CXI. We’ll Always Have Paris

July 9, 2013 — It is disconcerting to see celebrities on the cover of AARP Magazine who are of your children’s generation.

What happened? Is AARP so desperate for funds – I can fill up my tall recycling bin nearly weekly with AARP fundraising solicitations – that they’re letting 10-year-olds into their membership? Or, maybe I’m so old I’ve forgotten the last decade. Yet, again, maybe I would have remembered had I seen it flash by were it not for my developing cataracts.

On a recent Sunday evening I watched a TV tribute Prince Charles gave honoring Queen Elizabeth’s diamond jubilee. He pulled out some old long boxes – not dusty, because in the castle, whichever one he was in, presumably they have people to dust those things; he fingered through cans of film, and selected some old family reels.

He put one on the projector, sat back in a comfortable chair, as interested as I was to see what played, and narrated. Here was Queen Elizabeth as a young girl, Princess Margaret, King George VI, the Queen Mother Elizabeth, Prince Philip, Lord Mountbatten (a favorite uncle); and Prince Charles and Princess Anne as children. Prince Charles is seven years younger than I, so we are of the same generation. I remember when King George VI died and then watching on black and white 1953 TV the coronation of a young Elizabeth II.

Viewing this documentary tribute, I felt as if I were sitting in an armchair beside Prince Charles, chatting easily, alternately chuckling and tearing over the fleeting family images.

I felt so easy with Charles’s unpretentious manner. What could have served as merely a lesson in history for me recalled memories of Sunday evenings past: My brother and I were kids, then. Our family would gather in the living room after a Sunday dinner where we’d draw the shades and douse the lights, the projector illuminating the screen with slides, black and white and color, of family adventures photographed by my father or my uncle. My uncle, in particular, loved taking photos. To watch these slideshows was always exciting for my brother and me. We eagerly anticipated such evenings. Upon these evenings I call now with charmed nostalgia. We were a close family.

Indeed, since our grandparents had been born in the 1880s, my brother and I had rather a Victorian upbringing – not that he adhered to much of it; he was the renegade. I, however, followed, most of the time, that Victorian protocol I was taught. This involves keeping in touch with friends and family, having concern and being supportive, sending RSVPs and thank you notes. Though admittedly I find it hard these days, inundated with information and emails, I do my best. I am, therefore, a relic. I find my typical straightforwardness progressively in time misunderstood, especially by succeeding generations. What I express as a sincere offering is misconstrued as my expecting something from the recipient. These days, who cares? That’s the mantra. The word sincere is not in their dictionaries. They expect that you expect something from them.

Last Sunday the fire siren went off at the hose company a block from my house. A fire truck came to a house a block down the street, it turns out. The firemen put a ladder up to a second story window, opened it and climbed in. There was no smoke. I don’t know what happened. That’s all I saw.

This event reminded me of a few days prior when I had emailed my friend R to see if he was all right. “You’re very quiet,” I said. “You must be into something. When my brother was a kid and was quiet, we knew he was into something.”

R was just busy working; but my brother one day when he was about three had locked himself in the bathroom. Our mother had to call the firemen, who came with a ladder, climbed through the second story window, unlocked the bathroom door and let him out.

While our firemen were attending to the event in the house down the street, three teenagers, two girls and a boy, went from house to house picking flowers from my neighbors’ flowerbeds. They got to my house, “Your flowers are really pretty,” shrilled one girl of my bright, orange-red gladiolus. There were just two blossoms and they bloom gloriously for only about a week. “You’d better not pick them,” I said.

The girl replied, “It’s my mother’s birthday and we’re picking flowers for her.”

“And I’m sure your mother will be pleased with a birthday bouquet you have stolen,” I told her.

She said, “Were the people home?” They got into their car then and drove away.

“Where do these people come from?” asked R.

“Willynilly,” I said. “That’s in Arkansas, I think; in the Ozarks. It’s where Moriarty is from, I believe.”

“Oh, no,” said R. “The Phantom of your blog is more sophisticated than that.”

“Well,” I said, “the other day he told me he was going to visit his family in Willynilly, and he took his banjo and left.

“I think his family is originally from Massachusetts,” I added, by means of complementing his character with an element of historical sophistication. “I think his family retired to the Ozarks.

