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Patton Oswalt’s First New SPIN Column: This Way to the Egress

Illustration by Raymond Biesinger

You could rage against the seemingly never-ending recycling of ideas
and sense of entitlement that dominates our culture. Or you could use that to forge a path forward. Follow Patton Oswalt if you want to live.

Oh Lord, we’re doing the nostalgia thing again.

We’re always going to be doing the “nostalgia thing,” one way or another, aren’t we? A new
generation rises to piss off the one who came before, and then they stick around long enough to see a louder, dumber, more entitled, much younger and healthier and better-looking generation rise to piss them off. Maybe Elton John can rewrite his “Circle of Life” song from The Lion King, to play the first time someone from Generation Y bitches about how things were better before Lady Gaga was president. If Elton can cannibalize his catalog for Lady Di, he can certainly sing the passing of the post-Twitter kids. Mass funerals also need their dirges.

James Morosini and Patton Oswalt in a scene from I Love My Dad

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Nostalgia will always come back around, the two-headed snake we can never kill. Yes, two heads: nostalgia and the fear of nostalgia.

Nostalgia: Things were better before all of these cellphones and blogs and everyone posting everything they feel and see and say on the Internet for everyone to read forever. Things were better before every TV show was postmodern and self-aware. Things were better before every movie was a remake or a reboot or a boot-make. Things were better before music was all sampling and recontextualizing and cover songs and borrowed fashion and personae. Things were better when there
was genuine anticipation and surprise, when you couldn’t hear a leaked album or watch a movie assembled in a year-long series of furtive camera-phone-on-set pics or see webisodes of an upcoming TV show’s every character talking to the camera and describing who they are.

Fear of nostalgia: Well, fear of nostalgia’s pretty short. Fear of nostalgia sounds like this: If I’m saying, “Things were better before,” then I’m getting old and am thus closer to death. So, I’m not going to do that. I’m going to roll with the new.

And that’s where 47-year-olds in cargo shorts and ironic T-shirts come from.

I’m 42 as I write this, but I’ll be 43 when you’re reading it. It’s almost time for me to make my choice: Do I choose the stoic resignation of a presentable sport coat and slacks or the desperate defiance of a faded Pixies T-shirt and painful-to-my-arches Doc Martens?

How about a third option?

What if I find a way to stop worrying and love the next thing? The ever-increasing neural chaff spitting from every screen around me, along with the ever-shortening attention spans? The cameras on every phone? The death of anything original, replaced by mash-ups, fusions, outright thieveries disguised as homage? The beyond-autistic levels of rudeness and entitlement?

Are these bad things? Or is my reaction
to them bad? Is the way I let them affect me
the problem?

Neural chaff and shortened attention spans: You know what? What if it’s good that these twin demi-demons have been loosed into the world? It’ll only force me to focus my concentration (to save my sanity) and make what I do and say more startling and original (to even hope of
being heard).

Cameras on every phone: A warm, Orwellian reminder to not act like an asshole.

The death of originality: A grim prospect, but then I remember something Louis Armstrong once said, after being asked to give his opinion on some very trite, badly orchestrated songs he’d just heard. He said something about how, even with the worst music, he could see God trying to shine through.

I’m taking him up on that. Because even in
the most derivative, repurposed, seemingly soulless music, the sweatiest film remake, and crassest TV show, there’s got to be a human heart, trying to claw through its own medioc-rity. And recognizing it, being able to see it, is where better art comes from. If James Joyce could link mythical heroics to a fart at the end
of a night in the pub, then maybe someone will wrench great cinema from an iPad viewing
of Count Chocula: The Movie.

I’m going to use these mediocre times as
a training camp. I’m going to wade forward into this half-drained swimming pool with Juliana Hatfield’s Hey Babe on my headphones and
a Wallace Stevens poem in my heart. If I may quote the immortal Nicolas Cage, from the ghastly, derivative Ghost Rider film, in response to my own fear of nostalgia: “I’m going to use this curse against you.”

I’m going to build my castle in the swamp.

Originated published in SPIN’s March/April 2012 issue — read our Sleigh Bells cover story here.