Monday, September 12, 2016

An Open Letter to the Oregon Trail Generation

Dear fellow Eighties/Nineties kids:

We had an awesome childhood, didn't we? We grew up side-by-side with home computers, video games, and the Internet. Technology wasn't our babysitter. It was our sibling. Our teacher. Our friend. It matured as we did, made learning fun, and encouraged us to become creators ourselves.

But we weren't solely 'plugged in.' Because we're also the Goonies generation: we were adventurers. We took our crazy games outdoors in the evenings, riding bikes after dark, getting into scrapes, coming home with bumps and bruises and the occasional broken bone.

We had it all. The best of everything. One foot in the future, one foot in the past, experiencing the wonders of computers while not losing the wonders of playtime. We were the last generation to have it this good, and children now growing up with re-illustrated Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark, rebooted franchises, and iPads in their faces will never have it as good as we did.


Okay, to clarify, I'm not calling bull on our childhood being great. Because honestly, it was. I'm not here to tell you that the original Ghostbusters isn't as good as you remember (it is), or that running around after dusk catching lightning bugs wasn't an ideal summer activity (it was), or that our era of video games wasn't amazing (it was). If you put aside all the bullying at school, I loved my childhood. I really did.

I still think back fondly on my childhood -- warm and slightly sepia around the edges, smelling of dusty electronics and the wild onions in our backyard that I'd make into flower chains. I remember sitting up in my room on lazy summer afternoons, reading about Taran and Eilonwy as my fingertips rustled the protective plastic of my library books. I remember sitting in my grandfather's dim, cigar-scented workshop where I'd perch on a creaky rolling chair and play Lemmings until it was time to get ready for bed. I remember swimming lessons on Saturday morning in my green-and-yellow swimsuit, my grandfather driving me back home and stopping at the 7-11 up the road for a Ninja Turtles pudding pie on the way. I remember my most advanced video game system being a used SNES that came with a copy of Super Mario World, but was eventually relegated to speed runs of Aladdin and The Lion King.

I love my childhood. I love recalling afternoons watching Darkwing Duck and TaleSpin and, later, Animaniacs and our generation's definitive Batman. I wouldn't trade it for anything. It was, quite honestly, the best.

But here's a little secret you may not know: if you loved your childhood, it was The Best.

My dad and uncle grew up vaguely similarly as we were raised by the same people, but still overall differently. They listened to different music. They watched different television. They didn't have video games. Adam West, rather than Kevin Conroy, was their definitive Batman. We read some of the same books, watched some of the same shows, injured ourselves in some of the same ways when we played outside. But somehow we're both equally nostalgic in all the same good ways.

Then comes the Facebook protest: 'We were the last generation to-'

We weren't.

Were we the last generation to play outside until the streetlights came on? I'm typing this as I look out my home office window, watching the neighbourhood kids ride bikes and play basketball. Whenever I roll up to my friends' house and the weather is nice, the day care kids next door are outside. We've not yet seen the last generation to play outside. I've never not had to drive carefully during the summer because kids are outside playing. (And this is all ignoring the fact that we seem to have conveniently forgotten that not all our outdoor playtime was our choice.)

Were we the last 'unplugged' generation? Darling. We weren't unplugged. We may have spent our early years with only the most primitive excuse for Internet, if any, but we had video games. Computer games. Ataris. If your home was without them, you had television. There hasn't been an 'unplugged' generation since before plugs existed. And then? Noses in books. Reading wasn't always the noble 'lost art' people seem to think it is. We aren't nobler for eschewing technology that didn't even exist in the first place.

Were we the last generation to have properly good entertainment? To be fair, I've had a chance to see some recent toddler TV, and some is pretty mind-numbing. But I've lost count of the number of times I've heard myself say 'Where was this when I was a kid?' I wouldn't mind one damn bit if my childhood television experiences were littered with memories of Steven Universe and Gravity Falls. I can't imagine what it must be like to be a young child watching new episodes of Doctor Who and being able to buy sonic screwdrivers at the toy store. I'd've killed for a game platform like Steam when I was a teenager.

Members of every generation do this to members of every following generation: casting a critical eye toward their choice of music, viewing, reading, leisure time. They spend all their time glued to this thing we never had when they could have been acting like us instead. The generation before us does it to us. The generation after us will do it to the one after them. And it has nothing, nothing at all, to do with the inherent values of the things that make up our lives and our memories.

This is the straight, honest-to-God truth: your childhood wasn't awesome because of your choice of music, the games you played, the books you read, or the fact that you didn't have an iPhone. Your childhood was awesome because it was yours. The kid you see playing math games on a tablet? Her childhood will be awesome because it was hers. Just as no one can take the awesomeness of your memories away from you, you can't take the awesomeness of hers away from her.

And that's all it comes down to.

Will there someday truly be a 'last' generation to play outside? It's possible, especially if we start forming colonies on planets with hostile environments, but it's unlikely to be because Suzie got an iPhone 63pqs for Christmas. Will there be a 'last' generation to have good entertainment? Not bloody likely. And the last 'unplugged' generation came and went before your grandparents were born.

Another thing we're not the first or last of? Elevating things we love by downing other things. It happens everywhere, and this is just another symptom of it. Casting an eye on a toddler with a LeapFrog and saying 'My childhood was better because I read books' does not actually make your childhood better. Not unless you're saying it to reassure yourself.

So before you share that meme of smiling sepia children on old-school bicycles, beaming because they didn't know what Facebook was, ask yourself -- who are you trying to convince?