There is a nostalgia movement going on in American and British culture for which I’m 20 years too late. People for whom Ozzy and Hariette or Leave It to Beaver might have been some vague notion of aspirational, which is to say white, middle class folks of a conservatively conforming nature, look longingly at a seemingly simpler time. Of course most of these folks gloss over what life was actually like for anyone outside that demographic (particularly in the Jim Crowe South) and conveniently proclaim the 1950’s a golden time. So too, does a large chunk of my brain suppress what the 1970’s were really like in favor of my idealized perceptions.
My preferred memories of the 70’s have everything to do with zipping down Brainerd Road in my friend Valerie’s orange, convertible VW with Boston or Fleetwood Mac blaring on the 8-track, and her Irish Setter, Brooke, sitting up in the back seat, letting her long soft ears flap in the breeze. I tried not to think of the race riots or my grandmother’s nonstop anxiety attack that my uncle was in them…as a police officer. I feigned ignorance of my parents dinner parties with friends who hated me (Taylor’s Lake Country Red, anyone?…there was plenty…and probably why I’m now a bit of a wine snob). I dissociated at my grandparents’ terrifying, proselytizing churches. Instead I focused on being at my godmother’s (Valerie’s mom’s) house in an integrated neighborhood. At Bobbie Crow’s house literally everyone was welcome regardless of race of human, breed of cat or dog (or farm animal), or medium of artist. It was the place to be creative and accepted.
There was a lot of 60’s and 70’s aesthetics into which I visually escaped: Jim Henson’s animated shorts and muppet monsters’ colors and textures on Sesame Street, every strip ever penned by Charles Schultz, the Art Nouveau-gone-psychedelic shapes of Yellow Submarine and the animated opening of Soul Train. I wanted to dive into all of those colors like Robin William’s character’s soul dove into his wife’s painting in What Dreams May Come. I craved the glamour of disco dresses and platform shoes with absolutely no clue what cocaine was. If all you see is the appealing stuff, you can pretend for a few seconds at a time that war, injustice, an energy crisis coming to a head, death, and other grown-up issues aren’t what else is happening.
For the last several years, the retreat to my child-like perceptions has been my key to maintaining creativity amidst today’s chaos. I don’t live in denial of how screwed up the world and climate are, but I have issued a no-news policy in my studio. If I’m not listening to BBC Radio crime drama or jazz, then it’s bootleg recordings of the CBS Radio Mystery Theater and playlists that mimic the AM radio stations of my youth. Give me “Give Up the Funk (Tear the Roof off the Sucker)” and “Rhiannon”…today’s top 40 doesn’t even manage to pale in comparison.
Grown-up-me working in my studio is not so wildly different from child me in my backyard playhouse-turned-art-studio, except that in those days I actually had time and freedom to ask myself, “What do I want to make today?” Today there isn’t anything I find worth making that can be made in a day, and the question of what to make involves a backlog of projects literally stretching back years. What that era of my childhood really represents to me is uninterrupted time, something the present era seems to suck out of me like a tornado in a trailer park.
Whether we saw pain and injustice or a simpler place where we understood conforming rules, we saw it all through the lens of childhood, unclear but uncomplicated. Maybe what we long for is the naïveté we once had that things will get better if we can just grow up and move on, that maybe life will have a happy ending, or at least a happy adult phase. Instead what we have is complexity and a constant uncertainty of how or where we fit in the world. It’s all confirmed through a constant, usually flawed, and algorithmically slanted stream of media literally shouting at us, and we can’t look away.
I don’t have much room for sentimentality. Frankly, it makes me feel nauseous like I just ate a whole pecan pie (ugh). – My mother says my lack of sentimentality (and my dislike of pecan pie) means I have ice for blood. She doesn’t know I teared up at the Rothko Chapel (or at a couple of Disney parades…don’t ask). – What I do have in endless supply is nostalgia for what I thought life might be like if I survived childhood.
If you too are a word nerd, you’ll know nostalgia, divided, literally translates from Latin into ‘our pain’. It’s empathy for what is past and has passed. I will never again know the feeling of being attacked by happy wagging tails and jumping dogs as I opened Bobbie’s front door. Goodness knows Valerie’s VW must have bitten the dust decades ago (and I have mostly managed to forgive her for long ago selling it). At least I can crank Parliament and hammer metal to my heart’s content or run payroll or make sure my SSL certificates are up to date on my website or any of the other 1000 grown up things I could never have imagined in the 70’s.
Go “tear the roof off the sucker…” because “we need the funk,” and funk just may be an antidote to adulting.