Wednesday, May 27, 2009

The Past is a Foreign Country

Who are these people? The tall boy on the right was a friend and the boy tearing up the book taught my how to play chess. The others have vanished from memory. I just found this picture in the last box of my parents' photos I've gone through. It was taken at Eunice Knight Saunders School, which I attended from Sept. 61 until the school closed down in June, 63. I had mentioned this school in a recent Firesign Theatre chat and to my astonishment, got an email from someone who also attended this school. I was in grades 6-7 and the person who emailed me said he was in first grade at the time. My memories of this school are few. It had horses and a swimming pool, both actually required classes. But in 63, the school was falling apart, perhaps due to a lack of concern or cognition on the part of Mrs. Saunders, who kept firing teachers. Alzheimer's? Often I'd go to school and there's be no classes, which is why the book-tearer in the picture taught me to play chess. I also wrote a lot of plays. I haven't played chess in decades and the plays I wrote in the early 60s are as alien to me now as that vaguely remembered school.
I googled Eunice Knight Saunders and discovered there was a group of old students online. They also remember the horses and the pool (although without the trepidation I remember its high diving board) but they remember it much more fondly that I do. I don't remember them at all, if I knew them then. Same is true for my Junior High (Milliken, in Van Nuys) and High School (Montclair, also in Van Nuys). I walked around Milliken when I was last in LA a few years ago. It now seems to be gated. But at least I can see through the gates. Montclair is as fiercely closed as Sauron's castle. It was a motel when I attended (65-68), most famous for having the last episode of The Fugitive filmed there than for anything academic. It had no library, no labs, and such a bare bones athletic programme that I was the tennis coach. Although the school must have been half female, I only remember one girl, from the tennis team and my French class, and two boys, who were in the grade above me and stayed friends for a few years after we graduated. About the only pleasant memory I have of my 3 years there was a debate I was in. There was a student, whose first language wasn't English, as I recall. In the debate, he sounded like Elmer Fudd. Unintentionally. It was the funniest thing I'd heard up until that point in my life. I had totally forgotten it until I saw his name among the alumni. I recognized a couple of names but his was the only name that triggered a memory. I see Elmer is now a famous professor and probably has no more memory of that debate than I did until seeing his name on the school website. If I heard a tape of that debate today, would it still be hilarious? Probably not.

The multiplicity of selves becomes more intuitive as the time span increases. Social psychologists have found certain differences in how we think of ourselves versus how we think of other people—for instance, we tend to attribute our own bad behavior to unfortunate circumstances, and the bad behavior of others to their nature. But these biases diminish when we think of distant past selves or distant future selves; we see such selves the way we see other people. Although it might be hard to think about the person who will occupy your body tomorrow morning as someone other than you, it is not hard at all to think that way about the person who will occupy your body 20 years from now. This may be one reason why many young people are indifferent about saving for retirement; they feel as if they would be giving up their money to an elderly stranger.
"First Person Plural," by Paul Bloom, The Atlantic, Nov. 2008

That captures it well. The person I was 40-50 years ago is as alien to me as the other people in old pictures. These pictures are post cards from some distant place I had once visited but no longer can even imagine. At the end of his life, my father went back to live in his childhood more than 80 years in the past. My mother is going the same direction. Such Alzheimer's-enforced resettlement may be beneficial for the species but is much less so for a family. Rather than visiting the foreign country of my past, I'd prefer to visit actual foreign countries.