I watch the ripples change their size
But never leave the stream
Of warm impermanence and
So the days float through my eyes
But still the days seem the same
And these children that you spit on
As they try to change their worlds
Are immune to your consultations
They’re quite aware of what they’re going through
“The world is going to hell in a handbasket”, my Grandfather used to say to my Mother when she was around 15 years old, in 1932. And, indeed it was. That phrase is an American alliterative locution of unclear origin, which describes a situation headed for disaster without effort or in great haste. It has been used frequently over the decades to describe a social condition that usually represents in the adolescent or more recently, in the pre-adolescent periods of childhood development.
When my Mother was 15 years old, the Great Depression had only begun to sink its teeth into the fabric of American society. 1932. What a great year. The British arrest and intern Mohandas Gandhi, the Archbishop of Canterbury forbids church remarriage of divorced persons, Brave New World, a novel by Aldous Huxley, is first published, and Japanese warships arrive in Nanking. That was just January.
In February, Adolf Hitler obtains German citizenship by naturalization, opening the opportunity for him to run in the 1932 election for Reichspräsident, while Pope Pius XI meets Benito Mussolini in Vatican City, and Clara, Lu & Em, generally regarded as the first daytime network soap opera, debuts in its morning time slot over the Blue Network of NBC Radio, having originally been a late evening program.
But, none of this was very stimulating for my Mother, who would instead, sneak out of the house at night, using the branch of an elm tree outside her second story bedroom and climb down and then up a separate Elm tree overlooking a corner near downtown Akron to observe young, self-important Italian boys pretend they were mobbed up, while smoking Luckys and flashing handguns. Yeah, that’s what she did for kicks in 1932. While the world was going to hell in a handbasket.
My Mother tasted her first kiss in 1935 and then followed the kisser, my Father, out to San Francisco on a Greyhound bus, where they got married and had me. Their idea of a good time was to drink some beers, listen to Dragnet and Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar on the radio, and play cards with my Father’s friends. When my Mother was in her late teens , her complete world of influence was Movies and Radio, and she had only one or two looks that were deemed appropriate for the youth of her day. Smoking cigarettes and drinking martinis were what young women of sophistication aspired to in 1950.
When I grew up, the notion of sex and the weird appeal of young women began to rattle around somewhere in my stupid consciousness around 11 or 12. When I got near girls, I felt like I was itching like a man on a fuzzy tree, but I had no idea why. My Father tried to have “the talk” when I was 12, but he couldn’t figure out what to say and left my room. I was on my own. My first “love” was Julie Rothschild, but I only got to kiss her girlfriend, which was fantastic (I still can taste that sweet, Apricot flavored saliva), but I was pretty sure she wasn’t Julie. I felt like “The world was going to hell in a handbasket.”
As a confused 12 year old, my influences were The Kingston Trio, three guys with striped button down shirts, the Catholic priesthood, lots of guys with long, black robes and white collars, Sal Mineo in West Side Story, and James Dean in Rebel Without a Cause. I could also go with Marlon Brando in On The Waterfront, but there were no motorcycles in Burlingame, California in 1959, and certainly no guys wearing leather Village People outfits. So, since there were also no Puerto Ricans and the closest I got to emotionally confused suburban, middle-class teenagers was sneaking out in the middle of the night to drive over to my girlfriend’s house and make out on the lawn, I leaned toward the Kingston Trio.
My Father would listen to the news on the radio and declare, “The world is going to hell in a handbasket”.
When TV was introduced into my home, I was amazed to see that there was a whole world outside my bedroom, my street, and my neighborhood, that actually looked nothing like my own. My parents watched The Ed Sullivan Show, The Jack Benny Show, What’s My Line?, I Love Lucy, The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet and Search For Tomorrow. I watched The Mickey Mouse Club, Cheyenne, Gunsmoke, The Steve Allen Show, American Bandstand and Leave it to Beaver.
