Thursday, December 1, 2011

The Good Old Days vs.Nowadays

"No one cares about being polite these days," an elderly woman commented sourly. Though the temperature was in the mid seventies, she was wearing a bulky cable-knit sweater that smelled faintly of mothballs.

Her female companion, also elderly, instantly warmed to the subject. "These young people can't even be bothered to say 'You're welcome,'" she snorted.

"That's right," her friend agreed. "They say 'no problem.'"

I overheard the above conversation while shopping at Target and found it profoundly depressing. I am currently sixty-seven years old. How long, I wondered, before my shriveled, lemon-sucking mouth begins spewing forth these resentful criticisms and comparisons?

Will I, someday, actually care if "no problem" comes to replace "you're welcome."?

Are there, I wondered, any conditions and/or conventions, outmoded and outdistanced, that I long to have back?

I guess double-scoop ice cream cones at only ten cents each would be nice.
So would five and ten cents stores. And old-fashioned variety stores.  And comic strips like Little Lulu, Rex Morgan, M.D., Brenda Starr, Pogo, and Denny Dimwit.
  Well, maybe not Denny Dimwit.

On the other hand... a teenager in high school, I dressed in pleated skirts and wore stockings secured with a garter belt. My seams were always going crooked, and the garter belt cut painfully into the backs of my thighs. The whole world seemed booby-trapped to snag my stockings and I (or more often my mother) was obliged to spend a fortune on nylons.

Back in the fifties, there were no warning labels on cigarette packages. There were, however, abundant television commercials applauding the smooth taste of this or that brand. Hardy, outdoor types like the Marlboro Cowboy inhaled deeply before casually mounting a bucking bronco. Sophisticated ladies sucked on Salem's while seated decorously beside a tranquil lake.

The few African-Americans on television (referred to as Negroes or Colored People) were confined to certain roles such as corpulent household maid or comically ignorant manservant. At some point, Harry Belafonte was Hollywood's only dark celebrity to be followed later by Sidney Poitier. Women were restricted, too.  According to a popular joke of the time, men went to college to get their BS, women to get their MRS.

All that said, however...

I've always secretly resented having to wear a seat belt. It makes me feel confined without my consent. I am also ambivalent about cell phones because they keep you on an invisible leash -- multiple leashes actually. You go on a private adventure only to be tugged back by something urgent that someone wants you to do. There is something exhilarating, I think, about being out of reach even if it sometimes places you in danger.

Restriction of range is another thing I regret. For instance, as a teenager, I wandered through the downtown Washington, D.C. at night with nary a fear of being mugged, mauled, raped or whatever. Downtown, in those days, was full of bongo drummers, beggars, businessmen, people from the projects, bureaucrats, beatniks, foreigners, folk singers, etc., all mixed up together. There were also plenty of cheap restaurants with good food that weren't part of some food chain.

Then there's the matter of airports...

When you left on an airplane, your family and/or friends followed you all the way to the gate. Once on board, a perfectly coiffed and well-proportioned stewardess would offer you chewing gum to keep your ears from hurting. Later, you were treated to a free meal (not gourmet, perhaps, but usually quite edible). When you deplaned, your welcoming party was stationed right there at the gate and could help you manage the extra shopping bags you'd acquired during your trip. You could bring your razor and your nail clippers with you. You could even bring your Swiss army knife. Nobody groped you; nobody scrutinized you in your radioactive nakie.

On the other hand...

I am quite happy not to rely on a typewriter and, especially, not having to struggle with white-out or smeary sheets of carbon paper. Being able to surf the net is far better than having to consult an encyclopedia or spend hours in the library where you can't eat, drink, or swear profusely out loud.

I also appreciate not having to write letters in my awkward arthritic-looking cursive. E-mail and Facebook suite me just fine.

Are children ruder, wilder, lazier, more ignorant than they were forty or fifty years ago? I really can't say but I will say there was nothing exemplary about sixties teens. I, for one, specialized in being outspokenly rude and judgmental. To my way of thinking, my parents generation had made a whopping great mess of the world and it was left to us -- their enlightened progeny -- to repair the damage and fashion a utopia in which everyone would somehow survive happily while doing only what they chose to do. I mean, don't do it, if it doesn't groove ya, man!

Kids have sex younger and more of them do drugs than they did in my day. On the other hand, there is less shame and secrecy over becoming pregnant and (despite the Republican Party agenda) greater access to abortion. There is less of a stigma attached to being in psychotherapy or following a twelve-step program.

In the fifties, when I was a child, children of divorced parents were looked askance at and sometimes shunned. This, however, does not mean that today's practice of serial monogamy is necessarily a good thing.

What I'm getting at, of course, is that the progression of time yields a mixed bag of positive and negative changes.

It seems pretty obvious, if you study history, that there never was a time you could reasonably label "The Good Old Days."

What there is is a group of old people, once lithe and limber, once needed if not valued, once clever and energetic who, now are clumsy, slow-witted and essentially irrelevant unless, of course, they are rich and in a position to make others rich as well.

If I ever find myself spitting out negative comparisons between now and then, I hope I will pause long enough to remind myself that what I actually miss is the range and freedom of a young body and the quick responsiveness of a young mind.

Meanwhile, if someone thanks me, I'll respond to them by saying, "No problem."

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