Birthday party mines Boomer and Gen X memories

by Geoff Olson

A friend of mine had one request for guests at her April birthday party. Instead of gifts, “please think of something to share with others at the party that was different when you were growing up from the way kids grow up now.”

The guests — a mix of Boomers and Gen-X’ers — were part of the demographic that had bridged the analog and digital worlds. None were strangers to boom boxes, dial-up modems, cursive writing, white-out correction fluid, and mix tapes.

The first topic to come up was toys. One of the guests argued that kids now have access to cheap, precision-made diversions that outclass the clunky plastic products of yesteryear. He enthusiastically demonstrated an example he bought just for the occasion: a nerf-disc shooting toy gun.

This rise in quality and drop in price in plastic toys isn’t an unambiguously positive development, of course. I’ve been to homes where there are more playthings than furnishings. The bulk of this kid stuff is assembled in offshore sweatshops by labourers working under outrageous conditions for indefensible wages. The merchandise is then exported halfway around the world, with its ultimate destination in landfills.

We were all in agreement that media diversity has greatly expanded, with fewer touchstones of shared experience. Back in the ’70s, every other home was defined by the yellow spines of National Geographic magazines, and a cabinet television tuned to the cathode-ray gruel of three bonehead U.S. networks. CBC television was notable mostly for hockey games and the human sleeping pill, anchorman Knowlton Nash.

Like me, everyone at the party recalled playing outdoors until it was dark, and walking to school unattended by parents. We were always with friends after school and on weekends, which made for both spontaneous play and strength in numbers. “Helicopter parenting” was unknown, and undoubtedly would have been considered pathological by society at large.

For me, one major change involves the transformation in reproduction, from mimeographs to Xeroxes to home printers. Today’s kids have access to the infinite copyability of digital media; they cut and paste images and text from the web like their parents handled crayons, and mash up copyrighted video images into their own creations.

Contrast this with a ’60s-era product called Silly Putty. This grey, stretchy substance came in a plastic egg and had a paucity of interesting properties. You could squish it down onto the panel of a comic book and peel it back, revealing a colour mirror image on the flattened grey surface. For a seven-year old kid like me, that was way cool. Today I can’t imagine it would now be anything but boring or dorky to anyone over the age of four.

Related to reproduction is the portability of music. As someone observed at the party, it used to be that if  you were going on a long trip you had to be selective about which cassettes you were bringing, since that was all the music you’d have for your Walkman. With an iPod or iPhone? Fughettaboutit.

Today’s infoglut includes pornography, which used to be difficult for kids to access. Social psychologists currently researching the effect of digital porn on the young have come up with a series of non-conclusions, in part because it’s nearly impossible to find teens who have never seen X-rated images and videos. There are no control groups.

And then there’s Batman. A guest at the party recalled Adam West’s campy version of Batman in the ’60s ABC television series — a zeitgeist away from the today’s film franchise starring Christopher Bale as a raspy neurotic in a rubber suit.

On a lighter perspective on this topic, there’s Anne Jane Grossman’s 2009 book, Obsolete: An Encyclopedia of Once Common Things Passing Us By. Among the author’s entries are airport goodbyes, appendicitis scars, tonsillectomies, body hair, comb-overs, hitchhikers, pocket calculators, social emailing, wrinkles and writing letters.

The book also has an entry for nuns. Whatever happened to them? I remember seeing nuns fairly often in the streets of my childhood town, but they seem pretty thin on the ground these days. Perhaps women no longer find the clergy habit-forming.

Sorry, had to end this with a bad pun. Luckily, there appears to be less of those around these days, too. Some things change for the better.

The Vancouver Courier, May 1

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