An Ode to Nostalgia,Which Makes Life Confusing–And Great

Last week, my NY best friend R and I rented a car and drove out to Long Island for a couple of glorious days on the beach–R playing DJ during (very) occasional lapses in conversation.

We didn’t have an iPod adapter or any CDs, and thus depended on the spectrum of inferior radio frequencies that seem to dominate that area. The overlap between our two tastes has grown over the years, though I’m not sure I’ll ever share her fondness for R&B or she’ll ever share mine for classic rock.

“Just tell me when you want me to stop,” she’d say as she clicked through. I’d nod and then glance over, perplexed, on the few occasions when she did stick on something, seemingly on my account: something cheesy, usually–John Mellencamp, Bon Jovi, Rod Stewart.

“I don’t need to hear this!” I’d say, only then realizing how enthusiastically I’d been singing along and why, obviously, she’d kept the station. “You sure?” she’d ask, ever the accommodating travel partner. “I guess,” I began to explain, suddenly contemplative, “I guess sometimes it’s hard to decipher between recognition and actual pleasure.” Later that evening I came to a passage in the book I was reading–fittingly, (we were in Sag Harbor), Sag Harbor by Colson Whitehead–that resonated in a similar vein.

It’s a really fun book, I should preface, whose entire purpose, essentially, is the celebration of nostalgia: an ageless, placeless narrator–one who, it’s hard not to note, shares a lot of qualities with the author–recalls the summer when he was 15 and living in an African-American Hamptons enclave that differed sharply from his mostly white Manhattan prep school.

What makes the book so fun is that you–or at least, I–can’t help but feel completely endeared by how indulgent of his nostalgia the narrator, by way of the book, actually is. In this brief passage he remembers how he felt when his aunt sold a house with which he was completely in love. “I was appalled,” he writes, “but you know me. I was nostalgic for everything big and small. Nostalgic for what never happened and nostalgic about what will be, looking forward to looking back on a time when things got easier.”

I mean, tell me about it.

Probably my favorite movie line–and, as R, the ultimate movie quotestress, can attest, I never remember movie dialogue–is from that Noah Baumbach post-college classic that some people hate and some people (ahem) love, Kicking and Screaming.

t’s been a few months since college graduation, and already one character, the tightly wound Max, is fondly reminiscing about their days on campus.

“We graduated four months ago,” the carefree Skippy reminds him. “What can you possibly be nostalgic for?”

“I’m nostalgic,” Max responds, “for conversations I had yesterday. “I’ve begun reminiscing events before they even occur. I’m reminiscing this right now. I can’t go to the bar because I’ve already looked back on it in my memory… and I didn’t have a good time.”

Again, tell me about it. I guess I could have saved myself writing the above 500 words and just admitted that my favorite movie is The Big Chill. (One year during our annual summer gathering, I made a bunch of my college friends sit through it and I think six out of ten fell asleep. I still love them.)

The point, of course, is that I am an absolute sucker for nostalgia. Like Max, and like Whitehead’s narrator, I often find myself feeling headily fond about the memory of things before they’ve even finished happening, or the anticipation of things that haven’t yet. I guess it’s part of being a tortured romantic soul.

Another part of which, as we know, is a chronic habit of overthinking. Which took full effect about 36 hours later as I walked around my old stomping grounds, visiting friends in Washington DC.

It was my fourth visit since moving away from that city, and the second consecutive trip during which I’ve felt genuine pangs of “maybe-I-should-move-back-here” desire.

There are a lot of wonderful things I now appreciate about DC: how walkable it is, how many free museums there are to wander in and out of, the music scene…mostly how many people I love live there. All of these, I have no doubt, are legitimate.

What I have to question, though, is the nostalgia: that brigade of pink Izod-clad, Economist-toting 22-year olds swarming the Metro that makes me feel warm and fuzzy now, definitely filled me with rage when I lived there–and probably would again were I to move back.

In other words: do I really like living in DC? Or do I just like feeling nostalgic about living there?

In the end, I’m afraid it’s not such a clear distinction: being nostalgic for something doesn’t obviate the ability to truly love it. But it does cloud emotions, and make them more difficult to discern.

Because often, the nostalgia is the pleasure: if you asked me whether I like Meatloaf, would I say yes? Definitely not. Would I rather listen to something else on the radio? Probably. Do I enjoy belting out the lyrics to “Paradise on the Dashboard Light” while driving cause it brings back fond memories? Totally.

If only all of life was as simple to navigate as a radio.

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