Saturday, September 17, 2016

You Can't Go Back. Nor Should You.

Me, with Bart, our cat, in 1978.
Yeah, I know, he doesn't look thrilled.
But he treated me like a brother.

Last year, I went back to my old neighborhood. I saw my elementary school. It's in decent enough shape. I saw the streets I used to walk home on. They were always cracked, but now, more so than ever. The houses look the same, but the trees are taller, playing games with the perspective.

I saw the house where I grew up. The new owners have painted it a hideous color, not pink like you'd find on a 1950s Cadillac, but a weak salmon pink that should never be on anything.

I frequently have dreams that I'm back in my old house, but as old as I am now. I haven't been inside the house since we moved away, 25 years ago. And any desire I have to see that house, and that neighborhood, is, if not gone, then, certainly, satisfied for the time being.

I thought that this would mean the dreams would stop. They haven't. Only now, the dreams have changed. In one, the door that should have led to my old room led to a Dunkin Donuts. In another, the door that should have led to my parents' room led to a bookstore. Places where I find comfort?

Someone once said, "Nostalgia is a longing for a time that you didn't think was so great then." You tend to think that your youth was a simpler time, because "Absence makes the heart grow fonder."

The election campaign is a battle between those who want Hillary Clinton, thinking she'll bring back the time of her husband Bill's Presidency, with its peace and prosperity, forgetting the turmoil of the 1990s; and those who want Donald Trump, thinking he'll "Make America great again," drawing us back to a time when no one questioned that America was great, and making others wonder exactly when that was, and coming up with answers like, "When people knew their place, and anybody who wasn't white, Christian, straight or native-born were barely seen, and women were absolutely never heard."

It's the same in every generation. Bill Clinton was elected by people who wanted to bring back the promise of John F. Kennedy's early 1960s; Ronald Reagan, and before him Richard Nixon, by people who wanted to bring back the Dwight D. Eisenhower 1950s; JFK by people who wanted to bring back the New Deal of Franklin D. Roosevelt in the 1930s, but without all the Depression, Dust Bowl, racism and war clouds; Eisenhower by people who wanted to bring back the Roaring Twenties of Warren Harding and Calvin Coolidge; FDR by people who wanted to bring back the promise of the Woodrow Wilson years of the 1910s; Harding by people who wanted to bring back the "full dinner pail" of William McKinley at the turn of the 20th Century; and so on.

It doesn't work that way. True, the Baby Boomers could have their "free love" without worrying about AIDS; but my generation didn't have to worry about the draft, and could visit Mississippi without worry about the Ku Klux Klan. (Although, if Trump wins... )


In 1982, Bruce Springsteen, who also grew up in Central Jersey (but is old enough to be my father), released a song titled "My Father’s House." In 1990, he explained it during a concert. He said that he used to drive by one of his childhood houses all the time, and when he started seeing a therapist, he asked why he was doing it.

The therapist explained, "You're going back, thinking you can make it right again. Something went wrong, and you keep going back to see if you can fix it." Springsteen realized that the therapist was right, and told him, "That is what I'm doing." And the therapist told him, "Well, you can't."

This is what Thomas Wolfe meant in 1939, when he wrote You Can't Go Home Again. Even if you could use your adult wisdom and money to avoid the bad things of your childhood, you cannot access the good things. After all, you'd look ridiculous on the swingset of your old school.

What are my dreams of my former house and my former schools about? What am I trying to fix? Am I trying to get my parents to treat me like an adult? That would be pointless. My father is dead, but, more often than not, he did treat me like an adult in his last few years. My mother? She only treats me like an adult when she needs help around the house. Otherwise, I might as well be six years old again.

Am I trying to protect my younger self from the bullies who used to beat me up at school, and on the way home? That would be pointless. It's done. It can't be undone. They're not there anymore. Hell, at least one of them -- only a few months older than I am -- is dead. I don't know what happened. I know he had a wife and children. I was sorry for them, but not for him. But that kind of attitude is self-defeating. Anybody who was rotten to me then, if he's still a rotten person, it is the people around him now who need to address it. I can't go back in time and protect that little boy -- and even if I could, what would I do? Slam a child against a tree and yell at him to leave that boy alone? That would make me even worse. Go to his father and tell him, "If your son ever bothers Michael again, I will beat the hell out of you"? As if I could, even now. 

