Stranger Things in Stranger Times

…I’d trade all of my tomorrows for one single yesterday…

–“Me and Bobby McGee,” Music & Lyrics: Kris Kristofferson, Singer: Janis Joplin

Nostalgia is in the air.

You can see it every time another superhero movie has a HUUUUUUUUGE opening. I’ve seen it as a college professor for more than a decade with my film students’ almost universal, fanatical fascination with all things Star Wars. 

I thought growing up meant I’d never again have to feel marginalized for the big yawn I felt whenever a friend tried to tempt me into the Marvel or DC comic world.

Little did I know the pressure would be compounded by a perfectly enjoyable but to my mind not particularly deep 1977 film that would not only refuse to die but haunt pop culture for the rest of my life on planet Earth.

Me, talking about Star Wars #overit

Yes, I’ve always preferred the real world to a fantasy from the past.

Look away or backwards for too long and you might miss the danger right before you in the present.   Or the pleasure.

In that sense, you could color me realistic.

But realism is not so popular right now in particular.

You can see this in our politics.  Like it or not, Trumpism is a banshee scream to right the ship (Note: Literally) and make things the way they used to be in the good old days.

It is nostalgia for a past that is simpler, more prosperous and a lot more black and white.  Though to my mind it’s really white and black.  Meaning White first, and then, well, maybe just a little Black, for what remains.

For what else is one to think when perusing what America realistically was in what we now recall as the good old days.

Nostalgic for nostalgia? Hey, it could happen.

Though in fairness, this phenomenon is not alone limited to the U.S.  A new brand of White Nativism – which sure, some scholars refer to as nostalgia – has spread all throughout Europe and beyond.  So much so that one day, generations from now, the future scholars will surely look back to the first half of the 21st century as a time when the world had to choose between embracing the past or vaulting into the future and chose —

_________________________________.

Well, that remains to be seen.  But I, like you, have some very real thoughts on the matter.

This is why it surprises me at just how big a fan I am of the recently dropped season 3 of the ultimate nostalgia machine, Netflix’s Stranger Things.

Scale of 1 to 10, it’s an 11. #yuckyuck #illseemyselfout

As a Chair whose taste runs afoul of mythic pasts and the heroes who triumph in them, how is it that the greatest relief I’ve found from TrumpWorld in the last year is following the exploits of a group of kids from the type of suburban neighborhood I never lived in during what I consider the absolute worst decade in the history of my life thus far– the eighties???

I’ve been considering this all week and have not yet come to an answer.

There was really nothing much fun about the eighties.  Just look at the fashions and you can see how much we hated ourselves, and each other.

This was heartthrob hair. For real. #ohBilly

It’s one thing to go to a costume party today with giant shoulder pads and too short short-shorts but it’s quite another to be expected to put them on every day after you’ve teased and moussed up your hair into a humidity-defying frenzy.

What sane human being who lived through those times would crave that?  What kind of insane population would ever popularize that?

These are questions much too big to resolve through the enticing world view we’re given in ST’s third and best season.  Though through a strict storytelling lens, it’s pretty clear.  The appeal of the latest ST incarnation is that in its own small way it manages to evoke the best of nostalgia, fantasy AND reality.

Oh god that mall. That 80s mall.

The world of monsters and evil foreign/governmental villains might steer the overarching plot but what we really relate to is the stunningly imperfect humanness of the characters the Duffer Brothers created and the behaviors of each actor playing them.

Every one of its principal characters is on the surface central casting for the non-hero supporting role in any movie or comic book adventure.  Each in their own way is either neurotic, ill-tempered, phony, depressed, bookish, dumbly amusing or just plain unappealingly awkward.  In short, they are a group comprised of the last ones chosen for any sports team combined with the first ones suspended from every sports team.  (Note: And I wonder why I relate?)

And yet, in watching each of them get their moment as they’re thrust center stage and dared to become heroic, we find ourselves somehow rooting for them in what could objectively be considered the most ridiculous of circumstances.

Steve and Dustin’s handshake alone. #thesetwo

To create tons of believable scares when you’re being chased in a _________________ by a giant gooey _________________ is a tough enough hat trick to pull off.  But to do it in a decade that is already an overused sad parody of itself and get us to actually believe any of those people could actually exist is something else entirely.

And yes, there will be no spoilers here. 

oh thank god!

That is, for the handful of readers who have yet to tune in.  For the launch of ST’s season 3 has set a new record for Netflix, attracting 40.7 million household account viewers in its first four days, almost half of which were viewed on TV screens on its launch over the Fourth of July weekend.  The only show on TV that was more watched during that time was when real-life superhero Megan Rapinoe lead the US women’s soccer team to victory in the Women’s World Cup.

QUEEN #thatsall

Though I was not one of those who watched ST in it first four days, I will cop to binging it in two perfect four-hour sittings over two nights a week later on my big red sofa with tortilla chips, guacamole and my dog in my lap.  For me it was not so much nostalgia as it was pure decadent escape from the continuous loop of a news cycle that at times has become simply unbearable.

Which, even more strangely, probably puts me at the center of the very definition of nostalgia – a longing for a past or a place with happy associations.  It might not be exactly my past or my place/town onscreen but, well, facts are facts, even in today’s world.

Gosh, I hope not.  Since my husband just walked in the room and, hearing I was waxing nostalgic about nostalgia, reminded me that a Swiss physician first coined the term back in 1688 as a psychological disorder similar to paranoia, except that the sufferer is manic with longing.

For what exactly, I’m not sure.  Nor, I suspect, are most of the rest of us.

Janis Joplin – “Me & Bobby McGee”

Open Books

Does anybody really want to be private anymore?  Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat, Facebook and their many future and inevitable iterations would say otherwise.

