Why the GOOD TIMES feel so good to us now
Roger Cohen NYT
Tuesday, September 7, 2004
In the good times before cappuccino and sushi and rucola went global, in the good times before everything began to look the same, in the good times before adventure became a sport, in the good times when the Paris Metro smelled of Gauloises and garlic and the warehouses of London and New York had not yet been converted to lofts, in the good times before seat belts that beep when not fastened, in the good times when soccer clubs were not yet corporations and spies really did come in from the cold, in the good times before speed cameras and e-mail and overheard cellphone conversations on the train ("Honey, I'm on the train"), in the good times when enemies were not stateless, in those good times, long ago, I vowed never to become a curmudgeon waxing lyrical about the past.
In the good times before airports became shopping malls and before the Googling of everything, in the good times before branding and power breakfasts and break-out sessions and thinking-out-of-the-box, in the good times of telexes and typewriters and three-martini lunches, in the good times of ideological battles and bruising debate, in the good times when every second person was not a hero and every third person was not a victim and every fourth word was not "stress" ,in the good times before spin doctors and channel-surfing and on-line everything, in the good times of the hippie trail and before the war on terror, in those times, way back when, I would not have thought there could be so many billionaires in Moscow.
Those were good times, before nurturing replaced punishment, before the gentrification of the Bastille and Brixton and Brooklyn, before beach volleyball was an Olympic sport, before stock options and stock answers and stock-tickers everywhere, before the relentless pursuit of cool, before celebrity chefs and fusion cooking, before you could get an espresso in Edina or a mango in Minneapolis. Good times they were, when a Thai meal seemed exotic and cholesterol a curiosity.
I know those were good times: Men landed on the moon and snow settled for weeks in London and mysteries were manifold and young people actually dreamed of a perfectible mankind.
In the good times, when things were in black-and-white, imbued with the gravity of a two-tone world, and Willy Brandt went down on his knees, and Brando made us tremble and Fellini fashioned fantasies of lyrical love and John F. Kennedy said he was a Berliner and Kreuzberg was the edge of the known world, in the times when Tom Wolfe took the bus and survival was not a TV series but an existential struggle, and places were more often rancid and foul and fly-ridden, and it was easy to be out of contact, in those times it often seemed that things would always be that way.
Aaah, yes, the good times, when things were not "weird" but strange, and sometimes they really were, before Jimi died and Janis and Jim and Jerry and Kurt, and John of course got shot dead, before the "Best of" albums and the compendiums and the marketing of tenors, before airbags and side-impact protection systems and Humvees, in those disconnected days before Blackberries and voicemail hell and please-leave-a-message-after-the-beep, in the times when the Free World battled the Evil Empire and there was Eurocommunism and Timothy Leary, in those times, before AIDS and the euro and Sharon's wall, times that were certainly different, I did not imagine that democracy and the free market would prove so persuasive.
In the good times, when Dylan eyed farmers' daughters and Lou serenaded "Sweet Jane" and the late Jim got his fire lit, Baby, and not quite enough was known to feel the smallness of the world or the way it grows smaller, in those times, when people had not yet discovered or did not yet care that there is only one most efficient way of doing things, in the bygone era of Japanese ascension and the all-powerful deutsche mark, when New Zealand was not yet known as the set for "The Lord of the Rings," and caudillos did the bidding of the United States in Latin America, and the world was divided among cold-war surrogates, in those good times, it did not enter my head that some jihadist loony might one day seek to blow up Cleveland if he could only procure the wherewithal.
Believe me, please, those were good times, of outings and treats and children unspoiled, of loveless marriages that lasted, of bashfulness and complexes, when a Frenchman walked a high wire between the Twin Towers and a German teenager landed on Red Square, before Times Square lost its tawdry soul and downtowns got prettified, before personal trainers and Pilates and Harry Potter, before sex in the city made TV, before teenagers said "totally" and "like" just to say something, when there were communes in Copenhagen and Kibbutzim galore, and you could even smoke in a New York bar, before New Labor and the Neocons and the Nouveaux Philosophes, not to mention the Bush Dynasty and China rising, in those times, when Schwarznegger was a Terminator and no governor, before the World Wide Web and the rise of religious fundamentalism, I never thought about the attractions of the past.
Now I do and, in truth, reviewing the good times, setting out their many facets, I am not sure they were better or even that they were really that good.
After all, we live longer now; and I have not mentioned iPods or eBay or Viagra or spellcheck or the ease of calling China or communism-reduced-to-kitsch or, for that matter, the salads at McDonalds.
But if the good times were that illusory, if recalling them is no more than a foible of middle age, how come they feel so good? I'll tell you why: Give or take a nasty interlude, things are always about the same, progress notwithstanding. Because that thought is unbearable, the past begins to glow.
Roger Cohen can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org