Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Times Have Changed

I’m a 60 year old grandmother with a featherweight cell phone that takes great pictures whenever the mood strikes me. As a matter of fact, I’ve gone almost totally wireless these days.

In the olden days my parents took pictures with a Brownie Box camera for vacations or special occasions, and talked on heavy black phone with cords which they had to dial. Their parents had portraits done once or twice in their lifetimes by a traveling photographer with a cumbersome tripod and tent over his head. They talked on wall-hung contraptions which had to be cranked by hand, and utilized one-party line for the whole county. It was one step up from a string and two tin cans. Times have changed.

Here I sit composing this article on my new wiz-bang laptop, with which I am also having a love affair, but that is a whole other story. The fact is, I had never even laid hands on a computer until I was in my thirties, and that was only for part of my job which required uploading and downloading data once a week. Before that I typed on electric typewriters at work and on my manual Smith Carona typewriter at home and used carbon paper if I wanted copies.

Now, at least 90% of my job is accomplished on the computer and we “Xerox” or simply print multiples when we need copies; carbon paper has gone the way of the dinosaur. Personally, I now own and use both a PC and laptop computer. My grandmother was a very smart lady, but she never laid eyes on a computer, and could not type a word on any sort of typewriter. My mother, also very intelligent, could type, but never owned or used a computer. Yes, times have changed a great deal.

Traveling is one of my passions and I do it as often as I can, flying and/or driving, horseback, wagons, boats and ferries too. My father used to say I wasn’t happy unless I was going somewhere and he was right. Yet, again, I had never even stepped foot on a plane until I was in my thirties. Since that maiden voyage, however, it’s been “Katy Bar the Door.”

My grandmother, on the other hand, never flew anywhere and never drove a car in her whole life. She never learned how. On the other hand, I’ve had my driver’s license since I was sixteen, and learned how to drive Grandpa’s old truck when I was twelve. I think the farthest Grandma ever ventured from home in the Texas Hill Country was to a Mexican border town once. She certainly never flew to France or lived in Alaska like me. Grandpa farmed cotton in Texas using a horse and plow when he was a young man. He never cared to get off the farm until the Model T came along. They didn’t “travel” though. Unlike my ancestors, I can’t wait for my next trip. Times have definitely changed.

My father was a World War II veteran; he joined the Marines when he was seventeen years old and never graduated from high school. He killed people in that war - in hand to hand combat and came home with a Purple Heart. He worked hard all his life and earned a decent living, but was never a wealthy man. People from my generation protested the Vietnam War - a move that was considered treasonous by my father.

Today our country is still at war (Isn’t it a perpetual state of the human condition? To be constantly at war?), but I hope by the time my young grandsons are of age, those days will be over. If they do go to war someday, however, it’s possible that the use of modern robotics or droids may prevent them from having to actually murder enemy combatants with their bare hands. It is more likely however, that unlike their Purple-hearted great-grandfather, my grandsons will not only graduate from high school, they will attend Ivy League colleges. My father would have scoffed at that. They may never be war veterans like him, but they will probably be millionaires. Yes, times change.

More than fifty years ago, my paternal grandparents owned one of the first television sets and routinely watched their favorite programs - mostly the local weather and one soap opera, As the World Turns. It was only a black and white appliance powered by mysterious tubes, but it was a TV. There was only one channel to choose from then. Nowadays, if I happen to miss my favorite show, I can replay it on my new wireless laptop, ergo, the love affair. Television has become my best friend and companion. Oh, I have lots of human friends too, but TV is definitely my most reliable companion, aside from my laptop.

My grandparents were married over 50 years to each other. I’ve been married and divorced three times. That was certainly never part of my Cinderella plan, but it’s the way my life has unfolded. Divorce was pretty rare in my grandparents’ day - people tended to just stick it out, come Hell or high water - whether they hated each other or not. They also didn’t tend to dwell on their feelings because they were busy trying to make a living and just get by. Self-actualization for my grandmother would have been finally buying that sinful pair of red pumps she’d been ogling in the Sears and Roebuck catalog. I’ve got at least two pairs of sexy red shoes and/or boots in my closet at all times. But then, times have changed.

When Grandma was alive, my family spent almost every Sunday at her house for dinner and visiting. In fact, I would have happily spent every available moment at my grandmother’s. We didn’t have cell phones or computers in those days, but we communicated just fine. My grandmother had nine brothers and sisters and they all talked to each other and met up for important holidays and reunions, bringing along their entire broods. Such reunions were a way of life for us. Now, I don’t even remember when I went to a family reunion last.

These days, I’m lucky if I see my grandsons once a month…and then it has to be at their place, because mine is not “kid friendly.” What the heck is that? Kid friendly!?!? Plus I have to make a date with them for quality time, and invent ways to stay connected to them. This family dynamic of estrangement is devastating but I feel powerless to change the course of events; I am only one person in this evolving family drama. We may never have been a picture perfect family, but we were a family. Though I never would have imagined it, and did not set out to, I have lost track of many relatives.

As a matter of fact, I know this type of dysfunction has happened in many other families as well. It seems to be rampant in our society today. Knowing that doesn’t make it any better though. While technology continues to zoom ahead with more and more toys and tools, cell phones and computers, our families are disintegrating right under our noses.

Times have definitely changed - and not necessarily for the better. It will do us no good to long for the Good Ol’ Days, however. While technology is a wonderful thing, perhaps it is not the answer. It sure seems like all the tools in the world - all the washing machines, televisions, microwaves, laptops and cell phones with cameras, cannot fix the things we value most. Only we can.