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Change Helps Keep the Snap, Crackle and Pop in Life

March 11, 1993|JIM WASHBURN | Jim Washburn is a free-lance writer who regularly contributes to The Times Orange County Edition.

While visiting a friend in one of our fine Orange County jails recently, I couldn't help but overhear the long complaint of another prisoner to his visitors.

I won't bother reproducing the full color of his language--suffice it that if he ran things, store shelves would be stocked with product names like "*%)'%--'! Kellogg's Rice %$&Q-'%!! Krispies."

Among this fellow's penal problems was that he hates Rice %$&Q-'%!! Krispies, and while the guy in front of him in the cafeteria line got Fruit Loops and the guys behind him got Sugar Frosted Flakes and Cheerios, he got snap, crackle and pop, and no one would trade with him.

I hear they have the same problems in Turkish prisons. Maybe someday the civilized nations will put a stop to this random distribution of cereal.

In the meantime, his plight set me to thinking about something musician Richard Thompson said in an interview. He can be an unsparing social critic in his songs, and when asked what he considered the biggest problem to be among people today, he didn't settle on the standard social ills or institutional lacks. Rather, he cited the general discontentment of people with their lot.

He argued that less than a century ago and at all points before, man generally was content with his place in life because it was all he or she knew. If you were a farmer, that was your world and chances are you never saw beyond the next set of hills. Today though, with the bombardment of more rich and famous lifestyles on TV and commercials' escalating inducements to "have it all," Thompson felt that people get caught in a whirlwind of material discontent and spiritual longing.

I think he's right, but not entirely so. For starts, I don't think the olden-times were entirely a pasture of bovine contentment. The difference was, one's place in life back then was so stratified, with so little chance for change, that folks had no choice but to defer their discontent until the afterlife. People put a lot more stock in heaven back then, with the handy encouragement from their rulers that their lowly toil on Earth would be rewarded with riches in the sky.

Also, I'm not sure that what we have today is so much discontentment as it is a new un-rooted way of living. Unlike our forebears, who might go a thousand years without any significant change in life--"Oh great! Gruel with raisins!" they might joyously cry, then wait another millennium for the invention of the spoon--we live in a world that is changing under our feet.

If people in the past were just trying to keep their heads afloat in the muck of their daily routine, we're now doing our damnedest to surf atop a torrent of change, from new viruses, to new computer languages, to even newer computer viruses.

Just over the last couple of generations I think you can see how that's affected the way we are. Most notably, there's a whole lot of us who never grew up. I'm about to turn 38, yet I still act less like Ward Cleaver than I do the Beaver. I'm perfectly satisfied to have a bowl of cereal for dinner and can say the same of most of the people I know.

Here at the paper, when we're not busy distilling and interpreting world events, we like a good rubber band fight. The people I work for have photos of Johnny Rotten posted in their offices.

This trend has been disparaged in some circles. I believe it was dubbed "the Gilligan Syndrome" by one L.A. magazine. There are indeed some downsides to our perpetual youth, like the fact that lots of us still haven't outgrown paying to see bloated explosive-fests on movie screens or can buy records that go "Please don't tell my heart, My achy breaky heart. . ." without withering embarrassment.

Maybe it's partly the economy, but it also seems we're not as fiscally responsible as our parents. I mean, when they were our age they were taking care of their aging parents, while a lot of us are now looking to our retired folks when it's time to buy a car. You can tell it's causing the bit of generational antagonism when you see bumper stickers like "We're spending our children's inheritance," or the kids' reply, "We're cutting off their oxygen."

I know people who are approaching 50 who are still "finding themselves," still casting about for what they most want to do with their lives. Sure, you could argue that it's pathetic, but it also can be indicative of an openness, curiosity and adventure that was missing from past generations. Some of these people at 50 seem more full of life and spirit than persons half their age were a generation or two ago.

So what makes us different? Maybe we're kept nimble and a tad silly by the necessity of having to navigate so much change. I think also it is because we've had a culture that showed us we could deal with all the changes, and ideally make those changes ones we can put in our service instead of us being slaves to them.

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