Friday, June 20, 2014

Plus ca change, plus ca meme chose

I wrote this in my journal, while living in Germany, on February 1, 1998. Tell me nothing's changed. 

I was blindsided by an item in the newspaper this morning.  An insert in Stars & Stripes (the U.S. Army newspaper) took an in-depth retrospective look at 1968: The Year That Still Haunts Us.
....He's a legend in Washington, D.C., but no one
has ever figured out who "Cool Disco Dan" was.

I suppose that in each decade now, in the year that ends with an "8," we're going to get another retrospective on tumultuous 1968, the year of the Tet Offensive, the "Pueblo" incident, the Martin Luther King Jr. and Bobby Kennedy assassinations, the riots at the Democratic convention in Chicago, the "Black Power" salute at the Olympics, The Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia, the Apollo 8 lunar orbiter mission, and oh yes, let's not forget The Beatles' "white album:" that always gets a mention.

This report caught me off guard only because it seems to me like not very long ago that we were reading all of this the last time--in 1988, I distinctly remember reading Newsweek's cover story on the 20th anniversary of tumultuous 1968...10 years ago already since I read that???  I was just getting ready to pack up and leave Frankfurt, newly married and headed for Brazil...Now here I am, full-circle, living a two-hour drive from Frankfurt and getting the 30th anniversary treatment of the same material, which is nothing more than a re-hash of what we were fed a decade ago.

Speaking of journalism and the current scene, I thought Dave Barry's column last week about how shallow, stupid and "showbiz" local TV news shows are was real funny, but bashing TV news for its insipidity seems to be a "hot-button" issue of the moment.  There was a commentary in today's paper, written by a reporter for one of the London dailies, criticizing U.S. television news for how isolationist it's become since the Cold War ended: American network news shows largely ignore foreign news these days, concentrating instead on domestic stories that aren't even necessarily news.  (The author of the column didn't mention this, but my own recent favorite example of this was NBC News actually leading a broadcast with the "story" that NBC's own comedy series Seinfeld was not going to be continued next season.  This is news???) At the same time, the cartoonist who draws "Shoe" had a strip this morning in which The Perfesser is channel-surfing from one news show to the next: "Bacteria in your venetian blinds!  A special team report!"  "Your mouse pad may be making you sick!  Film at 11!" and so on.  Sensitive minds were beginning to notice some time ago that the line between "news" and "entertainment" in America was getting fuzzy, but now things have gotten to the point where some are beginning to think it's a real problem.

More on the "current" scene: Today, in 1998, Young America is making a "nostalgia fad" of the 1970s.  When I was in high school 25 years ago, there was a nostalgia fad for the 1950's, which gave us TV shows like Happy Days. Nostalgia seems to be America's mal du choice. 

Our Marine Security Guard detachment here at the American embassy in Bonn had a "'70s party" just two nights ago, and in a Q&A column in today's paper, somebody wrote in asking about the present spate of interest in the decade, with at least two current movies set during the "disco era."  In line with this, I wrote an e-mail letter to my friend Anya in Moscow just yesterday in which I explained why the '70s are anything but nostalgia to me.  But I'm 42, an "old goat" now.  In answer to the writer's inquiry, the column said that today's youngsters, living as they do in an era of "political correctness" in which just about everything is prohibited or seems to be, are looking nostalgically back at the drugged-out, relatively promiscuous '70's, when AIDS hadn't appeared yet and casual sex had not acquired the stigma that it has now.

All of this seems strange to me because I remember the '70s chiefly as a reaction to the wildly-permissive '60s.  Not that the '70s were the kind of bluenose-puritanical decade that the '90s have been, but repeatedly in the mass media talky-talk of my own youth, we heard about the contrast between "the radical '60s" and "the mellow '70s."  Vietnam dragged on until 1975--all the marches, sit-ins and anti-war protests of the '60s seemed to have changed nothing, and after Kent State, (not to mention Altamont, which threw cold water on Woodstock Nation) Young America threw up its hands and abandoned the idea of bringing Flower Power to the world.  It turned instead to personal growth issues; Eldridge Cleaver's Soul on Ice gave way to Richard Bach's Jonathan Livingston Seagull and Tom Wolfe promptly named the '70s the " 'Me' Decade."  It was in 1970 that Stephen Stills quit singing  For What It's Worth and had a hit with  Love The One You're With.    

True, in the 1970s, AIDS had not yet come along to put a damper on recreational sex, but the legacy of the "free love" '60s did lead to a ripple movement during the '70s that called itself "the new celibacy:" fucked-out America, sick and tired of the singles-bar scene and surfeited with one-night stands, decided to experiment with having a little less sex, while at the same time movies like Looking for Mr. Goodbar reminded everyone that the singles-bar scene had its dark and dangerous side. And then there were all the other unglamorous things I remember about the 1970s: Watergate, the ignominious finale of Vietnam, stagflation, the Arab oil embargo and "gas lines," "pet rock," polyester leisure suits, I'm OK, You're OK. Jimmy Carter.

