Time moves in one direction, memory in another. — William Gibson
This week, an old friend sent me a photo of myself, circa 1978. In the picture, I was thin, long-haired, and standing barefoot on the porch of an old farmhouse where we lived, just outside of Columbia, Missouri. It was a shock to see it. I don't remember my friends and I taking many photographs, and I didn't remember this moment, but there I was, captured on film, wearing a blue T-shirt and bell-bottom jeans. That long-ago moment happened, even though I had no memory of it.
Memory is a tricky thing, especially when the years pile up. I recently watched the documentary, Salinger, about the reclusive author of Catcher in the Rye, Franny and Zooey, and precious few other works. J.D. Salinger was one of my favorite authors when I got out of college. I probably read his books in that farmhouse.
I learned a lot from the documentary: how Salinger was terribly impacted by his World War II combat experience and by witnessing the Nazi death camps as the war was ending, how he thereafter fixated on young women, eventually marrying three 19-year-olds at various times in his life. According to one ex-wife, he was a selfish, obsessive jerk.
My memories of Salinger's work were mostly about his characters' quest for authenticity, their fascination with Buddhism and Eastern philosophy, and their abhorrence of the phony, shallow people that surrounded them. I remembered the books as being brilliant. I decided I should revisit them in light of what I'd learned about the author. Probably a bad idea.
As I reread Catcher in the Rye, Franny and Zooey, and Nine Stories, I was struck by how much of Salinger's writing was dialogue interrupted by incessant descriptions of lighting and putting out cigarettes. It seemed dated, talky, not at all how I remembered it. What once seemed authentic and edgy no longer did.
Then memory doubled down, as the news of David Bowie's death flooded the internet on Monday. Videos of his songs were unavoidable. On social media, everyone had a story about how his music changed them in some real way. Bowie died as he lived — on the edge, pushing boundaries. His final video, Lazarus, was haunting and thought-provoking and beautiful, everything that seems to be lacking in so much of our music and culture now.
"Phony" was Holden Caulfield's favorite word, and phony is what we're seeing everywhere. The line between what's authentic and what's noisy and meaningless has seldom been more blurred. For far too many Americans, musical talent is defined by the ability to wow the judges of The Voice or American Idol. If there are Bob Dylans or Neil Youngs or Joni Mitchells out there now — and there surely are — their road to getting heard is long and hard.
Our politics, like our music, has also been corrupted by money and television ratings. Sound bites, bigotry, and controversy get you on Meet the Press to bloviate for millions of people (see Trump, Donald). Talking serious policy positions and discussing issues in an adult manner makes you John Kasich talking to 17 people in an Iowa pizza joint.
Phony is the new reality. And it's not a pretty picture.