Wednesday, February 12, 2003

Debunking “Grandma”

We all get them: those endlessly forwarded e-mail messages warning about the latest computer virus, propagating yet another helpful/profitable e-mail forwarding scheme, or simply sharing some kernel of happy wisdom. While the former categories are usually urban legends and often obviously false, the latter type can be more subtly deceptive. These paeans to better times are often just as untrue as Microsoft/Intel/AOL/whoever opening itself to catastrophic financial obligations through some ill-advised mass e-mail forwarding scheme, but they are often disguised as folksy wisdom or make appeals to “common sense.”

For example, take this tale about a boy’s conversation with his “grandmother.” To me, it looks like the story was written perhaps a few years ago by someone a bit older than my own mother. (After all, 58 is hardly “old.”) He or she wrote this story about how “things were better back then” based on “common knowledge” that wasn’t quite so accurate. The moment I read it, I knew several points were wrong (TV, radar, marijuana use, etc.), and a few minutes of research not only proved that but showed “grandma” would have to be over 100 years old for most of it to be accurate, setting aside the parochial value judgments.

Here is the original story in its entirety. My response follows. When I see this silly stuff, I just can’t help myself from taking it apart.

How old is GRANDMA?

Stay with this—the answer is at the end—it will blow you away.

One evening a grandson was talking to his grandmother about current events.

The grandson asked his grandmother what she thought about the shootings at schools, the computer age, and just things in general.

The Grandma replied, “Well, let me think a minute[.] I was born, before television, penicillin, polio shots, frozen foods, Xerox, contact lenses, Frisbees and the pill. There was no radar, credit cards, laser beams or ball-point pens.

“Man had not invented pantyhose, air conditioners, dishwashers, clothes dryers, and the clothes were hung out to dry in the fresh air and man hadn’t yet walked on the moon.

“Your Grandfather and I got married first—and then lived together.

“Every family had a father and a mother. Until I was 25, I called every man older than I, ‘Sir’—and after I turned 25, I still called policemen and every man with a title, ‘Sir.’ We were before gay-rights, computer-dating, dual careers, day-care centers, and group therapy. Our lives were governed by the Ten Commandments, good judgment, and common sense. We were taught to know the difference between right and wrong and to stand up and take responsibility for our actions.

“Serving your country was a privilege; living in this country was a bigger privilege.

“We thought fast food was what people ate during Lent. Having a meaningful relationship meant getting along with your cousins. Draft dodgers were people who closed their front doors when the evening breeze started.

“Time-sharing meant time the family spent together in the evenings and weekends—not purchasing condominiums.

“We never heard of FM radios, tape decks, CDs, electric typewriters, yogurt, or guys wearing earrings.

“We listened to the Big Bands, Jack Benny, and the President’s speeches on our radios. And I don’t ever remember any kid blowing his brains out listening to Tommy Dorsey.

“If you saw anything with ‘Made in Japan’ on it, it was junk. The term ‘making out’ referred to how you did on your school exam.

“Pizza Hut, McDonald’s, and instant coffee were unheard of. We had 5 &10-cent stores where you could actually buy things for 5 and 10 cents.

“Ice-cream cones, phone calls, rides on a streetcar, and a Pepsi were all a nickel. And if you didn’t want to splurge, you could spend your nickel on enough stamps to mail 1 letter and 2 postcards.

“You could buy a new Chevy Coupe for $600, but who could afford one?

“Too bad, because gas was 11 cents a gallon.

“In my day, ‘grass’ was mowed, ‘coke’ was a cold drink, ‘pot’ was something your mother cooked in, and ‘rock music’ was your grandmother’s lullaby.

“ ‘Aids’ were helpers in the Principal’s office, ‘chip’ meant a piece of wood, ‘hardware’ was found in a hardware store, and ‘software’ wasn’t even a word.

“And we were the last generation to actually believe that a lady needed a husband to have a baby. No wonder people call us ‘old and confused’ and say there is a generation gap.....

“[A]nd how old do you think I am???.....”

Read on to see—pretty scary if you think about it and pretty sad at the same time. This [w]oman would be only 58 years old!

So “grandma” is only 58 years old. Well, 58 years ago, it was A.D. 1945 …

Television had been invented over a decade earlier, though TV sets were still very rare. Alexander Fleming had discovered penicillin in 1922 and was awarded the Nobel Prize for Medicine in 1945. The polio vaccine, developed by Jonas Salk, went into use a few years later in 1955. Frozen foods, however, had been on the market since the 1930s. The photocopier had also been invented in that decade. Patented by Chester F. Carlson in 1939, the new invention was widely available by 1950, thanks to the Xerox Corporation. Contact lenses, on the other hand, had been conceived all the way back in the 16th century by none other than Leonardo da Vinci! The first glass lenses hadn’t appeared until 1887, however, and plastic lenses didn’t arrive until 1939. As for the Frisbee, Yale University claims that one of its students had “invented” the flying disc as early as 1820. More than likely, though, it was simply developed by bored college students tossing empty Frisbie Baking Company pie tins back and forth for amusement sometime after 1871.

