This morning I was standing in the middle of our living room, getting dressed for work.
It’s not the usual place I prep for the day, but everyone else in the house was still asleep, and with a nine month old with a temperamental wake-up, I didn’t feel like tempting fate and having anyone wake up that might start a domino effect of human alarms that ended with a crying baby to start off the day.
So, I was there, just Winston (one of our cats) and myself, in the silence of the early morning. I was buttoning up my shirt when my eye caught some of the baby toys on a cubed shelf we have in the living room. We bought it with the sole purpose of having a place to house toys when not in use so they weren’t constantly scattered across the living room rug.
Three fabric bins neatly placed underneath, housing everything from Fisher Price Little People to toy instruments. A shelf filled with some board books, another bin filled to the brim with Duplo Legos, the raw material that leads throughout the day to spaceships, houses, superhero headquarters, zoos, and any other creations that spring to our kids’ minds.
In the past several months, a small basket has sat on top, filled with soft blocks, indestructible books, a rattle, and a handful of toys suitable for keeping a baby’s interest, at times a wishful prospect.
The shelf itself has been there, probably a year, by my estimate, but for some reason, this particular morning, one thought hit me while I got dressed – “these things are not going to be sitting here long.”
Contents within will change, perhaps from the Fisher Price Little People and Duplo of today to action figures and building kits of tomorrow. Puzzles might give way to board games, board books to magazines. And those baby toys in the wicker basket on top will fade away from our view like a mirage that in time will make us wonder, with how quickly it changed, it was all real, and all not so long ago.
An open letter to our son…
Tomorrow, you start kindergarten.
The mornings of pure play have passed, and the lessons of preschool now behind us, you set forth on an amazing and new adventure.
I’ll never forget that time driving in the car, back from vacation, when mommy was pregnant with your sister, that you sang twinkle, twinkle little star in the backseat. It wasn’t surprising. We sang it a lot back then. But when we heard you say “how I wonder what you are” instead of the “how me wonder what you are” that we had heard those first two and a half years of your life, mommy and I looked at each other, realizing that change is inevitable. You were growing as you’re destined to do. At some point mama became mommy and dada became daddy. Letters became sounds and words.
You may not realize it as it happens, and there may be times when it feels as though you’re in school “forever,” but a day will come when you look back and smile at what are the most fun-filled, exploratory, and intriguing adventures of your life. Full days. Lunches in the cafeteria. Days on the playground. New friends, and new lessons to be had. It all awaits you as you step off the curb and into this brand new world tomorrow.
You know your ABCs. You can count past 100. You love to sing, to dance, to draw, to create, to fathom worlds of wonder that amaze me more each day, and teach me more about animals and space exploration than I ever learned back in school.
I hope you’ll always enjoy The Beatles and The Monkees as much as you do today, without fear of what’s not current, of what many around you may like or dislike – that the things you love, though they may change over time, are still rooted and attached to the giant heart that beats beneath your chest.
Please remember that not everyone has to like you, agree with you, and that’s okay. Don’t let optimism, the hope, and the bright light that pours out of you ever be dimmed by those who wish to tear others down. Fill the buckets of those around you, but never at the expense of someone else’s, or your own. Just be you. You’re great at it.
As I walk back to my car, I will smile, I will wave, but inside I’ll be juggling the anxiety of knowing we are “letting you go,” off to the next chapter of your life with the hope and confidence (and touch of anxiety, because it comes naturally) that we have given you what you need up to this point to stand tall, to stay strong, to never stop learning, to be kind, and to just be your unique self, no matter what or who you may encounter along the way.
Know that you are loved. That no matter where your path takes you, you will be loved, with all our hearts. Above all else, at this start of your journey and hereon in, please, if there’s one thing to remember, it’s to always be true to yourself. That is the greatest gift you can give to this world, and to yourself.
Just be you.
Daddy and Mommy
We’ve watched Ducktales, Batman ‘66, we’ve read Mr. Men and Little Miss books before bed. We own The Great Mouse Detective and Mickey’s Christmas Carol. We laugh to Inspector Gadget. A pair of Ninja Turtle figures showed up at Christmas.
Wait a second. Is this my son’s childhood or my own?
Sometimes I feel guilty that it might be hard to tell, as like many parents, it becomes all-too easy to want to show your kids “the good stuff,” the stuff we grew up with, the stuff we loved, and hope that we can find or create a mutual interest to bond over, while at the same time, feeling the excitement and joy of when we first experienced it as kids. That reliving of our own youth alongside them is essentially nostalgia. Second-hand nostalgia that we pass down to our kids.