No, I don't remember the 1970s as a wildly fun or permissive decade; I remember them as a throttling-back from the crazy 1960s, when, as my half-sister Madelon once put it, "For seven years, America threw up."  The world of  Saturday Night Fever might look glittery, sexy and dangerous to the current batch of twentysomethings, but I was a twentysomething myself during that era, and to me all that polyester looked decidedly tame when compared with the tie-dyed T-shirts and headbands of a decade earlier.  In fact it looked kitschy, just as it still appears to me now.


Monday, June 2, 2014

Chronicles of Wasted Time

I am currently teaching English to Turkish people in Turkey. At the moment I am teaching classes seven days a week. My students range from level 2 (Elementary) to level 6 (Advanced.) We have a lot of fun. Yesterday, during a round of the word game "Hangman," one of my students stumped the entire class with the word "dog." Yep. "Dog." You know "Hangman:" players try to guess what a word is by guessing the letters in it. Someone tossed out the letter "O," so we had "blank-o-blank."  After that everyone was lost. They ran through the entire alphabet and couldn't come up with "dog."

But that was at the end of class. After three hours my students are getting tired and so I usually refrain from bombarding them any further with adjective clauses, split infinitives and the future perfect tense. We back away and just play some word games to wind the class down.

But earlier in that particular class, our topic had been adverbs of sequence, you know, like "first," "then," "after that," "finally," etc. Words you use when you're describing a sequence of events in chronological order.

I asked my students, "Has anyone here ever kept a journal?" There were blank stares and shaking of heads. "You know? A journal? Sometimes called a diary. You write down what you do every day, usually in the sequence that it happened."

More stares.

"I've been keeping a journal since I was fourteen," I said. (I'm fifty-eight now.) When that didn't seem to sink in especially, I turned to the white board and wrote down "1 9 7 0." "I've been keeping a journal since 1970," I said. "That was the year I turned fifteen."

"Lots of secrets," somebody said.

Well, maybe. Yeah, okay, lots of secrets, few of any interest at this late date. But mostly just a lot of detail. Detail that couldn't ever possibly mean anything to anyone, and in fact, as I review the reams of print and electrons that I've churned out in the past 43 years under the heading "Journals" or "Diaries," I find a lot of stuff that doesn't even interest me, and I've been writing about myself all this time.

Many of my journals have been lost. Those I kept in high school and college were mostly destroyed. I did it, deliberately, myself. Romantic idiocy: I was 22, a girl had just broken my heart, and in response I tossed nearly all the journals that I had kept between 1970 (when I started high school)  and 1977 (when I graduated from college) into a metal trash can and set them on fire. I regretted it shortly afterwards. I don't regret it now; I wouldn't want some of that acne-scarred effusion to fall into the hands of family members, let alone anyone else.

Not that my reams of journals haven't had some use. For years I've had a reputation among my friends and acquaintances as a guy with a remarkable memory, the guy who can repeat back to you something you said to him forty years ago, the guy who can remember exactly where he was and what he was doing when the Watergate scandal broke, or when America celebrated its 200th birthday in 1976, or where he was and what he was doing when John Lennon was shot, or Pope John Paul II. Where he was and what he was doing when Ronald Reagan was elected president, or when Matthias Rust landed that private plane in Red Square. Depending on your age, where he was and what he was doing on the day you were born.

Yes, writing things down has a certain mnemonic utility: nothing helps you remember something like writing it down and then going back and reading it later. I have reviewed my own life like a book editor going over the manuscript of some author's novel. Naturally, I've become an expert on the subject of my own past and the past that has flowed along with it, the past of people I've known, places I've been and things I've seen.

I'm not sure that's necessarily a good thing. Oh, it's been useful now and then. When I was writing my book Three Flies Up: My Father, Baseball and Me back in 2007, I mined my own journals, using them as research material for a book about my past relationship with my father and our shared love of baseball. Without my notebooks I would have had a much more difficult time writing Three Flies Up.  Of course I had to do a lot of other research as well, because the ostinato line of my narrative was baseball. For that I had the Internet, plus a shelf full of books about baseball that had been my late father's, many of them gifts from me and my sisters over the years.

My journals have had many guises. When I began keeping diaries, the personal computer was still more than a decade in the future. My first diary was kept in a pocket-sized, wire-bound memo pad from the drug store, the kind people used to use to keep track of their appointments, jot down phone numbers, etc. One of my early journals was just a bunch of pieces of paper, folded over and stapled together, to be scribbled in with a Bic pen. From there I moved on to typing my personal notes, ("typing" -- there's a word that has left the language.)

For you millenials, a "typewriter" was a mechanical device that had a keyboard like a pad or a laptop, but you stuck sheets of paper in it and it actually printed letters on the paper, not on an electronic screen. Yes. It didn't have a "printer" connected to it; it did the actual printing itself. I pounded on a typewriter for years, as a journal-keeper, as a wannabee author of fiction, as a poet and, yes, even as a newspaper reporter at the very dawn of the computer age, circa 1980-81.

