The Nostalgia Offset
I had a bad day yesterday. Emotionally, I mean. New Years is always a rough time for me. It’s the anniversary of beginning my transition, amongst other things, so for me the usual new-year ennui gets magnified into, sometimes, full-blown despair. Yesterday was that. When I get like that, I can tell myself a thousand times that things aren’t that bad (and they aren’t) but I still need to find a balm until it passes.
That balm is usually nostalgia. So I engaged in numerous forms of it last night. Now, I’m… Generation Modem. On the cusp of Gen X and Millennial, and yet not quite either. So for me, my nostalgia salve was these: An old-style video game I love. A ’90s low-budget film about feelings. A playlist of ’90s music. Listening to a pile of ’90s .mod, .s3m, .xm and other tracker files.
As I bathed in these and began to feel a little bit better. Then as I watched “Singles”, Cameron Crowe’s sophomore and one of many little ’90s films about Feelings I hadn’t seen before, and “Slacker”, a film I know I love… I had a funny realisation.
Nostalgia, for me (and I’d imagine for many others) is often about things I directly experienced. It’s about things I almost experienced – things I saw and dreamed about back when I was in my formative years. So while I can be nostalgic for things I loved back then, I am also likely to be nostalgic for things media or simply older friends seemed to be experiencing, that I did not.
I was 9 in 1991. I was never in Austin, Texas. I was never part of early-’90s slacker culture. I never went to an American college in the ’90s. I was never part of the mid-’90s big-beat/underground rave culture in the UK. I never worked in a record store with a bunch of alternative music nerds in Delaware. I never worked as a short-order cook who accidentally murdered someone in the bottom of a dingy bar in Melbourne.
I was certainly never a witch in a coven of witches in LA. I never worked with a weird alternative girl to overthrow a Stepford-Wives esque culture of Good Kids controlled by chips in their head.
By the late ’90s, in my late teens, what I was doing was going to LAN parties. I was hanging out after school sitting on half-height walls eating ice creams while the sun tried to kill us and cicadas chirped so loud it was almost painful to be outside. I was hanging out in a female friend’s room listening to random alternative music while she spoked pot, hoping she’d kiss me. (She never did, though I saw her years later on a dating app – she is queer. Takes one to know one.)
So growing up amongst stoners and wannabe-punks in sun-scorched mid-’90s Sydney suburbs wasn’t much like anything I saw in movies. We were a bit younger. Less American. Less British. Apart from some similarities, such as hanging out at malls and, our lives didn’t seem the same. Of course, these movies are far from realistic – but even then, these films depicted people maybe 8-10 years older than us. The young adults we aspired to be. Whose lives I wanted to have.
I wanted to be the long-haired nerdy girl who had a goth phase. (So I guess some things DO come to pass?)
By the time I got to my mid-’20s, it was the early 2000s.
The video game arcades that were mythologised in films – the ones I hung out in as a pre-teen, were gone. I would never get to be the older Cool Kid who could beat every game.
’90s grunge culture? I’d missed that. By the time I got to Seattle and drove around in the rain in the places Nirvana lived and first played, it was a shadow – an idea of something long gone.
Even the big beat and techno scene was dying. I would never go to underground rave gigs like the ones The Prodigy was spawned in.
So I am stuck with nostalgia for two time periods – the one I actually became an adult in – the era of ’90s bulletin boards, early internet chat, LAN parties, and managing Quake servers on Slackware Linux boxes…
…and the other, a nostalgia for a life just a bit before my time. The kind of life I wanted to have, back when I was too young to have it – and too young to realise the degree to which media like put rose-coloured glasses over everything.
I don’t think this is uncommon. I think a lot of us mythologise the life we saw in the youth movies, books or comics of our childhood. Sometimes despite it not representing what our life was ever even capable of being. These were mostly beautiful, straight, white American people living out angsty but beautiful lives on screen for our entertainment.
So sometimes, I get nostalgia for my own early-’20s life. Others, for the fictional early-’90s Gen X life I never had. But when I’m feeling happier? I’m glad for what I have now. A life that’s queerer than I could have supposed – or dared to hope.