This time of year prompts those back-to-school feelings. I’m betting that for most people, memories of new school years are more emotionally laden than infused with any of the educational content of those first days back. Depending upon one’s experience, those memories may include doses of excitement, dread, enthusiasm, anxiety, or some combination thereof.
For me, the start of an elementary school year (K through 6 in my hometown district) felt like a leap into the unknown. It usually involved a new classroom teacher, a mix of familiar and new classmates, and speculation over what it meant to be in the next grade. Fortunately, my elementary school in Hammond, Indiana, featured old-fashioned, dedicated teachers. Some could be a little gruff on the outside, but all of them deeply cared about kids.
When it came to starting new levels of higher education, well, let’s just say that the term “new student orientation” still gives my stomach a small rumble, calling to mind those well-meaning but ultimately fruitless attempts to soothe rookie anxieties. It usually took me a year or two to find my comfort zone and cohort group. Once that occurred, I would greet the start of an academic year with a sense of purpose and belonging.
For example, during my final two years of college, I was a department editor of the college newspaper, which became my hangout and social outlet, not to mention a training ground in the art of writing clear prose. During my last two years of law school, I was active in student publications and various public interest law projects, as well as a cast member in the annual law student musical (a ton of fun), all of which became sources of friendships.
The painting above was the work of Samuel Morse, inventor (yup, Morse Code!), artist, and New York University professor. Portrayed on the left is the original 19th century NYU building on Washington Square (since torn down), where Morse had his faculty office. He placed the Gothic structure in a classical landscape to suggest the idea of the university as paradise.
Today I’m wise enough to know that such a paradise exists only in fantasy, but it’s a beautiful painting nonetheless. And though I have many concerns about the state of formal education here in the U.S., I can still get a tad sentimental about the start of a school year.
I worked into the evening at my faculty office today, and after a quick assessment of what I might find in my fridge at home, I decided to grab a bite to eat before hopping on the subway. I settled on Chipotle because it’s quick, inexpensive, and close to the subway entrance.
As far as fast food goes, it also happens to be relatively healthy and tasty. I opted for a burrito bowl consisting of brown rice (I’m trying…), shredded pork, black beans, salsa, corn, a bare sprinkling of cheese, and shredded lettuce. Not bad, seriously.
I’ve gone to this Chipotle around a half dozen times this summer (actually, it’s the only one I’ve been to), and during each visit I’ve noticed that I am just about the oldest person in the place. Most of the customers (not to mention the workers) are in their 20s or younger. I’ve also noticed in random blogs and commentaries by Millennials that Chipotle pops up in their conversations, like it’s part of their generational culture.
So when I got home, I searched “Millennials” and “Chipotle,” and up came a fistful of articles saying that Millennials are opting for places like Chipotle over usual fast food suspects like McDonald’s and Burger King. Furthermore, the company’s marketing efforts are targeting Millennials, especially with appeals based on sustainable food practices.
I guess my observational instincts were pretty good!
In terms of quality and healthier casual eating, the Millennials have it over the Boomers and others on this one. Chipotle isn’t exactly health food, but it’s much higher up on the gustatory chain than a Whopper and onion rings.
To close on a brief historical note: The Chipotle I patronize is housed in a historic, old Boston building that once was a well-known bookstore. It does break my heart a little to think that a chain restaurant now inhabits this historic site. I’d be very surprised if many of the other weekday evening customers are aware of its provenance.
What are your favorite childhood eateries? Maybe a restaurant that served the best comfort foods? Or perhaps a place that was designated for special meals with your family?
One of my favorites is still around: Miner-Dunn Hamburgers in Highland, Indiana. It’s an old fashioned, diner style family restaurant that specializes in delicious varieties of burgers. The Miner-Dunn hamburger is pressed thin and wide before being grilled and then served on a big soft bun, with various toppings of your choosing. The platter comes with fries and — in a unique and tasty twist — a small cup of orange sherbet to top things off. (Of course, their desserts are good as well.)
Growing up, Miner-Dunn was a favorite family destination. Once we got our driver’s licenses, it became an occasional nighttime or after game hangout as well. During my occasional visits back to Northwest Indiana, I’ve made pilgrimages there to enjoy the good food, which remains very reasonably priced to boot.
Miner-Dunn has been around since 1932, and from what I can tell, they haven’t overly tinkered with recipes that work for them. Just writing this post is making me hungry…
I also realized that I have posted photos of two favorite burger places going back to years past in successive posts. Talk about being a meathead.
