The Peril of Nostalgia

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Out and about on the Internet, I stumbled across an interesting piece that raised a good point for discussion.

Has nostalgia for the past has become a means to gloss over past issues and to judge the cultural freedom and diversity we can enjoy today?

One can certainly make the point that people tend to look at the styles of dress with some envy. In this era of t-shirts, jeans and baseball caps as a sartorial statement, it hardly takes a big jump to espouse better dress by both sexes. Whether that takes one back to the Victorian era or that of the post World War II glamour, pride in ones appearance seems a worthy goal.

Yet, we should remember that even with fondness for a seemingly simpler time, things then were not as they are today. My mother once shared in 1958 that having grown up in San Francisco, she felt more at home in West Germany than she did in Alabama. It was indeed a different time and place, but much of what had been normal life in Alabama, had little changed from the way it may have been a decades earlier.

It is easy to forget that people did not always enjoy the same things we may take for granted today. Simple rights today, but hard fought to gain then. Everything from the 40-hour work week or the 8-hour work day to the ability to vote in elections at the local to the federal level – at one time these were not equally enjoyed by everyone.

Yes, we all can look back and see simpler times. Times when we didn’t worry about many of the things we do today. Days before we had to remember passwords or pin numbers. When we didn’t have to worry about that cholesterol number or other fascinating medical information. I could go on and on about how the good old days only seem good. The blessings of viewing through the passing of years. But I won’t…

Herb Caen, a proponent of what he called “terminal nostalgia”, was often recalling San Francisco of days gone by. A good quote of his may describe it best. “Nostalgia is memory with the pain removed.” Having seen the City for so long and reported so much of what made it’s heart beat for that time, those memories were fond for everyone who had the pleasure of reading one of Herb’s columns. From Dec. 5, 1977, “The sounds of the city. Once they were a heady mix of sidewheeler splash, seagull scream, Ferry Building siren, sea lion bark, click-clang of birdcage signal and “one more for the road.” Today, the auto horns blow impatiently amid hippie bagpipe, flutes, bongo drums, “Any spare change?,” a blind man’s accordion wheezing out “Wabash Cannonball” and – lest we forget – “Have a good day, have a nice day” and smile, damn ya, smile. The simpy smile of the ubiquitous “Happy Face,” emblazoned on T-shirts, underpants, junk jewelry and yellow cookies growing stale in bakery windows.”

Yes, I too have a bad case of terminal nostalgia. Plenty to look back upon and fondly recall the era gone by. Memories? Glad I got ’em. Would not trade a moment of any of them. Yet, I look ahead and rejoice in what has yet to be. Things yet to come.

So, the next time you cast a glance in the mirror and see the past, think kindly of it as it recedes. But don’t try to live in it, no matter how cheap the rent was. You’ll miss what lies ahead. And the memories of those moments yet to come. Pretty special stuff there…

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