What the ‘80s Mean to Me (Or, the Virtues of Growing Pains and Southern California Weather)

Of course, I lived through the ‘80s as a little boy. But my experience of the time was not complete, coming as it did through the filter of a still-developing mind, where conscious experiences in childhood much later become traces of an elusive totality—a reflection of the evolution of human memory.

It was in 1994 that the ‘80s first glimmered at me from across time. They showed in the eyes and bearing of a young woman maybe ten or eleven years older than me. Sometime during that year, I was at a friend’s house where a mini-party was getting underway. At one point early on, as my friend’s sister traipsed through the house intermittently primping her hair, getting ready to leave for a night on the town, a cohort of mine commented disdainfully on the music that she was playing. “What the hell are we listening to?” It’s a sentiment that I would hear many times through the years, up to today: “The eighties? Ha!” As if they were a quaint idea to be laughed off from the safety and enlightenment of the here and no.

She responded matter-of-factly, giving the name of the group or singer, and then added with an air of dignified superiority, “It’s from the eighties. It’s the best music ever.”—scoffing at the notion of adolescent ‘90s boys questioning her taste in music—music from “the past”. Observing her, I had one of the canniest observations I would ever have: I saw a person who was totally into a feeling, perfectly aware of her place in the world and secure in it. There was a look about her—she was in a consciousness.

Of course, I lived through the ‘80s as a little boy. But my experience of the time was not complete, coming as it did through the filter of a still-developing mind, where conscious experiences in childhood much later become traces of an elusive totality—a reflection of the evolution of human memory. This resurfacing of the ‘80s on that day in 1994 proved to be the inception of a new consciousness, another go-round, another chance to bask in the light of a time known as the 1980s.

As a child, I possessed an extremely vivid imagination and a mind that soaked up the world around me like a sponge. Everything around me—images, sounds, the Southern California October air, breezes that seemed laden with portents—was there for me to take in, an unrelenting assault of sorts which didn’t stop even in sleep. Not merely an assault on the senses, but something more—a stamping of the psyche.

I recognized it even as a young boy as an unusually strong gift that I had, the ability to combine perception with imagination to understand the world around me and to know things that I hadn’t experienced. It started with the earth itself….

 

That Southern California autumn air is like no other. It sweeps through the body, making the body a part of the earth—a daily cleansing from the sun, wind, and vegetation, a rejuvenation of both body and mind, priming me for adventure and parties and a communing with the land and society around me. It’s like rays of sunlight are inside me, pulsing and coursing through, refining my very eyesight and sensation.

Today, a consciousness is brought back to me on the wind. It comes literally from out of the past, a fall breeze blowing out of those past LA days. All it takes is the wind, or a certain sensation extracted from the day’s air, and experiences and visions both lived and not lived are brought back. It’s as if the wind has a supernatural power, bringing to me experiences lost in time, like time travel. This is time travel—it is what man is searching for when he ponders the idea of time travel.

There is a feeling like being in a corridor, a vast tunnel almost imperceptibly defined by a soft, glowing, white light filtering through an ethereal cocoon of gossamer. Sometimes the corridor takes the form of trees and foliage, and I find myself in a place of breathtakingly pure air, always a light breeze blowing, and warm rays of sunlight all around me. It is an essence that has always been in me, and I recognize this idyllic consciousness as being my own special experience of the time most significant and dear to me—the 1980s.

Like some two-headed creature, there is another aspect to this essence—one less blissfully surreal than it is instinctual. It’s what it feels like to be standing on the fringes of LA, looking out at the formless vastness leading out, the enormity imponderable–where does it begin and end? The apocalyptic and somehow heady states of mind brought about by such a landscape seem particular to Los Angeles alone— feeling—almost seeing—the desert wind sweeping down to rake the ground, carrying the conscience of ages of searching, desolation, violence, death, geologic time…. The landscape is swallowing, but natives and fellow searchers feel an odd kinship with it, an acknowledgment of one’s smallness in relation to the earth as well as a simple attachment to one’s own environment. Yet, gazing out at this primeval landscape, I am met with an inkling, a vision, that this is where civilization comes to its end, cast off by the living earth many years into the future. It is stark, rising from a visceral, primitive consciousness, born from the land itself.

