Wednesday, January 25, 2012


When I was a little kid, my primary source of tunes was an AM radio made by GE in the early ’70s. It was a clear plastic cube and you could slide photos into the sides. I never bothered changing the photos; I remember really liking the samples it came with, particularly a sunny blonde you can see here. Of course I was able to confirm the accuracy of this ancient memory because I found my old radio on etsy (sold, alas).

The second I clapped my eyes on this Photo Block, atop a faux wood-grain desk in some sad little office in some drab house, I thought about my old radio sitting on my dresser, about that sunny blonde, about Dan Ingram spinning the top 40—Wings, Olivia Newton-John, the Stones—on WABC, long before WABC became just another voice in the cacophony of talk radio. According to wikipedia, WABC had an incredibly strong signal so "especially in the afternoons and evenings, WABC was the station teenagers could be heard listening to on transistor radios all over the New York metropolitan area." So true—but it wasn't just teenagers.

Yes, I had another one of my sentimental moments, and it only cost me 50¢ to prolong it.

This photoblock, which is unfortunately not a radio but does still have its original sample photos, was manufactured in 1971. What is it about me and 1971? I'm only just now noticing, some 60-odd posts later, that so many roads on this blog seem to be leading back to that year, when I was three.

Nothing earth-shattering happened in my world when I was three. Three is pretty much summed up by one mental image: me, a sunny day, walking across the grass in my backyard, wearing a white shirt with a pale green mushroom on the front, and matching pale green pants. That's all I've got for three. (Four is me sitting on my mother's best oriental rug, cradling a red-patent leather purse I got for my birthday. Two is sitting on a tall black stool at the kitchen counter eating a hamburger with my brother, possibly on the day we moved into our house. At least something exciting happened when I was two.)

My kids are now 5 and 8, same age as me circa the 1970s. My mother saved some of my finer items of clothing from that era—a long patchwork skirt purchased for a Bicentennial celebration, a yellow Indian cotton caftan embroidered with tiny mirrors—and my kids actually wear them. Sometimes that freaks me out.

But what freaks me out more is trying to imagine what will evoke Proustian cravings for madeleines in them thirty years from now. Obviously my house is replete with vintage midcentury stuff, so will they be waxing nostalgic over Danish modern candlesticks or Knoll furniture or plastic photo blocks? I don't think it works like that. I grew up in a Victorian house chockablock with Victorian furniture and bric-a-brac, as well as some Art Deco, Art Nouveau, Arts and Crafts. None of that stuff sets my heart racing at an estate sale. It tends to be the ordinary household objects, the books, records and the toys.

From my vantage point at the kitchen counter, I'm gazing around my house trying to figure out what is contemporary enough, of the aughts enough, to lodge in my daughters' memories. All-Clad pots and pans? OXO kitchen gadgets? MacBooks, ipads, iphones? US Weekly? Nespresso machine? Weird to imagine them on their hovercrafts, flitting from estate sale to estate sale (what more useful application could there be for a hovercraft?), exclaiming over a Braun travel alarm clock or a Hello Kitty bath mat or a pair of Missoni for Target rubber rain boots—shelling out whatever wampum passes for future currency in exchange for a wallow in aughts nostalgia...

I recently read a Kurt Andersen essay in Vanity Fair in which he laments the blah samey-sameness, the lack of originality, of the past few decades. If you compare the art/design/pop culture/hairdos of the 1950s with the 1970s, or compare any 20-year span, things look wildly different. But once we hit the ’90s, the needle kinda got stuck in the groove—music and fashion become indistinguishable. You can certainly quibble with many of his examples (namely music) but the fellow is certainly right for the most part:

"Ironically, new technology has reinforced the nostalgic cultural gaze: now that we have instant universal access to every old image and recorded sound, the future has arrived and it’s all about dreaming of the past."

Somehow, by the end of the essay, I was feeling a little bad about myself, like I'm part of the problem. But not bad enough to change my ways... Next time I try to catch up with my backlog of scanning, I'm going to do the armload of Kurt Andersen–edited Spy magazines I picked up at a library sale a couple years back. For some reason, I didn't save any of my Spys from back in the day when I was a subscriber so I was pretty thrilled to find them, as I'm sure you can imagine.

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