ColumnFrom culture and politics to sex and relationships, too many of us spend too much time living in the past. Looking back with a wink and a nod is one thing, but nursing nostalgia is quite another.
I don’t recall exactly when I first heard a song from “my era” on an oldies radio station, but I couldn’t have been much older than 30. I’m going to say it was the mid-’90s, and it was probably my own fault in the first place for playing it too loose with my channel choices. (I mean, who listens to oldies radio?) I do, however, remember a Casey Kasem-esque pop-announcer harkening back to “years ago when this classic gem was number one. And now here’s The Clash, with their popular number, ‘London Calling.’”
I wasn’t at an age to lament growing old, so that angle of grief didn’t rear its woeful head. So I skipped the denial stage and went straight to anger. “Jesus, who is this fucking announcer?! It’s so over, anyway. Coopted. Mainstreamed, tagged and shelved.” And then the real classic: “They don’t make music like this anymore.”
I imagined myself back in the pit. (We called it slam dancing, if we called it anything at all. Not moshing). I thought, how great would that be?
Nostalgia—“a sentimental longing or wistful affection for the past, typically for a period or place with happy personal associations”—is a funny thing. (For you etymology buffs, it’s from the Greek nostos [home] plus algos [pain]. Homepain. Yummy.) It can hit you at any age about anything. From culture and politics to sex and relationships, it taps into macro- or micro-eras from your past when things had a distinct and (it seems now) pleasurable feel. The rush of compelling remembrance and desire can be so vivid that you would pledge your soul to somehow turn back the clock.
On top of that, the sensory assault can come from anywhere at any time. Someone’s perfume or the smell of a fresh croissant, rereading the novel that blew you away in high school or hearing a lost recording of the band you hung out with in college. It can happen when you realize you can’t afford something you once could. It can possess you in a cynical instant when you sense that you now know something about which you were once blissfully naïve.
Truth is, it doesn’t take long for a moment to fade in terms of time (long ago can happen fast), while somehow remaining closer than it appears in your rearview mirror. If you’re a parent you’ve done the math and pondered: “I wonder if my kid sees the ’80s the way I saw the ’50s? Does he think about R.E.M. the way I thought of The Platters?” Consider this: If the Beatles were breaking up today, they would have landed at JFK, all mop-topped and black & white, in 2007. Hell, the Gulf War is to today’s youth what the Korean War was to me. I am so not ready for M*A*S*H* 1990.
Mind-bending timeframes aside, if we’re between 35 and 65 and nostalgic feelings begin to wash up quickly and en masse, we often call it a mid-life crisis. The crisis part comes from how desperately we want to return to “like it was,” be it in bed, on the road, or simply when everything looked and sounded so, so good. If we only had the money, we’d buy it all back. Some do, in fact, in the form of a fire-red sports car or a sudden quit-job-join-Peace Corp play or the procurement of a boy- or girl-toy(s) whose youth is still being (poor things) wasted on the young. (I like to say that as much as I wanted one, I couldn’t afford a mid-life crisis.) In any case, this first wave can be startling and disorienting. Bright shiny objects from your past suddenly seem to be everywhere. It’s not just about history. It’s about loss. And it can quickly become unhealthy.
Bargaining: Train in Vain
When nostalgic cravings come up, it’s useful to remember how much we like to rewrite the past. Was that thing or time or person truly as warm and fuzzy and downright perfect as you remember? How much of the memory is infused with nostalgia itself, part of a vicious cycle of live, glorify, (try to) repeat. Fact is, most experiences weren’t quite as lovely (or awful, as the case may be) as they now seem to be.
I remember listening to a one-time travel-mate recall for an audience (holding court in a bar is nostalgia heaven, is it not?) the grandeur of some of our youthful “Third World” wanderings. “Man, we were great.” We were, in many ways, though I secretly remembered that my journeys were far from invariably glorious. (Maybe I passed on that last Jäger that night.) I thought to myself: Would I really take a do-over on that third-class train ride up the Nile? And getting busted in Burma pretty much sucked. And no, I didn’t get laid that one night and in truth I fought like a bandit with a pal about some dumb thing and pretty much wanted to bail on the whole adventure. These nostalgia-in-perspective thoughts didn’t diminish fondness for my road days, but to quote (the always great) Dorothy Parker, “I hate writing. I love having written.”
