by Yaffa Ganz
Once upon a time, but not so very long ago, the world looked different. No one walked on the moon or in space. There were no cell phones. (Imagine... people were incommunicado!) There were no seat belts (cars drove slower in those days). Disposable diapers were unheard of. Watches had hands, not digital numbers, and most kids didn't receive one until their bar or bat mitzvah...
Back home, there was no electronic entertainment, no computer games. We didn't talk on the phone too much, either. Phones were mainly for adults. Kids did homework, listened to the radio, read books or played with friends.
We had lots of friends, and as long as the weather was good, we played outside. The streets were safer then. We walked, unaccompanied and without carpooling, to and from school, to the grocery store, to the park, to friends' homes. They say that today obesity in children is a widespread problem, but back then, all that walking and playing helped keep us thin and in shape.
There was more spare time then, too, time to daydream.
In those pre-modern times, we were expected to behave. If we didn't, we got into trouble. Parents rarely sided with their offspring. One had to conform to the rules, even if that meant suffering a bit. Life, after all, was not a bowl of cherries, and the sooner you learned that, the better off you'd be. Although you could expect parental sympathy and understanding at home, in school there was little leeway. Sympathetic school psychologists were unheard of; the principal ruled supreme.
If it sounds like a Spartan regime, let me assure you that it wasn't. The rules were clear, we knew what was expected and what was forbidden, and permissible amusements abounded. A bus or streetcar ride, whether to the dentist or to your cousin, was always exciting. (It was cheap, too!) And going shopping downtown with a parent was an experience. Kids especially enjoyed the shoe stores. Every shoe store had a fluorescent machine in which we could inspect the bones in our feet, watch our toes wiggle and check if the shoes were large enough -- all the while absorbing invisible X rays into our unsuspecting bodies. But no one knew or worried about such things then.
And wonder of all wonders, in those days, we drank water straight from the faucet (bottled mineral water was for sick people), and the sun was considered a source of life and health. Every loving mother made it her business to get her children out into the sun as often as possible in the summer months. No one knew about holes in the ozone layer or UV protection.
Oh yes, how could I forget? Air conditioning! We didn't have any. The big department stores may have had air conditioning, but unless your name was Rockefeller, there was no air conditioning in your home or apartment. People expected the summer to be hot. To ward off the heat, you stayed in the shade, opened the windows to catch the breeze, ate ice cream and watermelon and didn't exert yourself. Fans were popular, too (especially the handheld kind) and the older women in shul on Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur would fan up a storm during those un-air-conditioned prayers.
Would I like to return to "those days?" Well, "these" days are undoubtedly more comfortable, but they are more hectic, too. We're kept so busy that we rarely have time to sit back, relax and enjoy all of our modern conveniences. And who has time nowadays to dream?
But the interesting point is that despite having lived through all of these primitive, archaic times, we survived. Without frozen foods, contact lenses, credit cards, microwave ovens, laser beams, ballpoint pens (first introduced to the market when I was in fourth or fifth grade) or dryers (clothes were hung outside to dry). Not only did we survive, we thrived, were happy, and on the whole, turned out fairly well. Sunshine and water from the faucet didn't have any devastating effects on our well-being.
The lesson in all this is, don't assume that changes are always for the best. Modern inventions and improvements are inevitably accompanied by unexpected surprises. Increased production causes environmental damage; nuclear fission paves the way to worldwide destruction; miraculous cures produce new ailments; processed foods lead to malnutrition; life-sustaining sunshine causes cancer; air travel can cause blood clots.
The best way to approach our constantly changing, progressing world is with a measure of cynicism and a grain of salt. When new vies with old, don't believe everything you hear or read, don't rush to be first in line, and whatever you do, don't get carried away. Stick with the tried and true until you're sure the new options are really an improvement on the old. Progress is an "iffy" business, and you never know what tomorrow will bring.