On Bad Memories And Moving On

A few weeks ago, while stumbling around on Facebook, I found an old ‘acquaintance’ of mine: a man who, over thirty years ago, went to the same boarding school as I did. I poked around further; his page was not guarded by his privacy settings from snoops like me. On it, I found a group photograph taken in my boarding school days: a dozen or so familiar faces stared back at me. I hadn’t seen them in thirty-five years. I poked a bit further, as I clicked on their tagged faces in the photographs, and visited their friends’ lists. On one of them, I found a Facebook profile of a ‘senior,’ someone who used to be a member of the class that had supplied the prefects for my last year in boarding school. (I left my boarding school after the tenth grade, after two short years there; this gentleman was the member of the graduating class that year.) On his page, I found photographs of a class reunion, conducted on the campus of my old boarding school. There they were, the members of that graduating class, the ‘Sixth Form,’ ex-prefects included, lounging about in suits and ties,  all of them grey-haired, some pot-bellied, reenacting their glory days by posing in front of various school locations, swapping tall tales about the good ‘ol days.

I stared and stared. Here they were, the officially sanctioned bullies of the senior class in school, the ones given license to enforce the school’s draconian disciplinary code in their own particular style: they could make you run punishment drills, the dreaded ‘PD’s, for a wide-ranging list of offenses; they could hit you with cricket bats or hockey sticks, or just slap you hard across the face if you were deemed insolent; they could tell you to go get your trouser pockets stitched up by the school tailor if you were caught walking around with both hands in your pockets; and on and on it went. They could, and they did. Power of the absolute varietal was granted them, and they exercised it; here, there was no shyness to be found. And it corrupted them, if their interactions with those below them, their subjects, the ones who dreamed of becoming abusers themselves when their turn came, was any indication.

I was tempted to write, as a lurker, in the comments space, “Did you guys reminiscence about the time when you were bullies and beat up those younger and weaker than you?” But I didn’t. They’d moved on; they had to. My memories remained; they had been stirred up by the photographs I had just viewed, and I’d already found other ways to integrate them into my life. (Including writing a book, in progress, about my boarding school days.) The academic philosopher in me also said that these were not the same persons I knew; they had changed, they wouldn’t know what to make of my gate-crashing remark.

I clicked out, and moved on. And wrote here instead.

The Joys Of Crying

I cry easily; so I cry a lot. Many, many things set me off: movies, songs, talking about my parents, a sportsman’s death, showing my daughter music videos of songs that I listened to as a teenager, Saturn V liftoffs, the misfortune of others in the world’s ‘disaster zones,’ witnessing random acts of kindness on the subway, a busker hitting all the right notes, political disaster–the list goes on, and it doesn’t seem to settle into a coherent pattern. Nostalgia features prominently here; as does a new-found vulnerability and fearfulness made vividly manifest after my daughter’s entry into this world. I’m an immigrant and adult orphan, so memories are especially precious; and I suspect they color my perception of most things I encounter on my daily journeys through work and parenting and the usual reading and writing. (A beautiful turn of phrase, a fictional character’s terrible, tragic fate can also get the tear glands working overtime.)

As I wrote here a while ago:

I’ve become a better, not worse, crier over the years. Growing up hasn’t made me cry less, now that I’m all ‘grown-up’ and a really big boy. Au contraire, I cry–roughly defined as ‘tears in the eyes’ or ‘lumps in the throat which leave me incapable of speech’ even if not ‘sobbing’–more. There is more to cry about now, more to get the tear glands working overtime: more memories, more days gone by, more nostalgia, more regrets, more friends gone, never to return, more evidence of this world’s implacable indifference to our hopes and desires–for ourselves and ours. I cry in company–sometimes, when I’m trying to tell a story and realize I cannot proceed; I cry when I’m alone. I cry on my couch when watching a movie. And just to make sure I’m a genuine New Yorker, I’ve cried on the subway.

Truth is, crying feels good. It is actually intensely pleasurable; to cry is to feel alive, powerfully so. I am not jaded and cynical, impervious to things that should hurt or feel good; crying tells me I’m still capable of powerful emotional responses, that I have not become blasé to this world’s offerings.  Crying slows things down; for its duration, there is an intense concentration on the engendered emotion. All else falls away; in a world of eternal distraction, in which time has sped up, where all is a whirl, crying is a blessing.