As someone who succumbs easily to nostalgia — supposedly this is common among those of us born under the Cancer sign — this blog permits me to hop into my personal time machine on a regular basis. And Throwback Thursday is a Hallmark card of an invitation to switch that machine into overdrive. Today I’m going to ponder why I find such indulgences so appealing.
It hurts so good?
Last year, John Tierney, writing for the New York Times, served up a fascinating piece on the role of nostalgia in our lives. He featured the research of psychology professor Constantine Sedikides (U. Southampton, U.K.), who challenges the popular notion that nostalgia must be associated with sad melancholy. Here’s a snippet:
Nostalgia has been shown to counteract loneliness, boredom and anxiety. It makes people more generous to strangers and more tolerant of outsiders. Couples feel closer and look happier when they’re sharing nostalgic memories. On cold days, or in cold rooms, people use nostalgia to literally feel warmer.
Nostalgia does have its painful side — it’s a bittersweet emotion — but the net effect is to make life seem more meaningful and death less frightening. When people speak wistfully of the past, they typically become more optimistic and inspired about the future.
He included a thought-provoking perspective from Dr. Sedikides:
“Nostalgia makes us a bit more human,” Dr. Sedikides says. He considers the first great nostalgist to be Odysseus, an itinerant who used memories of his family and home to get through hard times….
Writer and online “salon keeper” Stacy Horn, in her book Waiting for My Cats to Die: a morbid memoir (2001), calls nostalgia “both a self-inflicted wound and the morphine you take for the pain – a perfect reprieve from the cold, cruel light of an untampered-with day. It hurts, but it’s a good hurt.” I tend to agree, seeing nostalgia as a simultaneous pleasure/pain kinda thing.
The online version of the Times article linked to Dr. Sedikides’s webpage. The webpage includes a questionnaire called the “Southampton Nostalgia Scale,” which defines nostalgia as a “sentimental longing for the past.”
I answered the survey questions, and I clearly score off the charts. I think about my past a lot. I think about historical events and eras a lot, and I yearn to experience them, even if they preceded me by decades. I probably could get soggy about the coffee I had with breakfast yesterday if the moment was right.
The weird thing is, I’ve been this way since I was a kid. As a grade schooler, I would get nostalgic about family vacations to visit relatives in Hawaii!
Take my “Yearbook Test”
Here’s my personal test for measuring one’s propensity for nostalgia: I call it the “Yearbook Test.”
Spend some time with a college or high school yearbook, maybe one grabbed from a friend’s bookshelf or rescued from the bargain bin at a used bookstore. Although it can be from a school you attended, it shouldn’t be one from your years there or the years immediately preceding or following them. (In other words, it cannot overlap with anyone you knew from your own student days.)
Do you find yourself feeling like you “know” people in the yearbook? Do you start imagining their lives? Can you guess at the groups and cliques that may have formed up? Do you find yourself wanting to step back into that time and place to experience it personally, just to see what it was really like?
If you’re inclined to answer yes to these questions, then I’d bet a fair amount of change that you’re a nostalgia junkie. I mean, let’s face it, if you can get all sentimental over the student experiences of those from another era, then you’re a goner when it comes to nostalgia.
For the record, I’ve used ebay to obtain a smattering of old yearbooks from my undergraduate alma mater, Valparaiso University, and from my law school alma mater, New York University, dating from the early to mid-20th century. I can get lost in them for hours. On occasion, I’ve Googled names of students in an attempt to see what became of them.
In other words, I’m hopeless.
I have no doubt that my nostalgic tendencies dovetail with my enjoyment of history. My status as a history buff has a strong emotional component to it. For example, last year I wrote about my affinity for the 1980s mini-series “The Winds of War.” The story starts in 1939, as war clouds are swirling about Europe. It follows the fortunes of the Henry family, headed by U.S. Navy officer Victor “Pug” Henry, along with his wife Rhoda, sons Warren and Byron, and daughter Madeline.
Joining them as major figures are renowned Jewish author and retired professor Aaron Jastrow and his niece, Natalie, who are living in an Italian villa. Also prominent is Pamela Tudsbury, a young British woman who travels the globe helping her father, foreign correspondent “Talky” Tudsbury, as well as foreign service officer Leslie Slote.
