Wallowing in nostalgia (an autobiography)

[Written in the middle of the night, while suffering jet lag–most of you will want to skip this one.]

I taught at Bond University on Australia’s Gold Coast during the first 4 months of 1991.  Because my CIS conference was close by, I decided to take a bus back down to “Burleigh Heads” where I lived.  Even though I was by myself in 1991, I rented a 2 bedroom 2 full bath apartment on the 6th floor, overlooking the Pacific. Because Australia was in recession (its most recent one!) the AUS$ was only 65 cents and rent was dirt cheap.  I used to put on my swimming trunks after waking up, take the elevator down, jog along the beach, and then stop in at a health food cafe for a fruit drink.  No shoes, no shirt . . . service!

In retrospect the first half of 1991 was probably “peak freedom” for my life.  The 1980s had produced some highs and lows, but by the end of the decade I was getting tired of the drama of “relationships.”  I was also increasingly obsessed with research, especially in the late 1980s.  My father died in November 1990, and on New Year’s Eve I left for Australia, stopping on the way for a week in Tahiti and a week in New Zealand.  Age 35.

I am a very visually-oriented person, so my memories tend to be of images.  The first night sitting on my deck watching a wild lightening display over the Pacific, as the Gulf War commenced and bombs rained down on Baghdad.  Or the oddly two dimensional-looking pine trees that lined the esplanade. Sometimes tropical birds would fly into my apartment and stroll around on the carpet.  Even my memories of literature are visual. I read Moby Dick on the apartment deck, and all I now recall is Melville’s evocative descriptions of the ocean.

When I returned last week I had a bit of trouble orienting myself.  The pine trees were much larger and the apartment building was all remodeled.  But the biggest difference was less tangible.  It’s hard for me to put into words, so I’ll use a passage from a Norwegian novel I was reading on the airplane:

You could still buy Slazenger tennis rackets, Tretorn balls, and Rossignol skis, Tyrolia bindings and Koflach boots. The houses where we lived were still standing, all of them. The sole difference, which is the difference between a child’s reality and an adult’s, was that they were no longer laden with meaning. A pair of Le Coq soccer boots was just a pair of soccer boots. If I felt anything when I held a pair in my hands now it was only a hangover from my childhood, nothing else, nothing in itself. The same with the sea, the same with the rocks, the same with the taste of salt that could fill your summer days to saturation, now it was just salt, end of story. The world was the same, yet it wasn’t, for its meaning had been displaced, and was still being displaced, approaching closer and closer to meaninglessness.

Seeing the same place after 22 1/2 years made me painfully aware that the person who lived there in 1991 no longer exists.  And Knausgaard is right, even the ocean had changed.  But Burt Lancaster could have told you that.

Knausgaard is talking about childhood, but in my view “meaning” drains out of our lives in two steps.  Age 0 to 6 is the years of magic, 7 to 35 is the years of meaning, and 36 to the end is the years of nostalgia.  For little children, places seem enchanted and parents are like gods.  Even as young adults we are still visiting new places, and life seems a bit of an adventure.  Other people are charged with mystery, allure, or danger.  I mean other young people of course; the old don’t really exist for young adults.  They are just shadows.  And then you reach a point where you are just revisiting places. Even places you’ve never been before seem like someplace else you recall.  People become just people.  You watch your children experience meaning, and remember. Of course you know more, and your increased ability to cope with life takes the edge off growing old.  But the meaning gradually slips away.  (Peak happiness is supposed to occur at ages 23 and 69.)

Here’s Knausgaard again:

As your perspective of the world increases not only is the pain it inflicts on you less but also its meaning.  Understanding the world requires you to take a certain distance from it.  Things that are too small to see with the naked eye, such as molecules and atoms, we magnify. Things that are too large, such as cloud formations, river deltas, constellations, we reduce.  At length we bring it within the scope of our senses and we stabilize it with fixer.  When it has been fixed we call it knowledge.  Throughout our childhood and teenage years, we strive to attain the correct distance to objects and phenomena.  We read, we learn, we experience, we make adjustments.  Then one day we reach the point where all the necessary distances have been set, all the necessary systems have been put in place.  That is when time begins to pick up speed.  It no longer meets any obstacles, everything is set, time races through our lives, the days pass by in a flash and before we know what is happening were are forty, fifty, sixty . . . Meaning requires content, content requires time, time requires resistance.  Knowledge is distance, knowledge is stasis and the enemy of meaning.

