Thursday, September 26, 2013


Now that we’re over a month past my birthday and already past the autumn equinox—cue The Kinks’ “End of a Season”—I’ve been visited of late by some nostalgic twinges about this time of year in other years.  It’s not just the immediate fall-out of turning another year older, I insist, but is rather due to another fact about me and August: I tend to move in that month, when I do move, and that means that September, with its golden days (cue Lou Reed’s cover of Kurt Weill’s “September Song”) mellowing fruitfully into October, has often been a season of newness.  I’ve got a thing for fall, y’all.

Central Park, NY, 9/14/13

The years I find myself reflecting on are: 1979, 1983, 1989, 1994, and 1999.  Kind of regular intervals, huh?  Yeah.  And I guess it’s the loooooooong time since I got me new digs that sets off this wistful recall bit.  It could also have to do with my feeling that time stopped around 2000—I used to call it limbo—and only, maybe, started to get going again around 2009.  I used to quip, “Connecticut is Purgatory—I can’t leave until I atone for my sins, but I had no idea there were so many.”  I stopped saying that somewhere along the way—once, on a return from where I’m from, in 2010, I realized that New Haven just seemed like “home,” for all intents and purposes (except those that make me wish I were far, far away…or at least in New York), and that’s been that, since then.

If all this sounds like I’m watching the clock too much, so be it.  What can ya do?  I’ve always been attuned to that “long withdrawing roar,” knowing, one of these days, I’m gonna ride out of here on the outgoing tide—and I don’t just mean New Haven.  Beyond that—let’s call it temporal sense—there’s the fact that I like to spot-check my memory of things against “the times” themselves, though not in quite so generic a fashion as that may sound.   One’s time is always one’s own, to a certain extent, regardless of what the real world is doing.  Or, at least, that’s how it’s been in my lifetime—in 1979 I turned twenty and in 1999 forty, and after that year there have been some big changes in the world, so maybe that’s what I’m reminiscing about too…

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In the fall of 1979 I’d just moved to Philadelphia with the woman who would eventually become my wife.  I remember this as the time of getting to know the city, which meant a lot of wandering about as the days got gradually cooler, feeling, maybe for the first time since I graduated high school (1977), that I wasn’t losing something with the loss of summer.  Everything seemed rather open-ended at the time.  I attended poetry readings and read poems in public for the first time, making friends who shared writing and reading.  Mary and I were living in a building that was less than elegant, but it had a great location immediately behind the Public Library on the Parkway, and my oldest friend from DE, Tim, lived in an upstairs apartment.  A major family event that fall was the marriage of my older brother.

Frazetta's The Barbarian
I still worked in oil paints at the time, even still did Frazetta knock-offs for cash, but also did a freaky self-portrait I kinda wish I still had.  Off-and-on, I was working on a “poetic prose” work, a kind of metaphoric autobiography.  So much was still ahead!  I hadn’t read the entirety of Ulysses yet, nor any Proust, nor finished Gravity's Rainbow.  I did read the Beckett trilogy at that time, and got into Henry Miller.  I wrote all first drafts by hand and had an electric typewriter.

It was also, very definitely, the end of the 1970s, which was a transitional point I still return to.  The affronts to classic rock that came with disco and punk, respectively, meant a “new wave” was needed, and that was getting underway.  Looking back, one also knows it was the end of the Democratic party’s brief little run with Carter—as a response to Ford—and that the era of Reagan and Thatcher was about to dawn, big time.  So, in a sense I feel privileged to have been old enough and young enough to enjoy the world before those two tireless workers for the enriching of the upper class and private corporations (and defense contractors) took the helm.  Pope John Paul II visited the U.S. and spoke to the masses on the Ben Franklin Parkway, right around the corner from where we were living (that's the public library on the right-hand side facing into the circle, and the art museum way at the end of the parkway, at 11 o'clock).

