Thursday, January 18, 2018

How Long is Fifty Years?

Today, at 8am, I became a half-centurion. (I’m told the second half is harder.) Birthdays are good times to survey the sweep of time, and for some reason, humans are really attracted to decades, so I’ve been thinking more this year than I did last year—or will next year. So...

I was born in 1968, a pivotal year in world history; few in the 20th century had more resonance, nor long-lasting influence. That was the year MLK and RFK were assassinated. LBJ signed the civil rights act. It was the year of the Tet Offensive and My Lai massacre in the Vietnam War. There were riots at the Democratic National Convention, riots following MLK's assassination, and riots protesting the Vietnam War. Riots happened worldwide, as well, and for example brought France to a standstill. In January, Prague Spring began to loosen the bonds of Communism, but Soviet tanks rolled into Czechoslovakia in August to clamp them back down. Astronauts orbited the moon and humans saw its far side for the first time. Perhaps most descriptively, the past five decades have been bracketed by Richard Nixon, elected that year, and Donald Trump, sitting in the White House fifty years later. The violence, chaos, confusion, and wonder born in 1968 continues to play out today.

How long is fifty years?

Consider that I was an adult the first time I used a computer. In the spring of 1986 as a graduating high school senior, I received the tool all college-bound students required: a typewriter. Once on campus, though, I was guided to a "lab" (read: extremely grim basement closet) filled with Macintoshes--one of the first cohorts to begin typing up term papers on computer. I have a distinct sense-memory of the continuous squawk of the dot-matrix printer, the smell of ink, and the headache-inducing light of bare fluorescent (and buzzing) bulbs.

I was in graduate school before the internet was commercially available (there were only about a million users worldwide in 1993). We were all given new email accounts (, but had to use them--once again--in labs were computers were equiped to access the internet. Later, of course, we were able to get home modems for snail-slow access. (If you're too young to have had pre-wifi connections, please go listen to this. It was the sound the computer made each time it connected to the internet. Believe it or not, I have a fond, warm association to this howling--which at the time sounded like the future.)

As an adolescent and young adult, restaurants had "nonsmoking areas," which were inevitably a grimy little corner near the kitchen of four tables in a room hazy with blue smoke. You could could get on a plane and fire up a Marlboro as late as 1990. Up until the 1970s, there were just three channels on the television, and they didn't broadcast 24 hours. At a certain point in the wee hours, local channels broadcast a visual of the American flag and played the national anthem, after which the screen went to static. Honest to God.

The world was much, much larger—psychically, at least. I spent the academic year of 1988-'89 in India. Telephones were exceedingly rare and few people had them in their homes. To place a call, we had to go to a public phone and wait in line. For international calls, which cost $7 a minute ($15 in current dollars), we were given precisely three minutes until the phone went dead. Letters took a month to travel between the countries. We had to carry our own money with us because banks didn't transfer money and ATMs didn't yet exist. (And if we lost our cash we were entirely screwed.) When I stepped out into the welter of noise and activity on an Indian street in 1988, I did it without GPS. If I got lost in Old Delhi or in a rural district between large cities, I was on my own. (This happened more than once.) An iPhone now connects Portland and Bodh Gaya (where I have friends traveling at this moment) so that live video can provide real-time tours. Back then, we snapped photos on analog film and developed them, months later, back in the States.
Fifty years ago, the largest (known) threat was nuclear annihilation. It's difficult to communicate how present this felt. As a kid growing up in the '70s and '80s I was so certain nuclear war would end life on the planet that I grieved I would never learn to drive a car. We now face a more serious threat in global warming, but unlike nuclear war, it is so diffuse and slow-moving most Americans spend no time worrying about it.

​Crime was bad. Until about the mid-90s my car got proven into so often that I just started leaving the doors unlocked. Muggings weren’t that common in Portland, but they were in other big cities, and the fear of it cast a pall of menace over cities.

And of course, ​if you weren’t straight or white or male, life was a lot harder in 1968. It’s hard to believe—or even imagine—that a law had to be signed to give African-Americans free access to the ballot. If you were gay, life was very hard (Stonewall was still a year away). If you were trans, forget about it. Mad Men gives a good sense of what it was like to be a woman in the workplace for my first two or three decades.

When my grandparents died in the early 90s, I considered what they’d seen in their lives. The early half of the 20th century was the most dramatic period of change in world history. (We started fighting wars with horses and ended dropping nukes. Electricity, indoor plumbing, cars, planes—it was a time of radical transformation.) I knew no generation would ever see the change they had and always considered my own age a denouement to the age of transformation. But now, looking backward from this half-century of life, I see that each age is marked by change. Fifty years is a long time. We don’t think of fifty-year-olds as that elderly, and yet the mental space they occupy (history always begins the day we’re born) reaches back to times unrecognizeable to modern eyes. Even to those of us who experienced them.

In nearly every way, the world is a better place now than it was when I was born. We still have some serious challenges (climate change! 😬), but even in these fractious times, life is all right. Happy to have seen this 50-year window of the world—

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