Things Past And Present


Before I launch into this post, one programing note (thanks for the idea MaryAnne), in my attempts to fix issues with my commenting system somewhere along the line everything from November 2008 until yesterday was gone. The IT department (Jim, stop chuckling as you read this) says it can fix this within the next several days, but in the mean time, please forgive me for not responding or if I haven't been at your blog recently. Also, the glitch has put me behind on a few planned posts, product reviews and awards. We will now return to our irregularly schedule program.

With the economy mired in recession, Christmas was a subdued affair in terms of gifts this year, which was more than fine. The kids didn’t seem to notice, and I still managed to surprise my wife with a purse she had casually mentioned to me during a trip to the mall. I was perfectly content with my gifts too. In a day when men are told their masculinity is in question should they not own a forty-six inch plasma TV and Sunday NFL Ticket in HD, my most coveted item was a hat. Yes, a hat. A newsboy hat to be exact and I was thrilled (and relieved) to unwrap the exact one I had been pestering my wife for during the weeks proceeding Christmas. Granted, it sounds a little mundane in comparison to say a Blue Ray DVD player, but I have my reasons.

If you’re not already familiar with them, newsboy hats were popular in America and the UK during the late 19th and early 20th Centuries. Early on they were worn primarily by the working class to include newsboys hocking papers on street corners, hence the name. Also known as flat caps, they eventually became all the rage with fashionable young men up through the 1920’s. Recently, celebrities such as Samuel L. Jackson and Brad Pitt, along with designers from the prominent fashion houses, and movies have incited a renewed demand for these caps. However, it’s not the current trendiness that stirs my affections for this simple accessory.


Understand, I have an affinity for the past, particularly the period spanning the 1900’s through the 1930’s, right about the time newsboy caps were in style. But vintage clothing isn’t the sole object of my borderline obsession; it’s actually everything from that age, architecture, personalities, social customs, pop culture, etc. Should we ever meet, you would witness this firsthand. I frequent antique stores to scour dusty shelves for relics like typewriters, musical instruments and toys that already dominate the d├ęcor of our home. I have an extensive CD library of early Jazz, but I consider it heaven to hear the works of King Oliver, Bix Beiderbecke, and Syndey Bechet from original celluloid records (vinyl wasn’t used until the 1940’s) as they belt out once popular tunes from the megaphone of my authentic hand-cranked Victrola. And I am enthralled by the localized histories, particularly around my hometown in Crawford County, Pennsylvania, scarffing up books, photos and any other miscellaneous scraps I can pour over.

I’m not sure where my longing comes from or even why I am drawn to this particular era. Maybe it’s because I view it as a time when life was relatively simple, while at the same time, offering the excitement from the ideas and discoveries that would eventually usher in the epoch of our modern world. Phones, radios, automobiles and airplanes emerged or matured during this spam shortening the distance between individuals and extending the reach of mass communication. However, with these new advances only in their infancy, people living during those days still retained an appreciation for a smaller, slower-paced world where they could almost tangibly see their place within it. Choices were fewer and there was less ambiguity in making them. If you wanted tomatoes, assuming you didn’t grow them yourself, then you would go to the market and purchase what you needed, most likely from someone you knew. Today supermarkets boast a variety of brands that can be either organically or commercially grown by God knows who, while running the risk of contracting salmonella because someone didn’t wash their hands properly. I suppose it’s the quaintness contained in these ideas that seem so attractive to me.


Choices were fewer and there was less ambiguity in making them.


It’s possible I’m blinded by the romantic idealism that backlights the emotions found in nostalgia. Archaic social beliefs, gender stereotyping and racial prejudices, were considered to be the norm in that period, many times resulting in tragic stories. And, to a lesser extent, it’s also easy to forget certain modern conveniences like air conditioning until it’s 98 degrees outside and while searching for the temperature controls you realize that the available options are restricted to either opening a window or fanning yourself. Even so, coming from the perspective of someone who is often frustrated by the nuances associated with the mercurial nature of modern technology, and easily overwhelmed by the oppressive volume of information that smothers me daily, those realities of the past are easy to contend with in my opinion. This week our cable provider switched everyone to digital boxes that are incompatible with our TiVo, and today the comments function on my blog erased all recent visitor remarks. Naturally, the ninety-some help pages suggested to read are a nightmare to sort through, prompting me to wonder why I need the aggravation. However, at the same time, my sentimentality for the past should not be misinterpreted either.