The Pope of the Parkway

This was the period when Dylan found Jesus and released Slow Train Coming, signaling the first time I turned away from Mr. Zimmerman since becoming enamoured of his peculiar career around 1970.  The album of the moment was Talking Heads’ Fear of Music, but it was also the period when I caught up on the first three LPs—1977, 1978, 1979, respectively—of Elvis Costello.  Throwback music of the time for me was, oddly enough I guess, the acoustic side of Led Zeppelin III, and a few earlier songs like “Ramble On” (actually, not so odd since their swansong (heh) was then too: In Through the Out Door, which included this great track that I will always recall memorably accompanying that “old ceremony” we indulged in so much then, young lovers, and all that). Lou Reed’s The Bells, with its great 2nd side—“Families”—is another album I associate with this time, and the lead-off song on Leonard Cohen’s Recent Songs, “The Guests.”  Oh, yeah, and Damn the Torpedoes.  The new movie of the time you had to see—despite its failings—was Apocalypse Now! So much still ahead, indeed.  I had yet to cut my longer than shoulder-length hair!

Rittenhouse Square

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In the fall of 1983, I was back in New Castle, DE, where I grew up, in an apartment only a few blocks from the family homestead—which meant plenty of grandparent care for the daughter I’d had by then.  In fact, what I remember best about that fall was going into the Wilmington Public Library and taking out books to read to Kajsa.  It was the start of that odyssey of reading aloud to her that took up many of those evenings, and even continued after she was in college.  If I’ve got someone to listen to me read aloud, I’m pretty much a happy camper, folks.  And Kajsa was a captive audience.  The Halloween of that fall is also well-remembered because it was the first one—she was not yet three—she fully took part in.

Kajsa, Halloween '83
It was a great fall, as I recall, full of deep melancholia and nostalgia simply due to the fact that I was back in those environs again.  I had hoped I’d left them for good.  The return caused a lot of ambivalence—there’s an example of great understatement.  I was ostensibly continuing with a novel I’d begun the previous spring, but, with the first of five parts written and work begun on the second, I went off the rails—I blame it in part on the suburban setting, and on a certain over-ambition in the project, but mainly I think it was due to increasing intellectual curiosity about things I knew nothing about. 

Until that point (I was now 24), I’d gotten by with essentially a DIY autodidact approach to things—my heroes being people like Dylan, who didn’t go to college, and writers who lived before post-secondary study was common—but with my increasing enthusiasm for the likes of Joyce and Pynchon (I’d been reading and re-reading Ulysses, Gravity’s Rainbow, and even Finnegans Wake since 1982), I began to see the limitations of being a “know-nothing” novelist.  I was still working my way through Proust’s Recherche and a clear image of that time for me is the apartment furnishings we had in Philly transposed to New Castle, where I sat reading it. By Thanksgiving we had actually bought a living-room set.  Clearly the bourgeoising had begun! 

Mary, Thanksgiving '83

In 1983, American media was beginning its love affair with the Reagan administration.  The tide was turning—as was pointed out wonderfully in a song of the period by The Kinks called “Young Conservatives.”  The children of the hippies wanted no part of counter-culture—they all wanted in on mainstream culture, and the former rebels were, for the most part, becoming enamoured of money and leisure, at the cost of whatever ideals they once had about changing the world.  It was all business as usual, only more so.  The movie of the moment that fall, which caught some of that pretty well, Hollywood-style, was Lawrence Kasdan’s The Big Chill, in part because its characters were believable versions of the elders we younger Baby Boomers could see going through their changes.

The Cast of The Big Chill

Dylan came out of his “Born Again” period with one of his more prickly LPs, Infidels, which had a great sound for the time, thanks to Sly and Robbie, Mick Taylor, and Mark Knopfler, and took a rather dim view of the current state of things, while manifesting some ostensibly pro-Israel sentiments and a feel for Old Testament justice that seemed to put aside all that “turn the other cheek” stuff.  But the music I got wind of that fall that would soon captivate me was produced by a quartet of guys around my age from Athens, GA: R.E.M. had released their debut album, Murmur, and pushed aside, somewhat, my allegiance to the Brit music I’d brought with me in the return to DE, things like Shriekback’s Care, Bauhaus’ Burning from the Inside, and Echo & The Bunnymen’s Porcupine.  Elvis Costello’s Punch the Clock, which came out in spring of ’83, was still a touchstone with songs like “Everyday I Write the Book,” “Invisible Man,” and “The King of Thieves”—all of which worked wonderfully as commentary on my state of mind, in a manner of speaking.  A song “about” the loss of Philly as my stomping grounds was The Psychedelic Furs’ “Goodbye.”  Music that immediately recalls the sound of the time is New Order’s “Age of Consent” and “Your Silent Face.”