“The Winds of War” qualifies as a sweeping epic. It opens with Europe on the brink of another war, and it continues on through the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Throughout the story, the major characters and others cross paths, move apart, face life-threatening danger, and fall in and out of love, in places as disparate as London, Berlin, Italy, Portugal, Washington D.C., Hawaii, the Soviet Union, and the Philippines, among many others.
I find myself caught up in that dramatic sweep, imagining the lives of the characters and the look & feel of the era. I watch the full mini-series roughly once a year, and it has an odd, comforting effect on me.
How “accurate” is our nostalgia?
I understand how we often create memories that make certain times appear a lot rosier in the rear view mirror. I know that the past is rarely what it’s cooked up to be.
When it comes to feeling sentimental about historical eras, I’d love to visit 19th century London or 1920s New York. But would I actually like to live during those times, for the long haul, with no “go back” button in the event I find myself, say, in a Dickensian workhouse or a Lower East Side tenement? And despite my affinity for the Second World War years, for an American of Japanese descent, a time machine return to that period would not be desirable.
As for my own past, there are few times in my life that I’d truly like to live over again, not because I’ve had a bad life, but rather because the “do overs” I yearn for — the ones with the benefits of wisdom, hindsight, and maturity — are impossible. I was reminded of this last week, when a brief Facebook exchange with college chums led to recounting favorite eateries near the campus. Now, if someone today offered me a few years to go back to school, think big thoughts, and enjoy campus life, I’d happily take it. But would I want to return to the post-adolescent anxieties of (in my case barely) early adulthood? No thanks!
So, the bottom line: I’ll continue to indulge my nostalgic tendencies. But at least I know that the rear view mirror often serves up a distorted picture.
This post borrows several big chunks from a 2013 piece published on my professional blog, Minding the Workplace.
For those of you around during August 1974, where were you during when President Richard Nixon resigned from office in the midst of the Watergate scandal?
At the time, I was in high school, heading into my sophomore year. That night I happened to be watching a football game. The Jacksonville Sharks were playing the Hawaiians, both of the fledgling World Football League, an upstart, ragtag operation that was challenging the established NFL. The game was interrupted by Nixon’s resignation’s speech, which made for an odd return to the televised game action following such a momentous event!
For readers too young to understand the Watergate scandal, or for the sprinkling of international readers thankfully spared the ongoing saga back then, Nixon got in trouble when his Administration was linked to an illegal break-in at the Democratic National Committee headquarters in Washington D.C.’s Watergate Hotel during the 1972 election campaign. As is so often the case, the cover up was worse than the initial sin, and it led right to the Oval Office.
The Washington Post took the lead on investigating the Watergate scandal, and it served to launch the careers of two unknown reporters, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein.
The movie “All the President’s Men,” starring Robert Redford (Woodward) and Dustin Hoffman (Bernstein), manages to tell the story of the Post‘s investigation with a sense of detail and drama that conveys the gravity of this historic event in American government and politics. It still holds up as an excellent movie.
The Huffington Post just ran a terrific five-day series, “50 over 50,” profiling 50 individuals who significantly changed their lives after reaching age 50 and beyond. In partnership with the TODAY Show, they’re looking at how people have reinvented themselves later in their lives, often after experiencing major challenges. Here’s a piece of Shelley Emling’s introduction to the feature:
We recently asked readers to submit nominations of people who’ve reinvented themselves for the better after age 50 as part of an initiative launched with the TODAY show called “50 Over 50.” We were overwhelmed with submissions. We heard stories of people who’d changed their lives after losing a partner, getting divorced, or suffering financial hardship or a health concern. We heard from many people who nominated themselves — something they said they never would have done before turning 50.
Here are links to the five main stories posted this week:
The Risk Takers — 10 people who took risks after 50
Career Reinvention — 10 people who reinvented their careers after 50
Following Your Passion — 10 people who followed their passions after 50
Health and Wellness — 10 people who pursued health and wellness after 50
Giving Back — 10 people who gave back to their communities after 50
Whatever your age, you’ll find inspirational stuff here. Especially for those over 50, this may speak directly to you. But even if you’re under 50, perhaps by many years, you may find this valuable, or at least worth tucking away until later.
This is drawn from a slightly longer version posted to my professional blog, Minding the Workplace.
One of the fun things about being a kid was sending away for stuff and then waiting in anticipation for what would come in the mail. A toy, game, or hobby item. Maybe a magazine subscription or a book.
