Turn Back the Clock

April 25, 2008

“The commercial overproduction of souvenirs means that you’re inculcated with nostalgia before you’re even old enough to feel nostalgic.” 
                                         – Svetlana Boym

In the seventeenth century, a 19-year-old Swiss medical student named Johannes Hofer constructed the word nostalgia out of Greek root words meaning “return home” and “sickness.” For the next two centuries, the term held a tenuous foothold in the medical lexicon, doctors sporadically diagnosing patients with this homesickness disease and treating them with, among other things, opium, leeches, and trips to the Alps. On Wikipedia, the page for nostalgia includes the assertion, backed up by sounding like the truth if not by a scholarly citation, that this malady was particularly prevalent among soldiers in foreign-based armies experiencing defeat. Nobody yearns like a loser.

I came out of the womb ass-first, a breech birth, and have continued living my life looking backward ever since. I wrote my first autobiography when I was seven. Its thesis was that life is boring. I reminisced about places where I’d once lived. The longest scene in the manuscript detailed one of my earliest memories, from my first home, a unit in a horseshoe of identical connected units in Willingboro, New Jersey. I must have been about two years old. I had gone outside to play and when I tried to come back inside I couldn’t figure out which of the identical doors was my own. They all looked exactly the same. Where is my home?

The use of the term nostalgia to refer to a disease tapered off in the late 1800s. Industrialism and imperialism were in full steely bloom by then, which inspired in the powerful and their aspirants an embrace of a utopian future where looking backward would be laughable, if not punishable. Why look back when the future is so bright? Meanwhile, most everyone else got in motion, crossing oceans, crossing continents, massing in slums, disappearing into mines and factories and mills before dawn and coming out filthy after dusk, moving when company profit margins slipped too low, moving when hungry, moving when forced, moving by conscription, moving in a winding, wounding search for home. Maybe for too many to any longer call it an anomaly, a disease, the idea of home began to seem illusive, impossible, disappeared. Just a door no different from any other in a utopian infinity of doors.

I mark the beginning of my baseball card collection with a change of homes. I started collecting cards in late 1974, when we moved from Hopewell, New Jersey, to Randolph Center, Vermont. Since then I’ve been back to all the places where I lived growing up. To Willingboro, to Hopewell, to Randolph Center, to East Randolph. It’s always the same. I stand there looking at the house, the street, and maybe there’s an ache, but it’s not big enough to make me cry or write a poem, and nothing happens, and I get bored, and I go buy something.

Nostalgia lost any lingering associations with homesickness in the twentieth century, as it became commodified on a mass scale. It had long been possible to buy things that had, for the buyer, associations with the past, but in the twentieth century the mass production of pop culture artifacts, and the aggressive marketing of those artifacts, helped the meaning of the word nostalgia complete its maturation from a disease of homesickness to a general longing for the past, an aching treatable not by leeches or opium but by oddly similar modern equivalents. For the last few decades the nostalgic have self-medicated by buying records and clothing and movie tickets and artifacts such as Fonzie lunchboxes if they have a little money or Fonzie’s leather jacket if they have a lot or Fonzie trading cards if they are the type to salve the ache of modern life, that long homeless losing streak, by holding and staring at and, most importantly, having flat rectangles of cardboard with photos on the front and text on the back. You can make a purchase. You can turn back the clock. You can have all you lost.

For a while now most of my days involve a search for home through the obsessive inspection of one after another of my childhood baseball cards. The latest of these cards to center my attention is the one pictured at the top of the page. It’s the only one in Topps’ 1977 “Turn Back the Clock” series that I own. There are others available on eBay. I know this because I checked eBay while, with another web page opened, I listened to the famous Grateful Dead show from the same year as the card, at Barton Hall in Ithaca, New York, the band in a groove as deep as any they’d ever found, the music so good it almost makes me weep, as if I’m returning to the golden center of a time that I can idealize as a perfect past even though I never experienced it. In these incredible times you can access practically anything you want. You can metastasize the nostalgia built on your experiences into a nostalgia that overflows the borders of your own memory. You can be nostalgic for places you’ve never seen, times you’ve never lived through, music you did not share in the creation of but which, now, due to the miracle of technology, you may well be able to have.

