The excitement of then

Mark-Sherman SQUAREI have noticed that as my friends and I get older, we spend more and more time talking about our pasts. I’m not exactly sure why this is, though I think it probably relates to the following two facts: First, our short term memories are deteriorating more than our long term ones, so, for example, it may be easier to remember what we ate as children than what we ate yesterday. And second, our present has become so boring that no one is interested, and all they want to hear about is our pasts.

I know, and I can hear it now, my peers saying, “Our lives aren’t boring! What are you talking about?”

“Okay,” I’d respond. “What have you done lately that’s so fascinating?”

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“Well,” one of them might say, “I did something really great last week.”

“Yeah,” I’ll say. “What was that?”

“Hmm, I can’t remember,” replies my friend. “But I do recall that it was fun…Wait a minute. I remember now. My wife and I went to the MoMA. We saw the Nauman exhibit. It was extraordinary.”

And I’ll act all excited, although I’ve never heard of Nauman.

But listening to my much more intellectual friend tell me about Nauman and the MoMA (if you ever say the whole name, the Museum of Modern Art, you are showing just how uncultured you are) may get me thinking about museum memories from my childhood. And one of them was the time my father took me to a museum in Brooklyn. And there, in a glass case, I saw a couple of shrunken heads.

Shrunken heads! Is there anything more exciting to a 10-year-old boy than being with his dad and looking at a couple of shrunken heads? I don’t remember anything else we saw in that museum, but I’ll never forget those little heads.

I guess that’s another reason we older folks talk so much about our pasts. It’s because from the more than 25,000 days we’ve been alive, only the interesting stuff stays in our memories. On top of which I really do believe we were doing more exciting stuff then than we’re doing today, especially if you had a father like mine, who knew that the last thing a boy wanted to do was to go to the MoMA and see the Nauman exhibit, which would have been especially difficult, since when I was 10, Nauman was only 11. Maybe Nauman’s dad was taking him to the MoMA and that’s why he went on to become a well-known (to some people, God knows, not to me) artist, while my dad was taking me to see shrunken heads, and that’s why I went into psychology as a field, not to mention years of psychotherapy as a client.

Ah, but the childhood memories don’t end for me there. There was also the time my dad took me to the Prospect Park Zoo, which, by today’s standards, probably violated every possible humane-treatment-of-animals law. But what did I know about humane back then? I was a child. All I remember from our zoo trips was one day being inside the big cat house, walking along an aisle between two rows of cages, wherein were the most frightening animals I had ever seen — lions and tigers (but no bears), oh my. Actually, thinking about it now, it was a bit like Alcatraz, which my wife and I just visited recently — and that tells you something about how federal prisoners were treated back then.

Anyhow, there we were, walking through this stark and narrow 1930s-era building, when, out of nowhere, a lion roared. And, if that wasn’t scary enough, he roared again.

Omigod! Suddenly, I understood why this animal was called the king of the jungle. I had never heard anything so loud and frightening, with the roars echoing between the walls. You know the roar of the lion that opens virtually every MGM movie? That’s nothing. It’s on a screen, it’s in a theater. This was really, really scary. I was so glad the lion was in a cage, though I realize now if it were today some animal rights activists might have released him at that moment, and my father and I would have had to run to the museum for the comfort of seeing those shrunken heads.

The Prospect Park Zoo closed for renovations in 1988, and reopened in 1993 as the Prospect Park Wildlife Conservation Center. Well, whoopdedoo. As far as I know, it no longer houses the big cats, but it is home to the Pallas cat, a rather chubby little feline that weighs under 10 pounds. Wow. I assume it doesn’t roar, but perhaps does meow loudly.

Probably not something today’s child is likely to tell his friends about in his 70s. Hearing about a fat little cat is probably about as exciting as hearing about the Nauman exhibit at the MoMA.

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