My mother and I were sitting in a booth in a J.C. Penney’s lunchroom, sometime in the late ‘60s or early ‘70s, when the store manager made an announcement on the intercom, and suddenly my mind began to work in a new way. I can still hear the tenor of the man’s voice and the slight echo from speakers at various depths in the store, but his words are gone. Something banal, certainly—“Shorts are on sale in Aisle Six”—but one word made me think of another word, then an idea, which connected to others, all faster than I could acknowledge thinking them, and I had a sudden image of the world as a dense spider-web of associations, fragile and shimmering. I excitedly explained all this to my mom, who smiled and told me to finish my ham steak.
Don’t discount the cafeteria epiphany. Metaphors for how the brain works (it’s like doors opening, like April weather, like a steel trap, computer hardware, computer software) now include pictures of glowing clouds of neural activity captured by Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging, extending a metaphor we’d already begun—the brain as model of the universe itself .
This parallel between the architecture of the brain and its functions also looks like a prewriting exercise we use in rhetoric classes, called clustering or mapping. Students write a word in the middle of a blank page and circle it, then draw lines out to related ideas, eventually filling the page with branching thoughts. The dendriform maps let students see their thoughts grow more complex.
I see this model in other aspects of mind. Curiosity is a happy wanderer on the same paths. The empirical method is faith in the existence of paths at all and in their inevitable revelation by observation. And when Gertrude Stein said that the working method for art in the twentieth century was collage, she meant we place frames around the connections we see.
For me, there’s also an emotional tone to my experiences, made up of many things. I’ll start to think of some event or place, and I can feel what I know in a way that approaches synesthesia . Only later do I work my way back (often in writing) to find reasons for what I feel, and to invent coherent narratives about them. Try explaining, sometime, to your acquaintance Chaz, why a perfectly lovely summer evening feels ominous to you.
The death of Don Ho caught my attention because I realize he would be a common feature—for reasons personal, subjective, and sometimes mistaken—on several mappings of my mind, titled, variously: The Sixties, East Meets West, Memory, and Stubbornness Against Loss.
My parents probably never saw Ho perform when they stopped in Hawaii, going to and coming back from Vietnam in the early Sixties, but later my mom used his TV appearances as a cue to reminisce about our time abroad. That long decade became to me a time of connections, openings, new ways of thought—many of them disastrous—the likes of which America hadn’t seen since 1917.
“When I think about the Sixties now,” Joan Didion writes in The White Album, “I think about an afternoon not of the Sixties at all…” On my mental map, there are also things both of and not of the Sixties: The Dalai Lama begins his exile, Ho Chi Minh is ignored in the corridors at Versailles, the Beatles meet the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, poet Gary Snyder is a bhikku, and, yes, Joan Didion waits for a tidal wave and divorce in the Royal Hawaiian Hotel in Honolulu. Don Ho is in there too, with his easy-going, slightly slurred voice. Ho was of Hawaiian, Chinese, Portuguese, Dutch and German descent, and like Hawaii itself, served as a popularizer of Pacific culture, a gateway to the East.
The children of older parents may become sensitized to time. My parents were technically old enough to be my grandparents, and I was raised on my mom’s stories of the depression and WWII. When I tell my students that my one of my grandfathers was born in 1883, they look at each other with such disbelief that I always mentally check my facts the way you might pat your pockets for your eyeglasses. Could that be right? My sons’ great-grandfather would be 124 years old, so they’re condemned never to know him, or most of the family I grew up with.
For some, that absence hangs like perfume in the air, and I stubbornly look for The Real Thing. Picture me staggering around Saigon, a few years back, looking for the little clinic where I was born, as if it would make my family whole again and give me a more complete sense of self. The effort is in vain; The Thing—what it was like to live there in 1963—is lost. Gertrude Stein said Ford Madox Ford came over from London to look at the paintings she collected, to peer at them and measure them with his thumb, then he went back home and tried to make them for himself and got them all wrong. She called him “The Measuring Worm.”
Escamotage, Henry James called it, the sleight of hand of the historical novelists that he hated, who tried to pull a three-card Monte con on the reader. They didn’t know the true emotional tone of life in a distant place and time, so they threw mere data around instead. Today’s version would sound like this: “ Well, here I am in my Model T Ford, the farmer thought, and it shore is a nice day in 1918. I’ll pull in here to the feed store and buy me some seeds, since, bein’ a farmer, I’ll need them seeds to plant crops and earn a livin’. Whoa—look at all them other Model T machines. This must be the start of the modern era.”
Even if you possess them honestly, tones are difficult to convey. The Sixties to me include a moment in another diner, another time, when my mother, who was angry with me, said, “If this war in Vietnam goes on long enough, you could have been born and died there.”
The heat that summer was so pervasive that it insinuated itself with emotion to become some new thing. People said it was like a squatting beast, like a wet horsehair blanket, and they joked that they seen a dog chasin’ a cat and they was both walkin’. But it was no joke in those days, before air conditioning was widely affordable, to live in the oppressive humidity between two sluggish massive rivers, and many died.
I dreaded those nights, as a kid—hours of sweated sheets, the whine of mosquitoes, eternal nods of an impotent Emerson fan made in the Forties. Dim shapes swam up in the room, colorless, formless, until finally there came an exhausted dawn, when the sun struck sharp and hard and soared high overhead. The news told of those killed, and then of those who had held out hope also being killed, and it seemed as if America herself might burn like a self-consuming matchstick.
I guess I’m stubborn, but I keep trying to get Chaz to understand why dusk is sometimes too pretty a word for the dying of the light. How can I explain the overall tone of the implacable heat of a summer evening, in the crotch between the rivers, as helicopters flail in the red dust of Southeast Asia, and Don Ho plays on the radio?