Wednesday, August 16, 2006

Won't It Be Strange When We're All Fully Grown?

My sister had been talking up her Fifth Grade Teacher to me as ‘my most favourite teacher *ever*’ for a good two years, so when Fifth Grade finally rolled around for me, I was naturally pleased to be assigned the same man, and came home smugly singing of my luck to the gods above.

Of course by now my sister had entered High School, and was too busy trying to be ‘popular’ and looking ‘cool’ to worry about such matters, but there was still that tiny bit of her that seemed to be mourning the loss of the Innocent Times before Social Self-Awareness set in.

She just had to say *something* to rain on my parade, so did. What else are Big Sisters for?

“He won’t like you as much as he liked me. He said I was the best Creative Writing student he’d ever had”.

I frowned. “So? I can do better.”

Which I knew would be hard-going, since I still regularly snuck into her room to skim through her Fifth Grade Workbooks to guiltily read her recontexualisation of ‘Lassie’ for ‘the kids of today’: basically a good-sized helping of the ol’ ultraviolence, since Lassie had gone Completely Insane and was now terrorizing the entire forest by Eating People, and I’d shiver to myself with excitement at how there was no doubt in my mind that this concept was simply *the* coolest thing I’d ever read in my life, but would never, *ever* admit that to her in a million years.

Naturally, living up to this put an immense amount of pressure on me when he eventually gave us a writing assignment, especially with the added pressures of having a week’s deadline to write something, and being told that we would have to read it out loud in front of the entire class.

I thought it would be easy, since I loved writing, but when he explained the topic was to “Describe a day in your life in the Year 2000”, I realised I was in big trouble.
In all honesty, I couldn’t even begin to imagine it.

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I explained the assignment over the dinner table that night, hoping my sister would be jealous, but she just started at me blankly for a few seconds, until finally speaking. “You’ll be *so* old! You’ll be Twenty-Eight”.

I thought for a second. “You’ll be older! You’ll be Thirty-One. That’s worse!”

We started arguing about who was going to be more over-the-hill, until Dad just snorted into his forkful of food. “Boy, you won’t *live* to be Twenty-Eight. You’ll get yourself killed long before that.”

My mother meekly told him that he wasn’t encouraging me.

He shrugged. “Well, it’s true!” He pointed his fork at me to emphasise his point. “The boy doesn’t have an ounce of common sense in his body”, then turned his attention back to his peas.

I would have spoken up in my own defense, but couldn’t really argue with his logic.

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The simple fact of the matter was I knew I wouldn’t still be alive at Twenty-Nine. It was 1981, and all the signs from everything I heard and read pointed to the fact that there was No Future.

I was swinging on the swings in the school playground with Hot Gossip, (a girl from up the end of my street), when Whelan, (an equally-as-unpopular-as-me-boy), came clomping down with a bag of marbles, asking me if I wanted to play.

This seemed as good as time as any to broach the subject with them. “What do you think you’ll be doing in the Year 2000?”

"Wow... in the future?" Whelan was struggling with his leg brace to get down onto the ground and tapped it with his hand. “I know I won’t have this anymore!”

I figured he thought by then they’d have cured his leg, so was surprised when he added “I’ll have a new one… and it will hover!”

Hot Gossip butted in, too excited to have her say to wait any longer. “So will my roller skates. Except they'll be Rocket Skates."
I looked at her with a blank expression, so she added "They'll have rockets on them" by way of explanation.

I didn’t know what to say to any of this. They both obviously thought life would be like ‘the Jetsons’, and that seemed ridiculous to me, so I changed the subject.

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Sure, there was always the (very remote) possibility of a Jetson’s-style future happening, but it always seemed to my eyes like a naïve dream of the future back from the dawn of the Jet Set Age – what people believed the future would be like in the 50’s and 60’s, and since we still weren’t having Sunday Picnics in bubble helmets on the moon 25 years later, (as our robot dog chased moon rabbits through craters in a flurry of sparks behind us), I didn’t see it happening any time soon.

Science fiction futures in movies weren’t much help to me either. From what they taught me I could only guess we'd all end up ruled by giant apes, (Planet Of The Apes), killed by strange vampiric viruses, (The Omega Man), put to death at age 21, which was a lot younger than 28, (Logan’s Run), find our entertainment turning deadly, (Westworld), eating each other, (Soylent Green), wearing some kind of space nappy as we’re hunted down in a way that made no kind of sense whatsoever, (Zardoz), or something so bad and unexplainable that I simply wasn’t allowed to see it, (A Clockwork Orange).
Obviously, whatever happened to Mankind in the future was going to be Very Bad, and to add insult to injury, we’d have to wear Unisex Jumpsuits as the Very Bad unfolded.

Admittedly, that idea of the future wasn’t as irritating to me as the Star Trek vision was – a world that made absolutely no sense to me whenever I tried to discuss it with my father, after they’d explained that Mankind had both abandoned any kind of monetary system, so there was no longer poverty, and also learnt the Futility of War, which no longer happened. Since these two things were pressing concerns in my young mind I’d wanted answers.