As alluring as the early 20th Century may be to me, it still doesn’t skew my outlook on the realities of the present and future. Cranking my Victrola, I don’t sigh aloud and seriously believe my world would be so much better if I only were to live back in the day. My fascination, rather, is simply a respect and a curiosity for a way of life that today, is frailly survived by the evidence it once existed. When I listen to Bix Beiderbecke’s coronet I try to imagine hearing his sound live at a smoke-hazed Chicago speakeasy (see below for a sample). Studying old photos of my hometown, I picture myself inserted somewhere within the frame, and should I discover another typewriter stuffed away in some junk boutique, I wonder what stories might have been punched from the keys. Like my hat, they are indulgences that provide me a measure of connection to a history that seems a bit more vibrant as I hold them in my hand or hear it in my ears. But there’s also a question these items trigger for me concerning how my children will view the past.

Will they want to know or even care about it outside of their school’s requirements? Speaking of which, I’m curious as to how history will be represented within the context of today’s tenets? With distractions like the internet and video games that keep their minds confined in the present, I sometimes speculate whether the past will be all but ignored by this and subsequent generations. Will kids value its relevance without the creative minds at Wii introducing versions of Grand Theft Auto where rival gangsters hijack shipments of smuggled whiskey during the Prohibition, or instead of Guitar Hero, players now operate a plastic saxophone to jam along to the old-timey tunes of Jazz legends? My faith in any of this happening is thin to say the least; as is the hope my three sons and two stepdaughters will develop an appreciation for our heritage on their own.


...whether we live our lives backwards or forwards, in the present or in the past, it’s all inconsequential...
As a parent I see this as being my responsibility, which I suppose, is another reason why I have become the antique nick-nacks version of the crazy cat lady. But dancing to the Victrola and explaining the stories behind old photographs with them has piqued their interest. That might not seem like much, but watching my boys excitedly sift through the dirt looking for rusted tools and glass bottles that mark the site of an old maple sugar shack located on my parents’ property over 100 years ago gives me some hope. I used to do the same thing at their age, however, there’s no expectation they will ultimately mirror my interests and hobbies. It will be enough to know at the very least they have developed some shard of appreciation for life in other eras coupled with another, slightly more important lesson.

My wife and I recently watched The Curious Case of Benjamin Button starring Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett. The movie is based on a short story by (Jazz Age writer) F. Scott Fitzgerald, and tells the tale of a man who lives his life in reverse being born an old man and dying as a baby. The two versions are vastly different in their details beyond the basic premise to include the time periods in which they occurred. The screen adaptation starts almost where the book trails off somewhere in the 1910’s, and ends some 70 years later, detailing the milestones set throughout the journey most men live, boyhood acceptance, discovering purpose, and of course, finding love. Sitting their absorbed in all the scenery depicting my cherished time period, I was suddenly struck with a thought. 

Pausing for a moment I realized that whether we live our lives backwards or forwards, in the present or in the past, it’s all inconsequential. In any of these cases, the same fundamental challenges and difficulties universally exist for us to deal with and grow from; thus, the only thing that really should matter is how we lived our lives in the current moment aided by the memory of our past experiences.

Maybe this isn’t quite an epiphany, but, to me it was a stirring reminder, and I left the theater turning it over in my mind eventually reflecting on how I demonstrated this precept to my children. When they’re grown, it’s unlikely they will frequent the antique stores of the future in a quest to find a laptop just like mine that they can decorate their home with. And after I’m dead and gone they might box up my record collection, or possibly even toss my beloved newsboy cap in a bag of old clothes for Goodwill, but if they remember the example I’ve tried to set, showing them how to lead better lives in the present by appreciating the importance of their pasts, then I’ll be able to rest in peace.




Photos From Top To Bottom: 1) George Clooney and Brad Pitt sporting newsboy caps or flat hats 2) King Oliver and his Dixieland Syncopators 3)The Meadville Markethouse in 1909 located in my hometown. My mother ("Mudder") still sells homemade quilts and mosaics there today 4) "Nipper" the dog, better known as The RCA Victor mascot 5) Movie Poster for The Curious Case of Benjamin Button 6) My son Noah posing in his newsboy cap before making a run to Canada for another load of Irish whiskey 

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...

Ads Section

Ads Section

  © Blogger templates Newspaper by Ourblogtemplates.com 2008

Back to TOP