Between breaking news headlines of grand jury announcements, Ebola scares, and divisive politics, it's become a common point of conversation among my 40-something friends that the world is going straight to hell. We talk about how we used to ride our bikes several miles to the 7-11, alone with no grown-ups or cell phones, to get a Slurpee and play Pac-Man all afternoon. We marvel at how we would never let our own kids do that today. And we fondly remember waking up early on Saturday mornings because it was the only time you could watch cartoons. My 6 year old has no concept of this. "Netflix was only on Saturday?"
Growing up in the On Demand Generation, my kids don't seem to think the world is in any worse shape than it was in the past. But they don't really have a past to refer to, do they? I know that my kids hear snippets of what is going on around the world on the car radio, on TV and from the headlines that flash across the screen in our refrigerator door. You can go back and read that sentence again if you want to.
It's true. Our fridge has a little screen that scrolls news headlines. It also offers recipes, plays Pandora and has its own email address. The email is attached to a Google calendar that displays on the screen - so we can all be reminded that in two weeks, I'm going to be another year older. As I type this I am both embarrassed that we have a freaky space-age fridge and compelled - truly, fighting the urge- to share the email address with you. It's just so absurd that it has one, but it does. That's what it's come to for kids these days. I think I'm definitely getting old. I just ended a sentence with "kids these days."
My 17 year old is a Sr. in high school. There have been three different times in the last 4 years that he has texted his father and I from inside the school to let us know he was safe but in lockdown because of "a man with a gun", "someone shooting in the library" and another where most of the day was spent trying to watch tweets from other students to let him know what was really going on while he was trapped in a science lab with a few other people. All three incidents turned out to be misunderstandings, which I'm so thankful for. But they happened because there have been too many similar moments that were not misunderstandings. That's just too real. When you get a text message from your teen hockey player, drummer, strong-silent-type son saying that he loves you, the world is clearly going to hell. Not for the "I love you" part, but for his having to be in the situation to say it in a text message while hiding behind a locked door in AP Chemistry. That's a heart-breaking vote for our world is going to hell.
When I was 17, I saved up to buy a stereo I could take to college that had two - count them, two cassette tape decks. So you could play one and record on the other. How many mix tapes did I really make to justify this? Anyway, it was a major purchase. And I still have it because it also has a turntable and I needed to keep it to show my son what those "giant CD's" were in the garage, when he found a box of old vinyl albums a while back. That made me laugh and also made me remember when I bought Paul Simon's Graceland. My first actual CD - purchased for that same stereo. All of that capability is now in every teen's pocket, on a cell that also gives him satellite navigation guidance, restaurant reviews, and celebrity nude photos. So, this one's a toss-up. One vote for I'm old because I made mix tapes with a stereo. But another vote for the world is going to hell because name a Kardashian, that's why.
Let's look at politics; red, blue or purple, everyone agrees that it's uglier now than it used to be. But, is it really? When I was in 2nd grade, we had a mock election the year that Jimmy Carter beat Gerald Ford. I went to a predominantly Republican elementary school (oh, those exist) and I can still name the two people that voted for Jimmy Carter in our class. I won't name them here, but they are both my friends on Facebook and I now look back inspired by those two people. Not because of how they voted - I'm not sharing anyone's personal political leanings here, including my own. But those two, they sat in that classroom, surrounded by naysayers and people singing the Oscar Mayer Weiner song with lyrics about how awful Jimmy Carter would be as president. I'm not making this up. It was as ugly as any political nonsense I've seen this decade. People made fun of them, calling them "Dirty Democrats" as if any of us even knew what a Democrat was. Not sure politics is any better or worse since.
To be fair, we also had a Snoopy fashion show that afternoon, where we all brought our favorite outfit for him (Disco Snoopy for the win) so let's not get crazy with too much judgment of the 2nd grade social experiment. It is what it is.
But that morning, those two Carter voters had stood their ground. They took the name calling and the weiner singing and they owned their votes with pride. I'm not gonna lie, I was impressed, even at seven. Their courage makes me lean toward hope for humanity in the question between hell or old age, even though I wasn't moved enough to stand with them. I didn't have that kind of social capital, but still.
I also remember that night, going to watch the election results at a party with my mom. My experience at school had Ford winning in a landslide. I watched the grown-ups at that party freak out when Ford lost. I was surprised because the overwhelming majority of Mrs. Richard's 2nd grade class had clearly spoken, and they had spoken for Gerald Ford. We left early and I remember feeling sincere concern that America was going to fall apart based on what I'd overheard there. I didn't know what a hand basket was, but we were all going to be in one after this.
I shared my concerns with my grandfather the next day. After I sang the entire weiner song for him, he became a little bit stern with me and asked me not to sing it anymore. I will never, ever forget what he told me that day. He said that the man he wanted to have for our president was not elected, that he wasn't very happy about it. But, the election was over and that Mr. Carter was going to be our President. It was our job as American citizens to stand behind him, respect the job he was elected to do, and to continue to take care of our own family and that life would go on as usual.
