“Life is a tragedy full of joy.” – Bernard Malamud, died in ’86

A bit more nostalgia, to set the stage…

Peak Humanity

The 80s were the best time to be a kid. Perhaps everybody feels that way about their formational era, but they’re all wrong. 80’s America was the peak of human civilization; the very highest our species could evolve before we destroyed ourselves with the internet.

The phone on the kitchen wall was the closest thing we had to social media.  Some families had a second phone on the living room end table, where you could dial your friends’ phone number because – get this – it had an actual dial on it; a wheel you spun around to call your friends, as if it were a magical combination lock of communication.

The phone was only available when no one else was using it. But usually, no one else was using it. Because when we were with family, we were actually with family…not wishing we were out with someone else, being noticed by someone else, being fascinating to someone else, earning our place on the planet by creating – no, being – an endless stream of shareable content.

And when we wanted to interact with friends, we actually interacted with friends. We invited them over. Or sometimes they just showed up. And we spent the day with them. Because the person in front of you was the most valuable person at the moment. Nowadays, the person in front of us is just an annoyance of mandatory, occasional eye contact distracting us from the LED overlords that tell us whether or not we’re still worthy of being alive.

Yeah, the 80s were the plateau of humanity. Far from perfect, but about as close as these hairless chimps were gonna get. We actually knew our “friends”, and our neighbors were like family.  The last step before going on any week-or-longer summer vacation was to search for the key to the front door.  We hadn’t used the lock since the previous summer, and we never had anything stolen.

Connections were still local, and our aspirations were global. We could travel through space and be anything we wanted to be, but just being there for your neighbors made you a hometown hero.

Peak Nationality

And America’s hometowns were the best. Not because America was the best in every way. Ethically, we just stayed a little below the global average in committing atrocities against humanity. The difference in America was that we knew for sure we were safe. Say what you want about my Uncle Sam, but he’s not that much worse than his neighbors, and he can sure beat up your uncle if you try to hurt me.

Even better, we were free to live as we pleased, and the national government was still far removed from our every day lives.  In fact, even the local government left us alone unless we hurt someone or took their stuff.  For law-abiding citizens, the post office was about the extent of government overreach. And at 18 cents per stamp, we even distrusted the man at that.

In fact, our government by the people, was so for the people, that over the course of the decade, gas prices slowly fell from $1.19/gallon to 97 cents per gallon!  We protected our constitution vigilantly, and were grateful to the founding fathers who gave it to us, and the Father who gave it to them.  Perhaps no other human will once again experience that perfect a confluence of protection and independence.

Peak Independence

We were the last kids who were free to explore our environment, to risk failure, and learn from our mistakes.  Our questions didn’t have predetermined answers and our world didn’t have a “use as directed” label.

We carried real pocket knives, and they rarely stayed, useless in our pockets.  We biked down the unexplored alleys and made forts in the uncharted fields.  We climbed higher than a modern parent would allow.  Our mommies didn’t buy our treehouses and our daddies didn’t assemble them.  We borrowed the hammer and found the nails, and built our playscapes and fortresses.

We didn’t carry a cell phone, so we couldn’t check in.  If we ever did get lost, there were random phones scattered throughout every city, called “pay phones”, which was why we memorized our home phone number and always carried two dimes when we were traveling too far.

And if we forgot our phone number, every pay phone was equipped with the same tool you could find in every home: an actual book full of phone numbers – all the phone numbers for all the people and all the businesses in the entire city.

And if we forgot our dimes, we could pick up the phone, dial “0” and utter the secret phrase that would allow us to call home for free: “I’d like to reverse the charges.”

(We could also dial POP-CORN to learn the current time, or 1-800-777-FILM and, after hearing, “Hello and welcome to Moviefone!”, learn the time and place of any movie screening anywhere in America.  We could also simply dial 411 for “information”.  What information?  Any information!  A real person would pick up the phone, and, in a world before Wikipedia or Google, they’d consult their reference books and paper resources to get you the information you needed.  The 80s are also when we created the 911 shorthand for emergencies, that you now take for granted.  So, yeah – it’s no wonder Superman stopped into a phone booth before showing off his powers – that was a magical place.)

We roamed free and we rarely wore a watch.  It was fine.  We knew when to be home.  Our stomachs were our alarms, and the street lights were our backup.  During the long summer days, we could easily stay out until 9:00 or 9:30 without getting into trouble, which is why, every night at 10:00, every television channel ran the same PSA: “It’s 10pm.  Do you know where your children are?”  Because it was completely reasonable back then that a responsible parent wouldn’t have yet realized that it was probably time for the kids to come in…an incomprehensible thought in modern times, where there’s rarely 5 minutes that go by that a parent isn’t at their child’s side, doing their work for them, and then giving them a trophy for it.

In the 80s, our parents trusted us, our neighbors were free to discipline us, and our media was looking out for us.

Peak TV

Far from weaponizing our neurotic and addictive impulses against us, our media had built-in physical activity and screen time restrictions.

First of all, if you wanted the volume higher?  You had to walk across the room and turn it up.  Lower?  Walk across the room again.  I’m surprised the TV wasn’t powered by a treadmill.  Channel surfing, just like real surfing, was a crouching activity.  The knobs were too high to reach while sitting, but the TV was too low to see while standing, so your quads paid the price for your indecision.

