Or: Yearning for a past I never had.

Nostalgia is looking back at actual past experiences and remembering them, usually fondly, sometimes desiring to go back and relive them. Sometimes this is valid escapism, other times it's just a consequence of the nostalgia effect. False nostalgia, on the other hand, is when the past I'd like to go back to never happened. It's fantasizing about the past.

Sometimes this imaginary past is created by others, particularly the media. Anyone who grew up in the eighties will remember the John Hughes brat pack films: Pretty in Pink, The Breakfast Club, Sixteen Candles. They helped solidify the image of what high school was supposed to be like; since my actual experiences didn't match, it created envy at the time, and false nostalgia ever since.

It doesn't help that I didn't (and still don't) take many risks. So, of course, I didn't experience much, and I never really grew up. Maybe that's why I idealized these manufactured images. Even seeing later spoofs of these movies (e.g., Heathers), and after seeing with older eyes just how shallow the whole miserable experience was, I still think I did it wrong. Of course, I can't go back and fix it, so I'm just wasting time.

More broadly, we're always fighting out of the preconceptions of the previous generations. The ideal image of a community in the USA used to revolve around the small town. Even into the 1950s, the white picket fences and June Cleavers ruled the media images. Contrast that to the increasingly fragmented lifestyle of the eighties and nineties.

My dad worked for the government his whole career. At Hewlett-Packard, I regularly see retirement parties for people with 30+ years of experience. Me? I've never held a job for longer than 20 months since I graduated college in 1995. My mom lived in the same area for the first 20 years of her life. By then, I had spent 8 years in New Jersey, a year in Louisana, and the rest in New Mexico.

Environment and climate can be a breeding ground of false nostalgia. Even if you moved a lot, you'd never experience all the possible weather and seasons everywhere. Indeed, true experience of a region's climate means that you stayed there a while, to get some feel for both the average and the exceptional.

Having grown up in southern New Mexico, I've always yearned for snow, rain, cold, and cloudy days. (Yes, dammit, I wanted winter.) Looking back at manufactured reality, these types of weather made them more desirable and more alien. A few that come to mind: the Peanuts It's a Charlie Brown Christmas; Dead Poets Society; Marillion's Kayleigh; The Sisters Of Mercy's Driven like the Snow; The Cure's Same Deep Water as You and Prayers for Rain;

Sometimes this feeling of false nostalgia comes out of nowhere; it just bubbles up from the subconscious, sometimes overwhelming us. Most of the time, it's triggered by something else. Like deja vu, this false nostalgia mixes real experiences from the past with something from our fantasies.

As you've probably figured out by now, most of my fantasy worlds are from the mass media (which might explain why I try to avoid most of it, these days). Music is far and away the most powerful of these triggers for me. As a classic example, listening to a collection of prom songs makes me wish that I hadn't been too smart for high school.

Most of my experiences with false nostalgia are a result of empathy with characters portrayed in songs and movies. Add to this a low self-esteem as a result of various defense mechanisms, and too much self-consciousness. Finish it all off with a huge desire to escape, be it through booze, work, or ... false nostalgia.

I burned my teenage diaries long ago. It wasn't really a sacrifice; there wasn't much in them aside from horrendous poetry, boring ruminations on the Meaning of Life, and endless lovesick moaning about people whose faces I can no longer remember. Stupid stuff, on the whole, and better off as smoke and ashes.

But I did save one scrap of paper out of the whole mortifying mess. I tucked it in my wallet, and when it seems necessary I take it out and look it over. It's a letter I wrote to myself many years ago:

Dear KNB,

Today I woke up early and went to the stadium to watch the seniors graduate. The principal gave his usual pretentious speech, salting it with countless literary references, trite sayings, and a series of personal anecdotes carefully selected to reveal to the world that he's a true Renaissance man. I don't remember most of it--which is good; no need to waste brainspace on crap like that--but I do remember his last words:

And so, graduates, your time at this school has come to an end. Some of you, I know, look forward to the opportunities and challenges that lie ahead. And some of you may be happy to leave this place behind, to cast away the failures and the falterings, the squabbles and the heartbreak--all the petty slings and arrows of adolescence. But I have something to tell you, something that comes with the certainty of experience. That is this: years from now, you will look back at your time at this school, and you will smile and feel a twinge of wistfulness, a twinge of regret. For you will realize that these years that have just ended, your years at this school, were without a doubt the best years of your life.

