The Things We Did Before We Do The Things We Do Now
By Jerry Gervase
Attendance at dinner was mandatory. Mom, dad, grandma and three altar boys – so grace was mandatory, too. We talked. After dinner, dishes washed and dried by hand. Then we sat around the radio. It was a Zenith console with a dial smaller than a calling card. Grandma crocheted. Mom sat on the couch, still in her apron, leafing through the latest edition of Collier’s. Dad sat in the wing-backed chair with the evening paper. He’d be asleep before the first commercial. (His alarm went off at 4:30 a.m.) My brothers worked on model airplanes. Kits that came in long boxes. The body parts of the plane had to be cut out with an X-Acto knife, meticulously following the pattern inked on balsa wood. Unless there was an air-raid warning. Then the blackout shades came down and a piece of black tape was placed over the radio dial to prevent an enemy bombardier from seeing through the roof and zeroing in on that one inch yellow light of the radio dial. Neighborhood air-raid wardens wearing pith helmets stalked the streets making sure no light emanated from any house.
In summer we played in a magical place called outside. In the evening we all sat on the front porch. Neighbors strolled by on the sidewalks, smiling, stopping for weather and war talk. Someone was always passing and waving whether or not they knew you. We drank Dad’s Old Fashion Root Beer, Nehi Orange, and Vernor’s Ginger Ale. Mama would bring out homemade fig cookies and pass them around. We talked. As a kid everyone you interacted with went to the same school and you walked there. Your best friends lived down the street or around the corner. You played touch football in the street, and baseball in empty sandlots. There was no little league. You were a boy scout. You looked forward to the mailman coming twice a day. We walked to the neighborhood movie to see a double feature after looking up the movie times in the newspaper. On “dish night” the movie houses gave away a free piece of china, usually on successive Fridays, until you collected a whole set.
BEFORE THE INTERNET:
We used encyclopedias, dictionaries, Roget’s, Bartlett’s, subscribed to newspapers and magazines. Kids left school and went directly to the library to research their homework and check out books for book reports. The web was the space between thumb and index finger in a baseball glove. We looked in the phone book for phone numbers and used the yellow pages to find commercial businesses. Shopping meant going “downtown,” often to a store where you were the third generation to shop there. We looked forward to the arrival of “The Book-of-the-Month.” I phoned a girl from my bedroom because the extension cord from the kitchen phone stretched that far. We called radio stations to request a song be dedicated to every couple we knew that was going steady and waited to listen to the song when it was played. Being sent to your room was real punishment. Going viral was bad, very bad. It could be fatal. We wrote letters. We talked to each other.
If someone was following you, you ran. You got a haircut, went to a restaurant, saw a movie, girls got their nails done, toddlers took their first steps, dogs and cats did cute things without thousands of people having to know about it. (As if they care anyway.) You played scrabble with people who were in the same room. You kept your religion and politics to yourself and you used language that you could say in front of your mother. Birthdays meant something so people went to a store to buy a card, wrote a special greeting on it, affixed a stamp to the envelope then took the card to the post office or collection box. You did all this days before the birthday. You thought emojis were a primitive tribe in New Guinea. Liking someone meant you really liked him or her and weren’t simply helping them collect status or style points. “Social” and “media” rarely appeared in the same sentence. We grieve about government intrusion into our private lives yet we share our private lives with people we don’t know and never will. Before FB you had to actually achieve something in order
to be famous.
IS LIFE BETTER OR WORSE?
It depends on whether or not we use these new technologies or if they use us. Do we have them or do they have us? Yes, our predecessors railed against radios, horseless carriages, airplanes, telephones, shopping malls and every other new-fangled convention or contraption that threatened change. Without progress we would never have the technology that produced medications that have eliminated diseases that once shortened lives exponentially. Yet, television, the Internet, Facebook, 24/7 news cycles, and all the various types of social media have decreased actual social contact. They’ve impinged upon navel contemplation, daydreaming, reverie, critical thinking, imagination, and the calming phenomenon to stare into space and do nothing.