Tricks of Memory

Sometimes I imagine that I’m in a room filled with all of the friends, family, and acquaintances I’ve ever known.  My wife is there.  So are my parents, my sister, and my whole extended family.  Arrayed around me are many of my best friends.  Jonathan and Ronald, two of my childhood basketball buddies, talk sports with a group of my Dallas friends.  They appear to know each other even though location and time separate them; in reality they’ve never met.    

Here and there, mixed in with the more familiar faces, I also see strangers I met only once—a retired federal employee who sat next to me on an Amtrak train from Boston to Seattle, who for his entire life had commuted from Spokane to Seattle only by train; a German backpacker whom I spent the day with wandering the ruins of Tulúm in the Yucatan; or Tarzo, a Brazilian journalist who, with a strange delighted glint in his eye, spun global conspiracy theories in a Buenos Aires hostel so many years ago.

Still others may be people I saw every day for a period of time in my life and with whom I barely exchanged more than a friendly “hello”, yet whose “hello” was just what I needed in that moment of a rough day.  Pete, a math teacher whose classroom shared a hall with mine when I taught Spanish near Houston, expounds on a recent scientific discovery.  Pete made me feel welcome in a school where, as a new teacher, I knew hardly anyone. 

It’s strange the tricks memory plays on us.  Storytelling requires chronology and sequence, yet memory is only sometimes chronological.  Everything it contains seems to have happened all at once.  I was reminded of this when I returned to my hometown, Austin, last year.  The more deeply I immersed myself in this massive city that once seemed small, the more random recollections exploded in my mind.  They lit up like so many thousands of lightning bugs on a cool Michigan night, bright and ephemeral and impossible to snatch out of the darkness. 

In an instant I remembered running through the woods near my friend Albert’s duplex.  We played hide-and-go-seek and tussled with other kids whose aim was to bully us.  Those woods are long gone.  In their place stand cookie cutter houses that over time have come to look as if they’ve always been there.  Their apparent permanence makes me question how big those woods were, with their sprawling live oak trees, where the odd rattle snake slithered among loose stones.

Over time I comprehend better why generations struggle to understand each other.  While in Austin I stopped by the ice cream shop I worked at when I was in high school.  I opened the very door I had windexed a thousand times and was greeted by a smiling teenager.  “Welcome to Baskin Robbins!” he said.  I told him I had worked there too when I was about his age.  He nodded but didn’t say much. 

Then it occurred to me that when I was his age, he had yet to even be born.  He wouldn’t enter this world for another four years.  Most of my world predated his.  Hence, it didn’t exist to him.  History before his birth was a mere instant, not the long, sometimes meandering personal history I had experienced as my life.  How strange, but also how exhilarating that we get to experience life with the same newness and exhilaration as every generation that has come before us.

*I’ve decided to start blogging again.  I have missed it, and it has been far too long.  I will be rusty for a while.  I invite any newcomers to peruse through my older posts. 

Pictures of Austin:

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Lost Footprints: Returning to the Places of Childhood

When I was a child, about once every two years my extended family would descend on a small island off the Gulf Coast of Florida called Sanibel.  We came from Michigan, Texas and Oregon.  We created on Sanibel a reality separate from the ordinary world, where we combed the beach for shells, swam out to sea, played volleyball and tennis, read and exchanged books, and stayed up late playing raucous games of canasta.  All of us gathered together–aunts and uncles, parents and grandparents, children and cousins who saw each other only once or twice a year.  Together we fashioned a space in time and place that existed only when we were together and unraveled when we parted.

What can I say? Sea gulls are always awesome.

In early November I drove my grandmother from Michigan to Florida, where she will spend the winter.  One day I crossed the new causeway to Sanibel in search of the reality I had known as a boy.  But though Sanibel remains beautiful, though the ocean laps at the shore and murmurs in the same language as when I was a kid, though pelicans still glide across its roiling surface like World War II bombers and conchs, clams and sand dollars still pile up on its beaches in infinite number, this is not the Sanibel I knew growing up.

