Dictionary.com defines nostalgia as “a wistful desire to return in thought or in fact to a former time in one’s life, to one’s home or homeland, or to one’s family and friends; a sentimental yearning for the happiness of a former place or time.” Perhaps “a driving force in the political conversation” and “an erroneous reconstruction of the past resulting in a lack of progress for the future” should be added to that definition.

We all engage in nostalgia from time to time, which in and of itself is not a bad thing. Looking through old photos, telling family stories, celebrating good things from the past that shouldn’t be allowed to slip away, or recovering old memories unexpectantly when the right song comes on are all (or can be) great blessings in life. The danger of nostalgia comes when one allows oneself to live in the past and forgo the present or when one idealizes the past so much so that they forget the bad of it. This is especially dangerous when it manifests itself politically and people or parties work to reassert a past that was not really  as good for everyone as they remember it to have been and thus halts positive progress to a more viable and just future. But we’ll return to that in a moment.

Two pop-culture items exemplify the good and bad of nostalgia, they are what caused me to mull the ideas for this post. One is the classic sitcom The Wonder Years. Earlier this year Netflix added it in its entirety to the instant streaming queue and I began re-watching it an episode or two at a time. For someone in their late twenties like myself, the show is an odd multi-layered nostalgia machine. Here’s a show that was made in the 1980s depicting the protagonist’s nostalgic recollections about growing up in the 1960s. It aired on Nick-at-Nite and the like throughout the nineties and many people I know grew up seeing it there. So it’s a show that places nostalgia at the center of it’s structure and through the narrator’s “recollections” utilizes it as the active vehicle which outlines each episode and the series as a whole; furthermore, it deals with universal themes of adolescence that almost anyone can relate to, which alone is enough to induce viewer nostalgia. But in mythologising the sixties and early seventies, being a product of the eighties, and being something I remember fondly from my own childhood and pre-teen years in the nineties, it’s like an ultimate nostalgia onion. Now, certainly The Wonder Years falls victim to many of the nostalgia traps in that youth and the years in which a person’s youth took place look brighter and better than they perhaps were for everyone else, but the show does a fairly good job of at at least mentioning the struggles, problems, and tragedies of both youth and the sixties. It’s thematic organization can often result in trite platitudes and cliches, but for a sitcom in which a bit of cheese is to be expected, the show does a solid job of showcasing nostaligia in it’s more positive aspects. The other item, as a work in itself, is terrific; Stephen King’s 11/22/63 from last year is perhaps one of his five best novels to date, which is impressive for someone in their fifth decade of publishing. In it he tells the story of a man who finds a gateway back in time, one that always leads him to the same alleyway in the same town on the same day in America in the late 1950s (no matter how long he stayed in the past during his last trip in). Urged by the friend who discovered the phenomenon, he decides to set up life in that world, to wait and plan to prevent the JFK assassination. The protagonist at first revels in the positive of the past, but what first makes him jump back and really begin to see the very bad aspects of the past is when he stops at a gas station to use the restroom. Handed the key by the station attendant, he passes a “colored only” sign pointing to a trail that winds through a field. He takes a look to see where the trail turns out and sees a plank over a creek and another sign there, “For Colored Use Only.” Now of course someone from our day would be aware that such things would be present, but actually seeing them would be a clear reminder of the bad. He notes in the journal he keeps of his time in the past something akin to, “For those who think the past is all ice-cream sodas, cheap prices, and clean air just think about that plank over the creek.” The narrator in 11/22/63 finds much to love about life in the past but much to hate as well, which is the point that nostalgia too often obscures–no time was all good or all bad, not the 1950s and not today.

