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Essay: Stages of LIfe

Essayist Roger Rosenblatt considers how people live in the present and the past at the same time.

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  • ROGER ROSENBLATT:

    The day that President Clinton's book came out, he appeared on "Oprah." Among other things, he spoke of a terrible incident in his childhood, when his stepfather, in a drunken rage, fired a shotgun into a wall between Clinton's mother and himself.

  • BILL CLINTON:

    It was chilling for me writing this book because after I was… in any period of my life after I wrote for an hour, I was back there.

    Yeah, I was that little boy standing in that hallway again. I could hear that bullet coming out of that gun again.

  • OPRAH:

    And how old were you when that happened?

  • BILL CLINTON:

    Five. Five or six.

  • ROGER ROSENBLATT:

    Even recounting the story now, he looked like that boy– very young, very scared. It isn't new, but it's interesting to see how we are children and adults simultaneously.

    The thought may recur more often in summer when we find ourselves sitting on beaches or playing kids' games.

    Two stages of life coexist in an eternal present, which is sometimes peaceful, sometimes dreadful, always puzzling: That man-child with the overstuffed ice cream cone, or that woman-child digging her toes into the sand.

    The way years jumble in the mind makes an accordion of time, makes time itself a question.

    How can time, the idea of time, exist if, all at once, we live in two states? Now we are burdened and responsible grown-ups. Now we are six.

    Psychoanalysts make their livings from such questions, as do psycho historians. What sort of child was Osama bin Laden? What made George W. Bush and John Kerry the men that now need to be more grown up than ever, more grown up than anyone else? Was the child the father of the man?

    I wrote the Time Magazine "Man of the Year" story on Ronald Reagan in 1980. Preparing for my meeting with him, I learned that his father had kept a certain distance from him, as did he from his own children.

    When I asked Reagan if he saw his father in himself, his gifts of good cheer and easy anecdotes evaporated for a moment, and he was taken aback and back to when he was six or so.

    One of the great likable charms of Reagan was that one always saw the child in the man's face. Like all ideas, this one has an idiotic strain displayed in movies when a father changes places with a son.

  • ACTOR:

    We seem to be…

  • ACTOR:

    I'm old!

  • ACTOR:

    I beg your pardon?

  • ROGER ROSENBLATT:

    …Or a mother with a daughter, and "hey, mom, I'm you," and isn't it wacky? ( Screaming ) Things are calmer in reality and more seriously confusing. A curious picture of human nature pops up between the songs of innocence and experience. The child plays serenely, yet imagines the worst. The grownup does the worst, but imagines a former serenity. Now we are six; now we are sixty.

  • ACTOR:

    Find out about Rosebud. Get in touch with everybody that ever knew him.

  • ROGER ROSENBLATT:

    In "Citizen Kane," journalism is depicted as failing on two levels: The reporter never finds the Rosebud he was sent out for; and the quest itself was pointless to begin with– since no one could ever understand the complex and tormented Charles Foster Kane simply by his deathbed recollection simply of his boyhood sled.

  • ACTOR:

    Rosebud.

  • ROGER ROSENBLATT:

    More interesting and revealing, is that Kane himself is every boy in that recollection. He is all the geniuses and tyrants of history.

    He is also Clinton and Reagan and lesser folks like you and me. Two stages of life sit side by side in our heads, beyond questions of compatibility or comfort or causality. They are just there — always there, like siblings in summer, quietly and mysteriously together.

    I'm Roger Rosenblatt.

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