Nostalgia from New England
I've been in Western Mass for the weekend attending NERDS, the New England Regional Developer Summit, one of the many lovely gatherings of internet-makers I get to attend as part of my career. The event itself was great (I'll probably blog about it at work), but being back in a part of the world I haven't visited in 15+ years prompted some heady nostalgia. Navel-gaze alert: here it comes.
The sense of smell is super specific, and is tightly linked to memory. This is part of the selling point behind specific perfumes, I think. They can bring you back to a moment in time. But this is just as true for the general air of a place as the latest from Channel, and I got a strong hit of that after powering down the window of my rental car late Thursday night in South Hadley, the nature-rich mix of the end-of-summer air taking me back to formative years.
I went to college in New York University down in Manhattan, but I had a friend who spent a year at UMass Amherst, and for a while I was in love with a girl going to Mt. Holyoke, and visiting them was my first experience in New England — partying in the high-rises, stepping on frosted early morning spring grass, watching the rainy wind push bare tree branches around against the moon. These are memories that now feel haloed in innocence, almost as if they were part of another world, another life. The quality of the air, the light, the old Yankee architecture, all conspire to cast a warm golden glow over things.
It's like there's an alternate universe in my mind where things went differently, not so much with me personally but with everything, with the world and then naturally me within it. I flew out here on Thursday, 9/11/14, and on the drive from Hartford up to Amherst I had some radio on catching snippets of news, disembodied voices talking about our military re-engagement in Iraq, possibly extending now into Syria. The voices who were nominally opposing this on the grounds that we should probably be skeptical of bombing anyone un-ironically used the term "homeland" to refer to the continental United States.
I remember when that special word first entered the lexicon, how it was a transparently cynical piece of the propaganda effort to gin up support for the invasion, along with a "threat level" that never dropped below orange, whatever it was Colon Powell's did with his dignity, and the notion that model airplanes might strike us from halfway around the world. I was furious that they were doing this, and I tried my best to stop it. But we failed, and this is our reality now — it's been cemented, and it won't come loose absent a larger shift, something I sadly can't even really imagine at the moment.
Between 2001 and 2004 everything changed for me. I don't think anyone living in NYC on 9/11/2001 could not be changed by the experience; simultaneously humbling, terrifying, pride-swelling, rage inducing, culminating in an atmosphere of camaraderie like nothing I'd ever experienced; the ultimate in city solidarity. It objectively proved that the appearance of stability and order for the world was just that: an appearance. It also proved that when things go sideways and that order breaks down, communities can be amazingly resilient.
The feelings that came from that fueled my protest against the war, and ultimately led me to volunteering for the Howard Dean campaign, an effort flamed out somewhat spectacularly, but it also came amazingly close to succeeding, something I personally believe would have gone some ways towards ejecting propaganda phrases like "homeland" from our establishment political vocabulary, and maybe given us a very different reality today. But I digress — the point is that once you've seen the potential power of an insurgent political campaign up close and personal, you don't just go back to your old life.
So, I have this tumultuous four-year period to thank for most of how things have turned out for me — my amazingly lucky career, the friends who led me to meeting my lovely wife, and much more. Things worked out pretty good for me, personally, but to be honest I don't think it's been all that great at the macro level. The world is pretty messed up, and isn't getting better, and to be honest I feel internally conflicted about my individual success in the face of a generally worsening environment.
But the vibes that got churned up by the night air in South Hadley were from before any of that happened, before I started to feel separated from my fellow man, before politics gave me enemies, before social class (it's a thing in Estados Unidos, whether you believe it or not) ever presented a problem. This was a world with a golden halo, one of quality and generosity, a place where creating joy and delight was its own reward, a place with limitless potential.
Part of me responds with jaded side-eye: that's some pretty naive jive you're talking there Koenig. But another part of me lobs that sentiment right back. When did we start accepting all this stuff as "just the way it is"? Isn't the whole point of these formative experiences — the mere appearance of current order, the potential for change if people organize — that our world is far more malleable than the powers that be might think? Another world is possible, and getting down about all the limitless things that stand in the way misses the point entirely.
Anyway, it was good to be reminded of that, thanks to the late summer New England evening air. I encourage you all to find your own touchstone. Hold tight and don't forget.