Sunday, July 15, 2012

Then Again

I turned 50 not all that long ago, and I got to thinking about how times change. Actually, I'm always thinking about how times change. When I was a teenager I thought about how times change. I remember watching a late '40s Bowery Boys movie in the late '70s and thinking, "Wow! Times sure have changed in the last thirty years!" The difference, or course, is when I was 16, "the last thirty years" was waaaay before I was born. Now, of course, that same length of time is now within living memory. My living memory.  One difference between experiencing a bygone era  second-hand through old books, movies, and TV shows; and experiencing a bygone era first-hand through living memory, is the former you tend to focus on all the changes that have occurred, whereas the latter is a bit more complicated. You noticed what's changed but also what hasn't. If the past, the past you haven't lived through, as David McCullough once put it, is a foreign country, then the past you lived through is your own homeland. The present, meanwhile, is that same homeland invaded by foreigners.  

To make sense of all this, I've decided to make a list of things that have changed in my lifetime. I'm not going all the way back to 1961, the year of my birth, since my memory's a bit foggy about that particular year. Instead, I'm making my starting point 1980, the year I graduated high school. I'm not going to include obvious things like cell phones, the Internet, or the fall of the Soviet Union. Enough has been written about those topics. Instead, I'm going to write about things that have changed, but seem to have slipped under the radar (assuming radar hasn't become obsolete and superseded by some new technology.) After that, there's a list of things that have not changed, or have changed very little, since 1980.


Public Restrooms--They're becoming increasingly touch-free. Especially the ones in shopping malls. You no longer have to turn on the sink faucet. Just wave your hand in front of the motion detector, usually a lens-like thing on the faucet's neck, and water magically spurts out. I was also in a mall recently that had a no-touch soap dispenser. And, when dry your hands afterwards, there's either a hand warmer of paper towel dispenser, or both, neither of which with you have to make physical contact. So far I've just describing washing hands. How about the primary reason we use the rest room? That's often no-touch, too, as many toilets now flush by themselves. As to what exact motion the motion detector is detecting when that happens--well, I'll leave that to the imagination.

Rock Music--I'm not talking about the performers, all of whom, of course, come and go. It's the  acceptability of the music that's really changed. Sure, rock was popular in 1980, but mostly with people under age 35. Almost anyone older seemed to detest the music, unless it was Elvis Presley. As my mother once argued to me, after he returned from the army, Elvis rose above rock 'n roll (though I'm not sure the movie Clambake is rising above rock, unless you've watched it after you just ate.) However, anything after 1964 was noise as far as the over-35 crowd was concerned. That's why, even though rock dominated the radio, you didn't see it too much on TV. Sure, there was Don Kirshner's Rock Concert and The Midnight Special late at night, and American Bandstand and Soul Train after Saturday morning cartoons, but in prime-time, Steve and Edie-type music specials still dominated. Well, I guess suburban America's token-hippie of the era, John Denver, might have been considered a borderline rock star, though I think Steve and Edie were once guests on one of his specials.  Despite the revenue it generated, rock was was pretty much under quarantine from the culture at large. Not any more. These days, rock is everywhere. They play it in supermarkets and fast-food restaurants. Not long ago I was sitting in a Subway--hardly a hippie hangout--and Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon came on. Nobody in the place--including those well into middle-age--were wrinkling their noses and decrying it as noise, as they might have done decades earlier. Rock is also well represented on prime-time TV. I know people with a strict definition of what constitutes rock will give me an argument about this, but what you hear on American Idol or Dancing with the Stars is either rock or music styles that wouldn't exist if there hadn't first been Chuck Berry or the Beatles. In fact, they've played Chuck Berry and the Beatles on those shows.  Even when those programs have their occasional Tin Pan Alley-themed shows, they're done with rock arrangements. Also, rock is now a mainstay of the Super Bowl halftime show. In recent years we've seen the Who, the Rolling Stones, and Bruce Springsteen all perform. OK, I grant you they're all a little long-in-the-tooth, but two years ago it was the hip-hop group Black Eyed Peas. Fergie is young enough to be Mick Jagger's granddaughter. Yes, rock 'n roll has been thoroughly absorbed into the mainstream of American life, proving it was never as dangerous as so many parents of baby-boomers had feared. Nor as revolutionary as some baby-boomers themselves had hoped.