“But how did that happen?” I’d say, and tug his arm and he tried to watch, realizing that if they can realise that in the future, then maybe it was just a matter of someone pointing it out to everybody right now and things would be hunky-dory.

“They stopped fighting with each other,” he answered.

“But *why* don’t people hate each other any more?” (Perhaps my motives weren't entirely altruistic here, and I was wondering if there was some possible simple secret to a bully-free lifestyle for myself).

“They just don’t. They saw it was pointless to fight.”

I could see that *now*, but if I didn’t stand up for myself to bigger kids Dad would call me a wimp and would never intervene on my behalf, telling me I had to learn how to fight for myself. As such, I couldn’t quite vocalize my frustration over this, so just blurted out “But they’re fighting the Klingons!”

“The Klingon’s are different.”

“But they don’t look different. They don’t really look any more different than he does.” I pointed to Spock. “And they all like him.”

“That’s different. He’s a good guy.”

I pointed to Lt. Uhura. “So’s *she*, and people hate her *now*.”

He lost his patience and snapped at me. “Stop thinking for once and just watch the bloody show.”

I never understood why no-one would ever explain things to me as a Kid, though now I realise it was usually because there was no logical answer they could give me.

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I always hated seeing the Peace Bus parked outside of the school. Sure, it looked friendly enough - all peace signs, hand-painted rainbows and naïve approximations of Doves carrying Olive Branches. And yes, it was a Double-Decker Bus, which I was obsessed with the idea of owning and driving, since you never saw them in Australia in common usage until I was much older. And it even meant you’d get out of your usual boring classes and get to sit in a circle outside in the grass, singing ‘Kum By Yah’, which was equally dull, but at least there your obviously-bored expression was mistaken for some kind of inner peace meditation deal.

But on top of all this, the Peace Bus was the greatest source of terror I knew at that age.

They’d give lectures about nuclear war, and explain just how many weapons there were in the world, and just how many times over we could be killed by these devices. And they’d explain how Even If The Bombs Didn’t Kill Us The Radiation Would. Then they discussed Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and would show us pictures of exactly what radiation had done to kids my own age, and then I’d think of Reagan on the television rattling his saber over the threat of communism, an Actor playing the part of a President, and wonder why it was we all thought we were the good guys when we done something as ghastly as that, and why we couldn’t just divide the world up into people who want to blow each other up, and the ones who just want to get on with their lives.

They explained the blast radius and I realised I’d have to be 50 kilometres away from where the bomb dropped to escape any kind of initial damage, so I checked out the city maps in the school library, thinking that the RAAF Base was a long way out of town, and surely the blast wouldn’t get me, only to discover that not only was the Base only 10 kilometres from town, that my house was well-within the ‘Completely Incinerated’ ring. (And I’d thought it was bad enough that I lived within five kilometers of a cemetery, though at least a nuclear blast would also incinerate any zombies after my then-ample-flesh).

I’d frequently awaken at night hearing strange sounds, and wonder if that was what a falling bomb would sound like.

To my eyes at that age, Punk seemed cartoonish to me, like it was all just about Dressing Up To Scare Old People. It was only years later I realised that they were obviously feeling exactly the same sense of hopelessness and lack of power as I was, the only difference was they had a way of actively displaying their disgust and frustration.

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My sister believed in both Nostradamus and the Bible as a kid, and would tell me that we were all going to die in 1986 anyway, but the year came and went with nothing more horrifying than Europe’s ‘The Final Countdown’ entering popular culture.

I’d read Nostradamus occassionally, and it made no sense to me whatsoever. My sister explained that he’d have to write what he saw in code as to avoid heresy charges, and frequently wrote names in anagrams and that ‘this passage was about John Kennedy being assassinated’.

I’d roll my eyes. Why not name Kennedy? It’s not like he was going to still be around to see it happen anyway.

The quatrains supposedly describe the rise of an anti-christ in the middle east and the end of the world, and she felt justified in her stupid belief of it when the First Gulf War happened. Now Nostradamus scholars had decided the world was going to end during the 1990's.

She pointed out a passage. “See? The anti-christ is called ‘Mabus’. It’s kind of an Anagram of ‘Sadamn’”.

I pointed out that ‘Mabus’ shared just as many letters from with ‘Sadamn’ as it did with ‘Bush’.

This lead to a long argument about how she’d been a doomsayer about this stuff when she was a kid, and nothing had ever come to pass, my final points being a) you’re not going to live forever anyway; b) every culture since the dawn of time has been obsessed with the end of the world, and none of them ever came to pass; and c) if you can’t do anything to alter it, why spend your time worrying about 'what might be' instead of 'what is'?

