August 10, 2016

What the past tells us about ourselves, and about our own past

Lately we've been talking about the past: do we live there, do we resent the future, do we idealize a time that never was? It's that last part - the idealization of the past - that's on my mind today, and as usual it was sparked by something written by someone who generally writes better than I do, in this case Lileks:

I am halfway through a site about . . . TV and Radio station advertising logos in the 40s and 50s. Why? Well, why not. I found some industry magazines that have ads for the stations, and each one is a window into a local institution that was part of people's aural collective memory for a while. The jingles, the voices, the news sounder at the top of the hour. It's important to remember these things. Maybe it's just because I was in the business once, and felt pride at saying the call letters. This was a long and honorable tradition, connected to a place, a time, an invisible audience gathered in the dark. [,,,] Googling one station revealed a lost history - it had been bought by a big city station and turned into a repeater, and YouTube had a video of the last news broadcast from the local crew.

At this point I did the transition from reading to thinking. That description of the station that had been bought by a big city station and no longer did any local broadcasting - it sounded a lot like Channel 7, KCMT, the bane of my teen years spend in The World's Worst Town™. Not necessarily, though - there had to be lots of stations around the country that fall into that category. Still...

To my surprise the weatherman was a guy who did the weather in Fargo when I was growing up. I went to school with his daughter (who had long brown hair.) (If you remember such things it's possible you had a crush.) He did the kiddie show: Captain Jim. When you were a kid and it was your birthday you got to go on Captain Jim's show in Fargo, and my mother took me. I remember nothing except the moment I walked from the bleachers to the set: I was supposed to walk around the cameras, but I walked straight from the seats to the set, stepping across the cables, and Captain Jim said "Whoa, you're walking through the ocean there."

Now it gets more interesting. If the weatherman was from Fargo (where Lileks had been from) and had moved to another station, there was a good chance we were talking about the same station. That weatherman, though - what the hell was his name? Captain Jim, he says - that's got to be Googleable. I'm wondering if I know who he's talking about. If I do, it could only be one of two people. Remember, I'm not reading ahead, so as far as I'm concerned the answer will remain a mystery unless I do something about it. After all, no reason to depend on someone else's research if you can spend the time doing it yourself, right?

I suppose I shouldn't have been surprised that there was more than one Captain Jim kids show; James isn't exactly an unusual name, and most of these local kids show hosts used their real first names in such cases. Yes, here it is.

Jim Rohn. I did remember him; he was one of the two people I thought it might have been. Boy, I disliked watching him when I was in my teens. I didn't hate him personally, but I disliked him in that impersonal way we have when we're talking about someone we feel we kind-of know from having seen them in our living rooms every night. Imagine my surprise, then, to read this description of him as "a consummate professional, Aamodt added. 'He could read the copy cold and not make a mistake, and he was so versatile.'" The obituary goes on to call him "a revered figure to many." Not to me, I thought. Could I be wrong?

Lileks goes on to identify Rohn by quoting from the same article I'd just read; makes sense since it's the first thing to pop up on Google. He just died in January of 2015, which isn't that long ago, at the age of 88. They had a picture of him dressed in lederhosen, hosting Polka Party. Yep, I thought, that's him.

Lileks speaks of him with some fondness, but then he'd met him on the television show, whereas I'd only seen him on TV, and that was on a channel I was predisposed to dislike because it was the only commercial station available in an area I hated living in. I thought of KCMT as amateur hour on a continuous loop, but chances are I would have felt that way anyway, since I was a snobbish city boy who was bound and determined to feel that way about anything and everything around there.*

*I still am a snob, by the way, and I still feel that way about The World's Worst Town™. Obviously.

Now I find myself asking an essential question: have I been unfair in the way I've thought about KCMT, and Jim Rohn, all these years? (Even if I hadn't thought of Rohn since the day after we moved back to the Twin Cities, he was still part of my collective memory of the area.) If I could go back and watch Channel 7 again today, would I find it charming, full of the trappings from the late '60s and '70s, having all the things I'm constantly railing about not having nowadays?

My conclusion: it depends. If I could view it again today through those same teen-age eyes, I'd probably still feel the same way. However, if I were to go back today, almost 40 years after the fact, knowing what I do now and having something to compare it to, would I now see it with that faded hue of nostalgia, part of the yellowed treasure from my old TV Guides, or would I hate it as I did then? It's an excellent question, for which I don't have an answer. Even if I could find some old footage from the KCMT of my youth, it wouldn't be the same as having to live with it seven days a week for nearly six years, ample time for familiarity to breed contempt. I might view it with disgust, and then wonder if all these old shows I've come to revere because they were old and thus unable to view any longer - maybe I'd hate them too.* Maybe this whole nostalgia thing really is living in the past, creating a romanticized view of something that never was. I've written about how TV shows used to do that in relation to the age in which they were made; was I doing the same thing with television itself?

*Living in that town, I wouldn't wonder. Granted, the early '70s are not a favorite time period of mine anyway, I can think of very few TV shows I enjoyed watching at the time.

What I do know is that this is, if nothing else, part of the tapestry that explains why I watch classic TV. It's good to test your own memory, to see if things really were better (or worse) back then. It's good to be able to use this as an excuse to examine your own development and maturity through the years, to see how your tastes, your likes and dislikes, have evolved. Maybe it will put you back in touch with something that you've sadly forgotten; on the other hand, it could cause you to open your eyes and stop idealizing the past. (Romanticizing the past without also being objective - that, to me, is not nostalgia but sentimentality, and while I can wallow in nostalgia, I find sentimentality rank.)

I've watching plenty of television from the old days, and it's not all good. Some of it is bad, in fact. Now, it happens that I think there are more shows that are not only good, but are superior to what we see on TV today. That raises questions about the content and evolution of television, of course, and while that's a separate issue for another day it's also something that can be profitable to consider. To test these memories, though; to look at how things were with clear eyes open to revising a long-held way of thinking - that's good. It can change the way you think about things today. it can cause you to reassess what you thought you knew.

It is, I think, an essential reason why we revisit the past, while we can. Lileks describes this as so: "When I started [doing this, 20 years ago] there was a slender piece of connective tissue between the present and the past, and now it feels as if I am reporting from a foreign country that disbanded its government." Let's see if we can keep the tissue connective for just a little longer, shall we?

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