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MTT News's picture
Matt Geiger

When your child first learns to speak, words are like snowflakes. Each and every expression is totally unique. Like a thousand little verbal fingerprints.

But all of the old words are falling away, now. The “piddow” on which my daughter used to rest her head has been replaced by a boring old “pillow,” just like the one on which everyone else sleeps. The big, messy bites of “melon-melon” she’d take on a hot summer afternoon has become normal, boring “watermelon.” The way she used to look at two flavors of ice cream and ask: “Hhhm. Should I get the one one, or the wudder one?” That’s slipping away too.

These days, most of the words she says–words like “this is boring” and “you are mean” and “I want to watch a movie on your phone”–could be said by pretty much anyone. And most people, as I think we’ve established in this column over the course of the past several years, are a heady cocktail of mean and boring. 

But there is some hope. Because my daughter still refers to things that happened “resterday,” which is the day before today, and remains a poignant reminder that the little person we are feeding and scolding in rapid waves–“eat your carrot and put down the lighter!” often rings from our open windows–these days is wholly unique. 

I remember getting in an argument with my babysitter when I was probably about five, which is the age my daughter currently is. I told her I liked playing “ball-e-ball,” and she asked what sport that was. I said the one with the tall net, and the white ball you bat back and forth over it. 

“That’s called volleyball,” she scoffed. “Like, you volley the ball back and forth.”

This was the mid 1980s, so please don’t imagine a normal-looking person saying these words. Imagine a gum-popping, neon-wearing, vaguely humanoid lump of sarcasm atop of which rested a nest of hairspray. 

“No,” I replied. “It’s called ball-e-ball. You hit a ball back and forth, and that’s it. Ball, ball, ball, ball, and so on. I don’t think you even know what game I’m talking about.”

We then had a serious, somewhat nasty argument about etymology. She wouldn’t give in, and neither would I, and since Google hadn’t been invented yet, it took several hours and the arrival of an adult to establish that I was a sweet little moron and my babysitter was a crabby, unlikeable, malodorous person who happened to possess superior verbal skills to those of a very small child. (Yay for her.)

I never really understood the power of nostalgia until the arrival, a few years ago, of a television show called “Stranger Things.” It’s set in the middle of the 1980s, when all my conceptions of the world were being formed, and therefore it’s like visiting with someone who has long since vanished from the earth; like sitting down on the lap of a grandparent or neighbor who helped you paint the vast world with meaning and mystery. Like reuniting with the ghost of someone who once knew intimately, someone who shaped you into who you are, like its very own golem, before it dies and was replaced by other, newer things. 

Every little aspect of “Stranger Things” rockets me back to the days when I was small, from the quaint font on the fast food wrappers to the Ghostbusters outfit and proton pack that I used to lug around on my back on an almost daily basis. 

I always used to chuckle at silly old people who liked silly old things, eating at their do-wop diners or reminiscing about poodle skirts or the Big Bopper, all of which are things I vaguely know exist but have profound apathy for. 

But I’m starting to understand that identity is a complex, patchwork beast, and all of us–old and young, conservative and liberal, normal and abnormal–are basically the walking, talking, too-often complaining sum of a lifetime of experiences, and so the label on the can of soda you drank on the first day you fell in love really does matter, and that’s not entirely silly. When I look back at the 1980s, I see me, but not me, because back then the world was new and fresh, and the magnitude of everything was huge. Every person, place or thing I encountered those days, as the director Guillermo Del Toro has pointed out, was two or three times as big (to me) as it is today. And the metaphorical monsters I faced, at school, at home, and in my mind, were big, too, which of course is why “Stranger Things” has so many big, scary monsters lurching around in it, and why I sort of remember them existing, even though any reasonable adult will tell you that monsters do not actually exist.

The 1980s might have been a simpler time, in some ways, but they were not a time free from worry. No time ever was. The ‘80s were the decade of Chernobyl, of famine, of the AIDS epidemic. But Chernobyl has been largely cleaned up, and today it is roamed by bears and wolves who are reclaiming their wild ancestral home. Many who were hungry then are fat today. AIDS today is not a death sentence, but rather a treatable disease, thanks to the immeasurable work of countless scientists who save our lives every day.

So no, the world was not perfect when I was five. But I do miss it, and I feel an ache in my heart when I think of that lost world, or when I snuggle up on the couch to watch “Big” with my daughter, realizing far too late that the story involves a romantic relationship between a grown woman and a 13-year-old child trapped in Tom Hanks’ body. Try explaining that to your kid without feeling the cold tendrils of panic.

What we miss, when we feel nostalgia, is not the things of the past. (Although “Big is a really good movie.) It’s not even the dates of the past that we miss. What we really miss is who we once were. Ghostbusters hasn’t gone anywhere. It’s still there, and I can watch it anytime I want to. But what I really want is to watch Ghostbusters for the first time, to feel the full brunt of its magic the way I did when I was eight years old. 

That’s what everyone wants, because the world always stays the same, full of a maddening mix of bad and good, of suffering and beauty, of tragedy and comedy. It will always be that way. People who are holding their breath, waiting to enjoy life when the egalitarian utopia arrives will eventually asphyxiate and die angry. Show me a person who won’t be happy until everything is perfect, and I’ll show you a person who will never be happy. 

No, the world stays the same. What changes is us. Because as children, when we see everything for the first time, unbiased by the many grievances and gripes we pick up along the way, we are thrilled by its beauty and scale. Everything is big, loud, and bold. Whether you are fondly remembering horse carts, vinyl records, VHS tape rental stores, or the freedom you felt when you got your first pager, you aren’t really missing those things, all of which still exist in the dusty corners of our world. No, what you miss is you, the child, who still lives, buried deep within an increasingly jaded, politically-obsessed adult. Through all the adult problems, the bills, the health insurance premiums, the anger at anyone who looks or sounds unlike you and your tribe, the child can barely see this amazing world, anymore. 

Those big, inexplicable moments of buoyancy and joy that we feel are the rare times when the former you–the little you who is so good at seeing things–catches a glimpse of this world again. That is what nostalgia is. 

And let’s not forget, that while we are old and boring and jaded, we are currently accompanied by an entire generation of children who will someday look back at 2019 and yearn for this time, when everything was beautiful and safe, even though monsters were real. 

When that day comes, I’m sure they’ll look back and feel a tightness in the chest, a stinging in the eye, as they remember resterday, and all the enormous moments it contained. 


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