There is a great deal of unmapped country within us which would have to be taken into account in an explanation of our gusts and storms. ---from Daniel Deronda by George Eliot.
Haven’t read any George Eliot lately but I have been re-reading Thomas Pynchon’s Inherent Vice---as you probably guessed---gearing up to see the movie when it opens around here, if it does, and the other night I came across a passage that triggered what I’m half-sure is a false memory.
The protagonist, private eye and stoner, Doc Sportello is watching a basketball game, Lakers against the Milwaukee Bucks, and he expresses his admiration for Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, who was playing for the Bucks at the time the novel’s set---the winter of 1971-72, I think, Pynchon doesn’t get specific---and Doc mentions how Abdul-Jabbar had recently changed his name from Lew Alcindor. When I read that the thought popped into my head that I had never known Abdul-Jabbar as Alcindor. That’s not quite right. What I thought was that the moment I learned there was a Kareem Abdul-Jabbar I learned he had changed his name from Lew Alcindor. And I learned this, I remembered, from Captain Kangaroo.
Probably right around the time Doc was watching that game.
Not only did I remember learning this from the Captain, I remembered the segment of the show. The Captain gave a short biography of Abdul-Jabbar (with clips) and explained the reason he’d changed his name. That meant the Captain had to explain Islam and its attraction for African Americans. The Captain being the Captain this would have been a sympathetic explanation meant to open up new ideas and different experiences to his young audience, which, the times being what they were, would have been presumed to be predominately children of the white middle class. But it would have also included an implicit awareness the Captain would have somehow communicated to kids like me that not every kid watching was like me.
This would have been how the Captain handled it, I thought. Captain Kangaroo was a product of its times and in those times the media was truly liberal. Captain Kangaroo would have been quietly and modestly teaching the kind of secularized Christianity that was for many people then the basis of liberalism: Love one another. Treat others as you’d like to be treated. Judge not. Don’t worry about the mote in your neighbor’s eye until you’ve removed the beam from your own. Cast your bread upon the waters. The kind of Christianity based on what Jesus taught and not on what Paul preached and the prophets imposed. The kind of Christianity in which important, exemplary figures included the Good Samaritan and the woman taken in adultery, an outsider and a sinner.
As I was remembering this, I started to think that maybe that segment included a guest appearance by Abdul-Jabbar himself. This would have been something that could have happened. The Captain did invite guests onto the show. And as I was thinking that it could have happened, I started remembering that it did happen.
I remembered the Captain and Kareem talking together in the Treasure House.
Mr Moose and Bunny Rabbit had been there, listening in, I remembered.
That’s when it dawned on me that I was possibly making this all up, fooling myself with an invented memory.
It might have happened as I remembered it, except that at the time I was a little old to be watching Captain Kangaroo and I was already a basketball fan. If that segment was real, I’d have probably been in school when it aired. And I wouldn’t have needed the Captain to tell me about Kareem Abdul-Jabbar either as a basketball star or a convert to Islam. I’d have read about it in the newspaper and heard about it while watching a game. That doesn’t mean it didn’t happen too. It just raises the possibility that I’ve conflated and revised memories to the point that they are fictions.
This isn’t a big deal. I don’t need to know the truth. I suppose I could find out. I could make a visit to the Paley Center for Media and watch every episode of Captain Kangaroo that aired in 1971. (Note to my students: I did some Googling. Nothing turned up in searches pairing the Captain and Kareem, but I did find out that a couple of Adbul-Jabbar’s contemporaries from the NBA appeared on the show: Walt Frazier and Earl the Pearl Monroe.) But what’s interesting to me isn’t that I might have made up a memory. That happens all the time to everybody. What’s interesting is that this is the third time in the last two weeks that I’ve “remembered” learning lessons from an outside source that I might very likely have learned from myself.
That is, I gave credit to someone for teaching me something that I already knew or had come to think for myself and what that someone really did was reinforce what was already at work in my head or heart.
Take the Captain’s Christianity and liberalism.
Once upon a time, if you’d asked me what made me the bleeding heart I am, I’d have cited Captain Kangaroo as an early influence. And maybe he was. But at the time I was watching the show regularly I was also learning how to be a good little Catholic and, given my parents and teachers and the nuns and priests I knew, that was part and parcel with learning to be a good little Democrat too. The Kennedys were more important to the adults around me than Archbishop Sheen or, for that matter, Pope Paul VI. (They were all still mourning John XXIII.) So it’s likely that it didn’t matter if the Captain was a liberal as much as it did that I was predisposed to find in the lessons he taught similarities to the ones I was being taught by the grownups around me.
By the way, for what it’s worth, Bob Keeshan, who was the Captain in more than just being the actor who played him, was Catholic.
So: am I remembering what the Captain was like or am I remembering what I was like?
And earlier this week I wrote about how studying Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style taught me how to write. But I knew how to write before I got to college. It’s how I got into college. From the time I was able to distinguish a participle from a predicate, I had teachers praising me regularly for how well I wrote. But not only did I have a knack, along with teaching us real science at St H’s, the nuns taught us how to write. That was a distinguishing mark of us graduates of St H’s who went to the public high school. We could craft a sentence. And by the time I went off to college I was a regular reader of The New Yorker. E.B.White’s style was already in my head. So, the question this time is: Did I learn anything new from Strunk and White or were they just reassuring me that what I already thought was the right thing to think?
As for the nuns and lay teachers at St H’s teaching us science and to be little skeptics, there’s some truth in that. And, again, if you’d asked me, I’d have said the nuns were keener on all of us going on to do well in high school and then getting into college than helping us get into heaven or, at any rate, take up a vocation. I’d have said Sister Mary Catherine would rather have heard that a former student became a doctor than that she became a nun. Well, maybe a nurse. The Sisters of the Presentation were progressive, but I’m not sure they were feminists. But I was the son of a scientist and the roots of my skepticism might have been planted at home. I was already something of a doubter before landing in Mr Schick’s sixth grade religion class. I made it clear when I took Thomas as my Confirmation name in fourth grade that I was taking it from Thomas the Apostle and not Thomas Aquinas.
So, here it is one more time: did I actually learn something new or was I was a predisposed to take away from what I was being taught lessons I’d already learned? Am I remembering my teachers or am I remembering me?
No way to know for sure, I guess, and it doesn’t matter, except as a reminder.
So much of what we believe to be true is based upon what we know we know. We read it somewhere. We heard it from someone. It’s a fact. Right? Of course it’s right and of course that makes us right.
Unless we just made it all up.
Speaking of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar: He’s probably one of the smartest men to ever play the game and he has talents that always went beyond what he could do on the court. Since his retirement he’s had a multi-faceted career that includes being a writer and a public intellectual. Lately his writing has gotten him into the news in two very serious ways and one very fun way.
Here are the two serious ones, columns he wrote for TIME:
Now for the fun. Abdul-Jabbar is a Sherlock Holmes’ fan and he’s co-authored a novel about Sherlock’s older and smarter brother Mycroft. It’s due out in the fall. I can’t wait.