And then, at bedtime each night, they played the national anthem to the video of an American flag waving in the breeze.  After “the land of the free and the home of the brave”…static.  That was it.  On every channel.  No fomo.  Our species just used to sleep at night.

And while the broadcasting day was active, it was doing its best to help us become better people.

I got into television because I saw people throwing pies at each other’s faces, and that to me was such demeaning behavior. And if there’s anything that bothers me, it’s one person demeaning another.  That really makes me mad!” – Mister Rogers

Of course, Rogers’ PBS buddies helped him on his mission.  Back then, Sesame Street used to actually teach us how to read, write, and count, instead of the pandering nonsense it’s turned into now.  Reading Rainbow was every child’s virtual book club.  Programs like Zoobalee Zoo and Polka Dot Door taught us what is now called “emotional intelligence”.  “Where in the World Is Carmen Sandiego?” taught the geography, and Mr. Wizard taught the science (better than that 90’s fraud, Bill Nye the Knock-Off Guy).  And my favorite, by far, was the math programming of Mathnet on Square One!

In the short commercial breaks where they stopped teaching us what to do, our heroes took a minute to tell us what not to do.

The “Just Say No” campaign had a simple message, but the Partnership For A Drug Free America approached the topic from a different perspective, for those who couldn’t “just” say no.  Our favorite stars handed down their favorite life lessons in “The More You Know” segments, and McGruff taught us how to stay safe from people who might wish us harm.

We did set aside one part of one day for junk TV.  “Saturday morning cartoons” were called that because that’s the only time they were on.  If you slept in, you’d get another shot at it next week.  But even as child-centered TV started maturing into other times of the week, they all seemed to understand: we gotta leave these kids better off by the end of the episode.

Nickelodeon gave us Jeopardy-style trivia on “Double Dare” & “Family Double Dare“.  Even the cheesy entertainment like Duck Tales, Batman (all hail Adam West), or Darkwing Duck had to end with a positive moral we could all apply to our lives.  In fact, PeeWee’s Playhouse (featuring “Cowboy Curtis“, a man we would all later know as “Morpheus”) was basically the original Blues Clues, and that was the more edgy side of our programming.

Speaking of edgy, HBO’s first original series aired in the 80s too, adding to the Jim Henson ethic of child development, with their hit show: Fraggle Rock.  For a more edgy program than HBO, we could watch the superior predecessor to American Ninja Warrior: American Gladiator, which had all the obstacles and physical feats of so-called ninja warriors, but with roided-up heroes with names like “Nitro” and “Gemini” and “Turbo” trying to shoot them down with a tennis-ball Gatling gun, or tear them limb-from limb in the middle of the obstacle course.

Another edgy program was MacGyver, where I learned about flash points, electrical currents, and general problem-solving creativity.  Also, I’ll bet I learned more history and geography from Rocky and Bullwinkle than most modern kids know by the end of elementary school.  And as a music teacher, I can attest to the fact that the Looney Tunes made in the 80s are still a primary source of kids’ classical music repertoire.

Part of the retention of valuable content happened because adults and kids watched TV together. Back then, TV was an event; a touchstone; not a babysitter or pacifier.  TBS gave us Coach, Beverley Hillbillies, and The Waltons, but I remember more about the people I watched my favorite shows with, than the content of the episodes.  Mama loved Perry Mason and Andy Griffith, while Papa watched Murder She Wrote, Wheel of Fortune, and boxing.  Pa would watch Bonanza with me, but Nanny preferred Broadway musicals.

And even though our family didn’t care much for the theme “TGIF” (since the title used the Lord’s name in vain), we loved the shows: Hangin’ with Mr. Cooper, Boy Meets World, Family Matters, Full House, Perfect Strangers – wholesome shows that supported family values, from a variety of role models.  Thank heavens it’s Friday, indeed!

And even though Boone may not have been the epicenter of diversity, through TV, we were exposed to a variety of family types and lifestyles through the wholesome scripts of Webster, the Brady Bunch, and The Cosby Show.

No.  Put your hand down.  I’m not answering that question.

Sure, the man Bill Cosby is equal parts stand-up genius and dehumanizing rapist, but the character of Dr. Heathcliff Huxtable was perhaps the most perfect role model the small screen has ever seen.  And then, something, something, something…black representation.  Whatever.  That conversation is probably relevant to others.  Growing up, I didn’t know he was black.  He wasn’t different from the rest of the TV dads, except he was wiser, more reasonable, and more caring.  A doctor who played basketball and cooked, and had won the authentic affection of his kids as well as his strong, smart, and beautiful wife.  They weren’t the black family.  They were just the happy family.

The Huxtables introduced me to classic jazz and blues and R&B, loves that would continue to this day.  The parents had their own love affair, separate from the kids, though the family loved spending time together.  They supported each others’ sovereign individuality, and helped each other out, even through self-inflicted hard times.  Boundaries.  Love.  Support.  Compassion.  Humor.  For all I’m concerned, there’s never been a more ideal family, on or off the screen.

Then, on Monday, July 1, 1985, as if the world of television wasn’t wholesome enough, the McDonald’s of television – Nickelodeon  – unveiled something called “Nick at Night“.  That’s where I was exposed to the genius of the Reiner brothers and Dick Van Dyke, and his Mrs. Petrie’s 2nd career smash “The Mary Tyler Moore Show“, starring some of the televisions greatest all-stars, from Ed Asner to Betty White to Georgia Engel and many more!