Looking in, the haze clings to the distinctive cluster of skyscrapers, a sprouting of towers signifying downtown LA, symbolizing a city at its most enigmatic, unlike the skylines of New York City or San Francisco or Boston, which are denser and therefore hint at societal interaction, commerce, and connectedness. Downtown’s buildings, encased ethereally within the smoggy haze and framed by the San Gabriel mountains, seem more like portentous monoliths, and the city stands as a symbol—a final outpost in a wayfaring journey, the chaparral brush like a guide leading the way to it, to a new home, a new identity, new opportunities, and strange happenings.

Through the power of a very vivid and seeing mind while just a small child, I came to understand my environment (though I grew up not in LA, but outside of it, in Ventura County) and the concept of periods in time. And I was clearly aware that the time in which I was growing up was a very exciting and distinct time. As I got older, this cognizance evolved into an understanding of historical perspective, and I knew that the time in which I grew up,—the ‘80s and early ‘90s—when it was over, it was the end of a way of life and of an era. And I became sad with that insight. It is not a simple nostalgia, a missing and appreciation of the past. Instead, with my far-seeing awareness of the world around me, I understood that the era in which I was growing up was the peak of cultural and spiritual bliss, for all the problems in the world. So, it’s not merely a sadness—it is more complex. It is an understanding that no time will ever be better, that the best of civilization in my time is gone.

It’s a vanished world, the spirit of the ‘80s. The aesthetics, the outlooks, the energy, the physical beauty of people (that is, for me, the women). The fashion. It’s a spirit that can be heard in Debbie Gibson’s “Woo-hoo!”—her pioneered, buoyant vocal that’s in almost every song from her Out of the Blue and Electric Youth albums. It’s glorious, her way of singing—it captures the ‘80s spirit, the exuberance of youth in that decade. Is it normal, or healthy, to want to go back to those gone days so badly? Does everybody yearn for points in the past this deeply, or is it only those of us who lived through the ‘80s, in certain places, certain hometowns? Surely there are plenty of people in this world who would claim that their childhoods were the best times of their lives. And yet, they live out the rest of their lives perfectly content with the fact that those days will never return.

Those of us who were young in the ‘80s feel otherwise—because we loved the world and pop culture around us and had a thousand reasons to feel alive. A fundamental part of this is because there was just so much on offer in pop culture—technology, creativity, energy, and spirit were all so pronounced in the ‘80s. Because of this zeitgeist, the ‘80s are seen as more or less self-contained, much like the ‘20s before them. The ‘80s are the quintessential decade, the decade that brought the concept of a “decade” into the mainstream of collective consciousness. They are the beginning of modern times—also like the ‘20s before them. Almost everything that existed then, in many cases for the first time, exists today, just in a newer version—or in its original version (cassettes! not to mention CDs.). People were alive in the ‘80s, times were just exciting and fun. People made an effort to look good. Presentation and fashion were essential considerations. (Eighties fashion! It was the ultimate.)

I was so in tune with the times as such a young child partly because I didn’t have the attention that parents are assumed to give their children during those important developing years. I had to seek out connectedness and affection in other places, and those places inevitably were the larger world around me, the warm, human qualities of the individuals I saw out there in the world and in TV and movies.

While my parents neglected me in the ways that mattered, the consequence of that was a certain positioning in human consciousness. My upbringing was not defined by perpetual scheduling of insincere activities and “structure” foisted by pushy, aggressive, vapid parents trying to plug me into an adult’s world and thereby robbing me of my childhood. Rather, I had plenty of time to just be, free from the constraints of maladjusted “parenting”. Time to play with my friends, get into mischief, wander the town. And, importantly, time to absorb the world and pop culture around me by way of TV, movies, and music. I would become attached to the world around me and find that a forging of a realm not only of the mind but of the soul was taking place, where the worlds coming through the TV and the music formed a way of making sense of my place in the world. Over time, this awareness became part of my identity, to the point where those places of consciousness became a permanent home in an impersonal universe, a place where my soul and those feelings and sensations that make a person human are forever nurtured.

