From Instant Mashed Potatoes To A Push-Button Life

Jimmy Buffett performs a song from his repertoire titled,“Growing Older But Not Up,” and oftentimes I find myself singing (in the privacy of my automobile with windows up) the chorus of that tune which is:

“I’m growing older but not up

My metabolic rate is pleasantly stuck

So let the winds of change blow over my head

I’d rather die while I’m living than live while I’m dead .”

Growing older (but not up yet) myself, I’ve been fortunate to actually live through the transition from doing things myself (and that really was much better than it sounds) to now just pushing buttons and having things done for me. Don’t get me wrong, I love “Do-It-Yourself” or “How-to” YouTube videos which have made me more of a handyman than I ever thought I’d be –though I’m never confident enough in myself, so more often than not I pay someone who’s more of an expert to come and do it for me anyway.

My generation grew up in a “home cooking, turn the channel manually, look it up in dictionaries/encyclopedias, peel, boil, then mash the potatoes, boil the rice, make most desserts from scratch, use imaginations to entertain ourselves, physically shop in a store, actually attend college or high school classrooms to learn” world, but during my longevity, I’ve witnessed the transformation to this “instant world.”

Yes, today’s technology saves time, which manual things took up more of back in my childhood days. But what do we do with that time? Have we crammed so many activities into that extra time that we can’t fully appreciate things presently around us, or those things we did manually back in the day?

Seemingly, we try to save time on one thing to cram four or five other things into our day, week, month, year or life. There’s nothing wrong with wanting to do as much as possible, especially for those of us closer to the end of our lives than the beginning, but if we just want quantity and don’t emphasize or appreciate quality, then what’s the purpose?

An activity we used to do when we took our classes on Three-Day Outdoor Education Experiences was to sit in a spot away from anyone else, and for one hour look around, listen to sounds of nature, smell whatever smells tickled our noses, then describe it in a narrative, essay, poem etc. Or we’d draw a picture or sketch it, and when we re-gathered as a whole group, we shared our sense-based observations with the rest of the group. Every participant … students, teachers and parent volunteer chaperones, were required to participate in this activity. Think of how we see today’s kids and adults alike, walking down the street with electronic devices in hand, or driving cars using them (even though that’s a no-no in our, and many other, states) and how board games have been discarded in favor of electronic and technological games. It seems we can’t go one minute, let alone an entire hour, without dependency on electronic devices. That made this activity that much more amazing, especially how some of the participants were angled facing the same view, yet had completely different interpretations of it. As different as they might have been, the pictures described and drawn by each participant were equally as imaginative, creative and impressive.

It was time spent without modern devices, it was time when we used our senses, minds and imaginations. It was natural beauty and entertainment. It was Find-it-Yourself fun. It wasn’t provided by anything instant, or something you had to plug in, or create with your thumbs. It didn’t save us any time, but the time it took was time well spent, making the activity very meaningful. Not everything “instant” is better than “pre-instant” life.

My generation was lucky. We got to experience our world before, during and after reel-to-reel tapes, 45s and LPs, 8-tracks, cassette tapes, DVDs, MP3s, iPods and now smart cellphones that play our favorite music. We played board games needing imagination for strategy and victory, but also saw the birth of video games, from Pong (“Blip,” “Blip,”) to what’s on the market today (which, if you ask me the titles and genres of today’s games, I wouldn’t have a clue as to how to respond).

We got to watch TV programs and TV movies (usually on one of three channels (for a long time, in black and white), then got to see the birth of video recorders (Beta, then VHS) with wired remotes, then wireless remotes, then TIVO and now recording options. Television reception transformed from “rabbit ears” to roof antennae, then cable and satellite, now Netflix, Hulu and whatever else they’ve come up with. We don’t go to movies as much today; we rent them on-demand, reducing most movie rental stores to defunct businesses now displayed in pictures hanging in museums.

We’ve seen telephones go from rotary dialing desk phones to wall-mounted devices to push-button phones to wireless phones to the first cell phones (my first one was a bit smaller that the WWII walkie-talkie sized communication devices with an aerial almost as long). Then came smaller ones, then the change to smart phones that can do almost anything you ask them to do. I’ve recently seen a prototype of a phone designed in some foreign country where you wear a bracelet that picks up a cell tower signal and you can then display graphics on your wrist operating the “wrist device” just as if you had a tangible cell phone in your hand. I’ve also seen iPads and smart phones reduced in size to be small enough to wear on your wrist, much like the wrist radios of old Dick Tracy comic strip fame.

My generation saw the creation of TV dinners, instant mashed potatoes, instant coffee and instant pudding, Minute Rice, (can’t claim frozen vegetables, they came before I was born … same for instant cake mixes, brownie mixes, and cookie dough in a tube). My generation also saw the birth of fast-food restaurants. I saw the first McDonald’s built on Fairmount Avenue, then saw the rapid following of The Red Barn, Carroll’s, Henry’s, Kentucky Fried Chicken, Arby’s and the transition from Mike and Sam’s, or The Grapevine’s Pizza, to the now many “delivery in 30 minutes or less” places and Little Caesar’s “Pizza to Go.”

We’ve seen bound books go from paper to electronic readers. We’ve witnessed the transformation of the first computer (ENIAC) that filled an entire room, to Commodore Vic-20s and 64s, IBMs, Texas Instruments, to today’s many brands that as soon as you buy one, they become outdated before you log-on for the first time. But we still can use them to get instant entertainment, information and gratification.

I feel fortunate to have been part of the generation seeing both sides of these transformations. I think young people of today have been cheated not to have had the opportunity to have experienced all these lifestyle changes. A question though, for those in my generation: have we used the time saved with these transformations in technology to allow us more time for appreciation, peace and tranquility, or just added more stress to our lives?

Buffett also sang a song about birthdays called “Trip Around the Sun,” where the lyrics included, the lines, “No you never see it comin’, Always wind up wonderin’ where it went … Only time will tell if it was time well spent.”

How are we spending all the extra time we’ve been given in our lives? I guess only time will tell if it’s been time well spent. Let’s hope we stop and think about it before our time is all gone.