No, that’s not right.  Sanibel remains the same; I have changed.  I’m not that little boy anymore who strolled alongside the ocean and believed it held all the answers in the world; not that boy who dreamed of quasars and nebulae, of unpacking the universe and deciphering its mechanism; not that boy who fretted over girls, wrote little poems about cresting waves and grains of sand, and wandered the beach for hours in search of the perfect sea shell.  No, I’m someone else.

Today I stroll down the beach.  The ocean laps at my feet.  I leave footprints in the wet sand and the waves sneak in behind me and wash them away, so that if I turned around I would see only an incomplete trail of footprints the waves had not yet erased.  A stranger may happen upon my trail just after I’ve left the beach, and though he could say briefly that a man had walked there, he could not tell you where that man had come from.

I feel like this image encapsulates the human experience.  We move through life leaving footprints in the sand.  Before we’ve walked ten steps the world wipes away the evidence of our presence.  Maybe we walk faster, sprint and get ahead of the deleting waves, but they always catch up with us.  We can pound the sand and so leave deeper impressions.  Our footprints may last longer, but still the lapping sea fills them in, erases them.

I returned to Sanibel in search of footprints I left there as a boy, but the ocean had long since washed them away.  It’s a mistake to believe that the places of childhood should somehow be faithful to me.  How many little boys felt about Sanibel as I did?  It was, is, will be their island, too, even as it really belongs to no person.  And that’s OK.

Osprey eating a fish.

Grandma knitting at the beach.

Sanibel Island, Florida.

Is the Moon Lonely? Time to Start Blogging Again

I’m going to resume blogging, meaning that I’ll start posting again and I’ll go back to commenting on other people’s blogs.   Michelle at Steadily Skipping Stones pointed out that blogging makes us better people.  I’m sorry I turned my back on it.  I’ve missed it.  I don’t know what to post after that upbeat doozie I published yesterday about pain, but I’ll think of something.  I’d like to write something about hostels and the backpacking lifestyle, but that will have to wait until later in the week.  For now, here’s something I wrote months ago and never posted:

Late one night, when I was three or four, my family and I were driving in our Ford Escort.  I was sitting in the rear passenger seat behind my mom, to the right of my sister.  My dad was driving.  I sat staring through the window at the full moon and wondered why it followed us, why wherever we drove, however fast we went, the bright white disc stayed with us.  I paid close attention when my dad accelerated.  If we went fast enough, if we caught the moon off guard, might we edge ahead of it?

I asked my dad how it matched our movement so perfectly, and he gave me a practical, scientific explanation about relative distances that made perfect sense.  Rational understanding of the moon filled me with wonder, but I couldn’t quite rid myself of the urge to attribute motive and agency to the moon’s behavior.  I always wanted to pretend that it was watching over us, or that it followed us out of curiosity and wondered why we stared at it so, or that maybe it was lonely and was begging for our attention.  And there you have the duality that exists at my core: the desire to rationalize everything paired with the urge to project fanciful romance everywhere.

The Geography of Identity; Where Blue Bonnets Paint the Hills

My sister, Becky, and me in a field of Blue Bonnets near Barton Creek Square Mall, on the edge of the Texas Hill Country

I’m returning today from a trip to Texas.  I went to Texas intending to find a job there and to return there permanently.  In other words, I changed my mind.  I no longer wanted to live in Kentucky.  I wanted to live in Texas.  But things didn’t quite work out how I had hoped they would.  So now I find myself in a hotel somewhere in Arkansas, about halfway to Lexington.  Leaving Texas is always hard, because I’m leaving home.  I’m leaving memories and people and places that cling covetously to little pieces of my identity.  I considered writing for my blog a piece titled “The Geography of Identity” in which I would map out where I’ve left different versions of myself.  The child “me” is in Austin.  He still clambers up trees, builds tree houses, catches snakes and frogs, scorpions and spiders.  His hair is still blonde and it still hangs to his shoulders.  I can still see him sitting on a hill of Blue Bonnets next to his little sister, Becky, one Easter weekend when he was four years old; meanwhile his parents are still snapping photos of them both for memory’s sake.

