We were all crowded into Steve's basement, which is usually not a noteworthy event. Nearly every weekend we'd invariably end up there, or on a slow weeknight, a dull Sunday afternoon for football... It was our de facto meeting spot, a place where we all congregated to do our own version of bible studies. But this particular night was different, for it would be the last time. I mean, sure, we were all going to meet again in a couple of months, but that was to celebrate a wedding, not ourselves. In the morning, Steve was going to drive off with most of his belongings to Columbus, Ohio, moving in with his girlfriend and seeing what life is like in the Midwest.
For a group of small-town suburbanites like ourselves, change is a messy equation. Comfortable in our routines, the thought of any disruption is challenging, rueful, terrifying. Few of us have actually left the town where we grew up (such is the life of middle class youths these days) so for the majority of our group of friends, this was an entirely different situation. Even his family has stuck near the general northern New Jersey area. No one (even those separated by divorce) is further away than a thirty minute drive. To up and go into near the edges of another time zone? Unheard of. But yet, here we all were, enjoying the moment, but in the back of our minds knowing that the Tahoe already contained a dresser, bed frame, two side drawers and a half-dozen variations of Timbalands, Jordans and K-Swiss shoes. We sat in the present, with our minds focused on the lingering future.
This seemed like an opportune time for us to do what American culture loves more than anything else: looking back. Ever since the late 90's, there has been a disturbing trend that believes we'll move forward by hearkening backwards. Our clothes are all manufactured from previous decades, with top fashion being recreations of those twenty years before. And now, with the advent of hipsterdom, seemingly every style and time is up for grabs. Standing on MacDougal Street and spinning around the block is akin to looking through a cultural kaleidoscope. Every era from the '50s forwards is represented except for on that is notably absent: namely, the present.
Even now, the latest fashion trend to hit 2011 is merely a callback to our youths. For now is the time of the snap-back hat. Remember those? The hats with your favorite sports team or travel destination with the plastic holes in the back, making them a one-size-fits-all affair? The cheap, awful things that usually broke, or wouldn't come equipped with a hole that accommodated your head size, sometimes made too large so you could only use one or two holes, causing your hat to pop open like a button on your pants? Do you remember how cheap they were, how the material was scratchy, the fabric disposable, and that the advent of velcro was seen as some sort of leap into the future? Remember how we all but dismissed their existence the second that fitted caps came in, they of the higher-quality, durability, and overall comfort? How we all loathed snap-backs and danced on their collective graves the minute New Era put them out to pasture? Of course you don't. And that's why you plopped down $25 to New Era for a hat that you wouldn't be caught dead wearing 18 years ago. Or, worse, to buy the exact same hat that you wore when you were in third grade.
But fetishizing the past can go beyond our actual experiences. Take, for example, Instragram, the photo-filter application for your mobile phone that takes the regular images your camera creates and makes them into imitations of old film stock. One of the most popular filters is that of the first Polaroid camera. It takes a clear, megapixel-laced account of whatever happened--essentially, the closest representation of what your eye would actually see at the time the photo was taken--and mucking it up to look like the cutting-edge technology of the mid-1960s.
The goal of a Polaroid is the same as any camera: save an image for longer than your mind is able to. With this specific camera, you were able to take a photo, get it developed after a couple shakes of your wrist, and hand it over to a friend without the need of a dark room or traveling to a photo booth. In essence, the goal was to do exactly what our iPhones are capable of in the present, except we've taken it to the most optimal level. Now, we're able to take photos that fully represent the experience that we had, free of obstructions and shortcomings of chemicals, and share it with the world through the same tiny device. It's the same process, only faster, easier. And, therefore, worse.
No, we can't use the technology that we've been building towards, since the advent of that camera, for the past forty-plus years. We have to make it look "cool," by fading it and having it replicate an image that we never actually took. The Polaroid filter is that of a camera that very few of its users have ever held, let alone practically used. We don't have the faintest idea of how they even felt at the time. The quality was the best they could muster; I'm sure there were many complaints as to its quality compared to traditional photography. But (quite literally) through our view of the past, it's now fun, different, murky, uses fun colors, and is nothing like you can really get at the present.
But can't the same be said of the future?