I didn’t just make that up. Honest. The concept of second-hand nostalgia is a real thing. Nostalgia scholar and author Dr. Ryan Lizardi writes about it in Nostalgic Generations and Media: Perception of Time and Available Meaning, noting “As older generations of people are encouraged to revisit media and products they loved as children by hyper-nostalgic media companies, through remakes, reimaginings, and re-releases, it leads to a reduction in available meanings for current and subsequent generations who are then all encouraged to attach to the same nostalgia-soaked objects.”
I’ve talked about it a lot, even if at the time I didn’t realize exactly what I was doing. But I’m guilty of it. Totally.
There’s an emotional connection to our past. Sometimes good. Sometimes not so good. And for many of us, those emotions, connected to different parts of our lives, are represented by the media we consumed at the time. When I was a teenager, Friends was the new, big thing on television. When I was in my mid-to-late twenties, How I Met Your Mother was just beginning to tell its tale of friends finding their place in the world through the lookback of a nostalgic narrator talking to us from the future. And as a kid? I had a pretty happy and carefree childhood, and so when I look back on the cartoons of the Disney Afternoon, or the sitcoms of TGIF, I look back with a smile, as it brings about the same happy and carefree feelings that went along with the times I was first watching.
Referring to KI Batcho’s 1998 research on Personal Nostalgia, Sergio Davalos, Altaf Merchant, Gregory M. Rose, Brenton Lessley, and Ankur M. Teredesai note upon the emotional connection to our media in their article The Good Old Days’: An examination of nostalgia in Facebook posts, saying “Batcho (1998) posits that nostalgia prone people have a high capacity for emotion, which increases the likelihood of experiencing both ‘sweet’ and ‘bitter’ emotions. Individuals in the high nostalgia group, moreover, were found to perceive the past as more favorable than those in the low nostalgia group (Batcho 1998).”
But it’s had me thinking a lot about what that means as my kids, or other kids whose parents may be handing-down their own nostalgia, grow up. If my childhood pop culture was dominated by Scrooge McDuck, Batman, Ghostbusters, what will theirs be made up of?
Whereas I look back nostalgically on these things, will they be growing up looking back nostalgically on pop culture that was handed down to them to begin with rather than their own, new experiences and media to attach to?
There is, at least so far, been a cycle to nostalgia, typically 40 years with a 20 year microcycle within it. By that, I mean that the producers of the media we consume are often around that age and the products they make find many of their roots in the time from which they were born or growing up.
In a 2012 The New Yorker article called The Forty-Year Itch, Adam Gopnik notes “Though pop culture is most often performed by the young, the directors and programmers and gatekeepers – the suits who control and create its conditions, who make the calls and choose the players – are, and always have been, largely forty-somethings, and the four-decade interval brings us to a period just before the forty-something was born. Forty years past is the potently fascinating time just as we arrived, when our parents were youthful and in love, the Edenic period preceding the fallen state recorded in our actual memories.”
Sometimes, we get a 20 year microcycle when those same producers of media are creating products that remind them of their teen years/young adulthood. But it keeps the cycle going. It’s why we saw things like Happy Days, Laverne and Shirley, American Graffiti, and so much of the 1950s in the 70s (20 year cycle), The Roaring 20’s and Winchester Cathedral in the 60s (40 year cycle), even nostalgia for the turn of the century in films like The Magnificent Ambersons and Take Me Out to the Ballgame by producers of the 1940s.
So, if we’re to look at the 20th century in terms of decade-chunks, each certainly had its moments of originality. It’s why we think of bell bottom jeans, disco, hippies, grunge when we associate with the 70s, 60s, and 90s respectively. But at the same time, living in that decade and producing within that decade were people nostalgic for something that had come before.
Still in the dawn of the 21st century, though, it almost feels like we’re constantly in a state of looking backward. And with the technology that we have at our fingertips it’s never been easier to constantly be re-living the past for whatever we become nostalgic for at any given time. If I want to watch You Can’t Take it With You or Cary Grant in Holiday, I’ll just pop in a DVD. If I want to try and recapture the feeling of laying on the floor of my childhood home, perhaps I get online and find an episode of Count Duckula or Danger Mouse.
Not that remakes are anything new. Heck, The Awful Truth, a 1937 film starring Cary Grant and Irene Dunn was a remake of a 1922 silent film of the same name that was in itself a remake of a theatrical production. But there’s no doubt that we’re living in an era that’s often stuck on the past.
So if many of us (including the producers of media remakes and reboots) are so often looking backward, where does that leave the future? I have to wonder if it’s inevitable that we’re going to hit a point where the decades we look back on were a regurgitation of lookbacks/nostalgia for decades prior to that, versus being their own particular thing.
More importantly, technology has taken away (or at least made it start to fade) the cultural nostalgia we’ve had for the most part up to this point. It’s rare and will get rarer, I think, to have the moments of people clamoring around the series finale of M*A*S*H or spending all summer talking about Who Shot J.R Ewing.
