Consider the thimble


Nostalgia is an odd emotion. It's odd because nostalgia doesn't stay in its lane. It makes perfect sense to feel nostalgia for happy things in your life, happy things that will never come around again. It makes sense to feel wistful and sentimental when, say, you go back to your old college or high school and see all the young people there just starting out, and you begin thinking about the good times you had.

But nostalgia is a vine; it does not grow in a line. It does not stay where it should stay. It starts in place, under control, and then it creeps into other things, crawls over other plants, spreads in all directions until it's everywhere.

Consider the thimble.

When I was a kid, we played monster games of Monopoly. We didn't have a choice. There was no X Box then (heck, we didn't have an Atari yet), no cellphone, no computer, not even a Commodore 64. The very edge of technology the button on "Electronic Battleship" that sounded vaguely like an explosion and the game "Simon" where you tried to repeat a series of colors and sounds. Man, we hated Simon.

So we played Monopoly, and played it, and played it, rainy day after rainy day, snow-canceled day after snow-canceled day. You probably know that Monopoly, by the box rules, is impossibly boring so we invested all of our imagination into making the game more interesting. Landing on Free Parking meant collecting all the money that had been collected from Chance and Community Chest cards -- later, if I remember correctly, we created a rule where if you landed on a property while the owner was in jail, that rent money also went into Free Parking.

We made it so that if you owned Electric Company and Water Works, you could shut down the power and the water to various properties -- I don't remember exactly how we did this. We, of course, allowed people to put multiple hotels on properties, thus making the slumlords of Baltic and Mediterranean very rich indeed!

Anyway, we kept inventing and reinventing the game because boredom does inspire creativity ... or at least it inspires goofy ways to keep ourselves entertained.

But even then: Nobody wanted to be the thimble.

If you are of an age where any of this even makes sense to you -- you will remember the tokens. You had:

-- Race car.

-- Dog.

-- Shoe. Loved the shoe.

-- Guy on a horse.

-- Iron.

-- Cannon.

-- Battleship

-- Top hat

-- Wheelbarrow

-- Thimble

In our world, the race car and dog were the prime tokens. I did want to be the shoe if I couldn't be the race car or dog, and the top hat wasn't bad either. The Monopoly people have retired various of these -- gone is the cannon, the guy on the horse, the iron (the iron!) -- and sacrilegiously added a cat to the game. A cat. Why not just replace Boardwalk with a ham sandwich? Monsters.

Anyway, we all loathed the thimble. I mean: What the heck is a thimble? It's something that you wear on your finger when you're sewing. What does that have to do with trying to achieve financial domination? Oh, and by the way, "thimble," terrible word, constantly inspires people to come up with horrific puns. Right now someone out there is saying, "Well, it's a thimble of the times." And that person should be quarrantined.

So, yes, we loathed the thimble. I seem to recall that people in our kid group would sooner reach into their pockets and use a dime or piece of lint than use the thimble. Sometimes people would search around for some household item like a button or paperclip or a Cheerio to use instead of the thimble.

So why do I feel so horribly nostalgic upon hearing that Monopoly is retiring the thimble?

Why does this move make me ... angry?

And sad?

Why do I care at all about the stupid thimble in a Monopoly game?

Nostalgia is a vine; it does not grow in a line. It does not stay where it should stay. It grows and spreads and gets into everything. I have a theory about this, not an original theory, but it's something I think about quite a lot. At first, it seems, we feel nostalgic only for things that we loved. This is sensible. We are nostalgic for games of catch with Dad. Nostalgic for old baseball cards. Nostalgic for the Easy Bake Oven ... or the old Johnny Carson Tonight Show ... or Evel Knievel jumps ... or grandma's cooking ... or the old New England Patriots helmets ... or Mom reading a book to us at bedtime.

The other day, my 15-year-old daughter expressed her nostalgia her favorite kids' show "Blues Clues."* Yes, 15 is too young to feel nostalgia, only it isn't.

*We are talking here about the old Steve version of Blues Clues, of course. The Joe Blues Clues, like Godfather III and the Star Wars prequels, never happened.

After a while, we might find that we feel nostalgic for other things, some of which we didn't exactly LOVE but just sort of LIKED. We're on eBay buying "Rock 'em Sock 'em Robots," though we knew even as kids that it was pretty stupid (and the necks never worked right). We find ourselves having long and preposterously deep conversations with friends about the old "Shazam!/Isis Hour," or the Naked Eyers song "Always Something There to Remind Me," or those box tape recorders where you had to hit play and record together to actually record voices ... even though none of those things were all that great.

And then, a few more years go by, and we might find that ourselves feeling nostalgic for stuff we didn't like at all, like Leif Garrett, Burger Chef or the thimble in Monopoly.

Why? I think it's because we are not nostalgic for any of those things, exactly. We are nostalgic for the time. We are nostalgic for being young ... for feeling young. No, we are not unaware of the passing of time. We know it is happening. We see our friend's kids every now and again, marvel at how much they've grown and ask what grade they are in, and they laugh and tell us that they are married with two kids. We know it's happening. We feel aches and pains. We have colonoscopies. We can do the math, and sometimes actually DO THE MATH ("Let's see here, I was born in 1967, that makes me ...)

Still, there's something in our minds that insists on fooling us, denying the movement of time, keeping us young in our heads. And when faced with undeniable facts showing that time stubbornly goes on, it feels like a cold splash of water. No! Stop! The other day, I went to Wake Forest to speak at Tommy Tomlinson's magazine writing class, a delightful group of 17 young women (and one guy who seemed a bit overwhelmed by it all) and we talked about my story about Bruce Springsteen and my father, and up and down the line the young women either:

A) Had never heard of Bruce Springsteen (aware of the name, nothing else).

B) Were only aware of Bruce Springsteen because of their fathers

C) Were only aware of Bruce Springsteen because of their boyfriends (who undoubtedly only knew about him because of their fathers).*

*I am not exaggerating ... it was one of those three things. At one point, I asked them all who might be the Bruce Springsteen of their generation, the person who they thought spoke for them musically. After a brief discussion, they decided it was probably Beyonce.

As I listened to them talk I realized: Well, of course they don't know Bruce Springsteen. Why would they? They were born between 1996 and 1999. He has not had a Top 50 single in their lifetime. He was well into his 50s when they became aware. There is absolutely no reason for them to know or care about Springsteen. I understand this.

And still ... it hit me like that splash of water that always hits when the years rush by too quickly.

Nostalgia always follows that splash of water. Yes, this is the barbaric yawping of an old man asking the world to get off his lawn -- keep the damn thimble in the Monopoly set. True, it's stupid. True, it's pointless and always has been. True, there was a worldwide vote, and people voted out the thimble, just like we would have voted out the thimble 40 years ago.

But if you take the thimble out of Monopoly, you are making the world just a tiny bit less recognizable. And the world moves away too fast already.