The semester at Bond was nice, but I still hadn’t quite reached peak freedom.  After all, I still had to teach.  After the semester I took a sleeper train up to Cairns (near the GB Reef) and then later flew to Darwin.  I rented a van and drove 4000 miles to Perth.  Each night I slept in the back. When I describe northwest Australia to Americans they sometimes say; “oh, that sounds like Nevada.”  No, Nevada is like New Jersey compared to the outback.  The region I traversed is probably as big as Western Europe, but had one paved road.  And it was one lane in places, so you had to get off the road anytime a 40 meter “road train” approached.

At times I’d turn off the highway to visit a national park.  I recall the side road would be like a driveway, with very tall grass on both sides so you couldn’t see where you were.  Imagine driving on two ruts for 30 miles, unable to see anything, to a fork in the road.  Then a small hand-painted arrow directs you one way or another, for another 20 miles.  Lots of colorful tropical birds would circle around my Toyota Previa.  At Broome I’d sleep on the beach and nighttime swims in the Indian Ocean produced a bioluminescence effect, like glittering diamonds.  South of Broome there were 80 mile long beaches without a soul in sight. At Monkey Mia the dolphins would swim in close to shore and eat right out of your hand.

I met lots of backpackers.  Then I continued on the backpacker circuit to Southeast Asia.  Even though I was much younger then, I suppose I was already beginning to feel older than the other people I met, who were mostly in their early 20s.  I got a late start in life.  Then I returned home and a few months later bought my house. The next year I met my future wife, and then 2 years later we got married. Another 5 years we had a daughter, and 10 years after that I started my blog.

I suppose the blog should have provided “meaning” to my life. But it seems like something I just have to do.  Meaning comes from visiting the Prado for the first time in 1986.  Still, I’m sure I’m happier now with my family (who are much better than I deserve) than during my first 35 years.  I was an idiot when I was young, and that’s often very painful.

Nostalgia may not rational, but it sure produces a lot of great literature.  Right before the trip I read a Proustian novel by Orhan Pamuk called “The Museum of Innocence.”  I’d recommend Pamuk’s book, but the real purpose of this post is not to present my pathetic life, but rather to get you to crawl over broken glass if necessary to read Knausgaard (and I haven’t even finished the book.)

I’ll leave you with one final quotation:

The only thing I have learned from life is to endure it, never to question it, and burn up the longing generated by this in writing. Where this ideal has come from I have no idea, and as I now see it before me, in black and white, it almost seems perverse: why duty before happiness? The question of happiness is banal, but the question that follows is not, the question of meaning. When I look at a beautiful painting I have tears in my eyes, but not when I look at my children. That does not mean I do not love them, because I do, with all my heart, it simply means that the meaning they produce is not sufficient to fulfill a whole life.  Not mine at any rate.

PS.  Just to be be clear, when I say “meaning” I mean something like “transcendence” not “meaningful relationship.”

PPS.  You’ll notice I didn’t mention any of my life before the 1980s, as it is too painful to contemplate.  I’ll just provide a list of my obsessions:

Age 14- 16:  Bicycling

Age 17 – 20:  Rock music

Age 21 – 30:  Literature

Age 26 – 27:  Bill James

Age 31 – 35:  European art and architecture

Age 36 – 48:  Foreign films

Age 49 – 58:  Japanese prints

Of course there’s overlap, as one sees films and reads all through life.  But there’s a sense in which one obsession or another dominates, especially when young.  On the other hand I’d guess that Tyler Cowen is capable of being fully, 100%, obsessed with at least three areas at the same time.

