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Thankful Thursday XXXI – Talking About My Generation

This Thankful Thursday I’m thankful for my generation. Not the Who song – that was representative of the generation before me – but Gen X, as we’ve come to be known. Or more precisely, to be a part of it.

Of course, each generation probably thinks it’s the best. I, perhaps typical of this generation, don’t necessarily claim that ours was the best. But I’m glad I grew up when I did.

To me, my generation got the best of music, the best of TV and, more importantly, the best conditions to grow up in. Notice I don’t say “easiest” however. I love that I grew up listening to Top 40 radio on transistor radios in the ’70s that exposed me to a bit of everything ranging from Motown to country to early heavy metal to disco. Sure, we didn’t really see The Beatles in real time, but I heard them plenty on radio and courtesy my older brother. By the ’80s as adulthood came a-knockin’, college classes were bookended by a new music that was actually exciting. Young kids these days won’t know the High Fidelity-like experience of hanging out at a grubby, crowded record shop looking for import Depeche Mode singles and hearing the music snobs behind the counter going on about the Pixies and Marshall Crenshaw. We were a generation that wanted to change the world. Well, don’t they all, I suppose. But it seems to me that outside of the tail-end of the Baby Boom, young people before were too conventional to challenge the status quo. The youth of today want to change the world too, but I’m not sure that that extends too far beyond the right for young women to call themselves”men” and vice versa for most of them. Some of my happiest times were summers during my university years, working for a conservation agency, with dozens of similarly-involved people around my age. We sure knew how to party at night… but by day, we were all about working on environmental projects and educating people about the need for conservation. Whether it amounted to a lot or not, we were doing something that we felt was bigger than ourselves, that was going to make the world a better place.

Moreover, I think I’m lucky because I straddle the digital and analog age. I grew up spending lots of time in libraries. At school, at the city ones, looking through stacks of books, going through card catalogs to find a title. It seemed like there wasn’t a question that couldn’t be answered by the Encyclopedia Britannica, all fifteen feet of shelving of it. I took typing classes at school, banging away on old manual machines, periodically getting my hands dirty changing the ribbons. It was good experience. But thankfully I was just young enough to see the value of computers by some time in the ’90s, and pick up the skills I needed to write articles, fix photos, design posters or search the internet for wacky kitten videos quickly. My brother, about six years older than me, got through school long before “cyber” was a word and hates computers to this day. Our dad, bless him, tried hard to adapt, but never got beyond playing Solitaire or checking, with extreme difficulty, his e-mail on his laptop. My mom never even got that far along in the process. I feel lucky I am reasonably tech-savvy, but have the background in old, analog ways. I wonder if anyone under 18 today could find an answer any question about science, history or pretty much anything else besides BTS if Siri stopped answering or Google went on holiday.

We didn’t have it easy, but then again, it wasn’t a battle. My parents both were youth in Europe during WWII. That’s hardship and stress. We on the other hand, had to live with the sword of Reagan and Gorbachev’s missiles hanging over us, which was stressful but there was always food to be had, electricity for the lights and despite the fears, no big wars materialized to worry about. We were however, the first generation of “latchkey kids.” For the first time, most women were working and one-parent households were common, so I wasn’t unusual in often coming home to an empty house after school. Like so many others of my peers, that was OK. It gave us a bit of freedom to grow, and more importantly, let us learn real quickly how to make a dinner, or wash our clothes. We walked or rode our bikes to school…yes, yes, you know, in the snow, uphill both ways!… and had our own legs and our friends to rely on. We got part-time jobs as soon as we could to buy our own records and snacks and if we were real lucky and smooth, use the funds to go on dates with. It astonishes me to go by a neighborhood school these days and see cars backed up around the block waiting to get their ten and twelve year olds and drive them immediately home, where they will stay, playing video games, until it’s time to drive them back to class the next morning. Where will their sense of adventure or independence arise from? Will it ever arise, for that matter?

Well that’s my grumpy old, thankful rant for this day, now that we Gen X-ers are getting up there … tomorrow marks the 30th anniversary of the release of Nirvana’s “Smells like Teen Spirit” in case you’re keeping track. So how about you? Are you happy you were born when you were? What is your generation’s best feature? Whatever it is, I hope you’re thankful to be you.

