“It was twenty years ago today, Sgt. Pepper taught the band to play.”
The year of anniversaries. Ten years ago, 2009, Obama was inaugurated and I tried to get my students interested in watching history in the making. Not everyone is interested in history. Kids ask, “Why do I need to learn history if it already happened?” “Why do I need to learn about dead people?” I usually respond with some confounded response about how history lays bricks for future roads.
Twenty years ago, 1999, was the greatest year in cinema history. Don’t take my word for it, look here, here, here. I must have watched Fight Club, South Park: The Movie, Big Daddy, The Matrix and Office Space a hundred times each. The thrilling climax of The Sixth Sense (which also invented the spoiler alert). For good or ill, there was palpable and extreme anticipation for Episode 1 of Star Wars: The Phantom Menace. Don’t forget make-out date movies like Cruel Intentions, 10 Things I Hate About You, the seminal American Pie and adult noir classics like The Thomas Crown Affair and Eyes Wide Shut. My friends and I stayed awake all night re-imagining the amazingly bad line of “I don’t want your life!” from Varsity Blues. That year also included The Blair Witch Project. It was reality horror. We debated about its authenticity without knowing the terrors of our reality show future, exemplified by Being John Malkovich. The synthetic future of horrors were present in the sharktastic Deep Blue Sea.
The end of a decade makes for a special time, something new to come. Especially 1999, with its new millennia scare of Y2K and Terminator nightmares.
Thirty years ago, 1989, was the Tiananmen Square Massacre in Beijing, but don’t ask Chinese kids, they don’t even know about it. In America, it was the time of the “Central Park Five” and Trump’s first foray into being wrong in public. That year sparked the beginning of the greatest shows ever made: The Simpsons and Seinfeld. Those two informed my sense of humor on a weekly basis, giving me a lifetime of quotes like, “You’ll have to speak up, I’m wearing a towel” and “Serenity NOW!”
Forty years ago, 1979, Smashing Pumpkins found inspiration, the Walkman was invented and Studio 54 was dead.
Fifty years ago, in 1969, the Stonewall riots lit up New York a few weeks before we landed on the moon. I always remember this argument I had with a friend’s doctor dad who was sure the moon landing was 1968. I couldn’t believe I was right, but he probably had some kind of personalized memory clouding up his thoughts of that time whereas I just remembered the date.
Woodstock, that hippie free-for-all Aquarian Exposition in upstate New York happened in ’69 too. It was the summer of ’69! That was not the moshing Woodstock ’94 rehash or the Woodstock ’99 rebellion. It was no anniversary, it was now, be here now. All my life I felt like I would have been right at home there and in the 60’s in general. What is that feeling? What is that Midnight in Paris vibration that makes us think we were born too late? It’s because as things inevitably get better, the anniversaries look simpler and the past looks greener. We dream of knowing then what we know now—an impossibility.
Thank you Wikipedia for helping with the 1800’s anniversaries! In 1839, history’s richest man, John Rockefeller was born. 1849 saw the end of the Mexican-American war, establishing Texas and California as American as guacamole or carnitas. 1859 brought Oregon into the U.S. without which, Nike would have still been a second-rate Greek god sitting in obscurity. 1869 saw Rutgers beat Princeton 6-4 in the first collegiate football game. Edison made the first light bulb in 1879 and milk started being sold in glass bottles beginning the legends of illegitimate children from that roving Don Juan, the milkman. 1889, Coca-cola floods the marketplace with a cocaine-infused tonic, and the Johnstown Dam bursts, flooding the land, killing thousands in horror and shock. Another interesting sport, bare-knuckle boxing, saw its final incantation when John L. Sullivan punched out Jake Kilrain in only 75 rounds! There was big news in New York in 1899 as the Newsboys went on strike, the Bronx Zoo opened and Queens and Staten Island join the city to become the Five Boroughs. One hundred years ago, the First World War was ending and women finally got the right to vote.
There was also a big event 220 years ago when Napoleon’s soldiers, marauding in Egypt, uncovered the Rosetta Stone leading to the translation of hieroglyphics.
My sister and I used to argue whose graduation year was more significant—1999 or 2000. It’s hard to know. People remember the last emperor and the last czar but also the first man on the moon and the first winner of the Super Bowl. The last implies nostalgia, that reverent feeling of rosy memories; the first implies future, growth, what will come next. Anniversaries look backwards and forwards at the same time. We look at where we were and where we’re going.
Watching the Netflix viral hit Stranger Things, I was blown away when I saw the attention to detail in their reconstructed 1980’s mall. “The Ground Round!” I exclaimed. I might have only eaten there once, or twice or dozens of times. I don’t remember. I only remember that I remember its name and that I think they used to serve free popcorn.
The recollections we remember are only fragments, like still images that we try to piece back into a moving video. Recently, I have become obsessed with Motor City, a Detroit-style pizza restaurant in Seoul. The taste profile takes me back to elementary school when Pizza Hut was still fresh and delicious, or maybe that’s my childhood taste buds’ memory. Pizza Hut used to give tiny, free personal pizzas to primary school kids who read five or ten or twenty books. The amount wasn’t important because I would have read any number for a free pizza. I have always been motivated by pizza. Now, I eat this Motor City deep-dish pie, and it’s like a peppermint patty commercial; I’m whisked away to a simpler time, before adulthood, when bikes ruled, pay-phones were everywhere and pizza was free.
Stranger Things is certainly a re-memory show. The parents will love the stroll along the banks of memory lane; the kids will love the teenage angst; and everyone loves the gentle horror of a big, scary monster.
We should celebrate these shared moments in the past. We should learn from the mistakes and encourage the successes. I had a moment of wonder last week. I said, “The future is the present, just expanding.” (It might as well have been a paraphrase of my favorite comedy moment of all-time, the Spaceballs line, “When will then be now? Soon.”) We can design each moment by controlling our actions and reactions. Yet, our past has been influenced by nature and nurture, forcing us to ride the limited rails of our composition and character. Those genetic codes and personal memorials influence much more of who you are than what you imagine yourself to be in the expanding current of our future footpath.
Do you remember the first time you heard “The Scientist” by Coldplay? Do you remember how it affected you? Because it affected everyone the first time they heard it. Something about the chords and the mysterious lyrics that just barely make sense, but when you arrange them into your life, they become much clearer. That’s what an anniversary is. It’s transitory, and lost in a moment. It’s your memory of an imperfect recollection. Because every memory is also influenced by your present state, which will impact upon the future of any currently imprinting memory.
So, observe those anniversaries, remember your history; it’s part of who you were, are and will be. People may die, but the anniversary of their death lives on. The anniversary is a concrete concept of an abstract idea. Time is not tangible, only perceived. Wrinkles, scars and creaking bones are the daily anniversaries of memory. The past is always with us, even as it becomes our present.