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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Monday, July 21, 2003

To hold a handful of Horlicks is to possess the sweet past

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By Michael Tsai
Advertiser Staff Writer

We're such saps.

For all of our antsy feet and drifty attentions, we men are, at heart, a gender of insufferable sentimentalists. Yeah, we're forever lusting after the new and fast and shiny, but a lot of us also maintain oddly powerful emotional attachments to the things we leave behind.

Contemporary American authors such as John Updike and Richard Ford have built their reputations mining pathos from these pathetic backward longings. If men are defined by their moth-like attraction to mystery and discovery, they posit, what can hold more powerful pull for us than the irretrievable past?

But what happens when the past becomes suddenly retrievable? What happens when we gain the ability to re-acquire the physical moorings of our imperfect memories?

If the Radio Flyer wagon you used to have as a tot suddenly turns up in a UPS box on your doorstep, what becomes of the image of that wagon (slightly bigger, a little redder) that you've been carrying in your head for 30 years? What is lost when you finally track down that old out-of-print LP and find out the song you've been singing to yourself all these years has completely different lyrics?

It seems that for the past few years, my buddies and I have been trapped in a sort of premature nostalgia, a strange longing to gather the physical stuff of our earlier lives, even as our current lives are still in flux.

One friend trolls toy collector Web sites looking for a Planet of the Apes doll (Dr. Zaius) like the one he used to have in the '70s. Another spent his last vacation holed up in his apartment trying to relearn old Motorhead songs on an exact replica of a guitar (found on e-Bay) that he had in high school.

In fact, thanks to the Internet, it's easier than ever for us to indulge these reclamation urges. Using just the most basic search techniques (and a good chunk of my credit limit), I've been able to turn tenuous strands of memory into tangible, express-delivery affirmations of my young adulthood.

Through LimeWire, I was able to find both the Terry Jacks and Misfits renditions of "Seasons in the Sun." I bought a "Minutemen: What Makes a Man Start Fires?" T-shirt (two sizes larger than the one I had in high school) from the online SST SuperStore. I even ordered five packages of Horlicks tablets, those weird malty things that Long's used to carry, from an online candy store.

I realize this sort of self-indulgence looks especially infantile outside our culture (a friend from Italy thinks the extension of childhood into adulthood is a characteristically American capitalist thing), but it is what it is. A society of consumers will develop memories that are closely linked to products. And if my tastes and curiosities are a bit shallow, the Internet confirms that I am at least not alone.

I mean, somebody had to compile the episode guides I visited to find out how old TV cliffhangers were resolved (wanna know how Batman and Robin escape from the Catwoman's giant magnifying glass trap?).

Someone had to know that other people would be interested in knowing the lyrics to the Frito Bandito jingle when he posted it online, too. I'm betting it was a guy.