Tow Trucks--As a three-decade card-carrying member of AAA, I can tell you these babies have changed plenty over the years. A tow truck used to be just a pickup truck with a kind of mechanical arm-pulley-hook in back. The last couple times I've needed a tow, though, they haven't sent out pickups but huge flatbed trucks. Instead of a hook-up, the car is now driven up on the bed, or, if the car is undrivable (one of the main reasons you call a tow truck in the first place), somehow pulled up with chains. I asked the tow truck driver the last time I needed one if they still had the pickup truck version. He said yes,, but they prefer to use the flatbed as it's more convenient. This is a convenience that totally eludes me. For one thing, those things are so big that if you've broke down in anything smaller than a baseball diamond, you have to move the car around--a car that won't move--in order to have enough room for the tow truck to move about. Also, if you break down in the middle of the night, plan on waking up the entire neighborhood, as those suckers are noisy as hell.

Playgrounds--They're softer. When I was growing up, the playground equipment sat upon hard, black asphalt. Now it's hay or grass or dirt or a combination of the three. This is all to the good. You don't want some kid cracking his head open when he falls off the monkey bars. Exactly why it took nearly until the end of the 20th century for someone to realize the dangers of cushion-free pavement is beyond me. Maybe urban planners thought kids were like cats, always landing on their feet. Playground equipment has changed quite a bit, too. Instead of swings and seesaws, what you increasingly see are odd tunnel-like mazes. There's this playground outside my apartment building, and I'll often watch from my window as little children crawl into those mazes while their mothers look on. Sometimes, the children don't come out again, and the mothers have to go in after them. Sometimes the fathers have to go in after the mothers. One of these days, I fully expect either the fire department, swat team, or National Guard to do a search-and-rescue operation in one of those mazes.

Test Patterns--Used to be if you stayed up past Johnny Carson, past Tom Snyder, the National Anthem would start playing, signaling the end of the broadcast day. Why exactly was a TV station going off for the night a cause for patriotic celebration? It's not like Carson or Snyder were communists or anything. Anyway, after the anthem ended, a picture would appear on the screen with an odd diagonals-and-circles design that was called a "test pattern". I'm not sure what was being tested, or who was doing the grading afterwards. Presumably, the test pattern would stay on the air until about 5:00 the next morning, when the farm news would herald in a brand new day of viewing. However, I once heard a rumor that the pattern only stayed on for an hour or so, after which time the station played porno movies in defiance of the FCC. Try as I might, though, I could never stay awake long enough to test the accuracy of this rumor. Not that it matters anymore. Test patterns are no longer needed because TV is now 24 hours a day, though those infomercials they play in the overnight hours may be visually less interesting. As for porno movies, there are plenty of ways now to watch those in the comfort of one's living room without having to wait until 3:00 in the morning.

The Emergency Broadcast System--More TV-related change, this time about something that always fascinated me growing up. About once a week a commercial break would be interrupted--a turnabout in fair play if there ever was one--by a slide of a triangle with the letters CD inside it. A somewhat uptight voice would then inform us, "This is a test. For the next sixty seconds, this station will conduct a test of the Emergency Broadcast System. This is only a test." This was followed by a high-pitched sound, the kind a tea kettle makes, though the tea could boil over if you let it go on for 60 seconds like that. Afterwards, you'd get a more thorough explanation from the anal announcer: "The broadcasters of your area in voluntary cooperation with the FCC and other authorities have developed this system to keep you informed in the event of an emergency. If this had been an actual emergency, you would have been instructed where to tune in your area for news and official information. This concludes this test of the Emergency Broadcast System." I found this incredibly exciting growing up, an excitement not dulled one bit by the utter lack of emergency. Yet I never see these announcements anymore. I did some checking, and apparently The Emergency Broadcast System has been superseded by the Emergency Alert System. Now you just get a crawl at the bottom of the TV screen announcing the test. Not nearly as exciting, in my opinion, as listening to the tea kettle. Incidentally, we're just talking about the test here.  How effective has the Emergency Broadcast/Alert System been during actual emergencies? This from the New York Times in 2001, not long after 9/11: "No president has ever used the current [EAS] system or its technical predecessors in the last 50 years, despite the Soviet missile crisis, a presidential assassination, the Oklahoma City bombing, major earthquakes and three recent high-alert terrorist warnings..." Your taxpayer dollars at work.

