10 July 2009

A Geek Flashback: Magic And Childhood


Stephen King in "On Writing" admits to being happy that he was among the last generation of kids who learned to read and write before being exposed to television. It's a sentiment I share.

I'm similarly content to have snuck in my youth before the popularization of the home video cassette recorder.

The advent of the VCR doesn't get talked about much. It's not commonly seen as a milestone of any note, except maybe by movie industry types. TV was an earthquake, but the VCR was its aftershock. Among other things, it helped kill of the last of the movies' "remoteness" and "authority".

I'll cop to possessing nostalgia for King's time as well as my own. His time was Howdy Doody kids in jeans with the cuffs rolled up. It was movie matinees and Midnight Decoder Rings. It was NO commercials. It was NO couch potatoes. My time was Star Wars and Linda Carter. Dungeons and Dragons and E.T. It was NO repeat viewings of a film for YEARS. It was NO pornography anywhere in your life, unless you counted the second thirty pages of the Sears Catalogue.

By all rights, King's generation knew more about MAGIC than mine did because fewer things had been spoiled. Mine knows more about it than the current crop. Go back further. Previous generations had nothing but radio and books, or maybe just books and the stories told by their elders. Talk about magic.

King's point--that in hindsight it seems an incalculable gift to have grown up feeling the potency of words and stories--seems to me all about magic. About how magic gets killed (or replaced, or lost, use your own term) by technology and advancement and exposure.

Take going to sleep.  Putting your head to the pillow at the age of seven way back in the year 1908 must've been vastly different than it was in 1938, or 1958. Certainly 1978. There were more ghosts in 1908.

And I'll bet you the ghosts were more real. They owned the woods beyond your house, they dwelled in the blackness directly outside your window. Hell, perhaps the blackness INSIDE your room. Remember: we're in 1908.  Being able to turn on a light in your own room, or even the hall, at the age of nine is something we don't think a lot about anymore. Try imagining not being able to even CONCEIVE of that as a possibility.

Edison killed a lot of ghosts. So did the movie.  So did Rod Serling and his cigarette-shilling backers. So did Steven King, for that matter.  And television certainly did ghosts no favours.  Back in 1908, though, ghosts hadn't been heard on radio yet. They hadn't yet been summoned out of the ether by Vincent Price, revealed in all their disappointingly "white-sheety-ness". They hadn't been seen and reseen yet in countless incarnations (MY time). They hadn't been rendered so tedious as to be ironic yet (the time just after mine).

Today, ghosts appear on demand in 320X280 resolution on YouTube.

When I think about stuff like this, I try not to allow nostalgia to run the table and turn me grumpy. Hazy nostalgia-laden laments fuel a lot of silliness. Conservative voters suckling at the teats of absurd "white picket fences" demagogues. At least a half dozen sappy Twilight Zone episodes written by the aforementioned Serling.

I will say that I find it hard to see the benefit in whatever it is that replaces all this murdered magic. I only know what ISN'T replacing the magic. Growing up with YouTube and DVD commentaries and everything else that came after the VCR certainly isn't making for better informed generations, or socially more progressive ones, or less gullible ones. The stats say so very clearly.

I watch my nephews and nieces. They're wonderful kids. The love the movies. They've known chills and thrills. I'm pretty sure they might have seen the boogeyman once or twice when they were small. I've even seen them reading books.  But I grew up sitting through bone-dry PBS specials about dinosaurs on the off chance that the show MIGHT contain ten seconds of claymation thunder-lizards. My nephews and nieces can pop in a disc containing the most realistic goddamn T-Rex you'd ever need.

I think the lamentable part is that their time with magic (and ghosts, and wonder) seemed so much damn shorter. And its getting ever shorter still. And it's just weird to not know what's replacing it, or what the benefit is supposed to be.