Friday, February 09, 2007


During a lull in class, mulling over how I was going to write this particular post, the one on nostalgia, I flipped through one of my student's English-Korean dictionaries, and my eyes came across the word 'crepitate', and suddenly I was there, then, twelve or thirteen years old, writing a story.

My memory tells me that that the story was written in Grade 8, and I needed another word for 'scary', or 'disturbing', or 'frightening', or something like that -- a spooky word, in other words. And so I somehow found out (probably through Roget's Thesaurus) that 'crepitate' means something close to fear, and so I stuck it into the story, and, later, my teacher called me on it -- underlining it in red, with a question mark. As in: "Listen, you're twelve years old, so what are you doing using a word like that?")

I realize now that she was probably right, because I was young enough then to believe that a big word, a strange word, an unfamiliar word, was infinitely better and more sophisticated and more literate than a word that people actually, you know, know. ("Never use a fifty cent world when a ten cent word will do," as somebody once said. Hemingway usually followed that advice; Faulkner, well, not so much.)

I can't remember, for sure, what 'crepitate' even means. I haven't seen that word since I was twelve, I'd bet.

And yet there it was, in the dictionary, staring up at me. Waiting to be found. Eager to take me back.

I'd been thinking about nostalgia and all that it means for a day or two, even before I came across 'crepitate', mostly because I had read a recent quote by Norman Mailer (for my money the best living American writer). When asked if he misses the way that his city Provincetown used to be, he noted that 'nostalgia is for adolescents'.

This struck me, at first, as a rather odd thing to say. How can adolescents be nostalgic? They haven't lived long enough yet to be nostalgic about anything!

However. Given that this was Norman Mailer, whose offhand remarks contain more elemental wisdom than the whole of Wikipedia combined, I thought about it some more.

And I realized that he was, as always, spot-on.

Growing up, I lived for nostalgia. Even then, as a kid. I was nostalgic about stuff happening even as it was happening. Stand By Me (based on the Stephen King novella 'The Body') may have brought the baby boomers back to their youth, but for me, and my friends, it was our youth, now, with a different soundtrack and shorter haircuts, sure, but we were living it step-by-step with the characters, and the film made us realize that there was something special going on, right there in our own suburban lives, something that we would remember. (If we were lucky.)

But it didn't stop there. Stephen King's wonderful novel of childhood and adulthood, IT, peformed a similar magic trick, making me feel more attuned to the mystical childhood world that was daily, almost hourly, merging into adolescence. Francis Ford Coppola's underrated, marvelous adaption of S.E.Hinton's classic novel The Outsiders hit me over the head with the crimson sunsets of youth. The Wonder Years, too, provided a guide for exactly what I was experiencing, with a convenient voice-over to highlight the stuff that would play itself again and again in the VCR of my aging brain. (This was before DVD, people.) George Lucas's pre-Star Wars classic, American Graffitti (another stunningly underrated film, I think, even though it's gotten its fair share of props over the years), hinted that the high school years were the simple years, the pure years, and that everything that would follow might somehow recede in comparison.

The point is, I realized that adolescents are more attuned than most to the sweet and gentle lull of nostalgia. They experience everything for the first time, and are more able than most to chart its passing, if only to themselves. They sense that the world is a complex place, but they're not sure how this is so, or why this is so, so all they can do is keep heading forward while saying good-bye to their toy cars and Barbie dolls, as action figures give way to driver's licenses, and toy guns are traded in for Polo shirts and electric shavers.

Probably my favorite scene in probably my favorite movie, Oliver Stone's Born On The Fourth Of July, encapsulates these ideas beautifully. We have Tom Cruise (pre-Nicole, pre-Katie, but not pre-Scientology) slowly walking through the hallways of his house, the night before he's heading off to the Marines, the night of the prom. We watch him as he watches his house perform its innocent hum, as he walks the hallways of his home. We can hear the rain falling. His parents are watching the news on TV in the family room. His little sisters are sitting on their beds, chatting, giggling. His teenage brother is gently strumming 'The Times They Are A-Changing'. And then Cruise (as Ron Kovic) goes to his room and prays to the Jesus on the wall, and he cries, and he wonders if he's doing the right thing. And all of this is so heartbreakingly real and potent and positively bursting with the simultaneous, contradictory merging of nostalgia and momentum, the urge for change with the demand for normalcy. We sense that he senses that everything he knows is going, if not already gone, and he wants to imprint the simplicity of this serene family existence onto his brain before he heads off into the uncertainty of war. (Some could call this scene over-the-top, sickeningly obvious and unbearably coy. Me, I can only shrug my shoulders and call it as I see it: archetypal. Mythic, even.)

But best, I think, to leave nostalgia where it belongs -- in adolesence, and the films and books that so skillfully chart its rapid, rocky rise. As much as I'm still a sucker for nostalgia -- in movies, literature, life -- the danger is that we could constantly believe that the best is back there, years ago. The hazards of photo albums and Flickr sites is marginal, true, but the past is always there, tempting, and if we fetishize it, we forfeit the future, in some way. After all, forget the doubts and confusions, the tears and the tantrums, and remember only that golden sun, sinking, and us just ahead of it, bookbag in hand, wondering what's for dinner.

It's a formula for inertia. The future is uncertain and shifting and downright terrifying, but to retreat is to surrender, and to surrender is to crawl back into the blankets of our youth when we should be preparing the framework of our future. To sink back into the past too much, even lovingly, can run the risk of immobility.

Best to keep going. Best to build new nostalgia, if need be, but not to wallow in the wonders, real or imagined, of our invisible, disintegrated youth.

At any rate, these are some of the thoughts that flashed into my head when I spotted that word, 'crepitate', in my student's pocket-sized paperback dictionary.

Didn't have long to think about it, though.

Soon they were done their work, impatiently waiting for me to check their answers.

Ever forward, the clock was ticking, audible, insistent, and I had a class to teach.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Excellent post scooter ;)

One of the best ones I've read I think.

Keep it real for St.Kitts.