With every generation comes to pass a new wave of nostalgic leanings, particularly about one’s childhood. My father, born in 1947 in rural East Tennessee in the house his father personally built, will tell about the days before they had running water and electricity, about being made to “cut his own switch” before being whipped with it, and about the time he accidentally almost killed his cousin by hitting him in the head with a rather large rock on the way home from school. He says all of these things in the same wistful manner, smile on face and tear in eye. It’s terrifying. My mother, born in 1953 just outside of Dallas, spent a semi-nomadic childhood moving all across the dry expanses of Texas and Oklahoma. Riddled with Adult ADD, my mother usually tells stories the way a spider might weave a web if it were abusing crystal meth. However, when speaking about her childhood, her voice drops to a peaceful, even tone and she’s able to complete whole sentences without becoming distracted and changing her own subject. She tells rich, invoking tales about the farm house with the windmill and how she and my Aunt Vicky would wash their hair outside under the spigot when the wind was up, the water always freezing. She also breaks into a feverish account of how she still gets nauseated if made to listen to bluegrass music in a car on a Saturday because my grandfather would force everyone, every Saturday, into the old family jalopy and drive in the sweltering Texas heat to swap meets, pre-air conditioning, pre-headphones and personal electronics of any kind. After being married to my mother for over 30 years, my father still thinks it’s hilarious to take her for a nice Saturday trip to Wal-Mart, put on some bluegrass, and try to convince her its Sunday just to see how long it takes before she hits him. Overall, they’re nostalgic about the places they lived, the people they knew, and actual visceral reminders from the physical world around them.
My nostalgia, on the other hand, is based almost entirely around bawdy neon pop-culture trash. Like my father, I grew up on a farm. In fact, my childhood farm is only about 10 miles from his. My formative years were steeped in cattle and tractors and acres of blackberries, and I appreciate the hell out of their presence. However, there were also the rising flood waters of the information age seeping then eventually pouring through every electrical outlet in our home. The year I was born, Madonna shocked everyone with basic cable by writhing around in a wedding dress singing “Like A Virgin” at the first annual MTV Video Music Awards. The year I entered Kindergarten was the year my brothers and I received the gem of our childhood: an NES game console that came with two controllers, the Nintendo Zapper Light Gun, Super Mario Brothers, and Duck Hunt. And so it began. Mention lemonade stands and I yawn. Mention Girl Scouts and I feel a slight fondness. Mention slap bracelets, Popples, or Paula Abdul’s “Opposites Attract” video wherein she dances with a cartoon cat, and I become giddy. For some reason, few other facts from my childhood make me feel as excitable or genuinely young again as a pop culture reference from the late 80s or early 90s. I think I was engineered this way. So much about my generation’s childhood seemed shiny, new, and innovative. We were the first generation that experienced computers as a main stay of curriculum from the early years of elementary school through to present day. The constant interactive media surrounding us this decade is present because we’re now the ones in charge of mass communication. We like everything instant and fast and hot. We’ve become the entitlement generation, the generation with no understanding of why anyone would possibly want to delay gratification. Why, when you can have it now?
I’m not judging us. We are what we are, and I dare say it isn’t our fault. After all, we didn’t market cartoons with complete merchandise lines to ourselves. And the cheap, plastic quality of my nostalgia doesn’t make it a less legitimate emotion than what my parents experience. It does, however, lead us into a new age of nostalgia, wherein even the simple cravings from our past must be instantly satiated. My mother once stopped in her tracks at the flea market, head held high, eyes darting back and forth. I asked her what was wrong and she dropped back to reality saying, “Nothing. The smell of those pork rinds cooking reminded me of when my grandfather would slaughter hogs in the winter.” She went on about her excursion, looking strangely sad.
