The only thing I found really interesting in this book was Twain's contention, in an essay about medicine, that he was living at a pivot point in history between a long period of stagnation and one of rapid progress: "So recent is this change from a three or four thousand year twilight to the flash and glare of open day," he writes, "that I have walked in both, and yet am not old. Nothing is to-day as it was when I was an urchin; but when I was an urchin, nothing was much different from what it had always been in this world." This is dismissively hyperbolic, of course, casually dismissing the Axial Age and the Renaissance and the 1660s and so forth, but it's an interesting angle (and gives steampunk more depth).
A few days ago I was talking with some people about our sense of what's "recent" and what's "long ago." I opined that I tend to think of everything from about 1994 on as "now," possibly because the summer of 1994 was when my life started to resemble my life now: finished with college, teaching test prep, writing in my spare time, using the Internet. (To tie this in with the earlier item, certainly the main difference in day-to-day life between my childhood and my adulthood has been the advent of the search engine. Kids who've grown up with the net probably can't imagine what it's like to wonder about something and not be able to instantly summon up information about it... looking at my browser history I see that some of the idle musings I've been able to get the answer to with a click have been: "What was the makeup of 1980s button-music band Nu Shooz?"; "What exactly is a cataplectic seizure?"; "What does the logo of Oklahoma's USBL team look like?"; "How many people have the name that Jen and I have discussed giving our hypothetical daughter?"; "What can you make with baby spinach and coconut milk?"; "How many people did Colin Ferguson kill on the LIRR?" When I was a kid these questions would have required a trip to the library at best and been unanswerable at worst.)
But, after further thought, I find that there's not really a dividing line in 1994. 1993 certainly doesn't feel like "long ago," when I think about it. Nor does 1990, or 1987. Even 1981 seems now-ish... yet 1981 is as far away now as 1958 was then, and 1958 is a different world. Meanwhile, it feels like it's been an eternity since March. What gives?
What I've discovered is that I have two sorts of memories. Some memories are basically intellectual: I remember that something happened, and these memories tend to grow more distant as time passes and eventually fade. I remember that I had so-and-so as a student last fall, for instance, and it feels like a million years ago. But then there are those memories that get captured as full-motion video with all senses recorded. Sometimes this is deliberate (first kiss), other times not so much (I have a very distinct memory of looking at bits of glass on the blacktop as I crested the hill after PE and walked to the locker room in junior high). Sometimes they're extended sequences, sometimes less than a second. And when I play back these memories, it's like virtual reality: it feels like it is unfolding again. And as such, it is happening now.
So when I think of 1993, I find myself walking back to Clark Kerr Campus on a the sunny, breezy August day, listening to a Juliana Hatfield CD on my headphones, cutting past my long vertical window on the way to the front door of Building #2, walking down a dim hall to my long, skinny room and taking off my headphones to listen to the copy of "Heart-Shaped Box" that by brother had taped off KROQ and left on my answering machine, and it is 1993. When I think of 1987, I'm working in the Troy High School library on a summer afternoon, the air smelling of dust and books from the 1950s — a drafting book with marvelous diagrams, an anatomy-for-artists book with an even more marvelous naked "girl archer" photo reference — compiling Orange County Academic Decathlon study books with Sam Jeng, Libby Lyle and Heather Mackenzie, a silver portable TV I'd brought from home and placed along the south wall playing Oliver North's testimony to Daniel Inouye. I am wearing a t-shirt with a glow-in-the-dark wildcat on it, and it is 1987. So how can 1987 be a long time ago? I was just there five seconds ago as I typed that sentence! 1981? I'm on Orange Unified School District bus #23, sitting in the dark avocado green seat fifth from the front on the left side, looking at the corrugated metal back of the seat in front of me, a brick-wall pattern of elongated football shapes, "Centerfold" by the J. Geils Band playing on the Mighty 690 and piped through the bus, when, at the bottom of the counterclockwise arc down the Nohl Ranch Road hill, we're pulled over and a cop gives the seedy longhair who drives the bus a lecture about putting children's lives at risk with his speeding. And it is 1981. I know this because I am really short.
This time shift will be even more convincing when I have Alzheimer's.
I was going to write about this earlier, but I was busy and then the timing was off. But then I read an article that annoyed me anew. The relevant part was this:
U.S. Rep. Mark Udall of Colorado stated that "under President Bush, we have basically sold out our environment for the profit of the special interests."
A couple of months ago John Kerry was busy fulminating against the "special interests" in every speech. Apparently this is the stock in trade of Bob Shrum, one of the big figures in the Kerry campaign. But, uh, don't we want people to have some sort of investment in society? If you're not part of some special interest group — teachers, insurance executives, environmentalists, tobacco farmers, bicyclists, fundamentalists — who are you? If being part of a "special interest" group makes you a villain, does being completely disengaged from civic life make you admirable?
What's wrong with "under President Bush, we have basically sold out our environment for the profit of people who run polluting companies?" I mean, that's what we're actually supposed to be outraged about, right? It's the actual polluting that's wrong, not the practice of being involved in politics. (Similarly, it's not taking money from polluters that's wrong; what's wrong is actually weakening environmental law. If you take the money out of the polluters' pockets and then strengthen the laws, that's a double win.)