The idea that each of us can express opinions on a mass scale and actually be heard – well, read and seen, which are close but not exactly the same thing – feels revolutionary.  Rather than shouting in the wind, or to your family and friends, one can literally shout at the world these days and it is entirely possible that a person or mass of people that one’s never met will see, hear, perhaps even listen… but most importantly RESPOND.   Of course, not always kindly.  File that under be careful what you wish for.

Oh days of yesteryear

Still, one could argue the situation these days is a lot more preferable than it used to be.  There was a time not so long ago that one could die in frustration with one’s inner thoughts or angry outer thoughts that the world too often turned away from.  Certainly not everything one has to say or voice is important to the world but what is certain is that it is very much important to that person.

We all, each of us, have at least one thing in common and that is the desire to be heard, and in turn, hopefully, understood.  By someone.  Or many.  Why?  Well, it varies.  Sometimes it’s on an interpersonal issue with someone we know.  In other more existential moments it is on larger topics and what we believe about ourselves.  about the world, and about humanity.  And in loftier but no less meaningful moments it is about a pressing desire to proclaim what is RIGHT AND WRONG in  ALL of the aforementioned orbits.

It really is hard being the smartest person in the room

When we can’t stop shouting about an instance, an argument or an issue, it’s more than pressing.  It’s crushingly personal.  And we can’t shut up about it no matter how much we try or don’t attempt to.  This, in particular, is where a 2017 life comes in handy.  Even if one doesn’t receive a direct response (DM) there is a feeling that somehow, somewhere, someone listened.  And might act on what was said.  By US.

Oh, and by the way and on a very much-related topic – this – more than anything else – is the dirty little secret about being a WRITER.  (Note:  Though certainly, not the only one).

Was someone spying on me? #meeveryday

On a recent and quite brilliant stand alone episode of Girls, Lena Dunham’s emerging writer Hannah Horvath is summoned to the breathtakingly gorgeous and sprawling apartment of a famous writer played by The Americans’ Matthew Rhys.  It seems Hannah has written a think piece for a feminist blog about this man, one of her all-time literary heroes, and his misadventures with a series of four different college age women he mentored and taught with whom he had unwanted or perhaps manipulated wanted, sexual relations.

Hannah tells him she wrote the piece as a means of support to thousands of young women who are forever scarred by a situation of abuse at the hands of someone more powerful.  But the writer makes a powerful case that although her words are brilliantly executed by someone with rare talents, they only tell a partial story of what she merely chose to see based on second and third hand accounts that she read.  For to be a true writer, he tells her, is to not only respect all sides but to dig deeper into one’s subject and understand reality, motivation, connection and situational circumstance in order to truly determine what constitutes the truth.

At which point, Hannah and the author have their own new interaction that EXACTLY mirrors one of the aforementioned circumstances, leaving it to the audience to determine who was right or wrong.  Or if, indeed, such a thing even exists at all.

Oh how I’ll miss you, Girl #hannah4ever

There are all types of writing and each has their individual demands.  But what they all have in common are two very specific things:

1. The truth

and…

2. What the writer believes the truth to be.

Of course, there are few absolutes in the world outside of math and science and lately even those have been brought into question.  Which really only leaves us with #2 and brings us full circle.

As both a writing teacher and someone who annually reads numerous works of writing from all over the country for various grants and scholarships, it becomes joyously and sometimes painfully obvious to me that when reading a writer one learns as much about that person as one does about the issue or subject being presented.  Often more.

You can’t help but begin to wonder – why of all the subjects in the world did this person choose to concoct a story about homeless LGBT youth?  What happened in their background that provoked this individual to pen a story about a 1930s honkytonk in the southwest with such fervor?  Who would choose to devote years to telling the tale of gnome who appears to a young lad in the middle of a cornfield at turn of the 20th century Midwest?

Or a tiny sprite of a girl who loves eggos

I choose these because in the last year all three have been among the most outstanding student and professional pieces I’ve read from young, unknown authors.  And in the cases of at least two of the three (Note: I do not know the author of the third) I know the writers revealed quite a bit more about themselves than they ever intended.  And to their great credit.

I’ve quoted it before but it bears repeating that no less than six famous writers are credited with having once famously stated (and I’m paraphrasing because five of them most certainly did):  Being a writer is easy.  Just open a vein.

And add to that in less witty parlance:  There is no other way to get to the truth.

Perhaps (?) (!) that was what Margaret Atwood was doing in the early eighties when she wrote the now famous A Handmaid’s Tale – a work of fiction in a dystopian world that not only went on to become a best seller which has since never been out of print but has spawned both a feature film and an upcoming Hulu television series where Ms. Atwood herself makes a cameo guest star appearance.

And…… PEGGY!

In her story, a Christian fundamentalist movement takes over the United States -which reeks of pollution and sexually transmitted diseases – and installs a totalitarian regime that subjugates women and forces a particular class of them to serve as the term vessels of unwanted pregnancies to a more powerful group of men forcing their wills on them for what they believe to be the ostensible survival of society.

Well, of course this is a work of fiction!

Fact almost seems more surreal than fiction these days

So much so that Ms. Atwood herself penned a piece several days ago for the NY Times explaining where she was and what she was thinking when she first wrote her perennial bestseller.

As well as what she could offer as to it’s meaning in what has been promised to be a new and improved United States that will once again be great again.

It’s a curious position to be in – addressing the real possibilities of a fictional story written in the past of an unimaginable dictatorial future some believe we are headed towards in the present.  But like any great writer she demurred on how prescient she was, attempting to be vaguely encouraging without providing answers.  In the age of what we’re constantly being told is instant communication, it’s up to all of us to draw those conclusions in the present.  Loudly.  For our futures.  Revealing not only where we stand but real parts of ourselves.  Before that is no longer a possibility.