It Might Be Gaining On You

I saw “Don’t Look Back” for the first time when I was going to school at Berke­ley. It was play­ing at the great old UC The­ater (the same place where Wern­er Her­zog ate his shoe) as a mid­night movie. I was liv­ing kind of far away from cam­pus (which can be said for every school I ever attend­ed) so I drove my car. I remem­ber leav­ing the the­ater with my nerves jan­gling and ideas fly­ing out of my eyes. I had seen ver­ité doc­u­men­taries before but noth­ing hit me like this one. And I loved the title, maybe even more than I loved the movie. Nico­las Roeg’s “Don’t Look Now” had a title that car­ried a dread­ful promise that the movie deliv­ered exquis­ite­ly. But “Don’t Look Back” was clean. Stop liv­ing in the past. There are no answers behind you. Just live. I could­n’t get those words out of my head. But why do I remem­ber this 25 years later ?

Well, because while dri­ving home after 2 in the morn­ing, I ran a red light and got a tick­et. This led to traf­fic school a month lat­er at the Sher­if­f’s sta­tion around the cor­ner from the the­ater on MLK Dri­ve. And I remem­ber that par­tic­u­lar monot­o­ny for two reasons.

First, I remem­ber the Sher­iff want­ed to kill time by ask­ing each of us what we did wrong to end up in traf­fic school and how each of the thir­ty or so peo­ple in the room made sure to explain that although they were cit­ed for this or that infrac­tion, they actu­al­ly did­n’t do it ; the Sher­iff did­n’t seem to find this hilar­i­ous, and when it was my turn, and I said “I ran a red light,” he asked me, “And.…?”

That’s all. I did it.”

He rolled is eyes and said, “No shit.” I had thought he’d be impressed with my will­ing­ness to admit my guilt, but he clear­ly thought I was a dick for not play­ing the game. I did­n’t under­stand this at all then, but I can see his point now. After all my answer only burned 30 sec­onds of the 8 hour class. If I had lied and protest­ed my inno­cence it could have tak­en a full 3 min­utes — maybe more if some of my class­mates pre­tend­ed to not to under­stand my sto­ry and asked questions.

Sec­ond, a woman sit­ting next to me hand­ed me some home made brown­ies after the halfway break. Berke­ley. Brown­ies. You get it. I did­n’t, though, and by the end of the fifth hour, I was trip­ping balls. I kept try­ing to get her atten­tion to ask her what the hell ? But she had decid­ed to spend her wan­ing hours of san­i­ty doo­dling on the back of her hand. At that point I had nev­er tried any drug, and I’d been drunk exact­ly once. Now I was hal­lu­ci­nat­ing in the Sher­if­f’s Depart­ment. Plus I had to dri­ve home.…

I under­stand the con­tra­dic­tion here. I just wrote that I adopt­ed the phrase “Don’t look back” as a per­son­al cre­do, and here I am turned all the way around. But the truth is, I did­n’t real­ly adopt that idea so much as I real­ized I could use it to explain my already selec­tive memory.

I can remem­ber that film — Dylan putting up with and shut­ting down reporters, Dono­van, Baez, and syco­phants, Dylan tear­ing a hole through the silence at Roy­al Albert Hall — and I can remem­ber that late night tick­et and all that traf­fic school jazz. But I can­not remem­ber the names of any of the friends I made there, or the name of the kind and sad wid­ow who rent­ed a room to me. I can remem­ber spilling a buck­et of paint on her floor while prim­ing the trim. I can remem­ber watch­ing Mia­mi Vice with her one night when she was cry­ing, and I can remem­ber rid­ing in her Porsche as she raced through Oak­land where her hus­band used to work, but I can’t recall her name. I remem­ber my par­ents divorced that year, but I can’t remem­ber my reac­tion to the news. I remem­ber being crazy about a girl who did­n’t want to be with me any­more, but I can’t remem­ber why. And if I were to ask my fam­i­ly or friends (if I could recall their names) about that year, I’m sure they would have sto­ries of things I did or said that I will be news to me.

So it has always been easy to turn this strange mal­a­dy on its ear : “The past is done. The future is lat­er. What mat­ters is now.” Mem­o­ries are for chumps. Inter­nal­ize and get on with it. That kind of brag­gado­cio coa­lesced nice­ly with anoth­er cre­do I had grown fond of : bold­ness and igno­rance. You can slide through life pret­ty nice­ly like that for a few years, but soon­er or lat­er you will run up against some­thing clas­sic (betray­al, dis­ap­point­ment, fail­ure, loss, death, and so on )and just implode.

The thing is, Dylan nev­er said “Don’t look back,” in the film, nor did he ever, as far as I know, espouse liv­ing a life with­out ref­er­ence, all now and no then. In fact, I learned much lat­er that D.A. Pen­nebak­er took the title from base­ball leg­end Satchel Paige’s sixth rule for stay­ing young : “Don’t look back, because some­thing might be gain­ing on you.” The depen­dent clause will bite you in the ass every time.

And if you think about it, it’s bad advice. A very smart guy I know used to say that “it’s not enough to plan where you want to go. Check your mir­rors, because what you fear the most might not be ahead of you — it might be com­ing up from behind.”

That’s some­thing I’ve learned slow­ly, lat­er than I should have, but ear­ly enough to still do some good. Look back, I’d say, because some­thing is always gain­ing on you. At least that way, you stand a fight­ing chance of get­ting out of the way.