Reaching farther back, The Donna Reed Show was where I first learned about perfect pitch.  I would credit the Twilight Zone for sparking my interest in anything sci-fi, and Dragnet was my first exposure to the shadow side of society.  Get Smart, Mister Ed, Green Acres…the whole night was full of gems, for as late as I could convince my parents to let me stay up with them.

Peak Video Games

Okay – I’ll admit: playing Rocket League with my kids is a far superior experience to anything I had as a kid, but I think that is largely because I’m playing with my own kids.  The game itself doesn’t bring me much more joy than I got from my DOS games like Commander Keen, Scorched Earth, and Oregon Trail.  When augmented with an occasional trip to the now-extinct arcades for some pinball or Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, my ATARI 2600 provided more variety in games than my 2020 Steam account.  From Pitfall to Space Invaders; Joust to Q-Bert and Pole Position; we already had nearly every genre that would be invented.

I will admit that the invention of handheld video games was a major improvement, but even that innovation belongs to the 80s.  We weren’t rich enough to ever own Game Boy. But around the same, Acclaim released single-game devices for $10, so even a kid like me could save up for Arch Rivals, 1943, and N.A.R.C., and thus join the first generation to enjoy a screen on a road trip.

Peak Kay Bee

Like many American kids who grew up in the 80’s, the struggle of my life was finding a way to make it back, just one more time, to the KB Toy Store in the mall.  Sure, I wanted to admire the Super Soakers and the Pound Puppies. But the aisle I knew I could live in happily was the action figures aisle, where, about half way down I could find the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles display. I planted my feet and just stared, as the cowabunga glory shone down upon me. I never left of my own will. My mom always had to tell me it was “time to leave, Min!” (“Min” and “Min Pie” were the pet names she gave me since the name “Jamin” didn’t really lend itself to nicknames. Her brother just shortened it to the first letter, affectionately calling my brother and me “Big J” and “Little J”.)

When I had saved up enough money to actually buy a supporting cast member from the TMNT universe, my mom would allow me to linger a little while longer, as my buyer’s indecision earned me a few more moments in paradise. I could only ever afford the individual characters, but finally getting that flip-top Turtle Van for my birthday was enough to count my childhood as a success on its own.

Peak Candy

Any part of my life that wasn’t spent pursuing toys was focused on the acquisition of candy.  This was part of the reason the child calendar doesn’t count by month, but by holiday.  We start off in February by tolerating the terrible chalk hearts because there’s usually chocolate involved somewhere.  Easter is a smorgasbord of jelly beans and chocolate bunnies and eggs, and it was about the only time of the year a kid could find a malt ball.

Halloween, of course, had those great wax vampire teeth that stained your mouth red and burned your gums with the potent cinnamon flavor.  Unlike the nik-l-nip wax bottles of the 80s, the Halloween teeth had no liquid inside.  The flavored wax was the candy, so it felt more like a flavored toy than a candy you could play with.  Likewise, the Christmas ribbon candy was probably more fun to look at than to eat.

Gum was a big part of my childhood.  I would often leave the candy store with a half dozen different candies, only to realize they were all different versions of gum.  The Bubble Jug had a great, reusable container, and, of course, Bazooka Joe made up for its rock-hard texture with its 5-cent price tag and the plastic-coated collectible comic.  If baseball was in the day’s plans, the shredded Big League Chew would be the gum of choice for obvious reasons, but any other sport would probably be better fueled by Gatorade’s Gatorgum.  For general purposes, we would choose the more rebellious gum: Bubble Tape.

If any non-gum item made it into my bag, it was probably Lik-m-aid Fun Dip or a roll of those candy buttons, that never seemed to properly peel off their roll of paper.  Candy necklaces were great too, but it was best to wrap it around your wrist.  Homophobia wouldn’t see its heyday until the 90s, but we still had plenty of cootie-phobia, and legend had it, that if you wore it on your neck, you were a girl.

Sadly, the Saf-t-pops, with the twisted paper loop-handle that the bank gave out for free were commonly considered “baby” candy.  So, despite their timeless enjoyability, we had a limited time to appreciate them without social repercussions.

Of course, legend also had it that if you found an Indian and a star on your Tootsie pop wrapper, you won $10,000.  By the time I had about a half a million dollars worth of wrappers saved up, I figured maybe some of my friends’ “facts” were really myths.

Peak Myth

The one show we probably could have benefitted from was Myth Busters.  Growing up in the 80s was a dangerous place, if only in our imaginations.  But as it turns out,

  • I didn’t actually swallow 7 spiders a year in my sleep.
  • My vision was never improved by eating carrots, and I could have watched TV as close as I wanted without damaging my eyes.
  • Cracking my knuckles did not give me arthritis.
  • The gum I accidentally swallowed did not stay in my stomach for 7 years, nor did the watermelon seeds I ate sprout in my intestines.
  • I would not have been struck by lightning if I had taken a shower during a thunder storm, nor did I prevent illness by waiting an hour after eating before I swam.

But the biggest betrayals always come from the adults.  In the 80s, they mistakenly told us:

  • You only use 10 percent of your brain.
  • Dogs only see black and white.
  • Your tongue has different sections for different tastes.

Most surprisingly of all, it’s totally legal to keep a reading light on while driving at night.