Because when these cultural events happened, choices were much more limited. You went to the movies to see a film. You watched what was on the small number of channels on television. There was no home video market. That didn’t come along until the 1980s (I remember what a thrill it was when my parents, for a birthday party, rented a VCR and Mary Poppins for all us kids in attendance to watch). So many more people shared those media moments together, as a culture.
Today, though, we can hop on Amazon and order a DVD to be here in a matter of days. We can click on Netflix or Hulu, or Amazon Video and with a subscription watch films or TV shows from a back catalog that spans generations. Still not finding your cup of tea? Hop over to YouTube and check out a web series like the new ThirtyNothing and find a new personal favorite.
Our options are almost limitless. We’re no longer bound by just what the major media companies produce as in the past. So what we will become nostalgic for will vary so greatly from the larger, en masse nostalgia of yesteryear.
“Nostalgia used to depend on the denial of access to the subject, on its unreachable presence. Now there is an effective formula to encourage nostalgia,” writes Gil Bartholeyns in The Instant Past: Nostalgia and Digital Retro Photography.
I can’t help but think that technology has made the experiences so individualized now that nostalgia is going to start becoming increasingly less cultural and more individual going forward.
Brian Raferty asked a similar question recently in Wired talking about ‘00s Nostalgia Wave – It Might Be the last Revival, saying “Years from now, when we finally gaze back at the pop highlights of this modern age, will any of us even be looking in the same direction?…My guess is that future waves of nostalgia will focus less on specific pop-cultural explosions and more on the technologies that allowed them to spread. That’s partly because it’s never been easier to tune out the mass culture, making shared moments all the more rare.”
So where does that leave our kids and their childhood of second-generation nostalgia? I don’t know. Even if I were to curb their exposure through my own preferred cartoons, toys, etc, it’s still out there – in remade or rebooted, or sometimes just plain rerun form. What will they look back on when they wax nostalgic about the cartoons and films of their day?
It might be about the technology they watched it on, like how I remember the VHS/Mary Poppins rental above. They could be looking back at what might be considered quaint technology of streaming services where we watched Disney movies from before I was even born.
Or perhaps, for them, they’ll look back on the items they were fond of or associate with their childhood and not care where or when they came from, simply that they existed, and were there for them to enjoy.
I can pontificate forever. But I think, truly, only time will tell.
The other night, I was standing in our dining room, leaning up against a piece of furniture, chiming into conversation but primarily scrolling through my phone, looking at the latest news going on in the outside world (no lack of those lately), what friends were up to, and checking in to see if any emails I had been waiting for popped up.
The family was going about various evening norms – unpacking the array of bags that seem like we’re boarding an airplane but really just make up our collective day, sorting through the mail, looking at what’s in the fridge and at recipes for dinner possibilities. A one year old little girl wandering about with that cute little waddle, babbling away with sounds that we think we understand but can never be sure, and a 4 year old little boy bouncing around the house with more energy than any of us could hope to muster at any given point of day, let alone the exhausting post work, kid-pick-up, drive home, kid unload, baggage unload, figure out dinner part of the day.
I was there, completely exhausted and mindlessly moving my hand across the screen, when that little voice chimed in “Wanna play with me daddy?”
And, tiredly, I looked at him, smiled…and gave him some reason of how I really wasn’t up for playing and was really very tired. He walked away, a little bummed, and sat down to see what was on PBS Kids as I continued moving my finger across the phone, taking in all of the outside world in its digitally relayed form, and completely ignoring the physical one right in front of me.
Meg leaned nearby, and quietly said “He’s not going to be asking for much longer.”
I stopped for a moment, looking up from my phone and over at that little boy watching television. How big he’s gotten already. How fast he’s growing. How quickly he’s changing. From the little baby I held in my arms in the hospital to the little toddler who learned to walk to talk, to count, the alphabet, using the potty, spelling his name. It all happened in the span of four years now, but it seems like it went by in the blink of an eye. A cliche? Sure. But the reason they have cliches is because they’re true for so many.
In the blink of an eye all that time was gone. He’ll never be discovering those same things again. New things, sure. But never those firsts we’ve already crossed over. He’s already in Pre-k, making friends, telling us about his days in the car and over dinner. Heck, we have kindergarten registration next week. Before I know it, he’ll be there, every day, all day in school.
In that same blink of an eye, we’ll be through grade school, dealing with the junior high years, high school, whatever comes beyond. It will happen so quickly and I will wish, beg, pray for the chance to play with my little boy again. And I won’t have it. That time will have passed.
I couldn’t escape the sounds of Cat’s in the Cradle playing through my head as I looked at him in that moment.
All of this swirled through my mind in a matter of seconds after Meg spoke the words. How right she was.