As we sat around in a large group for the very last time in this circumstance, we certainly reminisced, but our remembrances never went further than a week. Taking out our phones, we shared our experiences like any other group of people since they gathered around a campfire to tell stories of the hunt. But, with our new proliferation of cameras, we have shifted the way that we share these events, forever altering a the time-honored tradition of how these types of stories are passed down. From Greek auditoriums to stoops in Brooklyn, we've always focused on the importance of the storyteller to relate to us their experience. From them we gleam all of the necessary elements of the story, through gesticulation we get an idea of how things looked and transpired, and by the fluctuation of the voice, we understand the emotion involved. All of this in an effort to make us understand what occurred to this person, satiating his or her yearning to share.
Happ very easily could have told us how he was just driving in his car to work like any other day of the week, and when he looked at the dashboard there was a preying mantis staring at him. He could have gone on and on through descriptions of its crooked arms and how they jutted out at him menacingly, its puny size the last thing on his mind. How its razor-sharp mandibles moved ever so slowly back and forth, mimicking his own scream when he realized just what he was staring down. The grip on his car loosening, he pulled over to shoo it out the door, probably utilizing an exaggerated motion that belied what he actually did just to get a rise out of his captive audience. And we would have sat, at once entertained and curious, thinking about what we would have done in his shoes, imagining the mantis staring back at us, its size helplessly out of whack with reality.
Instead, he pulled out his phone. He gave us a brief set-up that was needed ("in the car, driving to work, and I come across this") and passed the phone around. As he kept going over the story in detail, we all got a chance to look at the photo at the top of the page. There it was, a praying mantis, creepy as hell, just staring back at us. Not just Happ anymore, but us. Now any individual who looks at that photo is able to experience an almost exact copy of that event as it happened: it had that lighting, it had that shadow, it looked directly at us with those eyes, those twitching mandibles. Instead of relying simply on someone's reactions we can now recreate our own. We can imagine how he felt because we know how we feel at the moment and can assume how we would react if we were sitting in that car, the mantis about as far away as a phone is from one's face usually. The image still holds 1000 words, but the focus has changed. As the photo gets passed from person to person, we can look at each other wide-eyed, sharing, every one of us, in the experience that our friend had. It is the apex of a shared moment. You guys don't even know Happ outside of his work on this site and you're able to look at the top image of this post and feel the exact same.
As the night winded down, the emotions started to pile up. Suddenly, as if hit by the revelation, some of us started to take photos of the night to try in an attempt to stick the evening in digital amber, preserving it for future displays on our iPhoto libraries, slideshows. In other words, it was a last remembrance of the way things were that forces out any need to understand how things will be. These moments are captured in a way that our shifting mind never will: frozen in time, with a person that we'll find hard to recognize the older we become. Invariably up for interpretation the further from the moment we become. Eventually we'll marvel at the clothes we're wearing or the color the wall used to be, the haircuts we attempted to pull off and "just how young we look," continuing in that same cycle of recreating how things were without realizing that we can never get back there again. All we have is a representation how we remember it to be, how we thought it was, and how it never will be again.
It's been a few weeks since Steve has left and very little has changed. We text daily about the Devils, keeping up with our beloved team via the same blogs, twitter accounts, and forwarding links to stories that we--somehow--hadn't yet seen. I'm able to see him and their dog, Jay, frolicking near the pond by their residence, through a series of videos posted to Facebook, taken from his perspective that I can co-opt as my own. I had never seen Jay around a body of water, but I'll be damned, it's pretty similar to the way I would have imagined. And with a simple touch of my phone, I'm able to actually see him, his lovely girlfriend, their new place, the food he's eating, the Green Bay game that he's streaming on his laptop, the game of NHL 12 that he's playing. Instead of taking photos as monuments we now burn through images of the present. I don't have to recreate anything; it's all there, through a lens, beamed directly into my hand (or tablet, or laptop...). Instead of yearning for times past, we're still creating them in real time. And I look forward to seeing whatever his life will become, no matter where he is on the earth.
We're living in a time where miracles occur and all we want to do is act like they don't exist, that they're somehow secondary to times past. All under the pretenses that if you went back in time and handed someone an iPhone they wouldn't lose their minds over it. Everything we do now is taken for granted (as Louis C.K. has so brilliantly put to words) eschewing the new and wonderful for things that, taken away from the prism of nostalgia, invariably suck in comparison. And the funniest part is, no matter what we think now, kids in twenty years will make some program that makes all video look like the stand-up iPhone view, completely neglecting the fact that it's awful and annoying and will probably limit whatever amazing technology is to come. But still, it happened, so therefore it's cooler than now, and more approachable than the future.
So do yourself a favor and start thinking that the present is cool. You'll get a head start on everyone else.