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Gimme That Old Time Nostalgia: Memories of Remembering

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I miss nostalgia. The old kind, anyway: mostly private, typically accidental, not always rosy. But nostalgia ain't what is used to be. Nowadays we wear it on our heritage running shoes in re-imagined convertibles to re-released, re-mixed re-boots of classic comic book movies. We schedule nostalgia, rehearse it and collect it. But can't we do better than Twister parties, tribute bands and shelves full of GI Joes? It wasn't the music or the baseball cards that made our childhoods special, after all. It was childhood, in its eyes-wide-open sense of wonder, that made those songs and toys into talismans.

When my Grandfather got wistful it was about his brother coming home from the war in one piece. The only thing remotely toy-like on his shelves was a handmade chess set given to him by that brother for his 50th birthday. These days he'd be more likely to get an Atari Pong console or a trip to fantasy kickball camp. The irony of our childish culture's nostalgia is that those younger versions of ourselves that we look back on so fondly? They knew better.

One thing I really do miss from childhood is remembering. The kind of remembering you do when remembering is new, when memories are full and dramatic because they're few, and weightless. Mourning hamsters. Idealizing grandparents. Chronicling summers like they're centuries. When I had 12 years to look back on they were eons. When I had 20 I said, "my whole life" and meant it.

The past I remembered back then wasn't even necessarily mine. Where would each new generation be without the clothes and books and music of others? I sported rayon bowling shirts and well-thumbed copies of On the Road in the 80s the way 19 year-olds in ancient Rome probably carried Euripides in their vintage Greek togas.

That's because nostalgia when you're young isn't about the past, but the future. It's a train in the distance, a sound from the old days hinting at the new. The future is unknown, you're unknown to yourself, and you're probably faking your way through the present. You spend your days wanting something you can't even name, that you have no reference points for, and because you didn't have memories to attach to that yearning, you yearn for a time before you. You conjure a past and miss it and buy an overcoat you pray you'll grow into.

And then, all of a sudden, one day, you're haggling over that coat with your wife, who has inexplicably tossed it into a Goodwill bag bulging with the treasured flotsam of your allegedly misspent youth. But after tax-deductibly putting it away with other childish things, you move on to adulthood and grownup nostalgia, the kind that sidles up to you once in a while, after a long, full day of living in the present, and lingers briefly over the funny story of your wife and the Goodwill bag, not an obsessively assembled collection of expensive replacements for everything that was in it.

Or at least that's the way it's supposed to go.

But we've never been very good with "supposed to," my g-g-g-generation (I'm a Late Boomer, Kennedy-era kid), and the ones that have followed it. Many of us were imbued from childhood with an often-healthy disrespect for authority, which then warped into a disdain for adulthood itself, leaving us untrained in the art of looking forward. So we spend a lot of time looking backwards, through squinted eyes.

The culture we created simultaneously shrinks and inflate our memories into Pillsbury Doughboys, then bathes them in a honey glaze. This year has already brought us one movie that depicts the Jim Crow era as a picturesque triumph of the human spirit over mean people (The Help) another that depicts the Great Depression as a picturesque triumph of the human and animal spirits over mean people (Water for Elephants) and one, (Captain America) that depicts WWII as a picturesque conflict in which black and white soldiers apparently fought side-by-side to save the world from really, really mean people.

We "Love the 80's," "Love the 90's," "Love the Naughties," and seem to remember nothing about them. The pop charts are populated by beehived retro acts like Adele, Lily Allen and Duffy, every city's got some version of New York's Shake Shack, the comfort-food juggernaut, and our lexicon is peppered with second-generation terms of nostalgia like "medium chill."

And even if you've managed to say goodbye to your Hot Wheels collection, even if you've never been possessed by the need to buy a fully restored version of Steve McQueen's Bullit car, it can be tough to resist the pull of personal nostalgia. Like everyone else I give in to it now and then, although I usually realize pretty quickly how much I prefer now to then, and end up leaving most of the scrapbooks unopened. I know what it means to say "whole life" now, so I don't. Looking back from here has its pleasures, as does looking down from a ladder, but it's not a good time for a swoon. There are a lot more memories at this point, and if I spend too much time with them they're quicksand.

Still, it's good to spend some time with memories when you need to, and spend it well. If you're going to do nostalgia it's best to really do it, the way it used to done. That Latin suffix "algia" is in the word for a reason. Whoever coined it knew the sickness of the heart that a powerful longing produces can be as necessary and cleansing as a storm.

Nostalgia doesn't have to be about running from yourself to an imagined past, it can also be about finding yourself there, sorting out your story, constructing a mythology and seeing it clearly. If it's true that we're all breathing Caesar's breath -- that because of the finite amount of perpetually moving molecules on Earth, one or two that he breathed are in each of our exhalations -- then I don't need to dress up in his clothes to connect myself to the past, I'm already wearing them. The past is with me, always. I just need to open my eyes and poke around in it, take it all in. The good, the bad and the mythic.

Modern nostalgia has its eyes closed; it's afraid of the dark and the complicated. It rips symbols out of context, commodities them and edits them into a non-stop, John Mellencamp-scored commercial starring Martin Luther King, Luke Skywalker and the U.S.A. Olympic hockey team. It's amnesiac.

When my grandfather spoke quietly about seeing his brother walk through the door, his chest rose and fell with a fullness that no amount of time could diminish. People don't breathe like that so much any more, and I miss it. Of course nostalgia is selective, and my grandfather no doubt found comfort in reliving a bright moment from a dark time. But old-time nostalgia, unlike its modern incarnation, isn't childish, it's childlike. It doesn't need constant attention, it pays attention, it takes everything in. It enlarges and deepens our sense of time instead of distracting us from it; it reawakens something dormant rather than lulling us to sleep with familiarity. Good, old-fashioned nostalgia isn't about fearing the future or sentimentalizing the past. It's about being present.