I try to avoid the soft trap of nostalgia, but it can be tough sometimes. Unless your past was seriously flawed or traumatic, I think most people romanticize the times they came from, especially in days of worry and trouble. “Things were a lot simpler then,” the common refrain goes. Every time I hear that, I have to try and stifle my instinctive reaction of derisive laughter and a hearty cry of “Bullshit.”
Here’s a news flash: Things weren’t simpler in your halcyon past. You were. You didn’t worry about house payments or your job or your spouse’s spending habits or the kids’ braces. Comparatively speaking, you lived in a four-color world, especially when you were a kid. The world itself wasn’t all that different. Sure, technology wasn’t the same, but you know what? Technology can change the way we interact, the speed, but not the reasons why. People haven’t changed, not really. We just choose different things to talk about, different terminologies for the same thing.
But. There’s always a but, isn’t there? In this case, the “but” is that sometimes, in the flow of details that mutates and evolves, certain things change that maybe should have been preserved. On those times when I get nostalgic, usually against my better sense, I find that one of the things I miss now was something I didn’t always like when it happened. As with many concepts, my viewpoint has changed with age, hopefully with maturity. In this case, I’m thinking of the sensation of being out of touch, out of range of news and information.
Here’s a small example of what I mean. When was the last time you were driving at night, alone, and couldn’t listen to music? When was the last time you couldn’t pick up an FM station, or tune into satellite radio, or pop out something on your 6-disc changer, or plug in your iPod? For some of you younger folks, let me rephrase that a little: Have you ever been in such a situation? For me, the last time I was in a situation like that would have been 1994. I remember it not because of the long hours of quiet, but because for a short span of time—probably about twenty minutes as I barreled through southern Washington state—the fog of radio static lifted, and I was blessed with a few songs’ worth of decent music, easing my way through the dark in a warm summer night. It was a brief moment of luck in a minor key, and I treasured that.
When I was growing up, I knew the small joys of finding something on my wavelength for a moment, picking up voices in the clutter like mine, because there was a lot less clutter. I caught the tail end of the pre-Internet era, grew up with radio stations and TV channels that stopped broadcasting at the end of the night. Because I’ve always been a nocturnal life form, I grew up knowing what it was like to be awake and bored when there was literally nothing on TV, no music to listen to. At the time, it sucked, but I feel fortunate now to have experienced that, not only because it deepened my engagement with books, but because I became comfortable with my own thoughts. Reflections, plans, arguments: these things tumbled through my head when I had no distractions to keep me from them, and I learned to appreciate introspection. Given my future career, that turned out to be a good thing.
I think it would be hard to recapture that today, because now, you have to choose isolation. Having no choice in the matter taught me to be appreciative of what I could get, whereas in the present of 24-hour media in every format, you have to push yourself away from the table, so to speak. I don’t remember the last time I saw a station go off the air, and even if one did, there’s 57 others (or more) that don’t. Even if you live in a radio dead zone, there’s satellite or CDs or MP3s. If all other media fails, there’s always the Internet.
I am not complaining about this; in general, I prefer a cornucopia of choices to none. Still, there’s something to be said for having to look for something rather than having it readily available. There’s a small joy in unexpected finds, and it’s those small joys, in my opinion, that help make up the magic and mystery of existence.