However, when I recall something from my childhood, it’s a quick and violent excitement that usually involves everyone in my immediate vicinity. “Do you remember Legends of the Hidden Temple?” I ask to anyone listening. And if someone my age is around, I usually receive an equally animated reply. I find that unlike my parents, my generation seems to have a need for affirmation of our memories. I like the idea that someone is cataloguing the things I enjoyed. I like it because it means that if I remember something and want to know more about it, then chances are someone else has too. And being the people we are that get what we want, that something must be made easier to grasp and explore than the faint scent of dead swine.
Enter the internet, with its limitless access to actual facts and unsolicited opinions alike. Can’t remember the lyrics to the Reading Rainbow theme song? Hop on YouTube and chances are you’ll find the video for the intro in a matter of seconds, as well as a few fresh remixes that someone (apparently) found necessary to make. Trying to remember where that child actor from your favorite movie wound up? Go to IMDB and search for him. You’ll find his entire acting career and full cast lists for every movie and TV show he went on to star in with poor to mediocre success before discovering Buddhism or cocaine. This is not merely how we process our nostalgia, but how we seek information on any topic. I say to my older coworkers no less than four times daily, “Google it!” in reference to just about any question they ask out loud. This is because my first instinct when I don’t know something is to look it up. And that is because my college career began at the same time that wireless routers became a mainstay of every major campus in America. You can Google something faster than you can ask another person. My coworkers, on the other hand, associate looking something up with heavy, dust laden encyclopedia volumes, making human communication seem far less painstaking. And while I am still refusing to judge us, our instant gratification approach does engage us with the rest of the world in a different way. New social devices introduce new social faux pas and new limitless potential for unabashed awkwardness. These things we do—reading the Wikipedia entry to find out who Alfonse D’Amato was or Googling a new chicken casserole recipe—do not feel weird. They make us feel satisfied, educated, and completely within the bounds of social etiquette. No one would ever call that weird. However, it was in fact quite weird when I Googled Cassie’s brother.
Cassie’s a very cool girl I met at a craft party that was actually an excuse to hang out, get drunk, and cover various objects in bold red glitter. Sitting around our friend Dale’s living room amid a flurry of construction paper and butchered magazines from the 1960s, it slipped out in conversation that Cassie’s brother was in the early 90s’ boy group Color Me Badd. “Are you serious?!” I said. I was so excited I almost dropped my glue stick into my mimosa. “Which one was he?!”
“The tall white guy with the big forehead,” said Cassie, “the one who looks kind of like me.”
“No way! That’s amazing! When I was in second grade, I totally got in trouble for singing ‘I Wanna Sex You Up’ in class!”
“Wow,” said Cassie. “That’s the first story like that I’ve ever heard.”
A while later, after everyone had given up plucking out singular glitter flakes floating in their wine glasses, a girl named Jen showed up late. I had never met her, but she sat by me and I shared my rubber cement. Jen was present at the party for a total of 20 minutes before another joke was made about Cassie’s family ties with fame. As the room laughed, I noted Jen’s confusion and filled her in on what she had missed. “Are you serious?!” Jen called out. “Which one was he?!”
And this time, because I was listening instead of talking, I noticed the scathing, rehearsed politeness in Cassie’s voice when she said, “The tall white guy with the big forehead, the one who looks kind of like me.”
I went home that night and immediately typed “Color Me Badd” into the Google toolbar on my browser. Then I clicked on “Images.” I just wanted to see which one he was. I could only remember the one with the long hair considering I was seven years old when they had their 15 minutes. The page full of group shots and albums covers revealed him to me—Cassie’s brother was the tall white guy with a big forehead. And long hair. He’s the one I remembered. All these years, every time I’ve thought of Color Me Badd for whatever strange reason, the picture that came into my head was this girl’s brother. The guy from Color Me Badd used to play pranks on her. The guy from Color Me Badd hid and/or mutilated her Barbies. The guy from Color Me Badd threatened to kick her prom date’s ass after he dumped her for a cheerleader. It baffled me to think that anyone whose picture was in Tiger Beat actually has a past like other human beings. Now in an excited frenzy, I kept clicking on pictures until I came across one of him in present day. The picture was small, but it was him, now with very short hair, a white suit, and a gorgeous woman in a white dress on his arm. I clicked on it, and it took me to some random blog that looks like its author thinks it to be very important.
