In this digital age it would be rational for us to assume that the past doesn’t matter the way it once did. In my professional life I am often informed that 71 million Americans between the ages of 18-35 (also known as Millennials) have decidedly broken with the past. One market researcher whom I very much respect told me two weeks ago that “Millennials don’t care about history. They’re only interested in the now and the future.”
I don’t consider myself an expert on Millennials. I work with an awful lot of them. I also speak to many of them in the course of my market research activities. While I can’t affirm definitively whether my colleague’s assessment is correct, I’m skeptical. I find blanket statements dangerous. I also struggle to reconcile a belief that Millennials aren’t interested in the past to real world phenomena that shouts to the contrary. If Millennials don’t care about the past, why are they buying Lomo cameras that use film instead of digital imaging technology–cameras that sport a very retro design? Why are sales of vinyl albums growing? Why is the Moleskine notebook so popular? And why have so many Millennials rallied around the hipster aesthetic, which savors letterpress type, nineteenth century graphic motifs, and old world aesthetics?
It isn’t just Millennials, though. It feels to me like the more technology advances the more we look backward and feel a sense of longing for the past. This became very apparent to me this week as I surfed through the many blogs I follow. In some of the stories below, the glory of nostalgia is palpable. In others, the longing for the past is not the focus of the story, but its presence can be felt under the surface like a ghostly whisper from its author.
In her excellent book, The Future of Nostalgia, Svetlana Boym concludes:
Nostalgia can be both a social disease and a creative emotion, a poison and a cure. The dreams of imagined homelands cannot and should not come to life. They can have a more important impact on improving social and political conditions in the present as ideals, not as fairy tales come true.
In this spirit, I offer these five intriguingly nostalgic stories that I found on the web this week.
The End of the Washroom Era
I confess that I really do not care for them; the washrooms attended by men in white coats, offering mints and pleasantries. Part of my disdain is the clutter they create around the sinks. I also don’t like feeling obligated to leave a tip when all I wish to do is wash my hands and get back to my meal. I am apparently not alone. This story in today’s New York Times announces the death of the washroom attendant. Perhaps most disturbing is the revelation that some people are so put off by the attendant they skip washing their hands altogether. But to some they are a poignant reminder of a more civil time. And their departure is producing memorials and heart felt eulogies.
Nation’s Oldest Veteran
Lately, I’ve been doing odd math in my head. Sometimes, when I read or hear about historic events, I try to relate the ages of the significant participants to my own age or to a period in my life. For example, I was thumbing through a copy of Thomas Paine’s Common Sense, a book that helped ignite the American Revolution. Out of curiosity I did some research and learned that Paine was just 30 years old when it was published. It made me think of where I was and what I was doing when I was 30, and how Paine’s work might have struck me at that time in my life were I a child of the revolution.
But there’s another way this math works for me. When I hear about someone who is much older than me, I begin subtracting the difference in our ages to contemplate where they were and what was happening in history when they were my age. It sometimes boggles my mind and invokes an odd kind of nostalgia–one that’s not really my own but rather a longing to understand an historic past. That was the case when I read this piece in the Houston Chronicle about Richard Overton, who at the age of 107 is believed to be America’s oldest living veteran. When he was my age (44) he had already served in World War II in the South Pacific and wasn’t even halfway through with a full life that would see remarkable changes in America–from the Civil Rights movement to an African American President of the United States.
While rummaging through photographs at a local flea market, Lauren White stumbled upon these unseen photos of the Rolling Stones in the glory of their youth. I’ll let the photos speak for themselves. See the entire collection in this piece on SoBadSoGood.
The Japanese Mermaids
I often wonder about things in life we take for granted today that will seem odd in the future. As it is, I have had younger colleagues ask me why we need a fax machine, or comment on the quaintness of a phone that connects to the wall. But this series I found on Messy Nessy Chic is haunting. It chronicles the Japanese Ama in photos taken about the same time Richard Overton was settling into post-war life in Austin, Tx. The Ama were women who dove for abalone and oysters for nearly 2,000 years. Few survive today, but the story of Japan’s mermaids makes me want to travel back in time.
Few life experiences summon nostalgic feelings more than parenting. In just two decades our children transform from dependent cherubs that coax us to rediscover our inner child into independent adults who are eager to leave the nest and put childhood behind them. This photo series by French photographer Martine Fougeron makes a rare accomplishment: it captures the life of her teenage sons without pretense and without artificial poses. At an age when most teenagers would rather not have their parents pointing a lens in their face, Fougeron’s photographs are at once nostalgic and hopeful.
Bonus: Route Talk
Finally, take the time to listen to this wonderful segment on this week’s episode of This American Life. The episode was dedicated to “seven things you’re not supposed to talk about.” Chris Garcia shares a heartbreaking story of a conversation with his father on their ride home–a ride they made many times before, but on this instance something very odd occurred. It reminds us that perhaps the reason we can be so nostalgic is because we fear we may someday lose our memories altogether.