Sentences--Specifically, the end of sentences: 

: )  : (   ; )  : /

Yes, I'm talking about the emoticon, which didn't exist in 1980. What I want to know is, why didn't it exist? Some of you right now are answering, "Because there were no personal computers!" or "Because there was no Internet!" True, true, but go to an antique store sometime and ask to see a typewriter. You'll notice the keyboard is pretty similar to the one on a PC. There's absolutely no reason somebody couldn't have ended a sentence with a : ) back in 1980. For that matter, there's no reason somebody couldn't have ended it that way back in 1880. Yet it never occurred to anybody to do so until the 21st century. Along with emoticons in sentences, you now see the frequent us of acronyms, such as LOL (Laugh Out Loud), OMG (Oh My God), BTW (By The Way), IMHO (In My Humble Opinion), IMAO (In My Arrogant Opinion), and WTF (I have absolutely no intention of lowering myself in the gutter and telling you what that means. I aim for good taste and decency on this blog.) All of those phrases, or at least the words that make up the phrases, existed back in 1980, yet it was another thirty years before anyone used them as acronyms. What the fuck took so long? Oops : o

Sports Cartoonists--As I've mentioned before on this blog, I'm not a huge sports fan. As I've further mentioned before on this blog, I am a fan of comics and cartoonists. So, if there's anything that can draw me to the sports page, it's sports cartoonists. If you've never heard of a sports cartoonist, they're function is, or was, basically the same as an editorial cartoonist. Just as the latter does a comic strip rendering of whatever's going on in the news, sometimes giving you literally a clearer picture of what's going on, so, too, does, or did, the sports cartoonist with athletics. This was a valuable service for someone like me who finds a straightforward sports article difficult to plow through sometimes. Not so when it's ink, crayon, brush, or whatever. An elf--brownie--sinking in quicksand beyond reach of a branch with the word "playoffs" on it? Hey, I get it! The Cleveland Browns chances of entering the playoffs have diminished considerably. The Cleveland Plain Dealer used to have a very good sports cartoonist by the name of Dick Dugan. He retired at the beginning of this century (he's since died), and was never replaced. This situation is hardly unique to Cleveland; it's happening everywhere. But why? Because people prefer photos with their sports? Cartoons and photos co-existed on the sports page for nearly a century. C'mon, all you editors out there, return cartoons to the sports page! If you do, I may even buy season tickets. As soon as someone tells me what season it is.

Professional Boxing--Speaking of sports, I did for a while in the 1970s think of myself as a boxing fan. I thought wrong. I now realize I was actually a fan of Muhammad Ali. Once he finally retired (after a few false stops), I lost all interest in the sport. I think that was true for a lot of people. Really, doesn't it seem like boxing retired right along with Ali? Well, I suppose Mike Tyson did hold people's attention for a while, but that was as much for his violence outside of the ring as in it. What's going on with boxing now, though? Anyone know the name of the current world heavyweight champion? Is there even a current world heavyweight champion? Do they still hold matches in exotic military dictatorships like Zaire that you can only see for a price on  closed-circuit TV? Is there even such a thing anymore as closed-circuit TV? It's tempting to say that the decline of pro boxing in American life means that we've become a more enlightened society, where people no longer need to get their thrills from watching two men hurt each other. Except something called mixed-martial arts is popular now. At least it is on cable. From what I understand, this involves boxing, kicking, and karate chops in a ring surrounded by a cage. Violence à la carte. And, of course, there's professional wrestling, where people get their thrills watching two men pretend to hurt each other. I'm not sure if that's more enlightened or not. I know, I know. I'm acting like I'm above it all. However, if the now 70-years old, Parkinson's disease-ridden Muhammad Ali were to come out of retirement, I'd probably become a fan of boxing all over again. Go, Ali!

