Sunday, September 30, 2007

Those Were the Days


It’s the last day of September, and October brings not only the debate I’m hosting about the Ivy League but my reminiscences on this blog about Brown — the start of a recap of my past twenty years, with an emphasis on philosophy and politics. So it’s worth first taking at least a brief glimpse at what went on in the eighteen years before that period.

One small window into my youthful mindset was my attitude toward Grandma’s house in New Hampshire, I suppose. The house where my father grew up, which my ninetysomething grandmother has only recently given up to move into an apartment, was a perfect place to play with toy robots and imagine a high-tech future but also a heavenly, vaguely Victorian-seeming slice of the past — and I definitely saw no contradiction in those backward-looking and forward-looking impulses, perhaps not even a tension, really. (Nor did I ever have much sympathy for the once-common view among some nerds that the futuristic “sci-fi” section in bookstores should be separate from the idyllic “fantasy” section — it’s all imaginary, even if the two sub-genres spring from opposite aesthetic impulses, generally things that could happen but that you hope will not, on one hand, vs. things that you wish could happen but definitely can’t, on the other, as Arthur C. Clarke or someone once said. The dorky name of the Comic Book Guy’s store on The Simpsons, the Android’s Dungeon, pretty much sums up their inextricable connection.)

Similarly, the house I grew up in (where my parents still live — next week being Mom’s sixtieth birthday, by the way) in Norwich, CT was in the middle of the woods but perfectly suburban-feeling (that is, safe and comfortable) and also, like most environments on the Earth’s surface, a perfect place for toy robots and Star Wars figures — even with all of Mom’s Colonial-era decorations. I didn’t believe then that we had to choose between admiring the past and imagining the future, or between nature and technology, and I still don’t, despite all the mopey intellectuals wanting us to make painful choices between such things, as they do between right and left or regulation of people’s private lives on one hand and regulation of business on the other.

So, for instance, a synthesizer-loving New Wave fan I may well have been by age twelve, but that didn’t stop me from loving the uber-nostalgic Mary Hopkins song “Those Were the Days” (“Those were the days my friend/ We thought they’d never end/ We’d sing and dance forever and a day/ We’d live the way we choose/ We’d fight and never lose/ Those were the days/ Oh, yes, those were the days,” etc.). I’m pleased to see (thanks to that nostalgia-fueling innovation, YouTube) that New Wave-era diva Bonnie Tyler liked the song, too — as did alternative rock band Crowded House.

And, as is often the case with kids (though we easily forget this as adults), I often thought when I was very young that there was a more direct, intentional connection between things in the world that I associated with each other than was really there, so the song was always vaguely linked in my mind to the Waltons-like nostalgic animated series by the same title (which took place around 1901 or so, as I recall) and to the (unrelated) comic strip by that title, which always featured two panels good-naturedly (but somewhat conservatively, in retrospect) contrasting how things were done in the old days vs. today, usually in an “Anything Goes” spirit gently mocking hippies, street crime, or other modern depravity. (Most people would be quicker to think of the All in the Family theme song also called “Those Were the Days,” but that was ever so slightly before my time.)

And the fact that I only seemed to see that comic strip in the paper when at my grandparents’ house did not, of course, strike me as a side effect of comic strip syndication patterns or the tastes of New England newspaper editors when I was a kid but rather as evidence that everything at one’s grandparents’ house is inevitably sort of old-timey (especially true if one pair of grandparents, along with Grandpa’s brother Milt, lived on a small family farm, with an almost Amish willingness to stick to familiar patterns), and that’s just fine.

In fact, the most recent time (or perhaps the time before) that my parents and I drove to New Hampshire to visit Grandma, we stopped at a big crafts shop and there was, I kid you not, a Norman Rockwellesque boy (who did not appear to have been hired for the job) about ten years old sitting on the porch of the place eating a hotdog and wearing a Red Sox baseball cap, surrounded by various Colonial-era and New Englandy doodads, and I couldn’t help thinking that maybe all the talk about the rapid pace of change is a bit overblown, and the past and future are always with us, which would be nice, since I’d miss either one if it went away.

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