What if this is as good as it gets?
When I talk with my high school friends, they often wax nostalgically about the 1970s and 1980s, when we grew up, the movies, the music, and the wonderful television shows. It was a wonderful time to be alive.
While there were some great highlights, when I take a step back, it just isn’t true. It was an awful time! Memories get clouded and people tend to forget the bad things and remember only what makes them smile. I loved the Dukes of Hazzard, but I wouldn’t inflict that show on today’s 10-year-olds for all the money in the world, because I know it is awful!
If you truly want to understand the 1970s, buy a couple packs of cigarettes and put a few dozen burn holes on your couch. That should be the symbol of the 1970s. While not everyone smoked, 70 percent of the adult population did. Those that didn’t, tolerated it and had funky looking ashtrays on their coffee tables for when friends came over.
As a kid, the worst moment of your week was when you came into the living room in your pajamas. Yesterday's pajamas would go up in flames like a dried out Christmas tree! Then one of your parent’s friends, with a cigarette in their hand, would attempt to give you a hug goodnight. You had to squirm like you were doing the limbo under a pay toilet door to avoid that glowing tip. Then you would lie in bed smelling of Marlboro cigarettes as you tried to drift off to sleep.
In elementary school, the 12 words that terrified every kid to death were, “Please go to the teacher’s lounge and give [so-and-so] this note.” It was like the Bataan death march as you shuffled your way down the hall. Our teacher’s lounge was right next to the kindergarten room. You would knock, open the door, and then get knocked over by the cloud of smoke rolling out!
The smoke monster on the television show “Lost” was harmless compared to that cloud. I am sure many a kid returned home with coal miner’s lung after one of those errands.
The very worst moments of the school year were when your teacher tried to stop smoking. It was “Attila the Hun” at the front of the classroom. A week or two later everything would return to normal and they would be smoking again.
You would go into a restaurant and people were chain smoking as they ate, a cigarette in one hand and a fork in the other, with a plume of smoke hanging overhead. If you sat down next to someone, they might go off on a smoker’s coughing jag. This allowed you to experience what they were eating on your sleeve and shoulder.
I was always filled with terror at night when we were in the family station wagon on a dark highway. The driver in front of you would toss his cigarette out the window and you would watch that glowing cancer stick bounce down the highway towards your car. As a kid, I was sure it was going to hit the gas tank, transforming the car into a giant cherry bomb! In hindsight all those butts did was poison the wildlife that survived the styrofoam cups tossed out!
I am writing a book about a trial in the 1950s, the decade that is often held up as the ideal time in American history, unless you were a woman, African-American, gay, or pretty much anything else who wasn’t a straight, white, Christian male. The problem is, this ideal is just not true! Kids were fooling around. The newspapers were filled with violence.
Even at that time, newspaper reporters were writing purple prose about and longing for an America that had disappeared. After looking at so many hundreds of high school yearbooks from that time, I want the death penalty for high school yearbook salesmen. Kids have not changed. They were doing then what they shouldn’t be doing now. The only thing that has changed is transportation.
There is a wonderful scene in a Jack Nicholson movie from 1997 where he says to the patients in his psychiatrist waiting room, “What if this, is as good as it gets?” They stare back at him with a stunned look on their faces. We look back at pasts that never were because of all the discomfort we feel and problems we deal with today.
On the whole and over time, I tend to believe that. Today, it is as good as it gets, tomorrow, it will be as good as it gets, and one hundred years from now that will be as good as it gets. Even so, people will still be complaining about the music, movies, and young people. Especially me!