In the Olden Days

When I was a little girl, I loved to ask my mom, “What was it like when you were a little girl in the olden days?”

And I was sort of kidding because I did, in fact, know that the 1950s were not the olden days, but I did love to hear how life was different for her than for me.

But the differences? Minuscule. My mom was born in 1948. I was born in 1971. Life for the average family didn’t change much in the years between her childhood and mine.

There was television, of course. My mom’s family didn’t get a TV set until my mom was in junior high school. We had a black and white set in my earliest memories and got our first color set in 1977. My mom always wore a dress or a skirt and blouse to school; we were allowed to wear pants (but not shorts).

Aaand that’s about it. I mean, really, why was I so interested? I’m sure my fascination with Little House on the Prairie played a part, though I was well aware that my mom was much younger than Ma Ingalls. Who knows? I was curious; I hoped there would be vast differences.

I was in middle school when life started to change, though it didn’t seem especially dramatic at the time. But much as they didn’t seem dramatic, they were, and the world my kids are growing up in is drastically different than the one that I would have recognized as an 8 or 12 year old child.

My dad bought a calculator; we got a microwave oven; there was a new gadget that could answer the phone when we weren’t home; there was a phone that didn’t need a cord.

How bizarre is it that some of those things are now, themselves, obsolete?

And so it went. One new something, then another new something, and then? In 1983, my dad brought home a computer.

Not that it was especially exciting. It was a Kaypro 10, a gigantic beast of a machine that boasted a 10 megabyte hard drive. Yes, 10 MEGAbytes.

I know, right? I have half-a-dozen devices around here with hundreds or thousands of times more capacity than that huge machine had, all of them the size of a deck of cards or smaller.

Also? That machine had one disc drive for 5 1/4 inch floppy discs. Those old floppy discs usually had a 360 kilobyte capacity.

Which leaves me to wonder: why bother? The machine was huge but was little more than a juiced-up calculator/typewriter hybrid.

So get this: pathetic as that tiny 10 megabyte hard drive sounds? It was one of the first computers to ship with a hard drive at all. The next computer we had was an Apple IIe, which had no hard drive. The operating system was on every program disc.

No shit.

The Apple was a major upgrade, though, having (as it did, wonderfully) two floppy disc drives and…

Whoa. I was about to geek out and tell you about the IIe compared to the Macintosh we got in 1984. Let’s just skip that because I’m not a real geek.

Oh, and the printer. Don’t forget about the printer, loud as a typewriter but super-fast (Heh; it’s all relative, isn’t it? I doubt a dot matrix printer would seem fast now.), and with all those lovely strips of paper to peel off the sides when the printing was finished.

My kids love stories about that Kaypro 10. How archaic! How olden-timey! How ridiculous! Because really, they are mocking me. Their faces say, “How foolish of you! Why were you duped into believing that something so silly was innovative and exciting? Why didn’t you just hold out for the good stuff? The iPods and the cell phones?”

They also cannot comprehend not knowing a thing, but wanting to know that thing, and waiting to find out about that thing until they could learn about it from a book in a library. “But what if you really wanted to know and wondering was making your brain all itchy? What did you do? There must have been some way to make the computer find out for you, right?” they ask. Then it is my turn to make a mocking, how foolish of you face.

Imagine it: computers that could not talk to other computers; computers that only knew what they knew and nothing else, unless you used magical indecipherable coding language and told them something else. They can’t imagine it because they don’t see the point.

I considered telling them about web 2.0, and how it didn’t used to be this way, how the internet used to be more like TV or books and less like…what it is now.

I fear I will strain their eye-rolling muscles with that, so I’ve skipped it for now. They can’t conceive of the internet when it was all pages to advertise Tide and paid-subscription sites for newspapers. I assume they’ll take a class in college where they will study the bad-old days of web 1.0.

I assume, too, that they will laugh until they pee.

One time, I tried to tell them about card catalogs. It was like I was describing the time we lived in that cave next to a family of wooly mammoth. “Wouldn’t the cards get lost all the time?” they want to know. “The librarian couldn’t have typed all those cards, right? Because that would be ridiculous,” and we went round-and-round for 20 minutes and they refused to believe me.