But crying isn’t just a reaction to an external event or stimulus; it’s an act of communication with oneself. Crying is informative, a message from self to self. It tells me what hurts, what feels good, what I remember, who I miss, what got under my skin, and stayed there. It informs others too, of course, about who I am, but that is not its most important function. That honor is reserved for the self-knowledge it makes possible, the picture it completes of me, the reminder it provides that I’m many things and many people, spread out over time and space, still trying to hang together.

The Mixed Pleasures Of Attending Our Own Memorial Service

Wanting to attend our own funerals, our own memorial services, is a fantasy with a long and distinguished pedigree. (As is the associated fantasy of wanting to read our own obituaries.) With good reason. If things have worked out well, many of our friends and family members will be there, hopefully all well-dressed. Importantly, we will be the focus of attention, the center-show, at most times. Some folks will occasionally deign to speak to each other on topics that do not directly pertain to us, but we will at least feature front and center in any formal addresses delivered from the podium of choice. Perhaps there will be photographs of us, all showcasing our ‘best sides’ and our best memories; an artful act of editing that will show our lives in the best possible way, constructing a narrative that will suggest all went well, we only made friends, we always looked happy, we went to wonderful places, we ate great food, we did great work–you get the picture (literally.)

And then there is the matter of the eulogies. Ah, what sweet joy. To hear our friends speak glowingly and tearfully about us, to hear them recount tales and anecdotes in which we come off so well, in which even our faults are beautifully incorporated into a larger picture of goodness–who would want to forego such an opportunity? Some of our creative friends might even have produced several drafts of the eulogies they deliver, thus ensuring a carefully crafted final product that will do the most justice to a description of our lives and our virtues. If the logistical details have been sorted out, there will be good food and drink, and once the effects of those kick in, and some of the tears have been wiped away, there will be, among your friends, much merriment and conviviality. We might even hear more stories about ourselves; more clever punch lines that we delivered on many a memorable occasion in the past. It will be the kind of party we often wanted to throw, but were never quite able to pull off; it was too hard to get everyone together in one place. Now, we don’t even have to clean up.

But we should be careful to not tarry too long and we should slip away as the service and the after-party winds down. For we might notice, much as we did as the attendees gathered and talked among themselves as the services kicked off, that our friends and families have lives that will persist and continue even after our deaths; once the service is over, and as dispersals take place in the parking lot and lobby, we will begin to fade ever so imperceptibly from view. The world awaits; we had our turn on the stage, exit left directions have been issued, and now we must depart. To delay our departure will only be to receive further evidence of what we fear most of all: our erasure from this world. Other forms of existence await us hopefully: perhaps as memories and continuing influences in the lives of those we loved. Those will have to do for now. (And ever?)

On Bearing Grudges

I bear grudges. Some of them are of impressive vintage, their provenance almost hidden, tucked away in some distant corner of my memories and recollections. Yet others are more callow, stemming from events and incidents that have barely received their marching papers. Some burn with a fierce intensity, the glow of yet others is dull, even as they continue to smolder sullenly. But they all have occupancy rights and long-term leases; they are all legal squatters, welcomed and let in, taking up space, consuming vital resources of thought and emotional energy. Residencies this prolonged must be paid for; and these long-time tenants do square their debts in a fashion.

Most prominently, of course, these grudges allow for self-indulgent wallowing in a fierce, unquenchable anger; this emotion is much maligned, and yet, its pleasures are undeniable. (Or else, we would not allow it such easy, unquestioned access to our being.)  Poke a dormant grudge, and as it stirs to life, there is almost immediate gratification; that pounding, elevated heart-rate, that fierce sense of righteousness, that pleasurable confirmation of our virtue. We were right to be offended and aggrieved; our grudge tells us so.

