The Good Old Days

Back when … well, whenever, things were better. Right? People loved each other more, spent more time with family. Life was simpler.

Exactly when was that?

Was it the 1950s,

  • Back when the U. S. and Russia detonated nuclear weapons above ground, when milk tested positive for radiation? When school kids routinely practiced scuttling under their desks in case of a nuclear attack?
  • When everyone smoked cigarettes?
  • When women had to find a back alley abortionist to end an unwanted pregnancy and the only means of birth control were condoms and diaphragms? (Okay, plenty of people think this was a good thing because, you know, women who abort should die and sex is only for making babies.)
  • When schools and most businesses remained segregated? When homosexuals could be beaten to death? (Another good thing, right, for all the racists and bigots out there?)
  • Back when there weren’t any cell phones or cordless phones and television only came on three channels in black and white?

Oh, you meant earlier than that. Back in those halcyon days when folks sat on the front porch and ate homegrown food?

Like 1900,

  • Back when nobody had automobiles and you had to saddle up to go anywhere? When families traveled by wagon on the rare occasions they went to town? When horse dung littered city streets and nobody had indoor plumbing? We loved hanging ourselves over a stinking hole in the ground and freezing our privates while relieving our bowels in January. Right?
  • When three generations all lived in the same house?
  • Ah, the good old days before modern medicine invented antibiotics and people died of tuberculosis because nobody had figured out it was a curable, contagious disease.
  • Those days, so wonderful without any of these modern distractions like radio or television or rural electricity so everyone could enjoy dinner by the light of kerosene lamps or candles.
  • Yes, gee whiz, back before welfare and foodstamps and all those other pesky handouts to the slackers, how we miss working in the fields all day, milking cows, butchering hogs, because if we didn’t we wouldn’t have anything to eat.
  • And how we miss sewing all our own clothes and all the women wearing corsets and long skirts
  • When women couldn’t vote.
  • Those fabulous days when no one could talk about birth control or buy condoms because it was against the law.

Further back? Like 1850, when much of the labor to produce goods or foodstuffs was performed by African slaves? When it was legal for husbands to beat their wives as long as the stick they used was no wider than their thumb? When children worked in coal mines? When no one had heard of weekends or sick leave or vacation time or minimum wage?

How far back, exactly, did you think we’d have to go to get back to “the Good Old Days?”

The colonial era when poor people and random miscreants were rounded up to work on ships or turned into indentured servants and no one had the right to vote?

Or the 1600s when people who couldn’t pay their debts were imprisoned? When those who didn’t agree with the dominant religion could be burned as a witch?

Or the 1500s when Protestants and Catholics fought endless wars?

Or the 1300s and 1400s when bubonic plague killed one-third of the entire European population?

I mean, how far back do we go? The Crusades? The Roman Empire? Ancient Egypt?

In all those times, war ran rampant as nations ruled by kings fought over resources and territory. People starved and died of diseases that are now preventable or easily curable. Women died in childbirth and half the children born died before adulthood. All the inventions we now consider normal didn’t exist—heated homes, air conditioning, toilets, sinks, glass windows that open and close, motorized vehicles, air travel, ambulances, hospitals and medical doctors, understanding of planets, stars, and our sun, microscopes and the world of bacteria, viruses, cells, and atoms, organized educational systems and widespread literacy…

Could it be that the fondly remembered good old days were simply the days of our youth when we didn’t have to earn a living and didn’t know enough yet to worry? Could it be that those early years of playing in piles of leaves or swimming in a creek or coming home from school to savor a freshly made cookie were simply the experience of a decent childhood without any real application to the adult world? Or that our memories of childhood gloriously forget the bad stuff we don’t want to remember?

When exactly were the Good Old Days?

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A Comfortable Shirt

worn-out-shirt

Are so many Americans furious just because the rich keep getting richer and the rest of us are getting poorer?  That seems an amorphous target for such visceral rage. I think the anger roiling the masses also stems from a hundred small deceptions inflicted upon the public on a daily basis.

Take, for example, the shrinking product. Manufacturers, faced with rising costs of raw materials, labor, and transportation, have quietly reduced the content of your bag of chips. The subterfuge becomes apparent once you open the package. There, nestled in the bottom of the once-puffed up bag, is a notably smaller quantity of chips. Still sold for the same price, the lesser content sends a subtle message: You are being cheated.

Crackers come in geometrically reduced proportions. Toilet paper is narrower, less tightly rolled. There are only four gel pens in the package instead of five. All for the same price as before.

The true cost of food is most clearly displayed in the produce department where two pears will cost you a dollar-fifty. Or in the meat department where a pound of ground chuck has somehow crept up to the unbelievable price of $5.99. Yes, you can buy ground beef at a lower cost—but it’s suspiciously slick and off-scent and each mouthful yields little granules of gristle and other mysterious and disgusting bits.

Manufactured goods suffer a similar problem. While potato chips must still—for now at least—be made from potatoes, wooden picture frames can be made of plastic that won’t hold a screw. Wooden cabinets and furniture can be made of plastic or pressboard which, once broken, cannot be repaired. Toys and shoes fall apart.

world_fiber_production_polyester_cotton_wool_chartbuilderClothing once warmed us, comforted us, an ancient human invention to ameliorate the savages of raw nature. But what comfort comes in wearing synthetics manufactured from crude oil? Synthetics sit on the skin like plastic sheeting. Even the latest efforts to make this material more user friendly can never take away its basic petroleum nature.

