Thursday, April 19, 2012

I Remember When . . . Or Do I?

            In her essay “To Fashion a Text,” Annie Dillard says that “if you spend a week or two laying out a scene or describing an event [when writing memoir], you’ve spent more time writing about it than you did living it. The writing time is also much more intensive. After you’ve written,” she says, “you can no longer remember anything but the writing.”
            How curious that the writing of a memory should reduce to ashes the experience that sparked it. The memory itself becomes codified, recorded in a fixed form, and more “real” than the original experience. Yet how much, by its very nature, is the recorded memory the product of conscious or unconscious embellishment or even forgetfulness? Is it ever possible to recall a moment with absolute fidelity to the facts of what had actually happened? Or must recall necessarily be flawed, imperfect, a mere rendering at most?
            The writer Susan Richards Shreve says, “So much of memory comes from the beginning of our lives when we know the world for the first time with a kind of clarity.” I think the immediacy of impression that first experience stamps upon our consciousness can provide this “clarity,” searing it into our memory.
            Why else would I recall so vividly now, more than fifty years later, walking up the ramp to the loge level at Yankee Stadium as a boy and spying for the first time the vibrant green grass of the field? In our world of black-and-white TV I had only ever known it as gray. It was a world in which everything on the screen—from Gunsmoke to The Flintstones—was white or black or shades of gray, as if we were watching photo negatives come to life.
            But oh, that grass! I had never seen such green, and I was taken aback by its sudden vibrant appearance when it came into view as I walked up the ramp. I realized at once what I had been missing. Even today I recall the “immediacy” of that first impression with searing clarity and entirely without embellishment.

Thursday, April 5, 2012

Spring Break in Key West

       Perched on a wall outside a restaurant, the rooster squats then launches himself into the air, hurdling over a bus and alighting on the other side of Duval Street. It is one of the countless feral fowl that prowl the streets of Key West, protected by law, tolerated by locals, and gawked at by tourists. A flock of hens and chickens guarded by two roosters scurries about on a side street off Duval. As a woman walking her dog approaches, the cocks perceive a threat and charge. The woman retreats, yanking her yelping dog—his  paws dug in for a fight—in another direction, and the hens and chickens trot about in the road, clucking undisturbed. They are the descendants, these roosters, hens, and their broods, of fowl that escaped from ships docking from Europe and the Caribbean in centuries past. Like the cats that fled the same ships, generations of feral progeny have benefitted from the tolerance for which Key West is renowned.                             
The day we arrive on the ferry from Naples, a three-hour journey over the Gulf, downtown Key West is teeming with college students on Spring Break. It is one o’clock in the afternoon along Duval Street’s main commercial avenue. Many are already reeling. With thumping music blaring onto Duval Street, young people pack themselves five deep at the bar, beers and tropical drinks in hand, rollicking to the beat and pouring out onto the street. Not quite the girls gone wild scenario one might expect on the beach, yet these young girls and the hordes of strutting males they lure parade like the flocks of feral chickens just a few blocks south.
            “What?” the guys shout over the din of the music. “What? . . .”
“Cluck cluck cluck cluck ,” the girls reply.
“What the cluck? . . . “the guys proclaim as they scurry about on the road in pursuit of the girls.
The tourists stroll on by, perhaps wistfully tolerant.