Thursday, May 26, 2011

The Good New Days

Periodically, I get an email that is making the circuit, reminiscing in a “Pleasantville” sort of way about halcyon days gone by, when movies cost a nickel and nobody had to worry about locking their doors, when the harshest word on television was “Gee whiz” and nobody had ever heard of AIDS. Merle Haggard would be proud.

Don’t get me wrong. I think that the language and the subject matter on television are dangerous. We eat too much fast food. The internet brings much bad with its good. Our political debate, with its talk show extremism and unwillingness to accept the truth when it is placed in front of our eyes on certified public documents, is depressing. Casual public immorality, STDs, the pandemic of divorce, and the level of disrespect for what I would call basic values are distressing.

Still, I think the status quo has a lot going for it. I am excited to be raising teenagers in this era. The opportunities that abound dwarf what was available for me, much less for my grandparents. Health is much better, wealth is significantly greater, and educational horizons are exponentially beyond what the “Leave It to Beaver” generation could have reasonably anticipated.

To reduce this thought to a microcosm, consider how I spent my day today so far. Let me catalog for you – not in a Twitter “here is what I am having for breakfast” kind of way – how I have spent the three and a half hours I have been awake. I am struck by how I routinely conduct my life today in ways that would have been unthinkable fifteen years ago, much less in the 1950s.

I was awakened by an alarm on a clock with a digital readout. I did not have to wind the clock. I was able to press a “snooze” button which automatically programmed the alarm to reset and sound again nine minutes later.

I did not have to worry about having enough hot water for my shower.

I pressed a button so that my garage door would open and pressed another button so my car would start, without my having to turn the ignition with a key. On the way to the airport, I listened to ESPN radio, where I heard discussion about a basketball game. I did not have to wait for details about the game, because I had been able to watch it live, in high-definition color, last night. Instead, I heard analysts from five or six different locations offer opinions and anecdotes about the teams.

If snooze buttons and national sports radio do not sound vital, keep reading.

I interrupted listening to the radio broadcast to make a couple of phone calls while I was driving. I did not have to take my hands off the steering wheel to do this, however, because I could simply push one button and then speak to the microphone invisibly planted somewhere in my car. The calls went through flawlessly. One of the calls was to the airline, where a disembodied voice told me to which terminal I needed to drive to catch my flight.

When I arrived at the airport, so that I will remember where I parked my car, I pulled a portable telephone out and used it to take a picture (!) of the sign indicating the section of the parking lot where I was. I did not have a ticket for the airplane, but that was OK. I walked up to a small machine and typed in a number. Shortly, the machine gave me a piece of paper that allowed me to move through security and later board the plane. The security process involved my sending my bags through one machine and walking through another. Nobody touched me, and I was through the entire process – which included a longer line today than usual – in about ten minutes.

While waiting to board my plane, I read, on a small device I keep attached to my belt, about twenty communications – we used to call them “letters” when they arrived on paper – sent to me by friends and work colleagues this morning. I was able to answer them and send my responses within minutes of when they had been sent to me; in one case, a colleague and I exchange seven letters in the space of about twenty minutes. On the same device, I checked into what is called a “social network” site long enough to catch up on the goings on of about seventy-five of my friends in about nine states.

Still using the same device, I read an editorial from the Los Angeles Times and two articles written by recognized scholars, one in Dallas and one in Louisville.

When the time came, I boarded the plane, showing the airline employee the piece of paper I had gotten out of the little machine when I arrived at the airport. (That is the only piece of paper I have touched for the whole morning other than a napkin.) Now I sit in my seat, typing this essay on a portable machine with capabilities that would have required a large room to hold fifteen years ago.

I was not "dehumanized" by this technology; I was simply helped out. I still read books, talk to people face to face, walk around in the sunshine, smell flowers, and pat the heads of puppies.

Yes, there is much about today that is not as good as “it used to be.” But there is also much today that makes life so much better. That is worth acknowledging.

OK, now I am going to shut down this computer and turn on my portable DVD player, which is plugged into a small outlet in my airline seat. I will listen through noise-canceling earphones.

And I will watch an episode or two of “Magnum PI,” a show from back in the good old days.

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