The private archipelago of nostalgia

“She lives alone on her private archipelago, with her palm trees and her seashells. Plays in the waves all day. She’s scared of dying, and she wants to keep it that way.” – “Private Archipelago,” Sordid Humor, 1994

What a twist: A woman wondering through paradise, sustained only by her fear of death.

I first heard this lyric quoted in a live version of the Counting Crows pleading classic “Round Here,” where it flies like a shiny red kite between lightning strikes in a storm. On the Sordid Humor original, the rain is literal: Opening with a sample of a thunderstorm, the song lives a full life in just five minutes, beginning almost symphonically – something about a pocket watch and the speed of light, sung nearer the speed of the latter than the former, shot through by multiple guitar lines and what sounds like a synthesized violin – it explodes into 90s pop worthy of The Posies or the Gin Blossoms and ends raggedly, the singer seeming close to the death feared all along.

The cover of the album it comes from is a fauve-colored picture of an anemone. Pair it with the Counting Crows connection, the “alt rock” descriptor that would have been the easiest way to describe it at the time – even if it makes no sense now (“alternative” to what, exactly) – and you have a quintessentially “90s” artifact. “Weren’t the 90s cool or simpler or more fun to live in?,” a question that could be worth diving into but that becomes rhetorical when my nostalgic inner critic ever speaks up, looms over any re-listening to music from that era, as the sounds – digitized and lossless – are the least-aged survivors from back then. Such preservation comes at a cost, though, namely the pain of remembering, plus the energy expended to overcome it.

I once viewed nostalgia as the subconscious longing for a more alive natural world. Any person alive even 20 years ago inhabited a planet bustling with significantly more insects, plants, and animals, their populations since decimated in ways that aren’t always obvious, with effects felt but not remarked upon. Fewer crickets chirping, lightning bugs flashing in the Southern darkness, more CO2 in the air, less seasonal variation, hotter weather, more industrialized loneliness. “Why can’t things be like they were when I was young?” – when I played with a bright green Game Boy Color in a meadow alive with bumblebees – is the neon surface logic of nostalgia , and it can seem like a justified question when considering what was lost. Independent of a person’s own reasons for wanting to feel young again – healthier, probably, and with fewer responsibilities – nostalgia is a struggle to reckon with what has been unraveled in the fabric of the world, with the realization that one’s own unraveling is underway, too. She’s scared of dying, indeed.

However, the same ideology that has fueled that destruction – capitalism – is intrinsic to nostalgia itself. Nostalgia is also the force of capitalism directed at the past.

This longing for departed circumstances, and above all the sensation of being young while experiencing them – having the energy and mental state to play in the waves, for instance – get monetized by nostalgia into purchases of old records, games, books, and concert tickets. But nostalgia’s not merely transactional; it’s also accumulative, in the same way that compulsive collectors will start “saving” junk once they’ve run out of immediately sentimental and classic items to pile up – and similar to how capitalism isn’t concerned with quality, if foregoing it will enable more accumulation. Nostalgia, once it has exhausted the sweet flowering memories from which the mind sips nectar, comes even for the weeds of the past, transforming moments that were painful at the time into their own honey. Bad memories become raw materials for good ones.

One such “weed,” since culled by nostalgia, grew in an old tobacco barn that I had ironically converted into a workout space one miserable day in 2017, with the remnants of Hurricane Harvey visible and audible through doors open to August grass. Taking the slow-motion, overly long, detached breaks between intense sets as only a bipolar person can, I was listening to “Pass Me By” by Insane Clown Posse and getting first-listen goosebumps from its unexpected melody (the vintage 1990s, Web 1.0 website Wilson & Alroy’s Record Reviews holds that this type of surprise is the key to pop music). Even more than delight, that physical sensation was a ripple of minor relief, supplemented by the exercise endorphins, from my challenging ambient situation at that time.

The first year of the Trump White House was an inescapable burden, while my blood pressure and lipids were high, seeming to signal a physical decline as I entered my 30s. And then there was my professional writing job, at which I had stayed far longer than I had ever planned to. But in retrospect, this moment marked the exact crossing of the halfway point at that company, making it a positive memory after all – 2017-me could see no end in sight, but nostalgia-me knows when and how this movie ends. When William Faulkner said “the past isn’t dead, it isn’t even past,” I think of this ability to reach into the past and change how old events scan. We can reshape them and make actual capitalist money off of them – I mean, this blog does have ads on it!

Finishing thousands of words per day was not something that ever felt hard to me – just look at this site circa 2015, when I posted every day – but it had top-tier capitalist energy. And it was hard, even if I didn’t notice it – endless accumulation and “spending,” of words, formed by labor that was as physical as mental. In addition to my own wavering health, my devices were struggling with me, companions in my suffering.

I began with a MacBook Pro from my previous job. Before long, the time lost to reboots, startup, and opening the gazillions of tabs and applications, thanks to the laptop’s old-fashioned spinning hard disk drive, began to make a tangible difference in my role, which relied on the daily production of numerous pieces at an rapid pace.

So I upgraded to a MacBook Air with a solid-state drive to save time. But then I felt like my eyes were straining as I spent hours per day staring at a low-res screen, a blank page that was a white surrender flag for my energy. A Retina MacBook was the ticket. But the flimsy keyboard meant my fingers couldn’t bear the weight of turning thousands of thoughts into equivalent words. Only 1.5 years later, I was on to a newer MacBook Pro with a more bouncy keyboard, a bigger screen, and more ports. It lasted barely two years, the “e” key coming off not long after I willed myself through some dissertation-mill grist.

The next option: a maxed out Google Pixelbook, a marvel that made me more productive than ever – I could wake it from sleep in seconds, open a tab and blaze through the pain of wordsmithing – though it got discolored from my nervous sweaty palms and the blood I got from irritating a cut with typically frenetic typing.

Then the final candidate: an M1 iMac with Ethernet built into its power brick, connected to fiber-optic home internet. And it was – and is, as I’m typing on it right now – a pricey nostalgia trip in its own way: As the first desktop I had owned in over a decade, it helped me recapture the feeling of doing my work in a “computer room” like in the 90s, when all your email, documents, pictures, etc. lived in one place instead of being ubiquitous. The transition away from the desktop paradigm was part of a larger reconception of the internet as a medium rather than a place (“cyberspace”) – something I wrote about back in 2015 – but now I had some piece of that past, even if it hadn’t been all that great to begin with, sitting in a hard chair during the Clinton administration, staring at a screen at home on my own time, as if I were at school or work.

But today I have a really comfy chair, as well as ergonomic wrist rests for my mouse and keyboard. And having seen the physical toll etched into my previous line of devices by my work, I had ensured that I would, like Sordid Humor’s song heroine, always stay afraid of dying, and attempt to insulate myself from it – in my own private archipelago of a throwback Computer Room, at a new job, and in much better health with lower blood pressure and better lab results already. Even though I had felt the workday writing pain all along, in my fingers and in my melting brain, I became weirdly nostalgic for the distress when it disappeared, as it had been my only route to where I am now, the literally bloody labor that had to die in order is onfeed the vampire of capital (to paraphrase Karl Marx) – my own mental capital, investing its energy backward into the past to purchase a bright recollection of a dark moment.


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