Sunday, July 29, 2012

Irrationally Bipartisan

Imagine you have a brother (maybe you actually do). Now imagine you hate your brother (again, maybe you actually do). You don't hate him to the extent that you are overcome with deep, dark thoughts about clunking him in the head with a shovel and burying him in the woods. You don't dream of dispensing rat poison into his tap water or planting PCP on him and calling the cops. This is not a crappy slasher flick, Edgar Allen Poe story, creepy Phil Collins song or reconstructed tale of Cain and Abel. You wish no unmitigated harm or tragedy on him. You simply don't get along, don't want him to triumph or succeed. Despite how similar and connected you are in so many ways, your opinions differ on too many topics. Your personal beliefs are not kindred. Your viewpoints are virtually opposite.

You've grown further and further apart as you've gotten older over the years. Your interactions are limited to snarky back-and-forths and contentious squabbles. You don't actively avoid contact, but only because it still allows you to trumpet just how right you truly are and just how wrong he always is. And yet for whatever reason, you find it within yourselves to come together in support of hometown pride every so often. There's something special about the place you grew up, the place your childhood will always live. And for you and your brother, this allegiance remains among the ruins of anything else you ever shared.

Now imagine that the younger members of your native community just happen to compete amongst their neighbors in some quasi, winner-take-all contest every few summers. It's like a battle-of-the-bands, but for small towns as opposed to angsty teenagers who spend their weekends boosting their parents' booze. The aspects and qualifications of this tournament aren't important – in fact a great deal of it is downright trivial – but that's not the point. It's important because of what and who you're choosing to support. Which is why you and your brother, that wretchedly brainwashed chowder head, can always find a way to put aside your differences and direct your loyalties to a common goal, collectively and positively. You both recognize how odd and somewhat shocking this cooperation is – even if it's on a subconscious level – but you both also realize, almost implicitly, that it would be much weirder and much more reprehensible if you did not come together in this manner. You do it not for appearances or out of any joint obligation. It's completely genuine, even if for very superficial, archaic and unalterable motivations.

You are – for this brief period of time, every so often – on the same side, pulling for the same horses. You don't particularly stand to gain or lose much of anything other than your civic pride and the small bits of your heart that go out to those from your old stomping grounds. Victorious or not, there is very little tangible worth that can be measured in gains and losses from the inevitable outcomes. As fiddling or petty as the usual incongruities between you and your brother may often be, the very same could be said for the events that have now brought you together. Yet you seem to show far more respect for these fleeting moments than you ever do for each other. If it were in any way possible, you'd hitch your fates together to aid the efforts of your roots, selflessly giving of yourselves for the glory of the place you forever call home.

You know that any successes your allegiances obtain will be more or less temporary; largely forgotten, regardless of the notions of immortality you boast and attach to them. You're intrinsically cognizant that as soon as this brief and sunshiny intermission is over, you'll go back to hating your brother for the comparable (and in your mind, twisted) allegiance he happens to cast on everything else in his life. The abbreviated sentiments you shared will essentially be dismissed, just like the hometown subjects those sentiments were directed toward. You'll be indignant and defiant and cruel, and you won't even care, because your brother with mercilessly act the exact same way. The things that separate you will once again be your most defining qualities, while the things you share will return to the scrap heap of unimportance. You won't always be right, and neither will he, but that's not what matters. What matters is selfishness and stubbornness, your personal preferences challenged only by a desire for the failure and shortcomings of his. It's narcissistic, childish and pathetic, but you embrace it anyways, because in your mind, it's better than losing. The price you pay for your gains is favorable to the cost of the contrary.

It is oddly ironic how we as a country come together for the Olympics. It is admirable how unabashedly patriotic and proud we are to be Americans, how irrationally unified we become in pursuit of medals the vast majority of us will never touch and podiums the smallest fraction of us will ever get to stand on. Our eyes swell with tears at the sound of the same National Anthem that we constantly daydream through at high school basketball games and major league ballparks. We root against the French merely for being the French. We work ourselves into a lather over archery and water polo and words with “athalon” tacked on to the end of them. We vault teenage girls to the ranks of national heroes for nailing their dismounts. We buy Wheaties boxes and Subway sandwiches in the name of athletes who spent their lives training for an activity that we do for fun in our spare time. Our loyalty is pure. Our pride is communal. Our respect is reciprocal. Suddenly, everyone is rooting FOR LeBron James. All at once, we're all on the same team. It's weird. It's beautiful. It's weirdly beautiful.

