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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.

 
 
 
 

01 Cholla Organ Pipe Cactus NP Ariz
I miss the desert.

02 Ocotillo Organ Pipe Cactus NP ArizThe gravel, the dust, the prickles, the skin-shriveling heat, the raking shadows, the beige mountains turned pinkish in the afternoon, the buzzards hanging overhead, the greasewood smelling like aftershave in the rain.03 Organ Pipe Cactus Diana pair 3

When I lived in Arizona, I lived in the city; I don’t miss the city. I used to call Phoenix “Cleveland in the desert,” but aside from the scorch and desiccation, the desert doesn’t make itself much known in the cities of Arizona. For that, you have to leave the gridlock of reticulated and decussated streets and get out to where the dust devils spin and the owls burrow. 04 Cholla close Organ Pipe Cactus NP Ariz

Many years ago, I took a toy camera out to Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, south of Why, and drove the loop road past Bates Well and Quitobaquito Spring. 07 Pond Organ Pipe Cactus NP ArizThere was no sight of another anthropoid anywhere. The only hint of human occupation was an abandoned ranch, the gravel roads and an occasional descanso commemorating someone’s unfortunate death under the oven dome. The horno cósmico13 nicho trio

Click to enlarge

The Diana camera cost something like $1.99 and had a plastic lens and used old roll film. It had the solid polystyrene worksmanship you might expect from Mattel or Ron Popeil.05 Butte Organ Pipe Cactus NP Ariz After a lifetime of Nikons, Canons and Hasselblads, and having moved up to a 4X5 camera with a Super-Angulon lens, it was a kind of mortification of the flesh to bust out the Diana. A means to get away from the high-resolution, Zone-System rut. 06 Saguaro Organ Pipe Cactus NP Ariz

And now, looking at the results 20 years later, the fuzz and blur of the photos seems more like the nostalgia I feel: less like being there, more like remembering, even half-remembering.16 Organ Pipe Cactus Diana pair 4

08 dark vista Organ Pipe Cactus NP Ariz12 Wire fence Organ Pipe Cactus NP Ariz

10 Ranch fence Organ Pipe Cactus NP Ariz

 
 17 Carole as Flora in the desertCarole as Flora
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

moviola 1

We travel in time as much as in space.

And just as there are moments when you stand on the top of a rise and see grand vistas and the lay of the land suddenly becomes clear, there are moments when you climb up out of the hollow of local time and the years spread out in front of you as one vast temporal landscape.

I had such an experience this summer in New Jersey.

I was born and raised in the Garden State in several communities between the Hackensack and Hudson rivers. I left for college and have rarely been back in the intervening quarter century — family and friends had all died or moved away.Old Tappan 2

But on this trip my wife and I passed through Bergen County and managed to stop by some places I knew well as a boy.

Now I’m not about to wax nostalgic. I abhor nostalgia; it is a kind of morticians’ wax applied to the dead face of the past, distorting everything we once knew. Times were not better then and never were.

But things clearly have changed.lein's grove

The first change is purely psychological: Everything has shrunk. The landscape that was so sprawling to my boy’s eyes is now condensed to a few tight city blocks. What seemed like an expedition is now walking distance. Skyscrapers are now bungalows.

Many people have experienced a similar sensation.

But the second change is more profound: The snapshot of New Jersey in my brain has remained static while time has bounded forward, so that when I revisit Teaneck or Old Tappan, I’m seeing what is in effect time-lapse photography: All the changes are accelerated so that what has moved invisibly day to day is now telescoped into a rush.

It isn’t just that there is more development. Bergen County has for a long time been the very model of suburbia; there are tract homes everywhere and more spring up every day. But nature has somehow kept up with the construction: Housing developments that were raw muddy wounds 30 years ago are now green and shaded under sprawling trees. For all the decay of time, there is a matching fecundity.

And when a quarter century exists between frames in your movie, it is a small step to move back yet another quarter century and then another, so that the history you learned in school no longer sits inkbound on the page of a book but begins to breathe as another scene in the movie you are a small part of.eisenstein

So you can slide the film back and forth in your mental Moviola only a dozen equal frames and you are in the era of Peter Stuyvesant and Dutch colonialization. It’s a blip from now to 1655 on the time line.

Frederick Haring HouseThe Old Tappan I grew up in was dotted with farms and old stone houses, built during the Dutch era. The houses are thick-walled and covered in lichen, moss and ivy; they are overarched by spreading oaks. They have, as it is said, settled.

Such houses were constructed of brown sandstone quarried by slaves.

It isn’t often remembered that slaves are a part of New Jersey’s history: In pre-Revolutionary times a settler was given 175 acres of land for every slave he imported. By 1737, slaves accounted for 8.4 percent of Jersey’s population.

Slave insurrections — in Hackensack, Raritan and Elizabeth, among other places — were a continual occurrence and citizens felt themselves stuck with the damnable institution. In 1772, a law was proposed ”obliging owners of the slaves to send them all back to Africa at their own expense.”

The law came to naught, but by that time free labor began to replace slavery and indenture.

