Originally published in March/April 2015 Omaha Magazine
So an old friend said to me, “I used to like living in Omaha, but now it’s too big.”
Putting aside for the moment the imprecise nature of what “big” is exactly, I do get it. When I got here in 1967, the town’s west side ended at 79th Street. Omaha was referred to proudly as a “15-minute town.” You could get anywhere in 15 minutes. I remember the shift to “a 20 minute town.” Now I think we may have crept up to the half hour mark. But my friend’s problem isn’t distance, or traffic, or sprawl—he’s simply stuck in the past.
It’s impossible to avoid nostalgia.
Oh, there was a day when nostalgia had a bad name, but that was a long time ago, back when we all looked to the future for comfort. (Yes, I do plan to write about irony in my next column.) But back to the future—what went wrong with that?
For a start, every election we’d hear about how “our children are our future.” Now that seems to be an obvious platitude…unless those of us who’ve had children stopped to think for a second about a world run by our kids. When we considered the implications of that seemingly benign premise, the prospect filled us with a deeply felt sense of doom. None of us want to admit it, but the truth is that parents know at a very primal level, despite all of the love and pride we have for our gifted offspring, that these benighted little creatures have no brains.
We’ve observed the tykes at close range over a significant period of time. We’ve observed behaviors that give us cause to examine their skulls for leaks. On top of that we remember when we were “the future.” Look where that got us.
So this whole “future” thing makes us quake in our boots—or, tremble in our Birkenstocks if that is the lifestyle we chose back when we were vacant-minded adolescents.
I loved Popular Science magazine with its glossy, Technicolor artist renderings of flying cars full of happy nuclear families jetting out of the towering spires of some utopian megapolis into the peaceful green countryside where shiny robots milked the farmer’s cows and fed his bright pink pigs. The future? Well, I’ve lived in big cities and I’ve worked on farms. I know there are very few sparkly spires, pink pigs, or perfect families, and there sure as heck aren’t any flying cars.
So we gave up on the future. And that left us only the past—nostalgia.
We long for that fabled 15-minute city, part of some Golden Age, enlightened, peaceful, stable. These yearnings comfort us only so long as we don’t read history, research the ancestral tree, or recall that when we could get around town in a quarter hour, there was really nowhere to go.
For me, the final straw regarding the past occurred when it came to my attention recently that my days on rock radio were part of someone’s idyllic past. “Remember when Otis and Diver had that big election party at Peony Park?”
Oh, the horror! I had become nostalgia personified. The revelation had the same impact as waking up to discover I was a large cockroach. Thank you very much, Franz Kafka.
The future is scary, the past is a dream, and we are left in the unexpected position of having to choose the present…today…the now.
So, my humble suggestion, get in the car and go to Fontenelle Forest. Wander down the walkway to the trails and head down towards the river. Find a spot in the trees and sit down on an old stump. Listen. That’s the now welcoming you.
From my house the drive is exactly 29 minutes.
Otis XII’s newest book, Tales of the Master: The Book of Stone will be released this summer by Grief Illustrated Press.