I remember that when my sister and I sat on that hill I was worried about crushing the Blue Bonnets.  Actually, I was more than worried.  I felt terrible.  I also remember feeling silly sitting next to my sister, holding a blue Easter bunny and posing for a picture whose significance I would only understand decades later.  What isn’t clear in the picture is that the hill on which my sister and I are sitting rises up from Loop 360, one of the busiest stretches of highway in Austin.  Even twenty-six years ago cars streamed down that road nonstop.  I was aware at the time that we were posing not only for my parents, but also for hundreds of drivers and passengers as they shot out of town into the folds of the Texas hill country or made their way to Austin’s newest mega-mall: Barton Creek Square.

Everything outside of the picture still exists.  The four lane highway carries more cars today than when I was a boy, but it looks exactly as it did almost three decades ago.  The mall has changed very little on the outside.  A few apartments have risen on nearby hills with glorious views of downtown Austin and the thunderstorms that roll in from the east every Spring.  Everything in the picture, however, has disappeared.  The hill remains, of course, but Lady Bird Johnson and her army of Blue Bonnet enthusiasts stopped seeding that hill soon after my sister and I posed on it for my parents.  It wouldn’t surprise me to learn that, in the interest of public safety, the city itself forbade parking on the shoulder of the highway to take pictures.

So now, at any given time of year, in any season, if you venture to the hill along Loop 360 you will see neither Blue Bonnets nor little children posing for their parents.  Instead, you will see pointy cedar bushes creeping down toward the highway.  But in my mind I see something different.  The blue bonnets still paint the hill azure, my sister and I are still sitting next to each other among the forest of flowers, and my parents still futz around us with their cameras, always just a moment away from taking a picture that today recalls a moment grown more poignant with time.

*I’m going to keep blogging, but I’ll probably post about once a week from now on.  I love sharing the world with anyone who happens to read these miscellany.  I’ll keep commenting on other blogs, of course.  Thank you for your time and conversation.  It means the world to me.

Glowing Fields and Shimmering Seas

The boy winced at the sound of the breaking waves and glanced up at his father.  “It sounds like someone’s clapping,” he said.

“Does the ocean scare you?” his father asked.

“Yes.”

“That’s because you’ve never seen it before.”

The father and son stood side by side, two hundred feet from the crashing waves, where the white sand of the beach gave way to rolling dunes and the tall, swaying grasses that anchored them in place against the ravages of the ocean.  Each wore dirt-stained blue jeans.  The father wore a white T-shirt smudged with grease.  The boy wore a white button-up shirt with yellow sweat stains around the collar.   Father and son wore tennis shoes whose soles were cleaving off.  The boy, who rose to just below his father’s shoulder, squinted at the sun hanging overhead in the clear blue sky, then at the ocean rumbling toward the shore.

“It reminds me of home,” the boy said to his father.

“Of North Dakota?”

“Yeah.  The way the waves rise and fall, the way the wind sends shivers through the water—it’s like the wheat fields at home, how they sway back and forth and they go on forever to the edge of the earth.  The wind screams there, too.”

The boy looked toward the sky.  A seagull hovered overhead.  He looked left and right and saw all around him seagulls gliding, landing, waddling across the sand and trailing webbed footprints behind them.  Some fought over fish carcasses.  Others pecked at their grey and white feathers.  Their calls cut through the roar of the ocean.  “It sounds like they’re telling us to leave.  They’re saying, ‘Go!  Go!’” the boy said.

“You think they don’t want us here?”

“I don’t know.  Maybe they don’t care.”

The father glanced at his son and nodded toward the ocean.  His son shrugged, and together they shuffled forward through the sand.  The ocean grew louder.  The gulls grew more insistent: “Go!  Go!” they called.

