Sunday, 14 February 2010

Generation Gaps

My daughter sits, curled up on the sofa, giggling her head off. She is reading Terry Pratchett, one of her favorite authors. From time to time, she reads parts out loud to us, but she can hardly pronounce the words for laughing.

All I can do is stare at her in wonder. I was a somber, graceless, awkward teenager, and pretentious too. When I was fifteen, Dostoevsky was my favorite writer. When anyone asked me what books I liked, I always gave them a long, harsh dose of Raskolnikov and Prince Myshkin. I look at my funny, engaging daughter and wonder how I ended up with a kid like her.

My daughter's entire life is so different from mine. My mother used to say this about her life and mine too. She grew up in a house without running water or electricity and used to tell us stories of walking miles to school in the snow, pumping water from a well, having to make her own clothes. It always amazed us to imagine growing up without telephones, radios, televisions, cars, shopping malls, or dentists. When I compare my life with my mother's, it's almost as though we grew up in different countries. But when I compare my life to my daughter's, I'm amazed at all the differences. Here are just a few ways her life is completely different from what mine was at her age:


I can hardly imagine what it would have been like at age fifteen to be able to contact my friends on my very own mobile telephone, to have the privacy to discuss anything with what few friends I had. Our telephone -- and we only had one -- was tethered to the kitchen wall, barely a foot from my father's favorite armchair. Unless I managed to call my friends when my father wasn't at home, he heard everything I said. In fact, it wasn't that he just happened to overhear my side of the conversation, he actively listened and would frequently make comments to my desperately muttered exchanges. The stereotypical image of a teenage girl sprawled on pink chenille, yakking away to her friends for hours in the privacy of her bedroom couldn't have been less in keeping with my personal reality.

My daughter can talk to her friends whenever she likes. She can talk in her bedroom, in the car, walking down the stairs, strolling down the street, even sitting in a dolmus. If we're around and she wants privacy, all she has to do is text.


When I was growing up, nobody had them. I learned how to type on an Underwood with a sticky A key. You had to bear down hard (being cheapskates, we used the ribbon until the very last smudge of ink was gone) and when you made a mistake, you either scored over it and retyped, or, if your parents were prepared to fork out for it, used expensive correction fluid. (Guess which one applied to us?) If I wanted to get in touch with someone in another town, the phone was off limits; parents who won't pay for correction fluid absolutely won't pay for long distance phone calls.

My daughter can actually write pen-and-paper letters: we've taught her. She knows you have to fold them up, insert them into envelopes, address the envelopes and affix a postage stamp (she knows which corner you paste it on too); she knows it goes into a special metal receptacle called a postbox. But she's gone through this cumbersome, old-fashioned process half a dozen times in her life, because she has computers.

As I write this, my daughter is Facebook-chatting with two friends in Scotland. Sometimes she 'chats' with them on MSN; even in the method of at-your-fingertips effortless communication, she has several choices.


I inherited my mother's old Brownie camera, a large, clumsy-looking thing with a strap that went around my neck. You stood ten feet away from whatever you wanted to photograph, flipped open the lid, fixed the object in the tiny window, and pressed a button. Then, days, weeks, even months later, when the roll of film was finished, you carefully wound up the last bit of film, put the roll in an envelope, and took it to be developed. Then you waited breathlessly for up to a week (life in the sixties was all about deferred gratification) until you got a call from the drugstore telling you that your pictures were ready. Full of anticipation, you picked up the envelope with your shiny, black-and-white images (color was for rich people) -- and perhaps found that only three pictures had come out. When my father took real pictures of us, he fooled around with things like focus, flashbulbs, and F-stops and swore a lot under his breath while we fidgeted.

My daughter takes dozens of photographs on either her mobile phone or our digital camera (once again, she has choices). Virtually all of the pictures come out perfectly, they are all in stunning color, and she can see them instantly. Moreover, she can share them with her sisters and friends in Scotland, with people in Japan, Turkey, America -- anywhere. In seconds, she can copy someone else's photo onto her phone and post it on her Facebook account.


When I was very young, we went three times a week and were strongly discouraged from missing worship. We went on Wednesday night, Sunday morning, and Sunday evening. If I had back all the time I spent listening to scary hellfire and damnation sermons, I'd be able to write a couple of books. But I'd be a completely different person. After the age of eight, we changed religions and only went once a week. But not going wasn't an option.

My daughter doesn't go to church for many reasons. But she grew up almost next door to a Buddhist temple. And if she wanted to go to a mosque, she'd be spoiled for a choice: there are at least three within easy walking distance from our house.


