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Local View: Reflect on old things for the new year

From the column: "I ask those responsible to bring back the following worthy staples of American life for 2023."

David McGrath.JPG
David McGrath
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Unlike way too many of my boomer brethren, I do not mourn for the good old days.

Instead, I embrace change and shed no tears for the disappearance of manual typewriters, four-barrel carburetors, or Meister Brau beer, which have all been replaced by something better.

But there have been some extinctions for which there was neither rhyme nor reason, and whose losses, I believe, have diminished us in some way.

So, in the spirit of optimism and hope for the new year, I ask those responsible to bring back the following worthy staples of American life for 2023.

Maps: How I loved poring over a road map spread out on the hood of a car. Not just for the thrill and satisfaction of plotting my own route, instead of outsourcing it to Google or Bing, but because of the deeper knowledge one can absorb about a region’s geography and culture that you can’t get on a digital screen.

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Maps in newspapers I miss even more. A story about a bridge collapse in Moldova or the grape harvest in Azerbaijan has more meaning and relevance for the reader with an accompanying map that used to be supplied in a box or in a side panel of the story, and which showed a country’s position on the globe, and who its neighbors were. Such maps have been eliminated to save space and cut costs. But what more valuable filler is there for a newspaper’s column inches than graphic orientation and enhancement of its content?

Gumball machines: There was never a more magical and hopeful introduction to the grown-up world of pleasure and commerce than those colorful gumball machines. Grouches removed them from drug stores, gas stations, grocery stores, and diners for reasons of health, security, and profit — but also, because they did not appreciate how this miraculous spherical retailer gives a kid his first feeling of control, independence, and gratification: Put in a penny, turn the knob, and a reward plops into your hand. Granted, 1950s-era gumballs rotted your teeth. But bring them back with dentists-recommended Orbit gum and restore an important fabric of American childhood.

Wing vent windows in cars. When it’s not hot enough for the AC, but the air in the car is stale, the triangular vent windows cars used to have were the answer. The driver and front passenger could adjust them at just the right angle both for cooling and for fresh air, even if it was raining. Today’s “automatic climate control” feature in modern vehicles never gets both features quite right. And the claim that it can accommodate differing preferences for the driver and passenger is a technological myth.

Gas station attendants. Speaking again of cars, while we do not have to leave their comfort and safety while completing a transaction at our bank, paying a toll, getting a COVID-19 shot, or visiting a MacDonald’s or Starbucks, we still have to unbuckle and get out, regardless of how we are dressed, at a gas station. Again, I evoke my childhood, when my six brothers and sisters and I were mesmerized, watching from the inside of the station wagon’s windshield, as the attendant sprayed and wiped back and forth, back and forth, until we could clearly see his smile. The difference today, if their jobs were resurrected, would likely be the presence of a tip jar next to the pump. But at least gas station attendants, unlike a lot of store clerks or baristas, would deserve them.

Pay phones. Am I the only one who dreads talking on the phone? I’d rather converse with someone in person — or send them an email or even a letter. This is why I held off on getting a cell phone for the longest time, compelled finally to purchase one when the last of the pay phones disappeared, and I had no other choice for emergencies.

So, yes, I’d like to see pay phones and their accompanying Superman booths returned. But they should include a digital screen and the capability to text, in which case I would gleefully fling my cell phone into the river or, more realistically, recycle it at Best Buy.

Term papers. Students hated writing them, and teachers hated reading and grading them. Therefore, many schools eliminated them, substituting blogs, oral reports, website creation, PowerPoint presentations, and even podcasts. But teaching students how to distinguish between logical arguments and fallacies, flimsy documents and reputable sources, facts versus “alternative facts,” or truth and lies, all by applying Aristotelian rules of logic and Modern Language Association rules for research and documentation — all these skills are needed more today than ever.

Your turn: What do you think should be brought back: milk trucks? Christmas carolers? “The Andy Griffith Show”? Float your proposal at the dinner table — or send me an email.

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David McGrath is formerly of Hayward, is an emeritus professor of Native American literature at the College of DuPage in Illinois, and is an author and frequent contributor to the News Tribune Opinion page. He can be reached at profmcgrath2004@ yahoo.com. This was published originally by the Chicago Tribune.

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