The other players with feats featured in the “Turn Back the Clock” series were either still playing or had been retired for a while at the time the cards came out. Nate Colbert, on the other hand, had just finished a two-city, sixteen at-bat, .178-hitting stinker of a final season in the major leagues. I wonder if seeing this card caused him to soak his famous muttonchops with the bittersweet tears of nostalgia, like a guy just given the boot by his true love looking at a picture of the two of them on their happiest day.

The first thing that came to my mind when I wrote the above simile about a couple’s happiest day was the first long day I spent with a woman I met a few years ago, when I was working in a bookstore. She worked at the bookstore too. There wasn’t anything overtly special about that day. We poked around an aquarium store, spending a long time petting a black cat who was lounging around on top of one of the tanks. We went to a couple shoe stores looking for and not finding a pair of suede sneakers of a particular kind that I like to wear because they remind me of the 1970s. She bought sunglasses at an outdoor bazaar. We got something to eat at an Italian place, then sat and drank some coffee in a narrow, empty nook in the back of a small cafe. We walked to the subway station, and she kissed me goodbye as her train to Queens was rolling into the station.

A few years later we moved to Chicago. I wanted to go somewhere I’d never called home. After a couple weeks in our new apartment we went to an animal shelter just before it was due to close for the day. The woman volunteer who took us back to the cages told us she had one really special cat left. She opened the cage and the cat, black like the one from the aquarium store, got up and looked at us. Abby picked him up, and he reached over her shoulder for me, already purring. It was, for me, love at first sight. We took him back to our apartment, which on his arrival became our home. Sometimes, thinking of that moment when we first met, I pick him up and squeeze him and say to him, “Remember?”


  1. 1.  Jenny kissed me when we met,
    Jumping from the chair she sat in;
    Time, you thief! who love to get
    Sweets into your list, put that in.
    Say I’m weary, say I’m sad;
    Say that health and wealth have miss’d me;
    Say I’m growing old, but add-
    Jenny kiss’d me.

    –Leigh Hunt, probably from 1835ish, when nostalgia – or at least wistfulness – seems to have existed.

  2. 2.  I think nostalgia sometimes paralyzes me. I limit myself because I remember a feeling or experience and want to recreate it, therefore I find excuses to not move away. Or excuses to not try knew things. But then I realize that other people in my life don’t really care that much about that nostalgia and recreating that experience.

    I guess I realized this last night after I got kicked out of the Dodger game. I realized that Frank McCourt doesn’t care about my nostalgia for Dodger Stadium and the Dodgers. He wants to turn it into an amusement park parading guys like Vin Scully and Joe Torre around like salesman. So like Jeff Kent, I got ejected in the eighth inning. Yeah, last night I was that guy.

  3. 3.  “…In these incredible times you can access practically anything you want.”

    Except love, perhaps.
    Except love.

    I always confused Nate Colbert with Clarence Gaston. They slugged moonshots together in San Diego during my young, impressionable years.

    But then Clarence became “Cito,” looked ahead. Moved on. Raised a rifle company of heroes north of the border. Became a leader of men. A trailblazer. Became a twice-decorated Champion. Honored. Loved.

    Nate Colbert remained Nate. He declined, was through by 30. He played out the string with a cameo appearance as a reserve on an Oakland team teetering on the edge of an abyss, on the edge of irrelevance, just like he was. A team and a player whose glory days were now behind them.

    But there’s always nostalgia.
    There’s always a photograph.
    There’s always ‘Turn Back the Clock.’

    “…looking at a picture of the two of them on their happiest day.”

    I suppose I really should put that photograph of my own away somewhere one of these days.

    The photo that’s on my bookcase, in a little frame with a silver-painted butterfly, a picture of one of the happiest days I can remember.

    But put it where?

    That’s the thing.

    I don’t know.

  4. 4.  1 : Great find. Yeah, I imagine the feeling of nostalgia, if not the word, must have existed in some form going way, way back. (Adam and Eve “nostalgic” for eden, Odysseus “nostalgic” about his trusty dog, etc.).

    2 : Any interest in telling more about the evening’s events? (Who doesn’t love a good bum’s rush story?)

    3 : Man, great stuff, Pete.

  5. 5.  I’ve been listening to the 1950’s channel on XM the last couple of days. It’s either nostalgia for stuff that happened before I was born or nostalgia for when I liked Fonzie.

