But one of the things I need to get done today is taken care of. My long-awaited White Castle burgers are merrily circling around and around in the new microwave. It's even black. A tiny little point, but I like black appliances better than white ones.
Oh, that was fast. And they're so good. I had forgotten how great that was. I feel completely decadent at the moment. That was breakfast. That was one of the best breakfasts I've had in years - it's the first meal of the day so it counts as breakfast.
That didn't exist when I was a kid. Though there were White Castle burger joints, definitely. Proportionally, in my lifetime, I have seen more change to the physical artifacts of the place where I live than maybe centuries would have brought anywhere else. I should say anywhen else.
As a kid, we used to talk about these things sometimes. My family was a little odd, we were always odd. We were bookish and Dad was a scientist and we didn't just stick to sports scores and repeating cliches. All those folk sayings, all those tried and true maxims like Tried and True, get repeated over and over in conversations I've overheard. At the shelter they were one of the main topics of conversation. Someone would bring one up, then everyone would repeat it. But they aren't always timely and 'tried and true' thinking at the very least needs to be taken generally. My family had more of a troubleshooting approach.
Technology literally changes custom. When I was that young, Mom was trying so hard to live by society's definitions of womanhood and for that matter, everything. Life had a different pace. That's cliche, isn't it, that life had a different pace?
The pace then was one of agonizing stress and a hideous amount of fuss over things that don't generally matter much to people now. That's not the cliche observation, it's what my real memories tell me that time was. It gets idealized nostalgically sometimes. It's easy to see why from the underside of the rock, because then, it was a lot more important to put up a facade that everything was Nice and Normal, normal being simultaneously viciously competitive and miserably self conscious, often formal.
Then, dinner was served at the table every night and formal. There were no dishwashers. There were no microwaves. There were no kids independently taking care of themselves with those robot conveniences either, there was a lot of physical work involved in those meals. Mom had a full time job. I can remember when my baby sister was born, the amount of cotton diapers that she had to launder was astonishing. They didn't have Pampers or anything like that. It was pieces of cloth and giant safety pins that looked as if she could stab through to my sister's hip if she got it wrong. I was amazed at the diaper pins and amazed babies survived that process, I was three going on four at the time and the diaper pins were very large and sharp to me and I wasn't coordinated enough to use safety pins without sticking myself a few times. Biographical irrelevancies. But people use paper diapers now and environmentalists are concerned with the sheer amount of waste involved. Versus detergents and vast quantities of soap. I expect the next direction to move with that is 'paper diapers that break down quickly and harmlessly in landfill' more than that people would want to go back to handwashing rags before they go into the washing machine because the washing machine would break down on baby poop. I still have no clear idea of how they handled that in the stone age, though Jean Auel did mention just holding the kid out to drip and then wiping child.
Things were simply a lot harder. Day to day things were a lot harder to do.
That has changed custom, tremendously. The painful, formal, stressed family dinners with Everyone At The Table where anything you said or how you held your fork could be and would be held against you gave way to people eating buffet style from the kitchen. It started to shift, in big houses like my grandmother's, from eating in the dining room formally with the best china and dressing up for it instead of wearing scruffy stuff you wore to play outside in during the summer, to just eating at the kitchen table and talking normally about whatever was up. Then the buffet moved out of the kitchen into the living room or TV room.
TV is not a living bard whose artistic sensibilities are offended by custom if anyone speaks during the performance. TV isn't even a theatre where other people in another row will hush you. TV is social, something that the people when I was a kid who ranted against the hours and hours people spend watching it don't necessarily recognize. In a family, what's on is in some way a group experience whether someone's hogging the remote (a modernism) or not. And it's going to be discussed and critiqued and reacted to while it's going on. You can't offend the TV. The TV is the passive entertainer sitting there just being, the channel gets changed, people interact, people love or hate the content and talk about that.
On Thursday nights, I eat over at my friend Andrew's house. Georgia and Andrew and I will fill our plates buffet style in the kitchen, then sit in the living room watching Jeopardy and talking and guessing the answers. It's warm, it's friendly, it's familiar - and compared to those days it's shocking! That's 'with guests over' - and intimate family or close freinds were still Guests. Guests, one had to keep a perfect facade with, Guests meant extreme tension.
The news reports an incredible level of domestic violent crime today. In my view, based on people I've known and homes I visited then and survivors of it that I knew who are my age - that's the difference in custom that domestic violence is reported and is no longer considered something to hide so completely that no one in the world can tell. There is still some shame about reporting it - but if it goes over the top, it's socially acceptable to just walk and call it a crime and treat it as crime.
