Things That Are Better Now

I have a tendency, as curmudgeons often do, to complain about aspects of modern life, comparing them to life in the golden years of the past (which I’ve often polished up a bit in my mind). So I thought I’d try to balance things out by listing a few things that are definitely better than in the “good old days.” A change of pace, if you will, and then I can get back to complaining, which is a much more natural posture for me.

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Milk. Milk is better. I don’t know exactly when homogenization of milk became the everyday reality that it is now, but it hadn’t hit my family of origin until I was of middle-school age. Before that, milk was not one thing, but two. Each bottle had a two-inch layer of cream on top that had separated from the skim milk below. You would shake the bottle to try to mix them together, which was more or less an effort that was doomed to failure, because they never really combined completely. (Like oil and water) In addition, the cream layer was a little gloppy, and those lumps of glop were now distributed throughout the milk after shaking. I hated those glops with a passion. Still do.

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Refrigeration. When I was a very small child, the cold food preservation system in our house was fairly primitive. It was called an icebox. Think of it as a picnic cooler that was too big to lug around. In one area you would put a large chunk of ice, and food was stacked in the other part.

Just like in a picnic cooler, there were colder and warmer areas of the box, you had to buy more ice almost on a daily basis in summer, and what happens when the ice melts? That water had to be hauled away.

ANY modern refrigerator is better than that.

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Car Tires. The modern automobile tire is a marvel. Its durability and reliability are in a completely different league when compared to those I had on my first car, which was a 1950 Ford two-door coupe. I recall shopping for Allstate Tires in Sears catalog and finding that I had three choices, and the best available was guaranteed for 15,ooo miles. My Subaru’s tires now routinely get 65,000 miles or more.

And in those 15,000 miles you could expect to have a flat at anytime. Because the weak link was the tube inside. Punctures, slow leaks, fast leaks, blowouts – all were part of a driver’s experience, as was having a patching kit along to fix a flat on the highway. If you ask me today where my car’s jack is, I couldn’t exactly tell you, but I would point vaguely toward the back of the car. In 1956 you knew exactly where that jack was, because you used it just last week.

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From The New Yorker

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Cars. While we’re on the subject of cars, their overall reliability today is wayyy superior to what I experienced with that revered 1950 Ford. In that era, if anyone claimed that their automobile had crossed the hallowed 100,000 mile mileage mark, we would all gather round the speaker worshipfully, to hear what pearls of wisdom he had to share. How often did he change the oil, what kind of oil, what kind of gas, was the car mostly driven in town or mostly on the highway, and what were his traveling speeds, etc. That kind of mileage was the Holy Grail at one time, now it’s barely worth a sniff.

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Socks. Socks used to get holes in them. Your choices then were to have them darned (sew the hole closed) or throw them away. That never happens today. What does occur is that all of the soft stuff that is in a sock wears off the bottom, leaving a nylon grid behind that is uncomfortable and eventually blister-producing. So it’s sort of a wash, I guess. The real improvement comes in the elastic material that holds a sock up. They used to fall down after a few washings, as the elastic material rapidly deteriorated. This meant that you would be tugging at them all day long to keep up appearances. Today they never, ever fall, but they cost fifty times as much as they did.

Worth every penny.

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Shoes. In families of modest means, or sub-modest means like the one I grew up in, buying a pair of shoes was just the first step in that shoe’s life. When the sole or heel wore down, your father would take them to the basement and do a repair. There were tools available with which to do this. Hammers and nails and cast-iron forms.

Because an ordinary family would never own a sewing machine capable of stitching that new leather sole onto the shoe, my dad would use a bunch of small nails to fasten it. At first these nails would not touch your foot, but as the new sole wore down the nails did not wear correspondingly, and eventually flesh and iron met in painful and bloody congress. But not to worry, you gave the shoes to your dad and he’d start the whole process over once again. You tossed out a pair of shoes only when your feet had grown to the point where they couldn’t be shoved into them any longer, or when the leather of the upper itself became too thin to hold things together.

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Hot sauces. In my family of origin, there was nothing hotter imaginable than Tabasco sauce. Not that anyone in my family actually owned a bottle, but they would sit around the table after supper and talk about people who they had heard about, people who had ingested the stuff and what horrible things had happened to them as a result … a stomach that never worked well again, bowels that became completely unreliable, et al.

Imagine my surprise when I started buying my own groceries and I first tried Tabasco sauce. It was certainly flavorful, but hot … what a disappointment. The era of jalapeños, serranos, habaneros, ghost peppers, etc. was still ahead for me. Also, for the longest time there was little availability of the interesting traditional pepper sauces from other countries around the world. Today I think you would never have to buy the same condiment twice if you didn’t want to, there are that many to choose from. And those international specimens have flavors that can be simultaneously flame-throwing and exotic.

(Keep in mind that this is being written by a Norwegian-American, which is a race born without the ability to metabolize or appreciate pepper in any of its many forms. I am obviously a hybrid of some sort, perhaps as a result of hanky-panky on the boat coming over to America, or to some serious “bundling” on a frosty January night back in the mid- 1800s in one of those lonely pioneer cabins).

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Indoor Plumbing. My family of origin never actually lived in a house without it, but as a child one of my favorite places on the planet was my grandfather’s farm, which had neither electricity nor bathrooms on the inside until I was about eight or nine years old. Now an outhouse is tolerable in good weather, but in the dead of winter … my, oh my … you gave a lot of thought to the phrase – is this trip really necessary?

The water in Grandpa Jacobson’s house was accessed with a small hand pump at the sink in the kitchen. That was it. If you wanted to take that Saturday night bath, you pumped as much water as you needed and warmed it on the wood stove. You then climbed into the big circular galvanized tub brought out for that purpose and you scrubbed away. It was pretty much Little House on the Prairie kind of stuff.

I am not nostalgic for those baths or those trips to the privy. Means to an end, my friends, means to an end.

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With the trial of the officer involved in the killing of George Floyd now underway, articles are appearing everywhere on what the scene of the crime looks like today. It has become a sacred space on the corner of 38th Street and Chicago Avenue … that intersection where I used to walk by on my way to Saturday morning movie matinees.

I moved away from that city in 1969, when the Air Force decided that my assistance was urgently required in Omaha NE if our country was to survive, and I never went back after that but for brief visits. One by one my personal ties to the town have gone away, but I still can be moved by its stories, even dreadful stories such as this one. After all, it was home for thirty years.

Robin and I are both wondering what the officer’s lawyers can possibly come up with as his defense. When you are photographed kneeling on the neck of a man for nine minutes … I’m sure that they will be as creative and imaginative as possible. When the evidence is so clearly damning, heavy legal smoke is definitely called for.

I also wonder is what is ahead for my old hometown, when the trial is over. No matter what the verdict turns out to be, it will create waves that wash through the entire country. Minneapolis has unfortunately become almost a metaphor for urban police violence.

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