Grudges remind us we are alive, that we are creatures of emotion too, and not just reasonable reason. They pay compliments to our passional selves, to our capacity to experience and express our feelings; only the banal and the affectless let go of grudges, not us. Our grudges remind us, as we trudge through the endlessly repeated daily routines that blur one day into another, that something within us is irreconcilable and discordant with the placidity that seems to otherwise dominate our lives.

Grudges are an aid to our memories; they are vivid markers of times gone by, of places and peoples that once populated our lives. They point to roads taken, to friendships made and lost, to formative relationships. We know our memories are not distinct and discrete, separable into neat parcels; each informs the other.  To let a grudge go might be to let go its associations, a price we might be unwilling to pay.

Grudges offer words of caution for the life that lies ahead of us; they remind us of what offended us, what cut us to the quick, what was able to reach down into the innermost recesses of our being and find the previously inaccessible and unconscious. They suggest alternative routes and paths for our inevitable encounters with others; we have been forewarned. (They remind us too, that others, much like us, might bear grudges too. We should not glibly assume that our offences have been forgiven and forgotten; we might yet need to make amends. They aid our understanding of others; that inexplicable remark, that mysterious response, is now no longer so.)

Grudges, like anxieties, are messengers; they inform us of who we are. We struggle to understand ourselves; our grudges aid our ongoing projects of self-discovery and understanding. To cauterize a grudge might be to turn off a channel of communication with ourselves.

On Being Able To Forge My Father’s Signature

A few years after my father passed away, I began to be able to forge his signature. One day, on a lark, I picked up a pen and tried to sign his name; much to my surprise, a reasonable facsimile stood forth. I stared at it for a few seconds, and then tried again. The resemblance of my production to the original grew; or so it seemed. There was no point to this exercise of mine; there were no documents to be forged, no school report to be faked. I’d just been curious to see if I could emulate my father in at least one dimension, one that had always seemed to capture, quite acutely, at least one aspect of the irrepressible flair I associated with him.  I called out to my mother and showed her my ‘work’: she agreed I had, indeed, made a good copy. There it was: the distinctive ‘P’ of his first name, which required an extravagant loop to close the ‘top’, and then, a quick, seemingly unintelligible sequence of lower-case letters, followed by the extravagant ‘C’ that began his last name, followed by yet another quick run of lower-case letters, and then, finally the closing flourish, a sharp, short line drawn underneath the first and last names, finished off with a pair of stylish dots. I had seen that signature hundreds of times: on report cards from school; on letters my father had written to his brothers, my grandfather, my mother; on official documents pertaining to his service in the Air Force; on various official documents that always seemed to be required by the ever-present state bureaucracy that pervaded our middle-class lives. I had seen my father draw it quickly and efficiently, mostly with a fountain pen. I’d always marvelled at how he closed the loop on the ‘P’; he seemed to throw his fingers and the pen upwards, and then drew them sharply down, so that the closed ‘P’ looked like a balloon floating above the stem below.

I know I carry around traces of my father in me; in the books I read; in the music I listen to; in the pleasures I find in the outdoors; in the ways I respond to the sights and sounds of aviation. I‘ve even tried to emulate his appearance; the crewcut I sport and the aviator sunglasses I wear suggest I haven’t given up on this endeavour. My father didn’t know it, but I paid him a lot of attention. That successful attempt at forging my father’s signature showed that somehow, through all those sessions of observation, I had internalized his actions; or perhaps there was some ‘machinery’ in me that made it possible for me to function in the same way.

I‘ve made note here of how I think my parents live on in me and my life. That successful attempt at forgery might have been another way to make my father alive in me again. As I enter a stage of life–the middle-aged years–that my father never got a chance to live through, I wonder how else his presence will manifest itself.

A Fond Remembrance Of A Canine Friend

My brother’s family lost their pet dog yesterday. ‘G’ was a dachshund, brought home a little over twelve years ago. I have never owned a pet and probably never will; I simply do not have the emotional wherewithal for the caretaking required. I have thus never developed a particularly close relationship with domestic animals; my interactions with most pets is always a fairly tentative, bounded one. Not so with ‘G’. This was because on those occasions when I was visiting my brother and his family, I spent extended time in his company. In the course of that period, I was able to experience at least one moment that gave me some insight into the kinds of relationships pets are able to develop with the families who take care of them.

