Sunday, July 1, 2007

The Great Nostalgia Mashup

So many are writing about the Summer of Love this summer, I figure I might as well, too. Sure, I remember 1967. Yes, I witnessed the Summer of Love . . . on a 24-inch black and white RCA TV in a tiny living room on a second floor apartment in Oshkosh, Wisconsin.

Honestly, my memories of that summer amount to a small pile of (mostly) feces. I may been a little baffled and sacred of the silvery shadowy broadcasts of hairy people running around the streets and the newscasters’ mutterings about a mysterious far off land called “Berkeley.” (“You must’ve been stoned,” you snicker. “No,” I snicker back, “but I shoulda been.”)

Memory tells me that, in the summer of ’67, I was an alienated and strident 12-year-old Republican-in-Training and Vietnam War supporter. Just the year before, I’d been removed from my Tom Sawyer/Christopher Robin world to a midwestern town that was as flat and dreary as a parking lot. While everyone liked the Rolling Stones, I liked Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass. (Why I had the attitudes, tastes, and opinions I did is grist for another mill. Except for Ennio Morricone, I made a lot of bad picks that year.)

That summer, I paid my annual visit to my father, who was then living in Coral Gables, Florida, in a ranch style house in a suburban neighborhood. It was—unlike rural south central Texas, where I spent two previous summers—extremely humid. Like Oshkosh, it was very flat. For a natural wanderer, there was little to wander around in. The days seemed mostly empty.

I remember early morning weekend fishing trips on my father’s 18-footer, “The Hindri” in Biscayne Bay. I liked those trips: an incredible cornucopia of fish in good numbers, even though it was out of season. Words like “overfishing” and “global warming” had yet to haunt our world. I loved the thunderstorms that sailed in over the Bay and how the distant columns of rain plunged down from the billowing purple clouds and made the storms look like atomic explosions: My innocence indicates a certain lack of moral awareness.

That’s pretty much all the nostalgia, except for a bookstore located a few blocks away where I bought novelizations of the Get Smart TV series with my allowance. (No, they weren’t funny. Nor do I regret their loss.)

Most people missed the Summer of Love and still had a swell time that year: Maybe even a better one. But there are those who didn’t: rioters in Newark, soldiers in Vietnam. And the Vietnamese themselves. Not to mention all those lost alienated adolescents.

During the 1990s, I joined the Retro-Swing scene. I had a great time wearing that snappy early twentieth-century fashion and swinging to that swinging brassy music. One of our crowd declared he wished that he had lived in the 1920s and 1930s, instead of now. That nostalgia was rightfully mocked: our friend would also have lived through the Great Depression; World War II; The Holocaust—and don’t forget the great dental care.

But that’s not denying good things happened then (like Duke Ellington). Nor is it wrong to wish that the best of those good things were with us now. I recall watching George W. Bush’s first televised speech after 9/11 and sorely wishing for a time machine to bring back Franklin Roosevelt, because he was the one we needed to hear that night. My reaction may not even have been nostalgic, but a sense that we were in bigger trouble than we realized, even then.

I know: We‘re stuck right now with the Completely-Not-FDR, but I wouldn’t dispense with nostalgia. So much of human culture, especially art, music, poetry, fiction, and especially memoir—would be impossible without its misty, sin-sweetened ambience. (We would, for example, miss the shimmering iridescent prose of Vladimir Nabokov.) Without nostalgia, memory would be a pure mechanical function. Houses wouldn’t be homes, but mere rock shelters. Burning away the past makes swell ranting rhetoric, but no one’s ever been able to live with the results as a tour of social realist monuments in post-Communist Europe might show.

Nostalgia also lies and sprinkles its golden dust over evil: Both Nazism and Bin Ladenism are nostalgias for a past that never existed: medieval utopias that demand the extermination of millions living now in order to rebirth those Halcyon Days of Whatever.

When I remember the past, I’m sometimes confronted with how good and evil, happiness and regret, so often twine together. Pulling up a good memory sometimes pulls up a bad one, a very living (and horny, hungry, and angry) corpse, from its grave. Getting lost in the past can mean failure to make the best of now and leave something better for tomorrow. (Right now, somewhere, someone, maybe my age, sits in his couch, watching the complete DVD set of The Brady Bunch. What pleasure will this memory give him on his death bed?)

I think it was Brendan Gill, in an article on architectural preservation in The New Yorker some years back, who said the point of preserving the past was not to bring back a supposedly better time, but to enhance our own. To that, I’d add that those who live in whatever future is coming might like to find a treasure to remember our times by. Whatever good and new things we make now, might count sweetly in tomorrow’s memory.

(Photos from Dave Harper; 120 negative; Virginia University; the National Archives)

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