At the age of fifteen, I yearned with all my heart to learn a foreign language that wasn't French. I really did not enjoy French. I wanted to learn Russian, Japanese, or Hebrew -- anything with a writing system I could not understand. Someone gave us a pile of old Japanese magazines once when I was ten and I spent ages poring over them, trying to copy out the symbols, desperate to crack the code.

Japanese was my daughter's first language. Until she was seven, she spoke it as well as she did English and was ahead of her peers in reading it. She can still speak it, albeit haltingly, and she reads it fairly well. She has made more progress than I have in Turkish and she is currently teaching herself Korean. She can do this on the internet; tutorials on Hangeul, the Korean symbols used to make up sounds, can be downloaded from the internet.

Some years back we went to Kentucky, to the farm where my mother grew up with all her sisters and brothers. The old house had burned down, but the grindstone where they used to sharpen their tools was still standing, as was the old well. We walked through the tiny graveyard where my grandparents are buried and I tried to picture them and what they might have thought of me and my Japanese-speaking non-church-going millenium girls who had grown up half the way around the world. We left eucalyptus leaves and origami flowers on their graves and I told my girls about their difficult lives, the hardships they'd gone through, the things they had accomplished.

Then we got into our rental car and drove away.


Anonymous said...

Oh, my, how you brought back memories. One quick one. Our phone was also on the kitchen wall (as most of our friends) and my parents also actively listened. My best friend and I had a code. If we said the word "one" that meant we couldn't talk freely (usually about boys.) I would say something like,"I got ONE answer okay but I had trouble on the other." She would answer. "Darn. When my parents are out of the room yours are sitting right there. Just listen..." then she would tell me what I needed to know and my parents would get bored with my "uh-huh, yes..." and stop listening.

Angela said...

It's crazy, playing the now and then game. I think the biggest one for my kids to try and comprehend is life before the internet. They just can't fathom it.

Kim Ayres said...

If I had to go back 15 years, to when the Internet wasn't really accesible to anyone outside a university, and mobile phones were only for yuppies, and digital cameras were incredibly expensive things and not very powerful, and laptop computers were only available for the super-rich elite... I'd go insane.

I so absolutely love living in a sci-fi age.

All I'm missing is an anti-gravity hover board :)

Anonymous said...

When I tell teenagers about these things, they are amazed.

I used computers at school (but they were very primitive) and had a typewriter at home.

The phone...I remember how anyone could pick it up in the next room and listen in. Cell phones are so wonderful and private.

I remember taking pictures and thinking what a hassle it was to get them developed. It's amazing that I can use a cord or a card to transfer images to my computer, and print them in color on photo paper right away.

Postman said...

I know which corner of the envelope the stamp gets stuck to. And I didn't have a cell phone until I was in college. I didn't want it. My mother insisted on it. I wouldn't be driving 1800 miles to college without a cell phone, she said.

Call me old-fashioned...

Vijaya said...

So true. I knew I was privileged because I was allowed to have a childhood ... my mother didn't. By the age of 10, my son's age now, she was cooking for the family, taking care of several younger siblings and doing many other things that I didn't have to.

My children and I don't only face the generation gap, but the cultural one as well. Not always easy to bridge that gap, though we do okay.

We are still cell-phone less, TV-less and video-less. My son calls me a Luddite. Little does he know. Grin.

Helen said...

Aaah Mary - that was a great cack- fest.
Not only were we the dorkiest family I knew, but also the poorest, so even when technology was readily available, we were always at least a year behind. We didn't even have a TV until I was in high school! (I mean we always had G&S!!!)
But there are a great many differences between my parents life/my life/my children's life and quite frankly I don't know who has got it better. Every generation brings it's own issues......

angryparsnip said...

Wonderful story
When I was little and we lived in Chicago, a fun weekend afternoon was to go sit at the end of the airport runway and watch the planes takeoff and land.
If the "Good Humor" ice cream man came by it was even better. Good Times.

AnneB said...

The code my friend Nancy and I had was "The rabbits are eating corn." Ears, get it? We thought we were soooo clever.

I am treating myself to a Terry Pratchett as soon as I finish the two deadly serious books I'm chained to now. Can't wait.

I was in fifth or sixth grade before we could afford a TV, one of those cool Philcos with the exposed tube on a blond wood cabinet!

Robert the Skeptic said...

What a fun walk down memory lane. I have similar memories and of being my Dad's TV channel changer and being forced out of the car when we arrived home to open the garage door.

I remember getting lots of shots whenever the doctor came to our house when I was sick.

And putting the empty milk bottles out and having fresh milk magically appear on the porch in the morning.

I listened to 45 RPM records... one side at a time. Now CD's will be obsolete within a decade.