I look at history and the violence was there all along, in many periods the violence was socially accepted and taken for granted and anyone who complained about it was a whiny nutter.
The technology changed those customs. The dishwasher reduced the argument of who was going to spend two or three hours cleaning up after that daily formal dinner to a genuinely petty matter of a few minutes putting all the dishes in - and something that can be done for themselves by everyone at that dining room buffet in the same way dinner got served. Dinner at Andrew and Georgia's, whoever gets up first grabs a couple of plates and heads in, I grab mine, whoever's last does - and sometime in the evening someone pushes the button. No stress, no heavy silences between them over who did it more than who. The microwave is the same thing. They often cook using the microwave, the side dish will be in the microwave cooking while the entree's in the oven and it's very simple and it's along the counter like a buffet.
Things change and it's not always a bad thing. The informal dinner in the living room and the microwaved fast food, including, for me, just making a big pot dinner once and nuking bowls of it later on to make living easier, gives me more time for thinking and writing and making things and doing all the things I enjoy more than cooking. I do know people who cook that elaborately - but they are people who enjoy the process of cooking. They cook the way I'd make a medieval costume. All the stages of prep are fun. All the presentation's fun too and once in a while they'll make a special occasion of it - because that is just that, a grand production. Not an everyday thing, but someone's personal art form.
Just an unorganized ramble, sparked by a very pleasant meal and some questions about society that may have answers. If the pace of life seems too frenzied, consider this. Perhaps when needed work gets eliminated but people still live by an agricultural farm ethic where constant antlike industriousness did make the difference between survival or not, that's a matter that the custom no longer fits the technology. Just as before agriculture, customs that fit a hunting and gathering economy didn't fit for most people, industry is this new thing that has not got its right customs yet for how to live in harmony with it.
The technological problems of pressuring the environment are solvable in a few simple but hard to execute ways, the solutions aren't overnight ones. The social problems of 'you got what you wished for, why do you think that's a bad thing?' are a major part of my fiction. The world is in some ways a much better place than it used to be! The golden future that all the old SF talked about, before the Dark Wave (which is not what it's called, but did hit pretty hard when I was a kid) started tossing lots of cautionary stories into it, is in many ways a reality.
At 17, I took an anthropology class that opened my eyes and started me doing what I just did today - looking at a culture in terms of its daily habits, its artifacts, how people react to the artifacts and how all the ways people interact with each other are affected by custom, beliefs and physical tangible needs of life. People's cultures adapt to their climates. But for all my life I've heard horrible warnings about how air conditioning or reliable heating or this or that thing that has made my life livable and sometimes saved my life is a bad thing because it weakens the race or makes modern people soft or something like that. I see red when I hear that argument because I'm haunted by the ghosts of millions of peasants who died in their early thirties worked to death on the underpinnings of the work ethic and poor diet and bad living conditions and literal exhaustion. Most of history I would have died of the pneumonia I had at five and most of it, I'd have wound up facing greater dangers than I have in this life. That affects my perspective - and it's something to think about the next time someone's getting luddite about the things that may keep you alive and the things in life that are real pleasure and real value.
I no longer even discount status as real value or pleasure. I used to laugh at people who had name brand luggage or whatever, till I recollected a number of colorful Native American tribes with intricate status customs, the potlatches of the Tlingit, the Polynesian status intricacies - that stuff's a game, that's what clever primates do when survival needs are met. Elaborate on social stuff, make it up and get intense with it. That can even be done harmlessly. I've been in some groups and societies where it got very elaborate without being bitter.
Society is something made up on the fly by people who are living in it at the time. A democratic view of it, but it's not always as formal as a vote. Sometimes it's just something that shifts because individually many more of the people living in it do things the new way because it works better. In chat, we had a discussion of whether people eat at the table or not and this started this whole blog rant - because several chatters all agreed they never used the table except for playing games and cards and things, but also about half of those immediately said 'but that's my personal bad habit' or 'our personal bad habit' when they married someone else who had the same informal habit. Why be self conscious if that's what's actually becoming custom?
Things are looking up. They will look up even more, I think, since the human world continues to creak toward some ethics and some customs that are a lot less cruel to the individual and more respectful of life.
Robert and Ari >^..^< (He is philosophically meditating and looks like a cute zen cat)