Nostalgia Ain’t What it Used to Be

Thank goodness. I’ve always disliked nostalgia. Reminders of my past, or unbidden memories, made me feel so very sad. That life, those experiences, are gone and not coming back. Often the memory would make me cringe for one reason or another, usually at behavior I’m not proud of. Or else it would just make me sad. The entire previous generation in my family is gone now, with the exception of Aunt Mary in England who keeps on trucking into her late nineties. Friends keep falling off the planet. Many of the big names, the stars, the celebrities I worked with or knew, have also shuffled off this mortal coil. My world is being hollowed out.

For me, the worst thing about the nostalgia presented on social media can be summed up in the phrase: “Those were the good old days”. No they weren’t, damn it. I was born into a sexist, racists, gender essentialist, intolerant society. Don’t tell me about how great it was to ride in the back of a pickup truck, or drink from the garden hose or run loose and unsupervised until the street lights came on. Yeah, those things were fun. My childhood was wonderful. But it was also a time when a woman couldn’t get a credit card or open a bank account without her husband’s signature. It was a time when farm boys went into the big city to beat up queers – good farm boy fun. A time when a black man couldn’t drink at the courthouse fountain, let along become president of the United States. It was a time of intolerance. During my long hair hippy phase, I was refused service in a restaurant for having hair about as long as it is right now.

When I was a kid, women’s rights, gay rights, black rights, and colour television were still years in the future. The silent light switch still hadn’t been marketed and turning off a light made a loud clack. A long distance phone call meant that somebody had died. In every way I can think of, society and technology is better by far than it was in my childhood. Now I play Chinese chess every weekend (great game, much better than international chess. You can check it out for free here.) with my friend Danny, an American still stuck in China. Or talk to him, or former students in Shanghai, on voice calls or video links. For free.

Chinese chess is more fun than international chess. It’s a great way to overcome the language barrier when you meet Chinese people. I may not be fluent in Chinese, but I play Xiangqi like a boss.

Subtle improvements in technology keep sneaking up on me. I mentioned the silent light switch. The enameled pots and pans of my childhood are gone now, as are the aluminum ones. Gotta love stainless steel cookware and utensils. Air hand dryers in washrooms actually work and I don’t mind using them. Battery powered drills and screw drivers are amazing, as are all of the battery powered tech from laqwn mowers to our car. I just noticed that our new toilet seat closes gently, without the loud clack of the old one. It’s hardly worth mentioning that my smart phone does everything my computer can do. In fact, I left my laptop at home on my last trip to Italy. Didn’t need it.

The only thing that was better in the fifties, if you were straight, white, and of the male gender, was our youth, health, and energy level. That was the only thing that was good about the good old days.

Most annoying about social media rants about the good old days is the dissing of kids today. The kids today are great, okay. They are smarter than we were, better educated, more engaged, and the world will be in good hands when we finally turn it over to them. The young people I meet, beside being awesomely beautiful, are just wonderful people. We boomers are just jealous.

To get back on track here, I’ve hated nostalgia for some years now. But recently I woke up in the wee hours of the morning, unable to get back to sleep as free association memories flipped through my brain. The six years old, fishing in our gulley, redolent with the smell of skunk cabbage, alive with mosquitoes, racoon tracks like tiny hand prints, for the the little trout I would stick in my pocket and take home to clean so my mother could fry them up for my breakfast. That lonely drive down I5 to Los Angeles, feeling sorry for myself because I had to leave home to scare up some work. High points like the standing ovation in Alice Tulley Hall at the New York Film Festival, or on the bridge of the Yukon while we steamed into a tropical sunset with porpoises leaping in our bow wave and flying fish with iridescent cellophane wings, a hundred in a school, launching from the waves to glitter in the sun. Low points like getting fired from a job I never should have accepted. Random memories, good and bad, in no particular order. Riding high. Crashing hard. Nostalgia writ large. But this time, for whatever reason, they didn’t evoke the usual sadness and longing for the past. This time it was like watching one of those corny Hollywood biopics about my life and times. It was just a great movie.

I think the difference is that I can see the end coming now, and, looking back, I’ve realized that there’s no point in taking anything too seriously. Nobody gets out alive, as my father used to tell me. Sure, there were tough times, terrible moments, but also moments of triumph and exhilaration. It’s been one hell of a life. A hell of a ride, as Bill Hicks put it. I’m so glad I got to live it, to marvel at all the changes, and to still be here for another trip around the sun.

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