So why haven't business suits and ties changed?

Mary Witzl said...

Catherine -- Thank you for commenting here!

I'm in awe of kids who worked out this sort of system. I was a late bloomer and sadly had little to hide from my parents; maybe if I'd had a more interesting social life and juicy stories to swap, I'd have worked out a code myself.

Angela -- Sometimes I can't fathom this myself. It's great to be able to read the NYT at the touch of a button, to contact friends without having to rummage around for paper, pen, envelopes and postage stamps. My kids take all of this as a given. Like I do inside plumbing and electric lights.

Kim -- I really AM a Luddite. But a Luddite who (grudgingly) admits to enjoying all of those things you've mentioned. I still feel proud that I know how to make pancakes without a mix. That I can shrarpen knives on a coin, make my own mustard, and entertain myself even if the electricity goes off.

But wouldn't an anti-gravity hover board be so cool?

Medeia -- No doubt about it: getting film developed was a huge hassle, and the chemicals they used were awful. But there was something magical about watching the images gradually emerge in a darkroom.

This is a subtle way of working
out people's ages, isn't it? I can tell that you're much younger than I am, but perhaps older than 25.

Postman -- My family used the same arguments on me when we moved here. I was very reluctant to get a mobile phone myself, and once I got one, took ages to learn how to use it. But now mine is generally the only one in our house that is always charged, and I am seldom without it. I can even text on it. Sigh...

Vijaya -- Your mother and my grandmother would have been able to swap stories. One of the greatest advantages to growing up now, in most western countries, is being able to enjoy childhood. So many people never had (or have) this chance, and yet it seems that many parents are eager to rush their children into adulthood. Sad, isn't it?

We've got a culture gap in my family too, but like you, we take it mostly in our stride. But it does make things more interesting -- and complicated -- sometimes.

Helen -- Your family and my family had a lot in common. We were the only ones still playing my father's old 78 jazz records when everybody else had gone to 33s; our bicycles were the old-fashioned kind with foot brakes (who needed gears?), and my mother saw no need to replace our ancient refrigerator, vacuum cleaner, or washing machine.

I'd say who needs modern technology when they have G & S? -- but the truth is that we listen to them on our CD player.

AP -- We would definitely have done this if we'd had an airport nearby and it would have been a big thrill. We went to the local supermarket and goggled at the foreign foodstuffs in the 'foreign foods' section; we hung out at the student center at our local university and surreptitiously studied the foreigners there. But the Good Humor man was off bounds to us; his ice cream was too expensive.

Anne -- I've just started Jingo and it's fantastic. And it's the perfect book to read if you're slogging through something thick and serious. (You're reading TWO deadly serious books? Shiver.)

We had a TV in our family, but I was always amazed to see the fancy, brand new sets my friends' families had. I was always filled with awe and envy.Like I am at your great blog title.

Mary Witzl said...

Robert -- Our posts crossed!

The doctor CAME to your house? You can't be that much older than I! I do remember getting milk delivered, playing 45s (and 78s), opening the garage door manually, being the one who had to change the channels for my mother (who would not turn on the TV by herself). Isn't it weird writing about things like that as though they're totally passe? As though by writing them, you're passing on information that is amazing and enlightening?

Kit said...

Great post. My kids can't believe that we didn't have computers at all when we were growing up, and only black and white TV with a choice of two channels.

I think that the delayed gratification thing is the biggest change, especially with photography, bit lots of other things too.

Bish Denham said...

I can so identify with some of things you experienced growing up. When we finally got a phone it was in the living room. There was no such thing as a private conversation.

One thing I for sure didn't have in school that kids do now is calculators. In math we actually had to "show our work" on the page!

Anonymous said...

So true! When I was in high school, there were computers, but they were in a special room and only the science-nerdy types were interested. I went off to college with an electric typewriter--so fancy! And quickly learned word processing, because I was in journalism, but I never imagined being able to afford a computer of my very own!
And now, Abel asks me a question, and I say, "look it up on the internet." Even better--I hand him my iTouch.
It's nice, but my photographer husband moans the passing of film. It's true--silver prints have a depth to them that digital ink prints don't. He's right. But it happened so quickly! We're not even old! That's what's weird to me. Remember when cordless phones were weird--and now we have cell phones.

Robin said...

Our phone was on the kitchen wall, too! How funny! And my dad just loved to talk to my friends, much to my chagrin. To this day, there's nothing my dad loves more than to tease a teenage girl.

I worry about all the opportunities my kids have. All the "things". It doesn't seem to have helped them to be more hard working. Quite the opposite, in fact.

Kim Ayres said...

