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Friday, June 15, 2012

What is a payphone, and other unexpected questions

“Look, Mummy!”

My three year old was pointing insistently at something. I could see nothing untoward – trees, an apartment building, a guy mowing the lawn. Little Sister dragged me towards the man for a closer look – but why? He was an average-looking guy wearing a t-shirt and shorts.

It finally dawned on me that Little Sister had never before seen a lawnmower.

Different feelings washed over me in that moment. I was excited at Little Sister’s excitement (imagine discovering a fantastically noisy machine that before your eyes was turning a bunch of overgrown weeds into a smooth green carpet!) At the same time, I was completely taken aback and a bit sad.  I grew up watching my dad mow the lawn in our backyard with our rickety old Victa. The weekend chorus of lawnmower engines and the intoxicatingly fresh, green smell of newly-cut grass are enduring memories from my Brisbane childhood.

My children have grown up in apartment buildings. In Tokyo we lived on the 28th floor and our apartment building was surrounded by concrete. We didn’t escape the concrete when we moved to a neighbourhood in central Helsinki, and here the ground is also covered in snow for half of the year. Lawnmowers are not thick on the ground.

My kids aren’t deprived children, and yet, for a moment I couldn’t help feeling that they were missing out on something.

And then…

Earlier this week, we were listening to Maroon 5’s latest song, and Big Sister asked, “Mummy, what’s a payphone?”

Seriously?

Actually, it is completely possible that she has never seen a public phone being used. She was born in 2005. By that year, most people owned a cellphone – one that could also take photos and connect to the internet.

Big Sister and I talked about the concept of a static phone inside a glass box that a person could pay money to borrow. We talked about a time before cellphones - when the only phones we had were attached to the ground, and payphones were therefore a big part of life. She was blown away at the thought that, back in the day, you couldn’t just call someone anywhere and anytime you chose. First you had a find a phone, and then you had to call at a time when your call-ee was actually at home. It never seemed like a problem at the time, but now it would be a struggle to go back to those days.

I started thinking about other things that I remember fondly from my childhood, but are mysteries to my kids.

Cassette tapes

Far from the ease of playlists on iPods or PCs, back then making a mixed tape was a time-consuming labour of love. Fast-forwarding to the exact starting point of a favourite song was an art form. And remember how sometimes the tape recorder “ate” your tape? Painstakingly, you’d untangle the chewed-up, crinkly mess of tape and coax it back in to the cassette, hand-winding the cogs with your pinky finger. 

Film Cameras

My first camera was absolutely non-digital and non-automatic. After snapping a photo, I had to wind on the film with a little thumb-operated wheel, and when the roll was finished I used another little wheel to hand-wind the film back into its case. One time, a newly-loaded roll of film freed itself from the little teeth that anchored it to the winding wheel, and stopped winding on. Blissfully unaware of this, I took 36 photos all on top of each other.

Looking through my photo albums, it’s easy to see the point where I switched to digital. Suddenly, photos are consistently in focus, subjects have their eyes open, and there are no huge pinkish thumb-blobs in the corners. The instant gratification offered by digital cameras and their display screens – like being able to take endless Polaroids until you got the shot you wanted – was nothing short of miraculous.

All the same, I miss that moment of collecting a packet of developed photos, and flicking through them, elated at seeing photos I’d forgotten I’d taken and which had come out perfectly, and thoroughly dejected when a wonderful memory was blurred to buggery. Once, I found a forgotten roll of film in the back of a drawer, and the photos that we developed from it – of the first neighbourhood where we lived in Tokyo – were a poignant surprise.

Street Directories

Remember those days before Google Maps and GPS? We used big thick books of maps, and we had to figure out our own routes. It was always a bit tricky if you were trying to drive and navigate at the same time – did you balance the UBD precariously on the steering wheel and swerve in a hair-raising manner as you tried simultaneously to drive and map-read? or did you leave it open on the passenger seat, scrabbling for it at red lights and invariably having it slither onto the floor in a heavy flickering of pages…

The milkman

My childhood bedroom was right next to the front door, and early every morning I’d be aware of the milkman’s hurried jog-walk up our front path, the jingling of the glass milk bottles in his little wire carrier, and the scraping sound as he picked up a handful of coins from the doorstep.

In summer, you couldn’t sleep in too late unless you first rescued the milk, which could already be a write-off by as early as 8am – gloppy, sour, and smelling faintly of sick.

We always fought over who would get to keep the shiny foil milk bottle tops. If you were careful, you could prise them off intact, and flatten the edges to make play-money coins.

It makes me feel old to think of all these things that were once so much a part of life, but are now either endangered species, or well and truly extinct. Other memorable things, though, have somehow survived and have made it into my children’s lives – corner stores that sell lollies and popsicles, HB pencils with erasers on the ends, giant chalks for drawing on concrete, movie theatres, ferries, and hula hoops. Rocks found in the park are still glittering treasures. Blowing dandelions’ white fluff into the breeze is still thrilling. Cracking eggs into cake mixture is still immensely satisfying.