This is the way we used to do it, kids. 
My journals, over the years, stacked up as wirebound notebooks, looseleaf binders, paper-and-glue record books from CVS Pharmacy, school "composition books" of the sort children used to use in the classroom and yes, beautiful, hardbound, pale green government-issue record books that I cheerfully stole from the office supplies of this or that American embassy or consulate where I happened to be working over a period of more than a dozen years. Few of these notebooks still survive.

Around 1990 I began keeping my journals on a computer. This enabled me to password them so that my nosy first wife, who had no respect for privacy, (or for me) couldn't invade them without my permission. There have been nostalgic lapses back into paper-and-ink since then, and for a time in the 1990s it was my habit to print out my Word or Wordperfect journals at the end of the year and put the paper sheets in looseleaf binders. But most of my surviving journals since the early 1990s exist as computer files. Even some of these have been lost as I've moved from computer to computer and been remiss about backing up and saving documents along the way. I'm systematic, but I'm also both lazy and sloppy in my habits.

Now I am seriously asking myself why I keep on doing this. The obvious answer is that after 44 years it's hard to break a habit. When I first began keeping a journal, in my teens, my purpose was twofold: first and most obvious, I wanted to be a writer. I had the itch to write. So I started writing things down. On a slightly more neurotic level, though, my journalkeeping stemmed from the same impulse that gets some people on the TV show Hoarders. I just didn't want to let anything get away. Time, even when I was young, seemed a precious and fleeting commodity. Somehow I wanted to grab it, to keep and save memories for future delectation and/or scrutiny. I began keeping a journal as a means of not letting time get away: I was to the passing days of my life what a butterfly collector is to butterflies.

As I have gotten older, this impulse to grab and save moments has waned, for obvious reasons. I'm well past Dante's mezzo del cammino di nostra vita  at this point--the halfway-mark of life--and there isn't much point in trying to preserve moments for future delectation and scrutiny now. There isn't that much future left in which to delight or scrutinize. Or learn. Still, I soldier on. It's too late in the game to give up now. But it all leaves the question open: what, ultimately, am I going to DO with all of this material? My late friend Dick O'Keeffe of Fairfax, VA was a compulsive journal-keeper, and I mean compulsive. I've been known to skip a few days here and there, even a few weeks here and there.

Dick never missed a day. And like all compulsives, he was just as compulsive about his methods and materials as he was about his habit: he always used the same kind of notebook from the same stationery store; he always used the same kind of felt-tipped pen from the same stationery store where he got his notebooks, and he chronicled his days meticulously, in a prose so idiosyncratic (I know because he sometimes shared passages from his journals with his friends) that I can't imagine anyone ever wanting to plow through 100 pages of it, let alone 10,000. But when Dick died he left his journals to the George Mason University Library. I swear. I envision them in the library basement, stacks and stacks of numbered and catalogued notebooks, meticulously indexed (Dick was as compulsive a maker of indexes as he was a journal-keeper; I think he had once been a librarian) and utterly ignored by one and all.

Is this my fate? Probably. I have no conceit about leaving my journals to a university library. If I had been Andre Gide or John Cheever, sure.  But the diaries of a nobody are interesting to nobody. Oh, I can envision Dick's great-great grandchildren, around the year 2075, going and seeking out his journals as a family curiosity. I can't imagine anyone else having any interest in them whatever, including myself, because I was treated to my share of excerpts from them in the early 1980s and found them just about unreadable, meaning, every bit as eccentric as Dick was, and Dick was a character out of Dickens, believe me.

Only half-jokingly, I approached my nephew Ricky Guido last year and told him, "I'm making you my literary executor. After I die, I want you to go through all my computer hard drives and notebooks, gather together my journals and put them into some sort of order. Store and save them. They might be of some interest to someone, someday." Ricky, who is one of the nicest people I know and is as indulgent of his somewhat-dotty uncle as he was of his more-than-somewhat dotty grandfather, readily agreed to do this.

His mother, when she heard about it, guffawed. My sister didn't elaborate, but her very snort said it all: "Who's going to give a damn about your journals?"

Nobody. The only thing that saved Samuel Pepys from oblivion was that, in addition to having a fine prose style, he was also a highly-placed official in the Admiralty in 17th-century London. His diaries are social history; they provide a vivid snapshot of English life in the 1660s, but not only that, of life rather high up in the naval hierarchy of that period when England's navy was just beginning to establish her empire. Historians are interested in Pepys as well as literary buffs. But the Dick O'Keefes and Kelley Dupuis' of this world are not that lucky. Oh, I've been a witness to history once or twice. I was in Moscow in October, 1993 when the Russian government almost fell to a parliamentary coup, and my diary duly recorded all that.

But I'm not sure if the loose-leaf notebook containing that narrative even exists anymore, and even if it did, I was only an embassy support staff employee, not the ambassador.

Ultimately, who cares what I saw and heard?

So tell me why, when I return from teaching class tonight, I'll probably open up the document on my computer entitled "Journals, 2014" and make a few notes about what happened today.

I no longer understand it myself. I'm just doing it because I'm doing it.