OK Mary, you're going to have to let me know how you sharpen a knife on a coin!

Mary Witzl said...

Kit -- Yes, we actually got pleasure from black and white images, didn't we? My kids can't get over the thought of black and white TV. They're appalled to think that I actually saw it and enjoyed it. I can clearly remember my parents describing some of the things they did for entertainment and finding them a little pathetic. Sad, isn't it?

Bish -- At my husband's school, the kids still have to show their work and it has to be done in the way they're taught in order for them to get full points. My kids learned how to do mental arithmetic, and I have to say that they're much better than I am at it. But that has more to do with my abysmal math skill and less to do with the current education system. Amazingly, my kids can do without calculators.

I'm glad to know we weren't the only one with a phone in the living room and no privacy!

Elizabeth -- I'll never forget the first time I saw a cordless phone, at my uncle's house. I was utterly amazed to know I was related to a person who could afford such a thing. And the only people who ever had mobile phones, which I believe we called pagers, were very important doctors. At our school too, computers were the size of large ovens and only extreme nerds got a crack at them.

I agree with your husband about the photography: it was more of an art form when you got to control so much of the process.

Robin -- My father, dear man that he was, just happened to be clueless and downright nosy! I knew at least three people who had telephones far away from adult-occupied areas, where they could curl up and have a good long chat in perfect privacy. Every time I saw how good they had it, I was beside myself with envy and longing.

My kids have too many things too, and even though we try to limit them, they still accumulate. I struggle to imagine what my grandparents, who'd have no doubt been thrilled with things like ballpoint pens and flashlights, would think of us.

Kim -- When I lived in Amsterdam, I learned how to do this from a sushi chef who could do it with a ten-yen coin. You just hold the coin a certain way and keep drawing the knife against it. Takes a loooong time, though...

Susan said...

What's amazing to me is how adaptable we are. I used to think it almost incomprehensible that my grandparents were born and lived their young lives before cars and tv. How did they adapt to such a different world, I wondered? But I've adapted to cell phones and the internet and all the things that have changed the world we grew up in, and now can't imagine getting along without them.

Great post, btw!

laura said...

Ditto a thousand times over! But the whole phone thing...It just cracks me up when my mother(who finally got call waiting) answers the phone like this, "OH MY GOD, I'M ON A LONG DISTANCE CALL AND I'LL HAVE TO CALL YOU BACK!!!!" She forgets that she's paying next to nothing for those calls but old habits die hard. I was not allowed to call my friends without permission, and I can't believe I had the nerve to ask if I could call my pen pal (who'd sent me her phone number via one of the million letters we exchanged)! Of course the answer was a resounding NO!

Nora MacFarlane said...

I can remember wishing for private phone conversations! We had an old, black rotary phone that hung on the kitchen wall. My Papaw was still on a party line through the 70's. I always found that fascinating when we visited -not that I listened in to any of the neighbor's calls...

Not long ago, I tried to explain to my iTouch carrying 12 year old daughter what a transistor radio was. I gave up.

MG Higgins said...

It's interesting how non-nostalgic I am for the past. Your post brought up lots of memories, and not ones that I miss. I'm always looking forward to the next new thing. They can't make too many iTouch apps, IMO. Interesting post!

Anne Spollen said...

It really is different. I put my college course assignments online and the students submit that way. Unheard of even when I was in college.

It's so hard for kids to have any kind of perspective. I showed the kids a picture of my girlfriend and I on a trip in 1983. They looked at me and said, "Wow, I forgot you were actually alive in the 80's!"

debra said...

Our kids are electronic natives and we are immigrants. They can look at a new gadget and know just what to do.
My youngest, who has just returned from a great Australian adventure, delights in making her own envelopes from posters, maps and the like and writing letters to her friends.
I also remember the kitchen phone, the cord not quite long enough to remove us from parental ears, and learning to type. The teacher was a curmudgeonly fellow, and I decided that I could show him---I would look at the keys as I tapped away. And so I do.

Mary Witzl said...

Susan -- Thank you.

I have to admit that life without my computer would be tough. Two years ago, I did not have a cell phone and absolutely did not want one. I've got one now and to my great surprise, I feel weird when I leave the house without it. But no matter what happens, I'm not taking it with me to the pool.

Laura -- My mother did the exact same thing. On the few occasions she bit the bullet and actually called me long-distance, she used to sound like she'd OD'd on espresso. We were supposed to write down every call we made that wasn't within a ten-mile radius, and no way would we have been allowed to call a pen pal, even after hundreds of letters. But I'll bet she would have loved MSN if she'd only lived to see it: instantaneous communication in writing, and virtually free -- what's not to like?

