Friday, February 22, 2013

Nostalgia

 There are many past times in your memory that you enjoy taking out and reliving, much in the same way you reread certain books or stories, watch performances of plays or films where the outcome is a certainty to you.

When news reaches you that an old chum or former hero has died, you do the same thing, recalling times, events, possibly even outcomes, where the sense of the departed person is , to your delight, powerful and evocative.

Such recollections and, indeed, such revisiting of books or plays or music or films is given the name nostalgia, which to your ears is a lovely name, its sound soothing and reassuring, giving you the visual images of Indian-head pennies and buffalo nickels, liberty half dollars, and, wonder of wonders, silver dollars.  The denominations of these coins are low enough to remove any sting at the association of nostalgia and money.  The nostalgia is for the way the coins rang when dropped on counters,  The nostalgia is for authentic marble counters, and for coins with thick ridges in their edges.

The nostalgia extends to a radio you could make, using a cigar box, an empty toilet paper tube, a remarkably simple and inexpensive device called a cat's whisker (in reality a lump of galena with a wire device that served as the equivalent of a tuner), and an equally inexpensive roll of double cotton-covered copper wire.  You'd have already had a pair of ear phones from a birthday or Christmas past.  This so-called crystal radio did not need electric current, adding to the magic of its nostalgia; the moment it was connected in the proper order, the cardboard tube wrapped with fifteen or twenty turns of the copper wire, it was a radio.  It was connected.  Music and sounds were there to be had by moving the wire pointer (the cat's whisker) over the galena for a sensitive spot.  You heard Beethoven's Third Symphony, 'The Eroica," on such a radio.  Even now, when you hear it from a compact disc or a concert hall, you hear it as you heard it then.

So yes, nostalgia is magic, and it has nothing, absolutely nothing in the way of grudge against modern technology, not iPod or Kindle Fire, or your laptop of your iMac Computer with the twenty-one-inch screen.

Of the many files on hand in your personal nostalgia library, the time of the crystal radio is a proud relic.  This was a time when you were a boy for whom the world was so great an adventure you at first resisted sleep, lest it deprive you of potential discovery, when even sleep was a story in the making.  The better the story, the longer you remained awake.

This was a time when you waited for things to break so that you would be given them to make of what you will, and thus a pair of your sister's roller skates could be unassembled, then brought to the ends of a two-by-four of about an eighteen or twenty-inch length to make the prototype of a skateboard.  A wooden fruit box from the trash heap of Weiner's Grocery on Fairfax Avenue, needed to be mounted edgewise at the front of your skate-wheel chariot.  A broken broom handle became the handlebar.  You had a street-smart scooter.

Wind-up clocks, when broken, provided gears and springs and inner pieces that seemed like skeleton parts of prehistoric creatures.  Elections brought envelopes thick with descriptions of ballot measures, but you knew them for what they really were, maps to treasures the early Californians had buried.  Your mother's and sister's used foundation garments provided elastic for slingshots and rubber bands for model airplanes.  Empty thread spools needed only a rubber band, a button, a Popsicle stick, and a few notches, carved in the spool's edges to become a splendid wind-up toy that scuttled along the ground, even climbed over some obstacles.

Nostalgia grew up to a degree when you reached high school and were able to speculate with chums from the same grammar school about someone who'd gone to another high school than yours, or, even more mysterious, out of state.

"Wonder what happened to old James."

"He was neat, James was."

"Think he went to L.A. High."

"Heard he moved to Hollywood."

"No, man.  Hollywood wouldn't have been so bad.  James had to go to Hamilton."

"He didn't deserve that, not James."

You pull some of these nostalgias out of the air like a magician, pulling rabbits out of a hat, to demonstrate the splendid sense of magic and trickery about them but also to commemorate the fact that nostalgia is not the simple process of reaching an age and beginning to spend what have been referred to as unhealthy amounts of time dwelling in the past.

You do believe in spending a considerable amount of time and focus in the immediate present, as many fine actors do when they are at work, representing other individuals, characters from plays, novels, and stories.  You even have what you call future nostalgia, in which you speculate on what your iPod or Kindle Fire will represent to you at a future time, and what uses you might find for broken or discarded things in the fabric of your stories and essays.

When you think nostalgically about some of your past friendships, you are often haunted by an old pal to whom you gave the nickname of Duke.  You were close friends through high school, fraternity brothers in college.  Duke was drafted to serve in the Army, which he did with what seemed to you like remarkable good grace, but about nine months or a year in, he was sent home and became rather distant until the day you braced him for an answer given a sad picture.  Duke had been diagnosed with cancer.  A planned wedding was put on hold until treatment at the City of Hope could be completed.  Trouble was, Duke continued losing weight, and on your last visit to him, he asked you to please write something about him, and he asked you if you understood what that meant.

Some of your nostalgia is trying to fit Duke into stories, and each time you do, you find another reason to cherish the effects of nostalgia.  In real life, his name was Wilbert, which is one of the reasons even then you wanted to start calling him Duke.  Wilbert Melnick is a believable name, but Duke is more of a contribution to filling your promise to him.

You have other nostalgia debts as well.  You owe Wolfe the book, The Dramatic Genome, you began together, and in yet another way, you owe the kid who was you the ongoing search among the cultural and artistic trash heaps for useful and intriguing parts.

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