It’s true that we all enjoy a good rework of times gone by now and again—or at least our built-in forgetter takes charge for a variety of reasons. If it weren’t your music or your movie, would you really still think that band rules or that flick was the greatest ever? Sure, some stuff stands the test of time (I click like on everything Patti Smith or Tom Robbins), but to confess some more of my own nostalgia-meets-truth reality, The Psychedelic Furs were a great band but not the voice of a generation and high school was not cool like “Dazed and Confused.” (In fact, it was often a cesspool of fear and loathing.) Really, for those who were there, was Dirty Old 1970’s New York City all fun and games? And VH1 celebratory bullshit aside, were the ’80s the good old days? Speaking of that lovely decade, did the blow rock, or what? Was that God we saw or the bottom of a toilet bowl?
On the collective side, our attention-span-challenged nation is no stranger to massive, group-grope, creative cultural reimaginings, as well. There were the “simpler” 1950s, when a man was a man and Sundays meant church (and civil rights were still a dream). The ’60s—awesome color and light, man (and you could still “be the first one on your block to have your boy come home in a box.” Killer tune, no?). Political revisionism? Pick a side and pick a myth. Reagan. Clinton. Already the truly horrible Boy George (the reworked watercolorist, not the also-often-revisited crooner) is enjoying an alarmingly real-time re-do for when America most recently wielded its great big stick. Give it another decade and we’ll be looking back fondly at Dick Cheney.
One more quick but important over-the-shoulder shot before knocking off the past-bashing—let’s talk about sex, baby. Next time you see someone that reminds you of your magnificent hook-up daze, ask yourself if you were “better” then or now. I once heard an unconfirmed (but sounds like him) Norman Mailer story. When asked what he knew as an older man that he could have used when he was 18, his answer was “the key to great sex—lighting.” Are there things you know now—or didn’t know then—that get in that way of how you’d like to remember your alleged prime? And on a let’s-be-honest-it’s-only-somewhat-related note, was that true-love relationship as paradisiac as you remember? Even if he or she still somewhat resembles that 10-year-old pic on their Facebook profile, you broke up for a reason right?
Acceptance: A Brand New Cadillac
Enough with retro-assault; it surely wasn’t as bad as all that. In fact, let’s assume, for the sake of argument, that everything you’re nostalgic about was as great as you remember. Let’s even call it better. The question remains, do you really need it back, or is being here now a better play? My ’68 Mustang rocked, but when it died, it died. Hard. And this (relatively) new Prius? Runs great. Super mileage. And most important, it draws zero attention from the cops—a population among us for whom I have zero nostalgia. (They seemed particularly drawn to the Detroit muscle. No need to relive that.)
Her words may seem trite, but I have to hand it to my shrink who without fail responds to almost every “I want” with a solid-citizen-like, “What’s wrong with what you have?” (Sage direction. Semi-affordable.) One thing I noticed when that unaffordable midlife crisis abated, as most crises do, was that it had something to do with my no longer being interested in grabbing at what I once had, but instead began enjoying memories for what they are—information. By that, I mean they inform us about who we are now. Even the most wonderful and deservedly-cherished memories—mom’s embrace after school, uncontrollably stoned laughter at the Dead show, “Midnight in Paris” when all the pensions were booked—are all disappeared elements of your life that should color you in without defining who you are—and help you look forward as only humans do.
Here’s the thing about nostalgia: Like any drug that takes us out of our present reality, if left unchecked, it’ll grab you by the throat. It’s certainly true that most of our suffering comes down to unhealthy attachments. Nostalgia, in the end, is like any bright shiny object—and your relationship with it can be healthy, or not, depending how desperate you are to go backwards—and get away from where you’re at.
I have an uncle who’s 10 or so years older than me. I remember when he turned 30. It seemed so old to me back then, and my 20s loomed large like the Promised Land. I asked about how he felt about his new decade. Was it a drag getting older? “Fuck that,” he said. “I wouldn’t want to do 29 again for nothing. I’m moving on.” Amen. As for that old gem, London Calling, you bet it called. But I doubt it has my cell.
Scott Adelson is EcoSalon’s Senior Editor of HyperKulture, a monthly column that explores opening cultural doors to initiate personal change. He is also the author of InPRINT, which reviews and discusses books, new and old. You can reach him at scott at adelson dot org and follow him @scottadelson on Twitter.
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Images: Katie_photographer (top), chris m. (center), IFCAR (bottom)