Nora -- We had an old black rotary wall phone too, and we were also on a party line in the 60s: the people we shared with always spoke Spanish, so it didn't feel too intrusive.

I've tried to tell my kids about transistor radios too and how exciting they were. They don't get the allure, do they? I wonder what gadgets will utterly flummox them if they have teenagers?

MG -- There's a lot about the past that I've been happy to see the end of, but there's a lot of things I feel nostalgic about too. But the other day I got to see and touch a Kindle for the very first time. Amazing! I felt like some crusty old-timer sitting in a car for the first time.

Anne -- One of my colleagues and I are going to be doing that with the reading club we're starting here, so I'll get to see what this feels like. I can't even begin to imagine doing it as a student myself. I still wonder about how reliable it is: the cheating potential still seems pretty high, and our students are past masters as it is.

My kids are also astounded to see pictures of me from the 80s. They seem to think I was born wise and semi-decrepit.

Debra -- That is so true. When we first got our smartboard here, a lot of teachers were reluctant to use it. Then one day, our boss told us that someone would give us a demonstration on how to use it. He had few takers until we found out the kid was 18 and thus a REAL expert, not some seasoned adult masquerading as one.

How lovely that your daughter has had adventures in Australia!

Lily Cate said...

Ah, we used to have a rotary phone, the one that the telephone company gave you, before you could just hit the Target and pick one up. I remember my brother's friend coming by at 7 or 8 years old, and having no idea how to use it.

We also had an arial anntena for the TV- and we had to literally rewire the thing with a butter knife if you wanted to watch any channel higher than 12. Which was fine, because there wasn't anyting to watch after 4:00 cartoons anyway.

As for computers, we had a Commodore 64, and only because my stepdad was an engineer. So I was writing on that by the time I was 11. Floppy discs, no Windows and no internet. You actually had to use code to work the thing. But it had the best games, at the time.

My 5 year old has two handheld video game systems, DVR cable TV (in the house, not in his room!) with 24 hour kiddie channels, a hand me down laptop to type and play games on, and a battery powered ride on tractor for outside. And compared to most of the kids I know, he's not the spoiled one.

The Generation Gap is more like the Grand Canyon sometimes.

Marcia said...

Robert the Skeptic must be my brother. :)I was chatting with some older ladies the other day, and one of them said, "I called her but she wasn't home." And I thought, now THERE is a phrase that's going to disappear SOON.

kara said...

i don't care if my children are born with cell phones attached to their heads (because that's what the future is like)...they're not going to get to keep them.

that's my opinion on that.

Falak said...

This post was really fun to read! My cousins and I get to hear a lot of stories like this from our grandparents and grand aunts and uncles. Funny thing is I got a cell-phone 2 years back when I started college and we got a computer home when I was in my last year of school.But now I simply cannot magine living without either of the two.

Mary Witzl said...

Lily -- I certainly remember TV antennae -- we called them 'rabbit ears' and there was always one person in the family who was really good at fiddling with them to get them to work. We never had to rewire them, but what you could watch was definitely limited to only a few channels. I look at all the selections now and feel dizzy: how does anyone manage to decide what to see? I remember floppy discs too! Who ever thought I would feel nostalgic just remembering floppy discs?

Our kids have access to far fewer electronic appliances than their friends, and we made them work for their own mobile phones. But there is still a huge technology divide, and there is not much we can do about it.

Marcia -- You've nailed the thing I really hate about cell phones: now we ALWAYS have to be at home, or rather, available. There is no 'off' time. I can go along with that up to a point -- it's very useful for working parents with young children, for instance -- but there is something very intrusive about it too. I need my 'off' time!

Kara -- You stick to your guns! I suspect that your kids will be the quick-witted, quirky type who will be able to cope. Remember to tell them what a friend of mine always told her kids: "We're not 'everybody'". (Warning: You'll need to say that A LOT.)

Falak -- I'm a fairly recent convert myself. I can imagine living without a cell phone or computer, but it would be a bleak, virtually friendless, difficult existence and I'm pretty sure my husband and kids would be driven nearly out of their wits by my endless chatter. (Shiver)

Marcia said...

I need my 'off' time!

Me too! People say you can always turn the phone off, but if the reason I have the thing is to connect to my husband and kids, that's not the answer. My answer so far is that nobody has my cell number EXCEPT my husband and kids. Half the reason I keep the landline is to have a phone number to give out to the public.

Murr Brewster said...

It is an amazing world, with less time in it. I find myself deliberately avoiding new technology because I fear losing even more time. I have never had a cell phone and I keep all my electronics plugged into the wall so that I can walk away from them.

it's an amazing world, and I walk a lot.