Monday, January 21, 2013

The Reminiscence Bump

I just read a post on Andrew Sullivan’s website that hit home in terms of how we remember as adults, and why we over-romanticize our late-teen and early-adult years.  He was referring to this Slate article by Katy Waldman that examines why people focus so intensely on that time period as some measurement of who they are a decade or two removed.

The money quote is from author Joshua Foer, who “describes a study in which researchers found that most movie adaptations and remakes occur exactly 20 years after the originals come out. Apparently, whatever touches people as young adults looms so large for the rest of their lives that when they reach the age at which their generation starts to create the culture—around 40—books and screens fill up with the arcana of 20 years ago. ‘So look out for a new Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles film any day now,’ Foer finished.”

I’ve been noticing this since my early 30s and have written about it many times, but didn’t come up with a novel term like “reminiscence bump” which does work fine.  My big novel term was fonzia, which I fully describe in this post.  A different kind of nostalgia, one that’s more longing for an age in which one never lived and for which one has a highly romanticized vision.

I think Foer’s equation is a little off time-wise in terms of pop culture.  In fact, I know it is.  People harken back to their teen years culturally, not their 20s, which is a huge difference in time and perception. Thus, they go through these nostalgia binges in their early-to-mid 30s, not in their 40s.  (I don't know many people in their 40s who are nostaglic for anything ... most of us are old enough to recognize death on the horizon, and that's a real nostalgia killer.)  But I do agree with the 20-year assessment.  Let’s use the 70s as an example.  Twenty years on from the 70s is roughly the mid to late 1990s.  At which time, you had shows like That 70s Show, and movies like Dazed and Confused mining the 70s for all they were worth.  Dazed and Confused in particular is an excellent guide to how the 70s were for kids, although I don’t recall them being that druggy.  (Of course, my brothers who were a few years older, do.)

Turn of the century, and a show like Freaks and Geeks perfectly nailed the turning of the 1970s into the 1980s.  Never mind that the show was excellent in and of itself – this short-lived series exactly replicates how I felt at the time and matches up to my age group.  Thus heralding in the return to the 80s so much of the 00s represented, especially in music.  I think the reason I’ve fallen out with so much newer indie rock is that to me, starting with a band like The Strokes, it all sounds like warmed-over/once-removed 80s indie music, whether we’re talking mumbly surf rock bands like Jesus & the Mary Chain or the vast sea of 80s synth pop which has morphed into any number of sub-trends in the past decade.  I heard it all before, and most of it was better the first time around.  Honestly, most of what I hear now sounds like fucking Heaven 17 demos with the roadies singing lead vocals.  I have to believe people raving about indie music in the last decade are either age specific and relatively innocent/don’t know their musical history, or they’re older and trying desperately to keep their jobs by lying to themselves and their audience.

I can attest that they were many 70s-based cultural projects in the mid-late 90s.  I saw more than a few re-creations of Brady Bunch episodes by a troupe of actors in Manhattan that were uproariously funny to audiences who had this show burned into their memories.  Rhino Records, slightly ahead of the curve in the early 90s, came out with their monumental 25-disc Have aNice Day series that more accurately recounts exactly what was popular with kids in the 70s.  (Critics tend to rewrite history to match their tastes … punk and new wave were relatively minor trends at the time.  Exciting as hell, but by no means Top 10 popular.)  70s-themed bars and dance clubs sprung up here and there in Manhattan, which would morph into 80s-themed bars and dance clubs a decade or two later.

These 20-year nostalgia binges are based on culture, mainly music and fashions that kids, teenage kids, loved at the time.  Not people in their 20s.  People in their 20s, I can assure you, looked back on culture that was less than a decade old with disdain.  So that 20 years on, somebody who was, say 25 in 1976, would have very little interest, circa 1996, going to see a bunch of actors re-creating Brady Bunch episodes in a Manhattan studio space (like I did about a half dozen times as someone who wasn’t even a teenager in 1976).  Now, if those same actors were re-creating episodes of, say, Dark Shadows, that might be a different story.  (The recent Tim Burton movie remake of Dark Shadows bombing at the box office is a good example of being years off, as people now in ther 50s would really dig this, save they don't go to movies all that much; the remake would have made much more sense and done huge box office circa 1985-90.  I haven't seen this movie yet, but suspect I will like it.)