I closed the phone, walked over to him and sat down next to him, asking about what he was watching, then asking if he still wanted to play. He wanted to play something different, but it was still something.
I’ve been quiet lately.
But there’s been a reason. Actually quite a few.
I’ve been juggling.
Traveling with the circus in a polka-dot shirt and shiny silk pants I toss balls in the air as fast as…
Okay. If you’re with me this far, then thank you because you know that’s not the type of juggling I’m talking about yet you still stuck around through my ridiculousness.
No, I’ve been juggling a lot in terms of life. We all do. Some do so better than others and other times some things give. For me, one of the the things that gave was the ability to stay on top of reflections and writing those day to day anecdotes and lessons of life. But that’s because I’ve often been so incredibly exhausted by the end of the night that I fight to keep my eyes shut.
See, we moved about two weeks ago, give or take. The weeks leading up to it were a maze of packed boxes in our previous house and now that we’re in our new digs, it’s an explosion of boxes as we continually try to get unpacked, and settled. And as many probably know, that kind of task, with a one year old and four year old, is not exactly the easiest.
Throw in our day jobs, the trips back and forth to school for the little guy, my grad school studies, trying to finish packing up the remainders at the old house (the basement and garage, especially), juggling the expenses of two homes until we sell, and anything holiday related – from getting a tree, to shopping, to decorating, everything in life seems to be hitting at once and admittedly, it’s hard to juggle it all. That’s not counting any of the additional work that either of us do freelancing or volunteering. It may not seem like a lot when you see it on paper, but when you’re living it, it’s a handful.That said, the kids have adjusted very well to our move, as have our three feline boys. Knock on wood. Our son loves his new, bigger room, the cats love having a fireplace to lay in front of, and the baby – well, she didn’t even flinch at the change of environment.
It makes me think that we adults are the ones with the most baggage. Whether it was leaving behind the kind neighbors we had gotten to know and see every day as we came and went, or the stray kitties who would come and go from our yard, there were things that completely tugged and continue to tug on our heartstrings about the change.
But there’s so much good. Our commutes have been cut into at least half, if not more, which means more time together and less time spent on the road each day and a little more space as our family grows.
And once we make our way through all the boxes, the clutter, the chaos, I’ve no doubt we’re going to find even more good to look forward to. Okay, let’s be honest. The boxes sometimes never go away and the clutter comes and goes. And chaos? Well, I think anyone with kids can agree that chaos is just part of the daily agenda.
But in between that, slipping through all of it each day are the moments, those little moments that before you know it add up to a life. A pretty good one at that, and for that, I consider myself truly blessed.
I am fascinated with the ways children evolve from their completely dependent forms – making nothing but sounds or cries, but eventually forming words, then sentences, then complete conversations like little adults. From needing to be spoon-fed mushy puree to sitting down to a meal with mommy and daddy like the little human they are.
Lately I’ve gotten to witness more of the evolution as our son, now four, suddenly has begun to recognize words.
We were at Barnes and Noble recently with a friend and her little one, waiting for a cup of tea at the cafe (I love that African Autumn tea) before heading back to the children’s section for some Thomas the Train Engine time and general book browsing. Nearby stood the little countertop with napkins, creamers, stirrers, etc, and the flapping door of the garbage can underneath, with two words embossed across it.
“Does that say thank you?” his little voice asked.
“Does what, buddy?”
“That,” he said, pointing to the flapping door on the garbage can, clearly saying “Thank You” on it to those who throw away their trash and not litter.
“It does, buddy! How did you know that?!”
“I dunno. I just did.”
And thus has been a bit of a trend lately. We’ve been fortunate enough that he’s been interested in and fluent in his alphabet since early on, but this…THIS….to see his eyes move from one end to the other, his mind taking in these letters and putting them together, and recognizing the words they form. It has truly been a remarkable experience, as a parent, and just as a human being.
I thought back to a time in recent months at my mom’s house, where he was hanging out for a bit while Meg and I ran some errands and my mom asked about lunch. Not wanting to give away the options up front and lock ourselves into something he’d hear, we spelled our options, including when she said “I can make g-r-i-l-l-e-d c-h-e-e-s-e?”
“That would be great,” I said.
Then his little voice popped up, “Yeah, I LOVE grilled cheese.”
Or when I asked my wife what she was in the mood to watch as a family one particular evening, The Dick Van Dyke Show, or some Adam West B-a-t-m-a-n.
“Batman?” we heard pipe up.
Suddenly it dawned on me as we stood there at the cafe in front of the thank you sign, hearing him read this aloud, that he’s been doing it, little by little, right along – only I haven’t paid close enough attention to realize these are no flukes.
Seeing this string of word revelations over time is a revelation to me that we are in a brand new stage, one that will open the door to a whole new era of life, and of knowledge for him. I couldn’t be happier. Or prouder.