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The Old Days: How Good Were They?

February 25, 1988|JOSEPH N. BELL

Frequently I hear older people--and I'm guilty too--start sentences with, "Now, back in the good old days. . . ." Or variations such as "When I was your age, . . ." or "It wasn't always like this, you know. . . ."

There are two things in particular that bother me about this approach. First of all, it is guaranteed to irritate the hell out of your listener, who is concerned with a totally different environment and set of circumstances in the here and now. And, second, I'm not at all sure it is true.

I did that the other day in this column when I offered up a grammar quiz that my UCI students have been stumbling over for two decades. Although I didn't preface the column with "back in the good old days," the implication was there very strongly that when I went to high school 50 years ago, we were taught grammar in such a thorough fashion that we could carry that knowledge with us the rest of our lives.

Now I've seen a fair amount of evidence that this is true, but my evidence is limited. It may have been true for the Indiana high school I attended, or for the region, or for the decade I went to high school. Or it may not be true at all. However, this one, I think, I could defend. But so many of the assertions prefaced with that cloying phrase are a lot tougher to support. Especially when they relate to the discipline of children or heroic recollections that have become almost mythic.

Memories of child rearing--accurate or not--can get grandparents in a lot of trouble. Grandparents who don't approve of the way their grandchildren are being raised can: (1) shut up; (2) tell their children directly what they are doing wrong; or (3) let them know of their disapproval indirectly--by calling a magazine article to their attention, for example, or telling them about someone else who is "doing such a fine job with their kids." Barring flagrant child abuse or real parental instability, the only acceptable course is No. 1.

That is, of course, unless advice is sought. When that happens, it should be offered in the spirit in which it was asked. And it's much more likely to be asked if the grandparent hasn't been guilty of the aforementioned No. 2 or No. 3.

The advice is going to be more effective if it isn't couched in the absolutes of experiences, now perhaps only dimly perceived, of decades earlier. That doesn't mean we shouldn't draw deeply from our own experiences. Of course we should. We just shouldn't present those experiences as divinely illuminated.

Our memories on such matters are convenient. It is human nature to aggrandize our successes and fuzz our failures. Or if sustaining hatred is the order of the day, to remember the outrages and forget the provocations, whatever they were. All human beings do this. Older people are exponentially more susceptible because we have more years of such memories to play tricks with.

There are about a dozen events in my life that I've recounted so many times--usually to make some ethical, moral or philosophical point--that I'm sure they must have happened. But did they really? Or did something like that happen and then get metamorphosed into legend by repeated tellings?

Would I really have made my Indiana state high school basketball championship team if my family hadn't moved abruptly to Florida when I was a junior? Did I enlist in the Navy a week after Pearl Harbor out of a powerful sense of national outrage and patriotism--or was it largely to satisfy a lot of boyhood fantasies and at the same time look heroic to several co-eds I was pursuing? Did my son really regularly rake the yard when he was 10 and shovel snow from the driveway at 12? Was I really seriously offered--and did I steadfastly turn down--a $100,000 bribe to get a major toy manufacturer into the pages of a national magazine for which I then wrote?

The answer to all these questions is: I think so.

That's why most of the time these days when I catch myself starting one of those "When I was your age" sentences, I stop and ask myself, "Are you sure?" And then I usually change the subject.

But not always. After all, sometimes, I know I was right.

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