The teen/twentysomething gulf is an important distinction to make in terms of culture.  But I do agree with Foer in terms of overall memory as people age, that they do cling to their early-mid 20s as this golden age of self-discovery and freedom.  When all I can recall now, with a pretty vivid memory and a good eye for the past, was how awkward and mildly depressed I felt upon entering the adult world and realizing this shit had nothing to do with the freedom and creativity I had nurtured in college!  Sure, I looked great, at my peak physically, could eat whatever I wanted, stay up all night and look like a million dollars the next day, but for however good I looked, it was equally matched by how insecure and out of place I felt in those years.

Maybe because I was looking forward more than backward, and realizing I wasn’t fully prepared to deal with this thing called work that I was expected to do for the rest of my days?  I don’t recall feeling all that nostalgic in my 20s, save for the continuation of romanticizing all the “wild” things I had done in my teen and college years, which we would be romanticizing form the day following any given wild night.  Which were no more or less wild than your “wild” nights, I’d imagine.  It also occurred to me, fairly fast, that the “freedom” of my those years was tempered by the fact that I couldn’t support myself, that if it wasn’t for my parents helping to support me financially, I would not have had the time or inclination to sense that sort of freedom most of us had in those years.

To be honest, I have much more vivid memories about being a teenager than I do about my 20s.  I started writing this blog to recapture a lot of college memories before it was “too late” in some sense and I had completely forgotten them.  And my time in New York, which took up my 20s from the age of 24 or so onwards, was such a comparatively odd experience, living in a boarding house in the Bronx, a completely alien environment to the small-town/college town worlds I understood, that I tend not to romanticize those days.

I don’t quite understand the article’s assumption, and that of many of the commenters, that the 20s are singled out as some time period when you’re defining who you are.  Shit … you’re doing the same when your eight years old, or 15, or 35, or 45.  It never ends.  Granted, you’re a lot more sure of yourself come your 30s and 40s, but you’re still figuring things out, how you’re going to live your life, what changes you can make along the way, things you want to try, ways you want to start or stop living.  It never ends.  Simple routine ensures that we become more set in our ways, but within that context, change and growth still occur. 

And I don’t recall it occurring any more radically or quickly in my 20s, or that this was the start of that process.  Any changes I went through, real changes, occurred gradually over the course of years, as opposed to any half-assed stabs at making dramatic gestures to change.  Think of people who alter their looks physically on a regular basis, or dump friends with alarming regularity.  The point is, the changes they put forth are pretty much surface and temporary, and I think you’ll find, people shedding relationships in their 20s are doing the same damn thing in their 40s, as they continually “out grow” friends and acquaintances who frankly don’t give a rat’s ass about their “personal growth” or some other such shit they've concocted to mask their emotional rootlessness.

I’d say “who we are” is pretty much determined in our childhoods.  I’m speaking of our personalities, our demeanors, how we inter-act with other people.  You can fool yourself into thinking that you can affect change in your adult life with these traits, but I don’t think you can.  I think of people I’ve known most of my life, and I can’t single out one person as someone who has changed all that radically from how we were as children or teenagers.  Again, I’m thinking core personality traits, how we deal with the world and each other.  And so much of that is determined by our parents, not so much what they do with us, but simply who they are.  I can clearly see, in my 40s, that so much of who I am now, so much of who I was in the past, is directly related to how my parents are/were.  My father was always quiet and stoic, the kind of person who kept a lot to himself but would occasionally let you in with a nice conversation.  My mother is a very warm, open-hearted person who has a knack for talking to perfect strangers and immediately making that person feel just as open and somehow happy as she is.  They presented a very yin/yang version of personality types which worked well together.

