The Good Old Daze

I was driving to work this morning along the same road that I’ve used for almost thirty years. About halfway between home and clinic, off to the side of the highway, is an old textile finishing plant. It’s long since closed down, and the graffiti-scarred structure is rusting and collapsing. A shiny new pharmacy was built in front of it so one has to know it’s there or be very observant, or it is easily passed by, forlorn and crumbling, hiding in plain sight. 

One of my many jobs growing up was working in the local textile mill that was the mother’s milk of the small Georgia community I grew up in. The plant provided jobs, housing, a post office, a village doctor, decorations at holiday time, and a ready made social fabric in addition to the thousands of yards of cloth it produced. I enjoyed my time at the plant. I learned valuable lessons about people, hard work and the necessity of following rules during my time there. 

The textile mill I worked in, similar to the finishing plant on my route to work, has crumbled, and it has actually been torn down. 

I have good memories of my childhood, my teenage years, and my work experiences. I lived, learned and loved in a Norman Rockwell time and place. Cold, deep swimming pools of water doused the heat of scorching hot summers and the smell of wild onions and grass stains on blue jeans gave way to smoke from chimneys and the smell of turkey and dressing in November. The hill behind the pool became an Olympic sledding venue after the rare snows we had as kids. Life in the mill village was good. Really good. 

The memories of those times are pleasant and often surface when the stress of modern life threatens to overwhelm us. The nostalgia is a balm, a healing salve on the claw marks and scratches  and bites we get from sharp-edged technology, scathing commentary and biting sarcasm. The nostalgia is sweet, but like too much sugar ingested by a diabetic, it can quickly turn to a killing poison. The past is the past, and barring a miracle of time travel or a rip in the space-time continuum, it is never coming back. 

Some of us, including our leaders at the highest levels, revel in the nostalgic vision of that idyllic time and place, with its neatly ordered rows of houses and humming factories and simple social order. They long for a return to a more structured, locally controlled, face-to-face existence. They see a return to that time and place as a return to a strong, powerful, safe, and protected country and lifestyle. They lack insight into how the world is evolving, not at the speed of sound or even light but at the speed of electrons and bits and bytes that travel the circumference of the globe at a mind-boggling pace. They lack the vision of a world that is rapidly morphing into a new era of robotic manufacturing, artificial intelligence, augmented reality and social interactions on a scale we’ve never experienced before. 

This is not only short sighted but dangerous. 

Too much nostalgia, pleasant as the sugar coated predecessor of the poison is, leads to sadness about what we have lost. 

Too much division leads to anger and frustration about what we cannot do. 

We must pivot. 

Now. 

Today. 

Each of us. All of us. 

We must anticipate the changes of the future, both short term and long term. Burying our head in the sand about advances in technology, cyber spying, interference in our longstanding institutions and processes will not make these changes go away. 

We must plan for the near future,  paying attention to those things we have a modicum of control over, while allowing ourselves to dream of the distant future, imagining things that are not even concepts or inventions yet. This will keep us strong and productive in the now, but not hamper our ability to create and brainstorm and reorganize our world. 

We must allow ourselves to experience life as it evolves around us, with all its wonders of climate and energy and technology and transportation and entertainment and work. 

We must innovate. 

If we stand still, if we stop dreaming, if we give into the fallacy that the good old days can never be bested and so should be resurrected, then we shall surely watch ourselves drift slowly but inexorably into the sea of irrelevance. 

The future is coming. Of that there is no doubt. 

We must choose to move boldly and be part of it. 

We’re Losing It

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As some of my friends continue to point out to me, I am very excited about an event that is coming up this weekend in Rome, Georgia. A couple hundred of us, if we’re lucky, will gather at the Rome History Museum downtown and eat, imbibe, swap stories, dance, and try to recapture those feelings that we had when we were sixteen, seventeen, eighteen years old. We’ll tell tales. We’ll mourn the loss of classmates. We’ll gaze excitedly into the eyes of those we still hold dear after three or even four decades, picking up on old conversations like we had stopped them to run to the store on an errand and now are back to finish them.

