Thursday, January 20, 2011

Too Much, Too Long

One of the more amusing GEICO ads on tv , and lets be honest between the “weeeeeee” piggy and the wood chucks, they have established a genre all their own, is the spot in which the question is raised, “ did it take too long for the Walton’s to say good night to each other.” The charming thing about that spot, all “goodnight John Bob” of it, is that there is the tiniest evocation of something with a little less guile and self-anointment than the country we now live in. Where am I going with this? Well, though I carry a half dozen credit cards, described myself as DBGTPJ for a few years (ah, that was DaveBurnettGlobeTrottingPhotoJournalist) I did grow up in a time when there wasn’t near the level of technological impact on our lives. No iPhone, no Droid. No flat-screen. No Remote. No laptop. No modems. In fact virtually none of the everyday appliances invented in the last thirty or so years were anything beyond an idea in the imagination of some worthy cartoonist. The Dick Tracy watch/intercom was pretty forward thinking, even if it didn’t have a built-in camera.

Last night, watching Modern Family with my sister, and her 16 year old son, this week’s episode about the kids surprising the parents in their bedroom with a breakfast tray only to see that they were making whoopee, was a far cry from what was on the air in the 1950s. My nephew joined in the fun, aware as most 16 year olds are – in some fashion – about all those things which were hidden from public discussion in the Eisenhower years, sex above all. In trying to explain the leap between his Junior year in High School and my own, I said, “hey, we watched Spin and Marty.” A staple of the daily “Mickey Mouse Club,” S&M was a show about a rich kid (with a butler) and a non-rich kid at a summer camp for young cowboys. And aside from the Snipe hunt it was pretty tame stuff. Yes, it was a different world, with expectations no less demanding, even if the circumstances we lived in seemed at the time, quite fulsome and lacking in deprivation.

Our biggest worry was that the Russians would figure out a way to fly a plane to Salt Lake, or a rocket and “drop an atom bomb” on us. There were just enough confrontations and bombastic behaviour to give those worries steam. Coming home from school (the 7th grade, I believe ) one day in 1958 my brother greeted me with the information that “we’re almost in a shooting war with the Russians” over Lebanon. It was part of the East-West post WW2 struggle which seemed an almost everyday occurrence. Happily, in most cases it remained on the order of a giant chess game. Pieces were moved around, strategies feigned, yet no single cataclysmic event actually took place, unless you consider the price of a Snickers going from a nickel to a dime cataclysmic. I probably did.

My mom wasn’t a really great cook, but she knew enough dishes to be able to get through a week without duplication, though when the gnarly old broiling pan came out, I knew we were about to be served that most challenging of youthfully eyed dishes, broiled kidneys. You wanna talk uncuttable? Even with a ‘good knife’ there was no way to tear into those puppies. We took our Unicap vitamins every day, drank a glass or two of milk, and on Fridays, especially if dad was home – not on the road selling watches – we’d get steak. The difference being that it was usually one big T-bone for the whole family, and there would be long ongoing discussions about which side of the bone you got. Dad was a master carver, and would always carve the meat in the kitchen, perfectly parallel rows of sirloin on one side and tenderloin on the other, as if cut by a jigsaw. The plaintive cry of my brother and I was that we “never get to cut the meat ourselves.” Maybe that was one of those missing bits of childhood development which would have yielded all the greater “masters of the universe” had we been forced to cut our own steak. We’ll never know.

But the one thing I think I do know is that while it wasn’t a Morton’s porterhouse the size of a small car, that steak was truly more than enough for the family of five. And the fact that we set the big dining table – no ketchup bottle on the table, thank you! and ate like a Rockwell family, seemed to imbue those dinners with something somehow lacking in today’s world. What we have today surely is the banishment of “just enough” as a way of seeing the world. Whether it’s ten million dollar mansions, hundred thousand dollar sedans, or merely the 48 ounce porter house, in so many ways we have too much, given to children too soon, and for far too long. The feelings of entitlement that today’s kids have thrown at them are surely not a fault of their own. The gamesmanship parents play to prove their own offspring somehow superiour does so little to get the children ready for life, that it is at once startling and sad. I know it has become something old hat for my generation to speak longingly of how tough we had it in the fifties and sixties, but with all the simplicity that life handed us we still ended up ok. Today, though, is one of those days when a little reflection might not be a bad thing.

