Wednesday, 18 June 2014

What's it all about, Alfie?

You work and work for years and years, you're always on the go
You never take a minute off, too busy makin' dough
Someday you say, you'll have your fun, when you're a millionaire
Imagine all the fun you'll have in your old rockin' chair

Enjoy yourself, it's later than you think
Enjoy yourself, while you're still in the pink
The years go by, as quickly as a wink
Enjoy yourself, enjoy yourself, it's later than you think

This past weekend was Fathers' Day here in Paris (and the US, as well - odd that the French celebrate Mothers' day a couple of weeks after the Americans do).  It's my ninth father's day since our little boy came to the world in August 2005.  I had a slight cold over the weekend, but still got to enjoy the day with my family watching our son perform in a violin recital.  Later, the quiet Sunday was ended with a nice card and a gift of violin cuff-links.

I don't know if Fathers' Day is one of the ginned-up holidays, created by card companies (and I also suspect based on the empirical evidence, companies selling golf equipment and apparel), but it's always been a nice day in our house.  We've in the past gone on a picnic lunch in New York's Central Park, played golf, or gone out for dinner at a nice restaurant.

In addition to my own celebration, this year was marked because it was the first for my baby brother James, who, late the previous Tuesday, welcomed his own first born - a little boy subsequently named as James, Junior - into the world.  The birth occurred late in the US, so it was the middle of the night here in France.  We were anticipating the arrival as we went to sleep here, as James's wife had been admitted to hospital earlier.  Thanks to social media, we are now of course able to get accounts right up to the minute, but the baby had not yet been born at 1 AM, so I had to confirm his arrival when I awoke the next morning.

I was thinking about a few things, both the day of James, Jr's birth, as well as Fathers' Day.  The above quote - from a song entitled "Enjoy Yourself; It's Later than You Think" - reminds us that we are each given a certain allotment of time to spend how we choose, but advises us to do so carefully.  The birth of a baby is another such reminder that time is relentless, and while it may be without end to the universe, is most assuredly not so to us.

Like James's son, our own was born just before midnight, and I can remember very clearly my thoughts when I first saw him, and what it is why like to touch him.  That evening - to be honest, early the next morning - as he was given his first bath, wrapped, and finally brought to my wife's room in his tiny rolling bassinet, I thought about how, more or less, we all come in to the world in the same way.  There are, of course, differences - some children are born via Caesarean Sections, some at home with mid-wives, etc.  But for the most part, we as human beings share pretty similar experiences.  I thought at that moment about what my son's life would be.  I thought about my own infancy, and how my parents must have had similar experiences and reflections.  I thought of my own father and his parents, and what they were wondering in the first hours of his life.

No one can know what his life's story ultimately will be - what sort of person will he be?  Will he be happy or frustrated or angry?  Will he enjoy professional success, however that is defined? Personal fulfilment?  Will it be a long or short life?  To paraphrase Dickens's opening sentence of David Copperfield, whether I am to be the hero of my own life's story, these pages must tell.

In the first, timid moments of life, our options are as wide as they ever will be.  Whatever we can possibly achieve - whatever we can ever be, can never be as complete a set down the road as it is at that moment.  Life is made of events.  Of choices.  With each choice, we move down one path, and often, away from one that we can't really ever regain.  Where I am now is the result of a sequence of large and small steps leading here.

You cannot go back.

Another thought I had over the week-end was that, as the song goes, it really is later than you think.  When we are young, time is one of the few luxuries at our disposal.  As we age, we gain many things, but at the price of realising that our time is finite, and it is brief.

My brother - and his twin sister - were born in July of 1973.  I was about three and a half years old when my parents brought them home to our house in suburban Los Angeles.  It's in fact one of the earliest memories I have.

There is a recent book about the science of memory, in which the author's research indicates that most of our memories survive from about the age of four, and that very few retain any memories earlier than about 30 months of age.

I can still quite clearly remember sitting in a small, wooden chair in my room at three, holding my tiny, baby siblings.  They seemed to me small and remarkable then.  The book uses a phrase "flash-bulb" memory to describe a phenomenon of gradual refinement and embellishment of memories to the point that the basics are more or less true, but the remainder are "filled in" by stories, by imagination, and most importantly, by our own brain's desires to create the reality we want.  I don't know how much of my memory of the summer of 1973 is real, and how much is constructed fantasy.

It doesn't really matter, I guess.  To me, my brother and sister are forever trapped in the amber of memory, despite the fact that I now must face the truth that neither is a week-old infant.  My baby brother, who once was small enough for a three year old to hold wrapped in a blanket, who ran along with me in hand-me-down Toughskins jeans and square, too-big glasses is now a parent to his own little boy.

My young nephew is now a week old, and he still for the most part has all the potential he had the moment he entered the world.  He, too, must ultimately be the hero of his own life's story.

Welcome to the world, James, Jr.  It's my hope for you that you'll find it a welcoming place.

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