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The Way We Imagined It

There was a theme for this year’s Thanksgiving holiday and it had to do with age. I attended two Thanksgiving dinners. One was with some of my husband’s gigantic family at an aunt’s home in Maryland, 3.5 hours away. The other was at my house, with our kids, my parents, more of my husband’s family and a perfectly brined turkey.

In Maryland, the conversation that I remember the most focused on how different life is for young people today. There’s no more science chemical kits for Christmas that could possibly blow up a house, for example. Somehow, the Elders marveled, they had survived lead paint in houses and toys, BB guns, Barbie, Bambi, RoadRunner and bikes that had no gears. In my house, we didn’t own a color TV. The Elders walked more, read more, and never had a clue beforehand who was calling on the telephone because there was no such thing as “Caller ID”.

They laughed and laughed about the things they created with parts and pieces of things, and the near misses of serious accidents like blowing off fingers from fire crackers rigged to do things they weren’t intended to do. They seemed grateful they had the chance to make mistakes and make their own rules when it came to play and creativity.

The discussion in Pennsylvania, at my house, was fascinating because much of the perspective of the old days came from my pioneering father, who worked for Philco and AMP (among a few big name companies) inventing radios and computer technology. He was a future thinking electronics engineer and yet today, he admits they had no idea that someday their ideas would be used in cell phones, tiny computer chips and ipods.

His idea of play was to invent new things. One afternoon in 1975, he showed me how he took apart a calculator and invented a light meter for a camera from its insides. He also built me my stereo from scratch when I was 16. I didn’t appreciate that feat then, but I do now.

The Elders didn’t complain about today. Rather, they wondered why things had changed so much.

I described how my kids read labels on everything because they’re hyper aware of warnings. They look for “Made in China” and don’t want to buy the product. They want every anti-bacterial product they can get their hands on. They read ingredients on food products because they understand that their health depends on wise choices. This surprised the Elders. They wondered how they survived growing up and what’s scaring young people so deeply.

Then I described how my kids don’t know how to be creative. The boys like to write stories in school but the stories are centered around themselves, not the world around them. It’s as if it’s not there at all. My daughter’s world is school, cell phone, TV and computer. All of them want PlayStation 3, when we already have PS2 and PS1. Or they’ll take XBox. They’d be cool with that. I’m not.

I grew up with a black and white TV, notebooks to write in and a mile walk to the bus stop. The kids laugh at me and how poor I was. And yet when I was 9 years old, I wrote my first book.

It was an anthology of short stories and poetry called “Let’s Create”. My third grade teacher was an artist and taught us how to use our imaginations. I wrote on any topic, including horses, bugs, my best friend and my little sister. I made a puppet that year and was supposed to be in a play but I never went on stage because I had severe stage fright (which carries over to the present as well.)

The Elders were shocked to hear that many schools don’t offer after school sports anymore for free (there’s a fee), no physical education (gym) classes, no metal or woodworking shop and no sewing and cooking classes. Several school districts around us have canceled these classes, but my kid’s schools still offer them. Therefore, my son came home beaming with his latest sewing project in which he made a cloth carry all bag to hold his sports shoes and clothes. He embroidered his name on it too. Granted, sewing isn’t his thing but there was no denying his excitement over having made something himself and making it the way he wanted to.

In usability oriented web design, I’m always thinking about how people use web sites and what they want from them. It’s interesting to me to study the Flash debate because on the one hand, Flash presents a way for limitless forms of Internet art and expression. However, it’s critically limited because not everyone will ever see it or have access to it.

The Elders felt that life today is about not taking risks and trying new things. For example, when my Dad invented a solution for something out of parts of something else, he was recycling. They didn’t call it that back then of course.

Back then, they weren’t ready to sit still and watch DVD’s, video games and go online shopping.

They were curious enough to take apart what they already had, to see what else they could make it do.


  1. November 27, 2007    

    Hi Kim,
    Good analogy. At first, I didn’t know where you were going with this, but it tied in very nicely. Very good storytelling.

  2. November 28, 2007    

    Thank you! Lately I’ve noticed that some of my blog posts start writing themselves and I have no idea where its going either, until the ending. This was one of those :)

  3. Star's Gravatar Star
    November 28, 2007    

    Hi Kim,

    A great post that really resonates. I have a daughter, age 4, and she doesn’t realize what life is like without the DVR(!). Seems so indulgent, I know, but at least it allows us to limit her exposure to excessive advertising at this tender age. As for hyper-awareness, I find the ubiquitous, in-your-face warning labels on every product for a young child to be absurd. It’s not as if they are there for the children, but rather for the company’s protection in case of litigation. They slap a choking hazard warning on every item – even if it’s as big as a softball – meanwhile the store shelves are laden with chemical- and lead-permeated toys that pose true danger.

    Speaking of the Elders, I got a chuckle on Thanksgiving Day when, at my parents’ home, I looked out the kitchen window to see my dad diligently blowing leaves to create a patch of green grass between the garden and the tractor shed. You see, they live on somewhat of a suburban farm, so at first I was puzzled by the effort to “tidy up” that sprawling landscape of 15 acres. But then I understood: To counteract the prolonged, sedentary time indoors that is inevitable with the holiday, dad needed to get outside and do physical work in the fresh air. The actual task at hand really didn’t matter. I realized that this was just a tiny example of the many ways he balances the current reality with activities reflective of an earlier time. Just like owning a business while maintaining a small farm at home in his spare time, he integrates elements of different eras in a really intriguing way. Dad’s lifestyle, combined with my mom’s obsession with genealogy, keep our ancestors and the way they lived quite present in our family.

    For myself, I try to seek a balance between honoring the past and things that were better then, while selectively embracing the present – especially its technology!

  4. November 28, 2007    

    Kim, this is beautiful. Thank you.

  5. November 28, 2007    

    Star, I could easily visualize your dad and relate to your story…thank you!

    Liz (Ablereach), it means a lot when you stop by :)

    I thought of Sphinning this post but there’s no category there for blog posts that make you stop, think and wonder :)

  6. November 29, 2007    

    Although I have to admit growing up on cartoons and video games in the 70s/80s, I always had the most fun entertaining myself and my brother. My grandfather and I used to spend hours making and flying paper airplanes, and those were some of my favorite toys (and memories).

  7. December 2, 2007    

    I’m fascinated by life way beyond our Elders. My favorite books of all time are the Clan of the Cave Bear series by Jean M. Auel. It is the story of Ayla, a woman who lived 35,000 years ago during the Ice Age. People lived with their clans – it would be difficult to live on your own. Social media was the annual Clan gatherings. Everyone in the Clan was an integral part of survival and everyone contributed with a craft based on personal skill. Contributions to the Clan included making pottery, baskets, sewing, knife-carving, jewelry-making, hunting, cooking, being a spiritual leader, a medicine woman… Amazing discoveries included making soap from the lye in the ash from fires, flint to start a flame (before that, an important job was the fire carrier – so the flame never went out), harnessing the power of horses, even inventing a needle made from bone and making a hole in it to hold thread was a great leap forward.

    Today, survival by ones own hands and the need for community to survive has taken on a way different meaning, but life today – way more complex – has it’s own challenges, though not physical survival challenges.

    But to tie it all back to web design and usability, like every person in the Clan, every element of a web site must have it’s purpose – to further the goals of the site and to help it thrive.

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