Want cotton? Prepare to spend a lot more money than you ever imagined. A simple work shirt can run upwards of sixty dollars. If you can find one. Can’t afford it? Walk around all day in clothing that irritates your skin and contributes to the random outbreak of eczema. The aggravation becomes subliminal but ever present. Check your anger level as you rip off your clothing at the end of the day.

Recently my hard drive crashed and I was forced to upgrade my version of Windows. In the process, I lost the ability to interface with my laser printer—a new driver wasn’t available. I also lost my favorite word processing software, Word Perfect, since I could not afford to buy it new as well as Microsoft Word. For a writer, Microsoft Word is required so I had no choice about how to spend that money.

The financial hit started piling up. My version of Photoshop no longer worked. I lost use of clipart software that included over 10,000 images and there is nothing comparable available. I lost font software that included 1000 fonts. The fonts that came with the new system are essentially all the same—nothing fancy, scrolling, or ornate. New fonts are sold by the each. (Recently I’ve learned of a font source that sells fonts in bundles, but they’re still costly.)

The new email software (Windows Live Mail) that came with the new Windows—because of course my old Outlook Express no longer works—is full of fancy bells and whistles I don’t need but is haunted by a glitch that has cost me more than one friend. At random times, if I add an attachment to the email, the email will send and send but never show up in the sent folder. I discover the error if I happen to check the outbox and see it still sitting there happily sending the ten thousandth copy. One time I merely replied to a message with imbedded images and because of those images, the glitch sprang into action. That recipient got several hundred copies of my reply.

(Yes, I also use Gmail but my vast reserve of old info from Outlook was imported into Live Mail.)

Things get worse instead of better and it’s the certain knowledge of this, the personal daily acid drip of unexpected expenses and losses that eat away at your nerves. Admittedly, if we earned more, we might not stand in shock at the price tag on a cotton shirt or a bundle of fonts. However, until the day that we can drop sixty bucks on a comfortable shirt, we’re forced to shop at big box stores such as Walmart. And therein lies another wrathful screed.

(Yes, one can shop at second hand stores. Good luck finding what you want in your size. For me, shopping is akin to sitting in a red ant hill. Do it and get out.)

It’s not just the computer world that disregards and/or manipulates its buyers. In big box stores, nothing is where it was the last time you shopped. (Okay, slight exaggeration, but I’m ranting, so bear with me.) Driven by some junior executive concept of aggressive marketing, store managers are instructed to move key items from one place to another in order to encourage shoppers to explore new aisles. In theory, when we have to search for Band-Aids in a new location, we’ll find a new product to buy.

A similar strategy drives these bargain stores to make strategic shifts of entire departments. Too easy to place the paper, pens, and other office supplies in a convenient aisle near the grocery section. That made sense until the latest theory came into play. Now one must trudge a half mile to the farthest corner in order to purchase a note pad. This might not infuriate shoppers so much if there was an alternative retailer where a note pad might be found. But alas, along with the big box came the demise of the local stationary store, five and dime, and other potential competitor.

Let’s not forget the bait and switch method where a useful product appears on the shelf only to be replaced six months or a year later with an inferior clone.

Or how about the now-you-see-it, now-you-don’t ploy? Or the clerks (assuming you can find one) who have no idea what you’re talking about because they didn’t work there when that product was stocked. Or they did but they have no idea why there aren’t any now. Or a tired acknowledgement that no, trays that catch overflow under flower pots aren’t stocked in the fall or winter because that’s not the garden season. NEVERMIND that pots don’t need trays when they’re outside for the summer, they’re needed in the fall and winter.

For me, it’s this sense of being played in service to greed and ignorance that underlies my fury. It’s the paper checking account register that’s half the size it was in the days before online bill payments. They can’t sell enough checks now so you have to buy registers. It’s the Facebook newsfeed default setting that sends you back to their idea of your ‘top stories’ instead of allowing you to receive your friends’ posts permanently in chronological order.

Progress should means keeping what’s good and adding new good stuff. Instead, our progress seems to mean replacing the good stuff with cheaper shittier stuff while paying the same price. It’s not difficult to understand consumer outrage over corporate executives who rake in millions. The race to the bottom in quantity, quality or durability comes not because they can’t afford to offer more chips in the bag or software that works with my laser printer, but because the profit formula means that people at the top and their stockholders must make more money.

The profit formula dictates not only that the cost of production must be suppressed but that the consumer must be beguiled into the belief he is paying less. The details of this formula are all too familiar—jobs exported to Third World nations, lousy workmanship, poor quality contents. Rape and plunder of the earth’s remaining resources. Consumers confront the guilt of adding to the trade deficit by buying a shirt made in Bangladesh, of knowing they’re contributing to an industry that may employ child labor or which ignores workplace safety.

What lies within memory for perhaps the angriest Americans are times when most clothing was made from natural fibers, when a pound of ground chuck could be had for a buck ninety-nine, and the meat tasted good. We remember furniture that could be repaired with a larger screw and a bit of yellow glue. We remember stores that remembered us, familiar aisles where we could find another one of those things we bought last year.

Rationally, we know the government is not to blame. We know that the fundamental corporate mandate dictates the endless machinations by which its executives gain ever greater salaries and its consumers function as pawns in their capitalist game. We buy in because we’re not ready to stop using computers or stop buying chips. They’ve got us by the short and curlies.

The reason we’re angry with the government is that the government alone has the power to regulate the corporations. Only government can mitigate the capitalist prime directive and look out for the common man’s interests. When evidence supports the suspicion that corporations have infiltrated the government’s function, then it’s time to vote in a new Congress.

Then let them eat cake.