“Plink… plink… plink.. plink.. plink plink plink plink.” It’s early Sunday and a few fellow teachers and I are sitting outside a tiny patisserie in the heart of old Dali. I’m gratuitously devouring the second half of an enormous corned beef sandwich on French bread pasted with garlic artichoke dip and melted mozzarella. I pause to take sips of ginger lemonade. It’s a casual, lazy morning. Much of the town is shrouded in a post-Saturday hungover glaze. This fleeting moment of good food and relaxation is an invaluable respite to the weekly isolation that accompanies my job.
And then it starts hailing. Softly at first with gradually steepening intensity. Instinct one is protect the food. Instinct two is confusion. We sit, frozen in a delightful confusion, until the proprietress frantically screams at us in Chinese that it’s hailing. We immediately gather our things and hurry inside, as if we were simply waiting for her confirmation of hail to react. There’s space enough for exactly one table and a few chairs inside. I finish my sandwich as the “plink plink plink” softly bounces off my eardrums. It’s a surreal moment of simplistic beauty. The rare combination of awe and comfort.
It seems ridiculous, maybe even absurd to glorify something so minimal. It isn’t. It’s become almost a task to find enjoyment in simplicity. In fact, we concede a great deal of energy to simplicity avoidance. The bar for enjoyment has been placed at infinity. Today, it is nearly impossible to enjoy something to its full investment. Novelty fades, not because the current has necessarily lost its luster, but because there is something that might be better so easily accessible. This process has been in motion for hundreds of years. We’ve been inventing ways to occupy our minds. If we could, and we will, we’d make it possible to choose our own dreams, choose what we do within our dreams, and choose to move on to the next activity. Our contracting attention spans have made it nearly impossible to appreciate things that our ancestors found mind-blowing.
The other day I re-watched “Into the Wild.” It’s a superb movie, perfect characters, fantastic dialogue. What struck me this time was the simple fact that the film was set in the 1990s. We’re reminded of this the few times the date flashes on the screen. It’s almost impossible to tell. Nothing about the scenery definitively says “1990s.” Then the date pops up, and you’re reminded of absence. The absence of the internet, smart phones, GPS. What happens next is strange: I begin to feel nostalgic for the ‘90s. I begin to feel nostalgic for an era in which I made very few memories. Yes, I was alive throughout the entire decade, but I don’t think of myself as someone from the ‘90s. I picture myself in front of a MacBook with an iPhone in my pocket.
This faux-nostalgia for the 1990s is pervasive in my generation. We’ve been caught in the middle of a monumental societal paradigm shift. We went from 40 to 100 mph in 15 years. We had just enough of a glimpse of pre-information age life, that our ephemeral memory of it is somewhere, somehow, subliminally overpowering. In 1998, if you wanted to take a book out of the library, you sifted through a card catalogue. In 1998, if you wanted to watch a movie, you went to Blockbuster (RIP). If you were lost, you had to go to the gas station. I wonder if a ten year old, born in 2003, has any concept of that life. I really yearn for this simplicity. Does having the entire spectrum of knowledge, entertainment, and sociality a few keystrokes away make my life more fulfilling?
I think of the guy in 1915 that didn’t have a telephone. Like the no-email address holdouts of today, did he feel overwhelmed by his newfound connectivity? Did he lose his friends? Was he so nostalgic for the 1890s that he simply couldn’t handle it? That guy has been completely obsoleted and so too will the email abstainers be soon enough. Despite the nostalgia for a “simple life” and the fear of a new, altered version of reality, it seems that no one can overcome, or reverse, the speed of change.
In most parts of the first world, it’s very easy to forget that a massive chunk of the global population still lives the simple life. Yes, cell towers rise above the hilltops and I’ve got a wireless router two rooms down the hall, but those are more signs of what is to come than the day-to-day reality. Days go by with zero text messages. I haven’t watched TV in six months. When the power goes out, and it does rather often, it has almost no realizable effect on anyone’s day. The idea that you need these things is utterly false. The paradigm isn’t even that you need these things to be happy, but that you just need them. It’s kind of like a dope user. First, he shoots up for the rush, then he shoots up because if he doesn’t, he’ll be deathly ill. That’s how the information age has crept up on us and pervaded our minds. Smartphones were so cool, so fun. Now, every time your pocket buzzes, each second that goes by pre-reading of the message is agony in its realest form. Fear of what is being missed has become a phenomenon experienced by the millisecond.
I don’t seek to write some grand Thoreauean manifesto where I instruct you to drop everything and set up your tent in the woods. I think modernity is really awesome. For example, I wish my room had heat and that the second from left toe on my right foot hadn’t contracted mild frostbite. What I think is dangerous, though, is when people convince themselves, knowingly or not, that modernity is inescapable. That’s like, so totally not true. This line of thinking essentially serves to destroy the here and now. Being in a moment is a powerful thing. It allows you to process things that might not seem important, but in reality, are infinitely more important than getting that next level on Candy Crush.
I think we are nostalgic for the 1990s because we are nostalgic for reality. Sure, everything is “reality,” but I’m talking about REAL reality, when the actions you take are motivated by more than a desire to escape some bullshit repackaged 21st century concept of loneliness or boredom. We are nostalgic for “back then” because we want our interactions and our enjoyment to be more meaningful. We want to know what it feels like to really talk to someone. We want to listen to a CD and be overwhelmed with joy when, after waiting through 12 other songs, our favorite track comes on. We can’t stand the fact that everything we could ever want is so close because it diminishes importance, it diminishes romanticism. If you give me a Snickers bar once a month, Snickers will be my favorite food. If you give me a Snickers once every hour, I’ll learn to hate the colors brown, blue, and white.
As I listened to the hail plink off the concrete, as I devoured my monthly corned beef sandwich, as I laughed with my friends how absurd everything is, as I enjoyed the warmth of the bakery and smelled the fresh bread in the oven I think I stopped for a split second and realized that all five of my sense were on full blast. Ferris Bueller imparted his indelible wisdom in 1985: “Life moves pretty fast, if you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you might miss it.” (1985!!) Think about that next time you go to check the score and think about it next time you refresh your newsfeed. Think about what really matters. Don’t let life escape you.