There are so many new things, too, that I’m delighted to see here in time for my kids’ childhoods – DVD players, high-quality digital cameras for capturing memories, and of course, the computer, which in our house plays the role of radio, CD player, source of printable colouring pages, and (thanks to email and Skype) the means of sharing our life with friends on the other side of the world. 

The world keeps on moving. Some things change, some stay the same, but the world remains full of wonder and satisfaction. 

25 comments:

  1. I still have a milkman deliver my milk everyday. We have a shelf full of Melbourne street directories that OH refuses to part with. I guess we are old! Our village still has a pay phone box, although its not the glorious red metal one now, it's all glass. And whose turn it is to mow the lawn is a regular source of irritation! I guess we live in the country!

    I would take your kids on a country vacation so they 'experience' grass, cows, hay fever, flies, nettle stings, soured milk and crap Internet connections. Then you can all run back to the town thankful you don't live in the past ;)

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    1. Aw, don't run down your lovely country life! I've seen the photos on your website. You live in a veritable paradise! I think at times we all just feel nostalgia and longing for the things we don't have. My kids, having lived their whole lives in city apartments, keep begging to go camping. I am keen to take them - maybe even this summer - but while I'm sure it will be as exciting for them as they imagine, I'm guessing it will also be a huge shock to their little city-kid systems!

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  2. I had to explain to my seven-year old that there was once a time when mobile phones didn't actually have cameras, and were just for making calls and the occasional text. She looked at me like I was potty.

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    1. I actually still use an almost-10-year-old Nokia that doesn't have a camera function. I will give in one day and buy an iPhone, but I feel somehow fiercely loyal towards this little phone that has held out so long. My six-year-old still doesn't believe me when I insist that it can't take photos. No wonder - my phone has become the exception to the rule!!

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  3. I like your conclusion. Your children are as happy at their age as you were, and that's what matters. It is natural to look back on our childhoods and to try and recreate the same conditions for our children. (Your Christmas tradition post comes to mind too.) I also have a strong sense of wanting to share my experience as a child with my own children, but like you I am coming to understand that they will create their own experiences, and their own memories. Your writing on this post was very evocative - a pleasure to read for those of us who remember similar experiences.

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    1. Thanks for your warm words. My children love to hear stories of what I did and what toys/things I had when I was a child, but like you, I often find they aren't particularly interested in replicating those experiences! Maybe that's all for the best, since the world they live in really is very different from our childhood world. I do like to throw in little things here and there - teaching them a game we played as children (or showing my older one a clip of Danger Mouse on youtube!) - but I'm no longer sad/disappointed if they aren't interested. These are MY memories, after all. Better to blog about them, and share them with people who have a similar sense of nostalgia!

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  4. I still like to buy disposable cameras every now and again just for the thrill of getting them developed and seeing how it turns out and some of my favourite photos were taken with one! Not many people understand why but I like having a physical photo album holding my memories. It is odd to think what our children will miss out on but as you say as long as they are happy thAt is all that matters x

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    1. Bex, I didn't know it was still possible to buy disposable cameras! How awesome! I really like photo albums too, and so do my children (I guess because they are more accessible to small people). After family holidays, I let my older child choose her favourite photos and we have them developed, and she makes her own album out of them. She enjoys this so much! Sometimes the old ways still have lots of merit :)

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  5. I think every parent experiences this, although technology does seem to be advancing at a faster rate than at other times in history. If you've ever watched a recent tv drama series (from HBO, for example) on DVD rather than as they air on television, you can usually tell what season/series you're watching by what the cell phones look like alone. And when your kids are adults, they'll have good times talking about "those old 'smart phones' people used to have" when they were little. :)

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    1. Good grief, can you imagine that one day iPhones will be completely obsolete... but no doubt they will! You're so right about tv shows. Sex and the City is a prime example. Often they still talk on home phones (we don't even have a landline at our home any more!) and in earlier episodes Carrie doesn't have a cellphone and still uses payphones!

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  6. Ah, reading this post brings back so many memories for me, 'coz you and I are in the same age range, I suppose. You're just a few years older than me. :-D

    I once wrote about a post like this, remembering fondly all the folk/traditional games we (my bro and I) with our neighbours. Apple computers started coming to us when I was in Elementary School and we couldn't afford it. I remember playing it at our cousin's place and the games used to be so simple, but they brought SO much joy.

    And VHS tapes!!! That we had to rewind first before being able to watch them from the beginning. And if the VHS player's machine got dirty, then it wouldn't play the tape very well. Ahhhh...I still remember the excitement I felt when we first got our VHS player. We used to rent Disney/Donald VHS tapes as well as lots of Japanese children's cartoons. :-D

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    1. I have lots of the same memories as you, Amel! Our family couldn't afford a computer, either (at least, not until I was at high school), but when I was in year 7 our school acquired a single computer which was carefully wheeled from classroom to classroom, so that we could take turns at playing Where In The World Is Carmen Sandiego! Before that, one friend's family had an Atari, and I remember loving games like Frogger and Peanut Butter Panic when I was about 10.