It was understood that I was also not to sing the weiner song anymore. And then he dropped me off at soccer practice like he always did. I remember the color of the interior of his Oldsmobile and that he was wearing a blue shirt and a tie with stripes. I will admit, I also remember every word of that mean song he didn't want me to sing. But I now have deep respect for our former President Carter and the impact he has had on so many people in the years since. Honestly, it's one of those things that sticks with you even though you wish it would go away.
Still though, why do I remember that moment with my grandfather? Why was it such a significant thing? I think it's because it was a moment of greatness and clarity. One of those that you don't ignore. My grandfather was a great man and rarely stern. He was also rarely petty, selfish or ugly. He is part of why it's hard for me to think the world is going to hell. There are good people all around us. I know and deeply love many of them. That moment with Papa has stuck with me all these years and I think of it every time we have an election, no matter who wins. And no matter who I voted for. It gave me peace at 7 and it gives me peace at 44, almost 45. Still getting older.
I look at Ferguson, Missouri and it makes me sad. I'm not there, living it but I've watched it play out on Twitter. I've seen and remember similar moments in our past. I see that the National Guard has been called out to keep the peace, but we've seen that before. I read about people exercising their right to protest and we've seen that before. I see overreaction, on both sides. We've obviously seen that before. Ferguson makes me consider that I'm just getting older and watching closer -- and have even more access to information -- and that maybe the world isn't any more likely to go to hell than it was when I was in 2nd grade, certain of our national demise.
Maybe the fact that things aren't so different from a long time ago is the revelation here. Disappointment in Ferguson, fear of Ebola and concern about divisive politics is very much about a sense of never having gained real ground in the first place, maybe even more than it is about losing something we used to have. Maybe we hadn't come so far as we thought. Maybe the battle for equality, justice and unity is ongoing no matter what we think we have achieved on this planet, or in this country. Maybe it is the purposeful act of striving for peace, freedom and happiness that gives us our humanity.
I'm just this second realizing that in order for humanity to win out in this article, for all of us not go to hell, I have to be old. Damnit.
These days, my teenage son is more occupied with getting into college and whether his girlfriend can come to his hockey game than what's happening in Ferguson or how the immigration reform issue will play out, or whatever -- pick a headline. Maybe we shouldn't all be focusing on all of it all the time. Not in a bury-your-head-in-the-sand way, but for the elders (God, now I'm an elder?) ...To let the elders take the wheel on fear and loathing so the young can focus on learning and developing their own dreams. Caveat -- if you are a young person in Ferguson or have some part in that experience, then you probably should pay more attention that my kid in Texas would. You have a chance to be part of the solution. This is part of the struggle and the journey. But how do we all pay attention and carry the flag for good without losing footing on what matters most in our own little worlds. It's an ongoing struggle at best.
I'm not sure if I'm expressing this very well, because it reads almost as if I'm saying "why should my kid care about those kids in Ferguson" and that's not my point at all. Not at all. I'm not a rose colored glasses girl, but I am a glass-half-full one. I want to know what's going on and I want to do my part for the greater good, but not at the expense of missing what's happening right in front of me. And we choose our battles. We cannot fight every cause and we cannot win every war. We can listen to both sides though. And we can be open to new ideas. We should all spend more time with young people. Even now, my youngest is sitting at the edge of my desk, waiting for me to finish working so we can go play tennis. Where does one care end and the other begin? My jury is out, but I'll be at the tennis court later for sure.
We can all get the headlines on our cellphones, anytime from anywhere. Does it have to be right now? At the dinner table? Or a stoplight? Please say no. Please say that we can turn off the TV, put down the cell phone and just have a conversation. We can be human and grow older like humans do. And I care, I sincerely care, about injustice, misunderstanding and climate change. I'm on twitter more than I should be just trying to keep up with it all. But I also care about going to the park, and making pumpkin pie and hanging out with my kids while they still live at home. None of that jives with hellfire and brimstone end-of-days stuff. It just doesn't.
My kids don't have school this week. It's Thanksgiving break -- and I'm working but also trying to spend time with them while I have it. Between my work and my family, how can I possibly keep up with the headlines? I'll do what most of us do, I'll keep up with everything from my phone -- but not at stoplights.
I'll do my best to actually read or listen so that it's more than a headline. But I cannot make breaking news the central focus of my day. So instead, I'll make pumpkin pie tonight and have a fire in the fireplace and play cards with my kids... and someday I'll explain to my 6-year-old what Ebola, Ferguson and Kim Kardashian all have in common. Right now, it's that they all occupy headlines on our refrigerator. She can read them, but she doesn't care to quite yet. And I'm okay with that.
So that's it, I've made up my mind. I'm just getting older. The world isn't going to hell anymore than it was 10, 20 or 100 years ago. It just feels like it is. And for the record, I love being my age. I'll take the reality pill that comes with it any day. Knowledge is power. Love is enduring. Humanity is not completely lost. I refuse to accept the premise that the world is going to hell, if for no other reason than my birthday is coming up in two weeks. I will celebrate getting older so that I can keep saying that we're not all going to hell. I'll take that one for the team.
ps... email@example.com -- had to be done.