Friday, December 12, 2008

The good ole days weren't always good, and tomorrow ain't as bad as it seems...

Recently I went to my ophthalmologist for a regular exam. It's a large, busy office, with a dozen different doctors providing everything from basic services like my contact lens prescriptions to LASIK and other surgical procedures. I go there because it's in town, I like the doctor I've been seeing, and, above all, they take my insurance.

Looking around for a place to sit in the expansive but full waiting room, I realized with sudden minor anxiety that I hadn't brought a book. I hate having nothing to read. In the same moment I remembered that though I like this doctor, it's always at least 45 minutes' wait to see him. With a book, the built in reading time is actually a bonus. Without, it can be a frustrating waste of time.

As you'd expect, ophthalmology practices are particularly busy with elderly patients. Every table in the place had multiple copies of the AARP magazine ("world's largest circulation." Really? wow) and precious little else. Sitting at one end of an empty couch, I scanned the room to see what people had in hand. I would've circled a People magazine like a buzzard, but didn’t see one. A gentleman across the room perused something I didn't recognize. I squinted (note to self: mention to eye doc that I am unable to read titles of other people's magazines from across a large waiting room). Aha! Wait that can't be right. Reminisce magazine -- really? Is that a spoof thing -- The Onion for octagenarians? Well no, actually. It's the real deal.

It’s real, and it isn't even one of a kind. The magazine I eventually got my hands on is called Good Old Days ("featuring stories, photos, illustrations of the happy days gone by"). Between its covers lies more sap than I've ever seen in a publication aimed at people over, say, 6. It is childhood tale after childhood tale, black-and-white photographs and deeply rose-colored memories. Pictures and stories of kids sledding on streets ("before 'global warming,' some of those streets stayed snow-covered for days...") and of couples embracing, reunited after World War II. Lots of wistful statements about how much simpler, happier, more loving and better tasting things were, back in the 30s and 40s. All this between advertisements with aggressive taglines such as “HAVING TROUBLE WIPING?”. I'd never seen anything like it, and for a good while, I was hooked. “Every night when Sis and I walked into our bedroom, there it was – a lid of melted skunk grease on top of that old heating stove.” Fascinating.

Eventually a woman and her elderly mother sat down with me. The mother was there for eyelid surgery. She wasn't looking forward to it, she said, but planned to have a nice big muffin in the car on the way home. I told her that sounded delicious, and that I hoped everything would go very well. She said she had some good music to listen to while recovering, and I told her about some books on tape she might like. All very pleasant. Then she leaned in and whispered "my doctor is Japanese, but really she's very good."

Now, this lady was clearly in her 80s, about to undergo surgery and anxious about it, so it wasn't the time or place for "Um, why would being Japanese interfere with her being a very good doctor?" I just agreed that it's great to have a doctor you trust. Then my name was called, and we said good-byes.

The magazine and the conversation both left me with mixed feelings.

Some of the stories in Good Old Days, including a woman’s account of visiting her old childhood home, long abandoned and about to be demolished to make way for a new subdivision, were really touching. Most of them, though, were pure deluded saccharine.

Then here’s this nice lady, bearing up for something scary, then assuming total sympathy in revealing her Good Old Days era prejudice to another white person. It would be less dispiriting if I didn’t hear versions of the same statement so often -- "s/he's [race/ethnicity], but [positive attribute]" -- from people I know much too well to make excuses for.

Good Old Days has a website. On it, a letter from the editor:

The era of the Great Depression and the war years could really teach life lessons to younger folks in these tough economic times of the 21st century. I call it the lesson of Daddy's Belt.

I'm not talking about the times Daddy's belt was applied amply to my well-deserving posterior. I assure you that I learned plenty of life lessons from that use of Daddy's belt, but I'm talking about a more abstract application...

Ah, yes. Beating children was so simple then.

Subdivisions notwithstanding, I think we've come a long way since the good old days, thank you very much.

We have Japanese eye surgeons right here on Cape Cod, for one thing.


  1. What always gets to me is people who talk about how dangerous the world is today.

    It makes me want to scream

    I SPENT EVERY DAY OF MY CHILDHOOD KNOWING SOVIET ICBMS COULD REACH US IN HALF AN HOUR. I was not nervous about me dying, or about somebody dying, but about everybody dying.

    I mean, really. We've been through the valley of the shadow of death, and there seems no gratitude or even awareness of it.

    Ignoring blessings received... seems like no way to prepare for future blessings.

  2. Down here you get a lot of "She's black, but she's very good" or "He's black but you can actually trust him." Sometimes you wonder if some folks missed everything that happened after 1939.

    What I hate is that not only are the ophthalmologist's office mags geared to the elderly, once they dilate your eyes you can't even read those! Where are the large print editions? The books on tape? Something interesting on television?