Flatulence--No, the actual body function hasn't change (though they are serving bigger portions at McDonald's...) What has changed is the body function's relation to the culture at large. Watch old movies; no one passes gas. You might argue that given the onerous censorship that existed at the time, nothing remotely off-color--sexual intercourse comes to mind--was shown in old movies. But there were plenty of allusions to sex. In the late '40s film noir Out of the Past, Robert Mitchum kisses Jane Greer as she leans backwards on a sofa. The camera moves from them to the front door, which blows open from the wind. Heh-heh-heh, we know what's going down. And we do mean going down. But while the door may blow open because of it, no one actually breaks wind. There are even allusions to going to the bathroom in old movies. In 1939's Ninotchka, a party in an apartment is interrupted so a man can take his young son to a little room to relieve himself (the movie takes place in Stalinist Russia, where they apparently had communal bathrooms.) But it's all done very quietly. You hear nothing that sounds remotely like a Bronx cheer. Literature was a little more liberated back in the day, but not when it came to flatulence. Catcher in the Rye, published in 1951, may have had it's share of four-letter words, but Holden Caulfield never farted. John Kennedy Toole's novel A Confederacy of Dunces, written in the early 1960s, has all kinds of references to flatulence ("his valve opened"), but it wasn't published, posthumously, until the late 1970s. Maybe all the fart jokes is what took so long. Mel Brooks' Blazing Saddles finally broke the flatulence taboo in 1974, with its' famous pork-and-beans-by-the-campfire scene. It broke the taboo for movies, that is. Flatulence was still off-limits on TV. Three's Company had plenty of double entendres, but none having to do with passing gas. The original cast of Saturday Night Live broke all kinds of taboos, but I can't remember Chevy Chase or John Belushi ever cutting the cheese. There may have been an allusion to flatulence on an episode of All in the Family, but the word "fart" was never mentioned. In fact, as late as 1980, and perhaps for many years after, the term "fart" was considered a quasi-swear word, one you never heard on TV, as an FCC fine hung over the networks like the Sword of Domiciles. That's how it was back then. These days? You can hear the term "fart" uttered more times in a single episode of Two and a Half Men than you could in five decades of 20th century television . What's truly surprising is the extent flatulence has permeated children's entertainment. Fozzie Bear broke wind in the most recent Muppets movie. More than once in the past few years, I've read a film review where the critic wrote something like, "the kids will enjoy the fart jokes."  Is there any danger that innocent young minds might be permanently damaged from such early exposure to the realities of flatulence? I doubt it. As with any bodily function, kids will find out about it one way or another. Especially if they've eaten too much Halloween candy.


The Internal Combustion Engine--Still needs gasoline to make it run.

The British Monarchy--The concept of royalty has made it all the way to the 21st century, rationality be damned! Even the particulars of the British royalty haven't changed all that much. Elizabeth II still occupies the throne, just as she did in 1980. Charles is still next in line, just as he was in 1980. Of course, time has done some tweaking here and there. Neither Prince William nor Kate Middleton existed in 1980. However, as their recent wedding proved, it's all part of the same old costume opera. The Royal Family remains quite popular with the British people, which is why they keep re-electing them to office...Oh, wait, it doesn't work that way, does it? 

Walkie Talkies--With all the improvements in cell phone technology, you might expect these devices to be obsolete by now. But, no, they're still around. Just yesterday, I saw a maintenance man on one floor of my building keeping in contact with another maintenance man somewhere else in the apartment complex with a walkie talkie. Police and some security guards still use them. Go to any play, concert, or political rally, and you'll notice the stage hands all have walkie talkies. What accounts for the device's enduring popularity? You don't have to pay for the minutes.

