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

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