Clippings: Was it better in the good old days?

One of the endless saws one hears is that things were better in the good old days. When were these good old days? Back when men bound other men in chains, women were something less than second-class citizens, human lives were short and brutish and the best one could hope for was a death that was relatively quick? Those good old days?
Well, of course most people when they talk about the good old days mean those days when we were young and our growing up seemed so simple to the adults around us. Unless I concentrate and really bring it into focus, the pictures of youth in my mind’s eye are always initially set in summertime, mildly hot with short-sleeve shirts and the doors and windows flung open to the smells of fresh-cut grass and sounds of children’s voices.
Now that I’m undeniably an adult — with a mortgage, a career and a family that didn’t exist when I was a child — I wonder about my children’s good old days and how they compare to mine. I start keeping a tally in my head — this was better, this was worse. But as I pause to ruminate on whether one thing was really better than another, I get tangled in a briar patch of value judgments as thorny as the comparison of fracked natural gas vs. dictatorship crude oil.
So here is a list, a simple list, of how things were then, in my youth, compared to how things are now for my darling urchins. You can decide who lives in a better world:
•  TV. Then: Three major networks plus PBS; four clear channels and two fuzzy ones captured via the antenna on the roof. All the stations sign off with the national anthem and a picture of a waving flag at 1 a.m. and there is ONLY dead air for the next four or five hours. Now: Four or five or more major networks (how do you count ESPN or Univision?) plus PBS; north of 500 channels on my mother-in-law’s television (we don’t have cable and get zero channels via our rabbit ears since everything went digital); plus Netflix and Hulu and YouTube streaming on the computer at all hours of the day.
•  Fashion. Then: Jeans; short hair for boys and long straight hair, possibly with a ribbon or elastics for girls; polished, leather shoes for occasions and sneakers for every other time; hand-me-downs from older siblings; Garanimals for those who can afford to buy good taste. Now: Jeans; short hair (or possibly long hair) for boys and long hair (or possibly short) for girls and perhaps a streak of unnatural color for either gender; Crocs or funky rain boots for any occasion; hand-me-downs from older cousins in my house (thank god); Hanna Anderson for those who can afford to buy good taste.
•  Frivolous trends. Then: Pet rocks. Now: Silly Bandz.
•  Playground games. Then: Kill the Man, Smear the Queer (see Cultural mores), dodgeball. Now: Elaborate role playing games (the difference here may not be so much generational but that I was a knuckleheaded boy and my kids are sophisticated girls).
•  Cultural mores. Then: Using racial, gender or sexual epithets and worse is OK but sex outside of marriage is not. Now: Marriage between two men or two women is OK but sex outside of marriage without a condom is not.
•  Sports. Then: Football in the fall, basketball or wrestling in the winter (I’m from Iowa), baseball in the spring and lots of time off between each season. Now: Soccer, field hockey or football in the fall; basketball or some other indoor sport or skiing in the winter or possibly soccer again; lacrosse, baseball or softball in the spring or possibly more soccer.
•  Homework. Then: This was sporadic until junior high and rarely required more than a half hour (except when the TV was on, which meant it took two hours). Now: Homework starts in first grade and is a dominant part of the evening landscape by fourth grade.
•  Afterschool activities. Then: paper route. Now: ballet, Irish step dance and drama club.
•  Musical instruments. Then: I started learning trombone in fourth grade and my wife picked up the viola in third and trumpet in fourth, among other instruments. Now: One girl started violin lessons in fourth grade, the other started trombone in fifth.
•  Neighborhoods. Then: There are kids everywhere; 12 of the 17 houses in my Iowa neighborhood had children. We have communal games of Kick the Can and bike races and all kinds of forts; you can walk through almost anyone’s yard. Now: Out of 43 homes in my Middlebury neighborhood, three have grade-school age children and only a couple more have younger children. My kids found a beach towel on a rock in the neighborhood and went around putting messages into mailboxes asking people if it belonged to them.
•  Worldwide communications infrastructure. Then: We have a Carnegie public library in my town that is open six or seven days a week. We make long distance phone calls only after 11 o’clock at night (when the rates are cheaper) and then rarely spanning more than a few hundred miles. When my older brother is an exchange student in Germany he calls home only once during the year and we know that is a sign that something bad has happened (turns out he has broken his arm). Now: The Internet — need I say more? On Thanksgiving we Skyped with my sister-in-law’s son, who is in Benin, Africa. It was great to hear his voice and see that he was doing well.

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