I lived in the building at the lower right:

Screen Shot 2013-08-29 at 8.22.26 PM

Last night my daughter and I both “watched” The Birds.  Actually she experienced the film, while I analyzed it.  And speaking of pretty birds, commenter Rajat took this picture while we had lunch at Sydney’s art museum:

Screen Shot 2013-08-29 at 8.27.30 PM




34 Responses to “Wallowing in nostalgia (an autobiography)”

  1. Gravatar of Ben J Ben J
    1. September 2013 at 07:12


    The Rainbow Lorikeets! Stunning birds. My father and I used to feed them every afternoon in Brisbane. It’s very interesting to see from this post that Australia was such a big chapter in your life.

    We spoke briefly at the RBA, after you left the seminar room. I got a lot out of your presentation, it was good to see your case presented all at once. I agree with you that your case faced some significant scrutiny, but did not come up short at any point.

    I would have loved to join you for lunch with Rajat if I didn’t have to run off and catch a flight back to Brisbane! I look forward to seeing you again, next time you get a chance to come down under.

  2. Gravatar of benjamin cole benjamin cole
    1. September 2013 at 07:19

    List of obsessions—but what about baseball stats?

  3. Gravatar of mbka mbka
    1. September 2013 at 07:33

    I know exactly what you mean. I don’t think I’d like to read Knausgaard, I suspect I also know too much already of what he means – though I don’t agree with the last quotation. As I grow older I care less and less about art and taste, things that meant a lot more to me earlier on. I care more and more about people and the experience of life. It’s the meaning of things that is leaving me, not the meaning of doing. But alas – I traveled so much at an early age that the magic of the world’s places left me even earlier.

  4. Gravatar of Saturos Saturos
    1. September 2013 at 08:13

    Well this is just my day for emotional moments, isn’t it? Thanks very much for the post Scott.

    I still don’t see how you can think so carefully about the nature of the experience of life, and still believe in things like interpersonal utility comparisons.

    I assume the last quotation was also from Knausgaard, not Pamuk. Was there something more you meant to add about the Pamuk novel?

    I suppose the blog should have provided “meaning” to my life. But it seems like something I just have to do.

    I’m not sure I see the contradiction, even if you insist that meaning is about transcendence.

    Atlantic City is a great movie. And northwest Australia is indeed, basically a rock.

    I would also like to upvote mbka’s comment.

  5. Gravatar of Morgan Warstler Morgan Warstler
    1. September 2013 at 08:54

    Continuing to prove my father’s solid advice:

    If you can’t sleep, don’t.

  6. Gravatar of John Hall John Hall
    1. September 2013 at 09:10

    I liked this post. I did a semester abroad in Australia and took a trip to the Gold Coast (Surfer’s Paradise, to be exact). Beautiful area. Can’t believe you drove to Perth from the coast. That’s one long drive.

  7. Gravatar of ssumner ssumner
    1. September 2013 at 10:47

    Ben J, Thanks for attending.

    Ben, That’s during the Bill James period.

    mbka, You said;

    “I suspect I also know too much already of what he means – though I don’t agree with the last quotation. As I grow older I care less and less about art and taste, things that meant a lot more to me earlier on.”

    I agree, and I suspect Knausgaard might as well. He’s much younger than I am, BTW.

    I think he’s saying that he gets meaning, or certain types of meaning, from unexpected places. But I’d guess that the meaning he gets from painting diminishes over time. That’s implicit in the first quote. That’s true for me as well.

    Saturos, You said;

    “I still don’t see how you can think so carefully about the nature of the experience of life, and still believe in things like interpersonal utility comparisons.”

    I don’t believe in interpersonal utility comparisons, except perhaps as wild guesses. Because we can’t directly measure utility, we make a few assumptions, such as the assumption that on average an extra $1000 means more to a bum than some like Bill Gates. But I wouldn’t be more precise than that.

    The last quote was Knausgaard, I didn’t quote Pamuk.

    Morgan, I wish someone had given me that advice when I was younger.

    John. Good for you. I should add that I didn’t drive all the way to Perth from the Gold Coast, but rather from Darwin.