R.E.M.: Berry, Stipe, Buck, Mills

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Six years later, in the fall of 1989, I had a double degree in Art History and Comparative Literature from the University of Delaware, had learned to read French and German, and Latin, sorta, and had moved the family to Princeton, New Jersey, where I was to begin studies as a Mellon Fellow in Comparative Literature.  It was a very rainy fall, very wet and humid, and I remember walking from campus to the grade school, where Kajsa was in third grade, on afternoons that were often heavy with clouds or full of after-the-rain sun. 

My most beloved car parked by our grad student family barracks

When school started—is there anything quite as bittersweet as the “Back to School” period of one’s children?—my wife was still commuting to her job at DuPont’s Experimental Station in Wilmington, DE, before she dumped it for a research assistant job in the Psychology Lab at PU.  After all the time spent on the interstate in Delaware, the easy walking distance of everything we did regularly in Princeton, with its air of genteel suburbia, was a welcome change.  I guess I would say things were good.  All I had to do was read a lot and talk about books.  And I was still reading aloud to Kajsa; that’s when we began The Lord of the Rings, the first time.

The music of the time was Dylan’s Oh Mercy, which was something of a return to form for him, after several years of lackluster stuff; and I visited for the first time in any depth the early songs—the Asylum years—of Tom Waits, who had been on a roll since 1983, on Island.  Probably if I really want to bring back those early fall days of 1989, I should put on Don Henley’s “End of the Innocence” or The Rolling Stones’ “Mixed Emotions”—songs from two albums I bought at the time but don’t have much occasion to play. It’s always the stuff you relegate to the past that works best for recalling that past. 

You watch too many movies.

I’m hard-pressed to remember any film of that exact period—I know I saw Woody Allen’s masterful Crimes and Misdemeanors when it opened in October—because we were well-launched into that parental thing of not seeing movies till they came out on VHS (it was still VHS, kids), and it wasn’t till a little later that we started borrowing tapes of classic films from the Princeton Public Library—we didn’t do that until we’d been demoralized utterly by the kids’ fare at the local video stores.  Our in-car tapes—approved by Kajsa, 8—for the 90 minute drive each way to DE (for grandparent visits), were things like a compilation of the Eagles, The Who’s original Tommy recording, and some old Marty Robbins songs my brother gave me (music I listened to when I was in grade school).  You could say that I wasn’t discovering new music so much as re-discovering old music with my kid.

Kajsa, the playground at Riverside Elementary School

I don’t have much to say about the world at the time.  It wasn’t until later in the fall that the Berlin Wall came down, and the collapse of the Soviet Union meant that things had changed, changed utterly.  And the move to Princeton happened months after Tiananmen Square.  What I remember most was the sense that the world was supposedly becoming more “democratic,” which to me meant “more capitalist,” and that meant that the ascendancy of private over public resources, and private profit over public good, would be even more the case in the coming decades than it had been in my first three decades.

The end of an era, 1989

I was 30, and one reason I wasn’t depressed was that I was getting to talk with really smart and sharp people about literature and theories of literature as though they mattered.  And how could they not?  This was Princeton; this was intellectual work; this was meaningful activity—even if the leading lights questioned the very existence of meaning, and even if profit motives were suspect, and even if bastions of privilege and elitism had to go.  I was an earnest reader from a working-class/middle-class background and this was as close to an upper anything as I was going to get . . .   Indulge me.