Now a gust of wind heaved the salty air at the boy and his father.  The boy lost his balance and nearly toppled over.  He stumbled backward and caught himself.  The father nodded toward the ocean again, and again the two of them edged closer.

“Another hundred feet,” the father said to his son and gazed at the sea.  The sun had sunk closer to the horizon and the ocean shimmered.  It roared louder and the fine spray of the breaking waves lingered in the air.

A moment passed and the boy said, “Actually, it’s like home, but it’s also different.”

“It’s angrier than home.”

“Yeah, and the sun is different.  At home it pours out light and the wheat fields drink it in.  When the sun sets, the fields glow golden and they give back some of the light they drank in.  And the fields smell like summer.”

“And what happens here?”

“Here the sea doesn’t drink in the light.  It spits it right back up at the sky.  But some of the light pools on the water and even forms little streams.  And here it smells like dying things, but it’s a good smell.”

“The pools of light are just reflections,” the father said.

“I know.”

“You’re right.  It does smell good.”

The father stood on his left leg and took off his right shoe and sock, then stood on his right leg and took off his left shoe and sock.  The boy leaned on his father and did the same.  He dug his feet into the sand and felt its heat flow into him.  He dug in another inch and now felt a chill pass through him from the cool, moist sand beneath the surface.

His father smiled at him, winked, and took his son’s hand.  Together they dragged their bare feet through the sand, closer to where the ocean pounded the beach.  Finally they stepped into the edge of a retreating wave.  The boy jumped, then laughed.  He pulled his father onward, until the the father was wading up to his knees and the boy up to his waste in the surging waves.

They bobbed up and down, and the boy said, “It’s like it’s playing with us.  It’s not angry.”

“You’re right.  But it could break us so easily.”

The man and the boy held hands and let the waves rock them while they watched the sun sink into the ocean.  “Now I get it,” the boy said.  “The ocean swallows the sun whole every evening and frees it every morning so that it can shine down on the fields of wheat at home.”

“That sounds right.”

The boy and his father waded back to shore, and, not pausing to dry off, put on their socks and shoes and turned their backs on the darkening ocean.

“Would You Like Whipped Cream, Nuts, and a Cherry?” Thoughts on First Jobs

I remember it so well.  I interviewed at the Baskin Robbins on Stassney Lane, in South Austin, wearing navy blue shorts and the first white polo shirt I had ever owned.  I was fifteen.  I didn’t know how a person was supposed to conduct himself in an interview, and it didn’t matter that I was seeking a job that involved little more than scooping ice cream and blending shakes.  It would be my first job, and that fact alone made it the most nerve-wracking interview I would ever endure.

I got the job.  Whatever I was supposed to do to come across as responsible, earnest, and hard-working, I did.  I had worked for a mere two weeks when the manager foisted upon me the unwanted responsibility of closing the store with another employee, Candace, who had been hired the same day I was.  The owner, Boyd, told me I was supervisor for the night.  Candace and I proceeded to leave the store in pristine shape, only to mess up arming the security system, thus triggering the alarm, an automated midnight call to the owner, and a groveling apology from me to him.  “It’s OK,” he told me in a cracking voice.  “This is how you learn.”

I loved working at Baskin Robbins.  I’ve had lots of jobs since then.  For one summer in college I worked at Yosemite National Park, checked people into tent cabins, and hiked to my heart’s content.  I tutored elementary kids in Austin, substitute taught, and finally taught high school in the suburbs of Houston and Dallas.  But none of these jobs brought me the exhaustive satisfaction and sense of mastery that I enjoyed while working at Baskin Robbins.

What did I love so much about serving ice cream?  I loved giving people something they yearned for and that made them happy.  In few jobs do you see the immediate results of your work, but when you serve ice cream the reward comes the moment you hand a little boy a chocolate covered ice cream cone with a fat scoop of Rocky Road balanced on top.  He smiles at you, thanks you, yanks the cone from your hand, and scurries away to join his friends at a table where already they’re making a spectacular dripping mess.  So that’s one thing I loved: instant reward for providing to my customers instant gratification.