Measurement--When I was still in grade school, the teacher told us kids that by the time we were adults, the United States would have switched over to the Metric System. Well, I'm now into my fourth decade of adulthood, and Americans are still using inches, ounces, feet, pints, yards, quarts, gallons, and miles. The one odd exception is the carbonated beverage. Coke and Pepsi now come in liters, whereas Mott's apple juice is sold by the quart. But then there's always been a bit of inconstancy when it comes to carbonation, what with one half of the country calling it pop, and the other half calling it soda. Getting back to the Metric System, some experts blame the obstinacy of the American people for the lack of adoption. I don't know. Let me ask any American reading this right now. Do you really care what system we use as long as the price of a ruler or tape measure stays the same? I guess if you're occupation is one where you're measuring things all the time, like a carpenter or dressmaker, you might care. Maybe they're the ones holding things up. I also remember the teacher warning us kids that if the United States doesn't change over, and change over soon, we would no longer be economically competitive. That could explain why, say, shoes are no longer made in this country. The average worker in Thailand makes thirty centimeters an hour.

Blondie, The Family Circus, The Wizard of Id, The Born Loser, Hi and Lois, Hagar the Horrible, etc--Dagwood still runs into the mailman. The little ghost "Not Me" still frames kids. The Spook still complains about his gruel. Some things, including character development, never changes in comic strips, at least not the ones mentioned above. Actually, there has been some changes behind the scenes. None of those strips, and many others 40 years or older, are written or drawn by their original creators, all of whom have departed this veil of tears. They're legacy strips. However, in order to maintain the illusion of sameness readers have come to expect from the comics page, many are "produced" by the creators descendants. Thus, someone named Young is still responsible for Blondie, just not the Young of old. Bil Keane died a few months ago, but his strip, The Family Circus, went on without a hitch, as his son had been doing it for quite some time. I wonder if all this nepotism isn't sometimes confusing to the subscribing newspapers. The 7/8/2012 edition of the Sunday Plain Dealer comics section credited Hagar the Horrible to Dik Browne, who died in 1989. That's one way to achieve immortality. This confusion, however, doesn't always begin with the cartoonist's death. Indeed, figuring out the extent of a creator's involvement with their own strip, especially if it's an older one, can be a bit tricky. Here's how it works, or at least did work for the old-school cartoonists. Someone would come up with an idea for a strip, spend about five years perfecting an original drawing style (albeit a drawing style easily mimicked by an assistant), honing the characters, and coming up with a series of recurring gags. Afterwards, the cartoonist would gradually assign various duties to someone else, sometimes a whole room of someone elses, until their only creative involvement was nodding their head in approval before that day's strip went out. I once read somewhere that Mort Walker has ten people working on Beetle Bailey. Guess they need that many just to keep those Sarge-hanging-from-the-branch gags fresh. I've long argued that comics should be considered an art form, but as with anything that falls under the rubric of "popular culture" there are plenty of reasons, good reasons, to argue otherwise. Legacy strips and assembly line strips are products, not works of art. None of this is to say I'm against old comics per se. I have no problem with newspapers re-running Peanuts. At least I know the Schulz it's credited to is the Schulz, and not Schulz's great-great-great grandnephew once removed.

Vietnam--Were I using 1965, 1970, or 1975 as my year of comparison, I would definitely put this in the "Things That Have Changed" category. But by 1980, Vietnam had become, remarkably, a country most Americans no longer gave much thought to. Thirty-two years later, it's still a country most Americans don't give much thought to. May we some day feel the same indifference toward Iraq, Iran, Syria, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and North Korea.

Bikinis--Exactly how can they change?

Junk Mail--Thanks to the Internet, the personal letter is on the decline, and some are predicting the eventual demise of the Post Office (though that would take a constitutional amendment.) There's still one group of people, though, who haven't given up on snail mail: advertisers. About three times a week I pull out of my box ads for cars, restaurants, furniture, and clothes, as well as those Value Paks full of coupons to places I never plan on visiting. This isn't to say advertisers are Luddites. There's also junk email, i.e., spam. Give those ad guys credits. They've got all the bases covered.

