Tag Archives: Nostalgia

Why I Miss Phone Books

phone books

phone booksI had a 21st century moment the other day.

A telephone book came through our mail slot in London and landed with a bang on the floor. It was a mere shadow of a *real* phone book – probably measuring no more than 1/2 inch in diameter – but it was a bonafide phone book nonetheless.

My 15 year-old son picked it up, inspected it and turned to me, puzzled: “What’s that?” He asked.

My husband and I stared back at him in disbelief.

Not to go all 19th century on you, but man, did that make me feel old. And nostalgic.

I knew this because in our recent frenzy to declutter our home, my husband’s immediate instinct was to throw the phone book out. After all, who needs a phone book? It will just sit on a shelf somewhere gathering dust before invariably being tossed the next time we have occasion to tidy up.

And yet, I found myself resisting throwing this one away, almost as if in giving it up, I was losing something powerful that I might one day regret.

So what’s with my attachment to phone books, you ask?

Much like mood rings or candy necklaces, we all have an emotional attachment to objects that remind us of childhood. In the case of phone books, they take me straight back to the kitchen of the house I grew up in in suburban New Jersey and the colourful, chaotic and cacophonous room that housed our White Pages and its corporate sister, The Yellow Pages. Seeing that phone book all these many years later it as as if I were suddenly back in that room, competing with the dog and the classical music station and my three siblings as we struggled to dominate the nightly family dinner.

But it’s more than that. Seeing a real, live phone book was also a lovely reminder of that frisson that accompanied the process of discovery around someone’s “details” (as we say here in the U.K.) when I was young. You’d make a new friend at school or discover a boy or girl you had a crush on or possibly just wanted to know the street your weird math teacher lived on. And so you went and paged through that vast, floppy tome of ripped, extensively underlined and coffee stained white pages to learn that your one true love (or physics partner…or jerky guy at the pizza parlor…or uptight lady at the reference desk of the local library) had a phone number. And somehow, knowing that small piece of information – that number – gave you some small measure of power. Or at least you believed that it did.

My inner social media junkie notwithstanding, seeing this phone book even made me long for the days when *all*  you might know about a person was their phone number and their address. And you had to imagine the rest. “Oh, he lives on such and such a street and goes to *that* junior high. Maybe I’ll ride my bicycle over there one day after school and see what color his house is painted or if he has a big back yard.”

And remember how strange it was when someone’s number was “unlisted?” We thought people were obsessively private if they didn’t share their phone numbers with a bunch of strangers. Ha! Now we have lawsuits over whether it’s fair game to reveal someone’s sexual orientation/behavior on line. Kind of makes you long for the days when “the dark web” sounded like the name of a Star Trek episode.

I’ve written before about how nostalgia is a huge part of growing up. I don’t quite put phone books in the same category as the place you grew up or your college friends or your first love – the sorts of things that can truly inspire that odd mix of longing, regret and fondness that nostalgia conjures up.

But it did feel strange – for just that brief moment – to be overcome with a desire for it to be 1975 again.

And then I threw the phone book in the bin.

Image: Auckland Yellow Pages via Wikipedia.com

Time Marches On: Vienna, And Feeling Nostalgic For The Last Century

Yesterday was New Year’s Eve, which is  – as we sit back and contemplate our various “top 10” lists from the past year – often an occasion for nostalgia.

I was also feeling nostalgic yesterday, though my nostalgia wasn’t for what changed in 2009 so much as for what’s changed over the last century. I’m just back from a vacation in Vienna, you see. And unlike other European capitals I’ve visited in recent years — Paris, Amsterdam, Helsinki — Vienna feels decidedly less modern and cosmopolitan. Instead, it’s got that proverbial “Old European” feel, the kind that makes you reach for one more hot chocolate mit schlag, crank up the Johann Strauss and break out the Wittgenstein.

Find out the five things Vienna made me feel nostalgic for from the last century at PoliticsDaily.com

Image: Vienna State Opera by tm boris via Flickr under a Creative Commons License.

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Alumni Magazines: Why Do We Read Them?

Hi, there.

Yes, it’s me. I’m  back from my self-imposed vacation. Not nearly as relaxing as I hoped. But yes, I did the deed (and have a killer tan to show for it!) Just kidding.

I’ll be posting on Wednesday about what I learned while I was away. But today, I’d like to turn my attention to an entirely different matter:  alumni magazines and why we read them.