The past few weeks have been fun for us. We have collectively posted pictures, reminisced, found old class rings, learned of the passing of friends, located friends long-since moved on, and shared all of this in a way only the modern Internet allows. One of us (and you shall remain nameless here!) has posted song after song from the seventies, video clips of our past, snippets of song and flashing lights and wild hair and mouth guitars. Funny, that. Every time I watch a video or hear a song, my brain recalls a memory. Mostly good ones, mostly fun ones, but sometimes sad, sometimes “what if” memories that make me wonder what my life, what your life would have been like if I’d only…if you’d…if we’d…

I hear the song, and I smell wet grass on the football field in the fall. I see my old high school with its space station-grey round buildings, looking like something from Mars in the middle of a field a few miles outside my hometown. I smell perfume. I feel chalk dust on my hands. I feel the heft of textbooks. I feel the cold mouthpiece of a silver trumpet on my lips, so cold that it sticks. I feel the smooth felt of a tennis ball as I toss it into the air, my old Jack Kramer wooden racket ready to launch it over the net. I remember teachers who were so young then, much younger than I am now, who were the symbols of authority, the ones who would impart wisdom to us, if we would let them. The wisdom to go far beyond Shannon, Georgia, to see the world. 

Some of us ride motorcycles now. Some of us hike, ski, play guitars, sing, write. Some of us are teachers. Some of us are doctors. Some are college professors. Some of us have had massive setbacks, physical, emotional, financial. Some of us are sad, depressed, bitter, and barely find the strength to make it to the next day. Some of us have traveled the world. Some us have hands that touch and comfort and heal. Some of us play the piano and sing. Some of us paint pictures of color and birds and flowers and children and bring to the fore the brightness that is life in their own mind, so that we may all share it. 

Some of us are here and there, scattered like so many leaves on a chilly fall day in the mill village right down the road from the old school houses we remember so well and so fondly. We laugh, love, raise children, bounce grandchildren on our knee and live. 

Some of us are gone. We mourn them with an intensity we don’t even understand. They have taken a piece of us with them. 

I went to a show last night at the local University, just five minutes from my apartment.

An Evening With Hal Linden” was a fun, fast, toe-tapping, joke-telling hour and a half that brought back memories of old Broadway shows, television sit coms, beautiful songs, and a time when America was what we remember it as, a time when we were mill village kids, Model High School kids. Mr. Linden, he of Barney Miller fame but oh so much more, is now eighty-two years old. Hard to tell that last night, as he danced, played the clarinet, spun off one liners and crooned songs from Broadway shows that brought him fame, if only fleeting. He exited the stage to wipe makeup from his face after one number, a revisiting of one of his Broadway triumphs, and came back to huge applause from the audience. 

“I would have come back anyway,” he quipped, obviously enjoying the accolades. “You know why? Because I just love being up here. I just love it.”

He then said something that inspired me to write this post. I paraphrase a bit if that’s okay with you, dear readers.

“What is it about nostalgia? What is it that makes us keep going back, remembering, enjoying these old songs and memories from the past?”

“You know what it is? It’s the loss of innocence.”

We were all innocent back then, weren’t we?

We were kids, just kids, full of laughter and smiles and learning and guts and glory. We wooed our girlfriends and played our songs and danced and caught touchdown passes and wrote papers and pushed the limits to see just how far we could go. 

I think that’s what we are always looking for. I think that finding that class ring in the bottom of a drawer, seeing a color picture of yourself up on that stage receiving a high school diploma, thinking about a favorite teacher you’ll see at a reunion, or reliving that game-winning touchdown all take us back to one thing.

Once upon a time, we were pure. We were carefree. We were not yet aware of how cruel the world can be. 

We were innocents.

I truly hope that my friends and I can recapture, just for a few hours, some of that innocence that we all shared.

I hope we can feel the ties that still bind, the bonds that cannot be broken by age, time, distance or even death.