Longing for the Guaranteed Good Old Days

To long for the Good Old Days is hardly unique–so what is the draw? Was Angry Birds really that good?

By Arabella Hall

I hate the clock in my room. It’s always ticking; going forward, never back. Aside from the irritating click of the second hand, this hatred has another cause; the same one that prevents me from changing my phone layout and giving away old clothes. I despise this perfect clock for one reason: it functions. It tells me that time is passing, it counts how far I am now from then, keeping a record until the batteries die. If turning the gear that adjusts what it reads could really make time go back, I would do that in a heartbeat. I would give anything to reconnect to the past.

I have a record player, Walkman, iPod 4, and Spotify Premium—all at the same time—and I refuse to own a computer without a disc reader. Many ask why I keep these things, and why I use them frequently. I have a few pre-meditated, NPC-like responses to spit out: the practical “I like the variety in sound,” the light-hearted “I like feeling ‘old-timey,’” the thoughtful “Why not?” and of course the comedic “What are you, a cop?” But, to be honest, I don’t really know why I keep things like that, or why I have four boxes for 16 years’ worth of keepsakes. I just do.

Though many self-acclaimed “minimalists” would claim they are the exception to this, we all experience this pattern of keeping things that are either from our past or the past in general. It is widely accepted as human nature to become sentimental about certain things. Take, for example, my father, a talker of many things, one of which was minimalism, who claimed that no one should keep any “useless objects” around. After a look in his closet, a keen observer would find some small boxes of items that he’d refuse to part with. As for his complex method of differentiating the “useless items” from important memories, no one could decode. I don’t believe even he could.

Connecting to the past is, at its core, about reliving the good old days. We see the Good Old Days as a childhood friend, and hold them at great importance.[1] We say the phrase with a sigh, often while staring off into space, hoping that it’ll trigger an ‘80s-movie-style flashback, complete with “Wouldn’t It Be Nice” by The Beach Boys playing in the background. We’d do anything to go back to the Good Old Days—I would, at least. Sometimes, I pull out my old iPod 4 just to play “Snoods” and the original “Angry Birds 2” for hours, much like I often did when it had belonged to my mom. I have found nothing that prompts what I call these three hour “nostalgia sprees,” other than the possibility of dopamine for an ADHD brain. But if there is no cause, why do many experience the effect?

There must be a reason why we hold the Good Old Days on an almighty, unattainable pedestal.[2] Maybe we would do anything to return to those times because those are easy stores of happiness, a guaranteed moment of peace. It may be the last time we remember feeling truly happy, and moments like those aren’t guaranteed again. But, are the Good Old Days the very deities we perceive, or are they false gods driven by fear? Looking back at my life, some of the best, most nostalgic moments of my childhood existed parallel to the worst. Though I can recall these unfavorable memories and fear having to live through them again, they are rarely my first thought when I am asked about my youth. My brain shifts focus to the safer, simpler, and more enjoyable events that made up the Good Old Days. I wonder, are the Good Old Days genuinely good, or are they just known?

We can predict the memories of the Good Old Days, but we cannot foresee the future. We grasp these items that remind us of a time passed because we need to soak up every drop of them. It is as if they are not a better, older time in our lives, but instead a composite, shimmering image of the idea of happiness. We know that the past has happened, that the Good Old Days are set in the stone of history. We know that those memories are safe. Our perception of a block of time may be obscured in favor of the good, but we still feel this sense of security and connection with these memories. How do we know that the beautiful joy and simplicity of the fabled Good Old Days will ever happen again? The only guarantee in life is the past, and scared people need guarantees. I’m terrified for the future. Good or not, I’m going to continue to reach for that time that has long since made its departure.

[1] Hence the capitalization.

[2] For the continuation of this essay, I was going to abbreviate Good Old Days for the purpose of neither having to write or make you read the whole phrase, but I soon realized that the acronym I came up with would cause much more confusion and require more explanation than it’s worth. Therefore, the long version stays.

Header image: Generation 4 iPod, 2004 by National Museum of American History on Flickr.