Bulletin Boards--Now we come to a more populist form of advertising. You still see bulletin boards--the physical rather than virtual--in many public places, from laundromats to supermarkets. While traditional advertisers still take advantage of them (junk mail and spam apparently aren't enough), they're just as often used by the average folk to peddle such goods and services as garage sales, lawn mowing, snow plowing, selling old cars or appliances, and the like. Why not just use the classifieds? Costs money. How about Craigslist? That's free of charge. Yeah, but you can get lost in the crowd on Craigslist. A bulletin board affords you the opportunity to stand out from the rest. And it's simple enough. You just need a piece of paper, a pen or marker, and a thumb tack. Which reminds me, thumb tacks haven't changed all that much since 1980, either.

The Israelis and the Palestinians--Are those two ever going to learn to get along?




  1. So much about this post made me smile:
    "...Elvis rose above rock 'n roll (though I'm not sure the movie Clambake is rising above rock, unless you've watched it after you just ate.)

    Wonderful commentary. Changes, especially in technology, make me want to retreat more often to my cabin in the woods. Wish I could, but I'm too busy fixing all the "things" that make up my life here in the city.

    It made me think about a lot of things I haven't noticed, or at least not in the depth you have.

    Well done.

    1. Thank you for your kind words, Kass. I'm glad SOMEONE noticed this post. I put it a lot of work in it, and, due to time constraints recently imposed on me, it took about two weeks to write (I was also interrupted by the deaths of Andy Griffith and Ernest Borgnine, and I still got the ghost of Celeste Holm waiting in the wings).

      I guess what fascinates me most about the future gradually turning into the present is that while some things and others stay the same, it's never what we think it's going to be. As many others have pointed out, we so far have no flying cars in the 21st century, or any space colonies outside of Earth's orbit, yet who fifty years would have predicted a disposable camera?

      I also wanted to point out that change doesn't always involve technology, that it can be cultural, socialogical, and political as well. In fact, before the Industrial Revolution, that was the only type of change there was.

  2. Isn't Clambake his best picture?
    You have put so much into this post Kirk that I really don't know how to respond. Mostly when I think of change I see the technology. I was watching "Quantum Leap" last night, specifically the one where he leaped back into 1955 as a black man in a Driving Miss Daisy scenario. that episode along with your post has reminded me of how far we have come as a nation. Unfortunately there is still lots of room for improvement. Good post, very thought provoking.

    1. Thank you, Mike. Obviously, civil rights have changed. A black president with an arabic-sounding middle name would have been unthinkable--hell, forget 1980--it would have unthinkable in 2004! On the other hand, the birther movement-type of racism that's followed was probably wholly predictable. The more things change, the more they stay the same.

  3. I forgot to say, "Congratulations on embarking into your 50th year!"

    1. Thank you, Kass. My gray hairs also thank you.

  4. kirk, you put so much into your posts, i'm at a loss as to where to begin to respond. i'm overwhelmed, so i quit. so i devolve to the mundane, playgrounds.
    when i was working with kids with autism, many of the schools had playground covered in shredded, recycled tires. soft, bouncy, and safer than concrete, for sure.
    the future turns into the present, and unless we are vigilant, so does the past.

    1. Good use of recycled tires, I'd say.

      Well, rraine, you, nor anyone else, has to respond to the ENTIRE thing. I would have actually thought this post was more, not less, comment-friendly than usual, as it's divvied up into categories. Just choose the category you're most interest in--in your case, playgrounds--and comment away. Hell, if someone wants to comment on a single SENTENCE, I'm fine with that, trust me.

  5. Kirk - Life is not at all what I imagined it would be as a child/teenager, but I guess it's what I planned due to the reactions I had to events of my upbringing. Are we ever totally free? There are always the constraints of life circumstances and societal events, but somehow we keep striving to rise above the slime and the superficial.

    Your profile sums up nicely how I feel:
    I am both a lofty dreamer and jaded realist, which can be a bit dizzying at times.

  6. I'm happy that you identify with my profile description. Much of what I try to do as a writer is make a case for my particular point of view. But it's nice to occasionally bypass the casemaking altogether, and just connect. Thanks, Kass.

  7. Kirk, this is top notch. Thanks.

    Incidentally, you may have inspired me.

    1. I'm flattered by any inspiration you could have possibly gotten from something I wrote, Erin. Thanks for dropping by.


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