In the days before U.P.S. and other private companies claimed a larger share of the package delivery business, the U.S. Postal Service was the main show in town. This was still the heyday of mail order. For young boys, especially, the back pages of comic books, ad listings in magazines such as Boy’s Life, and catalogs issued by novelty toy companies like Johnson Smith offered tempting discoveries. Sometimes the products would fall short of expectations, providing youthful lessons in advertising vs. reality!
When I became a postage stamp collector, I’d look forward to periodic deliveries of stamps-on-approval, a quaint service whereby small stamp businesses sent selections of collectible stamps for review and possible purchase, with unwanted items to be returned within roughly a two-week time frame. (Stamps-on-approval services remain popular today.)
When I became a sports fan, I’d eagerly await weekly deliveries of The Sporting News and Sports Illustrated, and then pore over the statistics and feature articles in each issue. The Sporting News was the real deal, packed with updated player statistics, boxscores, and in-depth coverage of the major U.S. pro sports, especially baseball. In the days before the Internet, this was a must-have subscription for serious sports fans.
With an allowance that stretched only so far, and before part-time jobs entered the picture, being able to send away for free stuff was especially tantalizing, and this book was a gateway:
The cover was better than the substance inside. OK, there was a lot of free stuff to send away for, but company promotional items and information from the government predominated the listings. I must’ve sent requests based on dozens of listings, but I cannot recall receiving anything of lasting interest!
Today, of course, the daily mail brings a lot of bills, junk mail, and fundraising pitches. I subscribe to a lot of magazines, so those goodies still await me every week. And yes, I send away for stuff on occasion, though usually via online signups. Indeed, in terms of convenience and speed, the Internet is a consumer marvel.
So, this definitely isn’t a call for a return to the mail order era of the past! Please indulge me, however, while I get a tad nostalgic about the days of sending away for fun stuff and waiting to see what arrives in the mail.
When I think about the cultural and historical markers in my life, I quickly reach the conclusion that I’m a 20th century kinda guy. Born in 1959, and given my appreciation for history, the last century is my default lens on the world.
My personal culture
My pop culture worldview is still partying like it’s 1999.
If not earlier! For example, when it comes to popular music, my tastes stop somewhere in the mid-80s, and I’m more drawn to composers and performers of the early and middle 20th century — the Gershwins, Cole Porter, Sinatra, the Big Bands, Rodgers & Hammerstein, etc. — than any other era.
And while current television dramas are generally superior to most of their predecessors, I’ll take yesterday’s classic sitcoms — “The Dick Van Dyke Show,” “MASH,” and yes, even “Hogan’s Heroes” — over “Two and Half Men” and other popular shows today. As for the big screen, I’ll gladly opt for a rich array of oldies, while passing on the dreck coming out of Hollywood now.
As far as my Chicago sports fandom goes, give me the 1985 Chicago Bears, the 1990s Chicago Bulls, the
1969 Cubs, the 1984 Cubs, the 1983 White Sox…okay, it’s a mixed bag.
In terms of technology, I’ll take DVDs over streaming, CDs over MP3 (closer call), real books over e-books (though I get the convenience & cost factor), and Word Perfect 5.1 for DOS over anything to do with Microsoft Word. I’m not that crazy about cellphones, and I don’t permit my students to use laptops in my classes. (In a big bow to the 21st century, I believe the iPad is one of the most brilliant devices ever made.)
And what of the bigger picture?
Centuries are marked by the turn of a calendar, but their essence is defined by core events. For me, the 20th century era — at least from an admittedly American perspective — began in 1903, when the Wright Brothers successfully flew their primitive airplane in the dunes near Kitty Hawk, North Carolina. It ended with the attacks of September 11, 2001. (Hmm, both events centered on the use of airplanes…)
When it comes to grasping history and current events, I see how we’re still strongly influenced by decisions and events of the last century. World diplomacy in 2014 has the scary look & feel of Europe in 1914, and the two world wars continue to shape international relations. And if you want a milestone year for understanding the path toward America’s present domestic and international political status, then take a close look at 1980: The election of Ronald Reagan and the Iranian hostage crisis captured the nation’s conservative turn and anticipated its post-Cold War preoccupation with the Middle East.
Somewhere a place for us
I happen to believe there’s still a place in this world for those of us whose outlook on things reaches back into the last century. If not, whatever. I’ll just pop that best-of-the-80s cassette back into my Walkman and try to get over it.