What did I read that made a difference?  That fall semester of 1989 was the first time I read Don Quixote.  It was the first time I read any Walter Benjamin or Mikhail Bakhtin.  It was finally reading some major pre-nineteenth-century fiction with Thomas Pavel, and starting to explore theories of narrative.  It was a semester of revisiting my early enthusiasm for Nietzsche—in Princeton, professional home of his translator/commentator Walter Kaufmann—with Alexander Nehamas' course on Thus Spoke Zarathustra.  Good times.  Anne-Lise, a fellow first year, made a big impression on me by assigning the Coda to Harold Bloom's Poems of Our Climate, and that set off the reading of Anxiety of Influence, which was pretty major, still. My extracurricular writing was taken up by a series of poems—the first one was awarded an Academy of American Poets prize by Denise Levertov my last semester at UDE—based on the 22 trumps or Major Arcana of the Tarot deck.  I was deep in Agonville, in other words.

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I guess we could say I lost the agon.  With 1994 we move to a more depressive state of affairs.  In September, though, we weren’t there yet.  That was the month I went back to Princeton—having moved to Hamden, CT, in August—to defend my dissertation on “supreme fiction” in Proust’s Recherche, the novels of Joyce, and the novels of Pynchon.  On the one hand, that event—the awarding of a Ph.D. for my extended essay on those three fixtures of my personal pantheon—was the culmination of ideas that had been in play since…1983 at least.

Background: East Pyne, Princeton University

And that’s part of the problem—I hadn’t learned well enough how to employ the discourse of academia at the time.  I was still operating by my own lights, as though what I were after was not gainful employment in the world of postmodern-postcolonial-poststructuralist-Anglophone teaching, but rather the pursuit of some kind of personal clarity about the art of the novel.  Old hat, passé, and my only defense of trying to understand something called “aesthetic experience” in fiction was the fact that I’d studied art as much as I had literature and wasn’t particularly interested in the novel per se, but only in novels of stylistic challenge.  This was not a useful approach in the time of literature as soft science, sociology, and identity politics. So it goes.

In moving to CT, I achieved one dream anyway—to get out of the mid-Atlantic States and into something more like New England.  That was fine, but I wasn’t overjoyed about being in a suburban town like Hamden.  We chose it because we were told that was the school district we should be in—I don’t even remember by whom—and so we settled down in a townhouse right behind the school (with more space than we’d ever had, three floors’ worth, including a huge basement where Kajsa did artwork) and soon realized that the only culture to be had was via the oasis of Hank Paper’s Best Video store. 
Hank Paper

Thus began my daughter’s familiarization with the best that cinema has to offer, on tape. That and my record collection were the basis for instruction, and still quite a bit of reading aloud—like Austen’s Emma, Thackeray’s Vanity Fair.  One of the best albums of the year was Tom Petty’s Wildflowers—possibly his best ever.  I had a tape of it that I listened to on a Walkman while exercising—missing greatly the path along the Raritan canal in Princeton—and I still remember being drenched in melancholy by “Wake Up Time.”  Other big albums for me at the time were Neil Young's Sleeps with Angels, and Willie Nelson's Across the Borderline, and new groups were The Cranberries (remember them?) and Counting Crows whose debut from 1993, August and Everything After, still got a lot of play from me.  If I really want to recreate the fall with a blast from the past: here.  And a song that “said it all,” from Nirvana (Cobain was already gone).

While you might think earning a doctorate in five years on a prestigious fellowship at one of the top three or five graduate schools in the country should be cause for celebration, I actually felt more down than I ever had before—the promise of those five years had shortsighted me, in effect.  If I had my druthers, I would’ve stayed on there, but, having entered the job market the previous year and gotten nary a nibble, I didn’t see much in the way of prospects. It was inevitable that I’d move to where my wife got a job and try to make do.