  8. Gravatar of Petar Petar
    1. September 2013 at 10:55

    wow…when You finnish preaching MM you should definitely write a book (non econ ofc)

  9. Gravatar of Riccardo Leggio Riccardo Leggio
    1. September 2013 at 13:25

    Thank you, great post, just really great. I’ve always suspected I like your blog as much for its humanity as for its well thought out economics. In fact, probably more for that. I’ve learned some economics by reading you but it’s the voice that keeps me coming back. I’m glad for your success now in the bigger world of influence. And glad for this post.

  10. Gravatar of dtoh dtoh
    1. September 2013 at 13:53

    I really liked this post. Think I’ll head to Australia and rent a car.

  11. Gravatar of Mark Mark
    1. September 2013 at 14:28

    Beautiful post

  12. Gravatar of Lorenzo from Oz Lorenzo from Oz
    1. September 2013 at 14:48

    What if’s. If I still worked at the Parliamentary Research Service in Canberra (the equivalent of the Congressional Research Service), I could have nipped across to Sydney for your presentation.

    Assuming the alternate me had found your blog and become obsessed with monetary economics.

    But then I wouldn’t have worked in the non-government sector and later been part-owner of a small business, both of which experiences expanded my intellectual horizons.

    I agree, lovely post.

  13. Gravatar of xtophr xtophr
    1. September 2013 at 15:08

    Wow. Great post. More of these occasionally, please. Thanks for the Knausgård recommendation.

  14. Gravatar of ssumner ssumner
    1. September 2013 at 16:38

    Thanks everyone!

    dtoh, Can I go along? 🙂

  15. Gravatar of ChrisA ChrisA
    1. September 2013 at 18:34

    Nice post Scott, really nice writing. You have convinced me now to get the Knausgård.

    I get what you are saying on the excitement of being young and the world being new. Now I am a grown up (by which I mean past 40), financially stable, experienced in the world (I have lived in numerous countries) I can’t get excited as I used to by the thought of new experiences. Maybe it is the lack of limitations; if I want something material, I can afford it. If I want to go somewhere, I can go there and so on. Maybe it is that there is just less to explore. But I find actually when I do visit a new country, or take up a new pastime or challenge, the pleasure is just as good, so I think it is just an expectations thing in someways. As Daniel Gilbert points out in Stumbling on Happiness, humans are not very good at predicting what will make them happy, except as necessary conditions. So maybe what I am missing is the false optimism I had before about what I wanted. The actual experiences are just as good.

  16. Gravatar of dpaff82 dpaff82
    1. September 2013 at 18:52

    who has ever been free in this world? — Rufus Wainright

  17. Gravatar of Peter Peter
    1. September 2013 at 19:11

    While you were teaching in the business school I was across the court in the law school turning around a reasonably disolute yound adulthood. It was a great law school in those days with the best teachers in the country. I don’t know what it is like now. The Gold Coast sure has gone down hill since then, and the early 90’s were already somewhat past the paradise it was in the 70s.

  18. Gravatar of Benjamin Cole Benjamin Cole
    1. September 2013 at 21:43

    Bill James…of course. I don’t what i was thinking. Mr, baseball Stats.

  19. Gravatar of Rajat Rajat
    1. September 2013 at 22:21

    Agree, it’s a lovely post. Just one clarification: ‘birds’ means young women in Australian slang, which I can assure all I am not.

    Cheers to a late bloomer, Scott! I suspect it has provided you with a lot more self-awareness than most.

  20. Gravatar of W le B W le B
    2. September 2013 at 01:40

    The night before I read your piece I was thinking of the water meadows of my childhood and how I might explain my relationship to them to my children (21 and 19) … and then the prospect of having to explain what a water meadow was to some future generation.

    At the time, say 1954, they were just *the* water meadows. Layers and layers of enriching meaning came later.

  21. Gravatar of Seán Seán
    2. September 2013 at 02:31

    Beautiful post. Sad to read as a 28 year old man though, when the changes you and Knausgård talk about are becoming palpable. A growing stock of knowledge is poor compensation for a shrinking flow of meaning.

  22. Gravatar of ssumner ssumner
    2. September 2013 at 07:55

    Thanks for all the thoughtful comments. I agree with Daniel Gilbert.

