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Childhood's End

On the basis of my last two posts, you’d be forgiven for thinking that I’d devolved into a complete shut-in. Fear not, Gentle Reader; when not at home writing, I am going places other than my day job. I’m even going places other than the gym, the supermarket and the laundromat. I’m finding time to do things other than the usual round of auditions, and the dutiful checking out of friends’ shows. Believe it or not, I’m able to grab a few hours out of the week to actually have fun.

I usually do this at Ethyl’s, an amiably kitschy bar close to where I work, which does things like host Bingo nights with go-go dancers. As with many such establishments, there’s a plethora of video screens lining the walls, and in keeping with the overall vibe at least one of them has some sort of vintage 70s television playing at any given time. It’s a strange experience, to say the least, to be sitting at the bar as a middle-aged man while flashes of my childhood appear in the background. The Bob Mackie-fied glitter explosions of the Cher show. The bleached-blonde and polyester sleaze of Three’s Company. The explosion of burnt umber shag carpeting that shows off the appliances on classic episodes of The Price Is Right. And seeing these long-ago programs, these childhood memories made manifest, makes something abundantly clear.

My childhood sucked.

I’m not fishing for pity here; it’s a simple statement of fact.  And if you grew up when I did, your childhood sucked too.  The 70s were far and away the ugliest decade man has known, for as long as photographs and accurate visual records have existed. (Maybe ancient Sumeria was uglier, it’s hard to be sure.) The colors were mind-shredding clashes of shades that do not exist in nature; the fabrics physically hurt to wear. It looked like everybody was wearing oil slicks all the time, and given the prevalence of polyester that’s not that far from the truth. And that’s just talking about the fashions; the pop culture was a never-ending parade of sleaze, the economy was lousy, and all the political and social ills of the 60s were still in force, but with the will to combat them having seemingly been broken. Even when we reminisce about certain aspects of the time – chiefly its movies and music – we selectively remember the only the best parts of it. We might want to think it was nothing but Scorsese and the Stones, but I was there, and I assure you, between the disaster movies and Olivia Newton-John it was enough to break the strongest will.

Now, granted, we did have Morgan Freeman on The Electric Company. But the glory years of PBS aside, the 70s were a lousy time to grow up.  (And that's just speaking from a position of relative privilege and comfort; so many on this planet had things so much worse, and it's safe to say their Me Decade really sucked.)

But then again, even if you don’t belong to my specific generation, your childhood sucked too. Did you grow up in the 80s? You took it for granted we were going to die in a nuclear war, and your favorite television programs were made by the most coked-up sleazebags ever to wear a spoon around their necks. Did you grow up in the idyllic fifties? A few blocks over from Maple Street, racial discord and the Red scare were violently turning Americans against each other, and people pretended not to notice by watching Francis the Talking Mule flicks. Did you grow up in the thirties? You lived through a damn Depression, and until we entered World War II you could thousands of literal Nazis demonstrating in our streets.

I’m sure your parents loved you (and I’m sorry if they didn’t). And I don’t doubt that you have cherished childhood memories that you cling to. But if you take a long, objective look at the world in which you grew up, you’ll find that it’s pretty horrifying.

This is normal. You’re supposed to find the world you grew up in to be horrifying. It’s what provides the impetus to try, in however small a way, to make it better.

And I mention this because our national conversation is so thoroughly dominated by people who refuse to accept this, who insist on believing that their childhood was a blissful idyll untouched by any difficulties. Worse, it’s dominated by people willing to exploit this belief to sell all manner of awfulness. Because if you believe the world you grew up in was a spotless paradise, then you’re liable to go along with anything if you think that will help you defend or reclaim it. You’re liable to roll back all the gains ever made by anybody who looks different from the people on your childhood television screens. You’re liable to sit back as babies are locked up in cages (this is your third weekly reminder that this is a bad thing).

So please, accept the truth. Your childhood was lousy, as were all of ours, and the best we can do is work to make our descendants’ childhoods slightly better. And if this is too depressing a thought for you, then come sit by me at the bar sometime. (Wednesday’s Bingo night!)

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