I can’t stand it when I hear people my age — namely me — reminisce about “the good old days,” when life was simpler, people were nicer, and gosh darn nobody had to lock their front doors. So whenever I catch myself getting my passport stamped for a trip down Nostalgia Lane — to the 1950s, '60s and early '70s of my youth — I try to make an immediate change of travel plans. I do that by remembering something I was told by one of the “youngest” people I’ve ever known.
Her name was Katharine O’Malley. Age 104.
I met O’Malley in 1999, when I was writing an article about the ongoing New England Centenarian Study program
, based at Boston University’s School of Medicine. NECS’s goal is to find out why some people never get sick, remain mentally sharp and outlive everyone else. Is it biological? Mental? Environmental? All three?
When I called O’Malley to ask if could come to interview her, she told me “OK, but you’d better hurry. I’m not going to be here for long.” The next day I drove (quickly) to her apartment in Marshfield, Mass., where she lived alone. Upon entering her living room, I got a bit of a surprise. O’Malley's suitcase was open on the couch. She was in the middle of packing.
“I’m leaving in the morning for San Francisco,” she explained. “Every year I fly out there and take my nephew and his wife for drinks at the Top of the Mark. That’s why I told you to hurry.”
Energy and Enthusiasm
Over the next few hours, O’Malley kept me fully engaged with her energy and enthusiasm for life. She sang and played the piano, showed me quilts she was sewing for the homeless (“Everybody’s doing it — get with the times!”) then proceeded to play the castanets (“I saw them on QVC and had to buy them”).
I asked O’Malley, who had spent her working years as a nurse, and who had outlived her husband and daughter, if she thought that the past was better than the present. I expected her to say "of course." After all, a lot had changed in the past 100 years, and not all of it for the better. Her hometown, where she still lived, was no longer a quaint beach resort. Its main highway was jammed with fast food joints, strip malls and a steady stream of honking cars.
Again, I was in for a surprise. “Today is better,” O’Malley said cheerfully and emphatically.
As the NECS’s studies show, a positive attitude like O’Malley's is the rule and not the exception among the very old. Most active centenarians don’t like to spend their days revisiting the past, and they certainly don’t sugarcoat it. For O’Malley, modern urban sprawl was probably nothing compared with the “good old days” of not having clean drinking water, antibiotics or a thermostat to turn up the heat. As a nurse, she told me, she'd had to walk miles uphill to work.
Here I Go Again
The other day, without even being conscious of it, I found myself starting to head down Memory Lane again. When a friend asked me if I had made any summer vacation plans, I replied: “I’d like to, but I can’t stand to fly anymore."
“Remember,” I said, “when there were no security lines, you got a hot meal, and planes were never full? The middle seat was always empty.”
Just as I was about to add, “Those were the days,” I experienced a nostalgia intervention. It happens whenever I become too cynical about the present. O’Malley’s words suddenly replay in my head: “It’s better now.”
Her words always force me to put the past in perspective. Unlike O’Malley, I never knew a time without tap water, penicillin (I remember my first polio shot) or forced air heating. Still, a lot was missing when I was growing up, like civil rights, concern for the environment, animal awareness, automobile safety and organic produce (now available at Costco, no less), to name just a few of the things that make "now" better.
Plus, if I miss an episode of Mad Men, I can On Demand it later. So even if I can’t always get an aisle seat when I book a flight — even if I have to print my own tickets, arrive at the airport two hours ahead of time, shed half my clothes to get through security and, when I'm finally on the plane, do gladiator-style battle with my fellow passengers for space in an overhead compartment — life is still better now.
I hope I’m still saying that when I’m 104.
Say "No" to Nostalgia: 10 Reasons Why Today Is Better
Here, in no particular order, are my personal reasons for not wanting to climb into a time machine and return to the 1950s, '60s or '70s. What’s on your list?
Before Starbucks came along, you couldn’t get a decent cup of coffee outside of a major U.S. city. When I traveled, I always took along my own beans, a drip coffee pot and paper filters. Better now.
Before the health club movement exploded, I exercised in the dingy basement of my local Y, which consisted of some free weights, a chin-up bar and a clientele of aging Korean War vets with anger issues. Just this morning I worked out at my health spa with Nate, my personal trainer, then had a cold stone massage. Better now.
Before apparel stores like the Gap and Banana Republic came along in the 1980s, only the wealthy could afford stylish casual clothes. Today, in my khaki pants and Polo shirts, I look as sporty as Thurston Howell III. Better now.
At age 14, I developed migraines, which I am still subject to. Nowadays, when I feel one coming on, I pop a prescription pill and the headache is derailed. There are even migraine-strength over-the-counter pills that provide great relief. No more pain. Little expense. Better now.
When I was teenager, olive oil was considered exotic. Over the last few decades, the food revolution has vastly expanded our gastronomic frontiers. Today, supermarkets sell everything from herb-scented sea salts to green baby coconuts. Of course you can still buy Spam — it even comes in a healthful "oven-roasted turkey" version. Better now.
When I was growing up, I saw films like Ben Hur and Some Like It Hot at my local movie theater, where a thick, swirling cloud of cigarette smoke hung over the audience like something out of a Stephen King novel. People smoked on buses, in work places and in doctor’s offices. Why not? The doctor smoked too. Better now.
Not that long ago, gay people had to conceal their sexual orientation from their friends, family and colleagues. When I went to an office Christmas party, I had to bring my “girlfriend.” Today, I could bring my husband, or Santa. Better now.
In 1960, my parents bought a ranch-style house outside San Francisco. Even though this wasn’t the segregated Deep South, the purchase agreement contained a clause that said the subdivision was “restricted,” meaning minorities couldn’t buy or live there. The local zoning commission made sure that my high school was 100 percent white as well. (I won’t even get into my school’s annual “Slave Day” auction.) Better now.
Not far from my house was an active whaling station. Growing up, I didn’t know blubber from flubber. Today, instead of turning whales into lamp oil, we turn them into movie stars. Better now.
Used to be, you rarely telephoned people outside your area code because long-distance was too expensive. You prayed they called you. (And who of my generation doesn’t need a defibrillator when they recall these scary words: “Collect call. Will you accept the charges?”) Now I can keep in constant contact with all my friends around the country. Just another thing that makes my life richer. Better now.