EXCERPTS: A MEMOIR IN TIME

1.

A black-and-white image of five people around a dining table.

A GATHERING IN NEW YORK CITY, CIRCA 1949 (KARL BISSINGER)

I sometimes think that if reincarnation is real, the twin poles of our moving across time are absolute masculinity and absolute femininity. Each step in one direction or the other gives us a different mix, but our subsequent associations—who we fall in love with, for example—color what comes forward. Biology is never precisely destiny, as long as our human imaginations are intact. Our nature is innate, but it is also situational—malleable in response to people and events. It’s one of our compasses, but the courses we set vary immensely over the expanse of our lives. I sometimes weary of being a man, but I know well that being a woman is a good deal harder, actually. They must weary of being women, too.

Growing up, I constantly had to come to grips with my own nature and decide, if that’s the right word, what to bring forward and, having done so, how to stay on good terms with the rest. I think that’s an important point, how easily we imagine that the rest can be ignored or repressed. The constant unearthing of proof of the folly of doing so is one of the great themes of our times, a cautionary tale that too often is also someone’s nightmare. Making the world safer for human nature is a worthy project. We would all benefit. It’s still tipped in the other direction, but that simply doesn’t work.

The politics and the landscape of sexuality began to change when I was in high school. I worked for two gay florists who lived together above their store in the next town. In the company of my Iowa cousins, I visited Fire Island, where a friend from their town was the island doctor during the summer. This was before AIDS. Gay men took to the beach in the same way that women did on the French Riviera, I observed, barely clothed, their bodies buffed. In men, it felt like childhood. I remember the impulse to remove my clothes, at that young age, and the frisson of running around naked with other boys.

Sexual license in general increased dramatically while I was an undergraduate. What was seen as the hypocrisy of our elders was thrown off. Youth, propelled both by the war and by drugs, hit the streets. In white America—not black America—this was mostly nonviolent. Black America set out to burn the house down. They had less to lose, and good reasons to disbelieve in nonviolence, especially after King was assassinated in 1968. Whites—those whites that turned out—were tired of the line of reasoning that led to a pointless war to which they might be sacrificed. We were close enough to our fathers’ war to know that this one didn’t add up. As children of war survivors, we took staying alive as a birthright.

My generation, which came of age in the 1960s, is often pilloried by succeeding ones for our hubris and narcissism. I remember a writer for a national magazine, Life, perhaps, telling us that we risked being remembered only for smoking dope and making love. Not so bad, my cohorts replied. It seems an odd charge given what we knew even then about our parents’ generation. Didn’t he read the New Yorker?

One difference was that sexual license “came out.” That process always overshoots, but its origins go back to World War II, when everyone turned a blind eye to everything. Our parents tried to button it down, but they also knew what that could mean—the Nazis being the prize example. Coming out is a theme of the second half of 20th-century America. It took myriad forms, but the instinct was the same.

2.

For my mother, being modern meant embracing modern conveniences, like instant foods. In the tropics, canned or frozen foods were a necessity to eat a Western diet, but my mother saw them as a time saver. I don’t begrudge her this, although over time her penchant for prefabricated foods fell out of favor. Pop artists made hay with this aspect of 1950s American modernism. As captured by the deadpan Andy Warhol, it was pretty funny. My mother was modern to the end. I never asked her about Pop Art, but I imagine she thought it was modern, too.

People look back at the midcentury as a high water mark of design. In Europe in 1960, my parents bought some fine pieces of Scandinavian modern furniture for their modern house. Modernity came easily to them, because they’d experienced the modern world directly. They saw the claims of our small town as momentary, however much they might get caught up, day to day, in the mechanics of the plot.

SONNET: IN HELL

Work is tantalizingly close to done.
You eat your sandwich at your desk, munching.
Evenings and weekends always promise fun.
And your book suggests some weekday lunching,
But then those plans fall through. It starts to rain.
On the train, one woman bores another.
“You’re not looking at me,” she says, her pain
unleashed, but then she hurries to smother
any trace of it, plugs noise in her ears
and stares into the middle distance, dead
to the other, like one who disappears.
(A still-permitted death let it be said.)

Life has an eternity left to run.
It’s raining out, but they predicted sun.

—John Parman

NOTES

A Memoir in Time is an attempt to write autobiographically and place what I experienced personally in a cultural, political, and social context. (Don’t all memoirs do this?) I started writing sonnets after reading Invitation to the Dance by Mary Oliver—a book on poetic structure. To be honest, I couldn’t figure it out from this book, although I learned a lot of other things, and I ended up looking at a sonnet by Shakespeare and applying his structure and rhyming pattern. I’d never written poems to this kind of constraint before, and it’s proven interesting. I also discovered that I have a knack for rhyming.

John Parman is an editor and writer based in Berkeley, California

Post a Comment

You must be logged in to post a comment.