It’s all too often heard and it manifests itself politically through votes and misplaced activism. A friend of mine mentioned a chain e-mail he kept finding in his work computer inbox, about the “1950s were the decade that made me,” about how great those times were and that the actors were really stars, the music was real, the food was good, the air was clean, the world was safer for children to play in, with all the other usual suspects present (usually with such emails or ads, the suggestion that our current president is at least part of the problem that is moving us away from such things is inevitable). At my own workplace I heard a senior employee remark when introduced to new safety regulations that our workplace, “like the federal government,” was getting out of control with rules and that she felt sorry for her grandchildren to have been born in this day and not in hers. Now, these type of sentiments are always present in certain people as they get older; every generation stereotypically hates the pop-culture and trends of the next (or are supposed to I suppose). So sure, the argument that music, film, and actors of today are inferior to their predecessors misses the glaring point that there has always been good and bad music, good and bad films, and that of that what is not subjective is an inconsequential preference in the big picture anyway. The allegation that the world was safer in the past is simply preposterous; the world has always been dangerous, but there have always been pockets of relative safety and the odds of a child being abducted in the US today are no greater than in 1950–it’s just that today, 24 hour news coverage lets everyone else hear about it. In one of the many books detailing the modern “culture of fear,” someone once pointed out that in the ancient past when a traveller on foot walked the road between villages and was robbed, killed, and pulled off into the bushes, his acquaintances just never heard from him again–there was no news coverage to report on it and there were no police officers to launch an investigation. Now, those who yearn for the past have a point about the air and food being cleaner, but strangely they rarely connect the dots to the deregulation that has caused that to be so. Only by pro-active progress, sane regulation, and a move away from some of the practices that began back then to a way we now know is more sustainable can we reclaim the positive aspects they point out in those particular instances. Paradoxically, we must move forward to reclaim something lost.

That is where the problem with nostalgia really emerges; in the mind-sets that see the past as better and the present as terrible. Coming out of that, the political move to become reactionary, forgoing progress, and regressing in the hopes of reclaiming the past is damning. Were it contained to only some of an older generation misremembering the past it wouldn’t be too dangerous, but current political movements have tapped into that same zeitgeist, advocating and working to “reclaim” a past they never lived in at all, that in fact, never really existed. We have to be truthful when dealing with the past. Sure there may have been times in which certain groups were more prosperous and comfortable; if you were white, male, and middle-class the 1950s were pretty solid. If you were black, female, gay, poor, or an immigrant things often weren’t so idyllic. Reactionary Politics ignores the truth that for most of history, minorities and the disadvantaged have suffered disproportionately. Reactionary politics refuses to concede that tremendous advances have been made in the realm of equality–in gender equality, religious equality, and racial equality. Reactionary politics refuses to admit that despite progress in those areas there is still a long way to go in terms of real, lasting, full equality for many people and that to do so further progress (which reactionary politics always inhibit) is necessary. Reactionary politics fails to admit that of those good qualities that truly have been lost, sometimes the only way to reclaim them is, paradoxically, to move forward in new ways. Reactionary politics are the rotten fruit of a misguided and corrupt nostalgia.

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From “The Unwritten” # 37, p 7 by Mike Carey and Peter Gross. Vertigo (DC) Comics, 2012.

Stories matter. More importantly, myths matter. Grand narratives we often leave unverbalized or even unacknowledged largely shape the way we “see” the greater meaning of all that is around us, and can imperceptibly affect even the tiniest of our daily actions. Even in this post-modern and quasi-secular age, the stories we tell or internalize are a major factor in shaping our identities, nations, cultures and ultimately our shared world.

This is hardly an original observation. Many thinkers and writers have carved entire careers out of exploring the universal presence and power of myths, as most notably in recent decades Joseph Campbell did. Yet when we apply those concepts to beliefs “closer to home,” many lose all perception of the true power and “truth” factor possible in “myth.” John Dominic Crossan–an Irish Catholic ex-monk, retired professor, and a pubic academic who writes history and theology mostly regarding the historical Jesus–  writes in his spiritual memoir and autobiography “A Long Way From Tipperary” about the difficulty of expressing the truth of myth and the true power (and potential) of parable. Throughout his career he has found the answers he gives in response to interviewer’s questions condensed into soundbites and “quotes” that leave off the positive half of his expressions, turning the exhortations of truth he provided in conversation into sterile skepticism on the printed page. In the past when Crossan has been asked as a historian if there was an “empty tomb” or a witnessed, physical, “resurrection,” he may have answered as a historian in the negative; but as a Christian he has wholeheartedly affirmed “resurrection,” and that affirmed truth is one that for Crossan runs far deeper than reconstructed and quantifiable “facts” ever could. Many in the Church itself miss this point very regularly, so perhaps the secular media should be forgiven for doing so as well, though not for cutting off an answer so as to package it in a manner suitable to the story they wanted to tell before they bothered to do the interviews in the first place. But the fact remains that many don’t understand or perceive “faith” as “trust,” as an intentional personal alignment with a cause (or “force”), often expressed and grappled with through Myth–it is difficult, scary, and even unlikely for anyone to fully understand how truth can be expressed experientially and spiritually through Holy Myth until they begin to tiptoe into those metaphorical waters. A literal, physical, empty tomb is all that many (Christians and non-Christians alike) can possibly equate with “Easter” or “Resurrection.” For Crossan, alignment with and commitment to a way of living and believing and expressing oneself in and through holy Myths that counter the grand and most often violent secular (and/or nationalistic) myths is a mindset and lifestyle that runs much, much deeper than affirming or negating a set of “facts” with little or no thought given to what that affirmation (or negation) means afterwards.

