Afterthoughts: Rear View Mirror

Objects of the past may be closer than they appear.

For this month’s anniversary issue, I assembled a photo essay on old Hawaii yearbooks. The exercise of flipping through dozens of yearbooks put me in a nostalgic mood—all those hairstyles, pep rallies, awkward poses. It’s ironic, since it was in high school that I swore that I was never, ever going to become nostalgic. Yeah, I know, gag. It was an over-earnest, unrealistic declaration, but hey, over-earnest and unrealistic is what teenagers do best.

My theory, at the time, was that nostalgia was how you got old. Once you stopped being excited by new ideas and culture, and started daydreaming about the good old days, it was all over for you. Old. My credo was going to be, “everything is getting better, not worse.”
More than a decade later, I still think things are getting better, but, man, has it been getting easier to gaze backwards.

Take, for example, this month’s cover story. Writer Lavonne Leong drops readers into the Honolulu of 1888, bringing to life the sights and sounds of a slower time. The whole essay is a great read, but I found myself particularly moved by Leong’s description of the way the entire city would go quiet after the twice-monthly mail ship arrived in port, as everyone stopped for an hour or two to read long-awaited letters from across the ocean. What a romantic thought. How great would it be to kick back on the lanai with a glass of iced tea and a hand-written letter from someone special, I thought, looking at my ever-expanding email inbox.

illustration: daniel fishel

And it’s weird, because, while I’m just old enough to have exchanged a few meaningful letters before email became ubiquitous, my best, deepest correspondences have been typed into a web browser. And now that email is being supplanted by even more bite-size social networks like Facebook and Twitter, I’m just as happy. Every day I’m bombarded with little pieces of news from people I love.

Friends fill my phone’s Instagram feed with pics of their everyday life—beach adventures, lunch finds, self-portraits, kitty cats. Even my mom has gone portable—instead of calling or emailing me, she likes to text me in the morning with photos of the sunrise out her front door, accompanied by little text hearts. I <3 you too, Mom!

And yet, suddenly, I want to write out a longhand missive to someone, buy a stamp, drop the envelope into a mailbox and then wait a week or two for a response. I’m starting to think that nostalgia is hardwired into the human psyche. Why else would we hold outdated technologies so dear?

Did you know that almost 4 million vinyl LPs were sold in 2011, a number that’s quadrupled since 2007, and is expected to jump another 16.3 percent this year? We live in an age in which it’s possible to instantly stream any song you can think of from the cloud for free, and people are still dragging needles through vinyl grooves, and getting up from their chairs halfway through the album to flip the disc.

I’ve got a few friends who play locally in bands, and, one by one, they’ve been releasing albums on vinyl LPs as well as on cassette tapes. OK, so records have plenty of aesthetic and audiophile appeal, even if they’re old technology, but let’s all just admit this: Tapes have no redeeming qualities. Finding your favorite song is a hassle, the magnetic tape gets snarled, the sound quality degrades. And yet… 

Even the newest technologies are susceptible to fits of nostalgia. The community of Instagram, ostensibly a photo sharing service designed to “allow you to experience moments in your friends’ lives through pictures as they happen,” has organically developed a tradition called Throwback Thursdays (#TBT if you’re hash-tagging), wherein users post all their favorite old photos. Checking your feed on a Thursday morning? Hope you’re ready for a flurry of small-kid-time pics.

I used to scoff at #TBT enthusiasts as missing the point. But I’m starting to concede the appeal of the concept. After all, look who’s putting together old yearbook photo essays.