If you were to ask me right now “what’s shaking,” I’d have to say “my laptop.” The lap in which it sits is an uneasy resting place right now. I am being seized by violent coughing fits, the kind that sets off such explosions in your skull, it shatters your equilibrium. Ever since that Halloween party—the first and probably last I condescended to attend—I have been suffering from the kind of cold that may be known as “common,” but that, to our relief, remains a disruptive exception to our everyday. Apart from all the pretty much useless over-the-counter medication I swallow, inhale or wrap my tongue around, I resort to any number of treats I know to be soothing in times like these. A return to Allen’s Alley, a helping of Chanograms, any combination of folds in the weathered phizog of Margaret Rutherford—whatever it takes.
I tend to return to established remedies, the kind of stuff I know to comfort and cheer me. In a way, I am warding off two sicknesses, all the while being in danger of contracting one. For whenever I am as miserable as I am these far from good old days, I am in danger of getting nostalgic.
Despite my appreciation of and frequent exposure to films, books and radio programs predating the 1960s, I am wary of this feeling. More than a sensation, nostalgia is a disease—a dis-ease—I am anxious not to catch; nor do I believe that am I generally prone to it. In a review of a friend’s book of short stories I once referred to nostalgia as the “fruitful reverie of a past whose text is a history of longing.” Now, even I don’t quite know what that means anymore, however smart it sounded at the time. The rotten apple in it is “fruitful”; although, in defense of the prose I have never managed to outgrow, I hasten to add that the sentence began with “If,” signalling that I merely offer for debate rather than wholeheartedly endorse the sentiment expressed. I vowed, years ago, never to write anything in which I do not believe. It is a proven prophylactic against much, though hardly all, pointless drivel.
True, nostalgia can and does bear fruit; but unless that fruit is intoxicatingly fermented it might be downright unfit to eat. It sure can give you an ache. Indeed, it is an ache. Literally, it is the ache to go home or the ache produced by the awareness of not being able to get there. It is a longing to belong, to return not simply to a place we once knew and loved, but to reach or build such a place from whatever scraps in the book of memory we can assemble with the paste that prevents us all from becoming unglued.
However rewarding such an imaginary retreat, it is a sense of the futility that makes the journey painful—the very moment along the way in which “what if” and “if only” turn to a bitter “as if!” An iffy a performance, in short. After all, how can you expect to find an effective home remedy for homesickness?
I wonder whether I tend to get childlike when ill because I (pictured above, with the horn of plenty that German children are handed upon entering school) was more ill than well as a child. As if anxious to stand out in a crowd of sick kids, I went out of my way to get scarlet fever twice. Not that “childlike” is used here to connote “innocent” or “carefree.” In my early days, I was subject to many more fears, doubts and ailments than the adult into which I somehow evolved—which is why I keep relying on those tried remedies, knowing them to have worked once and finding them working still.
Could it be that I love the movies, books, and radio plays of the past—a past predating mine by far—because I am stricken with the present, rather than just being presently sick? Good gosh, this might be a worse case of nostalgia than I thought.