There was a theme for this year’s Thanksgiving holiday and it had to do with age. I attended two Thanksgiving dinners. One was with some of my husband’s gigantic family at an aunt’s home in Maryland, 3.5 hours away. The other was at my house, with our kids, my parents, more of my husband’s family and a perfectly brined turkey.
In Maryland, the conversation that I remember the most focused on how different life is for young people today. There’s no more science chemical kits for Christmas that could possibly blow up a house, for example. Somehow, the Elders marveled, they had survived lead paint in houses and toys, BB guns, Barbie, Bambi, RoadRunner and bikes that had no gears. In my house, we didn’t own a color TV. The Elders walked more, read more, and never had a clue beforehand who was calling on the telephone because there was no such thing as “Caller ID”.
They laughed and laughed about the things they created with parts and pieces of things, and the near misses of serious accidents like blowing off fingers from fire crackers rigged to do things they weren’t intended to do. They seemed grateful they had the chance to make mistakes and make their own rules when it came to play and creativity.
The discussion in Pennsylvania, at my house, was fascinating because much of the perspective of the old days came from my pioneering father, who worked for Philco and AMP (among a few big name companies) inventing radios and computer technology. He was a future thinking electronics engineer and yet today, he admits they had no idea that someday their ideas would be used in cell phones, tiny computer chips and ipods.
His idea of play was to invent new things. One afternoon in 1975, he showed me how he took apart a calculator and invented a light meter for a camera from its insides. He also built me my stereo from scratch when I was 16. I didn’t appreciate that feat then, but I do now.
The Elders didn’t complain about today. Rather, they wondered why things had changed so much.
I described how my kids read labels on everything because they’re hyper aware of warnings. They look for “Made in China” and don’t want to buy the product. They want every anti-bacterial product they can get their hands on. They read ingredients on food products because they understand that their health depends on wise choices. This surprised the Elders. They wondered how they survived growing up and what’s scaring young people so deeply.
Then I described how my kids don’t know how to be creative. The boys like to write stories in school but the stories are centered around themselves, not the world around them. It’s as if it’s not there at all. My daughter’s world is school, cell phone, TV and computer. All of them want PlayStation 3, when we already have PS2 and PS1. Or they’ll take XBox. They’d be cool with that. I’m not.
I grew up with a black and white TV, notebooks to write in and a mile walk to the bus stop. The kids laugh at me and how poor I was. And yet when I was 9 years old, I wrote my first book.
It was an anthology of short stories and poetry called “Let’s Create”. My third grade teacher was an artist and taught us how to use our imaginations. I wrote on any topic, including horses, bugs, my best friend and my little sister. I made a puppet that year and was supposed to be in a play but I never went on stage because I had severe stage fright (which carries over to the present as well.)
The Elders were shocked to hear that many schools don’t offer after school sports anymore for free (there’s a fee), no physical education (gym) classes, no metal or woodworking shop and no sewing and cooking classes. Several school districts around us have canceled these classes, but my kid’s schools still offer them. Therefore, my son came home beaming with his latest sewing project in which he made a cloth carry all bag to hold his sports shoes and clothes. He embroidered his name on it too. Granted, sewing isn’t his thing but there was no denying his excitement over having made something himself and making it the way he wanted to.
In usability oriented web design, I’m always thinking about how people use web sites and what they want from them. It’s interesting to me to study the Flash debate because on the one hand, Flash presents a way for limitless forms of Internet art and expression. However, it’s critically limited because not everyone will ever see it or have access to it.
The Elders felt that life today is about not taking risks and trying new things. For example, when my Dad invented a solution for something out of parts of something else, he was recycling. They didn’t call it that back then of course.
Back then, they weren’t ready to sit still and watch DVD’s, video games and go online shopping.
They were curious enough to take apart what they already had, to see what else they could make it do.