Until I showed them a picture of a real card catalog by using Google image search, because of course Google knows these things and ordinary old (emphasis on old) moms do not.

They are unconvinced when I tell them that we didn’t know that electric typewriters (so wonderful, compared to the manual on which I learned), Walkmen, and cordless phones weren’t the greatest things that technological innovations could ever give us.

My Walkman really did seem like the greatest thing ever. The annual family vacation got infinitely more tolerable after my Walkman came on the scene.

I’m suddenly compelled to sing songs from the soundtrack to the movie Footloose.

My children? Suddenly compelled to come to my office door and roll their eyes loudly.

Yes, loudly. If you do not yet have children of an eye-rolling age, just trust me: it can be done loudly.

Carter is the funniest, though (and also kind of my favorite because he does not yet roll his eyes). The older kids at least remember VHS. Spencer gave Carter an old VCR and a stack of VHS tapes, but Carter can’t get the hang of calling them “tapes.” He calls them “the big square movie discs.” He also can’t get the hang of rewinding them; he’s never had to do such a thing before and the whole concept just escapes him. “Where’s the menu, Mom?” he hollers, jabbing buttons on the remote control. “I can’t start the movie without the menu! Here, you push the menu button. It won’t work for me!”

As bad as the card catalog conversation was, the “we didn’t always have remote controls” was worse.

When I told them that, during my entire childhood, we only had 4 (5 after we got Fox on UHF) TV channels from which to choose? They looked at me like I had an extra face on the front of my head.

Last time Carter and I went to a thrift store, he discovered a display of vinyl record albums. He asked me what they were and I said, “Those are record albums. It’s how we listened to music when I was a little girl.”

“Oh!” says my boy, “so they’re olden-days CDs!”

And yes, of course they are. He understands the albums better than cassettes. I showed him the little recorder I used in college, how you could rewind, fast-forward, play, and record. He pulled the cassette out, tugged on the tape, and destroyed the thing like some kind of alien that insists on eating rocks and smelling everyone’s ears.

Hello? Am I alone, or were we listening to tapes and watching movies on VHS not all that long ago?

Things have changed and continue to change. That doesn’t surprise me. What shocks me is the rate at which things are changing. When I was a kid and I wanted to talk on the phone? I went to the desk in the family room, sat in the chair next to the desk, and dialed. Not “dialed” in the sense that I pushed some buttons and called it dialing, but actually spun a dial around in a circle, YANK went the little metal piece, chucka chucka chucka it went back to start.  Then, I was tethered to the desk for the duration of the conversation.

I remember exactly what dialing the phone felt and sounded like. I loved dialing the phone and was a little sad when everyone started switching to phones with buttons.

Now? My kids use very different phones, in very different ways, in a decidedly un-tethered fashion. They don’t even have to talk!

Also, I’m here to tell you that the jokes on the internet and TV about adolescent girls and their lightning-fast texting fingers? No exaggeration whatsoever. I wish there was a way to test Abbie’s WPM rate on her phone. It’s unreal.

I don’t mind that things are changing. Most of the changes, I like it all very much. It would be nice, though, if my kids didn’t act like I’m a complete idiot when I tell them how things used to be.

That, of course, is not new at all. Kids of a certain age think their parents are fools.

Some things will never change.

ETA: My dad* tells me we never owned an Apple IIe; we went straight from the Kaypro to a Macintosh 575 all-in-one. So now I am corrected, as are you. Everyone wave hi to Wendell!

*My dad? A real geek, not the fake kind like me. We’re very proud.**

**OK, facetiousness aside, we are very proud, except that he only uses Apple machines. This makes him, as a computer expert, pretty much useless to me because there is no way I can afford to buy Apple computers. (That was two links from this, my very influential blog. I’ll probably find a Macbook Air and an iPad in my mailbox tomorrow, right? Because I would totally break my no-product-review rule for that shit. Look, two more links! Apple people? I prefer black devices to white. But I’ll leave it up to you.)