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Saturday, May 10, 2014

Why I Hate Nostalgia (But Love Old Things)


Boys wore short shorts in the 70s! It was paradise!
Back in the 1970s, when I was just entering teenhood, Curtis Publishing published eight issues of a magazine called Nostalgia Illustrated.  I happened upon this magazine one winter's day in 1975 at a Cedar Rapids  Hy-Vee store.  Mae West on the cover was the attraction for me, but truth be told, I was in love with this magazine.  For the remaining four issues of Nostalgia Illustrated's short life I bought and devoured every word of every issue.  I read and reread each issue until it literally fell apart in my hands. A story about Wurlitzer jukeboxes?  Sign me up. Biographies of Fay Wray and Ann Miller?  You betcha! A feature about Fanny Brice?  You had me at Fanny!  


Like most of the American population in the 1970s, I was under the influence of an illness called "Nostalgia."  I was thirteen years old, but I was certain that there was a golden age, known vaguely as "The Past," or "The Good Old Days,"  and I had the misfortune to be born too late to experience it.  I'm not sure when I got over that kind of thinking. One of the major cultural forces of the 1970s was nostalgia, whether it was proto-hipsters and members of the gay community  who enjoyed objects from the past for their camp value, or people who were worn down by the cares of that horrific decade and simply longed for a better time.  Personally, the fabulous Hollywood sirens of the past (along with other things like comic books and my shameful, secret admiration of male teen idols) offered me a great deal of escape from my awful Junior High School experience. Because we only had four TV channels in Cedar Rapids in those days, we tended to only see the very best that Golden Age Hollywood had to offer, and were spared most, not all, of its more tawdry and mediocre product.  It was in the 1990s, when all of western culture suddenly became available online,  that  I realized how much of the ancient culture I had so venerated (sight unseen) was actually not very good.  Ninety per cent of everything is crap, right?  It was as true then as it is now.

Today, I see people my age, and younger, speak of the 1970s, the era of Watergate, and gas shortages, and double-digit inflation,  as if it was some kind of Eden.  These are people who lived through the time, but don't really remember it.  They remember the toys they played with, and the bikes they rode, and the TV shows they watched. They remember candy and Christmas trees, the first people they fell in love with, and the tiny swimsuits boys used to wear at the beach. If you grow up in the relative privilege of American suburbia, free of abuse and hunger, it's easy to remember your childhood  as a  lost paradise. But you weren't paying the bills, or worrying about getting laid off, or worried about getting shipped to Viet Nam. However if you were ten years old, it might seem like a paradise because it was the only time when you didn't have any real responsibilities.  It's easy to forget the bad things because, lucky you, you probably weren't even aware of them.

I'm not suggesting that we forget the past or write it off. There were beautiful things then, and ridiculous things, and things that were both at the same time. 


If you look at the artifacts of your youth, some of the things you thought were pretty groovy at the time (such as the word "groovy")  don't hold up very well at all. That doesn't mean you don't still have a fondness for them- I still occasionally listen to my old Partridge Family Albums- but it also doesn't mean that you should fool yourself into thinking that they are better than they are.



Of course there are things from the past that were, are, and always will be wonderful and perfect, but please don't let yourself think that they come from a wonderful and perfect  world. 

Probably the biggest pitfall of nostalgia is that its victims come to believe the lie that since everything from the past was wonderful, it can only follow that everything in the present must be comparatively crappy. It isn't true. It is true that things are different now.  Some things are better, some are worse.  But amazingly enough,  there is already nostalgia for the 1990s and the 2000s,  and there is a whole generation who will soon be wistfully remembering the 2010s, when music was better, fashion was better, food tasted better, and the world was sublime. 

Carpe diem.

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