My junior high school (Olympus “… with your flag of white and blue unfurled’ we re proud for all the world to see…”) was typical in that schools built in the 1950s might have had a Public Address system, and a big 16mm projector in the auditorium, but otherwise they lacked anything which we would today consider high tech. So it was, in my 9th grade gym class, on a cold January day fifty years ago (hmmm I guess just writing that number makes me want to go lie down and have a heart attack!) that Don Laursen, the coach, wheeled in a 15” black and white TV to the gymnasium. Once plugged in, we knew it must be something special, since we had never before seen a TV in school. He turned it on and tuned it to Channel 5, the strongest signal in town, and we were informed that we would be watching the Inauguration of the new President. John F Kennedy, (you always pronounced the F if you said his full name) was taking the reins from Ike, and we were there to share in the moment. And there was something transfixing about that phrase “and so my fellow Americans, ask not what your country can do for you…” and the fact that even in very conservative, very Mormon Salt Lake City, we were being treated to the induction of a Democratic president made it a special moment. Just two years later, when I attended Boys State in the summer of 1963 at Utah State University, we ‘Staters rubbed elbows with a bunch of college grads training for the Peace Corps, perhaps the single most idealistic concept this government has ever hatched. It all seemed to come together, and though there were those constant threats of US/Soviet tension, we did seem to feel the world was going to be our oyster.
JFK visits Salt Lake City, Sept 1963
And so today, with electronic news dissemination causing no story to have a life beyond a few minutes, no chance for reflection possible before the next barrage or hailstorm of ‘breaking news’…. Oh wait, Snooki in Florida is breaking news? Well, whatever we call it, it just keeps overwhelming our senses, our ability to think through and digest. The idea of a family of means sharing one nice steak has given way to everyone having way too much, way too soon, and for way too long. I wish there were some way to just slow things down a little. But when I see a Youtube video of a five piece band making music on a subway train using nothing but iPhones, I guess it’s pretty clear that we’re not going back to Spin and Marty. Nonetheless I commend to you, take five minutes and read that Inaugural address. It remains one of the great calls for reasonable behaviour uttered in modern times. In my life I have heard the whisper of Obama in a hall of 20000 supporters, reminding us “yes, we can.” And I suppose that like Kennedy, the reality of governance always strays far from the idealism and principles which got one elected in the first place. But to read Kennedy’s Inaugural address (or listen to it, but reading it yourself is even more powerful) you understand that inspite of all the overbearing difficulties of today’s modern world, merely taking the time to reflect has value. And while this line was written with the Soviets in mind, we would do well to remind all our own elected leaders to take it to heart: “So let us begin anew -- remembering on both sides that civility is not a sign of weakness, and sincerity is always subject to proof. Let us never negotiate out of fear, but let us never fear to negotiate.”

I find it beyond all reason to try and understand how I could have already lived long enough to have events clearly in my mind from fifty years ago. Were this 1961 right now, and my teacher Coach Laursen to have the same wistful memory, we would be talking about January 1911. Life is rolling along too quickly for my taste. Maybe it would slow down the tiniest bit if I could just do a little less, a little slower, and for a just a moment longer. We’re just sayin’….David


Marti said...

Salt Lake City, 1963? So YOU took that photo, Dave? Very amazingly cool!

Eric Rose said...

I made the decision to slow down and live a saner life about 12 years ago. I make a lot less money than I use to, but I'm sure a lot happier.

It's funny but some of my most distant memories of growing up are centered around JFK. This coming from a Canadian kid. His impact was felt around the world.

In today's world all we would hear about were his faults of which we have come to learn he had many, but who doesn't.

With today's second by second news cycle there is no chance for anything or anyone to make a lasting impact.

You have to wonder what it would take to make a nation stand up and take notice, to pause, to reflect and maybe to celebrate.

Today's North American culture is addicted to pain, suffering and conflict. Just look at the most popular TV shows both "entertainment" (I use that term loosely) and news. When people watch these things it gets them "jacked up". It gets their juices flowing and they become addicted to the rush. Give me more! Make it more violent! Yell louder! Show me the blood!

I have no answers, just reflections. I can reflect because I now have the time to do it. Maybe if I reflect long enough I will come up with an answer.

But alas no one will listen unless I yell it out while cutting someones head off and making sure the camera gets a good shot of the blood.

It's sad.

Rich Gensheimer said...

Well said. And I too remember watching that inaugural parade on our b&w Philco.

Anonymous said...

Having spent the bulk of the day in a terrible horrible very bad mood, I'll continue being oppositional by being happy for us, for good works, for good intentions, for good words, for kind talented people, for high hopes, for hoping good will come of our good and the rest is somehow understandable.

Remember Spanky and Our Gang.

Remember Ted Mack and the Original Amateur Hour and the guy who sang while wearing an enormous hollowed out chicken costume and fell over and really really couldn't get up.

Remember Gorgeous George. What you won't remember is my grandmother yelling at the screen in yiddish-english: Loook ooout...heee's bechhind yu."

But you've reminded me that it is up to us to define and to remember who we are, who our kids are--to silence the noise.

Thanks for a beautiful rendering of past and present, of our depths and shallows, of beautiful dreams and the words that encapsulate them.

p.s. you are still the oldest one here, right?

Anonymous said...

don't forget flying U-control model airplanes


Claudia said...

Very lovely, David. If you have memories this vivid of half a century ago, you have them of times since, and if you keep posting them on your blob, you'll have a great book—of writing, pix complementary.