It's also fleeting. In seemingly no time at all, it will be cast aside in light of our differences, tossed back on the scrap heap of unimportance, disregarded for personal preference – worthless, because the price to gain is far more favorable than the cost of the contrary.

It's what makes the Olympics special. Though I'm not quite sure what it says about everything else.

Thanks for reading

Saturday, July 14, 2012

Activating Nostalgia

Topanga Lawrence was my first crush. Yeah, Boy Meets World Topanga Lawrence. Cory Matthews’ Topanga Lawrence. She was the first girl I thought I was in love with, before I actually knew what love was. She was the first girl I stayed up at night thinking about, that somehow had me convincing myself, “Yeah, she’s a little older than me, but I bet if I could just meet her, that’s all it would take.” Despite understanding nothing about girls or relationships (newsflash: I still don’t), there was something about Topanga that I knew I liked.

Or at least that’s how I remember it.

Nostalgia is an interesting sentiment. Second only to love, I’d venture to say that it’s probably the most desired emotional response (I would consider happiness a result of other emotional responses). That more-sweet-than-bittersweet twinge that engulfs everything meaningful, special or somehow memorable from one’s past is distinctive and special in a way that few can truly recognize when those things are happening in real time. It has the unique ability to highlight only the good things that took place, regardless of how they ultimately turned out.

There are, in the most rudimentary sense, two types of nostalgia: general and personal. General nostalgia is brought on by things like Bryan Adams’ “Summer of ‘69” or any half-decent movie about people being in high school. (The smartest, most spot-on thing I ever read about the television show Friday Night Lights was that when you watch it, it makes you nostalgic for something you never had.) Personal nostalgia, as you might have gathered, is onset by things that are meaningful to an individual or select group of people – often assumed to be a relatively small group (old friends, family, those that have experienced seminal moments together). And while that distinction between the two may be almost painfully obvious (even if you never really considered it before just now), what is odd is that despite each of those being separate and differing paths in the vein of nostalgia, they so often seem to culminate at the same end point. Or maybe it’s not that weird at all.

But where nostalgia becomes most interesting to me is the moment when those two lines – the personal and the general – start to blend together. Being still a rather young man, nostalgia is not something I’ve had much interaction with thus far in my life, for the simple reason that I haven’t lived long enough. Yet it seems as if right now, I’m at a bit of wistful crossroad, having just graduated college and moving into my so-called “adult life.” I’m finally approaching an age where it isn’t completely ridiculous to reminisce about certain things in my life, things that were so defining at one point or another but will most likely never be attainable again. And even beyond that, I’m beginning to realize how many of those presumed personal recollections that comprised my past are actually far more general than I had ever imagined. The current state of my life is activating my nostalgia, and yet it is clearly not a singular act.

If you follow me on Twitter (shameless plug), then you’ve certainly noticed how the subject of Boy Meets World has hijacked my daily tweeting. This all began a few months back when I started my big-boy job and had to roll out of bed every flipping day (for the rest of my flipping life) at a time I had always previously associated with farmers, degenerate meth addicts coming off a bender, or those sick bastards that go for morning runs at the break of dawn. I soon discovered that every day while I was getting ready for work, the highlights I was seeing on Sportscenter were identical to the ones I had watched about six hours earlier as I was trying to fall asleep; I needed something different to watch while I stuffed my face full of Cinnamon Toast Crunch and whiskey (ok, maybe not whiskey). Much to my surprise, I discovered that ABC Family screens Boy Meets World episodes every morning - a beacon of my childhood preserved in syndication, the staple of ABC's TGIF lineup returning to brighten my day and help keep my a.m.'s whiskey-free.

As viewing the show immediately became a daily routine, I was amazed at how much recall I had of the program, all the way down to specific plot points and exact wording of quotes. It wasn’t quite Seinfeld level, (I caught myself keeled over with laughter at the marine biologist episode the other day, despite the fact that I’ve probably seen it at least 50 times; about 5 minutes later, I realized I had the TV muted the whole time. Yes, that’s a true story.) but it was shocking nonetheless. For a show that I hadn’t watched in nearly 10 years, I never realized how integral it was to my pre-high school childhood. My feelings for Topanga suddenly came rushing back to me (and now I was old enough…maybe a little too old). The outrageous hijinks of Cory and Shawn had me chuckling during every morning commute. I suddenly felt compelled to start tweeting out a couple weekday thoughts on each episode I watched. And as I soon realized, I wasn’t the only one that felt this way.