Pop culture in the ‘80s was, to my mind later, a representation of the world at its zenith. The music, movies, TV, and fashion of the ‘80s both brought and embodied joy and the best of human experience. That is why we ‘80s lovers not only revel in our understanding of the times as special but also sometimes feel sadness and longing more keenly than others, and experience a depth of feeling more strongly than others, at least when it comes to remembering those times. It’s why, from the point of pop culture, the ‘80s stand out as a time set apart from all other times in modern history.

Eighties pop culture was especially rewarding in the realm of TV. Punky Brewster, Growing Pains, You Can’t Do That on Television… these shows and many others in the ‘80s impart a playfulness, a fresh and enthusiastic approach to the vagaries of life, as well as dignity, candor, genuineness, and pure fun. They convey heartfelt attitudes, sweetness, innocence, sincerity, and they deal with matters of the heart, things that speak to human beings on an elemental level. More than anywhere else, music and TV reflected this zeitgeist of carefree living and a warm connection to other people. It’s what millions of people recognize when they describe the ‘80s generally in terms such as fun, wild, bouncy, bubbly, happy, upbeat, actually applying the same words usually used to describe ‘80s music to the times themselves.

Television in the ‘80s depicted down-to-earth, happy, decent, and yes, basically normal families. Today, that’s falsely considered quaint and unrealistic, even cheesy, but back then, it was the way things were. Or at least it was an ideal that television projected. Of course, while what is produced in the entertainment world is not necessarily representative of reality on a broad scale, it is the values, convictions, and dreams of individual hearts and minds that create the stories that stir us. These ideals filter down through the landscapes of the mind running through story creators, writers, and other like- minded colleagues and manifest themselves in these shows. While still pop culture, they are in this way reality, or at least representative of one reality—the way things are in certain minds, and the way they should more often be.

Of all the TV shows in the ‘80s that I watched as a kid, it was Growing Pains that would speak to me in a profound, elemental way. Whether by fate or something else, Growing Pains was the backdrop in front of which my perceptions of the time and place in which I was—the ‘80s in southern California— coalesced into an appreciation of my distinct position in the world and the person whom I was and would grow into.

Growing Pains was not the only show that allowed me to understand that I was living in a special time, but it was the unmistakable forefront of all the other shows that were meaningful to me, which included Punky Brewster, You Can’t Do That on Television, Three’s Company (on re-runs at that point), Small Wonder, Who’s the Boss, Silver Spoons, Different Strokes, and The Facts of Life. The show was a sort of landscape, a parallel to the endless California expanse in which I grew up, in that I lived in it vicariously and understood a whole world of life events and the meaning that flowed from those events. What happened in the show and the kinds of feelings evoked by it represented a world and a realm of the mind that I was at home in, both figuratively and literally. It was not a conscious acknowledgement or an identification—I simply understood that the show was a mirror of the regions of my mind.

The visions and consciousness of the ‘80s that I’ve carried around with me since then trace back remarkably to Growing Pains and to those worlds that it shares with other shows and movies. These essential archetypes include high schools, parties, bedrooms, and leafy LA neighborhoods. These four “spaces” are bound to my identification of the ‘80s as a distinct place in time and space and me in it. By way of these spaces which I observed and felt through TV and movies, I unwittingly latched on to a reality that existed in other planes and adopted it as my own.

The four spaces are like a channel for going back to the ‘80s and creating for myself lives that I never had. High school featured prominently in Growing Pains, but also in essential movies such as Can’t Buy Me Love, A Nightmare on Elm Street 2, Grease (not ‘80s, I know, but I first saw it in the ‘80s as a young boy), and countless others. The parties in movies like Sixteen Candles, Can’t Buy Me Love, The Gate, and the pool-party scenes in A Nightmare on Elm Street 2 captured my attention and imagination as a kid and suggested to me what life was like for “older people”.