Thankful Thursday XVII – Friends…Part I

This Thankful Thursday I’m thankful for something my sweetie was thankful for on Thursdays in years gone by – Friends. That is of the TV variety. It occurred to me as we watched the much ballyhooed “reunion” a few nights back how much it, and similar shows, meant to so many people.

Friends was, of course in case you’ve lived under a rock for a few decades, the NBC sitcom about six twenty-something friends, making their way in life. It made Jennifer Aniston into one of the most familiar faces in the world and her character, briefly, the most famous haircut. It made the other five then-unknowns into famous stars as well, David Schwimmer, Lisa Kudrow, Courteney Cox (who at the time was mostly recognized for being a teen dancing with Bruce Springsteen in a video a decade prior), Matthew Perry and Matt Leblanc. All six have gone on to have moderately successful acting careers since, but all six are equally still universally best known as their characters from the sitcom.

The show ran from 1994-2004, 236 episodes in all. It was a time period when I was about the age of the characters in the show, and didn’t watch all that much TV outside of baseball games and perhaps The Simpsons... I was too busy working or hanging out with my own friends to a large degree. Or listening to music; it was a passion and radio was cheaper than cable TV! But I would watch Friends from time to time and quite enjoy it, and of course, needed to see it at times because it was all my co-workers would be talking about around the “water cooler” on Friday morning. What about Rachel’s new hairdo? Is Chandler ever gonna dump that Janis? Were they on a break!?

My sweetie, whom I didn’t know back then, watched it routinely and tells of how she’d tell her own friends and family not to call her Thursday evening between 7 and 7:30 (the Central time zone slot it ran in, strange to me coming from the East where 8PM kicks off primetime) because she was busy with those six “friends.” It was her only “must see” TV.

For many others too. It typically drew well over 25 million viewers week-in, week out, for its whole ten year run. By comparison, NCIS is the only show on TV anymore that averages even 15 million; a show that can draw four million with regularity is a hit these days. The finale of Friends was tuned in by over 52 million TVs in the States and perhaps 80 million people and is the most-watched scripted TV show of the 2000s. Although it was always a “top 10” hit, the only year it was the most-watched was 2001-02 – right after 9/11. Odd in that it is set only miles away from Ground Zero in that horrible event. But really, not so odd. The creators had a tough decision about what to do and made the decision to double down on entertaining. People were well aware enough of what had happened, why not give them a half hour reprieve and some laughter each week? It was a brilliant decision.

As was ending when it did. It doubtless could have gone on a few more years and continued to be watched, but they realized it was better to go out on a high. After the ten years, the struggling but somewhat carefree young ones had matured. They had kids. They were getting married. The beauty of the show was the friendship between the group of pals who did everything together, something many of us Gen X-ers could relate to, and in all likelihood most older watchers looked back on fondly. Having Monica and Chandler taking kids to school and living in a bungalow 30 miles from the others wouldn’t have worked. Anything Ross and Rachel did would be anti-climatic after ten years of seeing the tension between them and not knowing if they would eventually pair up. It went out on a high note, something many shows, and entertainers for that matter fail to know how to do.

Since it ended, I paired up and have spent many late nights chilling with my love, watching reruns of the show with her, laughing and recalling what it was like to be 25 and single. But I’m thankful for it for other reasons beyond that.

As the reunion pointed out, Friends was a global phenomenon. Some say it helped them learn English watching it. Others say Phoebe’s oddball behavior and artsy endeavors made them feel OK about being a bit different themselves. It celebrated friends, the people you could rely on even as “relationships” came and went or families caused more stress than they took away. It created characters we cared about (in direct contrast to the other runaway hit of the decade, Seinfeld) and could probably see a bit our ourselves in. They were a bit nerdy and awkward, unsure of just what they wanted from life. (They drank lots of coffee. Hey, Chandler even had a Blue Jays baseball cap on his desk at work in New York… could he BE more Canadian?)

Mostly though I’m thankful for how it was such a “universal.” It was perhaps the last TV show that everyone seemed to watch. Everyone knew who Rachel and Ross were. It gave us a common language, no matter how small. When I was growing up, there were three main networks and shows like MASH and Carol Burnett were seemingly watched by everyone. The population was smaller, but viewerships were bigger – it wasn’t uncommon to have shows watched by 30 million people a week in the ’70s. It gave us something in common, something to talk about. Now we have hundreds of channels, shows custom-tailored to every taste… but little common currency in our entertainment. I can’t help but think that maybe, just maybe we’d not be such a divided nation, so quick to judge others and rush to quick, negative assumptions of “them” if we had a few more shows like Friends that “they” watched just like us. And perhaps a few more “friends”…

How about you, dear readers? Any TV shows or movies you’re particularly thankful for?