It’s true that the birth-control pill didn’t become widely available until 1960, but its development owed a lot to the pioneering family-planning efforts of Margaret Sanger in the early 20th century, and the science behind it had been established in the 1930s. The first practical radar systems had also been developed in the 1930s, and radar became an important technology for the Allied forces during the Second World War. The first credit cards weren’t introduced until 1950, but more limited retail credit systems had been in use since the 1920s, and the concept of “credit” dates back at least 3,000 years. While laser technology wasn’t invented until the late 1950s, the modern ball-point pen was developed in the early 1940s and introduced to the U.S. market in—you guessed it—1945, the year the Second World War ended.

During the war, nylon stockings were hard to come by, but they had first gone on sale in 1940. Perhaps “grandma” was talking about spandex pantyhose, which didn’t appear until 1959. Maybe it was just too hot back then for her to remember clearly, which is too bad, because the modern air conditioner had already been invented back in 1902 by Willis Haviland Carrier. As for other household appliances, the first mechanical dishwasher had appeared in 1893, but they didn’t really take off until the 1920s. Clothes washers and dryers were both invented in the 19th century. At least “grandma” remembered that the first manned moon landing took place in 1969.

“Grandma” may have married “grandfather” before living with him, but marriage has never been so legally clear cut as she implied. In centuries past, a couple could be considered married simply by publicly declaring it so. As another example, the Celtic cultures of western Europe followed the practice of “handfasting,” a kind of non-permanent trial marriage, for thousands of years before Christian concepts of matrimony came to dominate. These are the origins of modern common-law marriage, where actual fact outweighs the lack of civil or religious ceremonies. And computer dating is just the latest iteration in the ancient tradition of professional matchmaking.

Family cohesion was also a myth. Divorces were simply harder to come by. “Illegitimate” births and absent parents were just as rampant then as they are today, if not more so. Maybe people had more respect for authority, but there was also a lot less authority to respect. I can’t understand why “grandma” was so eager to call a policeman “sir.” Police officers are public employees who serve at the behest and sufferance of the people and as such are no more worthy of respect than the common taxpayer. Indeed, it is the police who should always be ready with a “sir” or “ma’am.”

There may have been no gay rights in “grandma’s” early youth, but there were also few women’s rights. Women were still legal chattel, in many respects, and homosexuals could be beaten and murdered almost with impunity, which was all just fine according the Bible “grandma” so loved. I would much rather people governed their lives by the ten articles of the Bill of Rights than the Ten Commandments of a frequently mistranslated old religious tract.

In “grandma’s” youth, serving your country was more an obligation than a privilege. The draft was ended in 1973, giving the U.S. an all-volunteer military for the first time in its history. Until then, many people dodged the draft and even rioted against it, because they didn’t like the idea of being conscripted to fight and possibly die for causes they didn’t support. And living in the U.S. is certainly good luck but not a privilege, unless you are a foreign immigrant, of course.

The first commercial FM radio broadcast was in 1941, before “grandma” was born, but AM radio had already been around for two decades. Phillips introduced the cassette tape in 1962, but recording on magnetic tape had been in practice since the 1930s. Laser discs were developed in the 1970s, and compact discs became commercially available in the U.S. in 1983. The first electric typewriter was actually introduced in 1902! Yogurt or yogurt-like foods have been around for thousands of years, and earrings on men have gone in and out of fashion throughout recorded history.

No one has ever killed himself because of a song, a movie, or a book, though any one of these can provide terminal inspiration for a suicidal person. Today, recorded suicide rates for children are higher than in “grandma’s” youth, but fewer adults kill themselves now than then. Apparently, in “grandma’s” day, people just waited longer to off themselves. Of course, I also have to wonder how many childhood suicides were reported as “accidents” and how many adult murders were passed off as “suicides” back then.

At the beginning of 1945, the Pacific War was still raging. In 1933, the Japanese had introduced the “Long Lance” torpedo, with a maximum range three times that of American torpedoes. I doubt the American sailors who faced this weapon considered it “junk.”

The first instant coffee was invented by a Japanese-American chemist in 1901, but the stuff wasn’t mass-produced until 1906. (Incidentally, the first coffee house was opened in Italy around 1645, nearly 500 years before Starbucks!) The first McDonald’s franchise opened in 1955, but the McDonald brothers had been selling hamburgers in California since the 1940s. The Carney brothers opened the first Pizza Hut three years later in 1958.

Most things cost less back when “grandma” was born, but everyone also earned less. Unfortunately, prices have indeed gone up faster than most salaries. However, there are exceptions. In 1946, an RCA black-and-white TV set sold for $435. In 2003, an RCA color TV can be had for as little as $75. Furthermore, in 1945, the average car cost $1,250, and a gallon of gasoline was 21¢.

Cannabis (or marijuana) was legal throughout much of the U.S. until federal prohibitions were enacted in the 1950s. Back then, it was often called “reefer.” Of course, Coca-Cola was named after one of its original ingredients: cocaine. That narcotic was ultimately banned in 1914. The “war on drugs” launched against these and other substances has been the greatest cause of erosion to our civil liberties since Prohibition and until the current “war on terror.”

The AIDS virus (HIV) most likely infected humans for the first time in the 1930s. With the development of integrated circuits, microchips were essentially invented in 1959, though the term didn’t appear until the 1970s. Hardware can still be bought in hardware stores, but software is all around us.

Finally, women have never needed husbands to have babies. All a woman needs for that is a willing man and a few minutes of his time.

“Grandma” may well be “old and confused,” but I think she is just ignorant.