Peak Reading

My kids ride their Hot Wheels Cadillac on the street in front of our house, and their faces seem to say, “I’m driving on the road, just like dad; in my very own car, just like dad!”  That’s the same pride I felt when I went to the doctor or the dentist as a kid.

No one had mobile screens, so all the adults sat, newspaper or New Yorker in hand.  I walked over to the same table and selected my reading materials: Highlights for Kids, National Geographic for Kids, Sports Illustrated for Kids, and usually a few Zoobooks thrown in for good measure.  I was reading, just like the parents, and I was actually enjoying it!

Of course, the 80s were also the height of the “Choose Your Own Adventure” books, perhaps the greatest innovation in children’s literature since the inclusion of illustrations.  Not only was it a new way to read, it was a massive inspiration to young writers.  For the first time, we were given permission to question the artistic choices of the authors.  Maybe a story wasn’t only written by professionals, who made all the stories the “good” way.  Maybe we could make equally valid stories too!  It was a wonderfully intoxicating idea.

Peak Wonder

It was all wonderful, because the 80s was the last decade of wonder.  As in, “I wonder…how many homeruns did Babe Ruth hit in his career?” which exists in a whole other universe from, “Alexa, how many homeruns did Babe Ruth hit in his career?”  That one word desecrates the magic of curiosity and drags it by the hair, down, down it into the infinitely forgettable realm of mere trivia.

When you wondered, the thought sometimes expanded into an expressed question, and your friends could chime in with their guesses, wrong as they might seem.  You called them crazy and debated what the answer might be.  Then you asked your mom and dad, who also had no idea, but offered some guesses of their own…and reasons for their guesses…and related baseball stories.

“…and you know who you should ask is your Uncle Mike!  He knows everything about sports,” they would say.  But since it was August, and Uncle Mike only came around during the holidays, you hoped for an earlier answer.  You wondered.  You let curiosity grow.

And then you asked your mom to drive you to the internet, which, back then, was called the library.  Navigating your way, perhaps with some help from a kindly librarian, to the baseball section, you endured the frustration of having to look at book spine after book spine, running your finger across them, one at a time, to be sure you didn’t accidentally skip the one you were searching for.

And then, if you were lucky, you were rewarded with the excitement of finding a book you think might have what you’re looking for.  Maybe a baseball almanac.  Maybe a Babe Ruth biography.  Maybe a book on the history of baseball.  And then you had to skim through it to find the stat you were looking for.  Maybe you would find it.  Maybe not.  But no matter what, you were going to learn a lot of unexpected things along the way.

In fact, your finger was probably going to run across a spine with words like, “Ty Cobb – the best to play the game” and you’d wonder again, “Why haven’t I heard of ‘the best to play the game‘?  Who is Ty Cobb and what’s in those pages that I could use to impress my friends?  Maybe if I don’t learn about Babe Ruth’s records here, at least next time I can say, ‘Babe Ruth wasn’t nothin!  Ty Cobb was the best to play the game!‘  ‘Tie’ Cobb?  ‘Tee’ Cobb?  I wonder how to say his name.”

And so you asked people questions.  And you picked up an extra book here and there – and there and there – that you hadn’t even intended to look for.  Because going to the library in the 80s was like grocery shopping when you’re hungry, except you were always hungry, the content was free, and the more you consumed, the better person you became.

That’s what Alexa and Google and all those other wonderful, soul-destroying modern tools are missing!  In addition to crushing curiosity, preventing collaboration, hindering our aural history, and diminishing agency, instant answers have dissolved the life-enriching serendipity of finding the things we weren’t looking for.

Like a bakery that decided to forsake their art form and menu in favor of just ladling out bowls of white sugar, our modern ease of access to information has forsaken stories and discovery in favor of facts and trivia, and I’m afraid there’s no going back.  I’m sure we would revolt if our digital info IV’s started providing healthy learning environments, with answers like, “Babe Ruth hit 714 homeruns, but I also want to tell you about Ty Cobb…”

“No!  Alexa!  Shut up!  I got what I needed.  Geez!  I don’t need Asian corn recipes!  I should have just asked Siri!”

Peak Fast Food

As a piano teacher, I’ve played Fur Elise 4.3 million times.  Per month.  For the last 20 years.  And nearly every time, I flash back a little bit to the first time I heard that song, before I had played any songs, and determined that someday, I would learn how to play something that beautiful.  So I’d be lying if I said McDonald’s doesn’t have a special place in my heart.

In honor of the year I was born, McDonald’s started the decade off on the right foot by releasing the Chicken McNugget.  Ignoring the hacky standup routines about the concept of ‘nugget’, these things were undeniably amazing.  I remember sitting on a hamburger bar stool, savoring the crunchy exterior and hot inner goodness of the Chicken McNugget.  It was a revelation to us all.  We could easily intuit the best way to dip each of the four shapes (boot, ball, bell, and bone…and we all agreed the ball was the least fun). And for most of us, McNugget sauce was the gateway to the word “BBQ”.

If that’s all they did for the world, it would have been enough.  But just two years earlier they prepared the way with the Happy Meal, with a toy inside!  And not these new, crappy toys that have to be safe for any idiot that would slip, choke, or poke themselves and sue the profits out of our food prophets.  No, these were real toys that were really fun to play with!  Real Transformers, California Raisins, and Muppet Babies. Working bath toys, pencil boxes and collectible glasses.

