It's The Little Things
A very young Rebecca DeMornay and Kevin Costner
If you are interested, for some reason, in what the world was like in 1983, you could do worse than look at movies.
I mean, you could do better. But movies are interesting.
That was the year of The Big Chill, and Risky Business. Terms of Endearment blew everyone else out of the water, including Return of the Jedi, Trading Places, and Mr. Mom, but it was still an impressive group effort. Stars were born, or at least confirmed, in 1983, among them Tom Cruise.
But look a little closer. Want another big film? War Games, with Matthew Broderick. A big hit, and much beloved of teenage 80s geeks who are now in their 50s, War Games was a fairly light treatment of a serious subject, mostly a snapshot of a dawning technological era where clever teenage boys (and only boys) could cause all sorts of mischief with these new machines.
But the subject matter tapped into the zeitgeist, and so it became less of a technothriller about a quasi-AI environment where a somewhat sentient computer could put mankind at risk of total devastation (Broderick plays a kid who inadvertently hacks into a Defense Department computer and sets up a nuclear launch countdown) and more of a bad dream about everything blowing up, against our will.
There was a reason for this zeitgeist. It’s not a secret reason, but it may get lost in the years. I remember it well, though, being a young married person and then a young father. Ronald Reagan was president and (imagine this) was known to muse aloud about how nuclear war might be inevitable, even winnable. It was the last heightened Cold War period, which would dwindle and die out in a few years when the Soviet Union dissolved, and it was pretty damn scary.
So look at two films that came out in 1983, within two weeks of each other: The Day After was a harrowing TV movie about a nuclear attack on the United States and how the aftereffects played out for ordinary Americans. It was huge, and while I wasn’t sure I wanted to see it, in those pre-VCR, pre-DVR days it conflicted with something else I wanted to watch. I was better off, I think.
I did see Testament, though. It was playing at the Broadway Theater, just down the street from our first apartment, in those first months in Seattle, and eventually ended up on PBS. Talk about harrowing.
With a similar story to The Day After, Testament told the story of a small northern California town in the aftermath of a massive nuclear attack, sparing this place but devastating most of the big cities, isolating this little community as its population died off from radiation disease. Harrowing is not quite a powerful enough word.
Besides getting the crap scared out of me (and those days were mostly fear anyway), Testament gifted me with a permanent image, its final one: The remnants of a once-happy family, gathered around a kitchen table by candlelight, marking a birthday with a candle in a graham cracker, survivors for the moment. No happy ending, no happy anything, certainly no hope. Just survivors.
This has become my mental go-to graphic for what’s happened to my family over the past 15 years, although not in a tragic way. I remember thinking of it in 2003, when my daughter left for college. The three of us went out to dinner, my wife and my son and I, and I noted that this would be a new thing, from now on. Just the three of us. And it was, of course.
I’ve revisited that image, too. Again, there are none of the morbid overtones from the movie, just a sense of hanging on and changing at the same time. My son still lives with us, but he’s 27 and has successfully navigated his peculiar neurology into something approximating adulthood. He’s independent and frankly a little irritated, I think, to have to endure the senior citizens who still run a lot of his life out of necessity.
And Christmas is different. For years, actually, I went overboard with my son, since he retained a child-like appreciation of Christmas morning and it was fun to watch him get excited over a new Playstation or whatever I spent money on.
The past couple of years, not so much. Very casual, very simple Christmases have become the norm, as happens. My wife and I really didn’t bother with gifts for each other (she did give me underwear, which was much appreciated), planning on shopping together after the fuss died down and having fun that way, although the schedule got in the way.
We still had Christmas. My mother-in-law still sends a small check every year, following in her late husband’s footsteps (his checks used to be huge, and some years necessary), and we refused to fold it into the checking account and used it for a night out, seeing The Last Jedi and then having an elaborate, expensive dinner (first time in forever and it was great, although I’m still reeling from paying $40 for a steak. A really good steak, but y’know).
And of course we headed off to Texas, which cost some money. Shopping would probably get lost in the post-holiday rush, and that would be fine, but then we saw this.
I know. This is crazy. But also significant.
If your household has downsized in the recent past, you completely get this. There are fewer of us, and we have distinct orbits. My son works odd hours and takes care of his own meals, at his own time. My wife is often gone from the early morning until evening, and I’m just bopping around here. Long gone are the days when we ran that dishwasher at least once a day; now it can be a couple of times a week, and it’s easier just to wash the few dishes we use as we use them.
So I saw this stainless steel dish drainer on Amazon, after reading a rave article about it, and showed it to my wife, and we ooohed and aaahed a bit and bought it. Crazy, right? Sixty bucks for a metal thing that does a thing that’s kind of a dumb thing, or at least a minor thing?
So that was Christmas, and it’s been a blast. I love my underwear, I really enjoyed the snow, it was a fun trip, and now my dishes drain onto this special coated surface that beads up water and drains it directly into the sink, so no more brown stains and ugly plastic thing sitting on my counter. That’s my story and I’m sticking to it, how life changes and families become altered and we compensate and adjust. We are survivors, not of nuclear war but of time, and by God our dishes are dry.