  6. 6.  5 : I get into similarly time-tangled ’50s phases in which I’m not only “remembering” the ’50s, which I obviously wasn’t around for, but also remembering all the cultural rememberings of the ’50s. One particularly powerful bit of inherited nostalgia I have for that decade and its music comes from a memory of mine from the ’90s of sitting in the back of the liquor store where I worked while hits from the ’50s on the oldies station caused the store owner’s silver-haired friend Larry, enjoying his evening vodka and Sprite, to stare wistfully at the ceiling and say “Boy, this one really takes me back.”

  7. 7.  Ungh. (My best transliteration of my body’s wordless silent/loud acknowledgment of impact of post.)


    » Re commodified nostalgia: Can be really horrifying, can’t it? And then it creates some truly ridiculous sights. I’m thinking caucasian ersatz hipster wearing Homestead Grays cap. We’ve all seen this guy.

    » I’d have to say the impulse toward nostalgia — toward remembering even — is something I look upon with heightened caution these days. In mind’s eye, too many locations and experiences have the aspect I’d imagine prison cell would to ex-con. Why would I want to go back there. All wise men I’ve known in flesh or words recommend the full embrace of What Is in the present moment. In which, of course, pain is always present, which is why every nerve within me shouts “run away!” But the rumor is that real joy and love are only to be found in the present moment, too.

  8. 8.  Nostalgia’s a funny thing. For some reason, as a 10 year old in 1977, reading about Nate Colbert’s accomplishment from 1972 seemed like a long time ago. I was in first grade when that happened, for chrissakes! But who the hell as an adult in 2008 would appreciate a Turn Back the Clock card for something that happened in 2003?

  9. 9.  4 I realized after I posted that poem that it’s even more apropos than I thought. The first two real, grown-up poems I ever learned were that one and “Ozymandias.” My father introduced me to them, so I associate them indelibly with being a child, pressed against my father’s side with an open book on our laps, as he read me these poems that he loved. Those old Romantic poems meant a lot to him, so it was a surprisingly intimate moment.

    It’s been 13 years since my dad died. The power of nostalgia can still overwhelm me.

  10. 10.  9 But then, that form of nostalgia really is a homesickness. Home isn’t just about the place, it was who was part of your home.

    2 I’m dying to know what it takes to get thrown out of Dodger Stadium… I mean, if it was something obvious, like getting in a fight with another fan, or throwing things onto the field, well… But I still want to know!

  11. 11.  4 Well, I didn’t run onto the field fortunately, but that would make for a good story. Anyway, my friend Dave bought some field level tickets down the right field line. Of course that meant immediately we were going to move closer behind the plate every inning or so. The umpires made a few bad calls in my opinion and so I started giving it to them, but I wasn’t cussing. By this time we were in what Dave terms the “Hollywood Section,” and man if you ever want to watch a quiet baseball game with a bunch of non-caring dead fish at the ballpark, buy tickets for that section.

    I was irritated by the Dodgers lack of energy on the field and awed by the D-Backs fired up approach. That team is legit. They move on the field like they are going to win. I’m yelling things like “come on Loney, look like you care,” and things like that. And yes the players could heard me with that lack of enthusiasm in the stands. So I am yelling at the umpires, yelling at the Dodgers and in my guess making everybody uncomfortable except for Dave who is laughing.

    I end up arguing with the “we’re season ticket holders,” in front of us while the people behind us are egging me on. It was a battle between the have and have nots with me being the center of it. I am usually not that guy, but last night, something got into me, including some beer. I got ejected for yelling at the players, yelling at the umps and then yelling at the section to start acting like baseball fans and to act like they care. I got led away to applause which Dave told me was for me and not against me. He says it was a great performance and he never knew I had that in me. I guess I can always say I got ejected the same inning as Jeff Kent and Joe Torre did.

  12. 12.  Gosh, my grammar is wonderful. I should win an award. I should add that I let a few “what a bunch of bullshit’s” fly and things of that nature by the end of my rant.

  13. 13.  11 : Thanks for sharing the details. Reminds me of the time I was at a sparsely attended Mets game with my friend Frank and we started hollering for the pitcher to start throwing chin music. I forget why exactly. We were told by uniformed officials to quiet down. We did, meekly. I felt cheated not being able to emulate as an adult the grown-up ballpark loudmouths I had marvelled at as a child.

