Saturday, October 24, 2009

The Good Old Days

I've noted before on this blog that I'm a sucker for nostalgia. I probably spend more time than I should reminiscing about my childhood and my adolescent years. The old neighborhood in which my family lived for the first ten years after arriving in Canada. The neighborhood kids; Mark, Randy, Donna, Brian, Eric, Karen, Ruthie and the rest. I can still see most of their faces in my mind's eye. My kindergarten classmates, many of which remained classmates all the way up to the seventh grade. I still remember most of their names; Dave Wendling, Valerie Oestreich, Doug Halley, Laura Murray, Brian MacIsaac, Patty Michalewicz, Johnny Pacheco and Laurie Kennedy, my first schoolboy crush. The music that I grew up with; Blue Suede, the Brothers Johnson, the Bee Gees, the Knack, 10cc, Brook Benton. The TV shows; the old Batman serials, Star Trek, the Brady Bunch, Gilligan's Island, Quincy, The Night Stalker, Banocek ... ah, the good old days!

Let's begin by giving credit where it's due. This post was inspired by a podcast called Before Fast Food from a regular feature called Lovers and Other Strangers hosted by Don Jackson of Toronto's CHFI-FM. In fact, you may want to listen to the podcast, either before or after reading the rest of this post. For those of you who multi-task, you can listen while reading. Just click here. You'll need some time, though. It runs for about an hour.

The podcast begins by quoting former U.S. Vice President Herbert J. Humphrey, who once said, that the "good old days" were "never that good". He had a point. The past often tends to look rosier with the benefit of hindsight, doesn't it? Case in point; here's a link to a web site that romanticizes the sixties. Boy, those sixties sure were wonderful, weren't they? Mind you, the presentation also mentions the Vietnam war, the assassinations of Dr. Martin Luthor King Jr., John F. Kennedy and his brother, Robert Kennedy, and the Cuban Missile Crisis that brought the world to the brink of full-scale nuclear war. Even this nostalgic web site acknowledges that the "good old days" weren't always all that good, just as Humphrey said.

My love of nostalgia lead me to choose a Chrysler PT Cruiser for my current car. I like the retro styling. It looks like something from the forties or early fifties. Are you old enough to remember what the cars of the forties and fifties were like? I'm not, but I know that they used a lot more gas and caused a lot more pollution than the cars of today do. They were a lot less safe, too. Before the Tucker and, later, Ralph Nader forced the automotive industry to start taking safety seriously, cars often had no seat belts. Before safety glass, broken windshields could be lethal. Before fuel injection, engines often stalled when it rained and too much dampness got under the hood. Brake efficiency suffered noticeably as well after driving on wet streets or through puddles. A lovingly maintained 1949 Packard Convertible Coupé may bring a sentimental smile, but you probably wouldn't want to drive one, at least not with any regularity. My PT Cruiser has the retro looks without all the retro headaches; the best of both worlds, one might say.

On the other hand, some of our modern conveniences seem to have backfired on us. Take the cell phone. We can call anyone at a moment's notice, no matter where we are, and they can reach us too. So can the boss. Suddenly, we're never really off the clock anymore. Jim Balsillie of RIM, recently touted the Blackberry's ability to give people more "flexibility" with regard to their working hours. Seems to me that "flexibility", in this context, is just a positive-sounding way of saying "just because we're not at the office, doesn't mean we're off duty." It's becoming harder and harder to spend time with our families without worrying about interruptions from the office, or simply to shut the world out and just find a few quiet moments to think and to reflect.

One particular woman that I recently read about who runs a catering business noted that, thanks to her Blackberry, her clients can reach her even on Christmas Eve, as though this were a good thing. Imagine if Jesus had been born today. There's the Holy Family, huddled in the modern equivalent of a stable (probably some budget motel in Bethlehem, PA) when suddenly a buzzing emits from Joseph's hip. Reaching down, he examines his Blackberry, looks at Mary and apologetically mutters "I have to take this".

If we really examine exactly what was so "good" about the "good old days", I think that most would conclude that it's more about simplicity than it is about what we had then versus now, or what was happening then versus now. Earlier times were simpler times. In his book, Information Anxiety, Richard S. Wurman writes that a single weekday edition of today's New York Times contains more information than the average person was likely to encounter in a lifetime in 17th century England, and that's just a single hard-copy newspaper, never mind the internet, where we're inundated with the mindless rantings of the likes of me! What do we do with all of this information? How do we manage it? How do we sift out the useful and discard the rest? In his book (and television series), Connections, James Burke demonstrates how modern society has created what he calls a "technology trap". We use technology without truly understanding how it works and, in so doing, we've made ourselves so dependent upon it, we can no longer function or even survive without it. I think that many are at least subconsciously aware of this fact, if not consciously, and it scares us.

Small wonder that some of us longingly remember a time when we could drive our big, honkin' (no pun intended) finned gas guzzlers without feeling guilty about warming the planet; when the dawn of a new century didn't cause people to panic over the possibility of widespread power outages, inoperative gas stations, empty grocery store shelves, a stock market crash or elevators and aircraft crashing to the ground, all because of two little digits; when it was normal to retire from the same company that first hired us after we graduated from school; when a "family" was a clearly-defined and easily understood unit consisting of a married, hetrosexual couple and one or more of their direct offspring; in short, when the world was so much easier to understand and manage. The greater feeling of control over our own lives and destinies that we had then made us more self-confident and less anxious, even though that feeling of control may well have been largely an illusion caused by our own ignorance.

During the podcast that I mentioned near the start of this post, Gladys Knight says that, as bad as we may think that they are, these will become the "good old days" for our children. I'll take that one step further and suggest that, ten to twenty years from now, we ourselves may well refer to these days as "the good old days". It's okay to wax nostalgic every so often, as long as we're careful not to spend so much of our time reliving the past that we miss out on the present.

No comments: