For as long as I can remember, I’ve wished I had been alive in a different era. The fantasy to experience my life in another time period ignited with my obsession with American Girl books, historical fiction “chapter books” about young women of different eras. I enjoyed studying social and cultural history of 20th century America in school. My love for the past, a time I didn’t experience, was and still is mostly superficial. Cars and clothes and architecture of the past just look so much cooler, classier and more unique than the junk we get shipped from China.
When I began gobbling up early- to mid-century novels during high school, I was swept away to what I was convinced were better times. People spoke intelligently and ironed their pants and wrote passionate love letters, or so my beloved writers conveyed. I was born too late to have a fling with Fitzgerald or study under Salinger. It was the early 2000s and there was so much happening it seemed impossible to have an original thought — as an artist, writer, musician or just regular human. Maybe if I was born 50 years before, I thought, I might’ve had a chance at that.
I convinced myself I should have been born in the ’50s in order to fulfill all I should accomplish in a lifetime. I would be born to a tight-knit family in a cookie cutter community (not too different from my actual experience except, in my fantasy, my dad would always wear a suit and my mom would always cook pot roast). I’d spend my teens rebelling against said middle-class conformity just in time to be a free-loving hippie in the ’70s. By the ’80s I’d have given into commercial, monetary needs and gotten some job in New York, wearing shoulder-padded suits and trying to get into Studio 54. At the time when I was actually born, I’d have settled down, gotten married and maybe even had children. It would have been perfect, if I could just go back in time.
I actually thought this was something that would have been possible. Like I was in Forrest Gump or something. In reality, my own parents didn’t even follow my imaginary life plan and they actually lived through these decades. It’s just not the common experience to relate to every social trend mentioned in the Popular Culture chapter of a history textbook.
But I know I’m not alone in my inexplicable nostalgia. I hear the same song from others, mostly young, all the time. We pick these gems that are supposed to represent a time period and we run with them, perhaps without considering the downside. In my historical fantasy I didn’t think about segregation and how some of my friends wouldn’t be allowed to attend the same school as me — or worse — that I’d be raised with bigotry myself. Odds are more than likely that I’d have fewer opportunities as a young person and a woman than I do today. It wouldn’t be all typewriters and original Beatles albums. Perhaps it’s not so much nostalgia for a time I didn’t experience, but a time that didn’t actually exist.
Because we’re on the brink of a presidential election, we, as spectating Americans, are supposed to evaluate the past four years. And according to the two suits grabbing for our attention, we should feel one of two ways: They were a disaster or they were really not that bad considering the circumstances. And while I may have whimsical ideas about the time before I was born, I have a pretty decent grasp on reality. I can’t give into trivializing a great chunk of my adult life to make one politician look better than the other.
We live in a pretty amazing time. I can use this space to write freely and honestly and my only concern is menial digital backlash. If we want to learn something we type a question in a magic box and the biggest challenge is making sure you’re checking your facts.
I refuse to look back on these last four years as a series of failures and accomplishments by some man I’ve never met in my life. And I don’t think future history books will look back on this decade as the fall of America, either. My generation’s kids will probably just read about iPods, reality shows, skinny jeans and other “vintage” things to obsess over.
CONTACT JAC KERN: [email protected] or @jackern