The article was about how Color Me Badd’s Sam Watters—former boy band star turned big shot producer—married the beautiful and talented Tamyra Gray, an American Idol season one finalist. The blog’s author wrote this entire article about these people he doesn’t know and he can’t get over how bizarre it is that these two people married each other. And that’s when I felt weird. A lot of people know about his marriage and are very outspoken and vocal with their opinions about his marriage. Meanwhile, he doesn’t know any of them. I barely know Cassie, and I certainly don’t know her brother any more than she knows any of my three brothers. However, she’s not in any danger of reading about my brothers’ nuptials on the internet, nor strangers’ opinions about the topic. I felt like I knew too much about this man whom until this moment I had never honestly thought of as a real person. I closed the page and went outside to hang out on my balcony where the internet doesn’t reach.
A week later, I ran into Cassie and the craft party drunk girls at Toot’s, my favorite redneck karaoke dive. It’s a tiny place, and she was standing by one of the tall tables, which is actually also considered standing by the bar, which can also actually be considered standing near the Party Light—a red neon sign that simply spells out the word “Party.” Cassie and I talked and after a few minutes of typical chatting, the guilt started welling up inside my little Schlitz-filled belly. Drunk, all I could think of was her brother’s forehead and how pretty his wife looked in that dress. I blurted out over the blaring Hank Williams music, “Cassie, I have a confession!”
“Um, what?” she asked.
I cringed and stared down at my beer, unable to look her in the eye. “I Googled your brother.”
“Oh,” she said. “Wow.”
“Yeah. I’m really, really sorry. I feel really weird about it. I went home, and I looked him up. I just wanted to see which one he was, you know? And there he was with his wife and this guy called it bizarre and I didn’t feel weird until I saw the wedding pictures, and then I thought, ‘Cassie would never seek out pictures of my brother’s wedding, so why am I looking at these?’ I don’t know man, I just felt weird. I feel weird. So weird, that I just told you about it when really I could have gone on without ever telling you. Also, I’m drunk.”
Cassie stared at me without blinking. Somewhere in there, another craft party drunk girl had walked up and caught the flushed, awkward tail end of my apology. “What are you guys talking about?” she asked.
“Well,” said Cassie, “Mickayla Googled my brother Sam.”
The Drunk laughed and grabbed my arm. Then she kept laughing, leaning against the tall table. Great, I thought. I looked around for a sharp object, anything I could use to make a scene to get me out of this. Cassie shifted her feet and honestly looked like she might try clicking her heels to get away. The Drunk caught her breath and looked up at us winded and bleary. “That’s awesome.” She said. “I totally Googled him too.” I wanted to squeal and then laugh with her, to grab her hands and spin in circles, knocking over all the tables, singing “All 4 Love” and thanking her for making me feel normal. But, I also saw Cassie’s face as she turned her Yuengling upside down to chug the weirdness away and I realized that there was no normalcy to be found here. So, I regrouped and decided to try sincerity.
“I really am sorry,” I said. “And I do feel weird. But that was a beautiful dress she was wearing.”
Cassie smiled. “The wedding was gorgeous,” she said. “That picture you saw is the only one that we let anyone have. No one in our family even realized we’d be expected to do a press release or anything. We didn’t know it was a big deal.” And after a few minutes of venting, Cassie loosened up and started talking about her big brother the way she wanted to: as a brother instead of a former teen idol. And if some drunk from the bar leaned over a few inches to listen, he would have heard our conversation as something not much different than it was, something old and familiar: girls, giggling and talking about weddings and dresses, just like they did in the old days.