Sunday, November 23, 2008

Life, Death and Time

This post is a day late; my apologies.

I know I’m not alone in always thinking about JFK’s assassination every time the calendar hits November 22nd. Just looking at a picture of Jackie Kennedy in that little pink suit brings all the horror and drama and significance of that incredible weekend rushing back to mind. It was a terrible, seminal, and in some ways magnificent moment. Among other things, it killed a dream, ended the openness and access that both the public and the media used to have to public figures, and it made television the unifying social force it is today.

But for most people under 50, the death of JFK is just dusty history, as distant and removed and unfamiliar as the assassination of Czar Nicholas, and just one more thing we tiresome Baby Boomers cling to, like Woodstock and Kent State. Just another day on the calendar; just another date in the history books.

The passage and perception of time, and the understanding of events in their context, are so interesting, as well as mutable and enormously subjective. When I was studying Spiritualism and psychic development, I had a brilliant teacher who often said that time is completely fluid: the present is in constant flux, the future is always changing shape, “and the past is always changing, too,” she used to say, “but don’t tell that to people; it makes them anxious.”

Indeed, the changing past is our constant, disturbing companion, rendered invisible by ignorance and often distorted by malicious intent – invisible, as in: knowing nothing about everything that’s ever happened anywhere, so far as many young Americans are concerned, the ones who giggle as they struggle to name the first US president, but can’t; distorted, as in: those who would have you believe that the WWII Holocaust never happened – and wwii is an audio device. If you live long enough, you could die of despair.

Not to mention the weight of Life’s Big Issues as they impose themselves on the minutia of daily life, sometimes with the suddenness of an out-of-control car barreling onto a sidewalk, sometimes with low-key style, like a gracious best-selling author at a book store signing event, lending an air of wisdom and distinction to otherwise awkward chatter and anonymous autographs.

The latter style presented itself on Wednesday, when a couple of dear friends had their second child, a little girl who was scheduled to be born at noon via cesarean birth; talk about malleable time. The former style was the order of the day on Thursday, when I officiated at a memorial service for a talented young composer who died most unexpectedly the previous week, the close friend of another dear couple I know. Talk about “life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.” (If you don’t know who said that, Google it…!) At their request, I said sage and comforting things without mentioning God or quoting from any kind of scripture – which was fine with me, since God can be of great solace to some folks at times like that, but to others, religion is just an irrelevant pain in the ass, and I totally get it.

On Friday, minutia held sway as I slept as much as possible. Then I awoke in time to contemplate Life and Death while making a chicken casserole for my friend and neighbor of more than 30 years. She’s 94, and we’ve been having dinner together almost every night since last March, because otherwise she wouldn’t bother to eat. She has senile dementia: not as devastating as Alzheimer’s, but very much the same kind of mind/time-fuck for the person who has it and can’t remember much of anything from moment to moment, and, very disconcerting for the people around her, who fear they see their own disintegrating brain and vulnerable future reflected in her frightened eyes.

Then this morning, after CNN left me breathless and nervous about all of the day’s life-and-death current events, I kept myself company while washing the dishes with the 1965 film, Go, Monster, Go, the kind of movie they used to use to great comedic effect on Mystery Science Theater 3000.

I won’t bother to explain why, just suffice it to say there was a scene with a bunch of teenagers dancing to rock music. Back in actual 1965, movie scenes like this used to make me nuts, because the terrible made-for-the-movie music they used bore no relation whatsoever to the real music of the day; neither did their klutzy dancing or silly outfits. I used to complain to friends: “In 50 years, people will think this is what the 60s really looked and sounded like!”

Which, of course, they do. Just like people today think the 50s (an era of repression, boredom, and clunky style) was actually like an episode of Happy Days and filled with what interior designers now call mid-century chic. Go figure.

Word of warning: If you didn’t live through it, don’t automatically trust what history tells you about it. And if you did, don’t automatically trust what’s left of your memory. Keep a journal, and remember: time marches forward, backward, and all around you. In truth, we really never know what the hell is going on.

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