Here Thar Be Monsters!

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A Geezer Speaks

Remember the good old days?

Neither do I.  But I sure remember when they were a damn sight simpler.

For today's column, you'll need some sad, whiny violin music, so break out the Izhak Perlman albums (oops, don't have albums any more), I mean MP3s while you read on.

There was a time I could leave the house without toting $1,000 worth of electronics, and come home without heading straight for the chargers.  There was a time I would check the box out front for mail, and not my computer, and I only had one address, not a dozen.  I'm not really THAT old, but I remember nickel candy bars and 5-ounce bottle of Coke made with real sugar and not corn syrup.  I remember feeling pretty flush with $50 in my pocket.

I don't have any illusions that life was any better or worse in the old days, but they were certainly less complicated.  Is it only me, or do other folks feel like all the stuff that was supposed to make our lives easier actually made it much more complex?

I remember Mom using charge-a-plates - little metal plates smaller than credit cards issued by individual stores, rather than faceless megacorps in some far-off land.  Some folks say, well yeah, but you had to have one for every store you frequented, to which I say, look in your wallet and tell me how many plastic cards you have.  Same difference, just a little lighter.

Remember teevee sets?  They were huge wooden cabinets with a bulging grey screen and knobs all over the place.  When you turned it on, it had to warm up, and when you turned it off, the picture shrank down to a dot and slowly faded out.  To tune in one the four stations, you had to do a complicated dance of wiggling the antenna and using the fine tuning knob to get rid of as much static as was possible. If you lived near a building, though, you always had a ghost signal slightly shifted to the side, so you were cross-eyed after watching an hour or so.  And OOOH those color programs during prime time were so cool, with the NBC peacock in LIVING COLOR!

There was a time I could leave the office and work stopped until I showed up again or I was near my home phone.  Now the bastards can find me anywhere in the world, any time of day, for any silly reason.  Honestly, what do I care about jammed copiers in Jakarta when I'm lounging by the bay in Hong Kong?

On the other hand, there was a time when I was backpacking around the world at the tender age of 18, and a call home involved making a reservation at the local telegraph office, coming back at the appointed time, sitting in a booth with a meter over the phone, and talking to folks who sounded like they were on the Moon.  You had to talk, wait a few seconds for it to get to the other end, then they answered and it took a few seconds for it come back.  Made trying to have highly animated conversations about financial matters (or lack thereof) really difficult.  I also had to set aside half a day or so every week to buy a bunch of postcards and stamps (remember those?) and do my weekly updates over a couple of liters of fine Czech pilsners (in Pilsen no less).

Other fine memories include not being able to pay bills online from the beach in Bali and having to wait two-thirds of a day for the banks to open so I could get money out.  Remember how radical ATMs were?  Never ceased to amaze me that I could walk up to a machine, do some mystical incantations, and it would spit money at me.  In fact, when I did any banking at all, I had to (gasp!) interact with a human being!  Gad zooks, how did we survive those Dark Ages?

I remember when cops wore dress shirts and trousers, not paramilitary uniforms.  I knew the two cops that patrolled my neighborhood, and they knew me.  Of course, in Houston, the cops have always been overheated control freaks, but the two in my neighborhood were pretty cool.  They seemed like real people and not these bur-cut, sexually frustrated bags of hormones that pass for law "enforcement" (emphasis on the force part).

Just today, R. E. posted a photo of an ancient device once used to measure feet.  You stood on a metal plate and moved one slider to measure the length and another to measure the width.  We bought shoes by number and letter, like 12E (I have big feet - even then).  Now everything is made for the center of the bell curve.  Folks like me have to go to specialty stores to find things that are long enough, big enough and (now) wide enough.  The problem is even worse living in a land where everyone is a foot shorter and half as big around.  I have a lot of clothes custom made.

How about this?  Remember the men who sold things door to door?  The Fuller brush man was popular at our house.  We had milk delivered twice a week, along with ice cream and fruit juices.  He was REALLY popular.  And the milk still had cream on top.  When I lived in Dublin, there was a bird that would peck the lid off the top and drink all the cream - the bastard.  The bread truck was fun, too.  You could smell it coming a half-mile away.

One of the things I love about living in Indonesia is that you can still get just about anything from the roaming vendors: custom-made brooms, shoe repair, darning and stitching, soup and noodles, bread.  Each one has their own call or jingle, too.  And they come around all day every day.  I almost never go to the store, except to buy comfort foods like Oreos, peanut butter and a block of cheese.

Here's one I bet you haven't thought about in a long time.  Once upon a time, you could go to the airport and not see any security.  You could walk out the gate onto the tarmac, climb the steps into the plane, and pay for your ticket with cash to the stewardess, and never show any ID.  Now you can't even get to the parking area without ID, no one wants cash, and stewardesses died out two decades ago.

Yep, the old days were much simpler.  Not necessarily easier, but you didn't have to carry around bags full of gear to be disturbed everywhere you go and prove who you are.  Men have to carry purses now, because there's just not enough room in pockets any more for all the crap.

Hard to say which I prefer.  Certainly, being able to get cash any time of the day or night is helpful, but not being able to leave the office sucks.  Being able to pay bills without writing a check and buying stamps (remember those?) is nice, but omnipresent "security" sucks.  Credit cards are handy, but paying them sucks.  And a thief can nip an awful lot of your life with one quick hit, even without being in the same country with you.

One thing is for certain, all the time-saving devices haven't given us more free time, just more work time.  Something very wrong with this picture.

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