      Oh gosh, and VHS tapes! I used to get so impatient waiting for them to rewind!! It was just magic being able to watch a particular movie/show whenever we wanted to, though (and I remember feeling elated when I figured out how to program the VCR to record a show while we were at school, so we could watch it later!!)

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    2. When I was in Junior High (second or third grade), we had a computer class WITHOUT computers, either. Our school couldn't afford them yet. It was kinda crazy to learn computers without being able to use them. And there weren't any CDs back then and floppy disks were so easy to get corrupted or attacked by viruses. No internet connection, no mouse or things like that hi hi...oh dear me...Everything had to be typed in so that the computer would do what we wanted it to do.

      Atari!!!! Yeah, it used to be the coolest thing ever!!! :-D We also played it at our cousin's house. :-D

      Me, too, I was always impatient to wait for the VHS tapes to rewind. It does take a few minutes at least, no? I've never tried programming the VCR to record anything, though ha ha...because we never got to get a hold of any empty VHS tapes.

      And I remember carrying the heavy old typing machine to school when I was 13-15 because I took that extra curricular. We had to tape every single thing in order to learn how to type properly.

      I only started using mobile phones when I was around 20 years old. And there were no ATMs when I was growing up. The first time I learnt how to use the ATM was when I was 21 or 22 years old (can you believe that?) and I remember how nervous I was ha ha ha ha haahhhh...We had our first landline when I was around 12-13 years old and again I remember clearly being nervous the first time I tried it to call my friend. And nowadays in Indo people own at least one mobile phone (sometimes they have 2 or even 3 or more!!!!!!) A whole different world, eh?

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  7. I have stumbled upon your blog via a friend and really enjoy reading your posts. One day, the year 2012 will be its own version of "the olden days". How they will laugh with amusement at what we see today as the latest technology. I also fondly remember the days of delivered milk, casette tapes, the VCR etc. I used to sit and listen to the radio for hours just waiting for my favourite songs to come on so I could eagerly press "record" on my battery operated tape recorder!

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    1. Anna, thanks so much for stopping by for a read, and I'm so glad you enjoyed what you found! And oh yes, capturing a favourite song from the radio onto a tape was a definite skill! I always found that after listening for ages I would be caught off-guard when a long-awaited song finally came on, and I'd almost always cut off the beginning... or else the tape would run out before the end of the song!

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    2. Ahhh...this is what I did, too...getting empty cassettes was easy (compared to getting an empty VHS tape) and it was always annoying not to be able to press "record" at the right time hi hi...

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  8. Our milkman came in the afternoon. Just before sunset. I always made sure I was playing in the front yard because the hot boys in the neighbourhood were the ones that jumped off the moving milk van, ran and swapped your milk bottles and jumped back on the van as the milko kept driving :)

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    1. I can just imagine! - all that running... they must have been shredded and glistening with sweat... No wonder you made sure you were in the front yard when they came every day!!! :)

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  9. Ah C90s! How I loved those - I had literally hundreds. Now I only retain about 20 or so and have converted them all the MP3. You can't beat the feel of a C90 though. I miss my old Walkman.

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    1. I miss my Walkman too, Steve. I had some great C90s (especially one that my friend made for me, which was filled with the funniest bits from Monty Python movies and our beloved Press Gang).

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  10. Gorgeous Katriina.
    Two of my favourite themes - the passage of time and how things change Vs the passage of time how the important things remain intrinsically the same.
    If we are fortunate enough - perhaps if we are aware and watchful - we see the world through the eyes of children - and catch just enough of their wonder and joy to warm and sustain us. They are that turn of the kaleidoscope that comes after - no less wonderful than our own brief moments of complete absorption, total immersion in the moment and newness of the world.
    What a beautiful post. I have missed your writing - but I've got a new life of "enough time" stretching out before me - so I look forward to never missing you again!

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    1. My dear LML, I'm so undeserving of your lovely comment, but thank you anyway! You are so right about the fulfillment that comes from watching children be children, and your description of them as "that turn of the kaleidoscope that comes after" is just brilliant.
      Now that you have some ACTUAL FREE TIME in your future, I hope you will go back to writing more often yourself. You have such a way with words and I'll always be an eager reader.

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  11. Hi Katriina, I jumped to your blog from MOTHER.INC. I am from Singapore. Being overly obsessed with parenting as a first time mom to an 18-month old, I clicked your link because I am interested to see how bringing up children in other distant continents look like. I absolutely loves your writing, you writes well and your sharing are so honest and heartwarming. Will definitely come back to read more.

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    1. Abby, thanks so much for stopping by for a read, and also for your lovely comment. I would love it if you came back again to read more! Meanwhile, I hope you're enjoying life with your little one. 18 months is such an interesting age, but at the same time it's exhausting for a parent - kids that age are eagerly and passionately into trying everything, with absolutely no idea about danger or limits! All the very best to you!

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  12. what to me payphone is box with home phone with calculator but i do love this post and im ten soo ya bye??

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