Not the kind of branded crap you get for free from the fair at the chiropractor’s pop-up tent. Real toys!   At Christmas, they gave us ornaments; at Halloween: trick-or-treat buckets, just because, apparently, they loved us.  McDonalds also gave me my first record (the only square record I ever owned).

And toys aside, we still wanted to go, because McDonalds Play Places – even the ones built in the 80s – were vastly superior to even modern-day public playgrounds.  We had gargantuan slides, working carousels and merry-go-rounds, hamburger towers, rockable Grimace prisons, and talking trees.

They even gave free tours, including the walk-in freezer, for anyone celebrating their birthday there.  Finally!  A restaurant that was looking out for the kids.

Think I’m exaggerating?  Search Ronald McDonald House.  Or take for example, the fact that clown Ronald McDonald – the mascot for whom the chain is named – stopped being a part of their brand during the killer clown hoax of 2016.  What other company would abandon their mascot and namesake, even when they didn’t have to, just to make some kids feel a little more comfortable?

Following McDonalds’ lead, Burger King got in on the admittedly profitable 80s trend of looking out for kids, with their Kids Club, which was some of the genre’s first representation of African Americans and normalization of kids with disabilities.

Dominoes Pizza only provided us with the entertainment of the Noid.  But come to think of it, Pizza Hut was looking out for us back then too. Sure, I loved the food and the video games there, but we visited many a time for school too. It was thanks to their “Book-It!” program that I fell in love with reading, with books like Indian in the Cupboard, Judy Blume and Amelia Bedelia. I came for the personal pan, I stayed for the love of learning.

Peak Invention

Nothing new has been invented since the 80s.  The only real invention of any value is that magical yellow line of scrimmage on NFL broadcasts.  Everything else has just been a reiteration of an old idea, and we’ve sold our souls for the repackaged ideas. In the 80s…

  • We invented the internet.  It just required a cord and didn’t ruin our brains.
  • We invented the omni-present camera.  It was the Polaroid Sun.  It printed our pictures immediately, and hackers weren’t spying through them while we showered.
  • We invented the iPod.  It was called the Sony Walkman Sports WM-B52, and from the first generation it was waterproof and virtually impossible to crack the screen.
  • We invented smart homes.  It was called the Clapper, and it didn’t record your private conversations and sell them to evil overlords.
  • We invented Google.  It was called “Information”, and the phone number was 411.
  • We invented virtual reality and gesture control it was called the Power Glove.  We also had the Power Pad for sports and the Zapper for hunting and first person shooters.  And not only did we invent in-game bots, we invented the in-person bot named R.O.B., who sat next to you and worked the second controller for you.

You only have Photoshop and iPads because we gave you the Atari Artist.  You have thumb drives because we gave you floppy disks, but ours were bendable and fun to throw.

You’re impressed that you can figure out your tip on your iWatch, but Casio let me do that 30 years before, and my battery lasted a full 3 years.  And if you’ve ever been grateful that you could let a call go to voicemail, your gratitude is for Kazuo Hashimoto and his 1983 US Patent 4,616,110.[19] for the first digital answering machine.

And nowadays, if you roll your ankle in basketball, the doctor will give you an inflatable cast.  That was an invention we built right into our Reeboks, and our sports stars encouraged us to “Pump it up“.

Peak Sports

Anyone who doesn’t understand that the 80s was the last great era of American sports either doesn’t care, or was locked away in a monastery for the last decades.  So I’ll try not to get too far into the weeds here, but if you don’t know, now you know, vicar.

Michael Jordan was as good at what he did, as anyone has ever been, at anything they ever did.  Period.  End of argument.

And most of the objections, wrong as they may be, would be examples from other 80s athletes.  Joe Montana, Magic Johnson – names synonymous with their sports.  Bo Jackson was perhaps not even a human: a record-breaking MLB All-Star during the baseball season, and in the off season, a Heisman Trophy-winning running back.


One of the superheroes who hung on my wall.

Of course, Wayne Gretzky was so superior in his sport, they don’t even try to compete with his legacy.  Ever since he retired, the only record you can set in hockey is “the highest number of [stat] …except for Greztky, of course.”  Points, goals, assists – in almost every stat, he’s got nearly twice as many as the 2nd place leader to this day.  Even more miraculously, the only stat he doesn’t lead is “minutes played”.  You’ll have to scroll down to the 24th guy to see the ice messiah’s name on that leader board.

Yeah, this one too.

Kids of the 80s got to actually watch all the guys you’ve never heard of, but who maxed out the potentials of the sport – guys like Ozzie Smith, Julius Irving, Mike Tyson, Kareem Abdul Jabar, Jerry Rice, Sugar Ray Leonard, and Lawrence Taylor.  It’s like God forgot He had scheduled the progress apocalypse for the 90s, so at the last minute, He just tossed in the fortunes of leftover talent that He hadn’t spent yet.

These guys, too…pre-roids

Sure, there would be other superheroes who would knock them off their pedestals. Jose Canseco and Mark McGuire would reign as the Bash Brothers until Barry Bonds topped them.  Lance Armstrong made the Tour De France look like bicycling, on steroids!  The so-called greats from the 90s and beyond would make it into the sports hall of fame, but they all have asterisks next to their names because the 80s heroes were the last full humans to play the sport.  After that, records weren’t set by athletes, but by their pharmacists.

In the 80s, it was understood that such sins were not allowed.  Athletes weren’t just performers, they were role models.  Our moms and dads actually wanted us to look up to our heroes, which is why so many of our parents were upset when Charles Barkley seemed confused about his position in the 90s.  Most athletes took their responsibility seriously.  It was just a part of our cultural contract.

Peak Culture

The 80s was also the last time our species really shared a common culture. Nowadays, I have a hard time connecting with even my neighbor. We don’t watch the same shows, listen to the same music, or know the same “celebrities”. We don’t get the same jokes or get the same news.  We live in our virtual subcultures, along with an unknown mix of avatars and bots, each competing in the 21st century gold rush for attention.

In the 80s, our acceptance was near universal, because we all shared things in common. We actually had a culture back then.  We bought the same cassette tapes from the same music stores. And when we didn’t know the lyrics, we all did the same thing: pulled out the cassette insert, unfolded it, found the song, hit the “re-wind” button (that actually “re-wound” the spool), and practiced singing along!

We all rode our same Huffy bikes together down the street, like a miniature, baseball-obsessed biker gang. And we all had the same, sun-faded, neon beads on our spokes, so we sounded like an orchestra of rain sticks each time we rolled to a stop.

Each of us wore at least a half dozen rubber bands as bracelets, and at whichever house we stopped, every mom seemed to have an endless supply of Fla-vor-Ice popsicles (the orange tastes the best, but don’t let on, and there will be one left, after all the little kids have picked the more visually stunning red, pink, and blue).

At Halloween, Thanksgiving, and Christmas, we all watched the same movies on TV – somehow, all starring Jimmy Stewart or Snoopy. And we all owned that impossible-to-crank Snoopy sno-cone machine, with the impossible-to-squeeze snowman flavor dispenser, with the red rubber hat, and the useless (and perpetually misplaced) red snow shovel.

We all ate the same candies, and then we all brushed our teeth with Crest Sparkle Motion (“Now available in a clear tube!“). Then, when we lost those teeth, they were always stored in the same, neon, plastic treasure chests.

Our friends were our friends, our enemies were few, and we belonged.

Yeah.  Growing up in the 80’s was the best.

Peak Problems

Or maybe it just seemed that way was because I was just a kid. My parents and I lived in very separate 80s.

After all, the 80’s was also the decade we were promised we would all die of a new, inescapable death sentence called AIDS.  And for the few who survived, mad cow disease was also spreading throughout the world, with no cure in sight.

But world-wide pandemics had a harder time getting the spotlight in the 80’s, since the grim reaper was on-call for a little thing called the Cold War, where the world’s leaders stood in a circle with nuclear guns pointed at each other’s heads for the entire decade.  Tensions were high enough that we didn’t let Americans travel to Moscow, even to participate in the Olympics. Russia returned the insult four years later by boycotting our Olympics in Los Angeles.

…except, “Russia” was still the “Soviet Union”. That’s right – a whole collection of nations actually named ‘We are united in Communism.’  That ended about how you’d expect: the same way it always does. But it wasn’t clear how much of the world would be enveloped in a mushroom cloud as it collapsed.

In fact, if you were a kid in that era, your school regularly ran aid raid drills, where they pretended that a nuke had been dropped in your city.  The protocol to protect yourself from an atomic bomb was – get this – hiding from the nuke under your desk!  Seriously.  I don’t even know why they ran the drills, other than to keep reinforcing, by metaphor: the 80s want to kill you, and there’s literally nothing you can do about it.

While the world governments were promising to end all of humanity, the rest of the world was shaping up to be pretty death-y themselves.  The sand-covered triangle of Iran, Iraq, and Afghanistan hosted wars that killed millions and cost trillions.  Then, more innocents were slaughtered in a square called “Tienamen“.  And then these cylinder-shaped things got pretty hot in the city of Chernobyl.

Earth was a chaotic place.  So it just made sense when unprecedented acts of God added to the noise; things like the Japanese earthquake and tsunami, or the record-setting implosion/explosion of Mt. St. Helens.  In fact, the 80’s was also when scientists first starting warning us of something called, “global warming,” a problem we all acknowledged and solved straight away.

Shortly after learning that fossil fuels were probably turning our planet into a toilet bowl, the grand environmentalists at the Exxon corporation treated it like one, dumping 11 million gallons of oil into the ocean.  Exxon wasn’t shut down, nor were they forced to suspend operations.  But to be fair, they took to the microphone and “took full responsibility” for the learning experience.

The ship’s captain, Joseph Hazelwood, who was drunk at the time and had given the wheel to his unlicensed buddy, evaded all charges except a single instance of misdemeanor negligence, carrying the penalty of 1,000 hours of community service (which didn’t quite clean up the whole mess) and a fine of $50k, or approximately 1.5 cents per wildlife initially killed in the spill.  Not that the wildlife complained, since they couldn’t have spent the money anyway.  But still, otter prices have never been lower.  (Subsequent deaths are incalculable, since the oil covered a habitat half the size of the United States, and fundamentally altered the environments far beyond.)

Good news, though: 35 years later, Exxon environmentalists are optimistic that we’re probably over half way done cleaning it up.  I think they may have even sent a Hallmark card to the wildlife, “Sorry someone put an Exxon your habitat.  Get well soon-ish.  Here’s 3 cents to split with your neighbor.”

Maybe it wasn’t all their fault.  It was a spill-prone season for humanity.  Another of the top 10 worst chemical disasters in human history happened earlier that decade, when a pesticide plant in India leaked toxic gas, poisoning everything in the vicinity, and directly killing about 15,000 people.

Being gassed to death isn’t a great way to go, but being starved to death is no treat either.  Just ask the Ethiopians of the 80s.  Over a million of them slowly rotted away during one of the world’s great famines.  You know those ’85 Live Aid concerts you’ve seen on YouTube with epic performances by Queen (and other headliners you haven’t heard of like Elton John, Led Zeppelin, and David Bowie)?  Those were emergency fundraisers for Ethiopia, a nation really putting the “die” in “diet”.

But it wasn’t just mother nature and the superpowers that flew off the rails.  The common man got in on the action too.  “Terrorism” wasn’t a rare word, saved for some tragedy that happened over there.  It was just another checkbox on the coroner’s possible causes of death.  Terrorists in the 80’s were as common in America as spiders in your house: they show up more than you’d like, but you try not to think about how many there really are.  And if they teamed up, they could probably get all of you to leave before you could get all of them to leave.

One form of terrorism, plane hijacking, was terrifyingly common in the 80s, which might as well just be called “the plane-jacking decade”.  Most memorably, the New York-bound Pan Am Flight 103 was blown up four days before Christmas in 1988.  But according to Wikipedia, “Between 1978 and 1988, there were roughly 26 incidents of hijackings a year.”  Just one of those things that happens every couple weeks, I guess.  Not much you can do about it.

The cockpit was visible to anyone on the plane who hung their head into the aisle and looked straight forward, as long as they could see through the smoking section of the aircraft. (yeah – those “no smoking” lights didn’t use to stay on, and the whole 80s just generally smelled like cigarettes.)  Commercial air travel was newly affordable, and doors apparently hadn’t been invented yet.  If you had a kid on the plane, it was a common practice to take him up to the pilot and snap a few pics on your Kodak Ektralite.  If he was a good boy, he could just stay up there, as could any adult who just wanted to nerd out on the control panel…or slit the pilot’s throat.

And more common than hijackings?  Bombings.  All in all, the 80s saw over 500 political and religious terrorist attacks on American soil.  And never mind foreign foes.  At least 125 of those were just us terrorizing ourselves.  We were sending them to each other through the mail, throwing them over fences, and driving them through the front door.  It seems like every county had its own collections of angry Americans getting all explode-y on their enemies.

And we weren’t even the high-point for the world.  Forensics were newly born, but ballistics were mature, so the 80s were the goldilocks zone for revenge and coercion on earth.

That’s probably why there were so many assassinations in the 80’s.  Ghandi: assassinated.  India’s Prime Minister: assassinated.  John Lennon: assassinated in 1980, and about 2 years later, the Lennon of soul, Marvin Gaye, was shot and killed.  On his birthday.  By his dad!  Even the Pope was nearly killed in an assassination attempt!

Ammunition was cheap and security was apparently low, so the 80s was open hunting season on famous people.  Wait around long enough, and you’d get your shot at someone.  That seemed to be the philosophy of John, who set out to show his sociopathic gun-love to recent nip-slip and foot fetish queen, the barely-legal Jodie Foster.  But fortunately for her, he got distracted when he found out President Reagan was in town. So he made a quick detour and easily dealt what would have been a fatal bullet wound in any other medical era.

He’s out now, by the way.  John.  Not President Reagan.  Reagan’s dead.  John is walking around, a free man, as long as he super duper promises not to directly contact Jodie or the remaining Reagans.  That’s how insane the 80s were.  Parole panels look back and say,

“You tried to assassinate the president?  You killed a guy and shot 3 more?  Oh, but it was the 80s, you say?  That’s not actually that bad, given the circumstances.”

Our celebrities were getting in on the murder too.  We weren’t allowed to watch Diff’rent Strokes any more after the star shot his coke dealer.  Fortunately his lawyer was able to get him the same “juice-tice” he got for his later clients, and that the star of the 80s smash hit “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off” got when he killed a couple women with a car.  Not in the movie; in real life.  (He’s still walking around too.  Not the women.  They’re still dead.)

But maybe the murders of famous people just got more attention.  In 1980, America took first place in homicide rates of any developed country.  Second place was Northern Ireland, with about half as many as we had.  First again!  In fact, in Miami, the corpses were piling up so quickly, law enforcement had to rent refrigerated trailers from Burger King to store the bodies until they could be processed.

But at least when you heard someone was shot, there was a chance they would survive.  Not so for the other news stories of the decade.  When the Challenger exploded, we knew we had just watched an entire crew of national heroes disintegrate before the whole nation’s eyes.

In fact, it seemed that watching people die on live broadcast TV was a staple of the 80s.  Not because the news channels were more gore-prone than they are now.  They were definitely less so.  It was just hard to point a camera in a direction where death wasn’t happening.

For example, I remember we were all innocently watching the World Series when the earth opened up to swallow the city of San Francisco, fragment its traffic-filled bridges, and topple the occupied structures in perhaps the most heavily-populated metropolis in the nation.

The buildings weren’t the only things falling.  Have you ever noticed that market analysts say, “This is the worst it’s been since the 1980’s”?  Have you ever heard of Black Monday?  Those are the same thing.  The stock market crashed in 1987, and rather than standing out, it fit right in.

All our structures were crumbling in the 80s.  Religious pillar Jim and Tammy Bakker were found to be embezzlers and rapists.  A year later, God’s #2 guy, Jimmy Swaggart, admitted he was soliciting prostitutes.  And although the Catholic church’s child rape decades-long scandals wouldn’t surface for a couple more decades, that math checks out to make the 80s the prime time for pedophiles to pick God as their pimp.

So it was almost a relief when a man of God committed a non-sexual sin.  Like superstar evangelist Oral Roberts, who told his followers in a pledge-a-thon that God would kill him if they didn’t raise eight million dollars.  They raised nine, so God’s wrath was abated, and Roberts used the money for a Beverly Hills mansion.  That was still $8M shy of the total price, but it helped with the down payment.  Not a rapist!  “Praise the Lord!”  (Actually, that’s a whole other scandal.)

Outside the church, the idols were falling as well.  We learned our music stars Milli Vanilli were frauds, and the most dedicated man to play professional sports, Pete Rose, received a lifetime ban for gambling.  And it’s not like the church had a monopoly on covering up child porn and statutory rape. Just ask Corey Feldman.

On a related note, if a 14 year-old model says to you, “You wanna know what comes between me and my favorite jeans? Nothing.”  …um…run.  Especially if she frequently speaks in a breathy voice while inexplicably doing yoga poses, and especially if she was the star of a mainstream incest flick the year before (the directors claim the fully-nude scenes utilized a body double for the newly-pubescent actress, though the mostly-nude scenes definitely did not).

At least she got paid for her nude videos.  Johnny B. Goode‘s author was bad enough to set up a video camera in his restaurant’s bathroom, caching a video collection of naked girls of all ages.  (Oh – and there was some assault in there too.  The marijuana charges stuck.  The rest you’ll only find under the rug, a place that the first African American Miss America would love to have left her nude photos, so she could have avoided being stripped of her title.)

So, in any other decade, it should have been alarming when our version of Anonymous dressed in a rubber mask and hijacked our airwaves, but it was mostly just entertaining.  The truth is, we should have seen it coming, with all the psychics and fortune tellers (and phone sex hotlines) who advertised their 1-900 numbers on our daytime kids shows.  The 80’s were not worried about what they were doing to us kids.

Even our parents were experimenting on us.  The 80’s were the decade where moms decided en masse that the breast milk that had been doing an unimaginably complex job for 178 million years could probably just be eliminated in favor of a novel, manufactured chemical approximation.  The results were, surprisingly, only mildly catastrophic.

And If you’ve never heard of “trans fats”, that’s because the Food and Drug Administration deemed them “unsafe to eat” and banned them in the United States.  If you just lump trans fats together, that’s called “margarine”, and it’s all we were only allowed to eat as a substitute for butter (which had been a perfectly safe part of human diets for about 9,000 years).

Companies were using 80’s kids as guinea pigs too.  The first mail I remember getting was from a less-than-ethical company called Columbia House.  They allowed kids like me to enter into a contract where we got to order 12 albums for free (with no royalties paid to any of the artists).  In exchange, we were obligated to send them a rejection letter every month or else they would send us a crappy CD we didn’t want and charge us $22 each time.  Indefinitely.

So it’s almost no wonder that cigarettes were explicitly marketed to kids, and sold in pull-knob vending machines next to the candy machines in almost every restaurant lobby.  They were probably trying to do us kids a favor by getting us off this planet a little sooner.  Even though it was known for decades that cigarettes killed us, Congress let them advertise to kids until some of the world’s chaos settled down in the 90’s.

And they must have colluded with the major assembly lines, because I even had my very own ashtray and working cigarette lighter in every car we owned.  The car came from the factory like that, just built right into my door or the seat in front of me.  Seatbelts included?  Not always.  Smoking accessories? Of course.

But at least the nicotine was less dangerous than what our government was pushing on us.  Crack cocaine was first synthesized 1983, and almost immediately, the CIA fueled gang rivalries by flooding the drug market with the new stimulant.

One of the dealers they supplied was “Freeway” Rick Ross, who raked in about $2 million per week in his unofficial government job, which also funneled money to South American guerilla armies.  And compared to his competitors in government, the courts decided that a drug dealing kingpin was actually the more noble of the public servants (some things never change), as several members of Congress were indicted in 1986 for illegally selling our weapons to our enemies.

And perhaps it is only in this horrific context that a person can finally see how any corporation could rationalize the most inhumane atrocity foisted upon Americans in the 80s: New Coke.

Being A Kid

But none of that existed in my reality. I took for granted my ubiquitous, deep connections, just as much as I now take for granted drinkable water and breathable air.  The nation in which I lived – in my head – was safe, sacred, and simple.

I think maybe that’s what we mean when we talk about the “good ol’ days”. Maybe that’s when our country was great for each of us – the days we remember, that never really happened.  Maybe in reality, the world is better for all of us now than it’s ever been, but it’s not as good for any of us as when we were innocent.

Maybe it’s true that some valuable babies really have been thrown out with the racist, homophobic, toxic bathwater.  But maybe some of our American nostalgia isn’t so much for the prejudice, war, and inequality of the past, but for our own ignorance, before we partook of the knowledge of good and evil.

And I think that’s why some of the reactionary puritanism makes more sense in retrospect.  Our parents were understandably afraid, and they probably let that fear shape more of their choices than they should have.  And that made for a very unique experience for Christian kids of the 80’s.

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Christian Kids of the 80s