Were Those Really the Days?
Men of a certain age have always loved to romanticize the past. But looking back through the mists of time can cause memory cells to fog over, yielding not entirely accurate recollections. It's easy to convince ourselves that "back in the day" things were better all around: simpler, healthier, morally superior, and by golly, built to last.
I plead guilty to this. Increasingly, I find myself grousing that times were better "back then," but I draw the line at wishing I lived during times when my only style choices were togas or, well, togas. For instance, I personally long for the days when tattoos were strictly for sailors or the rough biker crowd. Today, at least here in Los Angeles, if you're not tattooed, you're probably over 40 and don't get invited to parties where the women wear gladiator-style sandals. On a recent foray into a MAC cosmetics store, the woman (I think it was a woman) who sashayed over to help me was tattooed from her wrists to as far as the eye could stand to see. I ask you: would you take beauty advice from someone spray-painted like a freeway overpass in gang territory? I beat a hasty retreat, since I wasn't in the mood to have a dragon festooned on my right shoulder.
My eyes also hurt when I see younger folks whose faces sport multiple small bits of hardware. I desperately wanted to ask one guy who had ring in his nose, like you might see on a bull, "Come on, fess up. How often do you set off alarms in airport security?" Exhibiting enormous self-control, however, I just smiled wanly and thanked him for my latte, wished him a piercing-free day and left.
It's not only more conventional styles of personal adornment that I pine for. By golly, I will not apologize for missing the days when a billion dollars was still real money. Nowadays, you can hardly buy off a congressperson from Butte, Montana with that kind of chump change.
My list of things I am convinced were superior "back in the day" is long. It includes a bygone era when you didn't have to wonder when you met someone who was married if the spouse was of the same or opposite gender. It also includes a time when 8-year-olds didn't need a city permit to sell lemonade from the corner and have to disclose nutritional and calorie content per glass.
Finally, I miss the rhythm and beauty of the English language as it was once spoken, particularly in England in the late 1700s. Be honest: which of these gives the brain synapses more of a workout and the ear greater pleasure:
"I could wish, Miss Bennet, that you were not to sketch my character at the present moment, as there is reason to fear that the performance would reflect no credit on either." (Mr. Darcy, Pride and Prejudice)
"Hey, chick, don't diss me."
It's enough to make a grown writer cry.
But if I am honest with myself, an annoying yet sometimes unavoidable procedure, I will acknowledge the brutal truth: things weren't so great when I was growing up. As a kid, I vividly remember news stories of bearded young things (including some women) rioting in the streets against anyone over 30, and celebrating something called "free love." In those transformative, tumultuous days, "drugs" no longer referred just to aspirin for a headache. Instead, the very word suggested dangerous, illegal substances that could make you write songs like "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds" and walk out of 10th-story windows, thinking you were going to the kitchen for another brownie. Then, as now, we were mired in a long war. Politics was divisive. When Jimmy Carter diagnosed the entire nation as being in a "malaise," we had plenty of time to contemplate our condition as we waited in long lines to buy our ration of gasoline on Mondays and Thursdays.
Even some of our sartorial styles now appear laughable or lamentable. When my kids look at photos of their dad and me in our early days as a couple, they are convulsed with laughter, not only trying to imagine that we were ever that young, but that our eyeglasses -- stylish at the time -- were roughly the size of Jupiter. Polyester leisure suits and muu-muu dresses also marred the couture landscape, and fortunately have not reappeared in the retro '70s look that is back.
I got started on this whole nostalgia gig after watching Woody Allen's latest film, Midnight in Paris. I enjoyed this movie for many reasons, not least of which is that at 102, Allen wisely cast an actor many generations his junior to be the role he always writes for himself: a thinking, ironically funny young romantic lead. This time, the romantic lead's name is Gil (Owen Wilson), a writer struggling with his novel, who travels to Paris with his fiancée and her wealthy parents. Paris turns out to be not only the quintessential city of lights but one of true magic for Gil. Walking the streets alone at midnight, he is swept back in time, hobnobbing with literary and artistic luminaries of the past, including F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, and Gertrude Stein. These mysterious, enchanted evenings make Gil -- already a nostalgia buff -- even more wistful for the past, a time he imagines was friendlier to artists and writers like him. Of course, the farther back he goes in time, the more he realizes the limitations of the centuries of yore -- for example, the lack of antibiotics and Facebook fan pages.
The movie's gentle lesson reminded me that, as long-forgotten American politician George Ball once noted, "[n]ostalgia is a seductive liar." Therefore, I am forcing myself to stop whining about times gone by and focus on the benefits of life in 2011.
Bear with me; I'm thinking.
Okay, here's one: today, we never have to be bored! Constant internet access from our smart phones has rid us of the need to ever be alone with our thoughts. Maybe that's not so good, though. Here's a better one: online bill-paying. I love that one -- a huge time- and postage-saver. I also appreciate the easy access to pre-washed, pre-cut bags of fresh vegetables, especially on days when I've done too much writing to have the energy to chop vegetables the old-fashioned way. And of course, for those who ultimately regret being tattooed like a freeway overpass, there is surgical tattoo removal.
I will keep thinking of things to be grateful for today, but I'm finding it hard going. I think I'll take a break, and read some Jane Austen.
Judy Gruen's latest award-winning book is The Women's Daily Irony Supplement.