I mention all this because when my boyhood home was built in 1956 in Old Tappan in northern New Jersey, the excavation turned up the stone foundation of slave quarters. It had been buried in woods for centuries and was now opened up to the sun for the first time.

It seemed little more than a curiosity then, and it was soon buried once more under the landscaping in our back yard. Its reawakening was brief.

Old Tappan 4The house has had two or three owners since I lived in it. I doubt that any of them knew what was buried under the Zoysia grass. But I thought of it again as I visited on vacation and saw how much the old house had changed: new paint, grown-up trees that were once bushes, a new bridge over the creek that cut through the property.

You play the film through the Moviola: The whole of northern New Jersey was once covered by a forest of oak and hickory. That was cut down for agriculture; the slave quarters behind my childhood home was evidence of that. But the fields grew once more into trees and were once more cut down to build the house.

The field next to the house was still pastureland when I was a boy. Now, it is dense with willows, birch and maple, on its way once more to growing oaks. If I look into its future, I can see more housing.

Time is fierce; it consumes the world.

fog bank

Life is made up of experiences. Not thoughts, but body-experience. It is what brings us wisdom, what brings us the game pieces we draw out of the well of our lives, that make up our literature, our art, and the myths we make of our own lives. Experiences are the building blocks of our psyches.

And the experiences of one generation are different from those of the next or the previous. We can never really know what it was like to be in Napoleon’s army or Wyatt Earp’s Dodge City or on a viking ship sailing the coast of Greenland.

Our children will never know what it was like to be us. You didn’t listen to your parents lecturing you, and you shouldn’t expect your children to be any more interested in what you have to say to them. Experience, it turns out, is non-tranferable.

But, at times, we get hints. Some bit of the past reoccurs and we get an insight.

There is little in travel so romantic sounding as a trans-Atlantic ocean voyage, and little in reality quite so tedious. When I was a teenager, I got the chance, in the dying days of ocean liners, to sail from New York to Oslo aboard the MS Oslofjord. Oslofjord postcard

Day after day, the horizon remains pancake flat, and the only thing that changes is the dining-room menu.

Maybe it was because I was young and most passengers seemed so ancient: Shuffleboard was the amusement of choice, followed by casino night in the lounge. Neither was particularly appealing to me.

Yet, despite the monotony of the weeklong voyage, there is something about the sea that lodges itself deep inside and refuses to go away, even all these years later, in an age when crossing the ocean on a ship is no longer a realistic possibility.

It began in New York, a harbor crisscrossed by wakes like particle trails in a Wilson cloud chamber. The ship I was on threaded its way among the bee-buzz of harbor activity and passed the Statue of Liberty, which my grandmother saw on entering the same harbor in 1905, when she was a little girl.

I was on my way to the ”old country” to see where she had come from and was taking a boat, just as she had coming the other way.

But you can’t get the feel of ocean travel while in the harbor. You have to get out into the sea swell for that.

If you have never been out there, you might not have any sense of just how hilly the ocean is. Sure, the horizon looks flat, but nearby, you can sense the shifting pileup of waves of all sizes.

On the water’s surface are the wavelets, blown into white horses by the wind that always blows at sea. And the wavelets skitter up and down with the larger waves that move with more stately pomp, coming at the ship from all directions and crossing each other in patterns so complex that even chaos theory has a hard time dealing with them. swell1

But more impressive is the slow, almost geologic movement of the swell, that massive up and down that is measured by the rise and drop of the ship.

On some days, the swell is hardly felt, as the calm ocean sprinkles the sunlight in its shivered surface. But out in the North Atlantic, it is never long before some distant storm rocks the water into the swell that is the oceanic equivalent of the long ridge mountains of eastern Pennsylvania, one after the other, up and down, twisting the ship into yaw and roll.

The constant rumble of the engines shake the walls in ”D” deck, deep in the hull of the ship. Every surface is painted and repainted and each iron surface is covered in enamel like the thick shiny glazing of a doughnut. In the stateroom, there is no sense of motion, only the vibration of the engines. It has been the same for six days.

In midsummer, the sun doesn’t set until nearly midnight, rising again a few hours later. Most of the evening is spent in the low sunlight, which rakes the waves into glitter.

And I am up at 3:30 in the morning, walking the decks of the ship, which seems ready to roll over on first one side and then the other. Nearly a week into this trance-inducing boredom, I have read all my books and cannot sleep any more. The walk on deck in the dusky dark is meant to wake me up from the hypnotic state the ocean can put you in.

Then, out in the darkness I can see a light, miles off through the humid air. It is another ship going the other way. But no, it is not a ship, the lights are too irregular. In the growing light, I can begin to make out the grayish shape of it, barely legible in the murk.

It is one of the Orkney Islands, off northern Scotland. The trance is broken. The Atlantic is crossed, land is sighted.

I have some sense of what Columbus must have felt, although I have eaten better than he did, and my six days is rather less than the months he spent at sea.

But I still felt something special when the sea birds once more began flying overhead.gull