You see, while I was “on vacation,” I went to yoga one day. And because I arrived early, I began reading a magazine, as I often do. But I got so engrossed in what I was reading that the instructor actually had to “instruct” me to put the magazine down. (Yeah, I’m also the sort who fails to notice all the “silent zone” signs posted around the building. The first time I ever did yoga I walked blithely into class blathering away into my cellphone…what can I say? I’m a yoga convert, not a natural.)

As it happens, I was reading my college alumni magazine, the Brown Alumni Monthly. There was this fascinating story about a woman named Wendy Walker who ran away from home the summer before college because she’d had a falling out with her parents over getting engaged to her high school sweetheart. The story was all about how she very nearly never made it to Brown. And I got so caught up in trying to imagine not having gone to college at 17 in order to get married, that I failed to notice the hush that had settled in over the yoga studio as people quietly assumed their lotus positions.

Then, after class, a complete stranger walked up to me and said: “Are you reading your alumni magazine?”


“I hate those things,” she said.

“Why?” I asked, intrigued by her over-share. (As an American, I frequently strike up conversations with complete strangers in London, but rarely find the favor returned.)

“I think they’re so phony. You read them and everyone sounds so great, but then you talk to your friends from college and everyone’s depressed and miserable.”

“They are?” I thought, but kept it to myself.

But her comment got me thinking. Why *do* some people love reading alumni magazines and others hate it?

I read them for stories like the one I just mentioned, because I find it exciting to live vicariously through other people’s lives. (Needless to say, they also motivate me to try on alternate careers…i.e., what would it have been like if I’d moved to LA to become a television writer?)

But I could easily imagine reading them to derive a sense of shadenfreude (e.g., “Ha! I knew he was a loser!”) or to satisfy an erstwhile curiosity (“Wow! Did that couple who hooked up on Hawaiian night really end up getting married?”)

Or perhaps it has something to do with school spirit. I remember back in High School we were asked to design a poll about our school, and a classmate of mine asked the question “Would you attend a reunion in 10 years?” as a way to measure “school spirit.” So perhaps avid reading of alumni magazines is yet another indicator of high school spirit. (Yeah, I know. I went to Brown. Everyone has a lot of school spirit there…)

But the truth is, in my case at least, I love reading alumni magazines even for schools I didn’t attend. I used to teach at the University of Chicago and so I still get their alumni magazine. And even though – true to that school’s spirit – the magazine reads more like The Economist than your average alumni magazine, I still pore over it every month.

So today I’m trying to figure out what committed reading of alumni magazines is a sign of:  Middle-age? Nostalgia? Displaced cheerleader syndrome?

And I’d be curious to know:  Do you read your alumni magazine and, if so, does it fill you with fascination…disappointment…or dread?



For those who are interested, here’s my piece in PoliticsDaily on the latest round of immigration reform in the UK.


Image: Fall 2008 Catalogue by Lower Columbia College via Flickr under a Creative Commons License


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Nostalgia for a Place: When Time Forces Us To Move On

Nostalgia is most frequently defined as a “longing for the past.” This melancholy, sentimental feeling might be triggered by any number of events:  we stumble upon a journal from our childhood…we watch a documentary about the Kennedy family…someone dies. Or it might happen when we re-visit a location that has a very specific, evocative meaning for our lives – a first home, our elementary school.

This sort of deep attachment to a place – and the bittersweet emotions it evokes – was the subject of an essay by Judith Warner in her NYTimes.com blog, Domestic Disturbances, on Friday. Entitled “Summer’s End,” the essay talks about Warner’s most recent trip back to her family’s second home in France following the death of a close friend over there. It’s a wonderful and far-ranging piece, encompassing themes of aging, mortality, friendship and nostalgia all in one go. But what I found most moving was the “irrational” (her word) attachment she feels towards this house as a sort of alternate anchor to her “real life” in Washington, D.C., even as she recognizes that time itself has changed the house’s meaning irrevocably.

As she writes: “I used to feel that our life in France was as solid, as permanent and unchanging as our little house. Like our identities there, built in the moment, always in the present tense, it existed outside of time. That has changed. Nothing can be taken for granted anymore.”

This sort of nostalgia rooted in place is also the subject of a small, lovely movie that came out last year called “Summer Hours” (L’heure d’été). It’s also set in France and is about a group of (grown) siblings who must come to terms with selling the large country home their family has held for generations. The two younger children – who clearly symbolize modern France  – wish to be done with the burden of keeping up the house and move on. It’s the eldest brother who- while realizing that it would be most practical to sell the house and use the proceeds to finance various family expenditures – can’t quite bear to part with it emotionally. But he, too, is forced to acknowledge that times have changed, his kids have grown up, and the house no longer has the same meaning or use that it once did.

