On Nostalgia

Nostalgia is both a feeling and a retail pattern. I’ve noticed that it seems to increase as a person (this person) gets older. In my early life, remembering the past took a very specific form.

When I was growing up, there was no choice for me or my brothers: we had to be collectors. I don’t know what my dad’s logic was, but he was certainly a keen collector. For him, it was stamps. And tattoos. For his kids, it didn’t matter what was collected, as long as we were actively collecting – remembering – something.

My brothers chose bookmarks, beer mats and beer towels, stamps. Through the course of my childhood, I experimented. I tried postcards, badges (buttons), coins; nothing quite stuck. And dad was disappointed, because he could be very supportive in helping us in our chosen collections. In retrospect, I could have been smarter.

I could have declared my collections to be books, classical vinyl, collectible action figures, comic books. These are the things that people collect now, but in the far-off world of the 1970s, these things were not popular. At least, not in my closed-off corner of the universe.

If I’d taken this much wiser course, I would have been much happier, my mother would not have been so quick in giving away my piles of comics, and maybe now I would be sitting on a fortune. Enough to afford a down payment on a house not too far outside of Austin. Somewhere cool in Leander. Or a whole street in the town I recently found on Google Maps: Lovelady, TX. I don’t want to know what Lovelady, TX, is really like; in my head, it will live forever, just as I choose to remember it.

A previous experience looking at a record player inspired nothing but a feeling of being prehistoric. Part of the issue was explaining what a vinyl-music-playing system was to a young person. But then, more recently, I had the exact opposite experience. I was with a young person in the wonderful Waterloo Records, and he knew how things worked, was interested, and – for a young person – was reasonably enthusiastic.

And that enthusiasm transferred itself to me.

I bought a turntable. I bought actual records. I fell in love with the concept of an album. Sitting and listening to the tracks as they came, reading the liner notes, taking pleasure in the simple mechanics of watching a metal arm lift up, move, drop gently onto a spinning disk of plastic, and then transmit music to my ear.

The record player, just so we’re clear, is basically a magic machine. Spinning plastic contains a multitude of sounds that travel up a needle, through wires, and end up coming out of wooden boxes and into my ear. You can try to give me the “scientific” explanation to how this works, but we all know it is really magic. Wonderful magic that transports me to a different time, a better time – a time, like all nostalgia-soaked eras, that never really existed.

My commitment to nostalgia in human form is Prince. Prince was my adolescence…well, the good, positive parts of my adolescence. My commitment to Prince is long-lived and almost certainly permanent. One of the clearest manifestations of this is how much money I have spent on one thing: Purple Rain.

To date, I have purchased one tape, one CD, one videotape, one DVD…and last year they brought out an anniversary edition, with extra disks containing previously unreleased material from Prince’s famous vault along with remixes. My review of the previously unreleased stuff: meh. Maybe he knew what he was doing in not releasing everything. I do still hold hope in my heart that some truly good stuff will one day come from the vault.

Purple Rain is a great album, a less great (but still sentimentally important to me) movie, but most relevantly, it grounds me to a time of my life that seems less and less real as I move away from it. My childhood feels like a movie that I remember only occasional scenes from, or a story told to me by somebody else a long time ago. Purple Rain makes it real.

It was first given to me by my parents as a Christmas present, and became a wonderful secret as they obviously didn’t listen to it first. The movie was my companion for more Saturdays than I care to admit during That Difficult Time of early adolescence. Part of me is in the notes of every damn song on that album and part of it belongs within me.

All told though, nostalgia is largely nonsense. Let me give you a more recent example.

I was complaining to a work colleague about how complicated working in publishing has become – it’s all online and digital, requiring pages of log-ins, passwords, and hours of tedious training sessions. I miss printouts. Sending manuscripts through the mail. Getting packages of manuscripts from copy editors. “Remember when you could open the package and there’d be a smell of coffee or cigarettes? I miss that,” I actually said. I wasn’t lying, because I was being nostalgic. But, when I remember back, I used to hate that exact thing: the smell of cigarettes as I opened up a box from a freelancer first thing in the morning would make my stomach churn. But it seems like a better time than now. In ten years’ time, will passwords, log-ins, installing extra software on my machine all seem like a better time? Probably. And like almost all nostalgia, it’s part of a continuous, life-long commitment I have of lying to myself.

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