So today is the 55th anniversary of my birth. (Do a little math and you’ll have my birth year, which is enough to check in at my orthopedist’s office but not much else.) Birthdays are generally weird, out-of-body experiences for me, as I think I do a pretty bad job of what Joan Didion once wrote that we should all do, namely “keep on nodding terms with the people we used to be,” and on my birthday those people tend to pop up whether I want to renew our acquaintance or not.
It’s been a generally weird year too, if you haven’t noticed, and it’s ending with a bang. The pandemic that we’re supposed to be post- is not going away, even as the people who run our institutions are bowing to political pressure and acting like it is. My high schooler will in a few days return to a school that will no longer have a mask mandate, in large part because my state’s attorney general is bullying school districts into ending mandates. In a society that is as post-racial as it is post-pandemic, books are being banned in schools and hundreds of anti-antiracism (and other kids of bigotry) bills are lining up at state houses across the country. Republican-dominated state houses are also busy finding ways to rig future elections by gerrymander and wholesale replacement of election officials. And the January 6 conspirators are writing books laying out their plans, including the 100 lawmakers they had lined up to help them overturn the election, and as yet none of them seem to be paying any kind of price.
One of the people I used to be who popped up today is pictured up above, and tonight we’re getting reacquainted. I have no memory of that picture being taken, but from the haircut, the shirt, and the furniture, it was taken in the mid-1970s in the Jersey shore house on stilts where my family spent our summers. Seeing it has made me remember the summer of 1973–I’m guessing a year before this picture, but I’m really not sure–when my mother taught me how to draw faces while we watched the Watergate hearings. Lying on my stomach with a drawing pad, I had hours to sketch the faces of the president’s men on the TV screen. I also absorbed Watergate–if not the details of what had happened and was happening, then certainly the feelings of those hearings, the feelings in our beach house. I also learned something of the details about Nixon and company from Doonesbury, as I learned most of my popular culture from Mad magazine.
What I think I learned from the hearings and from Garry Trudeau (and, come to think of it, from Mad), in addition to how to draw a little, was complicated. It was scary to learn that there were men in charge who couldn’t be trusted, who did bad things and could (and should) be mocked for it. But there was something empowering about the second part, learning that there were places, in and outside of Washington, where those men could be called to account, either officially or through the power of words and drawings. So the loss of innocence about the president, about authority, was accompanied by the gaining of faith in the power of institutions and individuals to criticize and try to set things right.
I don’t know how much that kid could have articulated about all of this at the time. As I said, we haven’t kept in very good touch. But having him stare out at me tonight and remembering things about those summers down the shore–the games of kick the can in the sand streets, bodysurfing for hours, finding dead sand sharks and those little live crabs that burrow back into the sand when the waves roll back out–hasn’t been so bad. And it’s reminded me of one of the sources of the anger I can’t stop feeling these days at the people in positions of authority who risk our lives and the future of our country to further their careers, to line their pockets, maybe to hasten the apocalypse. But it’s also reminded me of what people were calling, for a little while, resistance.
I can’t help wondering what this particular person I used to be would think of the person I am now. Joan Didion, who died a few days ago, described the reappearance of the people we used to be like this: “they turn up unannounced and surprise us, come hammering on the mind’s door at 4 a.m. of a bad night and demand to know who deserted them, who betrayed them, who is going to make amends.” I really don’t know. I’ve ended up making a living talking about words and how we use them and sometimes using them to talk about bad actors and structures and about ways to resist them, but at 4 a.m. it sometimes doesn’t feel like much. Did I desert that kid with the wide-open face? My dad was born five months earlier than Didion, in July 1934. At moments like this, on birthdays, a couple of bourbons in, woken up out of our day-to-day half-slumber, we could be forgiven for wondering whether we’ve made our parents proud, whether at the end of our lives we will have made our younger selves proud, even whether our parents, near the end of their lives, are on speaking terms with the people they used to be. We could wonder whether our kids will remember themselves when they get to the middle of their lives, or nearer the end, and whether they will look back and know what the people they used to be would think of the people they’ve become. And we could wonder whether our children will have grown up in a world where it seemed like the bad guys could be fought off by word and deed and the institutions that shape their lives could be saved, so that their older selves might have some hope in the face of the inevitable fuckery of people who want to take advantage of power rather than use it to serve the people who put them in position to do so.
It’s a lot to think about.