  14. 14.  11 and 13 remind me of a Lancaster JetHawks single-A game I went to a few years ago. Somebody wanted to heckle the on-deck hitter from the visiting team, so he walked up to the screen and said, in a conversational tone, “Hey 14. You suck.” The player nodded, and the fan went back to his seat.

  15. 15.  14 : Damn, that’s funny.

  16. 16.  The only time I ever came close to getting ejected was at a minor league game when I started heckling the mascot. I think it was a cat, although I’m not sure. I do know it was this nuclear green color. Anyway, it was prancing on top of the dugout during an inning and blocking my view, and I wanted to watch the game. So I asked nicely at first, and when that didn’t work I started heckling it. Then it started heckling me back, and the ushers had to come down to sort it all out.

  17. 17.  My only “run-in”: Late ’80s, Reading Phillies at New Britain Red Sox. My friend and I are a very immature 13 years old. We go down to the Phils’ bullpen and start saying “Reading Phillies” over and over again, purposely pronouncing it with a long E. We knew “reading,” as in books, and we knew “Redding,” as in the Connecticut town on the other side of Great Pond from ours. But “Reading” pronounced “Redding” was not flying with us. So we mocked their city’s name, “Reeding Phillies! Reeeeeding Phillies!”

    Finally one of the pitchers tells us to calm down. He says that the guy warming up has a “red hot flaming one” and “doesn’t want to be bothered.” I didn’t know what he meant then, and I still don’t. For some reason I thought he was talking about his penis, though it could have been his headache…or his fastball. Then the guy comes right up to me and asks us where we’re from. At this point, scared kid that I was, I forgot all about the heckling I’d just done, suddenly confronted with a large baseball player in uniform. I’m thinking he’s making conversation. And when I tell him my town’s name, and he purposely mispronounces it back at me, I obliviously re-pronounce it to him. “No, no, sir, it’s…”

    Great post as always, Josh.

  18. 18.  I had that card, and I think I recall thinking even then that 5 years was a weak amount of time to “Turn Back The Clock.” If memory serves, others went further back to previous decades.

    And I love that Barton Hall 5/8/77 show, but I may prefer the next night in Buffalo. The Help>Slip>franklin’s, Music Never Stopped and especially the Comes A Time are truly goosebump inducing.

  19. 19.  Josh, a Friend of mine and I tried to get thrown out of a AAA Richmond Braves game in 1989 or 1990. We were heckling Pam Postema (the only female umpire). MLB Pitcher Bob Knepper was a big anti-female umpire Actually, we were pretty nice about it just yelling such brilliant things as:

    “Hey Pam, we’re Bob Knepper’s relatives”;

    “Hey Pam, Bob Knepper said that last pitch was outside”; or my favorite

    “Hey Pam, Bob Knepper says you can join the John Birch Society, but you can’t umpire their softball games against the Klan.”

    Anyway, she just ignored us like the pro she was and we watched the whole game.

    Another story — I have some friends who went to a Pirates game. They drove up from Virginia and were drinking the entire way. When they got to the ballpark, they kept on drinking in the parking lot. Eventually the game started and they were drunk. The parking lot attendant “threw them into the game” because he said they couldn’t stay in the parking lot drinking all night.

  20. 20.  I’m really loving these fans gone wild stories. All are cause for great amusement, but the idea of fans getting “thrown into a game” is the second time (after “Hey 14. You suck.”) I’ve busted out laughing during this discussion.

    18 : Thanks for that tip about Buffalo. I started listening to it, and it’s pretty dang good.

  21. 21.  20 Josh, you really can’t go wrong with May ’77. Actually, you can start in Late April with that Palladium run and just go hog wild. Some truly amazing stuff.

  22. 22.  20 thanks Josh. I have sent a link to the three friends who were involved in that incident, in hopes that one or more of them will register and tell the story a little better than I did.

  23. 23.  11 I could hear you. I too bought tickets down the right field line and migrated over to about section 20. I thought you pretty funny.

  24. 24.  Holy shit, dude.

    I write these very words from the ‘Boro.

    I knew I liked you.

    I’m not a native, though. The wife grew up here.

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