The Good Old Days
Gone are the good old days, a better time when families stuck together, neighbor helped neighbor, and no one locked their doors. People took pride in their work and they understood the value of a dollar. Children played outside, respected their elders, asked to be excused from the dinner table, and said, “Aw shucks” and “Gee whiz.”
The most recent good old days take place in our parents’ generation. They were preceded by the grand old days of their parents’ generation and by the great grand old days of their parents’ parents’ generation, hence the terms grandparents and great grandparents. But really, there are only the good old days; they alone are the stuff of nostalgia. Before then is history, and that is a different thing entirely. We commemorate history, but we do not yearn for it. We yearn only for the good old days.
When did the good old days begin? I feel like they begin sometime in the early 1920s, probably 1922 or 1923. But actually, they date back further. The good old days began on August 4th 1842, when a gracious 72 year old woman stirred a pitcher of the finest lemonade ever known. Scarlett O’Hara had the good fortune to drink a glass from this pitcher when she was a child. Though most genealogists believe the old woman was Scarlett’s grandmother, no one knows this for sure. But we do know for sure that she lived in Georgia.
Nothing rivaled the lemonade in Georgia. Now, you could also find some damn good lemonade in the neighboring state of South Carolina. Virginians liked to think they too made fine lemonade, and it was better than anything north of the Potomac. But the best was in Georgia. And people in the good old days really did drink their lemonade on a lazy late summer afternoon on the front porch of their wooden house as their kindly old dog, usually a Labrador or a golden retriever, lay down by their feet. It happened exactly like that, just the way you’ve always pictured it.
But really, we don’t know when the good old days began. Maybe there have always been the good old days, and they get better and better the further back you go. Well, that’s great for the people in the good old days, but from our vantage point this trend is rather disturbing. Things have been going downhill for a long time. The people of the nowadays are always at the bottom of hill, and right now those people are us. And things will only get worse. Parents want their children to have better lives than their own, but it’s a constant uphill battle.
What can we do about this? We can hope that the quality of life was extraordinary in the early good old days; that way, even if things aren’t what they used to be, they’re still pretty good. We can take comfort in the knowledge that people died younger in the good old days. Maybe they enjoyed a better quality of life, but they didn’t get to enjoy it very long. So, I guess things even out. Despite our fathers’ pronouncement to the contrary, maybe life is fair, at least over the long haul. And maybe the quality of life declines only slightly with each new generation. But to hear our parents and grandparents tell it, things were a lot better then, and so they must be a lot worse now.
Thank God none of this is true. Life was not better in the good old days. Was life better before public sanitation, indoor plumbing, and the polio vaccine? Water filtration systems? Refrigeration? Fire departments? Penicillin? Did the average American housewife in the 1940s and 1950s brag to their daughters about how great it was before washing machines, when they scrubbed clothes by hand for their ungrateful husbands? Did fathers tell their sons about the good old days before indoor heating systems, when they spent their childhood chopping wood to burn in the living room stove as they lay shivering in their beds upstairs? Maybe a few did, but they probably beat their children too, and much harder than fathers do today.
One might object that these examples go back only to the 19th century. After all, there are always exceptions and perhaps we need to go back further to observe the long-term trend. So, let’s go back further. A lot further. Back to when humans discovered fire.
Evidence for controlled use of fire appears as early as 1.5 - 2 million years ago. This technological innovation afforded major benefits to homo erectus. Fire provided a source of warmth and light, and a means to ward off nocturnal predators. It allowed our hominin ancestors to make better tools for hunting and butchering and to cook their food. Comfort, safety, and a full belly brought peace of mind. For the first time in our evolutionary history, humans could kick back and enjoy life.
Hominin tribes with fire also had a leg up over the neighbors. They enjoyed higher status and bragging rights. They had superior weaponry and they could track down their fireless foes at night. Sadly, they would not know the joy of burning down enemy villages, and you can’t burn down a cave, but at least they were spared knowledge of their misfortune.
Fire also shaped the development of human culture. Fire allowed early humans to interact more closely and to build a sense of community. It hastened the development of spoken language as people gathered around the fire to share stories. Did the elders at these fireside gatherings reminisce about the good old days before fire? No. Everyone knew it was better to have fire.
But maybe now we have gone too far back. So let’s fast forward to the dawn of modern human civilization near the Fertile Crescent of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. Here we find that great exemplar of modern human innovation: the wheel. The wheel was invented in the 4thmillennium BC, well over a million years after the discovery of fire, and about 300,000 years after the first appearance of homo sapiens. Ancient Mesopotamians used the wheel to help shape clay into pottery. Later, wheels were used for transportation. This greatly improved the quality of life. Those who innovated the wheel could go further and faster; they were literally miles ahead of the competition. No one yearned for the good old days before the wheel, not even luddites.
Other helpful advancements include irrigation, the written word, numeric systems, the printing press, sedentary agriculture, the combustion engine, electricity, and most recently the digital revolution. One that rarely makes the list but should is alcohol. This welcome discovery dates back to approximately 7000 BC, close to 3000 years before the wheel. Many of us consider alcoholic beverages to be among the greatest inventions in human history, and we would not want to live in a world without them.
We have also become a more civilized society. Back in the good old days, child laborers worked 12 hour days, 5-6 days a week, for 50-60 cents a day, segregation was legal, women couldn’t vote, gay people hid in closets, and the sun never set on the British empire. We are a better people than we were then, and we will become a better people than we are now.
So much for the good old days of old. But there is another kind of old days: the good old days of youth. Why do we see these days through rose colored glasses? We didn’t see them that way at the time. Back then, they were ordinary, run of the mill. We welcomed the latest technology, and we marveled at the possibilities for the future. Kids like to be on the cutting edge, and the cutting edge is always the edge between the present and the future, never the edge between the present and the past. Social movements also look to the future. Activists are the vanguard, never the rearguard of social change. The harbingers of change may look to the lessons of the past, but always as a guide for the future.
When we were young, we yearned to be adults. We became adults and we yearned to be young again. Why should this be? Research in cognitive psychology shows that children and adolescents are prone to “negativity bias,” wherein we attend to and remember negative events more so than positive events. But as we age, this negativity bias shifts to a positivity bias. As older adults, memories of positive experiences linger as memories of negative events fade.
When our elders tell us stories of their younger days, they are not telling us what happened; they are telling us their memories of what happened. And most of what we remember happened didn’t happen as we remember it, or it didn’t happen at all. That’s what makes the story telling fun. We laugh and say, “Oh grandad, you didn’t really do that. You didn’t walk five miles to school through 10 feet of snow.” “I did too!” he says. “Everyone did back then. I knew a guy who walked 20 miles to school, each way.” And he grins. If pressed further, he will concede a little but still embellish. “OK, maybe not five miles, but it was at least three miles. And the snow was at least six feet high, no less than five. We had the best snowball fights when I was a kid! I knew a guy who could throw a snowball half a mile. I actually saw him do it. And boy, the summers were great. I practically lived in the woods. We had BB gun battles all the time! Red Riders. I shot a kid in the eye and he never saw right again. Don’t tell your mother about that. One time, we saw Indians, real Indians! One of them showed me how to make a bow and arrow. I used to bring him home for Thanksgiving.” “No way grandad!” “Well, that’s how I remember it. All you kids do is sit around playing with your phones and all that other crap. You don’t even go outside anymore. I played outside every day without a care in the world. It was a great time to be a kid.”
The past is fantasy. We write its narrative as we choose; we tell its stories as we wish them to be. And when we die, our stories become tales, and the tales become myths, and the myths become legends. All bound by the mystic chords of memory. These are the good old days.