Sterling Memorial Library, Yale
That meant, in the short-run, a nominal post-doc at Yale that gave me library privileges and the ability to sit-in on courses.  But I’d been in courses for 8 years, undergrad and grad, with a year and a half of dissertation writing.  I wanted to keep writing, but what?  I wrote maybe two poems that fall that I still like.  And read a lot about allegory in an effort to do the ol' conversion of diss into first book bit (I pause for a moment to recall the old Cross Campus Library at Yale and “machine city”), and I entered the job market—one of the rituals of fall that could always be counted on to make anxious and bitter my favorite season.

In 1994, Clinton—the first candidate I’d voted for—had been President for a year, and the Republicans were pissed because a moderate but effective Democrat is the worst thing they can face.  I don’t remember a single thing memorable in world politics that season, except some stirrings in Iraq that would later become a much bigger deal. The main change was that the internet was becoming more and more the inevitable means for every idea.  I was still using an IBM—in DOS—as if it were just a souped-up typewriter and was mainly irritated by having to sign on to my wife’s little box-like Macintosh to go “online.”  Somewhere around this time I began reading all the novels of Don DeLillo, in part because Pynchon’s novel of 1990, Vineland, hadn’t exactly wowed me.

You could say I wasn’t really satisfied with anything at the time, not even with what Emerson calls the sanctity of one's own mind.  I was still dipping into Ashbery: the Selected (finally read “A Wave”), Three Poems, and Flow Chart, as about the only reliable “finding of a satisfaction.” Dylan wasn’t up to much but he did play a fine show at the 25th Anniversary Woodstock concert.  The main thing—and Clinton was emblematic of this—was that the Baby Boomers had come into their own.  Gone were old man Reagan and old man Bush; gone was Thatcher.  It was the time for those born in the ’40s to take the helm, and that meant a lot of reliving or reconfiguring of what “the legacy of the Sixties” was all about.  And I suppose that’s the kind of thing I found myself explaining to my teenaged daughter.  The book you had to read was Fredric Jameson’s Postmodernism, or the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism (1992), and the must-see movie—my friend Joe dragged me to see it down in New Jersey, against my skepticism due to all the hype—was Pulp Fiction, released in October.

Jules announces his decision

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1999.  40.  And for the first time, ever, I was living alone.  Not totawy awone because my daughter was only away at college—in-coming Freshman at Maryland Institute, College of Art—and my wife was only away in Collegeville, PA, helping out with the care of Ryan, her firstborn grandson, who entered the world in June.  So, there I was, on my own, enjoying a respite from family life, a quasi-bachelor and a busy Teaching Fellow, thanks to a great guy, Michael, who was Director of Undergrad Studies in English at Yale, and a dearth of grad students at the moment to take on section duties.  I was the “pinch instructor,” in other words.  Not a tenure-track spot, and not my own courses, but that meant all I had to do was show up and talk about the book of the week.  Or selection of poems.  Or whatever.  And read and grade.  I was now living in New Haven, in an apartment in a Mock Tudor mansion, without a car, and that meant I got to walk a lot, and a walk into campus was about 20 minutes.  This is a great way to live. No parking concerns, no public transportation concerns.  In a pinch, the Yale shuttle stopped mere steps from my front door.  Groovy.

Apart from a lot of campus activities, the other thing I put my time into was devising a series of fictions that would resume and revise that novel I was working on when I left Philly at age 24.  You see, all that time spent reading Proust had convinced me that the translation of life into fiction required the transforming effects of the passage of time, sort of what I’m doing in miniature—and biographically—here.  Which is a way of saying that there exists, at least in my imagination, a “different story” to the one I’m tracing here, and that, in fact, this story is rather boring because I can’t make just anything happen, as I rehearse here the limits of my abilities and the tests of my patience, and my grasp of inspirations, and all that.  The fictive voice is different, has to be.  And I started working on that again in 1999.

For a long time I’d been a regular maker of mix tapes.  My own “Saga” began in February 1978 with the purchase of a Teac and continued to my 40th birthday.  I made a big deal of “concluding it” on my 40th birthday, as though “putting away childish things”—in fact, the main reason for making tapes, for some time, had been to disseminate my associative grasp of my collection to Kajsa, since 1994, and to my two younger brothers, since 1984.   But now, with more solitary time on my hands, I resumed tape-making for myself with a vengeance, and somehow “free” of a certain rationale that dictated the tapes of the Saga.  I might be hard-pressed to define that rationale, or not, but in any case, it might take a full essay to do that “work” justice.  Suffice to say, I had beaucoup de cassettes to stimulate my retrospective mood.