Thankful Thursday X – 70s Boy!

This Thankful Thursday, I’m thankful for my age. Well, not exactly for being in my 50s… although there’s a certain clarity of mind that perhaps was absent in younger me, there also is an increasing creakiness and aching of the knees and back to remind me I’m not all that young anymore. Not to mention the unfortunate but inevitable shrinking of the family ranks that I spoke of last week. But what I am thankful for is growing up in the 1970s.

It occurs to me because this week, two older guys talked about growing up when they did, and the kids today. Fellow blogger Phil talked of how wild it was in the ’60s. I bet. Everything changing and living with the constant threat of being drafted and sent over to a distant continent to fight a jungle war for who knows what end. Likewise, my brother-in-law of about that same age was talking of what was wrong with the kids today. I couldn’t help but agree with much of what he was saying. Too many of today’s kids are sheltered and afraid, destined to seemingly be big-bodied children even as their hair turns gray. It was different for me, and I think most of us born in the tail end of the ’60s, growing up in the ’70s and early-’80s.

I used to think my parents were overly protective when I was young. Compared to many, they probably were. But I count myself lucky I’m not one of the “bubblewrap kids” that have been raised in the past couple of decades. When I was a kid, if the weather was good, a Saturday or a day during the summer holiday meant getting out. Seeing my friends. Riding bikes came about as naturally to all of us as walking or knowing the lyrics to “More than a Feeling.” We’d get together, ride around, shoot the breeze. Maybe go to the plaza and get some pop. Maybe ride to the lake, three or four miles distant. When I got to be about ten or eleven, a couple of friends built a rough little treehouse down in the creek ravine near us. We’d climb up, sit there looking down on the town from all of about seven feet up, gossip and laugh and maybe get into a few youthful hijinx. Gawking at a copy of Playboy someone managed to sneak away from a dad or older brother was about the most daring of those. Or smoking a cigarette similarly obtained. I was much more into the pictures than the smoking I must admit. Or maybe we’d just go to the park behind my house and kick around the soccer ball. Play on the fort. Ah yes, the fort. If there was a clear description of the difference between generations, that was it.

The “fort” was a big wooden play structure the town had built in the park which sat between two halves of a subdivision, directly down from a public school. (Oh yes… we all walked or cycled to school ourselves too. Any parent would have laughed in our face, if we were lucky, if we’d asked them to drive us three blocks. We got our exercise even if it wasn’t a “gym” day.) Anyway, the structure had three wooden turrets for lack of a better word, connected by elevated walkways, one of them a swinging one. There were ladders leading up, tire swings hanging,some sort of rope ladder up one side, a slide down from the tallest one, to the giant sandy area below. It was lots of fun. Running around it, climbing, maybe jumping off the walkway all the three feet to the ground. Burning off energy, inventing silly games. We had fun and kept busy.

You probably guessed, that fort is now ancient history. A good two decades back the town tore it down. They had seemingly had complaints galore from a new breed of parent who fretted and were worried of a million-dollar lawsuit should any kid burn their behind sliding down a hot metal slide in summer in shorts or twist an ankle jumping off it. Besides the kids probably had little interest in it. Now they had the internet to keep them entertained and meet people presumably far more interesting than their peers from around the neighborhood.

Sure at times I fell off my bike and scuffed up my knee. I took it as a life lesson, a little tip on how not to take a corner too fast or ride across loose gravel. My parents, if they even noticed would tell me to wash it, put a bandage on it and be more careful next time. They didn’t see it as a chance to sue the city or bicycle company for a king’s ransom nor as a reason to keep me from ever going outside the confines of our yard again. I turned out fine.

At least I think so. I think at least I turned out better than kids born 30 years later who’ve never traveled more than a block from their home without being driven and whose only recreational activity involves a video game console will be when they reach their 50s. Maybe I’m wrong, but I’m thankful theirs wasn’t my childhood.