Saturday, December 29, 2007


One of the startling truths about getting older (if not wiser) is realizing that a lot of the cliches you've heard secondhand from parents and teachers for most of your life are actually true. Drinking too much Coke actually will make you fat. Saying 'please' and 'thank-you' really is important. And time truly, completely, convincingly DOES fly by as your past gradually dwindles and dies.

Just last night, I watched the Jerry Seinfeld documentary Comedian, about his efforts around the turn of the millenium to start a new comedy routine from scratch, and at the end of the film, Seinfeld is shown driving down the highway towards a meeting with Bill Cosby, and Seinfeld marvels at how strange life is, at how, when he was a little boy, he used to sit in his room and listen to Cosby's records over and over again, and now here he was, going to meet the man, not as a fan but almost as a peer.

I suddenly remembered: I'd done the same thing.

(Listened to Cosby's records, I mean. Not met him as a peer.)

Listening to records is not only a lost art, but so is listening to stories on records, comedic or otherwise. I used to have a small record player encased in a bright blue box, and quite often I would sit on my bed, crack open the book, and marvel at what I could hear. I had stories about the Incredible Hulk; I had records replaying the Star Wars trilogy; I had comedy albums found in the basement of my house, leftover relics from the sixties and seventies. And, yes, I had Bill Cosby in one of his most famous stand-up routines, pretending to be Noah, relating how God came down and ask him to build an ark, of all things.

("An ARK? Riiiiiiiiiiiiiiiight. What's an ark?")

My friends and I would sit for hours (or what seemed like hours), and laugh ourselves senseless. We'd take the arm of the record player and move it back and forth across the grooves of the spinning black disc, looking for the best part, the funniest part. No rewind buttons here. (When I was very little, I thought that every time I placed the record player's arm on the disc, a light went off somewhere, perhaps in some underground studio, and a DJ-like dude would instantly start transmitting the signals necessary for me to hear Bill Cosby's comedy. I thought records were simply another form of radio.)

There's something nice about the notion of a summer afternoon in my memory, bright and warm, punctuated by the sound of children's laughter, while Bill Cosby told a story through the modern technological marvel of a rotating black disc. (And, since I wasn't a churchgoing kid, Cosby's narrative of Noah and his ark was pretty much the closest I ever got to that story, so it was, most likely, my first introduction to Biblical history -- and good-natured skepticism, too. Aha! So Cosby's the reason I'm agnostic... )

But nostalgia can be dangerous, too, I suppose. Today's kids, grown old, will fondly remember firing up various videos on YOU TUBE, while their children's children will have sonic and sensual experiences implanted directly into their brainwaves. Many of the university students I've taught in the last little while in Japan, the YOU TUBE generation if ever there was one, have never even seen a real, honest-to-goodness record, the same way I'd rarely seen a phonograph machine. (I still shake my head when some of my students tell me their ages: "What do you mean you were born in 1989! That's impossible! I was starting high school then! Back To The Future II had just been released!")

This is how it should be. Time marches on. Life moves on. The records of last year turn into the eight-tracks of last week, followed by the tapes of two days ago and the CDs of yesterday. (And do I remember the first time I listened to a CD? Indeed I do.) And now CDs, too, are becoming obsolete, almost quaint.

Perhaps the most memorable thing about memory itself is that we can compare what once was with what now already is, and within that comparison, for better or for worse, we can see how far the world's come.

Or, at the very least, how far we've come.