I also loved the job because it was perfectible.  If I could master the routines that sustained the store, learn by heart how to prepare every item on the menu, memorize the prices plus tax, and assess the quirks and needs of each customer who walked in, I could achieve perfection.  I knew which customers wanted a server who smiled, which ones wanted efficiency and nothing more, and which ones needed someone to talk to and had actually come for conversation more than for ice cream.

My favorite customers were the regulars.  One man, with a long grey beard and tired eyes, came in every day and ordered a single scoop of vanilla ice cream.  And every day, with those tired eyes, he asked me to ask him a question that would yield a story from him, maybe about how when he was a kid his father used to come home early from work every Friday and treat him to a single scoop of vanilla and a movie.  He wanted me to cheer him up and coax out reminders of the happy boy who still peered out at the world from behind those tired, lonely eyes.

One woman, who wore elegant business suits and huge glasses with thick, rectangular lenses, came in every Friday after work.  She ordered the same banana milkshake every time, and she said hardly a word to me or any of the other teenagers who worked at the store.  But though she was quiet, she smiled uncontrollably—and sometimes, even giggled—when we asked how her week had gone (to which she responded with a hushed, “good.”) and wished her a good evening.  When she skipped weeks and failed to come in, we worried about her, and we told her so the following week when she kept her appointment with our store.

Of course, I wouldn’t do this now, being much older and more mature (ahem), but as a teenager I also knew when a girl wanted to flirt, when to embellish my scooping skills and technique with unnecessary flexing of my (admittedly) skinny forearms.  Thank goodness standards for strength and physique were different when I was a teenager.

I scooped dutifully.  I didn’t steal.  I mopped floors, scrubbed dishes, replaced three gallon bins of ice cream by the dozens every night.  I secured the day’s earnings in the safe, armed the alarm, and made sure every counter in that ice cream shop was spotless before I left each night with my fellow employees, knowing with near certainty that we could not have done better and that the owner would walk into perfection the next morning.

First jobs teach us a lot about people and life.  Service jobs in particular confer on us the privilege of seeing every day a slice of a thousand different lives from a thousand different walks.  The people who live these lives come from poor, middle class, and rich backgrounds.  Some are happy, some are sad.  Others literally walk to your store from a nearby mental hospital.  In such jobs we work with teenagers who attend different high schools and run in different social circles, older veterans of the service sector who have gotten by on low wage work for most of their lives, and owners who have toiled for decades to create their idea of the perfect business.  I would rather not imagine how impoverished would be my understanding of people had I never worked at Baskin Robbins.

Image Credits:

https://marketplace.uidaho.edu/

The Wisdom of Innocence

I wonder sometimes if the simple wisdom we attain as kids is often superior to what we think we know as adults.  Because then, when we were young, it was all so new, and since we were experiencing the world for the first time, new experiences came to us pure and unfiltered through the minds of others.  No one had yet told us how to think and discriminate.  The first sunset we saw must have been the most beautiful we’ll ever know, because we saw it for what it was: illuminating, mesmerizing, mysterious.

Now that I’m older, I rank sunsets.  I can tell you that yesterday’s was more beautiful than today’s, and that the best sunset I ever saw was over Yosemite Valley, in California, when the sun found a sliver of sky on the western horizon through which it lit from below the clouds hanging over the valley and set them aflame.  I can tell you how the normally white cliffs surrounding the valley glowed orange and curved toward the sky like a tidal wave of molten lava about to break on the fragile green valley below.

But how can a sunset over Yosemite compare to the first one I ever saw, when one sunset was all sunsets and all sunsets were beautiful, when ranking was neither necessary nor possible?  Then again, maybe, when I’m struck with awe, I’m actually recalling my first experience of it and I’m feeling it as strongly in the present as I did when I was a boy.  Maybe awe is a state in which we forget to pick apart what we’re seeing, to rank it, to categorize it, to place it alongside other experiences and judge it against them.  Maybe in that moment we slip back into our childhood selves and see the world for what it is.  That feels right.