The reaction I got via my peers from tweeting a simple episode recap and quote every day was shocking. So many of them clearly had a similar appreciation; a few quick internet searches revealed the same sentiment among a much larger consultation. This stereotypical ‘90s network sitcom had managed, for whatever reason, to trigger the pensive nodes deep inside my brain. And seemingly everyone else who had experienced the show in the same arc as I had was getting all nostalgic too, right along with me.

It wasn’t limited to Boy Meets World, either. Turns out that D2: The Mighty Ducks (which I honestly believe is one of the top 5 movies ever made) remains popular beyond just a few of my high school and college friends. Nickelodeon spent the past year or so bringing repeats of all their classic '90s shows back into their programming schedule. Men in Black was so revered that they somehow bankrolled a $215-million third installment, 15 years after the original (and it still grossed upwards of $610 million worldwide). As my generation continues to creep into the corporate and professional world, our influence is continuously becoming more and more evident, the impacts of our upbringings openly on display.

The truth is, things have probably always been this way. Nostalgia has more than likely been a cultural and demographic experience for years, I just wasn’t privy to it, seeing as how I justifiably wasn’t a part of it. But it’s also undeniably true that the current state of media and technology has made my generation’s nostalgic activation blatantly and transparently communal, more so than any other generation before. In fact, nostalgia – both the individually specific origination and subsequent embrace of the emotion – is, in a sense, easier to ascertain for my age group. Twitter first enlightened me to the widespread appreciation of Boy Meets World. Just in the past few months, Cory Matthews and those venerable Mighty Ducks have popped up on some of the foremost pop culture websites. (Ed.'s Note: Another one!) There are ENTIRE websites devoted to “things from the '90s.” Heck, YouTube is essentially a labyrinth of nostalgia waiting to be explored (with clips like this); the internet as a whole is a breeding ground for collective reminiscing. So yeah, maybe nostalgia has always been experienced this way, but certainly not to this extent.

One thing, however, has forever held true: it’s never as good as you remember it. The glaring downside to my generation’s more literal ability to “relive” aspects of our childhood is the fact that we are exposed to both the good AND bad. Yes, I still thoroughly enjoy re-watching Boy Meets World and contemplating the impact it had on me growing up. But I also get to see just how ridiculous and implausible it was at times. For instance, the entire episode about Cory and Shawn – as high schoolers – stumbling into jobs with the mob, followed by a Robert Frost poem somehow enlightening their consequence-free exit strategy. Or the fact that Mr. Feeney permeates every aspect of Cory’s life, seemingly from the day Cory was born until the day he (spoiler alert) and his wife Topanga (and his other wife, Shawn) move away to start their lives together. Or the fact that the show began with our main characters belonging to the Class of 2000, yet ultimately graduating high school in 1998 (am I supposed to believe Shawn Hunter skipped two grades?).

And yet it still isn’t enough to keep us from looking back. Recognizing and admitting the idyllic haze through which we see our past is never enough to change how we feel about it. It’s why every person in the history of the United States couldn’t wait to graduate high school and get the eff out of there, only to spend the rest of their life wishing they could go back, flash-forward-and-splotchy-bearded-Jack-Sheppard style. It’s why so many parents strive to live vicariously through their children, be it in a normal/productive/loving manner, or a creepy/over-bearing/Toddlers & Tiaras manner. It’s why people universally love Springsteen’s “Glory Days,” regardless of how cheesy the lyrics might be.  It’s why the concept of nostalgia even exists at all, our wistful desires remaining forever unattainable. As Bob Dylan once said, “You can always come back, but you can’t come back all the way.”

But the details aren’t important. Nostalgia is such a dominant sentiment because of how little it resolves, not in spite of it. It’s not important that you’ll never go to your Senior Prom again; it’s important that you want to. It’s not important that I was never actually in love with Topanga Lawrence; it’s important that 13-year-old me had convinced myself of it. And it’s not important whether the things that make you nostalgic were truly as good as you remember them; it’s important simply that they were there at all.

Or at least that’s how I’ll always remember it.

Thanks for reading