Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Visions of a Cold War Kid





When I was a kid, back in the 1960s, everything was The Future. I was constantly hearing about what life would be like "In The Year 2000".

It was a never-ending refrain: "By the year 2000, we'll" (all be walking around on the moon, have domed cities with climate control, zoom around in flying cars like on The Jetsons, have our living room rugs vacuumed by a robot).

And computers. Yes, computers were a definite menace. Every episode of The Twilight Zone had a computer in it, and man, they were EVIL. They always turned out to be the villain, the dark force behind every bad thing that had happened in that smudgy, surreal, black-and-white half-hour. 

It was almost as bad as Star Trek, where by the end of the show the evil computer would start to smoke and jibber as Captain Kirk managed to convince it to self-destruct in order to save the universe. Though why computers would have smoke coming out of them is anyone's guess. Call Bill Gates, something must've shorted out.






In this futuristic scenario, convenience and sterility meant everything. There was no food. Of course not! Food came in the form of pills. Green pill, vegetable. Red pill, meat. Etc. I used to brood in my morose child-way (for even then, as now, I was deeply depressive and fearful, though I told no one) about the demise of food. How food was, as my Dad used to say, "going out of style". No, actually, what he said was my brother Arthur was "eating like it was going out of style" when he attacked a giant stack of Aunt Jemimas. And I took it literally, that eating really WAS going out of style: something I could readily believe, with all that talk of pills. Soon one of my favorite activities, something I always thought I could depend on, would become obsolete.

I was a Cold War kid, though I had no idea there was ANY kind of war on, cold or otherwise. Walter Cronkite, who knew everything, often talked about something called The Iron Curtain, and I knew it was all the way over on the other side of the world, but I didn't know what it was.  I knew something about the Great Wall of China, and maybe even a little bit about the Berlin Wall, so all these things got conflated into a massive, completely solid, miles-thick curtain, a ramparts cutting across Russia and keeping all the Americans out, or the Russians in.

Communists were bad, but not as bad to us as they were to the Americans. We had a funny attitude towards the Americans then, though no funnier than it is now. We felt sorry for them, and we feared them slightly, though because Canadians always "stand on guard" (it's in our national anthem about 18 times), we held on to our values pretty securely. Americans were crazy: they were The Beverley Hillbillies, they were Dragnet, they were The Huntley-Brinkley Report. Though I knew a lot of people who cried when Kennedy got shot, at one point my mother told me quietly "he wasn't our President, you know," and it gave me a sense of perspective.






No one talked about this, but around the time of the Cuban Missile Crisis (which I knew absolutely nothing about: only that I woke up screaming every night for weeks), the TV stations from Detroit would frequently do A Test of the Emergency Broadcasting System. "This is only a test." A logo would flash on the screen: Civil Defense, a name I found inexplicably terrifying. Then came this bone-penetrating sound: BOOOOOOOOP. When I posted a slowed-down version of an old computer dial-up modem, every hair on my body stood up because it reminded me of This Is Only A Test. I would freeze in place, go numb. I don't remember another person ever being in the room with me when this happened, and I told no one about it. I was sure that the world was about to end.

Fast-forward to the early 1990s, when - I swear this is true - I heard a very loud air raid siren outside. Yes! Just like in the movies when the bombers are swooping down on London during the Blitz. Droaaaannnnnnnn - that doomy sound. (You know what I'm talking about.) I phoned up my friend and babbled. I heard it, I heard it, I heard the siren. What siren? It sounded like an air raid siren from an old World War II movie. Oh - maybe they were just testing it out.

Oh.

I wonder now: as with the Emergency Broadcasting System, the sirens are there to be used, not just "things" or abstract concepts. It made me wonder - still does - if every city has air raid sirens or some mysterious way of alerting its citizens of certain doom. For some reason, what comes to mind is what my scientist husband told me about NASA. Before every prolonged space flight, each astronaut is given a cyanide capsule in case they get stuck out there and can't get back.

Growing up doomy leaves marks on you, it does. My joy is always darkened. Recently I had to take down a post that literally sent my very modest readership scattering for cover. Four longtime readers bailed in just a few hours. No kidding, they left. The only reason I could think of was what I had just posted. It truly was a sort of vision of how Armageddon might unfold. And it might. Although I realize we all have to live as if it won't.





Climate change, terrorism, the nuclear weapons we all seem to have forgotten all about - and human evil - the collapse of the power grid - and the other thing no one mentions any more (though it was discussed incessantly in the 1960s), OVERPOPULATION - these things could converge on a fragile, already-overburdened world. And I don't want it to happen, folks. Don't ever think that. But back in the '60s we bickered and fumed and wrung our hands about the planet being choked with humanity at two billion people, and - strangely, very strangely to me - we virtually never think, talk or write about it now that it has exceeded seven. 

It's lonely putting your work out there, where there is this unpredictable response, or even non-response, along with wildly uneven exposure. Once in  a while I go back into old posts, unable to find something, and I see that a post has gotten something like 10,000 views (one on footbinding in China, for example, or Carrie Fisher and her electroconvulsive therapy). The next post will get, like, 15 views. I've tried to figure it out. Someone told me to use more intriguing search terms, but what if it's a video with a cat and a rabbit? 

But I find I can't write "popular" or go by a formula. I write because I have to, because I don't feel whole without it. It is what I have always done to survive and to try to make sense of the world. This matters more to me than format - or it must, because everyone else's blog is now solid white with huge lettering, and mine isn't. Though I changed the name of it at one point because someone told me Margaret Gunning's House of Dreams was "embarrassing" (hey! Not to me! It was satire. It's awful when someone doesn't "get" satire and says YOU'RE the dummy), I haven't substantially updated the site since I started it, it's still in the old brown-paper-bag format that I find easy to use and "not plastic" (as we used to say in the '60s). 





Recurrent themes run through personal blogs like this whether you want them to or not. Certain obsessions pop up again and again. Blogs are supposed to have a theme, and this one doesn't, but is nevertheless (in view of my obsessiveness) always in danger of becoming repetitive. One definitely-recurring theme is paranoia and the end of the world, as previewed by the Emergency Broadcasting System tests that broke into my Quick Draw McGraw cartoons. BOOOOOOOOP. And sirens going off that aren't supposed to. Or maybe they're just testing them out.

Food being replaced by pills never took off as a concept. Not even close. No one could have predicted the current truly astonishing levels of obesity back when 250 pounds was considered grotesque and horribly unhealthy. Computers are ubiquitous and run everything, but if they're as evil as we thought they would be, no one notices any more. They HAVE taken over our lives, just as Rod Serling/Gene Roddenberry tried to warn us, but now we aren't afraid of them any more. We like it just fine.

If George Orwell were alive today - but he wouldn't be. I think he would have committed suicide at the developments in surveillance that are now completely standard. Like frogs in hot water, we not only don't notice we're being boiled, we kind of like the sensation of the heat.



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