by Jerry Waxler
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While searching the internet for my own last name, I found an article by a Caroline Waxler, about a television show “Mad Men” that shows office workers in the sixties. Caroline, who happens to be my niece, knew abstractly that women had come a long way but didn’t comprehend how far. Could it have really been that bad just a few decades ago? To find out she asked her mother. The discussion not only gave her deeper insight into the history of feminism. It also provided mother and daughter an opportunity to share their stories.
The article was interesting to me, not only because Caroline is on the web. She’s always up to something. Her latest adventure is launching the website mainstreet.com, which manages to combine the seemingly unrelated world of celebrities and personal finance. The more interesting aspect of the article for me was that it challenged one of my basic assumptions about the transmission of human knowledge. Until I read the article, I assumed Caroline would have known exactly what life was like in the sixties. I had some vague notion that the information would ooze over to her through the media, discussions with older people, and her extensive education and reading. Now that I’ve thought it through more clearly, I recognize my folly. By the time she entered the business world, the behavior that shocked her on “Mad Men” was no longer just obsolete. It was illegal. Most of the upheaval took place before Caroline was born and was over by the time she was a little girl.
As I thought about Caroline’s revelation that times have changed, I had a revelation of my own. Many powerful culture trends are obscure only a generation later. This simple observation offers me a new way to look at my past. Instead of seeing events through my own eyes, I gain fresh perspective by seeing my world from the point of view of a younger person who didn’t know my world. I brainstormed this notion and turned up a few scenes that I can add to my stack of vignettes.
- After a day at my all-boys high school, I took the subway to work at my father’s neighborhood drugstore in North Philadelphia. Family-owned drugstores and all-boys public high schools are nearly extinct.
- Occasionally I took the subway by myself into center city, and sat in the balcony of the Philadelphia Academy of Music to hear orchestra rehearsals, or went to the listening room of the main branch of the Public Library to hear classical music on scratchy 78 RPM records.
- On summer evenings, before we had air conditioners, our family sat on the patio of our row home and talked to the neighbors. One summer, when my brother Ed was home from college, we sat out on the porch and played chess every day. He was a nerd, too.
- While waiting for dinner I sprawled on the living room floor, reading the comic section of the newspaper. Our television was in the basement, which is also where Ed assembled a high fidelity amplifier he was going to take with him to his college dorm. I helped him by following the diagram and soldering transistors.
- I was a freshman in college when I first heard the word “marijuana.” I had no idea what it meant, and didn’t even know the concept of recreational drugs.
As I look back through my life, I realize that culture is not a steady thing. The world around me has changed in small ways that gradually accumulate. Only when I look across a few decades do I see how the small changes added up to profound differences. A memoir is a perfect place to highlight these changes, explore them, turn them into stories, and share them with others. By striving to explain these differences more clearly, I can add depth that will help people learn about the past, while sharing the authentic world in which I lived.
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In the period of your memoir, what lifestyle “givens” that seem so obvious inside one period might seem foreign to people a generation later?
Remember a situation when you were telling a younger person about your life and you realized that they didn’t know what you were talking about. Fundamental differences are hard to explain, which makes them excellent writing exercises. Take such a situation, slow it down, and write it in richer detail that will provide some of the background that will make it more understandable to someone who wasn’t there.
Note: Some people could accuse me of narcissism for looking at the internet for my name, like looking in the mirror too long. Others call it smart marketing. I have written an essay on the question of whether a memoir is narcissistic. I still need to write one about the blurry line between narcissism and self-marketing.
Note: Here’s Caroline Waxler’s article if you want to read her thoughts and her mom’s response.
Note: I’m reading a remarkably simple and powerful memoir, Colored People: A Memoir by Henry Louis Gates Jr. about growing up in the fifties in West Virginia. He wrote it for his kids, who didn’t know his world. And I get to watch, and share his observations, learning about a slice of life I did not see for myself.