Of travel, birthdays, memory, and nostalgia

(Note: this is the first of two posts on Chicago. The other one has the fun trip pictures.)

Birthdays are strange things. Elastic things sometimes. Mostly they pass with family dinners, cake, and happy smiles with friends. Mostly I get older with a good will; in fact, up until this point, I’ve liked getting older. This birthday, however, has bothered me, although that has eased since it passed over a month ago. It might be that 5 in the number. But I think it might have more to do with the fact that this is the first big birthday without dad. I think that’s why I’ve been interested in nostalgia and memory lately. It wasn’t intentional, but the conference paper I wrote on Doctor Who and Christmas ended up being about the function of nostalgia. A lot of the theory I read structured nostalgia as a negative, but John Su and Christine Berberich both saw nostalgia performing important cultural work both for the individual and for culture at large. Nostalgia can be a positive force in their construction. Su quotes from an interview with novelist Kazuo Ishiguro, whose work often mediates on nostalgia and memory. Ishiguro says: “It’s [nostalgia] something that anchors us emotionally to a sense that things should and can be repaired. We can feel our way towards a better world because we’ve had an experience of it; we carry some sort of distant memory of that world somewhere even though it is a flawed memory, a flawed vision” (10). I liked this concept for the paper I was writing; the Doctor tries to repair the worlds around him because his own world is irrevocably irreparable. But, I also like it as a was of thinking about grief as well. Not that I think that grief can be mended–I don’t–but I like the idea that we carry around a memory of a better world with us that we are striving towards. Objects not feelings indeed.

Inherently, birthdays and travel are both about nostalgia. Birthdays ask us to reflect on the year that’s past and what we want to make of the next. Travel performs some of the same function, though it also asks us to imagine ourselves in new lives. I’ve been doing that a bit the past month. I’ve been to Boston and I’m currently in Chicago. One trip has been long planned; I decided last year I was only doing goofy things for my birthday from now on. This year was to see a live taping of Wait, Wait Don’t Tell Me the NPR news quiz. (More on that in a moment.) The other came about more spontaneously in the hey I’d like to go to PCA, ooh it’s in Boston way that academics apply for conferences. The nerd version of a bright shiny object if you will, with, you know the added bonus of stressful, hurried writing beforehand.

Nostalgia and memory are also why I planned this Chicago trip. Three years ago this month I was driving to his funeral. My mother asked me how I was doing. I replied that I was listening to Wait, Wait Don’t Tell Me. My car radio is permanently tuned to NPR–a fact that my little sister finds endlessly amusing–so the fact that I was listening to Wait, Wait Don’t Tell Me was and is part of any given Saturday. In that instance, it was the only moment of normalcy in an otherwise surreal day. It tethered me to my goofy, geeky world of trivia, wonkery, and pop culture. I held onto that moment. Carl Kassel and Peter Segal’s voices were something tangibly familiar, and they connected me to my corny father, who also loved NPR and its skate of weekend shows.

As it happened, the day of the taping also would have been dad’s 56th birthday. It was a gorgeous day, and we walked around downtown, scoped out a cupcake place, ate at the Hard Rock Cafe in full on cheesy tourist fashion. We discovered the world’s nicest Walgreens–seriously, I’m wondering why every Walgreens in Arkansas isn’t like this one. The show that night was in the subbasement of the Chase building. It’s a real auditorium, but it’s not at all where I thought an auditorium would be placed. I laughed so hard my face tingled for hours afterwards; I’m not sure this is a good thing or not. It was kind of perfect.

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