Fox Professing
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Nostalgia Tripping

Dennis Fox

Palo Alto Review
Entropy Magazine

Teaching Methods. Grading. Ideology.

Reusing Manila folders, I cross out labels identifying discarded files. The empties form a musty jumble.

Interview Transcripts. Justice/Equality. Proposal Comments. PSY 443.

My black marker obliterates signs of the past, but each cross-out generates recognition--a topic, a course, a burst of energy. A nod. A wince. A smile.

Lawyers--Money. Legal Realism. Arrest.

Not every folder is empty. My wife claims to be appalled, not impressed, when I discover minutes I took at a 1968 meeting. But I read, excited, knowing whom I’ll tell about my find. I don’t need to re-label that one, or other keepers holding school records, my sons’ childhood drawings, forgotten letters.

I still have my gas mask from the 1980 Seabrook assault, though today the mask’s denim bag holds a camera. I still have my small collection of buttons and thin, faded T-shirts: Shut it Down! Gar’in Shirt. 200 Years of Government is Enough! But despite these artifacts, most of my past is on paper, filed away, retrievable for periodic nostalgia trips.

Within the past two years I reached 50, my father 75, my two sons their late twenties--the age I remember becoming me. But beyond calendar-inspired wistfulness there’s something else: three years ago, a disability leaving me too worn out to fake a full day’s work ended my university career. So my wife and daughter and I left Illinois and returned to Massachusetts, a place I’ve moved to repeatedly since first arriving from New York in 1975. Here my past surrounds me.

The summer before the move I decided what to take and what to dump. I did fairly well discarding the impersonal--handouts for courses I’d never again teach, news clippings long out of date, articles that no longer enticed me. The recycling bins outside my office overflowed. Students came by to grab piles of books.

I couldn’t junk whole folders, because without looking I could never be sure what was inside. So I scanned my life cabinet by cabinet, drawer by drawer, folder by folder, paper by paper. Then I opened cartons I hadn’t touched since arriving in Illinois ten years earlier, uncovering research notes, a college honors project, high school term papers rescued from my parents’ garage when they retired to Florida. Junior high school papers hinted of me, but were not yet me.

Legal Issues in the News. Travel Records. Identifying Ivan.

Plagiarism. Psychological Jurisprudence. Geoport/Express Modem.

I reached the final drawer, a hodgepodge: Dissertation/1970s/Fiction, Cookbooks. In the 1970s I set the stage for my now-past future. I slowly took out 1978, a bad-year folder, the divorce year. That year I tried to write poetry, anguished cries for the sons I already didn’t live with. I wish I’d known then that they’d still love me today.

I stopped reading, and packed the whole drawer for the move east.

Slowed by discovery, it took six weeks to reduce the fragments of my life to manageable size. Although the tossed papers outweighed the keepers, I’m left with three file cabinets and eight cartons in what we call my office. They’re packed with teaching materials--just in case--and my publications, and the remains of my academic enthusiasms. Critical psychology, psychology and law, law and inequality, inequality and ideology. Social Security, corporate society, anarchism, technology.

It’s clear from folder labels I don’t cross out that working with others on life-changing, and potentially society-changing, projects has defined much of my life. Projects fail, groups disband, conclusions and goals evolve. But meaning remains, transformed into new collective efforts, and even into an isolating, but still recognizable, academic tangent.

Groups have generated my closest friendships, from even before those long-unread minutes. Men often find closeness on their high school team or in the military, bonded by some potent combination of adrenaline, testosterone, danger, and common cause. My experiences have been equally intense--living in Israel during the Six Day War and then trying with others to create a desert kibbutz, storming the fence at the Seabrook Nuclear Plant, getting arrested on my own campus while handing out union leaflets, creating an organization critical of my academic field’s norms.

Why my commonplace childhood veered leftward and groupward is something I ponder as I sit surrounded by the evidence.

Today the groups have mostly dissolved. Some friendships too have faded--did I really live in Atlanta half a lifetime ago? are my old friends still there? when did they become merely people I used to know?

Back here in Boston, my late-seventies friends live their now-separate lives after two decades of shifting interactions. Family and career, new friends and new preoccupations, pull in many directions. The glue of all-encompassing political action no longer binds us despite occasional regroupings for the protest of the moment. But now that I no longer just visit, our relationships too can finally evolve, merging past into present. It’s not like it used to be. Not every tie survives undamaged. But most satisfy, and a few flourish.

A slow-moving insect emerges from the folders, nourished by my past but suddenly free of it. I let this one live, and write new labels: High-Stakes Testing. Disability Blues. Ben & Jerry’s Melting Corporate Responsibility.

Some people let the past slide by. I hang on, to papers, to people, to myself.

I write: Nostalgia Tripping.

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Page updated September 30, 2007