Around mid-August every year I go back to from whence I came. This means the Tri-State area of Delaware, Pennsylvania (around Philly), and New Jersey—from the Garden State Parkway to the Delaware Memorial Bridge. Maryland can also be included, particularly Ocean City and, when my daughter was in college, Baltimore. It seems that, no matter how old I get, that area makes me feel younger—because I associate it with a) childhood and teens in New Castle, up to 1979, when I turned twenty and moved to Philadelphia; b) the period of my daughter’s childhood, from her birth in 1981 to 1989 when she turned eight and I turned 30 and we moved to Princeton, New Jersey, for five years, till 1994. I turned 40 in 1999, shortly after moving to New Haven, Connecticut, after five years in Hamden, CT, so it’s easy to see “youth” (everything before 35) as tied to that Tri-State area. Ocean City, MD, acts as a constant reference point throughout that entire time and beyond because my parents began taking us there regularly since 1968. It’s one of the family traditions that has continued beyond the passing away of both of my parents.
Back there this time, in the run-up to turning 54, the Eastern U.S. was experiencing some of the best weather for an August since the year of who knows when. It’s not unheard of, those cooler, before-back-to-school temperatures, but they seem to have been scarce for a good long while. Made all those “green, green grass of home” stirrings all the more powerful. Much as it’s a given that “you can’t go home again,” the trip back home always manages to underline certain changes. And it’s not like this is the only time of year I go back there. I could write about Christmas too, or March, when the year starts edging from winter to Easter, the time of year of my daughter’s birth and another regular visit time. But the feel of mid-August is probably truer to my long-standing associations because “putting in an appearance” is tied to aging, bit by bit, year by year. The fact would be dismal without the constant “home again” return of it all.
Each year—well, each year since I turned 50, probably—I’ve imagined going somewhere else around that time. After all, it’s the time of year when much of the working world goes on vacation, so it seems in keeping with the plurality to go away around then. And “going away” should mean “getting away” from everything all-too-familiar. It may be more than that, though. The longing may come from some incoherent idea that avoiding the familiar haunts would be a way of avoiding “the unwanted birthday,” to use a line from another August baby, Elvis Costello. To find myself somewhere else—wouldn’t that be almost as good as becoming someone else? Maybe it’s the temporal shift—end of summer, start of the next year of life—that sets the mood, but why can’t that be avoided by a spatial shift—a step into the great unknown?
It hasn’t happened yet, that supposed break away from the usual. And that means facing the New Jersey Turnpike, almost always a trial of one’s patience, and, sometimes, Battery Park, on the Delaware River in Old New Castle, where a longing to be elsewhere probably hit me strongest back in my teens. I recall walking the three miles from my house to the Park pre-dawn one day in the summer after graduation. My recollection of the trek is bound up with a poem I wrote sophomore year about a guy wandering along the Delaware shore thinking of a girl who is at that moment in bed asleep and dreaming of him. It was over-wrought with rhythms picked up from reading Dylan Thomas, I think, in the Mentor Book of British Poets, but there were rock bards like Bob Dylan and Ian Anderson mixed in too, and maybe even Christopher Fry. And still it had something about it very characteristic of where I was and where I wanted to go. It would be hard to say, now, what comprised either of those places, both quite as imaginary as my twin protagonists, but they were based on ideas garnered from books. It has taken me a long while to concede that real places might be as worthwhile, in their way, as those I've imagined.
The walk is also mixed up with a very cool August and my first reading of Hesse’s Narcissus and Goldmund. Mind you, I don’t know why I should keep mentioning Hesse recently except for the brief flurry of my renewed interest in Nietzsche, but he can always surface as the background figure who left his mark on my teens. And that book provides a fantasy of medieval Germany that suits someone enamored of a time more austere than the cluttered twentieth century.
Perhaps such references are simply a way of saying that “where I wanna go” may be some imagined Germany—I hear Jeff Tweedy singing, “impossible Germany, unlikely Japan.” Something like that, I guess. Well, if Japan is too unlikely, my wife has recently been talking about us going to China next summer, which should certainly fill the bill of the unknown, perhaps even the unknowable. Until then, if then should happen, it’s probably best to recall the words of Garth Elgar: “I’d like to boldy go where no man has gone before . . . but I’ll probably just stay in Aurora.” New Haven isn’t New Castle, certainly; there is some little difference between where I’m from and where I am, but not so great as might yet be the case.
"I want to see something I’ll never see again"
—Paul Westerberg, "Meet Me Down the Alley," Come Feel Me Tremble (2003)