Friday, August 10, 2018

Of Peeling Paint and Retro Diners

"They say that these are not the best of times, but they're the only times I've ever known."
Billy Joel, "Summer, Highland Falls" (1976)

There is something appealing and quaint about a building dated by an old sign or advertisement that
is peeling away from the brick. The patchwork, the reminder that time has passed here has a melancholy comfort. If there is an old, but recognizable logo that prompts reminiscence the warmth and attachment to the place may multiply further. Picture an old gas station on a country road that has been bypassed by a divided highway and there are other feelings. We travel in time and we attribute simplicity, a slower pace, a better day forgotten in the modern rush. We acknowledge how our distracted gazes take us to the universes of frustration that we thumb through without restraint. The peeling paint invites us to pause and time travel for a moment.

Our inclination toward reminiscence is regularly exploited. I can think of occasions where carbonated beverages are clad in old livery and scripts to take us back. Perhaps it is done to recall a youth that was not clouded by the consciousness about calorie counts and the impact of high fructose corn syrup. Those throwback labels are occasionally degraded with the addition of a label announcing the use of cane sugar, the "instead of's" unmentioned.  I recall the same reach for the past done once with cigarette labels in the 90s.


I am not intent on portending pop following tobacco's fate among the disdained. Instead, I am conscious of the effort to repackage in this way and the effectiveness that it has. We see it in gentrified neighbourhoods that preserve century old peeling paint in the name evoking a certain cachet. It occurs with new restaurants that adorn themselves with the dated fixtures of the 1950's: naugahyde stools at the counter and in the booths, curved chrome and formica that assure you that the strawberries milkshakes are thick rather than tainted by antibiotics and the tall glasses they come in heavy and promising Verelux refractions that paper denies while we worry whether they are compostable or recyclable.

There is a sensual feel when those components of the past appear before us. Perhaps they numb us as they enchant. Does immersing ourselves in those details built or preserved from nostalgia suspend our judgement or our awareness of where and when we are?  Advertisers regularly evoke nostalgia to pull a heartstring to mute the ambiguities and simplify a purchase decision that might otherwise be suspended by awareness of second thoughts. My intent here is not to analyze nostalgia's use in marketing and advertising, however.

The main thing I want to draw attention to is  that nostalgia is often deployed rather than merely incidental. When it is deployed, such as it is in advertising, the trinket
of old is polished to an ideal that often surpasses the artifact it is paying tribute to. While it is a tribute or a reminder of a simpler time, it is isolated from that time it comes from as well. Such an object is familiar when it appears in our present context, but it nudges us toward sentimentality and away from reflection. We become emotional rather than aware, detached or preoccupied instead of engaged. When this greases the wheels to purchase a pop, or a pack of smokes, or to gravitate to a certain neighbourhood, the consequences of this are trifling.

However, if we become nostalgic, our awareness of the present becomes narrowed by a fondness for a bright and burnished version of the 'good old days.'

While these are exceptionally complex times and it is reasonable to attribute a rare bleakness to the current situation, the past was fraught with challenges that we tend to forget or, if we are too young to know, avoid Googling.

For all the shine and relief that some old item might bring us -- be it a '66 Corvette, stubby beer bottles, moon shots, or the various homogeneities and the privileges that came with them -- those times had their heartaches and still were not immune to the lure of a perfected, polished version of a more distant past. Nostalgia is also an insistence that perfection had once been attained and that our evolution ought to have stopped decades ago. Nothing could be further from the truth.

The baubles of nostalgia are not in themselves harmful, but the longing look to a past that was flawed tempts us to close ourselves off from the breadth of what we can or ought to experience and engage in presently. A longing for the past is the result of a skewed assessment of the present. Rather than looking to the past, we ought to survey the realities, opportunities and challenges of the present. Carefully looking at the present and responding to it, deploying the resources available now and engaging with the challenges that are at our fingertips will be far more productive and lasting than an initiative to blindly affix these polished, abstracted aspects of the past over this present.

If the times we are in are not making sense to us, it is on us to adapt and learn about the times we live in and the people we are surrounded by. Yes, there are universals that remain throughout time, but the most insistent of those universals are those identified as the core principles of wabi-sabi: nothing lasts, nothing is complete and nothing is perfect. Latching ourselves to an imperfect, bygone past is an assertion of narrow-mindedness, and a refusal or inability to adapt. Rejecting the entire current in favour of fragments of the past is a futile quest for control of one's situation rather than an expressed willingness to pause and reflect upon the present and ourselves. Slowing down to acknowledge the present and live in it will enlighten us and save us the energy we expend in trying to tame it or distance ourselves from its realities and its opportunities. The flags, values, privileges and trinkets that we may obsess ourselves with and build our lives around are fleeting and will ultimately disappear. We have to determine whether what is important to us and take the time to consider which of these things are of universal value, such as the love, friendship and support of the people closest to us and the purity of the food, water and mindset that sustain us and which are constructed out of something of lesser value and quality. Distinguishing clearly between those to is essential to ensuring that we live in the present and bring comfort and assurance to the people closest to us.

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