My perceptions and consciousness of the ‘80s as a kind of dimension in time and space are also bound to the landscapes in which I grew up. Those lushly leafy southern California neighborhoods signify much more than a memory bank. They are a feeling, a place where the most intrinsic sensations and perceptions reside. It is not a conscious invoking of memory of the green and cushiony Los Angeles landscapes but rather a constantly recurring—at various, unpredictable times—vision passing through me, a sort of spirit of fantasy that stems from both experience and the essence in me. Randomly, a visualization like a dream manifests in me—which sometimes is almost tangible—of a green, airy, paradise-like place. Often it’s a neighborhood of wide sidewalks, and lush trees dominate the scenery, oftentimes appearing as like a huge canopy, forming a long corridor capping a sacred place of youth and light. Filets of sunlight glow through the leaves, landing on the ground as light beams, illumining the way ahead, and I can almost feel the sun and the breeze and the pure air, breathed with life by the trees and electrifying me. Sometimes I’m alone, sometimes I’m with a fair-haired angel of a companion, a sweet California earth-child like me, walking, sometimes skipping, through the passage, our innocence intact forever.

Then there’s the all-importance of the ‘80s bedroom. After all, the bedroom is where our developing minds and imaginations take off in full force, dreaming up plans and ideas in the hallowed space of our personal sanctuary, where our cassette players spin out Debbie Gibson’s Out of the Blue or Bryan Adams’ Reckless on warm summer nights while we lie on our beds staring up at the ceiling dreaming about that sweet girl whom we want to be our girlfriend, loving the outside world of our vast ‘80s pop culture wherein we boys first learned what a fine, classy woman looked like, being instilled with an appreciation of the sexiness of big blonde hair (think Lisa Hartman, around 1985, or Nancy Allen in Strange Invaders) and makeup, as if a template was impressed into us of what a sexy woman was for all time. Being a place of transport for all kids, the bedrooms in the shows and movies that I loved became zones into which my hyperly-vivid imagination could delve and reside, a virtual crossing over into another dimension and assuming the experiences imagined to have taken place in those rooms. Because of the glory of ‘80s pop culture, the bedroom became a symbol for the possibilities that life held out in the ‘80s.

Jesse’s bedroom, formerly Nancy’s, in A Nightmare on Elm Street 2 was a particularly strong place. Nightmare 2 scared me as a six- or seven-year-old, but the horror and the world in which the movie took place absorbed me and imprinted themselves in my mind. In accord with the overall feel of the movie, Jesse’s room at first glance seemed slightly ominous. But for me there was also more to it. It became both prototypical of my consciousness of the ‘80s and one of those channels that engaged and grew my imagination. After that, teenage bedrooms in ‘80s movies and shows all symbolized this dual meaning for me.

For some reason, the windows of the room have stood out in my mind—maybe because they were the background for almost that entire scene where Lisa (Kim Myers) comes to visit Jesse and surprises him during his classic dance to “Touch Me (All Night Long)”. Not long after Lisa enters, the scene takes on a subtly dark mood. You can’t see clearly out of the windows, and it gives the room an insulating quality, adding to the atmosphere of foreboding. Nightmare 2 being one of my vivid early memories of movies, the bedroom as part of the overall atmosphere of the movie became fixed into my subconscious and made a part of my memories and perceptions of the ‘80s. Then, with the advent of Growing Pains, I recognized another mirror of my consciousness in the Seaver kids’ rooms (including Mike’s (Kirk Cameron) new room—the guest house over the garage—in later seasons, which was really cool).

Different from the visions, which are like manifestations of a spirit in me, Growing Pains is more like a conductor, providing a path to a glorious time in the past, allowing me to create a reality of my own. The manifold events that took place in the show gave us viewers a wealth of lessons from and emotional connections to the Seavers. There’s warmth and closeness and camaraderie and ‘80s pop culture on parade. And not least of all for me, there is a family life and family closeness that I never had as a child in the ‘80s and beyond.

