Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Tempus Fugit

As the old year winds down to its conclusion, it's only natural to meditate on the passage of time, our ever more distant youth, the death to which every day we are one day closer.  Our souls, of course, do not age, but our bodies do, and the world is not the same as it was when we were kids.

One thing that tells me I'm getting old -- besides the increasing sensitivity of my old injuries to changes in the weather, and the new gray hairs I keep finding all over my scalp -- is that my cultural referents are becoming obsolete.  My similes, metaphors and witticisms are intelligible to a more and more tightly circumscribed pool of listeners.  A generation has now grown into adulthood that has to Google things my generation took for granted.  More and more adults today cannot remember the following:

-- Cassette Tapes.  These were things we used to record songs off the radio -- something the newest generation of adults has probably never done.  Bonus points to you 20-somethings if you can identify an 8-track cassette.

-- Vinyl records.  Vinyl records are played on a revolving turntable.  A needle on a mechanical arm is inserted gently onto the record disk and transmits the recording from grooves in the disk to the speakers.  An LP (long-playing) record is 12 inches in diameter; in the '70s and '80s, we all had thousands of them.  There were also cassette versions of records, and we had thousands of those, too.

-- Televisions without Remote Controls.  In my house, I had to be the remote control.

-- Pong.  A video tennis game, played with a console plugged into a television set, consisting of two lines that moved up and down and a bouncing square.  This was state of the art and highly popular.  Seriously.

-- Playing Outside.  Although mine was the first generation to play video games at home, we still played outside.  I used to roller skate and ride my bike all around the block, even in the suburbs of Los Angeles.  The general rule was that when the street lights came on, you came home.

-- Paul McCartney and Wings.  In 1980, it was a revelation to us kids to learn that before Wings, Paul McCartney had been in the Beatles.  We all knew the Beatles, we just didn't know realize that Paul McCartney was one of them.  31 years later, it is a revelation to learn that there was such a thing as Wings.  I don't want to think about whether the existence of the Beatles is a revelation.

-- Rotary Telephones.  Yes, there was a time when a telephone actually had a dial where you stuck your finger into a hole in a wheel corresponding to a number (or letters, back in the days of telephone name exchanges), pulled the wheel back, and waited for the wheel to return to the start position before you dialed the next number.  I don't remember exactly when we got our first touch-tone phone, but it had to be the late '80s.  Mobile phones were a rarity, and structurally no different than an average touch-tone phone with a cord.  No cameras, no video games, no texting, no sexting, no 30-year-old adolescent co-worker taking pictures of his junk and messaging it to your phone.

-- "Bomb, Bomb, Bomb, Bomb, Bomb Iran."  Also in 1980, we had the Iran Hostage Crisis.  This song, a parody of "Barbara Ann" by the Beach Boys (another cultural institution probably unknown to today's adults), was a reaction to the crisis.  "We're gonna rock your Ayatollah/sock your Ayatollah/bomb Iran."  In the far less politically correct climate of three decades ago, this ditty was quite popular and frequently played on the radio.

-- The Impending Ice Age.  Yes, during the 1970s, we were expecting a new Ice Age.  Any minute now.

-- Looney Tunes Cartoons.  Despite watching the unexpurgated version of these cartoons, we did not grow up to become racists.

-- All in the Family.  This show was so huge in the '70s that it is especially depressing to have to explain it to people today.  It is about the Bunkers and the Stivics, who start off all living in the same house: Archie Bunker, the loud-mouthed, bigoted, right-wing longshoreman and veteran of World War II who talks in malapropisms; Edith Bunker, his wife with the high-pitched voice, ding-batty yet wise in her own way (though inconsistently so, due to the producer's efforts to make her friendly to leftist ideology); their daughter, Gloria Stivic, who works to put her husband through school; and Mike "Meathead" Stivic, the hippie-leftist husband, diametrically opposed to Archie's politics.  The show made history with its immense viewership and its controversial subject matter.  Archie Bunker, played by the very-left-wing though gifted actor Carroll O'Connor, was basically Norman Lear's tool for making fun of conservatives.  Still, Archie is anything but one-dimensional.  He also got the last laugh in many ways: except for the bigoted blather, he turned out to be right about a lot of things, and even prophetic (e.g., predicting that Ronald Reagan would one day be president, years before the fact).

-- Mainframe Computers.  The average pocket calculator today is probably more powerful than the average mainframe, which ran on hole-punch cards and occupied an entire room.

-- Old Movies and Old Movie Stars.  We did not see the black and white films from Hollywood's Golden Age in theaters, but we did grow up watching them on television.   As a result, we could all recognize John Wayne, Cary Grant, Shirley Temple, Mickey Rooney, Judy Garland, Clark Gable, Olivia de Havilland, Humphrey Bogart, Lauren Bacall, Peter Lorre, Katherine Hepburn, Greta Garbo, Jimmy Stewart and the rest.  Today, I have to explain who these stars were, and it still doesn't ring a bell.

-- No Altar Girls.  When I was a kid, we only had altar boys.  I cannot recall that any of us girls ever lobbied to become altar girls, or were ever discontent about not being able to serve at the altar in this age before the feminists came along and told girls they needed to be offended about being "left out."  In fact, in an era when daily Mass was offered quite early in the morning, it was a relief not to be called upon to get up before the sun.

