April 27, 2009

The Technology Gap

When my daughter was four, I probably should have gotten an inkling. Our monthly Disney book arrived and as we opened it excitedly, I noticed that month’s selection was Mickey and the Beanstalk, a Disney-esque retelling of Jack and the Beanstalk. My memory was nudged, having heard the story repeatedly as a child. It was a favorite. We had a collection of Disney LPs, so I knew it frontwards and backwards. As I read the story to her, I even knew the voices and the songs. She stopped me and asked, “Mommy, did you have this video when you were little?”

Without missing a beat, I answered, “No, I had the record.”

“What's a record?”

I should have known. It was the foreshadowing of many such conversations.

I remember black & white TV and rabbit ears. I recall only a few channels; ABC, NBC, and CBS, and for certain hours of the day PBS. I remember getting cable television in the 80s and being able to SEE the music that I had grown up with. Some of my friends had movie channels and we would watch Star Wars and Eddie and the Cruisers as many times as we wanted. The movie channels only broadcast about three movies a month, repeatedly. Videotapes were essentially for home movies and really high tech people.

My music buff friend told me about CD players. I was a loyal member of the Columbia Record Club and got my 12 free albums for a penny. CDs were of no interest to me with their shrunken artwork and miniscule lyric sheets. Plus, how could I make a favorite song cassette tape for my Walkman without my albums?

In my mid 20s I began to make the transition to CDs, and stopped buying records completely. My albums still are protected in plastic sleeves in an orange crate in the basement. I don’t know why I keep them, but I cannot imagine life without them. Visual testimony to being a music junkie.

My idea of audio visual technology is so deeply engrained in my psyche that it never occurred to me that my children wouldn’t know what a record was. I began a mission to find an old fashioned record player like we used to have in the schools, those magical self contained hinged boxes that would play either 33 or 45s. I still had my Disney albums and wanted to share the stories with my kids that way. We could just close our eyes and let our brains provide the Technicolor imagery. I asked a favorite aunt whose hobby was garage sales to keep her eyes peeled coupled with regular Ebay searches.

Finally, I found a turntable. It wasn't the self contained magical box I wanted, but it still would play records. I had to special order a needle for it and we were ready to listen to Mickey and the Beanstalk. It was every bit as memorable as I hoped, at least for me. My daughter didn’t seem to share my enthusiasm. Of course, that could have been my absolute paranoia at letting her use the turntable after the hoops I went through to get it. I don’t know for sure. It gathers dust now.

I never wanted to be the sort of parent who waxed nostalgic about “when I was a kid” complete with me leaning over a cane and having a shaky voice and peppering my speech with mutterings about whippersnappers. Our recent trip to The Smithsonian and the National Art Gallery left me with no choice. I could practically taste the shots of Geritol to keep me spry at my advanced age.

We saw a photography exhibit of Robert Frank’s work from the book The Americans, snapped throughout the 50s. It contained film proofs and early dark room prints. My children did not remember what a film camera was. I was amazed. I had one for their early years; I only made the transition to digital about six years ago. I still have canisters of undeveloped film and a few throwaway cameras. But they barely remembered cameras with film. That stunned me and I felt a bit old.

To cement that I felt my age, we saw a typewriter on display at the Smithsonian. My youngest asked me how that worked and how on earth did you correct mistakes? I explained about the white correction paper that you would backspace and slip the paper in and type over your error, backspace, pull the paper out and retype it correctly. I thought about my research papers when only the really geeky sorts used something called Word Perfect in the computer lab. I remembered a paper I wrote in college decrying the loss of typewriters, while at the same time acknowledging the need for progress. My first major purchase as an adult was indeed an electric typewriter, not a computer/word processor.

The irony of explaining a typewriter was not lost as the very next place we went was the outdoor sculpture garden, and the first artwork we saw was a giant typewriter eraser. Timing was everything.

I didn’t think about the technology gap again until yesterday. I had to stop at the store for two things and my daughter wanted to wait in the car. I handed her the keys in case she wanted to listen to the radio or a CD. She looked at me like I was speaking a foreign language as she inserted the ear buds of her iPod.

I suddenly have a taste for some Metamucil to chase the Geritol.

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