And I can see both those sides in me, all the time, looking back over the course of decades.  People who don’t know me so well probably only see that father side of me, but those who know me get both.  And Dad could be a real prick some time … surprise, so can I!  But generally not as a rule, only when I’m being pushed or pressured.  I learned a lot about privacy from Dad, which seems at odds with some people in my life, but fucking A, they should know me better by now.  That’s another thing I’ve also learned about myself. I tend to know people in my life really well, to the point where I know what to look out for in terms of pleasing or offending that person.  My parents always taught me to think of others, not so much in a compassionate sense, but more to simply understand that my point of view would not be theirs.  And life goes better when you understand the people around you, or at least make the effort to do so.

But that’s getting away from this whole 20-year cycle thing.  In any event, an interesting article that you’ll find I dwell on a lot on this website.  I think we’d all be better off if we all remember our 20s, and our youths in general, as they were.  Just another piece of the puzzle, and one that is problematic and pleasing as any other.

Tuesday, January 01, 2013

Confessions of a Dimestore Antichrist

I’ve been seeing this phrase a few times recently while poking around the web: The Happiness Industry.  Referring mostly to self-help books, seminars, etc., geared towards helping people find “happiness.”  It struck me as one of those phrases much more loaded with whatever basic meaning we give it.  It would be a good name for a band!

The eternal quest for happiness has always struck me as a load of shit.  It’s not something you should seek, not some perpetual state of being.  It’s something that comes and goes daily, whatever your condition, unless you truly are depressed and need psychological help.  We’re fed this infantile idea that we must find happiness from the day we’re born, yet we quickly learn it’s impossible to be happy all the time.

Recently, a friend of mine blew out on me, like a tire on the interstate, known her for years.  But the past few months, she seems to have latched onto meaningless moments in our recent history and overloaded them with negative, dark overtones that she’s weaved into a conspiracy of harm and disrespect.  When the truth is I only see her about once every two months, and then, usually only for a pleasant hour or two eating dinner.

At first I was shocked.  Why on earth is she taking these small moments – like a plate of food picked up accidentally at a party – and blowing them up into these intentional affronts that are only the tip of the iceberg?.  The iceberg being a handful of these sort of moments, carefully annotated and stockpiled like a demented lawyer fabricating his own version of the  truth.  I should point out the iceberg constructed here is more like a half-melted snowball in terms of actual reality, but surely in her mind, it’s an iceberg.

Then I realized, I’ve seen this sort of behavior before, the numerous squabbles she’s had with other people, stretching all the way back to how her mother used to treat her as a teenager, the incessant nitpicking and focusing on harmless character traits and episodes that were inconsequential to any sane person.  This shit used to drive her into fits of rage, and understandably so.  No one wants to be picked apart, especially regarding senseless shit that doesn’t matter.  By someone who should be nurturing you, not tearing you down at every opportunity.

So she has herself in this stew of blackness regarding me, someone who has stuck by her through some raw times, some she’s not responsible for, some she’s directly responsible for, over the course of decades, only to come to this strange place where she’s been dwelling on these odd, months-old (maybe years-old, for all I know) self revelations that have lead her to believe I’m a dimestore antichrist.  I could understand if I screwed her over in some sense.  Tried to bring harm to her life.  Lied to her.  Said hurtful things to her or her loved ones.  No.  Never.  One of the last things I did to her?  Within minutes of her making the email request, providing her with a notarized affidavit that would help her new husband apply for working papers in the U.S.  I know … how could I?  What kind of monster would do this?

But as any good attorney knows, you don’t use evidence that refutes your version of the truth.  Whatever goes on there, I pretty much decided she needs some alone time.  Whether that means she’ll stew even more in the dark juices of her troubled thoughts or come to her senses, I have no idea.  All I know is it makes no sense to have people in your life who can’t stand you!  You can’t do much about that with family members, unless you disown them, but with friends, you need to watch yourself.  The good thing about friends is they don’t have to put up with your bullshit, which should keep your toes.

