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This is the blog of Ian Rosales Casocot. Filipino writer. Sometime academic. Former backpacker. Twink bait. Hamster lover.


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Friday, June 10, 2005

entry arrow12:01 AM | The End of Nostalgia

The rule of memory maintains that the past must always be glorious, tinged with a kind of sepia that approximates the golden. This is how most old folks, for example, essentialize the stories of their youth, those days when things were much simpler, or harder, but when life was, for the most part, immeasurably noble. At least according to them.

"In my days," your lolo could begin, "we had no calculator. We calculated with our heads. Pero ang mga bata ngayon..." And then there is that eventual shaking of the head, always in commiseration, judging the present by the hard virtues of the past, and finding it relentlessly wanting.

There are endless variations of this theme. People spoke much better English before. Politics was the province of true statesmen before. The Philippines was so much richer before -- and second only to Japan! (Why, Singapore and Malaysia were but poverty-stricken hamlets when we were already The Pearl of the Orient!)

The past, it would seem, was a totally different country, bordered away where our passports cannot grant us access. The past has thus become alien, the wonderful nowhere for all of us who know only the intricacies of the present, which is forever mired -- so they tell us -- with the defects incurred by missteps in recent history.

Sometimes, we buy into that story. I am still fascinated, for example, by what seemed to be the effortless elegance of women in the 1950s, that era of bouffant net petticoats or paper nylon petticoats. The great Grace Kelley for me embodied that era very well: she was beautiful, regal, and elegant. She defined glamour. She spoke English with the clipped articulation of aristocrats, but she was also so much more accessible than that. She moved around with that studied grace. She was a figure before an ironic age which has made cynic of most of us. None of my modern movie stars have managed to eclipse that almost iconic sense of style -- not Sharon Stone, not Gwyneth Paltrow, not Angelina Jolie. When Princess Grace (for she had become a princess by then) died in a Monaco car crash in 1982, it signaled the end of an era -- the closing of a heavy curtain between an idealized then, and the harsh realities of now.

In his autobiographical book Growing Up, the writer Russell Baker struggled with this very tango of ebullient past and wanting present. He wrote:

If a parent does lift the curtain a bit, it is often only to stun the young with some exemplary tale of how much harder life was in the old days.

I had been guilty of this when my children were small in the early 1960s and living the affluent life. It galled me that their childhoods should be, as I thought, so easy when my own had been, as I thought, so hard. I had developed the habit, when they complained about the steak being overcooked or the television being cut off, of lecturing them on the harshness of life in my day.

"In my day all we got for dinner was macaroni and cheese, and we were glad to get it."

"In my day we didn't have any television."

"In my day..."

"In my day..."

At dinner one evening a son had offended me with an inadequate report card and, as I leaned back and cleared my throat to lecture, he gazed at me with an expression of unutterable resignation and said, "Tell me how it was in your days, Dad."

I was angry with him for that, but angrier with myself for having become one of those ancient bores whose highly selective memories of the past become transparently dishonest even to small children. I tried to break the habit, but must have failed. A few years later my son was referring to me when I was out of earshot as "the old-timer." Between us there was a dispute about time. He looked upon the time that had been my future in a disturbing way. My future was his past, and being young, he was indifferent to the past.

A few weeks ago, nevertheless, I decided to recapture a sense of the past, because much of what the future seemed to hold for the rest of us did not provide me with so much hope. Tuning into the news of recent days made me want to crawl back to what had seemed to be a more innocent age, when I was young -- far from my current late 20's -- and all I could see before me was an expanse of possibilities.

I wanted to bottle nostalgia, so to speak, and live for a while under its golden-sepia, phantom sun.

I wanted to write a letter.

Not email, no. I'm talking old-fashioned "snail mail" before it was cursed by that very term, and relegated to the dustbin of antiquity.

For me it was a reaching out for a kind of mad equilibrium. Letter-writing promised to be my proverbial message in a bottle, only this time my ocean would be the postal system, which was of course so much surer than the finicky direction of waves, but still without what I considered to be the sterile convenience of electronic correspondence.

Anyone, I think, can remember deriving so much pleasure from this sense of correspondence being adrift, akin to freedom I should think, which is something I needed in an existence -- at least in the current one -- that aspired (is that even the right word?) to equal life in a bell jar.

You have no idea how much I despised emails for a long time, how they piled with so much venomous urgency in all my inboxes -- Gmail, Yahoo, Lycos, Friendster, and Hotmail. I, too, am amazed by the sheer repugnance of electronic correspondence I feel of late. And for a confessed writer, too!

I do miss the slothfulness of snail mail. Because it took time, letters (and our replies to them) were more sincere, I think. All that slow time permits us deeper thoughts, provoking intimacy. All that hand writing permits us careful weighing of words, of ideas. There was none of the current expectations brought about by so much instancy; and none of the telegraphic answers in the name of replying back as soon as we could.

Email seemed to be death itself.

And so I felt I needed to write something down, and to have it all printed out and sent through regular snail mail -- just to catch the reassuring simplicity of old things, of old ways. It is comforting, I tell you, the effort that goes into postal mail: the ritual of paper and envelope, the careful composition, the folding, the sealing, the licking of stamps, the dropping in the slot...

The only thing that seemed amiss in this archaic ritual is the fact that I was writing my letters on my computer. I thought that this was what the twenty-first century had wrought: the loss of the fine art of handwriting.

I could no longer write using my hand.

But can anyone else now? Can you? Without having your writing hand ache, carpal joints and all, from sheer effort and the pressure of fingers wrestling with unfamiliar pen? I can only last all of three minutes, after which my handwriting becomes wobbly. And then the pain comes in... I am so used now to having my fingers dance on the keyboard. And that brings me so much sadness because I used to have the finest cursive when I was a virginal boy in grade school. I remember that my teachers would always call on me to write their lessons on the board for the whole class to copy. I had the classic style of letter-looping down pat; mine was easily readable. But my handwriting today consists mainly of chicken scratches. Sometimes I do not even recognize what I had just written down. They are hieroglyphs.

And so, I wrote and wrote and wrote with so much delight -- to friends and family. To someone in Sydney, Australia. Someone in Bristol, England. Two in Fribourg, Switzerland. Someone in Spain. Two in Manila. One in Puerto Princesa, Palawan. One in Los Angeles, California. Someone in Skokie, Illinois. Someone in Ellerstadt, Germany. Someone in Kampala, Uganda. Someone in Tokyo, Japan.

Wonderful genuine letters and all ending with that flourish of an actual signature.

And then I went to the post office.

There, I discovered that most of the letters cost P207 to send, each. And if I wanted to send by courier instead, letter-parcels would cost approximately P2,000, each. I gulped, and something in me died.

I ended up mailing only five of those letters, totaling P600.

I realized right then and there, while my letters were being weighed in careful measure in the postal office's scale, that nostalgia can be quite expensive. Email may be cheap and often impersonal, but for P20 an hour, you could very well reach the rest of the world.

That thought was both reassuring, and sad. In the far corners of my mind, I played taps for nostalgia, and then I went on my way.

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