As I entered (an all-boys) High School, I thought that all of my classmates’ families must be like the Beavers and that I was the wacky odd-ball, out of place and afraid to admit that I thought Steve Allen was funny (and crazy). But, I had suddenly grown out of my skin and through Television, I had then owned a perspective on the world that allowed me to fantasize in ways never before possible.
By the time I went off to college (across the Bay), I was sophisticated and mature, and had kissed and had sex with several girls and while I still had no idea who I was or where I was going, I had climbed out on that elm tree branch and was finally on my own. Oh, yes, I also had a wife and child.
The rest happened really fast. The Beatles happened, and the sexual revolution happened and free-speech happened, and drugs, and rock and roll, and the Vietnam War, and the draft, and protests, and Black Power, and Woodstock, and the Chicago riots, and increasing political awareness and political and economic liberty of women, and the Kennedy’s and Martin Luther King, and birth control. It all happened, and it all happened in a period of only six years, from 1964 to 1969. The world was surely going to hell in a handbasket then.
When homely young women took one look at Janis Joplin and decided immediately that their lives could change by buying a a’63 VW van, decorating the insides like an opium den and donning velvet and wild scarves, lots of cheap jewelry, Victorian boots and long Indian saris, and when the college chemistry geek could grow his hair long and cook LSD in his basement and they could both easily get laid, the world turned inside out. The Grateful Dead attracted the ugliest crowd of humans ever assembled, but they all got laid, many for the first time and it was all so groovy, so very, very groovy.
Then somehow the 70s and 80s came and crapped all over that pure hippie grooviness, commercializing the looks, the music, the lifestyle and the dope. Instead of authentic hippie values, a general new attitude began to develop, moving Americans towards atomized individualism and away from communitarianism in clear contrast with the 1960s. And, Richard Nixon resigned right alongside all of this cultural wasteland characterized by Grease, Saturday Night Fever, mood-rings, smiley faces, pet rocks, Aerosmith, the Carpenters, Smerfs, Cabbage Patch Dolls, Vanilla Ice, Flashdance, Roseanne, Tanning Salons and Joe Namath appearing in women’s pantyhose to promote Beautymist hosiery. Totally awesome! Clearly, the world was really going to hell in a handbasket then.
The 80s were terrible, but they did produce the most amazing leaps forward in technology that started us on this exponential growth curve that has led to smart phones, startlingly realistic video games, hundreds of channels of broadcast television, computer generated graphics and motion picture technology that defies reality. It has also led us to infinite choices for both fantasy and reality and to pre-adolescents that have a complete understanding of the nature of sexual and human relationships and a seemingly endless library of options, described in vivid detail about the sort of “reality” lives they might choose to live when they “grow up”.
The appropriate looks and styles for these children range from rock star to rapper, from Stefani Joanne Angelina Germanotta to Alicia Moore,
from lounge singer to gangsta, from cowgirl to feminist, from football star to gay choral lead, from scientist to reggae, from lawyer to comic, from parent to teacher, from female downhill skier to golf professional, from Olympic medalist to reality star, from snow-boarder to viticulturist and from political activist to pothead.
Thank God I had boys. Because the poor, unfortunate daughters I never had would have never gone out of the house, would have never been allowed out the front door with a boy by their sides, never been allowed to watch television, own an iPhone, a PC or an iPad, drive a car or listen to the radio, and would have always had a chaperone with them on every date. Me.
So, the differences between the narrow, weird little life I had when I was 12 years old and the amazingly broad, sophisticated and option-rich life a 12 year old child enjoys today, feels like comparing the Edison light bulb to Apple Computers, a canoe to a jet ski, Mitt Romney to Barack Obama, or a Maserati to a Model-T.
There is no doubt in my mind which is better, and which offers the greatest opportunity for self-discovery and growth, but there is no doubt about it, the world is so going to hell in a hand basket, I can’t even tell you how bad it is.