During the winter of 2006/7, while on vacation, I came down with a mysterious stomach bug–a fever, the chills, the shakes, a spectacularly upset stomach, the works. The bug advanced during an evening as a fever took hold of my body, and then it struck hard at night. On waking up in the morning, I informed everyone–my brother and his family, and my wife–I would not be joining them for the New Year’s Eve partying later that night. Then, I staggered back to bed and collapsed. I sought warmth and comfort in my blanket and my supine pose. A short while later, ‘G’ pushed open the door to my room–with his nose, I think–walked over to my bed, found himself a spot next to my feet, burrowed in, partially covering himself with my blanket, and settled down.

And there he stayed. For the entire day, well into the evening, in that darkened room. I drifted in and out of sleep, my body exhausted after the frequent interruptions–the trips to the toilet bowl–during the previous night. My head spun, my stomach churned, shivers ran up and down the length of my frame. And down by my feet, ‘G”s presence provided unexpected comfort and reassurance. His body was warm, solid, furry; I could feel him pressing against my legs through the blanket. It was a desperately needed anchoring in a bodily and mental state that felt desperately adrift.

I did not lack for human company that day. My family stopped in at intervals to bring me water and the little food I could keep down. As evening approached and as the night came on, I slowly regained some strength, enough to try to consume a bowl of watery soup. On seeing me sit up in bed, ‘G’, sensing the worst was over, roused himself, shook himself once or twice, and then left the room. He had done his bit.

From that time on, whenever I hear a pet owner speak about their pets in a language rich with intentionality and affect, I know exactly what they are talking about. I too, sensed an animal draw near and take care.

Thanks ‘G’, rest in peace; we all loved you.

A Small Remembrance

Over the weekend, I lost a friend to cancer. It was a rare, aggressive varietal, one that claimed her life all too soon. She was diagnosed in November last year, underwent surgery and adjuvant chemotherapy, but the onward march of the malignant tumors within her could not be halted, and so finally, this past Sunday, in the company of her loved ones, she breathed her last.  A few days before, I had understood that she had, to use the language which is so dreaded in cancer treatment, ‘gone terminal’ but I still expected her to be around for a few months at least. But on that fateful morning, when I awoke from a disturbed sleep, made some coffee and sat down at my computer to check my mail, I read the dreaded news: matters had taken a fatal turn, and she was no more.

I had come to know about her illness in January, and after spending a few weeks trying to set up a Skype meeting–the fifteen hour time difference with Australia considerably complicated matters–we finally spoke in March.  She looked well; there was no hair loss, even though she had lost some weight. Her spirits were high; though her cancer was a deadly one, certain features of her particular case had given her doctor and her hope. My wife tried to join the conversation but our toddler daughter was insistent and demanding and distracting, so she dropped in, said ‘hi’ and promised to write an email to say more. (She did.) We bade each other farewell, with a promise that we’d try to talk again sometime soon.  That never came to be.

My friend was an academic, an accomplished psychologist, who wrote acutely and sensitively on–among other things–emotions, narcissism, and psychoanalytic theory; she was a polymath who could talk comfortably about art, literature, and poetry; she practiced yoga well enough to be a teacher; she made ceramic pieces which bore the imprint of her distinctive style; she was a connoisseur of good food and wine; she was a loving partner and mother.  She lived far away from me, but when we met it always was as if the years would roll away. She gave good hugs, she was interested in what I had to say, and she was unfailingly kind and encouraging. She was, to drag out that dreaded cliché, one of those that prove the bitter truth that only the good die young. There was nothing she could have done to prevent the cancer; it is rare, not hereditary, and has no known causes or indications in physical predispositions. She was, in a word that expresses our ignorance of this terrible world’s secret workings the most acutely, unlucky. As were all of those who loved her and cared for her.

All the verbal consolations I send to her partner and her daughter are of scant comfort; their grief is immense, their loss irreplaceable, and I can only offer bromides from a distance. Her death makes this world into a colder and crueller place. But she lived a good life, and she made those she met and worked with and made a home with happier. Those are not insignificant blessings. May her spirit live on.