Am I trying to make my school days easier, for reasons that have nothing to do with violence? Am I trying to make the teachers treat me better? That would be pointless. Most of them had it hard enough, without snotnosed Jersey teenagers making it harder. I'm sure many of them hated their jobs as much as we hated our "jobs."

Am I trying to take the defeats the Yankees had after their 1978 World Championship, and turn them into wins, by undoing trades, saving Thurman Munson's life, or whatever? How would I do that, exactly? You can't change time. DeLoreans were junk cars, they don't have flux capacitors or plutonium, and would probably fall apart if you got close to 88 miles an hour anyway.

Am I trying to make the girls like me better? Useless. Besides, so many people I grew up with have gotten divorced at least once. I've been spared that, because I've never been married. And having spent such good times with my nieces has eased the pain of not having children of my own: I've been able to pass down the things I've learned, without having the great responsibility of parenthood.

Am I trying to erase a big mistake I made at age 16, and another at 17, that still hang over my head today? I still find it hard to talk about them, and won't here. I can't change them.

Besides, whatever's happened to me, good and bad, has made me the man my nieces like now. That's more important to me than any pain I've had in my past.

In 2008, I read Bloody Confused! A Clueless American Sportswriter Seeks Solace in English Soccer, by Chuck Culpepper. A jaded sports scribe, he discovered English soccer, and it restored his love of sports. He wrote, "It was like childhood... with beer."

I became a fan of the New York Yankees, the New Jersey Nets, and Rutgers University when I was 7 years old. I became a fan of the New Jersey Devils when they arrived when I was 12. I became a fan of East Brunswick High School when I got there, at 14.

I became a fan of London's Arsenal Football Club at age 38. I chose them because I wanted a London team, because of the parallels with New York; because I knew some of the players from the 1998, 2002 and 2006 World Cups; and because, with their red shirts, their neutral-zone trap, their stylish passing, and their freaky goals, they reminded me of the Devils. Then the other similarities kicked in, such as the cheap owners and set-in-his-ways general manager. But I don't regret becoming a fan of the Gunners -- in English parlance, a Gooner.

And I was welcomed into the world of Goonerdom. As Arsenal fan Nick Hornby put it, "If you put in the hours, you're welcomed, without question, into a new family. Only, in this family, you all root for the same people, and hope for the same things. What's childish about that?"

Some of the chants, songs and reactions, that's what's childish about it. But most of it is good clean fun. What's more, the world of international club soccer was, literally, a whole world full of stories that I hadn't heard before. It's like with my nieces: Everyone else I knew had already heard my stories, multiple times; they hadn't. My experiences were all knew to them. The Arsenal, their opponents, the other great clubs of Europe and the other continents, it was all things I didn't know. And I dove in -- you might say, considering my team of choice, with a cannonball.

It was frequently fun, and frequently frustrating. In 2014, Arsenal won the FA Cup, their 1st major trophy since I began watching.

I have now won 10 American League Pennants, 7 World Series, 5 NHL Eastern Conference titles, 3 Stanley Cups, 2 NBA Eastern Conference titles, 1 very dubious Big East Football Conference Co-Championship, and 2 FA Cups. (I can't count the 6 League titles and 6 FA Cups Arsenal won between my ages of 7 and 38, because I didn't even know they existed.)

The great Brooklyn Dodgers catcher Roy Campanella once said, "Baseball is a man's game, but you've got to have a lot of little boy in you, too."

Sports can turn boys into men. It can also make grownups feel like kids again.

I'll never be able to tell my child self, "Here's $100 bucks. Save it until you turn 18 and can legally gamble. Then bet on the following things... "

I can finally accept that you can't go back. Nor should you. The old saying from that other great Southern writer, William Faulkner, "The past isn't dead, it's not even past" is a lie. It's gone. You can honor some parts of it. But you can't regain it or rejoin it.

Honor the past. Prepare for the future. Live in the present.

You might help people in the time to come. You can't help anyone who was around back then, not even yourself. But there are people who are counting on you now. Live up to that.

I'm doing the best I can. It's not easy. But when I see my nieces smile, I know that it's worth it.

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