Those Were the Days, My Friend!

Somewhere in the night the “good old days” moved.  They turned 40 going on 50 and died.  History does that.  It telescopes out, maximizing its view, and then when it gets just beyond most human memory, it disappears.  I tend to think of it as the vanishing point, that point in time that we can’t actually remember anymore but which radiates all the well defined lines of our contemporary world.  We know it’s back there, and without it, we have no perspective, but we have no idea what it looks like.  It’s the point in every generation when living memory is replaced by historical record.

Despite what Mad Men and Pan Am try to tell you, we have no more in common with the early 60s than we do the Vikings.  Their world was a time of barbarians.  Their morality was close to home — family first.  They distrusted anyone over the horizon and stuck to their own clan.  The weakest among them either kept up or went under.  They drank and wenched and flung themselves at each other in fits and starts of passion.  Honour was satisfied with blood.   Thought required action.  They lived in a desperate, suspicious time.

I’ll bet for a minute there you thought I was talking about the Vikings; I wasn’t.

Nostalgia has a way of creeping up on us.  As John Knowles said in A Separate Peace (or was it Herman Raucher in Summer of ’42) we all have our own time and we never leave it.  However, after a while, our time becomes blurry with everyone else’s.  Today, it’s hard to imagine that somewhere Astronaut Neil Armstrong, the Ohio boy who left the first footprint on the moon, was a contemporary of Astronaut Anthony Nelson who finally married Jeannie the Genie in I Dream of Jeannie.  It’s difficult to reconcile that, in those days, we had the intelligence to go to the moon but not the sophistication to show a woman’s bellybutton on TV.  So we slide events around in our memory, and even people who were there have to Google things to get the time line right.  There’s no such thing as documented memory.

Today, the 80s are the “good old days” and the 60s are ancient history.  It was a time when Reagan and Thatcher ruled the earth and Presidents went riding with Queens.  The Soviet Union was in its last dying convulsions with four Premiers in five years and Mao was already dead.  There was a truce in the Cold War, and although total nuclear annihilation was still a possibility (a lot closer than we knew) we were much more afraid of AIDS.  Terrorist attacks were isolated, always somewhere else (places like Lockerbie and Beirut) and the killing was manageable.  A lot of people learned how to spell Chernobyl and Bhopal.

Cocaine replaced marijuana as the substance abuse of choice among the well-to do, and we still thought we could win the war on drugs.  Madonna was more-or less like a virgin, or so we thought and we didn’t know half as much as we needed to know about Michael Jackson.  Lucas and Spielberg hadn’t yet sold their collective souls and the franchise movie demons were still babies.  Mick Jagger and the Stones replaced Buddy Holly and the Crickets on Golden Oldies radio.

IBM and Commodore controlled the personal computer industry until Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak changed the rules with Apple and a hardwired mouse.  People (they weren’t called gamers yet) had a choice between Pac Man and Donkey Kong.

Mexican debt exceeded its ability to pay, but everybody else was making the mortgage, and for the first time in history, trans-Pacific trade eclipsed trans Atlantic.  Most people thought Wall Street and Donald Trump were the good guys.

Someday, rather soon actually (more than half the kids born after the Fall of the Berlin Wall don’t know who Gorbachev is) these new “good old days” will become history.  People will wonder whether Seinfeld was before or after Miami Vice.  They’ll look at photographic film cameras in a museum and wonder how people took videos of the riots.  They’ll laugh at the size of the telephones and the computers and the internal combustion cars.   Generation-i will roll their eyes at the primitive world their parents grew up in.  And — heaven help us! — this world around us, called 2011, will be the “good old days.”

When the gods are changing

It’s hard to live in a time when the gods are changing, but it’s loads of fun, too.  This transitional world we live in is so full of cool it’s difficult to sort things out.  So many neat things are going on right now that I’m totally pissed I’m never going to see where they end up in 50 or 100 years.  Honestly, I haven’t completely comprehended our world since back in the 20th century.  Sometime around the Y2K scam, I started to lose track, and even though I faked it for a couple more years, the gaps in my understanding just got too big.  Now, like old underwear, there are far too many holes in my knowledge to ever claim decency again.  Fortunately, the world has gotten so large that I can just narrow my focus, avoid the stuff I don’t recognize, and keep on moving.  There are certain things that I miss from the old world, though; things that were quaint and homey and comfortable.

For example, I miss quiet contemplation on the bus.  In the olden days, people on buses used to sit there, stunned, staring straight ahead.  They read books and newspapers.  They decided what to have for dinner.  They mulled over their problems.  They carried open bags with their new possessions in them.  Sometimes, they talked to each other in that secret mono-voice reserved for private words in public places.  They looked out the windows and thought about their lovers.  Buses were romantic places.  These days, buses are full of people who stand when there are seats available and boldly declare to their invisible friends that they are indeed on the bus.

I miss babysitters, too.  I think it’s too bad that a whole generation of young people are probably going to have to resort to prostitution to pay for their music and hairstyles.  Babysitters should have been made an essential service — years ago.  They allow us to have time.  Sometimes, adults need adults only.  There’s something relaxing about having a second cup of coffee after dinner when somebody else is going to do the dishes.

Restaurants are made for love affairs because they capture time for the person you’re with.  A few years ago, the one requirement for a quiet evening like this was that the chairs in the restaurant weren’t made of plastic.  These days, however, most restaurants offer complimentary crying babies or young families eager to share their experience.  It’s difficult to have a trivial conversation when 4-year-old Kay-lee (with a K) at the next table is pffting her potatoes and going for distance.  In the olden days, a good babysitter would have saved both those marriages.

And I miss newspapers: those big Sunday thumpers that killed half a forest to make and half a morning to read.  They had complete sections that you could trade across the breakfast table.  They were big enough to fold, so you could drink your morning coffee.  They were lazy with long stories.  They had movies you wanted to see and places you wanted to go.  They had columnists from faraway Chicago and Frisco, who caused discussions and arguments, and the loser made breakfast.  And they had crossword puzzles that might take all day — even with help.  Today, news and opinion are a solitary business backlit and scrolling, rushed through on our way to somewhere else, over a breakfast we can eat with our hands.

And I don’t like “relationships.”  They’re artificial affairs.  They’re built on the premise that the squiggy feeling in the bottom of your belly has a beginning, a middle and an end.  They take too much thought and are almost corporate in their planning.  Following their path is like playing a video game where each success leads you to the next level — more difficult with bigger dangers – until, finally, it’s too familiar to play anymore.  I prefer the olden days when people had love affairs that began by accident — at places like bus stops.  They took time to unfold, over longer and longer, long evenings.  And even though they always began as separate adventures, unlike relationships, love affairs got passed back and forth so many times that they became a jungle of intertwisted experience that can never be understood separately again.

This isn’t a brave new world we live in; it’s a brilliant place, with new and exciting things going on, all the time.   And even though, most days, I can’t wait for tomorrow, I still like the feel of yesterday.