I cannot be the only one who gets a little jolt anytime he encounters someone waxing nostalgic over the 1980s or even the 1990s.
We just lived the '80s and '90s, like, a moment ago, didn't we? They seem so recent that many of us are working harder at forgetting things than remembering them.
I, for instance, will probably never live down, even in my own mind, that I used Summer Blonde one beach season, and my parents still hold a photograph of me in parachute pants — paired with a sweater vest, if I recall — poised to head into the city from my country-suburban hometown. Dude!
And yet people, in blogs, in books, in TV series and in conversations, are avidly digging this stuff up. Like board games or Facebook, gettin' nostalgic is turning into another way to pass the time and will probably soon enough become one more thing to pine for: "Remember when we used to get all wistful about the '70s? I miss that."
Too few, it seems, will take a cue from Theo Huxtable of the quintessential 1980s sitcom "The Cosby Show": "I don't necessarily think I miss anything from the '80s," Theo's portrayer, Malcolm-Jamal Warner, told me recently. "I had an awesome time in the '80s. But I don't really know that there's anything I miss."
Here's a quick demonstration that the longing for recent eras has become a little too prevalent:
NPR's "Morning Edition" news program recently ran a piece on a 1990s reenactment group called Hootie and the Time Travelers. All the cultural markers made sense: the Zima, the Bugles snack food, the bad group singalong to Semisonic's "Closing Time."
But I didn't catch the announcer's line coming out of the piece: "On this first day of April, it's NPR News."
Indeed, I didn't even know I'd been had until I mentioned the piece the next day in the presence of my 12-year-old son. I was amazed at what people were spending their time doing and impressed by the fact that a group leader was described as the son of a Civil War re-enactor. My son was amazed I didn't know the whole thing was a fake and impressed not in the least.
I had been fooled by NPR's news division, which normally works very hard to eliminate any acknowledgment that life includes laughter and irony. It was like getting punked by Betty White. (She was so great in "The Golden Girls," wasn't she?)
But it made perfect sense that folks would get together to say, like, "like" all the time and lionize the date that "Friends" first aired. I had already seen that the National Geographic Channel (Seeing nudity in National Geographic used to be such a big deal, didn't it?) was running a big, three-day miniseries about the '80s — "The '80s: The Decade That Made Us," a show that begins airing Sunday (7 p.m.) and features, in the fifth of six hours, Warner talking about the import of "The Cosby Show."
I knew that a Chicago concert by New Kids on the Block had provoked a wave of nostalgia from people younger than me that I found, frankly, unsettling, like the first time it hits you that while you may be getting older, the college basketball players are staying exactly the same age. Meanwhile, not only won't vinyl records go away, to name one artifact, but cassette tapes are supposed to be getting a bit of a revival too.
In that context, why would I be suspicious of the NPR piece's reverential reference to Pearl Jam? Aren't they, after all, touring this summer, playing a Chicago date in Wrigley Field, a venue large enough to suggest that an awful lot of folks miss 1990s grunge and itself a magnet for all manner of nostalgia?
But as a child of the current era, my son is well-trained to spot faux nostalgia because he is so steeped in the real thing. He got Sperry Top-Siders for his recent birthday, the boat shoes of the '80s, and before that the '50s, that are enjoying yet another revival.
He and his older brother are avidly watching back episodes of the TV series "Psych." A more devoted recycler than some municipalities in the Pacific Northwest, "Psych" packs its crime-solving stories with '80s and '90s references. When one character spouted a definition for "relationship" and cited "Webster," another responded, "I hardly think Emmanuel Lewis is an authority on relationships."
But my younger son's favorite show is "The Walking Dead," and zombies, according to one professor, are not just flesh-hungry human husks who bring ratings magic to basic cable channels. They are totems of cultural illness, of an unhealthy longing for the past.
The boy lives in a time when everything old is new again, when eras crash up against each other with so much zest that very little is ever truly new or, indeed, truly old. And with so much of current culture being recycled from past culture, you wonder what the current generation will be able to ponder when it comes their time to get dewy-eyed.
"For this generation that has never not had a screen in front of them," suggests Daisy Miller, "I don't know. Maybe they'll miss the larger screen?"
Rather than the lead character in a Henry James novella (before Twitter, short writings were called novellas), Miller is an English professor at Hofstra University in New York, and she's teaching a course on nostalgia and writing.
Among the things she teaches her students: Nostalgia, when coined in the late 17th century, was originally defined as a longing for home, noticed in soldiers, and was a medical condition.