I felt this way myself this summer, when I went to Cape Cod on holiday. Our family vacationed there every August throughout my entire childhood, but I hadn’t been back in nearly 20 years. And this time it felt very different, because for the first time in memory, my father wasn’t there.

My father worked a lot when I was a child, so we didn’t see all that much of him during the school year. But those three weeks in August were a special time for us, because – among other things – he was around. And so when I went back this time with my own children, I felt his absence all the more. I saw him at the beach, plunging into the freezing cold Atlantic Ocean and screaming “It’s toasty warm!” at the top of his lungs. I saw him at the corner store where he used to purchase his signature diet of coffee, cigarettes and newspapers (and comic books for us). The big treat were the days when he’d stuff all four of us into the trunk of the car – sometimes with a cousin or two in tow – and we’d drive the 1-2 miles to the store in complete, exhilarating darkness. And I saw his craggy, time-worn face embedded a thousand times in the stones that line Rock Harbor.

But because he wasn’t there this time, I now saw the Cape as I imagine others do: beautiful and rustic, yes. But also kitschy and tourist-y: a jumble of roadside clam bakes and miniature golf venues. That doesn’t make it any less appealing to me. But it does make it – inevitably – something else.

And I guess that’s what it means to grow up.

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Image: Las Dunas de Cape Cod by Copepodo via Flickr under a Creative Commons license.

Feeling Nostalgic for Snail Mail

As a relative newcomer to the world of Twitter and Facebook, I will own up to being a complete addict (this, despite being informed today that 40% of Twitter is “pointless babble.” ) And I’ve always been a huge fan of email.

But that doesn’t mean I don’t pine for the days when the old fashioned letter was the communication du jour.

Today, I’m over at PoliticsDaily.com talking about the bankruptcy crisis threatening the US Postal Service . I talk about what it means both economically –  in terms of jobs – and personally, for those of us who feel nostalgic for the post.

Have a look

Image: Mail Day! by Warm n’ Fuzzy via Flickr under a Creative Commons License.

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Beam Me Up, Scotty: Are Sequels an Escape from Adulthood?

In case you haven’t heard, the summer movie season has officially begun.

Two weeks ago X-Men Origins: Wolverine opened. And last weekend Star Trek hit the Cineplexes.

Many of the current releases are either some version of a franchise, a re-make or an adaptation. And, for some, this trend is a veritable assault on adulthood.

Dennis Palumbo of Huffington Post bemoaned the current dearth of movies for adults, urging those of us who go in for more serious cinematic fare to “get off the couch” as it were (he’s also a psychotherapist). His point:  no one’s going to make movies for adults if we don’t actually go see them.

Another blogger, Lorrie Lynch, made a list of the serious Indie films coming out this summer and then wrote “Grown ups, read on.” (True confessions: I bookmarked the page post haste. I mean, c’mon. Atom Egoyan? In the summertime? Sign me up…)

I must say that I’m sympathetic to some of these concerns. The sight of grown men and women parading around theatres in their velour-insigniad Starship Enterprise tunics and Vulcan ears does give one pause. (For a particularly thoughtful review of the entire Star Trek franchise, read this article by Chicago Reader critic J.R. Jones. He argues that the original TV show was actually quite mature in its subject matter – with its mixed-gender, multiracial crew and Cold War overtones. Over time, however, the series – and movies it spawned – were dumbed down considerably to appeal to kids.)

But for me, the most interesting analysis of this trend was an article in the Washington Post by Hank Stuever examining the effect of  extreme fans (of the lightsaber bearing sort) on the making and marketing of these blockbuster-type movies.

The central question he asks – and I paraphrase here –  is why we feel compelled, as a society, to compulsively remake The Dukes of Hazard or our favorite books from fourth grade. Is it a lack of creativity? Nostalgia? Escape?

I don’t have an answer to that question. But as someone who’s quite prone to nostalgia myself, I can say that I, too, find it moving to revisit signature cultural artifacts – books, movies – from my childhood. I don’t necessarily need to don Lieutenant O’hura’s mini-dress in order to do so. But I understand the impulse.

So go ahead and beam me up, Scotty. But be warned: I’ll be looking for the Indie screening room on the Starship Enterprise when I get there.

Image: Trekkies by San Diego Shooter via Flickr under a Creative Commons License.

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The Road Not Taken: What I Learned From Watching Mamma Mia

“Regrets, I’ve had a few. But then again, too few to mention.”

–Frank Sinatra, My Way.