  23. Gravatar of Mike sax Mike sax
    2. September 2013 at 10:31

    “Knausgaard is talking about childhood, but in my view “meaning” drains out of our lives in two steps. Age 0 to 6 is the years of magic, 7 to 35 is the years of meaning, and 36 to the end is the years of nostalgia. For little children, places seem enchanted and parents are like gods. Even as young adults we are still visiting new places, and life seems a bit of an adventure. Other people are charged with mystery, allure, or danger. I mean other young people of course; the old don’t really exist for young adults. They are just shadows. And then you reach a point where you are just revisiting places. Even places you’ve never been before seem like someplace else you recall. People become just people.”

    I’m 42 and certainly aren’t in the age of nostalgia but I’m an outlier probably in both good and bad ways. Nietzsche did warn about too much knowledge at least of the wrong type-and based on your facing it off over and against meaning this may have been what he had in mind.

  24. Gravatar of Assorted links Assorted links
    3. September 2013 at 12:08

    […] Short, nostalgic autobiography of Scott Sumner, who also loves […]

  25. Gravatar of Bob Bob
    3. September 2013 at 13:01

    You should do more of this. If this blog has one weakness, it’s that it is so laser focused on one topic, it seems repetitive and impersonal at times.

    You seem quite good at writing about this kind of thing too. I mean, compare this post to your average non-economics Cowen post. For all the talking he might do about whichever strange topic he is interested that day, it always reads as if he’s mainly working on replicating the best of other people’s experiences. It’s comes out as if he is just a very refined consumer, but a consumer nonetheless. This post transmits a much friendlier nature: Much more about teaching and giving.

  26. Gravatar of RPLong RPLong
    3. September 2013 at 14:54

    Knausgaard is talking about childhood, but in my view “meaning” drains out of our lives in two steps. Age 0 to 6 is the years of magic, 7 to 35 is the years of meaning, and 36 to the end is the years of nostalgia.

    This is one of the most thoroughly depressing statements I’ve ever read on a blog. But then again, I’ve never been big on nostalgia. So far, my life has run in the opposite course, and I sure hope it continues that way.

  27. Gravatar of Paul Paul
    3. September 2013 at 17:51

    I actually made this comment before, but feel it makes even more sense now. I’d happily buy a Scott Sumner travelogue in China. Sort of a Peter Hessler turns economist type of book!

  28. Gravatar of Sam Sam
    3. September 2013 at 19:52

    Wow, your post was remarkable. Sincere, incisive, true. Thank you for writing it!

  29. Gravatar of Ray Lopez Ray Lopez
    3. September 2013 at 20:41

    Have you read Peter Carey’s “30 Days in Sydney”? It echoes your autobiographical style. Yes Australia is beautiful but it’s also quite fragile–no accident that a continent the size of the USA only supports 20 M people. I’ll pass. I prefer the Philippines, a nation the size of the US state of Arizona that (just barely) supports 100M people.

  30. Gravatar of Charles Charles
    8. September 2013 at 18:06

    Your time in the outback parallels Julien Sorel’s night on the mountain in the Red and the Black. He gazes down at the valley and looks up to admire the hawk and feels freer, happier than he’s ever been in his life.


    It’s uncanny how great literature mirrors life after all these years, it’s disappointingly that the most sublime experiences in life hasn’t been augmented by technology.

    Scott, have you read Pessoa? The Book of Disquiet is a great ode to finding meaning in the meaningless monotony of everyday life. Like Knausgaard, its subject matter is also the banal, except that it’s not like Knausgaard at all.

  31. Gravatar of ssumner ssumner
    8. September 2013 at 18:35

    Thanks everyone.

    Ray, Yes, the Book if Disquiet is one of my all time favorite books.

  32. Gravatar of Resume blogging | Ryu's Blog Resume blogging | Ryu's Blog
    28. September 2013 at 23:21

    […] This post from Scott Sumner resonates with me. Excerpt: […]

  33. Gravatar of Sean Sean
    26. April 2017 at 02:21

    I go back an re-read this post probably once a year. The best of Karl Ove and Scott. Thank you.

  34. Gravatar of ssumner ssumner
    26. April 2017 at 05:01

    Thanks Sean, I really appreciate that.

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