Jason Seaver (sweet ol’ Alan Thicke) was to me the perfect father. He was the complete antidote to the reality of being raised by my own father. Both during the show’s run and in later years, as I “grew up”, I recognized in the Seaver family the very family that I wished I had. As such, I was jealous of the Seaver kids, but even more so, as time marched us out of the ‘80s, I was jealous of the physical time and space in which the show played out. But Jason Seaver, as I saw more clearly in later years, is more than just the dad whom I wished I had. He truly is the perfect dad, by anyone’s standards.

Thoughtful, conscientious, funny, reasonable, rational, kind, generous, level-headed, smart, warm, full of personality, more than just a father but his own person. His attitude, forbearance, and attention towards Mike, vis-à-vis Carol (Tracey Gold), almost the perfect daughter, always struck me as I watched the show year after year—how Mike was treated with the same measure, if of a different quality, of patience and understanding as his less flawed siblings Carol and Ben. It was love that Mike’s parents showed him, and each of the three Seaver kids received the same amount of it. That is one of several reasons why the show is so great and was so successful and loved when it was on the air—for all the Seavers’ imperfections, the show epitomized what a family should be, and it epitomized the warmth and connectedness that should define human relations. It’s a theme and an archetype that shows up again and again in ‘80s TV shows, notably so in Punky Brewster.

Whenever I hear the Growing Pains ending theme music (the theme without the vocals), a whole world comes exploding back (Back from where?—was it ever really gone?). A whole lifetime of feelings and experiences at once lived, imagined, and yearned for swirls within me at the sound of that music—it is no less than the essence that is simultaneously within me and is me. The crashing in of that world is actually more like a heartbeat—it’s always there, even though you’re not always aware of it, except when it kicks into high gear—then you feel it there. There is oftentimes an intense, sometimes heartbreaking longing to go back to that past—not just to re-live it but to live it for the first time.

Among all these other things, the show evoked, and still evokes, in me a realization of happiness, a sense of true freedom stemming not only from the idea that I would one day be free from the suffocation of living in a dysfunctional family and live a life of brightness, but from the knowledge that I am my own person alive in this special, momentous time, a free spirit untethered from the bonds of oppression and destined for a life fused with the amazing world and pop culture of the time, a time which would never pass. I’ll make my way in the world in tune with that world and with society, in a place and consciousness born from that time.

 

There is a Punky Brewster episode that I cannot clearly recall, but the feeling from traces of a memory of what happened in the episode has stayed with me ever since I saw it, sometime between 1985-1987. I think what happened is that Punky leaves home—she either runs away or moves to another foster home. My powers of perception were in full force even then as a child of 5, 6, or 7, and they drew me into the emotion of the episode. I sensed tragedy and loss in what happened, and it is one of my earliest memories of emotional experience, an understanding that being alive in this world meant being exposed to a range of feelings.

As a result, I became attached to Punky and to the show. This emotional identification with Punky Brewster was one piece of a larger process—my awakening to the pop culture world around me—and through that, to the larger world. Being the ‘80s, this pop culture was glorious. And so it was a time and a world that was like a parental figure to me, teaching me the things that my own parents were incapable of teaching me. Human feelings such as love, warmth, enjoyment, and desire were nurtured in me by the joy found in pop culture in the ‘80s.

You can see this spirit of joy in the album cover for Debbie Gibson’s Electric Youth. (Recorded in that pop-culture pinnacle year of 1988, Gibson’s second, and greatest, album overflows with genius and vitality.) Gibson gazes back at the camera with a beaming grin, a portrait of infectious cheer—a simple cover of just the virtuoso herself in hat. Gibson’s youthful animation is a perfect representation of what the ‘80s mean for so many. Her image on Electric Youth projects a sweet innocence and a carefree attitude that many people ascribe to the ‘80s and believe to have died out with the passing of the time. In this regard alone, the ‘80s are something to be treasured. It was a time when things were worth holding on to and pop culture was not just a pleasant diversion but had real meaning for people.

The time seemed to have stood still. And as such, it lives forever

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