Sunday, April 8, 2018
It was a a very good year
I try never to get in a tug-o-war with strangers on Facebook.
There's no end to it.
Because there's more of them than there are of me.
But, being human, sometimes I get sucked in.
Someone posted a painting of a farmer and his son gazing off into the sunrise with a caption "I miss the American I grew up in."
Talk about a slow pitch down the middle. I couldn't help it. I swung on my heels.
"Then you don't remember it," I wrote.
She objected, naturally enough, and I removed my gotcha question from its special lead-lined case.
What year, I asked, specifically, are you missing? When is this lost time of happiness that you wouldn't mind returning?
"1952," she said.
I did a little research research—as I said, no end to it—and then returned to her page.
Did she, I asked, miss the thousands of Americans who died in Korea?
Or was it the thousands, mostly children, who died of polio? 1952 was the worst year ever for that dread disease: 57,000 cases in the United States. In one week in July, 11 of the 14 Thiel children of Mapleton, Iowa, got sick. That September, four of six children in a family in Milwaukee caught a particularly virulent strain of polio and quickly died, one after another. Is that what she wants back?
Maybe it was the Red Scare that she was shedding a nostalgic tear for: Joe Stalin was very much alive in 1952, and loyalty oaths were big. Or McCarthyism—Tailgunner Joe had not yet been chastised by his fellow senators.
Maybe it was rampant Jim Crow. That was fun.
Here the conversation ended. Which is the main reason not to engage in these conversations, to stretch the word. Because even if you win, you lose. Changing your mind is hard, particularly for a person old enough to pine for 1952. They'd rather shrug and move on than face the shattering prospect of being wrong.
I just don't get that. I'm wrong all the time. I thought the Kinks song "Lola" was about a girl. I thought cell phones were a fad. Being wrong, and the ability to admit it, doesn't undercut my worth as a human—it emphasizes it. When I cop to making a mistake, it's almost like revealing a superpower, because so few can do it. It's as if I could turn invisible or fly, and almost as useful.
And I understand what motivates people to nostalgia. The wonderful details of your life remain clear; the less felt details of the news fade away.
It isn't that I'm not nostalgic myself. I am. I was 17 in 1977, and there were cool things going on. Punk was big in London, and I was there, on Wardor Street, bouncing to the Vibrators at the Marquee Club. In my hometown, if you stopped at the gas station, Clark's, Jack would come out, pump your gas, check your oil, chat a bit, and maybe slip you stick of gum. That was nice.
But I would never, ever argue that 1977 was a Golden Age. I'm not saying that all years are the same. Some are worse—1942—some are better. But however you see a year, you have to recognize that you are viewing it through the lens of your own experience. The day my first son was born in 1995 was a very good day. For me. Not so good for the parents of the seven kids who died when a bus was hit by a train in Fox River Grove.
I'm going to really try to stop engaging strangers on Facebook. It's a challenge enough to do it with your friends and loved ones.
My father once said to me, "You know, people were just kinder when I was growing up."
And I answered, "This era of kindness of which you speak, dad, was that the Great Depression or World War II, because I just don't see it."
I don't remember his reaction.