The Heat Death of Nostalgia


Nostalgia is one of those things that I've wanted to write about for a while. It drives me at times, but frustrates me all the same. I'm admittedly obsessive about archiving things and retaining the past, so nostalgia surrounds me on a constant basis. There's a certain feel-good sensation when you recall a fond memory from years' past, which is further compounded when you are able to share it with others. On the other hand, there can be a tendency to focus exclusively on the past rather than looking to the future. Every old memory was once a moment that had yet to happen. Today's past was once the past's future.

When HastiestHandiwork announced that he was accepting submissions for the second issue of Ear Rat Magazine, I was of course ready to dive into another article. I certainly need the external motivation. The topic for this issue was 'Heat Death', so I figured the concept of nostalgia might work into that. The fire burns strongly for a while, but eventually fatigue sets in.

So when did Nostalgia first kick in? That's sort of a nebulous question, but I can actually remember a specific moment. I was at a confirmation retreat, and since I went to a different school than most of the people at my church, I didn't actually know more than one or two people there. This wasn't a bad thing, as I ended up talking to people with whom I hadn't yet completely exhausted my usual topics of conversation. The discussions eventually ended up on Saturday morning cartoons, and we remembered things like the Smurfs (obvious) and the Snorks (a little less so). The collective experience of remembering something that had more or less slipped our minds for several years was exciting.

The Snorks
The Snorks. They were aquatic creatures of some sort. It's hazy.

It got me thinking about the many TV shows, toys, and childhood memories that had since passed. At the same time, it was a little saddening to realize that experiences have expiration dates, and they can't come back. I think the slightly insidious nature of nostalgia lies in the hope that they could, but as I've realized countless times, it's a futile effort to recreate the past. It still stings though. All too often I'm driving by an old part of town and near the house of a childhood friend. I try to avoid the street, since sometimes I feel like I could turn a corner, and he'd be 10 years old again. The crudely built 'fort' would be out back, his room would be full of comic cards, and the computer would have the latest shareware game that his older brother downloaded off a BBS. Even some shops give me the same feeling, usually ones that don't update their look all that often. I'll wander down an aisle and hope to find some long forgotten product that hasn't been on the shelves in 20 years. The pop culture has vanished though it may have evolved, and the people are gone though they have since just grown up.

Anyway, the discussion about the cartoons was the first clear example of analyzing the past, but I undoubtedly felt some connections to earlier times before that. Often - even until today - springtime triggers a feeling in me that makes me want to play old shareware games. Perhaps it coincided with the end of school, which allowed me more free time away from homework, so I might actually play them. Or perhaps several games were just released around that time. Hard to say.

Now Spring is generally a welcome reprieve from Winter, as the flowers start to bloom, and the weather begins to warm. The spring cleaning effect most likely takes hold of many people, so I too find myself digging through the attic and stumbling on relics from my childhood. I never actually clean, mind you, as my progress halts once I find something that captures my attention. Additionally, living in an area that has regular season allows me to vividly reminisce over things that happened perhaps only the year prior. It's not uncommon to think back on the Halloween decorations that once were at Target, only to realize they were just from the preceding Fall.

Software Labs
Free software, just pay by the disk

Fast forward a few years from the retreat, and the web was starting to take off. People created sites about anything and everything (or I suppose everything/nothing), and that's when the collective nostalgia train took full effect. That moment remembering a cartoon with a handful of people I didn't know, then expanded to hundreds of people (I also didn't know), but it helped create a shared experience. It was as if we all lived the same childhood somehow, even though we had never met.

Now I make no secret that X-Entertainment was a huge inspiration for my articles, and that was no exception back in the day. It seemed like week after week, some hidden pop culture obscurity would be unearthed and trigger a memory that had remained dormant since probably the time it was made. Toys, cartoons, games. How could we all have lived the same life? Well in retrospect, the things we all were into were just massive at the time. But despite their ubiquitous nature, they eventually faded into obscurity in the absence of an archival medium such as the internet.

