HERE’S A SAFE BET: When 2020 rolled around, nowhere on the Big-Picture To-Do List for the Forth family of Olympia was this item: “Sell dining room table and hutch/replace with two working pinball machines.”
And yet this is exactly what they wound up doing.
What the heck, right? COVID-19, meet my killer ramp shot.
It’s a pandemic, you’re stuck at home, and you used to play the game obsessively as a kid, getting hooked on the general plink-zoom-buzz-CLUNK-thwack-ZING-flash-kathonk-dingdingdingding!!! magnificence of it all.
On top of all that, your three kids, ages 14-20, think it’s about as close as something their parents might ever get to being … cool. Win, win, win?
“We always talked about wanting to buy one someday,” writes mom Julie Forth, who says she and her husband regularly hit the arcade for a cheap-date option while growing up in L.A. in the 1980s. “The pandemic was just the kick we needed.”
Out with the dining furniture (“dining” being so … 2019), in with the Indiana Jones-themed pinball machine (last fall), followed by a vintage ’94 World Cup Soccer machine (this spring).
“Our whole family loves these machines, and we play them every day — always trying to bump each other off the leaderboard,” Julie says. “Our kids think they’re so cool, and prefer playing them over their video games. We may need to sell another obsolete piece of furniture, as they’re already hankering for a third pin, and that’s just fine with us.”
Forth was one of dozens of Pacific NW readers who responded to a recent plea for confessions of nostalgia-themed hobbies they’ve taken up over the past pandemic year — descriptions of not just what they’re feeling nostalgic for, but what sort of action they’re taking to dive headlong back into the nostalgia pool, as it were.
The response was large — a range of folks from all backgrounds and situations who either, like the Forths, were proudly proclaiming their new throwback engagement, or (often) sheepishly confessing, “I probably shouldn’t admit to this, but … ”
Here at the Sunday mag, we were happy to see all of them — and are even happier to share them, in the hope they might inspire someone else to fly their old-days freak flag a bit higher, whenever those “old” days might be.
We’re even happier to do so on the advice of psychologists, who agreed that nostalgia — particularly during the recent trying times — is a normal, longstanding human coping mechanism, and a generally healthy exercise. (We’ll get to the “generally” later, but for now, allow this handwritten permission slip — remember those? — from the shrinks to serve as a feel-good license to mentally indulge.)
NOSTALGIA, AT ROOT, is simply a sentimental longing or “wistful affection for the past, typically for a period or place with happy personal associations.” (Thanks, Oxford dictionary — anyone remember those? Thick, heavy, aromatic — never mind.)
Mixed with the wrong psychological tendencies, nostalgia can, for already troubled individuals, swerve into romanticism or even intractable fantasy — longing for something that really never was. Partly for that reason, nostalgic leanings were long viewed by researchers and mental health experts as a tip-off to unexplored psychological maladies.
More recent scholarship, however, has turned that prognosis mostly on its head. In reasonable doses, engaging in nostalgia, many experts say, is completely normal, especially during times of stress. And most of the time, it’s perfectly healthy.
Aside from reminding us what we have already overcome, getting nostalgic can help people “place” themselves along a timeline of their life, and in the process help redefine, and assign new value to, important personal relationships. And these wistful longings, shared with others who relate to the same time, place and experience, can build a powerful sense of comforting community.
In fact, one of the greatest gifts of nostalgic thought is the sense that reliving past experiences — usually remembered as both sad and happy — is OK because you’re not feeling those emotions alone, says Dr. Krystine Batcho, a psychology professor at Le Moyne College in Syracuse who studies nostalgia.
Nostalgia can be traced far back in human history, including references in early printed classics and scriptures, Batcho says. And it historically peaks during times of societal stress or personal unease, serving as a coping mechanism during crises or major life events.
“It’s always been a part of the human experience,” Batcho says. Her initial question when she began her research years ago was simple: Why? Why, given evolution, would supposedly forward-focused, always-improving human beings want to look back at all?
Obviously, there’s a learn-from-mistakes factor as a matter of survival, she says. But that’s more rote memory than nostalgia, and Batcho arrived at a broader understanding of nostalgia as an important human “adaptive function.”
“I see it as this,” she says: “When in times of great change — especially sudden, substantial change, or times of great uncertainty — nostalgia connects us to ourselves and the people we have interacted with over our lifetime. That gives us an anchor to hold onto.”
Nostalgia comforts us by reminding us “how much we’ve been through,” she says. “No matter what the future throws at us, we’re going to make it.” But it also allows us to evaluate who we are, connecting us mentally with people who have been important in our lives — especially those who “taught us certain lessons — the most important one being that we are lovable, which is the number one thing keeping most of us together.”
