By Rachel del Valle | The other day I was shopping online for an iPhone cover. As I lazily flipped through the seemingly infinite designs, I noticed a trend. Almost every website I visited had a tab for “vintage” or “retro” styles. There was an accessory with a dock and receiver to turn an iPhone into a rotary phone. For those with a soft spot for shoulder pads, there was a case to transform your phone into an antenna-wearing clunker, like a prop from a John Hughes movie.
The marketing of the past is nothing new, but I found it amusing considering what I was shopping for. It’s a funny paradox: You can encase your iPhone, the icon of 21st century innovation, with something old-fashioned and romantic, like an image of a transistor radio. Or something old-fashioned and silly, like a can of Spam. You can even go for old-fashioned and subtle, and opt for wood paneling, à la the Brady Bunch house.
The way my generation clings to the past, I wonder if we’ll ever give in to the cold, sleek, futuristic aesthetic promised by movies like Gattaca and 2001: A Space Odyssey. You know, smooth furniture, glass houses, skin-tight body suits. Maybe that’s what we’re avoiding, subconsciously at least. I don’t want to psychoanalyze an entire generation. That would be presumptuous. But, well, I guess I’m going to anyway. Perhaps our appetite for nostalgia—the force driving the comeback of high-waisted silhouettes, vinyl LPs, and period television shows—is a way of slowing down how quickly life seems to be imitating science-fiction. Sure, The Jetsons is cool, but no one wants to reach the bleakness of Blade Runner. Technology moves so fast now. It seems like the only way to slow that down is by accessorizing it with something old, and somehow more human.
Ten years ago, I couldn’t have imagined that I’d be typing on a svelte, white, five-pound laptop that allows me to video-chat globally, store my entire music collection, watch movies instantly, transfer money, order lunch, buy a sailboat, and waste hours and hours looking at web memes that will be unfunny in a week. I still can’t quite accept that the tablet computers medics used on Star Trek are an actual thing. That people use. On a daily basis. What’s next, replicators? Teleporters? Will I actually hear people say “Beam me up, Scottie” in my lifetime? I don’t know if I can handle that.
Which is why this generational inability to fully embrace the look of our own moment isn’t something I find troublesome. Actually, I have to admit that I really like it. My fifth-grade teacher told me that I was an old woman in a little girl’s body. I’m 19 now, but I still haven’t outgrown the sense that I was born in the wrong era. At least this way—by accenting modernity with bygone influences—I can live in 2012 but have a mid-century modern dorm room, 1970s style icons, and maybe veer into 1980s excess on the weekend. Sometimes, I watch reruns of Beverly Hills 90210 just so I can feel pangs of sadness for the decline of mall hair.
But more often than not, I feel the most nostalgia for things I’ve never even lived through. But is my affinity for swing music and Charlie Chaplin movies really nostalgia? Or is it just denial—denial, as Woody Allen once had a pseudo-intellectual character say, of a painful present?
That would make more sense if the present were actually painful. But this is the early 2000s! We have cell phones with tiny concierges in them! We have cars that run on electricity! We have gluten-free muffins and meatless chicken nuggets!
People will surely romanticize our era in the same way we look back on the 1960s with rose-tinted Buddy Holly glasses.
Lately I’ve been thinking that all my yearning for a past I’ve never even experienced could be blocking me from savoring the present. It sounds self-helpish, I know. Maybe 20 years from now, I’ll regret my reluctance to download Angry Birds or wear those weird eyeglasses that turn into sunglasses in the light of day. I mean, probably not, but who knows? The future is uncertain.
But I wonder if anyone ever really appreciates the nuances of the moment they’re living in. It’s strange to look at a bottle of Coke, or a computer, or an armchair and think, People will find that charmingly dated one day. But they will. Everything takes on a certain charm in old age. Just wait until floppy disks develop a cult following. It’s coming. I guarantee it.
Who’s to say that if I’d lived in the 1960s—which tops my fantasy time-machine list—I wouldn’t feel the same sense of generational envy and ennui that I have now. I can see myself as a Baby Boomer, sighing over the closure of the Stork Club, the disappearance of the finger wave, and the death of Dorothy Parker. Meanwhile, I’d be totally unable to grasp the importance of Gloria Steinem, In Cold Blood, shift dresses, Robert F. Kennedy, and Simon and Garfunkel. The Summer of Love would just be another summer, the Beatles a passing trend.
Does anyone ever really know when they’re living in interesting times?
Maybe I—along with others in my generation who gravitate towards mint-green kitchen appliances and Technicolor films—am just restless. Maybe I wouldn’t be truly content in any decade because the imagined allure of years still further past would always tug on my sleeve, pulling me back. I even hesitate to call this feeling nostalgia, because the word implies some sort of connection— emotionally, experientially—to a thing or place or idea. I think my identification with the past is too vague. It’s a sort of collage constructed from films and coffee table books and glamorous anecdotes told by the over-50 crowd at dinner parties.
It’s not really nostalgia, it’s more a notion of what I think that sensation would feel like.
Because, when I think about it, do I honestly want to go back to a time when my gender would limit my career options? Would I really be able to put up with all that chain-smoking? I don’t think a girdle would suit my figure well.
I’m probably better off where I am, at the beginning of a century, able to look back on the one that came before and choose things I like and make them a part of my life. I can wear patent leather heels, but don’t have to match them to my purse. I can send a postcard, and seconds later send someone an email, telling them to expect my postcard. I can appreciate the look and feel of a typewriter, but be grateful that I don’t actually have to go through reams of paper just to write a first draft. I can admire the way people used to wear dresses and suits to travel, and at the same time embrace the practical comfort of leggings on a long trip without reproach from fellow travelers. I love all things old-fashioned, but that’s probably because I love them from a long remove. If I’m honest with myself, my relationship with the past is really just an aesthetic thing, something that’s purely about the surface.
You know, like an iPhone cover.
Rachel Del Valle is a rising senior in the College.