Some songs that went with the nouvelle conditions?  I remember particularly Petty’s “Room at the Top” and Richard Thompson’s album Mock Tudor really set the tone, with songs like “Crawl Back (Under My Stone)” and “Uninhabited Man” and “Walking the Long Miles Home” (I was often on shanks’ mare, true enough).  A song that really nailed it for me was Willie Nelson’s “Home Motel,” from earlier in the ‘90s, and Randy Newman’s new song “My Country” put growing-up with TV in perspective. 
My daughter sent along new, older music to me such as Vic Chesnutt’s About to Choke—“Disintegrate” captures the mood—and I went back to the oldies of my youth (work on the novel meant revisiting the era of my teens) with the rediscovery of prog-rock.  Interestingly, prog-rock had seemed to find its answer in some newish bands Kajsa got into, like Elf Power and The Flaming Lips—this was the time of The Soft Bulletin, a discovery we’d made by seeing them live at Philly’s Electric Factory.  At that time Cutler’s used CD bins were supplying eclectic new recruits to the collection, like The Best of Nilsson, which I will always associate with this time.

Sleeping with your devil mask?

I know I must’ve seen some new release movies, but all I fondly recall from 1999 are The Matrix, released in the spring, and Eyes Wide Shut, released in the summer.  Without transportation to Best Video, I relied on NetFlix, a new, internet thing that mailed you discs.  I remember seeing L’Avventura from Criterion on my Sony and reflected that I’d never seen it so pristine.  It was the time for widescreen viewing on the little screen.

The old portal
And it was the time of finally having a computer that was connected to the internet, albeit via dial-up: Song lyrics! Amazon!  Napster!  Google!  Porn!  AOL Chatrooms!  IMs! Trivia! There was no wikipedia or YouTube yet, but there were other things you could surf, especially with a link through Yale, like online academic journals, much better than creeping around the musty stacks…or not.  And, of course, the art of email, still an acquired taste after all these years, as it’s rare to find someone who knows how to make the most of it, was yet to be discovered.  Back then, it was still relegated to work-based stuff, with students and colleagues mostly.  Email with one’s intimates seemed kind of alienating, somehow.  It was the time of start-ups, the time of fabulous wealth through computers—we were all now and forever enthrall to Bill Gates and Steve Jobs and those guys who made Google.  Y2K fears were stirring, but that would be as nothing to the rough beast smirking toward Washington—by way of election chicanery in Florida the following year—to be borne…for 8 bleak years.

Actually what I remember best about fall 1999 was all the walking, and all the reading, and all the time off-line, and having a three-room, two bathroom place with high ceilings, and lots of windows in my workroom, and a cozy compactness in the bedroom, all to myself.  Just me and the elusive—or illusive—figure Leonard Cohen calls “My Lady, Queen of Solitude.” Oh, and drives to PA, DE, NJ and MD, where discovering Baltimore with Kajsa was fun too—cue “The Streets of Baltimore” by Gram Parsons and “Nobody Cares about the Railroad Anymore” by Nilsson, and “My Good Old Desk” too.

Fells Point, Baltimore

Kajsa has long since left Baltimore for the Boroughs and work in Manahatta, and (hear wheedling voice of Catherine O'Hara mimicking the aged Katherine Hepburn), “I'm still here,” and maybe I’m reminiscing about Septembers because I’m aware of something that has changed recently, or because I’m in hopes of some change ahead.  In either case, it’s part of the fall’s yield to take stock of such things, I suppose.  

November, 2012


John Raimo said...

This is really wonderful, Donald, and beautiful writing. Thank you for it!

Donald Brown said...

Thanks, John. I guess retrospects bring out the best in me...I'm always happy to be thinking about an earlier time!