Whatever its source, well-managed nostalgia, Batcho says, “helps us explore our meaning and purpose.” Its bittersweet nature also is unique in the way it makes us feel simultaneously happy about having lived through something, and sad to have moved beyond it. “You’re remembering something good, but it’s gone. Time marches on.”
We cope with this unnerving sense of change, in part, by feeling and acting nostalgic.
Can it go too far? Sure. People with underlying emotional difficulties sometimes allow warp-drive nostalgia to push them into dysfunction — usually a result of isolation, Batcho says. That’s the opposite of healthy nostalgia, which actually connects you to more people, at least in your own mind.
It’s pretty easy to gauge when you’ve crossed to the dark side, Batcho says: “Your friends and relatives and neighbors start avoiding you!”
TO STUDENTS OF the mind, the pandemic nostalgia surge was predictable. The only surprise was how deeply ensconced it has become — likely owing to the ongoing pandemic’s long-term grip on our collective psyche.
When the pandemic struck in early 2020, Batcho looked at comparisons to the last major U.S. societal trauma — the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks — and waited for the inevitable. Sure enough, people started baking bread, dusting off old guitars, shopping for muscle cars, going camping, engaging in frantic 3 a.m. eBay bidding wars over vintage Patagonia fleece jackets or old gas lanterns (pleading guilty here, your honors), sewing, and even churning their own butter. All throwback stuff; all predictable — and ongoing.
All of this, Batcho notes, making an important distinction, qualifies as “personal” nostalgia — the warm fuzzies for lived experiences. This is separate from “historical” nostalgia, which is a person’s longing for a perceived historical reality before their own time. (A bit more danger here, Will Robinson; anyone remember him?)
“I’ve always looked at is as sort of a psychological vacation,” Batcho says. “It makes us feel warm and fuzzy for a while, and then you move on. It’s like a good night’s sleep.”
How have Pacific NW readers been fostering those warm/fuzzies? Countless ways. Most of them are reflective of increased time at home for pandemic planet occupants, and most reflect an inner yearning to live something which, in hindsight, delivered some joy.
Many readers report being comforted by reverting to activities, hobbies or tasks that involve things that are tangible, rather than the current, high-tech standard of ethereal (think: analog vs. digital; things you do with your hands, and we don’t mean typing).
Nancy Winder has been writing a daily postcard since May 1, 2020, to friends and family members, from a “decades-long stash” she had amassed over the years. Numerous other people reported reengaging in written letters for the first time in decades — and the simple, tangible joy of receiving a handwritten response.
Fritzie Reisner has gone analog as often as possible, “spending less time online rather than more,” except when required to Zoom for work purposes. “I have explicitly leaned far away from screens just as many people have become more tied to them,” he says.
Robin Menke, a “kid of the sixties” born in 1953, rebirthed some old collections of comic books, Sports Illustrated magazines, baseball cards and other stuff. The SI collection produced some “hidden gem” covers that turned out to be valuable to collectors — and many, many others that proved emotionally valuable to friends and acquaintances, to whom they’re now been gifted (see: sense of community, above).
Reader Barbara O’Steen recalled a childhood ice storm in Nashville that created a long power outage, forcing her family of five to huddle around fires built from a tree that had crashed in the front yard. Over succeeding days, her mother taught her and her sisters how to sew by hand, expanding to a sewing machine once the power was restored. In the past year, she has found herself reconnecting to that time by reconnecting to the craft in a home sewing room:
“For me it has been the greatest blessing that I can go to that room EVERY day and putz around. Sometimes I clean and sort, and discover lovely fabric I haven’t remembered I had, and sometimes I sew and complete a garment. Whatever, I love it, and the nostalgia for that time in my childhood is certainly there,” she writes in an email.
Jan Davis had a similar experience, born of necessity. She needed new aprons for all the suddenly necessary home-kitchen activity, and she decided to just make her own: “Not being on the younger side, it’s a bonus that no one but my husband will see me in these froufrou creations,” she writes, “and even he probably won’t notice, seeking only a peek in the pan on the stove, looking for bits to cadge.”
MANY DELVERS into nostalgia have rekindled love affairs with old guitars or musical instruments. Ron Frombach, 74, a Vietnam-era vet on Vashon Island, has been gathering regularly on a deck, playing bass in an impromptu band along with a few friends, his wife, Joyce, (happily) reports.
Tom Munyon of Marysville dusted off his autoharp, purchased when he was stationed in Oak Harbor in 1972. He hadn’t played it in forever, largely because “it’s a pain to tune 36 strings.” A digital tuner ordered from Amazon solved that problem. He doesn’t consider himself a virtuoso, but the instrument has been reassuring, and it has proven handy for submitting recordings to the Seattle Men’s Chorus and a church choir during the pandemic.
