If This Isn’t Nice…
by: Dustin Joy
Well I’m not the kind to live in the past
The years run too short, and the days too fast
The things you lean on are the things that don’t last
Well it’s just now and then my line gets cast into these
Time Passages – Al Stewart
Kurt Vonnegut, in his later years, concluded many of his speeches with a simple lesson. He was scrupulous about crediting the idea to his uncle Alex. He felt that a simple mental exercise had made his life better. In Vonnegut’s words:
And I urge you to please notice when you are happy, and exclaim, or murmur, or think at some point, If this isn’t nice, I don’t know what is.
I have been trying to take Vonnegut’s advice to heart. I think his mantra contributes to a better life. I think it works in the present tense but, I would like to suggest, it applies quite as well to events in the past.
Memories are our possessions. More than any other kind of property they belong, personally, intimately, to us. Only dementia can steal away the treasure we possess in our memories. They can be called on for strength in times of trouble. They can be a reservoir of hope, and they can serve, per Vonnegut’s suggestion, to uplift the spirit and remind the downtrodden that there once were good times and might be again.
Sometimes, when I am down or nursing a grievance, I go on a little mental journey. I am buoyed by a lovely memory, a piece of mental real-estate which has been mine for nearly 40 years. It never fails to offer me comfort. I close my eyes and relive an afternoon from my childhood and, no matter the present circumstances, I feel better.
A boy of 14 and a man of 65 are in a boat. They are not speeding down the channel but floating, drifting among tall trees, the trunks of which have been overtaken by a Spring flood. Here and there one can see little mounds of earth poking up through the floodwaters, but mostly it is a wet world. It is a wet world dappled with sunlight and filled with a the croaks of frogs, the plops of turtles, and the startled cries of wood ducks.
The boy guides the wooden boat with a pair of oars. He is a skinny boy with a notable awkwardness in his manner. He is no athlete and mostly lacks grace and coordination, that is, on land. Here he is smooth and efficient, propelling the narrow craft between the maples and the cottonwoods quietly. He executes long power strokes when he can but is compelled, frequently, to retract one or the other oar into the boat, dripping, to avoid bumping a branch.
The boat is a beauty, his Grandfather’s pride, and the boy takes pride in it, too. He takes pride in it’s lovely alternating oak and pine ribs. He loves it for the sleek, elegant curve of its transom and the v-shape of it’s bow. He loves the creaky brass oarlocks and the varnished gunwales. He loves this boat because he knows it’s history. He knows the story of how the boat was ordered from a catalog and arrived at the depot in town on the back of a railroad flatcar.
He can recite the outdoor sagas; this bow piled full of wild ducks and monster catfish whose length matched the boat’s beam. The boy loves this boat precisely because it is an anachronism. It is an oddity among the fleets of metal Jon Boats which ply the Mississippi. Other fishermen have been known to mock it at the boat ramp – impractical. At this point in his life the boy sees the boat as a proxy. He is coming to realize that he himself is, if not an oddity, then at least odd. His quirky pastimes (collecting coins, reading the encyclopedia, flying model airplanes) are symptoms of a congenital “un-coolness” which will be made painfully manifest in high school.
There is a fine line between quirky and weird, after all, between eccentric and crazy. He senses this already. He knows that the lovely cheerleader who sits next to him in English class, will not really be part of his life, his daydreams notwithstanding. If he has to be odd the boy wants, somehow, to be oddly beautiful, like his Grandpa’s boat. That afternoon, enjoying nature, soaking in the sounds, the smells, the warmth, and taking in the wonderful curiosity of floating on an island, the boy is transported. He is transported from the daily life where he is an awkward, bumbling nerd to a place where he is competent and impressive and beloved.
I still have my Grandpa’s boat, and… I am still odd. I retain the memory of that perfect day, and the flood, and the wood ducks, and my Grandpa, sitting in the bow seat, leaning back and resting his head on a boat cushion. I still remember how the narrow sunbeams burrowed through the canopy of branches above and exploded in the rivulets of water running down the oars. I remember the serenity and the solitude and the perfection of the day.
Neuroscientists have demonstrated that the “use” of a memory; recalling it and then storing it away again frequently alters or degrades it. Like the famous telephone game our memories undergo a loss of fidelity and can, in fact, begin to incorporate elements which were not present in the actual incident. But It may be that perfect fidelity is not what matters.
It may be that, as a crutch to mental health, a modified memory is just what the doctor ordered. My treasured afternoon with my Grandpa is sweet to me and though it is possible that it did not occur as I describe it to you here, let alone how I might describe it to you in five years, or ten, it is of great value to my sanity. I miss my Grandpa. I miss the way he cocked his head to listen for geese. I miss the rough feel of his five o’clock shadow when he would puff out his cheeks and I would run my little hand across the whiskers. I miss the way he would pretend to struggle with some simple mechanical device so that I could “help” him. And I miss the genuine and exuberant little whistle of appreciation he would give for some trifling achievement I had obtained. I have never had a better cheerleader, and I never shall.
And so I draw on this memory frequently. I open the rusty file drawer and I pull out the yellowing folder. Inside is a photograph as vivid and as clear and as powerful as it was the day I put it there. I pull it out and I look at it and I remember. I think to myself, and I exclaim, or murmur (as is appropriate) “If this isn’t nice, I don’t know what is.”