Much of the problem comes from the degradation of the term “myth” as it is used in Western parlance. We label something a “myth” when it is untrue in the same way we have degraded the affirmation “I believe” to apply only to things we choose to believe  without “facts” or are “unsure” of, or when they at best counter hard evidence-based claims and at worst are completely irrational. Liberal theologians like Crossan, Borg and Spong all have had a hard way to go in expressing the reverence they have for the Christian terms and concepts they have worked to reframe and update to a public who hear only the internalized negativity of the words they use to express their new approach to “truth,” even when those “new” approaches fall more fully in line with long-standing and ancient perceptions than fundamentalist or materialist claims which are more a product of the enlightenment than of faith history.

A religious friend of mine once said that no great truths could be expressed through fiction. Stories are for escapism, fun, but they have no real depth, he claimed. Now, even though those that express their faith in terms of “Holy Myth,” grant that Myths (with a capital M) are much more than “stories” in that they convey (eternal) meanings instead of just distraction and entertainment, it still seems unlikely that one who can find no truth in even the greatest of art or literature can find comfort in a faith that readily claims to find truth in Myth. For those that hold their religion in such a light, once the rationalistic ground for their belief systems is shattered for them personally, their faith must be abandoned. This is why “faith” and “religion” can be so easily damnable for both fundamentalists and hard-line atheistic materialists.  The fact is that without story we are not fully human. As humans, language was born as a stepping stone to better accommodate stories. Before that we scrawled our stories on cave walls in stick figures or expressed them around a fire with grunts and hand motions. It is stories that signify there is more to us than there is to less-evolved species, or at the very least that we are more aware than those other species are. Stories are the foundation for not only art, literature, music, drama, and film but also the recording of history and the concepts, interpretations and worldviews that spring from recognizing we are living in a stream of history, that we are not the first nor the last generation to exist. Story crafts culture, story is the cornerstone of civilization. Stories are the ground that holds up philosophy, religion and politics. Stories unite us in relationships, they are the family history we create and keep alive by telling stories of what grandpa did without a fact-checker to run down comparisons between this time and last time’s telling of the tale. Stories unite us in nations as they find form in anthems and folk songs recounting the exploits of nation-founders and heroes. More imporantly, stories lay the ground-work for worldviews which a person draws on when they argue the necessity to build a nation (or a people or a place) where all are welcome and can be provided for; and as with worldviews, stories (when they attain the level of Myth) can be good or bad, can inspire greatness or evil. Which is the point for someone like Crossan; the fact that he found great similarities between the story of Caesar Augustus and the story of Jesus did not trouble his faith. In the “flipping” of that story, Crossan sees the early Christian community affirming that Caesar is not the Son of God, that Jesus is. That the life of a Jewish peasant who preached nonviolence and a direct relationship with God was far more important and eternal the life of a self-proclaimed deity who spread and maintained power through violence and imperialism. For Crossan, the Myth of a holy birth in which the mother is a willing participant with a holy God in a sacred union was much more a story to align oneself with than the ancient tales of gods who forced themselves on unwilling women. For Crossan, a life shaped by the person of Jesus in which truth, equality, mystic union with God, and the work towards a kingdom devoid of the separation between rich and poor, a world devoid of injustice and war is a life worth living. Crossan’s words were once cut off to make a headline reading that a “scholar says Jesus was a peasant with an attitude” without including the concluding phrase of that sentence, which was that “as a Christian I believe that attitude is the attitude of God.” This is the story that Crossan chooses to believe, this is the Holy Myth he finds ultimate truth in and it is where he has devoted his life. He acknowledges that his Myth isn’t the top of a cornered market, that other paths have valid truths. But it remains for others to forcibly align themselves with the holy Myth that seized them if it happens to do so. To negate the story, to dispel the Myths as if they have nothing to teach us in our era is to get rid of most of what drives us to transform life and the world for the better. The enlightenment gave us many things  but what it began the process of taking away was the full appreciation of story. It led to movements in modernism that create a false dichotomy between truth and myth, between “fact” and “story.” We must find a way to reclaim that now; even the “story” of evolution can fill the role of Holy Myth. I heard a sermon recently that called Darwin’s work “our Creation myth,” and the pastor invoked it as that and also as much more, expressing it as the best way we now have to talk about how we came to be and seeing in it the interconnectedness of all that is and the responsibility that entails. These concepts have been expressed by religious believers of many different creeds and callings, but the point is that holy Myth has not yet closed its doors if we do not allow  it to do so or force it to happen. We participate in an ongoing story and it is up to us to ensure the sacredness and vitality of that story.

