Category Archives: memoir

my past from the air

(In DC for the Everyday Democracy board meeting): We landed through clouds that ripped open just as we passed above the Kennedy Center, revealing Northwest DC spread out over the airplane wing. It was my seventh landing in DC this fall and probably my twentieth since we moved away from the city in July 2008. Before that, I had spent two decades there. For me, the panorama of Northwest represents the place where our children were born, I was married, unforgettable good and bad news arrived, and the ordinary rhythm of commuting and shopping played through my twenties and thirties. When I see that view disappearing on northward flights, I feel that my youth is also falling behind in a great chunk.

The view is of “DC,” the vernacular city of Metro trains, DC Public Schools, Safeways, summer evening concerts at the Zoo, and the dreaded DMV–not “Washington,” the federal city of power and glamor, nor “Washington,” the tourist destination with its museums and monuments. But the three cities intersect. If you live in bourgeois Northwest, you probably know people who know powerful and glamorous people, and you occasionally visit those museums and monuments by the Mall.

Today, while on a conference call by cell phone, I strolled through Oak Hill Cemetery, where lie Dean Acheson, Jefferson Davis’ infant son, Myrtilla Miner (an abolitionist who founded the DC Normal School for Colored Girls), dozens of congressmen, several descendants of Martha Washington, a man who was “promoted to Assistant Chief Engineer, DC Fire Department,” and a recently interred man with an Arab name and a quote from Khalil Gibran on his grave. They and many diverse others built the city that becomes one studded reliquary as you view it from the air.

in-flight nostalgia

(On a plane from Boston to San Francisco) I spent every childhood summer in England–in a different home almost each year–and have returned there repeatedly in adulthood. Whenever a long time passes without a visit, I feel subtle nostalgia growing. Here’s the kind of thing I miss:

A summer morning, cool enough to require a sweater and jacket outside. The sky has been light since 4 am. The bathroom window is almost always a frosted pane of glass on a hinge, set in a thick stone wall. There’s no screen, because there are hardly any mosquitoes. Open the hinge and damp air flows in, carrying strong smells of pollen, rich soil, and new growth–even in the heart of London, although there you can detect engine exhaust as well.

The hot and cold water flow from separate taps, the hot coming directly from a gas heater overhead. It steams in the sink. There’s never a shower, just an elaborate coil of metal pipes that hangs on the side of the tub along with a steel basket for the soap. Because of the high voltage, the electrical outlets are big plastic boxes with on/off switches. Layers of paint cover old wallpaper; wires are tacked to the baseboards. Cleansers give the room an ineffably British smell.

The staircase is long and narrow. Bacon is thick and intensely salty. Tea is strong. The insides of the mugs are tea-stained. The grass is luxuriously thick and green. Cumin wafts from restaurant doors, and the glittering cement pavements are sticky from last night’s spilled beer. An unmarked white delivery van rushes past, pinning you against a bowed stucco wall. Tattered music billboards, surveillance cameras, Oxfam and Barclay’s Bank on the High Street, black fences topped with spears, zebra crossings, beds of lavender and rosemary bushes.

losing one’s past

    “The cradle rocks above an abyss, and common sense tells us that our existence is but a brief crack of light between two eternities of darkness. Although the two are identical twins, man, as a rule, views the prenatal abyss with more calm than the one he is heading for (at some forty-five hundred heartbeats an hour). I know, however, of a young chronophobiac who experienced something like panic when looking for the first time at homemade movies that had been taken a few weeks before his birth. He saw a world that was practically unchanged–the same house, the same people–and then realized that he did not exist there at all and that nobody mourned his absence.” — Vladimir Nabokov, Speak, Memory

I have a different problem. I feel my past shifting from personal memory into objective history and thereby ceasing to be fully mine.

When I was a little boy, the 1940s seemed an entirely different epoch. It was the lost world of my parents’ youth, of FDR on the radio, genocide, jazz, Marines on Iwo Jima. It was black-and-white, sad, and dignified. But now the decade of my childhood, the 1970s, is closer to the Roosevelt Administration than it is to the present.

I presume that when I walked down the streets of London or Syracuse, NY, holding a parent’s hand, I did not especially notice the wide lapels, mutton-chop sideburns, punk graffiti, decaying American downtowns, and leftover Blitz bomb-sites that characterized that era. I probably focused on the perennials of childhood: cracks in the sidewalk, low walls for walking on, crunchy leaves or splashy puddles, food smells and parents’ voices. But now I can remember hardly anything from a first-person perspective. Instead, I see myself from the outside, a representative of the period, shot in lurid Kodachrome like a used album cover. The image is historical, long-gone, much more like the newsreel footage of 1945 than the real world of today.

Washington memories

I spent this morning in DC (speaking at the Woodrow Wilson Center) and was back in my new home of Boston by mid-afternoon. It was a two metro-system day. DC is where I lived from age 22 until last July, and it’s where I experienced most of the “transition to adulthood”: my last graduation, first full-time job, first apartment, first mortgage, first publications, marriage, kids, and even one kid’s graduation from high school. Needless to say, it is full of nostalgia for me. Here are some of today’s experiences that triggered memories: fall leaves crunching underfoot on a hot and humid day, official buildings shimmering in the smog at the end of long vistas, African American voices and faces (relatively very scarce in Middlesex County, MA), the “Style” section of the Washington Post, Southern accents, huge expanses of sidewalk, knots of people in suits with government ID’s hanging from their necks, soldiers in desert fatigues, the Metro coasting quietly between stations, and commuters on their way from places I have been–exurban subdivisions in Loudoun County, million-dollar cottages in Chevy Chase, condos in Silver Spring, and row houses in Shaw.

“the buzzy philosophy element”

I’m spending occasional moments cleaning out my office after 15 years. It’s an excavation into the forgotten past. For example, I had no recollection of this letter from a British editor. The subject is Something to Hide, my novel that was later published by St. Martin’s in the US:

This started off quite well–or intriguingly at least–with the themes of philosophy and conspiracy nicely built, the characters of Zach and Kate making slow but steady progress and the plot structure being established. Somewhere, though, Levine fucked up and from halfway through this winds down into a rather dull trudge through overly familiar political-thriller scenes, tedious shoot-outs and not nearly enough about the historical conspiracy so nicely hinted at in the early stages. It ends up as dull and routine which was a shame after the promising start.

I can imagine that this might do something in the US all the same–it has certain parochial characteristics which would normally prevent it being done in the UK but which America seems to like. The buzzy philosophy element would certainly provide an angle in marketing terms and even though it’s dull, the book has a certain charm. I don’t really fancy this for Arrow at all, but I wouldn’t be very surprised if it sold for a quite a lot in the US.

For the record: there are no shoot-outs, it sold for very little in the US, and I’ll take “dull” but with “a certain charm” as a compliment. It’s better than “dull and charmless.”