Recently we found ‘the 1979 Book of Predictions’ she’d been given as a kid, and laughed through descriptions of Los Angeles falling into the sea by 1985, robotic sexual surrogates by 1992, and the first space Hotel by 1997. I mentioned Nostradamus, and she laughed about it being ‘such stupid rubbish’.

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My grandmother had long lamented the dumbing down of popular culture, before the concept had a name. The only way she could describe it was how ‘unsophisticated’ things had become since she was a child.

I pointed out the obvious advances in our way of life and standard of living: electricity, medicine, satellites.

She shook her head. “That’s Technology. I was speaking of the Social Aspects of our life.”

And thinking about it now, I can see her point: Shakespeare to Dean Koontz, Michelangelo to Jeff Koons, Ties and Hats to Wife Beaters and Visible Underear, Marlene Deitrich to Paris Hilton, ‘Rhapsody In Blue’ to ‘My Humps’.

I wondered if I was onto something. Maybe as technological sophistication advances, we get used to not having to use our brains for more complex tasks, and so the grey matter becomes lazy, leading to a sharp decay in social sophistication.

I remember her final weeks, when she knew she was dying, and so eager to leave this world behind that I could almost understand her yearning for something more than this, and almost felt a twinge of jealousy that she was going to explore such a great mystery, and that I couldn’t follow and wouldn’t know what she knew.

I took her hand as she told me, “In my lifetime, they went from inventing a plane to a man walking on the moon...”

The statement seemed somehow profound.

Then she sighed. “…And yet we still know nothing as a society and just keep repeating the same mistakes”.

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It was a minute to midnight, December 31st, 1999.

I was living in small country town in the mountains, where I’d recently moved to study at University. I knew no-one. I had no friends. All I did was go to classes at University and Study when I wasn’t in class. All the students were fresh out of high school, and wanted nothing to do with a Mature Age Student.

I was completely alone, and, thinking I should at least pretend to do something, drove up to the top of a nearby mountain to watch the fireworks that would inevitably be let off. I sat on the car bonnet, under the stars, looking out over the lights of the town and felt very sorry for myself.

And as I was sitting there, waiting for midnight, I remembered my fifth grade writing assignment, and how even physically making it to the Year 2000 had seemed to be a completely impossibilty at the time.

I realised that somehow, through all our obvious stupidity, we were all still here to see it.

I was so lost in the thought I missed the stroke of midnight and it was only the fireworks that shook me out of it.

A smile came to my face. Who would have ever thought we could make it?

All in all, it was a good night.

----------------

And the assignment? I did what every other kid in the class did: left it until the very last minute the night before it was due, then plagiarised ‘the Jetsons’ out of sheer desperation. Robot maids, personal jetpacks, flying cars, meals in pill form, transport by pneumatic tubes, school excursions to Saturn.

Check out ‘Futurama’ on the Cartoon Network sometime. It’s eerily similar.

4 Comments:

Blogger Mike said...

Excellent maiden post.

Wednesday, August 16, 2006  
Blogger Kevin Wolf said...

"The Future" as advertised was always much more cool and goofy than what came to pass. But it was fun to imagine. (Not fun to write school assignments about, though.)

Does anybody even think about The Future in those terms anymore? It seems not. That is perhaps a very bad sign.

Wednesday, August 16, 2006  
Blogger MichaelBains said...

“But *why* don’t people hate each other any more?”

There was a Next Generation episode that tried to get to the heart of that. I believe it was a season ending, To Be Continued, and it had to do with the Picard & Co going back in time to an event in San Fran when things had got unbelievably bad in America.

I don't know if we're there yet; at a civilizational nadir, but I do see many of the signs. I also think we may not reach Star Trek nirvana, because we really are so good, at least in my lifetime, at making little corrections to our society to fix the most glaring short-comings, that BIG fixes aren't even considered possibilities.

I don't know, though. That's one of the very few episodes of Next Gen I've not seen more than two or three times, much less more than that one time. I'll need to "review the tape" for more clues...

That was really a good read. Thx!

Friday, August 18, 2006  
Blogger Blowing Shit Up With Gas said...

I'm not exactly sure what I was thinking at the stroke of midnight on 12-31-99. I was largely preoccupied with taking my daughter's picture so she'd have some kind of record of where she was (at an outdoor celebration in the city w/ fireworks, etc.) at the time. But, it would be fair to say that I'd contemplated vague memories of "plans" made 10- 15- and even 20 years earlier with various "best friends" at those times -- things like "man, we have GOT to do something significant on New Years Eve that year!" So, it's something I always looked forward to.

Anyway, another great read... I always like the details about your dad -- never fails to disappoint in producing dialogue that's borderline absurd. Thankfully, you had your grandmother around, who must have taken you seriously and engaged you in meaningful conversation often.

-PH

ps Actually, your sister's "Lassie going insane" tale sounds pretty good. I wonder if she had read Stephen King's "Cujo" at the time -- came out in 81 or so.

Friday, August 18, 2006  

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