I often wondered if the next generation would have the same sense of nostalgia that I experienced. It's a different dynamic now though. Not only are we able to keep the social consciousness alive for longer, but that in turn helps keep the products alive much longer. It was probably no more than seven or eight years between watching the Snorks and fondly remembering them at that retreat, yet something like Minecraft is still going strong over ten years later. We can't look back on things like that in the same way, since they haven't ever really left us. Inversely, the prior generation didn't have any revival of their childhood, so once things disappeared, you needed to hunt them down in flea markets to catch a glimpse of them again.

The Ultra Expensive Voltron

Making matters worse, companies realized that nostalgia was an untapped resource. Now I'm not a huge anti-business person; the things we're looking back so fondly at were all corporate creations too. But those who grew up with certain franchises, now had expendable income to rebuy the toys they no longer had. And things aren't cheap either. It's not uncommon to see $20 basic action figures and $100+ display figurines.

One of my greatest regrets was giving my complete Voltron away to my cousin. I figured he'd just give it back when he outgrew it, but I never saw it again. I thought about rebuying it once eBay became a thing, but it seemed hollow to just use money to regain a memory. The things I actually held onto possessed a greater connection, as it was really more about the memories tied to them. That Voltron was the result of every Aunt and Uncle chipping in one Christmas to buy a piece of the robot. So when we did the family get-together, I was able to assemble the entire thing. I did end up getting a die cast collector's edition Voltron a few years back, but I've limited it to just that purchase. It was like $300 too. I fell right into the trap.

Soon I realized that I had been nostalgic for things over a longer period of time, than it had originally taken to experience them from the get-go. Even weirder, I started getting nostalgic for the moments when I started getting nostalgic. Thinking back to the early 2000's, it is now 20 years in the past. I could have lived my conscious childhood twice, maybe three times over, in that period of time. So that begs the question: what have I done in the mean time to generate new experiences?

I like looking back as much as anyone. It is fun to reminisce, to try and relive, but I feel it's a dangerous trap to stay there. There's too much to miss if you only focus on what once was. Now I don't want to come off as preachy, since I'm pretty much guilty of everything that I think one should be cautious about. I've spent countless hours archiving old VHS tapes. I've poured over the movies my friends and I made, ranging from pre-teen years, through young adulthood. This very site is a shrine to former days. The sad fact is that after a certain age, the fun factor of life does tend to drop off. You get a job, have responsibilities, and realistically a grown person still liking kids cartoons and toys is a general social faux-pas. I'm not saying it's right, but it is what it is, so retreating into our own minds to feel comfort isn't unexpected.

But that's not to say there aren't things out there worth experiencing. Everything you once considered fun, was new to you at that point. There can be hobbies that factor into a new lifestyle, or are supported by a slightly more accommodating financial situation. A fair amount of my writings are all about remembering yesteryear, but I feel there needs to be a balance. Remember what once was, but forge ahead and make new memories.

Ghost Hunting
I needed another photo, so let's add Ghost Hunting as a new hobby

So where does our 'Heat Death' prompt factor in? Well there's a certain amount of fatigue that nostalgia will inevitably generate, for all the reasons I've discussed above. Rehashing old topics will simply get old after a while and at worst stain the memory. It would be unfortunate to have such fond recollections of a time in your life, only to become sick of it in due time. But it will happen, either through repetition or realization that perhaps it wasn't all that great to begin with. I've avoided certain movies for this exact reason. I'm pretty sure The Peanut Butter Solution wouldn't live up to my memory of it. Although it's about a mad man who kidnaps children to harvest their hair to make magic paintbrushes, so perhaps it would.

So to end this, I will say that I love nostalgia, but I recognize the fine balance I need to walk with it. I love the things I experienced as a child, but I also love things during my teens, early adulthood, and even the holiday seasons over the past few years. Had I focused only on those formative years, I would have missed so much.

The Heat Death of Nostalgia will burn out eventually, so keep it rekindled.