“Anyway,” I went on, “stealing flowers from a garden someone conscientiously planted for their pleasure and for the beautification of the neighborhood, is like stealing elements of someone’s soul. It’s a metaphor for all the uninformed, callous insensitivity fashionable today, the ‘all about me,’ syndrome. No one wants to take the time to actually think, to gain insight into the situation or to consider history: ‘I’ve got mine and you have yours to get.’ No one bothers to check the facts; they just haul off and spout platitudes. Few care about you; you’re on your own. They prefer looking into the cracked mirror, pleased with the distorted image they see there. It’s like the narrow aisle down a carnival sideshow.”

This is why I have the friends I have. They’re not of this ilk.

“How about the humbug [R’s new favorite word he recites after reading The Wizard of Oz] surrounding Socrates’s death,” said R. “At more than seventy years of age the state condemned him to death for telling the truth.”

Socrates didn’t spout platitudes; rather his method was to ask a series of questions thus encouraging his students to think for themselves, enabling both teacher and student to gain insight into the human condition, to get at the truth. His intention was to lead men to an awareness of their ignorance, out of false common beliefs, using the dialectical – logic and reasoning – in argument and discussion. Ultimately, because Socrates disagreed with those in governmental control, he was accused of being an atheist, corrupting the youth of the city (Athens), and condemned to death. He drank the hemlock and off he went to Elysian Fields.

Well, that was a long time ago. …Wasn’t it? The human condition has not changed, only the superficialities.

Notwithstanding, that’s how my father and my uncle raised me, to use common sense, logic and reasoning, forethought. Many pictures of these incidences flash across my mind. I do my best.

Until recently, nostalgia has been considered a psychological disorder, ever since a Swiss physician coined the term in the 17th century. In Greek: nostos and the accompanying pain algos – a longing to return home. Nostalgia has been shown to counteract loneliness, boredom and anxiety. “It makes people more generous to strangers and more tolerant of outsiders. Couples feel closer and look happier when they’re sharing nostalgic memories. On cold days, or in cold rooms, people use nostalgia to literally feel warmer.” This according to a July 9, 2013 New York Times story by John Tierney, titled “What Is Nostalgia Good For? Quite a Bit, Research Shows:” Moreover, the story states, even though you may be forward thinking, nostalgia serves to give your life roots and continuity. It provides texture to one’s life and gives one strength to move forward. Although nostalgia has its painful side – bittersweet emotion – it makes life more meaningful and death less frightening. Speaking wistfully of the past, studies have found, makes people more optimistic and inspired by the future. It makes us more human, like Odysseus who used memories of family and home to get through hard times. But it’s not homesickness.

This Times story goes on to say, “Nostalgia was originally described as a “neurological disease of essentially demonic cause” by Johannes Hoffer, the Swiss doctor who coined the term in 1688. Military physicians speculated that its prevalence among Swiss mercenaries abroad was due to earlier damage to the soldiers’ ear drums and brain cells by the unremitting clanging of cowbells in the Alps.” Heh-heh. I have to snicker. Maybe this speculation is true, after all: nostalgia is caused by the clanging disorder surrounding us today. While bouts of nostalgia may be triggered by an unfortunate event, nostalgizing – researchers distinguish it from reminiscing – helps us feel better, even though the memories aren’t all happy.

A quick way to induce nostalgia is through music, researchers have found. Uh-oh, I’m in trouble. I love music and listen to it nearly all the time; and through that, one may feel warmer. So-o-o, not a preferable summertime preoccupation; although – how could I ever forget my teenage days at the shore (Southern New Jersey) in the summers of 1957-58-59 and the popular songs on the radio: the music was simply a part of the surf and the salt air, the boardwalk, toasted cinnamon buns and canteen dances. Happy memories of physiological comfort contribute to survival, inducing us to seek food and shelter longer. On the other hand, there exists “self-discontinuity” nostalgia, as defined well in “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes,” the song by Stephen Stills, letting the past remind us of where we are now, that sense of loss and dislocation. That can make you physically ill; it can make you crazy, delirious perhaps. But this condition is atypical and, generally, people have a healthier sense of self-continuity when they nostalgize frequently.

People who are leery of intimate relationships – “avoidant” – reap small benefits from nostalgia compared with people who crave closeness.

Even people in nursing homes can benefit from nostalgia when they focus on their past in an existential way; that is, “what has my life meant?”

It is therefore important to build “anticipatory nostalgia,” a nostalgia repository of memories to be.

So, plant the flowers and grow them. Even after the blooms have left the stem, the songs their scents and colors sang to you then will provide comforting memories for your future. Nobody can steal these from you.

Journalist John Tierney concludes his story recalling Humphrey Bogart’s quote: “We’ll always have Paris.”

—Samantha Mozart