By Michael Stelzer Jocks, History Faculty.
I’ve always been a nostalgic kind of guy. I enjoy romanticizing the previous iterations of my life. There is irony in this. I am a history professor that loves to preach to my students that ‘THERE WAS NEVER A GOOD OL’ DAYS’ It is not much different in my own personal history. Yet, I often romanticize time periods of my own past that I realize were not necessarily good times. Evidently I’m a paradox.
Let’s venture into this strange nostalgia.
- Though I was undoubtedly nostalgic at an earlier period in my life, I would say my oddest nostalgia occurred when I was in college. Inexplicably at 19, I began to view my high school days through rose-tinted glasses. This made absolutely no sense. When I was living high school, I hated high school. I deeply romanticized a time that should not have been nostalgic.
- After college was graduate school. Surprise, surprise; at 23 I could not get enough of college memories. Now, this made more sense. College was a great time; much better than high school! Plus, in comparison to undergrad, graduate school was trying. My desire to succeed began to really take over my life. The pressures of grad school just made any blemishes on my college experience pale in comparison.
- I got my advanced degree in 2002. I went looking for a job. Then I found a job. Oh boy. My student loans needed to be paid back. Hmmm… maybe grad school, with it’s bookishness, it’s intellectual stimulation, it’s trips to the library and wide-open schedule wasn’t all that bad after-all. At 27, as a working stiff, the thought of once-stressful grad school made me nostalgic.
From 1999 (grad school) to 2008 (career), Chicago was my home. Though my university was by no means small, the big city was a bit of a culture shock. My initial nostalgia for college probably had as much to do with the location of my university as it did with parties, classes and social life. The entity of Chicago just added to the stress of school and career life. Chicago was bills. Chicago was truly being independent for the first time. Chicago was living with my fiance, paying rent on time, dealing with bad landlords and constantly taking in stray cats. All the eras of my life seemed simple compared to Chicago.
Then, in 2008, my wife and I left Chicago. We moved to Oak Park, just to the west of the city. We bought a house one block over the Chicago city limits. My two small daughters were born, and then they started day-care (that bill was like a second mortgage!) Oak Park hasn’t been utopia. Taxes, house repairs and play-dates keep us busy and sweating. Still, I would not want to live anywhere else. I love our community, our neighbors and our friends. Oak Park is much more home than Chicago ever was.
But, just because a place isn’t home doesn’t mean I can’t be nostalgic for it.
A couple months ago, I turned a Chicago nostalgia corner. I was given the opportunity to teach the ‘Chicago Urban Experience’ course at RMU, and began to really think about Chicago. What is the identity of Chicago? How does Chicago shape you? I wanted my students to think about these questions. So it only made sense for me to ask the same questions of myself.
One day, I was on the train reading Neal Steinberg’s memoir about his life in Chicago. Then, it hit me: That feeling of nostalgia. The feeling put a silly smile on my face. All of a sudden, I find myself doing something unexpected: I am looking around and absorbing Chicago. I look at the faces on the train. I look out the window on the El at the neighborhoods going by. I pay attention to the beautiful architecture of the loop. Heck, I even enjoyed a Chicago hot dog the other day. The people, the culture, the history of Chicago are wonderful! This class reminded me that when I lived in Chicago, it wasn’t just stressful, it was also incredibly exciting! The restaurants, the friends, the unknown. These things are now my romantic past, and the thought of them warms the cockles of my heart.
‘Sweet Home Chicago’. Yeah, I guess it really was that.