Smith: Back when life was dumb
I was comparing notes with a group of early-20-somethings on which movies we’d seen the most times. Mine is, easily, “National Lampoon’s Vacation.” The original. The one about Wally World. You know — the good one.
This seemed like a strange movie choice to these young folks, so I felt the need to further explain that it was the first movie we ever taped off of HBO and were therefore able to watch whenever we wanted to. I could see that every bit of this statement confused them, so I thought I should create the proper context.
“You see,” I said and took a deep, preparatory breath. I tried to ignore the fact that their eyes had immediately glazed over upon seeing the enthusiasm with which I was about to explain the good old days. “It used to be,” I soldiered on, “that if you wanted to watch a movie at some place other than a theater, you had to watch it on TV. TVs were enormous back then, far bigger than they are today, except the screens were smaller. (Pause while that settles in.) But when you watched a movie on TV, you had to wait for it to come on at a certain time. And even then you’d be watching an edited-for-TV version. Eventually we had cable channels, like HBO (we called it Home Box Office, if you can believe that), so you could watch uncut movies, but you still had to watch them when they came on. So if they started at 9, you had to be at the TV and ready to go at 9. But when the home VCR became available, it meant that you could tape a show and watch it anytime and as many times as you wanted. It was a true revelation.”
One of the people I was talking to, possibly the only one who was listening, thought about this for a second and said, “That’s dumb.”
True. Very true. The past was indeed dumb.
In retrospect, taping something from TV for the first time does indeed feel like being released from a cave-dwelling existence. I can remember so many significant moments like these, so many firsts along the path of our gradual release from dumbness.
Yep, I remember it. Every dumb bit of it. In no particular order,
I remember the first time I:
Scanned my own groceries. Not that long ago, right? Heck, I can still remember the first time I saw groceries being scanned. The first time someone said, “paper or plastic,” the first time I saw an express checkout lane, the first time I saw a grocery basket without wheels, the first time I looked at Pop Tarts on the shelf and did not consider them to be “food,” also not that long ago.
I remember the first time I had to swipe my own credit card, the first time I used an ATM (“Hey! Everybody! This box gives you money!”), the first time I changed a TV channel using a remote, the first time I saw a channel number higher than 13, the first time I was able to scan through commercials and, before that, mute commercials. I remember the first time I rented a movie from a video store, the first time I even saw a video store and the first time I taped something from TV so I could watch it later. (Reread above in case you don’t remember.)
I remember the first time I tripped a motion-activated porch light. Not knowing they exist is not a good preparation for this experience. I remember the first time I encountered this technology in a public bathroom. Funny how quickly I’ve gotten used to that bit of progress.
I remember the first time I sent an email. I remember the first time I went to that mysterious new place known as “online.” I remember asking someone to explain to me what the “Information Superhighway” is. I remember the first time I got an email from my grandmother. It said, “Is this working? OK. Bye.” I replied, but that was as far as it went. Email had come to her too late in life. She could still remember writing a letter to her husband, my grandfather, while he was overseas in World War II, and waiting for a reply which took months — if it ever came at all.
I remember the first time I checked my home cassette tape answering machine message from a pay phone. That memory deserves its own paragraph.
I remember the first time I sent an email from a cafe. The email was actually one of these “Irrelativity” columns. And this was a pre-wireless email. I had to ask the cafe owner if I could pull the plug out of his business phone and stick it in my laptop computer for about five minutes. It was also his first time at having received such a request, and it took a lot of explanation as to why in the world anyone would do such a thing.
“Someday,” I told him, “you’ll tell the story of the first time someone came into your store and asked you to do something so dumb.”
Barry Smith’s column appears Mondays. Don’t forget.