What a great quote that is.

I’ve been thinking about regret lately. It all began with this touching piece by David Sedaris in The New Yorker a few weeks back. Sedaris writes movingly about a near-hook up he almost had in his early 20’s with a Lebanese guy whom he met on a train in Italy. Although the guy invites Sedaris to get off the train and join him, Sedaris passes on the opportunity. But he still thinks about that guy – and what might have been – all these years later. The essay is a giant homage to that great question of adulthood: What if?

The Road not Taken is also the subject of Mamma Mia, which – for my sins – I watched with my kids last weekend at their behest. (I fully own up to my abiding love of musical theatre, but even I balk at Abba.)

Mamma Mia – and I’m not spoiling anything here – is about a young woman on the brink of getting married who doesn’t know who her father is. So (unbeknown to her mother) she invites the three likely candidates to her wedding. Passion, longing, anger, resentment (and far too many Abba songs) ensue. The movie is all-out camp, but nestled within all the cheese are a few touching moments that actually work (Meryl Streep singing The Winner Takes It All to a love-struck Pierce Brosnan was my own personal favorite).

What Sedaris’ essay and Mamma Mia have in common is wistfulness, which is a huge part of adulthood. In Sedaris’ case, it’s not that he regrets whom he ended up with. (He makes a subtle nod to his long-time partner, Hugh, at the end of the essay.) It’s just that he’s wondering if –  in turning down that handsome Lebanese guy all those many years ago – he missed the boat. Not necessarily the boat, but a boat nonetheless. And in so doing, he articulates that great fear of adulthood:  which is that once we make a choice, everything else becomes path dependent.  Which in turn forces us to come to grips with the fact that we may never go round again.

This can be a fear about your personal life, as it was in these two instances. But it’s also a fear that we bring to career choices and to where we live and to the schools we attend (or don’t). What I find moving about wistfulness is that you can’t really escape it. You need to just live with it and perhaps, even, embrace it by – say – writing a short story in the New Yorker.

On a lighter note, midway through the movie – which is shot on the Greek islands – I commented that I’d like to go to Greece. To which my daughter replied: “OK, but let’s not go to Latin.” No, indeed. Let’s not.

Please tell me that you, too, are now singing “The Winner Takes It All”…


Speaking of musical theatre, is anyone else as excited as I am that they’re making a movie about the making of A Chorus Line? OK, anyone who isn’t my sister?

Image: Two Roads Diverged in a Non-Yellow Wood by Msmail via Flickr under a Creative Commons License

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Nostalgia: Or How I Justified a Night In Watching Barry Manilow

Nostalgia is a huge part of growing up. I talked about it vis a vis my re-reading of Peter Pan the other day, and I’ll have more to say about it on this blog another day.

Today, however, let me address one tiny sliver of the nostalgia theme that’s been on my mind lately: the nostalgia inspired by music.

It all began when my husband suggested that we watch a Barry Manilow concert on television the other night.

Before you click away from this blog in disgust, allow me to defend myself. Yes, I admit that he can be horribly cheesy. And I wouldn’t ever call myself a “fan,” despite an abiding fondness for Copacabana…(have a look at this video and tell me you’re not already singing along. I’m a sucker for the part where Lola loses her mind). In all seriousness, though, the man knows how to tell a story.

But this isn’t about Barry Manilow. It’s about that special feeling of nostalgia that’s engendered by hearing a song from your past that means something to you, or calls to mind a particular moment when you were growing up.

Yesterday, the London website Alpha Mummy was up in arms over an outrageous Mother’s Day marketing ploy by British supermarket giant Sainsbury’s – the store is marketing a CD called 101 “Housework Songs” (Mother’s Day is celebrated this Sunday in the U.K.). In response, Alpha Mummy posted a hilariously clever “Top 10 Songs to Listen to While you File a Letter of Complaint to Sainsbury’s.” While I thoroughly enjoyed the post, I was also amazed at how many of the song lyrics they referenced I could recite by heart. Because they take me right back to…ya know…the old days.

And then I stumbled across this website, aptly named Songs You Used to Listen To, where each day brings you a new song from the past.

The point is: it doesn’t really matter how you define your musical “moment.” Mine is somewhere around the early 1980s. If I’m in a supermarket and hear something like Come On, Eileen or Land Down Under or Don’t You Forget About Me, I actually stop whatever I’m doing and allow myself to be transported back to that era and all it symbolized for me personally (my first boyfriend, leaving high school, getting into college, etc.)

And that’s the beautiful thing about music. So, hey, don’t you forget about me…

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