I don’t know … maybe she feels so comfortable with me after all these years that I’ve passed over some type of bridge where she thought it was acceptable to treat me “like family” … which I’d rather not have happen as I’ve noted the sort of standard-issue bullshit that was part of her upbringing.  Maybe it’s other pressure in her life?  Work?  Marriage?  Kids?  If that was the case, I’d have to believe an apology would have been forthcoming in a matter of days, and that didn’t happen.  In her mind, she wants the apology, for the astonishingly petty and short laundry list of personal grievances.  Put it this way.  Were I to view the things she noted as wrong and worthy of apology, I would need to apologize to strangers at stores 20 feet behind me for not waiting to hold the door open for them.  It aint happening.

Before all this blew into town, about the only grievance I had with her came down to her sense of judgment, which I knew was clouded in certain instances.  I believe we all pass judgment against each other, all the time, the difference being most of us are smart enough to realize these judgments are best kept to ourselves, unless speaking them out loud would serve some positive purpose.  One of the more telling points she threw at me was along the lines of “I stood up for you when I had people in my life asking me if you were gay.”

Man, I nearly shit my pants laughing over that one.  I assured her that there was no need to stand up for me in that sense.  That even if I was gay, it had nothing to do with whatever issues she or anyone else was having with me otherwise.  Her revealing that bespoke more of that sort of gossipy redneck mentality, bored family members sitting around a kitchen table wondering about the sexuality of single people they know, assuming they must be gay, which in their minds is a huge negative and gives them a false sense of superiority.

One of those redneck things.  You could reduce your own life to rubble.  Be a complete boil on the ass of life.  Live a King Midas in Reverse existence where everything you touch turns to shit.  But, so long as you got your man/woman/insert appropriate opposite sex partner here, you’re all right.  Unlike that single guy in his 40s who is obviously sucking his weight in dicks but keeping it from us because he knows we’d look down on him if we knew this.

Right.  And here comes Santa Claus, right down Santa Claus Lane.

What does all this have to do with the happiness industry?  I’d say everything.  We’re conditioned over the past few decades to spend our time ruminating on ourselves.  Are we fulfilled?  Spiritually?  Emotionally?  Sexually?  Financially?  Are we happy?  Are we getting the most from life?  Is there anything we could do to change?  To make our lives better in some sense?  What are our goals?  What are we doing to move towards our goals?

Understand that whenever I come across people talking, thinking or writing like this, I cringe.  Especially on the web, where it often takes on this sort of desultory and self-aggrandizing tone.  It’s pure vanity, so woven into our culture that many of us can’t recognize it as such.  My old friend has lost her way to the extent that she’s created this negative fiction about me to assuage some sense of self that’s been damaged, and this must be one of the reasons.  Hopefully it won't come as too much of a shock to her after months or years of silence that I wasn't the problem.

Happiness takes care of itself.  If you take care of yourself physically, nurture certain relationships, maintain some type of financial stability, do things in your own time that serve some positive purpose … chances are, you will feel some sort of happiness routinely.  The world is not a happy place in general.  Adulthood and ageing present constant obstacles to happiness.  But you do what you can to fight against the pull towards insanity and depression all of us feel.

If you’re busy doing things, you’re not busy dwelling on them.  Talking them to death.  Seeing things that aren’t there.  Creating resolutions on days like this.  Such and such must happen this year.  This is my goal!  That’s probably part of the problem, too, different philosophies on how we live our lives.  Some people might misinterpret my disdain for this Type A/goal-driven take on life as lethargy or weakness.  Far from it.  If anything, I’ve realized constant focus on self is a perverse weakness that masquerades as power and self fulfillment.  Generally speaking, if someone is trying to dominate everyone and everything in sight, that’s a person who feels constantly inferior and threatened, and believes achieving certain goals will decrease those insecurities.  They won’t.

I’ve said it before: sane, healthy and solvent.  That’s all I concern myself with.  Everything else, I can shoot towards to fulfill some personal curiosity or desire, but my goals in life are to remain sane, healthy and solvent.  And if you think that’s easy, you’d be surprised how many people in your life will lose grip on their sanity at some point, lose their health and have financial problems on varying levels.  Life is not a race or a contest.  It’s life, above and beyond our perceptions of what it is or should be, and we will fight like hell to hold onto it.  This is what I concern myself with, not petty grievances.