From “The Unwritten” # 37, p 13 by Mike Carey and Peter Gross. Vertigo (DC) Comics, 2012.

*The pictures are from the most recent issue of “The Unwritten,” a masterful comic series (also available in a series of graphic novels/trade paperback) by Mike Carey and Peter Gross. Carey writes and Gross draws a masterful series dissecting story, myth, pop culture, religion, philosophy and history in a visceral yet thought-provoking way.

All Hail the Cloud

June 1, 2012

So, every month or so Yahoo! “News” posts a story like this:   Daddy, What Were Compact Discs?

I happened to read this one while listening to the Uncle Tupelo “7 inch singles” collection i snagged at the independent- record-store promotional holiday National Record Store Day this past month. I mention it only because I found it somewhat ironic to read about the “future” of media consumption jettisoning all things physical while enjoying a product released in support of  what is left of the  “dying” brick and mortar stores. The article read like all similar such Yahoo! promoted stories of the sort, like more or less an advertisement for Apple products while once again the comment thread consisted of bickering back and forth between physical media devotees and digital stream-embracers. This particular piece was pulled from the New York Times finance section. In it, Sam Grobart predicts the very soon demise of physical media and speculates about the “what were CDs, DVDs, VCR’s, etc.” child to parent conversations of the allegedly very near future. He detailed briefly the history of the format wars, the vinyl to 8 track to cassette to CD to ipod, the film strip to BETA to VHS to DVD to Blu Ray, etc, and its history of “mostly” progression (though sometimes regression as well).

Now, I admit I can be a bit of a curmodgeon on this issue and acknowledge that I’ve spilled too much digital “ink” on something so relatively asinine. The fact of the matter is that I do love my physical media–my vinyl records, including 180-gram pressings of new albums, my CDs, my Blu-Rays, etc, but I also love the convenience of digital. I stream Netflix and use an i-pod practically every day, but I have also scraped through my phsyical collection to condense and skim every time I’ve gotten ready for a move (because boxes of records and books are indeed heavy, a selling point for which digital certainly comes out on top by a mile). When it comes down to it, I listen to 75 % of  new music via digital, whether streaming a new discovery online or syncing something to my ipod to listen to for a review. As I’ve mentioned before though, if I love an album chances are that by the end of the year I’m going to spring for the vinyl pressing or at least the CD of it. But for most albums, the cheaper more convenient digital format works just fine. Audiophiles can argue about sound quality, but at least sites like Band Camp now offer full quality digital music. Though I prefer certain music on vinyl and certain on CD (and I make the case for the delivery medium as part of the art itself in this previous post), I recognize that some of that is nostalgia, some of that is my identity as a “collector” of various things, some of that is tied up with subtle forms of “materialism.” Though I don’t think digital can replicate the feel of going to a record store on new release day, running into friends there, getting unexpected recommendations from knowledgeable and like-minded clerks, or of remembering a forgotten album while poring through and organizing your collection and throwing it on the stereo in rediscovery, or of soaking in the artwork and liner notes from a big record sleeve while that album spins, or of scouring thrift stores and yard sells for missing pieces of your collection, or of buying an album from the merch booth at a concert and seeking out a signature from the artist, or the good and bad aspect of being limited to what you have on hand and not being overwhelmed by the vast ocean of choice, or a whole host of other experiential issues, I do see the positive ways the online age has opened up the music frontier, from connecting fans and artists who are separated by continents, from exploding the options one has in discovering new music, from instant gratification of a new acquisition, and certainly even legitimate and legal digital music purchases are now for the most part far cheaper than the physical items often were (and are), especially CDs at the height of corporate price-fixing. So if the future holds only digital and the LPs and CDs are all for the collectors alone, I’ll hold on to my favorites, eventually piece together the optimal physical stereo to support them that magazines like Rolling Stone always highlight during this vinyl boom of new collectors, and find the best way to play digital music in a way that presents its sound authentically.

