Minutes, hours and days are fleeting and forgotten. Weeks and months tie some small order to these daily units. Years bring us the full cycle of seasons, birthdays and holidays, but they are usually much the same productions from this year to that; that is, Spring is green, Christmas is family tradition, etc. It is only when we rise to the next unit of time-measure that we see something greater unfold, the construct of something deeper to the human experience, a tool that measures nothing less than the march of civilization, and gives birth to history itself. The decade, my fellow time traveler, is the coolest, most fascinating, unit of measure.
Born in 1973, the first decade I remember is the 70’s. Marked by disco, bell bottoms, eight-tracks, banana-seat bikes, as my first decade, the 70’s was all I knew. It was my whole world. How could I be aware life was ever different? The Bicentennial celebration made me vaguely aware that much had gone down before my arrival on Earth, but it was far removed from any rational construction of time. As the 80’s began to approach everyone’s radar, a movie gave me my first knowledge that times – they were a changin’. That movie was Grease, an ode to soda shoppes, poodle-skirts and early rock n’ roll. The 50’s? Oh, I get it now! Well, what came between the 50’s and 70’s? I needed know. Wow, the 60’s: The Beatles, flower power, mini-skirts and go-go boots! While years did seem to make young Master Walter older and wiser, it was decades that were the true measure of societal change.
The 80’s brought cable television, Madonna, MTV, Pac Man Fever, VCR’s and Michael Jackson (Yikes!). I was in school now, learning about things like World War 2. My grandparents were more than willing to fill me in on the 40’s. Bob Hope, the Andrews Sisters, double victory-rolls and USO’s were all a welcome reprieve from their experience of the 30’s, filled with want and uncertainty. What? The roaring 20’s? Jazz, flappers, talkies and bobbed-hair, my grandparents were once children too?
It was during the 90’s, filled with flannel, Doc Martin’s, Seinfeld and Grunge, that I went to college and formally earned myself a degree in History. It was this period when I realized decades, as a measure of time, tended to lose their potency when you wanted to think back before the time of birth of the oldest of those sharing the world around you. Time periods began to have designations like the Gilded Age and Victorian era, or further back, colonial times, Age of Enlightenment, Renaissance and Middle or Dark Ages. Perhaps, the people ensconced in these times did think in terms of decades, but my guess is that because change moved much slower in the distant past, real fashion, music, and technological change came but once or twice in a lifetime. For instance, I’m quite certain the invention of the useful telegraph in the 1840’s brought singular change to the people of that age, but it was a full 5 decades later when the jump to the next level, the telephone, occurred in the 1890’s. Likewise, the differences between Mozart’s classical and Beethoven’s romantic-classical styles, though born decades apart, seems slight, and together, slow moving in giving way to more modern songsmiths like Stephen Foster or later 19th Century Ragtime styles.
Many things seem to move at lightning speed these days. The first two decades of the 21st Century, the 2000’s (or as I prefer we’d call them: The Aught’s) and The Teens, took us from tubes to flat screens, beepers to flip phones and then quickly to smartphones, CD’s to i-music, 2G to 3G to 4G speeds. Things move so fast these days it’s difficult for me to see the changes in music and fashion. I doubt that these arts have stood still. I’m aware that Britney Spears has come on gone like those from bygone decades, replaced by Taylor Swift and the like. I know pleated pants are out and plaid pants are all the rage (again). Still, the distinctions of today’s music and fashion don’t seem nearly as crisp as they used to. I’m reminded now of all the people older than me who I’ve mocked in the past (and sometimes still do – if it’s a particularly egregious offense) for wearing clothes ten or fifteen years out of fashion, or not being up on current music. Now that I don’t see the distinctions so clearly, I wonder, am I becoming ripe for the mockery of my youngers? Of course, I am. I’m old, older than I ever thought I’d be. Hell, the movie Grease I watched as a child showed what “oldies” times were like a whole 20 years before the movie came out. It has now been more than double that amount of time gone past since the movie itself came out. Time moves fast. The older you get the faster it gets. Let this be a lesson to you Millennials and Gen-Zer’s, don’t mock too hard, for your time will come. I know. It can’t happen to you. As it couldn’t happen to me. Let’s see how much spare time you have to devote to your music and clothes once your time is diverted toward keeping a house and diapering children, then we’ll talk, but by then you won’t even care. Don’t fret that your time has passed by. I’ve learned the best things are the things that are slow to change or have staying power across the decades. Jeans. Barbeques. Mickey Mouse. Bikinis. Wine.
I’m glad that we have constructed decades as a unit of time. It makes change easy to follow. From radio, to television, to cable, and Netflix. From jazz, to big band, to rock n roll, disco, punk and techno. Decades allow us to follow timely progression in a way that years and centuries cannot. They bring our own experiences into context with a greater whole, and that’s all that history is, being aware of what people have done with their times. I know many people, too many people, who claim to be disinterested in history. They tend to be people who are too busy entertaining current music, fashion, technology, movies and friends to care about it. I urge those people to broaden their horizons, be not so self-centered (time-centered?), and realize that history is simply made up by people just like them, and that if they can appreciate, at least, the ten decades that have come before their own, they can increase the richness of their own stated interests tenfold and better understand the elders with whom they still share the world. In addition to the mistake young people make in thinking they will never get old and boring, is the mistake they make in thinking that old people were never young and hip. History can be exciting. It’s all how you approach it. So, if you’re glued to the “exciting” events of Kim Kardashian’s life, try reading about the life of Mati Hari sometime.
So, as the 20’s dawn upon us (Roaring again?), what can I expect? I can expect to try and do away with the harmful foods of the 20th Century, continue listening to the awesome music of the same said century, try and figure out the warpspeed changes that 5G changes will usher, watch my two boys (9 & 6) learn about the concept of decades for themselves and probably go buy myself the most garish red-plaid pants I can find. Happy New Year!