The 1990s and Disappointed Idealism

In yesterday’s newsletter I linked a news story about Congress preparing to hold hearings about UFO sightings. The idea struck me as so odd and out of time. These days we’re so preoccupied with Really Heavy Shit that, in so many ways, is tearing at the fabric of society and even threatening human existence on Earth. Caring about UFOs seems like a luxury of the past. An oh-so-1990s kind of pursuit.

In the runup to the link I wrote the following paragraph. I didn’t put much thought into it. It just poured out of my head in about the same amount of time it took to physically type it:

“The 1990s were a pretty important decade in my life. I turned 18. I graduated from high school, college, and law school. I got married. I imagined I was living in a period of post-history in which the combination of hope, peace, and technology stood poised to usher in a new golden age of human civilization. I’m accused of being cynical, and maybe I am, but inside every cynical person, there is a disappointed idealist, and seeing what I imagined the promise of the 1990s to have been turn out to be illusory and fleeting did a lot to disappoint me in life. Never be young and hopeful, people. It’s a sucker’s game.”

I didn’t really read back over it before posting it, as it’s a general, internalized thought I’ve had for so long that it didn’t really seem to call for any more examination. It was just an excuse to talk about UFOs and drop some 1990s nostalgia, post a pic of all-time celebrity crush Gillian Anderson, and embed a Soul Coughing song.

It struck a chord with some readers, though. At least those who are in their 40s or older and lived at least part of their adult life before 9/11, when everything basically changed and we realized that (a) the promise we thought we recognized in the 1990s wasn’t substantive; and (b) even if it was at least partially substantive, it was no match whatsoever for what people would do in spite of it.

One reader wrote me a message:

“The paragraph today that concludes with: “Never be young and hopeful, people. It’s a sucker’s game.” is one of the more beautiful articulations of 21st century disillusionment I’ve ever read. I’m 61, and am often amazed how people even my age don’t understand the concept. Your stating this is actually inspiring. I know I’m not negative, or depressed, or unjustifiably cynical because you have seen the things I’ve seen.

“Today’s newsletter steels me for this shitty world, and reminds me to make the best of the coming day. Thank you!”

I didn’t intend that, but I’m glad it had that effect on at least some people.

I’ve often written that, for as much as I lament the state of the world and criticize that which and those whom brought about that state, I am not an unhappy person. Indeed, I’m anything but. I’m a generally happy person despite the horribleness of this world and despite the fact that the idealism of my youth has been rendered foolish by that horribleness. I’m sure a big part of that is that, due to my privilege and my generally good circumstances, much of the horribleness of the world is a thing I observe more than experience. I’m lucky in that regard, there’s no denying or mistaking that.

But a big, big part of it is that while, in hindsight, it may have been foolish to be optimistic like so many of us were in the 1990s — and while you cannot go back in time and recapture such a thing, no matter how hard you try — I cannot shake the notion that much of that optimism was, for at least a moment or two, warranted. That it was not completely illusory, even if it was illusory in certain respects. That if better decisions had been made and wiser leadership had been in place, we could’ve built a world that was a better one than the Cold War world from which we were emerging and a better one than the often dystopian one in which we currently reside. And that, perhaps, at some point in the future, we will find ourselves, once again, emerging from a fraught world and that we will have a moment or two in which to breathe and a moment or two to think and be a bit optimistic. And that this time, unlike last time, we will make better choices and that we will take a moment of promise and possibility and see it through to an era of prosperity and happiness.

If I had to guess, based on everything we’re dealing with these days, that next moment of opportunity and any subsequent era of prosperity and happiness will arrive long after I’m gone. But I still think that moment and that era will come. I still hope they will come.

Craig Calcaterra

Craig is the author of the daily baseball (and other things) newsletter, Cup of Coffee. He writes about other things at He lives in New Albany, Ohio with his wife, two kids, and many cats.