Jeff Flogel took his two guitars, one electric and one acoustic, in for tuneups and started lessons to pick up playing again. “I’ve also let my hair grow to complete the look,” he reports. “I’ve got the Seattle grunge look now, well on my way to ’80s glam rock star, because … why not? (Note: Jeff supplied a photo for proof; can confirm he is rockin’ the grunge look.)
Katherine Miller has honed her skills at canning, making quantum leaps beyond jam and the like to can razor clams, salmon and other Northwest delicacies — all the while struggling to negotiate “The Great Canning Jar Supply Shortage of 2020.”
Mary Perillo, an “old-timey craft quilter,” cranked out four quilts during her pandemic year, the first a log cabin arrangement appropriately called “Sunshine and Shadows.” She also has taken up drop-spindle spinning to create her own yarn from wool. “It’s like fly-casting,” she says. “You have to keep trying to get it just right. It’s very Zen-like and calming to try and get consistency.”
Rob Wilkinson of Seattle pulled off a double-nostalgia report: He mentioned being the subject of a small Seattle Times article many years ago about a “kid who made a forest of birdhouses. That was me.” Now, he says he has “dropped everything in my life that’s important to build birdhouses for family, friends, and anyone else who wants one.” He adds: “My wife, Carol, is considering an intervention,” he says, “but nothing will stop me!”
Kit Piper of Normandy Park, who is nostalgic for a usable tractor, is doing the next-best-to-scale thing: attempting to fix his mower rather than buy a new one. And, he says, there’s some woodworking in his future. “The treehouse is getting remodeled, and it clearly needs a name with a glorious, fictitious history,” he writes.
Some people got nostalgic because of forced changes, reverting to practices they didn’t know they had missed.
Bill and Susan Ardissono, residents of the “not-fancy part of Shoreline,” found themselves walking regularly in their multigenerational neighborhood, bumping — at safe distances — into neighbors doing the same thing.
“We visited, six feet apart, talking loudly through our masks, with more of our neighbors on a regular basis than in all thirty-three years we’ve lived here,” Susan writes. “We talked about our shared experience of staying home, checking in on everyone’s health, asking after our families. Because it was a recurring activity, month after month, we shared milestones, watched the little ones grow up, celebrated the small victories.
“In some ways, it was a throwback to years gone by, when the moms were home all day, kids walked to the local schools, and neighbors truly knew one another. I’ll miss that when everyone gets back to their daily routines!”
OTHER NOSTALGIA BINGERS have focused on specific touchstones. Roseanne Kimlinger, who says the best parts of her “long-ago youth” were spent with Girl Scouts at Camp Robbinswold on Hood Canal, has spent many hours online adding to her collection of Girl Scout pocket knives beyond the basic “one that started things,” the classic Kutmaster of 1947-72.
Knives in her collection now date to the 1920s. Along the way, she has amassed some fascinating scouting history. “Did you know the Girl Scouts had an official switch blade for a couple years?” (In 1933, their catalog also included a first-aid kit to deal with, among other things, knife cuts.)
In the same vein, writ larger, several respondents confessed sudden longing to obtain, polish up, and even attract speeding infractions with a muscle car they’d pined for since younger days.
At least one person, Tom McBroom, who is retired at 72, says he actually gave in to this muscle-car twitch, acquiring a “stupidly fast Chevy SS Camaro — an in-your-face orange one bright enough to be a landing beacon for alien spacecraft.” It brought back his street-racing days, in a ’62 Impala, a ’65 GTO, then a ’71 Road Runner. He thought all of that — including the adrenaline rush and “instant 30-point drop in your IQ,” was long out of his system. Until the pandemic.
“Much like back then, I fully expected to get admiring looks as I drove the Camaro around in a stately manner (It had to be a stately manner because if you more than just lightly touched the accelerator, it took off like a Saturn rocket and set off every radar detector within five miles.),” McBroom reports.
“And I did get the looks. Trouble was, they weren’t looks that said they were admiring my badass car, but rather looks that said, ‘Why is the gray- haired geezer driving something that will pause his pacemaker when he steps on it?’ And heaven help me if I ever pull up to a stop light next to another muscle car who wants to race. I don’t believe my body could take the G-force.
“So was it a mistake to try to find a bit of nostalgia by trying to relive my classic muscle car days? The jury is still out, although if the pandemic lasts much longer I like to believe I’ll eventually get the nerve to push the accelerator down more than two inches.”
Nostalgia gives, nostalgia takes. Kept between the painted lines, it’s a road map to another time, place and reality that something inside of us wants. Dabbling, enjoying, and moving on is permitted, even encouraged.
It’s about continuity, and the practical application is less vital than the driving emotions. In her research, Batcho encountered a memoir of a man who kept a collection of tiny personal touchstones in a cigar box for his entire life. “At the lowest points in his life, he would take it out, just finger the objects, and it gave him the strength again to keep on going,” she says. “Nostalgia can actually save a life.”