But what still concerns me regarding the author of the finance article’s “completely digital in the near future” prediction is this:  we’ve all seen what a financial recession can do to numbers and money that isn’t “really” there, what about art and media in a synonomous situation? I mean, I realize the “cloud” is “physical” somewhere. I trust back up and such; I use Carbonite and a detached hard drive to back up information, so a personal computer crash isn’t the threat in such a complete way as it once was, though I am always finding CDs I lost between backups as I scour my  shelves to re-rip them. But this article supposes a set of speakers streaming an online collection of music and a TV streaming all movies is the only way to go very soon. I keep thinking of all those times my Netflix decides to stop working at 10:30 every night due to whatever reason it has (I sometimes suspect Netflix of limiting output quality to make sure you don’t get too much bang for your buck). I keep thinking of that movie I want to see that Netflix doesn’t offer on the stream and then kicking myself that I got rid of it. I think about the music I try to listen to that has to “buffer” or is interrupted by ads. I think about the 2 or 3 bucks Amazon, Vudu, or On Demand want to charge for an episode of “Breaking Bad.” The point is, if digital is the near future how do we prevent limited information and media availibiltiy or price fixing? How to stop a “digital monopoly?” Netflix became the primary game on the block and then dropped half of their movies from their digital stream to focus on the cheaper acquisition of television shows. In towns that have lost video rental stores because of Netflix, someone wanting a movie from the 80’s or 90’s on a whim some Friday night is out of luck until the mail runs next week. Sure there is competition to Netflix, but it often seems like they’ve cornered the market and now I’m thankful that I hung onto my favorite movies every time I’ve consolidated my shelves. It’s why, as someone who loves and reads books for learning, pleasure, and practicality that I find it unlikely that I’ll every make the full-on Kindle jump. I don’t even have an e-reader of any kind yet. I decided before my last big move to jettison the bulk of my fictional books aside from favorites and collectibles, that paperbacks for the most part in that department were “disposable,” to save room only for those works I love, reference, and return to. So in theory I’d have no problem e-reading all my “pop” fiction but until I can get those novels and one-time-only reads of whatever genre as cheap as a thrift store or as free as a library, until the device I read them on is so disposable I could care less that it’s sun, water, or element damaged, I’m not ready for that jump yet. But the worst case scenario, for me, about an all digital future is that if all of my music, video, pictures, books, and art were floating on some cloud, or if I didn’t even “own” my entertainment merely streamed it from a provider, what happens when the internet price hikes or the music/movie/book provider doubles their monthly charge? Or I need to cut my service a month or two to save money? Or a “pulse” knocks out all wireless signals for a month, a year? There are any number of scenarios, however unlikely, that could effectively keep me from listening to a song or watching a movie or reading a book I would like to.  Far more likely though is that the equipment I use or the internet service provider my apartment owner makes me use will act up in the way my computer, no matter how new or protected, does from time to time. Whether bad weather, bad signals, or a computer virus there are times when most of us curse technology as we rewire and test out our devices so that we can make an ordinary, daily transaction or action of some sort that was done with far less technology in the not-too-distant past. That’s the reason why, other than being a bit of a curmudgeon, that many of us like at least some of our media in a physical, tactile format. I find it good that both online options are expanding and that younger collectors are discovering the warmth and enjoyment of vinyl music and turntables. I don’t want the “cloud” to be the only option; I want to go to a library, go to a movie theater, go to a record shop and interact with people and products.

*By the way, that Uncle Tupelo 7 inch singles box? Fantastic. Hearing those early songs by such an influential yet often unacknowledged band in 45 form really amps up the borderline between punk and country where they staked their ground, especially their cover of “I Wanna Destroy You.” And also? I did follow the link and enter the code from the enclosed coupon to get that free download of the box in digital form. Like I said, I like both options.