-- The Cold War and the Collapse of the Berlin Wall.  About a year or so ago, I was somewhat stunned to realize that many adults are too young to remember the Cold War or even the end of the Cold War; and a new generation just now reaching adulthood was not even born during the Cold War.  When I was a kid, we still had civil defense drills, complete with civil defense sirens.  We kids were actually concerned about what was happening between the United States and the Soviet Union.  After the death of Leonid Brezhnev, the parade of short-lived Soviet premiers, and the idiotic explanations given for their lengthy disappearances from public view, was a popular topic of conversation amongst us junior high kids.  No one who was not alive and in possession of reason during the Cold War can appreciate how all-pervasive and all-shaping it was.  No one not old enough to remember as far back as the Reagan Administration can understand just how sudden and miraculous were the destruction of the Berlin Wall and the fall of East Germany.  The Tienanmen Square Massacre in China had taken place only a few months before.  In October, 1989, my German professor -- a lady of no mean understanding, who had family in East Germany -- gave it as her opinion that the Berlin Wall would never come down, and Germany would never reunify.  Less than a month later, to her joy, the Wall came down.  Less than a year after that, Germany reunified.  Less than a year after that, the Soviet Union itself followed East Germany onto the ash heap of history.

Yes, generations before us have died out, and become mere footnotes in history; we shall not escape the same fate, nor shall those who come after us.  But the reflections inspired by the closing days of 2011 should not end there.  Although our time here is short, and the things and people that were once familiar pass away, we should still resolve, first, to use the time we have to save our own souls; second, to help as many as possible of our fellow men to save their souls; and third, to do what we can to leave this world a better place than we found it, even if we ourselves are forgotten.


  1. WELL DONE, Anita!

    I'm positively paleolithic myself, born in 1944, grew up during the Cold War, remember (vaguely of course) the Korean War. All during the 50s, the constant threat was the Soviet Union and atom bombs. I can remember how perturbed people were when the "Commies" put up Sputnik, the first artificial satellite, in 1957. Even as late as 1961 and 1962, we had evacuation drills.

    I was 18 at the time of the Cuban missile crisis, 19 and in the work force when President Kennedy was assassinated, 20 when the Beatles first came to the USA, and the last election I was too young to vote in was Goldwater-Johnson in 1964. Johnson ran on a peace platform and then in the spring of 1965 "escalated" the war in Vietnam. I was called for service but flunked the physical.

    Tape recorders were 7" reel-to reel; besides the 33-13 rpm LP's, popular records were 45rpm and there were still some 78rpm's around, all monophonic of course. My parents' first TV was black and white in a wooden console. Programming started about 6 am and ended at midnight with the national anthem. (Fancy that!)

    All phones were rotary-dial land lines, and my parents had a party line. House had a coal-fired furnace, which was converted to gas about 1952 or 1953. The only powered appliance my mom had was her electric mixer, and we argued over who got to lick the beaters.

    All kid games were played outside, except for pencil-and-paper games like battleships and hangman.

    I had 12 years of Catholic education =>before Vatican II<=. I served many a predawn Mass, in Latin, starting in 1955; we were expected to have the Mass memorized and =>understand<= what we were saying (Petrum et Paulum vs. Petro et Paulo). (Ramble: at Christmas Eve Mass I didn't have a copy of the new correct translation of the Credo so I recited it in Latin.)

    I started working with mainframe computers in 1975. Now, one of my neighbors has a phone-computer which he says has more power than the system that put the guys on the moon in 1969. The first four-function calculator I ever saw, in 1964, was in the U of MN engineering bookstore for $100. I didn't have a pocket-size portable radio until 1968.

    There are so many things common then that have disappeared, and so many things common now that weren't even dreamed of when I was young.

    And I could go on forever about what seems the complete flipflop of manners and morals in the last fifty years.


  2. Bob, I remember some of those things you mention too. My mother had a reel-to-reel tape recorder, and we also had rotary dial phones. (How could I forget rotary dial phones: I spent enough time on them as a kid!)

  3. I was going to mention reel - reel and rotary phones, but Old Bob beat me to it. We had a party line phone, and our number was 186.
    The first album I bought was the Beatles "Rubber Soul". We didn't have a TV until I was 15, and my dad, who hated commercials, rigged up a couple of wires (long enough to reach the couch)to a toggle switch to mute the volume - in effect, the first remote control!
    We were too poor to buy many toys, so we played outdoors year round, also spent a lot of time reading (gasp) real books.

  4. Speaking of party lines, it seems they still exist even today in isolated places. I can remember other kids talking about party lines when I was in grade school, but we weren't on one. I still remember our phone number; in fact, there is a law firm in Boise that uses that exact same number as a fax line (different area code, of course)!

    We had a TV in a fancy wooden cabinet that my father got as a Christmas bonus at work. There was also a black and white TV in the house for many years. And I, too, spent a lot of time reading actual books (and still do)!

  5. Webcor reel to reel with Magic Eye level meter.

    Phone number that started with words.

    No zip codes.

    The first Instamatic camera with single flash bulbs, not cubes.

    The first touch tone phone didn't work right in 1965 and we never had one again until the 1980's. My AT&T 100 phone has a "pulse" switch.

    The first answering machine with a wax cylinder (NOT REALLY, JUST KIDDING)

  6. Ah, yes. We never had telephone exchange names in my area, at least as far back as I can recall (though apparently some still survived into the '70s). However, I do remember when the area code for all of Los Angeles was 213. Then in the mid-'80s, the San Fernando Valley's area code became 818. Now I believe the area code for Reseda, where I lived, is 747.

    And ZIP codes: we always had ZIP codes, but they must not have been mandatory when I was a kid: I remember seeing television commercials encouraging the use of ZIP codes.

  7. ZIP code stands for Zoning Improvement Plan, I remember when they started in 1963. You must be a lot younger than I am.

  8. Yep, I was born after ZIP codes started, but I don't think they were absolutely required in the beginning. They may have been by the time I was old enough to start sending mail.

  9. Mandatory for second and third class in 1967. But everyone was using them for first class mail by then because without them mail was taking so much longer.