You have my congratulations, and my best wishes for your future.

"The best years of your life." He really said it, and he seemed to mean it, as much as the old wooden bastard ever means anything he says. The best years of your life have just ended. Go forth and enjoy the sunset of your life.

KNB, I don't know what's going to happen to you. Maybe you'll end up achieving something great; maybe you'll spend your days moving paper from one pile to another. Maybe you'll conquer your demons; maybe your demons will end up conquering you. Maybe you'll give up every belief you hold dear, every goal you ever set for yourself, every dream you ever had. Maybe you won't even exist--I've never been able to envision life past the age of seventeen.

But whatever happens, if you change entirely, if you forget everything else about your adolescence, you damn well better remember one thing:

You were not happy.

You were not happy, you were miserable, and don't you dare be so stupid as to forget it.

Good luck.

Yours very truly,


Tough stuff. I don't really remember writing it, except that I have a vague impression that I wrote it during a particularly bad week in a particularly bad school year. In my head, I know I was right: I was miserable, and I'm much better off now.

But some days it sure doesn't seem that way. I'm driving home from work, and I'm hitting every red light as I navigate my way through stop-and-go traffic. I get home and pick up my mail and discover that for the third straight month, the cable company has billed me for services I never requested. As I cook dinner, I feel like I'm just moving backwards, because every dish I use is another dish I need to clean. Meanwhile, as I was busy sauteeing the onions, my cats started playing floor hockey with their feces, and now there's cat shit all over the house, and by the time that's cleaned up, it's past ten and time for bed.

That was today, and it was yesterday, and it'll be tomorrow too--an endless succession of errands and chores and niggling distractions that build and build into a towering wall of utter crap. And I feel that if I just set my mind to it, I could break through the wall and get on with the real business of life. But every day, no matter how much I hack away at it, the wall always seems to grow back.

That's when it happens. I look out my window at the teenagers coming home from school, and I find myself thinking: It was better then. It was a happier time. It can't have been that bad; it wasn't as though I was a starving child in some war-torn Rwandan village. My daily troubles seemed so much more important, too. I didn't lie awake worrying about the strange noise my car makes when it goes up a steep hill; instead I thought about fundamental things like romance and destiny and the need to live a meaningful, useful life. I remember that I spent my days learning all sorts of new things about the world, things I've since forgotten (why do we have seasons? I used to know but can't remember). I remember that I spent my nights falling in love, trying to figure out how to get gorgeous young things to take off their clothes in my presence.

And I remember how I felt when I touched a girl's breasts for the first time. Ladies, I don't know if I can possibly make you understand how wonderful that moment is, how soft and warm and deliciously sexy it feels. Maybe it's like the moment when you first brush your hand across a guy's pants and feel that he's hard--hard because of you. All I know is that my hands were trembling, but I felt like a god.

I haven't felt like a god in a long, long time.

What I forget--what I forget more and more as I get older--is that I didn't feel like a god very often. I wasn't terribly good at getting those sweet young things to show me their treasures--usually they laughed or cringed at my stammering attempts to ask them out. I forget that at one point in my youth, I went two full years without the comfort of a girl's arms. I forget how terrifying it was to feel uncertain about love or life or fate--how scared I was when I looked into my future and couldn't see anything but blackness.

But these days I have some answers to all those big questions of life. Not all the answers, of course, but I have some idea where I'm going and what I'm doing. I have a long-term partner whose body lacks the allure of mystery but offers the comfort of warm familiarity. Most of all, she's more than just a body--she's my friend and companion and lover, the person who helps me build myself into a stronger person. True, our free time never comes freely; it has to be seized by force, wrested from the grasp of bills and errands and mindless faceless bureaucrats. But for the most part, I'm more content than I've ever been, even if I never do feel like a god anymore. Maybe I had to give up intense pleasure to rid myself of intense pain.

And that's what I think about when I take my letter out of my wallet and read it through. When I hear a student agonizing about college or graduation or a summer job, I feel relieved because I have a job and a career that I enjoy. When I hear a teenager moan about his latest heartwrenching romantic escapade, I look at my lover and smile. I'm done with all that now, you see. I've figured it out, and I've done a pretty good job on the whole, much better than a lot of the adults I've encountered in my life.

And so I fold the letter, put it back in my wallet, and think: No. I wouldn't really go back.

Not a chance.

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