Monday, August 1, 2011

Debt Ceiling Blues

But all praise to memory

While we're all trying to decide how much we hate Obama's debt ceiling deal and whether or not the man has crossed our own individual political line-in-the-sand, I offer my own reflections on memory (probably, but not certainly, irrelevant to the current fiscal crisis and equally irrelevant to the lives of all but a tiny few of the admittedly small number of readers of this blog). Got that?

Last night Marrianne and I watched the 3rd episode of Falling Skies, some cable channel's 13-episode, alien-invasion series. (And, no, I am not going to get into some side discussion on what and why we were watching.) At one point, a father tries to console his son over the son's loss of his girlfriend during the struggle against alien invaders. Into the bargain, the human population of Earth has been decimated, so everybody is essentially an individual variation on a shell-shocked survivor.

"At least you have memories of her," the father comforts.

"Mom was better at this, Dad," the kid responds, both wryly and sadly.

"Yeah, that was pretty lame," says Dad.

NOTE: Do not rely on these quotes for authenticity. They are constructed from memory.

The viewer sort of nods and agrees with Dad and Son that the comforting advice is lame. That, I suspect is what we all think; that memories of a person or a pet or a place or an event are but pale shadows of the real deal and without the power to comfort especially when the loss is recent and raw.

Most of the time it may be nearly indisputable that memory is not enough, but the truth is that sometimes memory is more than loving recall of something that cannot be recreated. Sometimes memory is vividly real and as familiar as the air. I am 64 years old (or nearly so) and past my prime in, oh, so many things. But I remember prime in those many things, and remember in detail.

I'll admit straight up that what I remember may never have happened as I remember it, but that is a mere bagatelle (French, I think, for a gossipy bagel). Memory, however flawed, is the best we got for building and maintaining individual identity, so while we need to have it, we might as well tap some of its great power, e.g., the ability to hold a lover or a pet or a great moment in our lives so close to the core of our being that they come alive, tangible as a warm breeze or cool water, releasing a flow of endorphins that cleanses us and brings us close to what we most desire.

One is favored by such moments only rarely. If they happened too often, the number of square-peg people in a round-hole world would overwhelm the capacity of our institutions. As, in fact, is happening now with the tribal fantasies of the Tea Party seriously testing our political capacity to understand each other and cooperate.

Yesterday morning, while out with my middle-sized dog, Jetta, traipsing through a dry-season wetland, I stumbled upon a series of memories of myself at 12 and the games I would play with my neighborhood friends. One game, in particular, seemed perfect for our block of brick three-flats and apartment buildings. "Ditch," as we called it, was played entirely outdoors, except for the warrens of basement tunnels running under the three-story apartment buildings that squatted on three or four lots along the street. If you could get into a basement, more power to you. Just don't get caught by your pursuers on the other team or by a building janitor.

Evolved out of the almost casual inclination of any group of two or three or four or more kids to hide from, flee or "ditch" a subset of that same group, into Ditch, in which half of us pursued the other half everywhere on the block--though tunnels, over fences, off garage roofs--until we had captured and held every member of the other team. It was an adrenalin-soaked, terror-producing, entirely exhilirating after-school and weekend activity. We played it compulsively, like rats ignoring food and water in favor of the button that releases another dose of cocaine or some such drug.

I think we played Ditch often enough and hard enough and long enough to force our bodies to adapt productively. For all that fitness has always mattered to me, I don't think that my body and its capabilities were ever again so well matched. I was a wiry, agile, relentless, Ditch-playing machine.

And now, I'm 64. I can still go hard when I have to, but I can't keep it up with the same ease I used to have, and I don't recover from going hard at anywhere near the old rate. One thing I am plainly not is twelve years old. But Saturday morning, out with Jetta, I was.

We had gotten kicked off a portion of the back acreage of the Howard University Seminary and I was morose. I knew Jetta and I would be okay out on the wetland (quite dry at this time of year), but I was feeling furtive and anxious. I sat down and wrote a poem that I'll post on Outdoor Poetry Season, but the effort did not empower or invigorate me.

Moping my way off the property, I recalled myself at 10 or 11 walking across the lawn of some 10- or 12-unit apartment building and being suddenly confronted by the building janitor, who was waving a rake and ordering me off his lawn. None of us knew his name, but he was a big guy, putting us in mind of a bear, so we called him Andy Panda; a cuddly sort of label that I suppose we applied in order to diminish the fear he inspired in us.

I ran around him and when I got a safe distance, I yelled. "I'm not afraid of you, Andy Panda."

The memory stimulated additional memories and all the sights and sounds of Ditch flooded my mind. It was definitely a WWJD-moment ("J" meaning a 12-year old Jeff). Trying to caution Jetta to stealth, I made my way along the wooded fringe of the Howard property, suddenly determined to get across the three-block landscape from which I'd previously been banned, not by Andy Panda but, by a guy with a gun and sergeant's stripes.

Jetta was having difficulty inhabiting my vision, but I was all in. I was 12 and my heart was pumping and I was alert and tingling and ready and finally confident that no guy with a gun and sergeant's stripes was a match for me. I can't say what proportion of the journey involved stealth and slinking through the shadows and what part was sprinting and dashing ahead, but it felt a good mix. I could feel the sweep of dozens of prying eyes, but I was nearly invisible. I could sense when my pursuers got close, or when I passed near a surveillance point, but I zigged and darted and sped beyond their awareness.

At the other end of property I paused and coaxed Jetta into the shadow by the trees and looked back at where I'd been. I was safe, I was victorious and looking ahead to where I was going with fresh anticipation. All praise to memory.

And what was it we were talking about?


  1. Great read, Jeff (and Jetta). It brought up a vivid memory of my own -- that of making a furtive dash-and-dive-and-dash-again through Woodland Cemetery after dusk, avoiding another Andy Panda in a prowling security car. ;-)

  2. You make your own memories so universal, what an art

  3. Hi, Margaret. It's always so nice to hear from you. Your Woodland Cemetery memory provoked another one for me--running from cops in DC after a demonstration against the invasion of Cambodia disintegrated.

    Somehow, a few other demonstrators and I ended up running through Georgetown (or nearby) and climbing a fence into the backyard of some embassy or other. It was beautifully landscaped with high-contrast lighting, courtesy of the setting sun.

    Some kids high up in the windows of a GWU dorm started calling to the cops and pointing to where we were hiding. We could hear the thunder of an approaching herd of police coming down the alley, so we went over the fence in the other direction.

    It was glorious. All those swarming Andy Pandas and me 25, going on 12. I'd do it again in a heartbeat, except for the levels of security characteristic in our post 9-11 world. Likely embassy security would shoot us before the cops got there.

    And, thanks, Dale, for the kind and flattering comment. I'd like to tell more stories, but most of the time, it feels like too much effort. We all know this, because we all have stories to tell and we don't tell them. It is our personal stories, after all, told in our own idiosyncratic ways that end up being universal. That is the usually unexploited gift of being human.