as I know I am capable of crime, I do my best to control myself and will spend little effort controlling others. The Inquisition was run by men who knew they were moral. They had their God on their side. They were certain; they harbored no doubts. Be we smaller people, admitting the rancor in our breasts, how can we condemn that rancor in others? If there is any Satan, surely his name is Certainty. If there is an angel who can save us, that angel is Doubt. Hitler was Certain. Anita Bryant is Certain. Jerry Falwell is Certain. The Ayatollah is Certain. Let us not be so sure. Let us not send Jews to the showers.

So, when I finished in the darkroom, I drove home on the gas I bought with Mary Lou’s money and wearing stolen shoes and not feeling too badly about myself. I could have been Raskolnikov.