This Is Only Tempora

In a public restroom today, I saw a sticker that said, “this is only tempora”.

It was missing two letters because someone had attempted to pull it off, succeeding only in tearing off the lower right corner. The top of the sticker was also peeled down slightly, as if someone had tried to roll it downward.

Somehow, the evidence of the failed attempts to remove it made it seem more invasive than simply letting it be would have done.

I found myself thinking about the message of the sticker: What is “this”? What was the intent of the person who had put it there? Was it meant to be optimistic, a reminder that whatever sorrow the reader was experiencing would eventually pass? Was it meant to be nihilistic, a reminder that we will all one day perish? Was it meant in a playful Magritte way: This is not a pipe, and this sticker is not permanent?

◊♦◊

I’m a teacher. I spent part of my summer break this year cleaning out what has become a very messy basement. Among my projects was digitizing several hundred slides.

Some of these were from my father. There was a metal box full of barely organized slides, from a variety of eras: My childhood, his mission work to Liberia, a vacation down the East Coast, ships on the Saint Clair river, random church photos (he was a minister). There were a few dozen photos of a parade that no doubt had been of tantamount importance at the time, but which is just a parade now.

There were photos of fireworks, the ultimate symbol of the transience of life. For a few moments, fireworks dominate everything around them, in both vision and sound. And then they’re gone. Even their ash blows away.

There was a photo of one of our childhood dogs as a puppy. My father, my older brother, and a man whose identity is lost to us are standing around. Schürze (our dog) and another puppy, her brother, are sitting in front of them. I’m on the ground, petting Schürze.

I’m off to the side, so all that’s clearly visible is my arm. In my father’s photos, I was often marginalized.

The other man is probably the one who adopted Schürze’s brother. There was no label on the photo, because I’m sure my father remembered who it was. But my father has been dead for a decade, and Schürze has been dead for decades.

“this is only tempora”.

◊♦◊

There were a few photos of my older brother and me when I was a toddler. There were a few photos of my younger brother, born nine years after me; he was older than my older brother was in their respective slides.

There was a photo of a Christmas tree with a bunch of presents in front of it, and a newspaper with a headline about Apollo 8. Kansas City Star; I was born in Kansas City the year astronauts started orbiting the earth.

My father took these photos, and the photos of Haiti, and the photos of the random parade, and so he was absent from most of them. He could not mark the passage of time with his aging, and so they all flowed together, events separated by decades mashed together into an anachronistic soup.

There are two photos of a little blond boy that I don’t recognize. The slides were labeled with a name I didn’t know, and when I digitized them, I didn’t copy any text that was on any of the slides. This was by design: I wanted the photos to stand or wither on their own. No clues. Just as some of the slides had dates on their frames, but I let them go, too. No clues.

Let this version of the past dissolve into a single mass of events, everything happening all at once.

“this is only tempora”.

◊♦◊

Not all of the slides were from my father’s estate.

My mother-in-law, who passed last year, had a dizzying number of photos as well. Unlike my father, she generally preferred prints, but there were a few sets of slides from specific events.

One batch was from my father-in-law’s work, random overview documents. PowerPoint of the 1970s. They were probably intended to be destroyed, but they’re harmless enough, no trade secrets here. And any trade secrets would have lost their relevance years ago anyway.

The set of slides I found most intriguing in this batch were from a corporate party. Tiki netting. Wide lapels and mismatched 70s suits. Bouffants. Cigarettes. Cutting-room stills from a lost Mad Men episode. As l looked through these slides, and saw the threads on body language, I wondered about the stories that had brought these people together, and the stories that would later pull them apart.

There were also slides from my spouse’s time in graduate school, from three different projects. She was getting her degree in archaeology. There were photos from Ukraine, where we put a honeymoon on top of her summer fieldwork because we couldn’t afford a proper honeymoon. Photos of a wedding party (not ours). Photos of skulls in a pit. Photos of the field workers, and of the stark building that had been used to clean and sort artifacts.

A reckless montage spanning years and lives.

“this is only tempora”.

◊♦◊

A few minutes had passed since I’d seen the sticker in the restroom.

I was sitting on a park bench and noticed an older bleached-blond white woman wearing a Detroit Tigers jersey that said “Kid Rock 40” on the back. I wondered what the 40 meant, and then I wondered why someone like that would like Kid Rock’s music.

Then I remembered that Kid Rock isn’t a rapper anymore. He’s a country rock singer, and has been for a long time now. Long enough that my students, here in Detroit, think I’m kidding when I say that Kid Rock used to be rap.

Kid Rock’s duet with Sheryl Crow was released before any of my students this coming year were born.

It’s possible that older white women like Rock’s over-the-top rap metal fusion, but it’s more likely that they like his more current countrified rock.

But everything changes. Older white women were once younger white women, so who knows? I didn’t ask her because she was a long way off, because it would have been a weird thing to ask, and because I don’t really care to associate myself with people who like Kid Rock in 2019.

◊♦◊

And this is only temporary anyway. For better or worse, the moments that created this essay will fade away, mash together in the same mix of misdated memories that caused Joe Biden to think that the Parkland shooting happened during Obama’s tenure.

The Now seems so utterly important as it tugs on us for attention, and perhaps that’s because it knows that if it doesn’t get noticed now, it is doomed to be slurped into that ever-increasing pile of yesterdays, arbitrarily frozen in images whose meaning slides from nostalgia to poignancy as their significance gets forgotten.

I don’t know how long that sticker has been on that bathroom door. I don’t know how much longer it will be legible, and whether it will meet its demise at an aggressive janitor’s brush or at a fellow vandal’s usurpation. Or perhaps it will survive to be discovered by some future historian.

If this is a time of turmoil, remember: This is only tempora.

If this is a time of joy, cling to it, because: This is only tempora.

This Now, like all its predecessors, will pass.

Originally published on The Good Men Project.

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