Repurposing Nostalgia

On February 27, 2013, in Don Pizarro, Retro Nerd, by Don Pizarro

As the newly appointed Retro Nerd, I’m here to take you through a Night Gallery-style tour of exhibits of geekdom past. But I’m not Professor Peabody, using candy to lure small children into my WABAC Machine. I’m not here to make you sing, “Those were the days.” This won’t be nostalgia for nostalgia’s sake, especially since nostalgia can be dangerous. Speaking of Night Gallery and the oeuvre of writer Rod Serling, we can find two stark examples in The Twilight Zone episodes “Walking Distance” and “A Stop at Willoughby.” I’m going to use them to give me you a sense of what I’m trying to do.

Fifty year-old spoilers ahoy!

walkingdistanceThe main character of “Walking Distance,” Martin Sloane, is essentially Don Draper from AMC’s Mad Men. “Age thirty-six. Occupation: vice president, ad agency, in charge of media,” Serling tells us in the opening narration. Unlike Draper, Sloane’s life isn’t painted as glamorous or sexy. One day, when Sloane’s car dies within walking distance of his old hometown, he finds that he’s slipped back in time, to the town as it was when he was a kid.

You know all those rules about all the things you can and can’t do when going into the past? Pfft. Sloane immediately goes running around committing all sorts of time-travel faux pas throughout the episode, like looking for his past self from 1934. He has his reasons. He tells his father…

I’ve been living on a dead run and I was tired. And one day I knew I had to come back here. I had to get on the merry-go-round and listen to a band concert. I had to stop and breathe, and close my eyes and smell, and listen.

Sloane’s father talks him into going back to the future, lest he ruin the childhood memories he claims to cherish.

willoughby01If you think Sloane had it bad, he didn’t have anything on Gart Williams, another ad agency executive from the episode “A Stop at Willoughby.” Williams definitely wasn’t having a lot of that good ol’ 60s “fun,” groping secretaries and sipping on Old Fashioned. His boss wasn’t half as cool as Roger Sterling, grinding Williams down to the point where he desperately wants to go to a town called Willoughby, a glimpse of which he caught on the way home on the train.

Williams describes Willoughby to his wife…

It was summer, very warm. Kids were barefooted. One of them had a fishing pole. It all looked like a Currier and Ives painting. Bandstand, bicycles, wagons. I’ve never seen such serenity. It was the way people must have lived a hundred years ago.

…and his wife’s response was basically: Grow the fuck up, build a bridge, and get over yourself.

willoughbygi2In the end, Williams ran for his Willoughby and he got it, all right. “Poor fellow,” as is commented at the end.

Okay, so there is no going back. At least not that way. And this desire and subsequent realization seems to be a constant among the older people I’ve known in my life when they talk about the construct called nostalgia. Because it’s hard for most people to follow the advice that Martin Sloane’s father gave his adult child.

Maybe when you go back, Martin, you’ll find that there are merry-go-rounds and band concerts where you are. Maybe you haven’t been looking in the right place. You’ve been looking behind you, Martin. Try looking ahead.

Instead we fetishize our memories. But I wonder if folks born post-Baby Boom fetishize their nostalgia a bit differently. I can think of a good number of fellow Gen-Xers who can look back fondly at, say, the summer of 1985. But I can’t think of anyone who’s expressed a wish to actually go back there (except, as I do, to give my younger self a copy of Grays Sports Almanac).

We can’t go back to the past? Fine. So we try bringing it to the present, instead.

It’s funny how I see this manifested in in geekdom.  I see folks try to relive the past, praising what they see, being members of an allegedly more enlightened society with the benefit of 20/20 hindsight, as the good bits (Don Draper’s mid-century modern bachelor pad and Joan Holloway’s wardrobe) while booing the bad bits (the worked portrayals of ’60s misogyny and racist microaggressions). I see people recreate the past, but trying to go one better, like J.J. Abrams pimping Captain Kirk’s ride or Ronald D. Moore nixing Starbuck’s and Apollo’s disco capes from the Colonial uniform.

Put another way, it’s the attitude of “I wish that I knew what I know now,” but multiplied. Because these days, it’s not enough to simply fetishize our memories. We’ve hit our collective tolerance for the high we used to get from TV clip shows where comedians point and laugh at archival footage of roller disco rinks, Rubik’s Cube contests, and New Jack R&B music videos. We get a bigger high from repurposing New Jack R&B music videos, these days.  We remake.  We reboot.  Sure, sometimes, it’s for the money grab.  But sometimes, it’s equally for the money shot that takes a geek’s (read: a huge fan’s) inside jokes and puts them in different contexts, with the aim of inducing multiple geekgasms.

So, I’m going to see if I can repurpose our shared geek race memory into something like a lens through which we can take a peek into the cultural zeitgeist of times past.  Not to think about how “Gee, our old LaSalle ran great,” but to make the occasional apophenic but hopefully interesting connection to the spirit of these times.

Okay, maybe I am a bit like Professor Peabody.  Here, have a piece of candy… there’s more just through here…

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8 Responses to Repurposing Nostalgia

  1. Welcome to the team, Don!


    No, not really. But I figured I’d get it out there so that maybe others won’t make that remark.

    I think that rebooting and mashing-up are as old as culture in terms of intent, although the practices vary widely. What makes the 21st-century US zeitgeist so interesting is that we can draw from deep archives of both the past and the present and have all sorts of SFnal tools to remake the past into visions in the moment. Our nostalgia is vast and its sources are generally accessible, and it is encouraged culturally. Re-imagining the past may be a necessary cognitive task, actually. But I like your idea of trying to talk about how the geeking-out works and how we generate it. I am curious to see how you handle the line between creative rethinking and narcissism.

    I look forward to seeing where you go with this.

    • Don Pizarro says:


      I actually hadn’t explicitly thought along the line of creative rethinking vs. narcissism. I’m curious. By narcissism, in this case, you mean…?

      • I’m thinking obliquely about Lasch’s idea of it, nostalgia as narcissistic reflection. Memory is refracted to buttress one’s identity in the present. Rather than reliving a memory or refashioning it to discover the creative potential of its qualities, the nostalgia is all about making one’s identity more grand or powerful (in a very broad sense of the term).

  3. John Wiswell says:

    I guess I’m part of Generation X, and have seldom really wanted to revisit old times. I’m interested in studying them, and recollecting over certain parts, but I spent most of my life in acute chronic pain and with medical disasters. Would I like to resume an element of my youth, like not having to pay bills? Sure, but otherwise I find myself more possessed of the ability to let go of past grudges and issues, and am perhaps too interested in the present. The future would be healthier. I’m sure Serling would bruise my psyche, too, if he had the opportunity.

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