MY LAWN

Regular readers who have also enjoyed the work of Bill Bryson likely have noticed that I am also a fan. The man is a very good writer, and I've learned more than a few things about putting sarcasm into print from his work over the years. You can imagine how disappointed I was, then, to read his latest. It's terrible.

Bryson, 64, mis-titled the book. It should have been called "Things were all better back in my day!" or "Old Man Bitches About Everything." I don't know what happened – perhaps it is a simple function of age – but there's no humor or no pleasure in this. It's a man touring England complaining about everything. Literally everything. All the shops in this town are closed! Everything costs too much! That sign has a grammatical error in it because everybody is stupid now! The kid at McDonald's asked me if I wanted fries, and if I wanted fries I would have fucking told him I wanted fries! This museum is just a big gift shop now! Who are these "celebrities" and why are they famous when they have no talent! Kids are so disrespectful these days!

I have no doubt that it is hard to age, to see things change, to wake up one day and realize that the world you live in is no longer the one you know best and with which you are most comfortable. Readers of any age can have some sympathy for it. There is little joy or interest in reading someone go through the process, though.

The thing I wish older people complaining about the state of the world would more often recognize is that choices made by the same generations currently complaining are largely responsible for all that now bothers them. Kids are stupid and don't know how to speak? Well, look what has happened to public education since the 1970s. Yeah, kids with no job prospects will probably just sit around and drink all day. All the cute little shops are gone, replaced by soulless chain stores? Well, changes to the economy and wage stagnation more than explain why people prioritize low prices and convenience/speed (got to make it to that second job on time!) above all else. Your favorite seaside or countryside town is a fraction of what it used to be? Well, all the sources of employment are gone. Why would anyone stay? People are less friendly now? Well, maybe that's because the world is shitty and there's little for them to be happy about.

And that's the part that kills me about When I Was Your Age rants – they're not wrong. I have no doubt that for the modal American, the country was a less shitty place in the past. This argument of course overlooks great advances that have been made in the rights and lives of women, minorities, gays and lesbians, and other people for whom The Good Old Days were not quite so Good. But in terms of the state of the country, I have no doubt that people were generally less miserable and our towns and cities looked less sad and run down Back in the Day. Back when our society was one of generally shared prosperity – again, not without exceptions – and people could get half-decently paying jobs without having to experience lightning-strike luck, I'm sure everyone smiled and said Hello more often. I'm sure people were happier back when the places they live did not look like setpieces for post-apocalypse action movies. Everything is dirty, falling apart, and empty. Boarded-up windows and empty Main Streets don't make people feel cheerful.

If Bill Bryson reads this (that was a joke, relax), yes, you're right. Everything sucks now. Believe me, we know. We get it. It seems like an intelligent person could readily identify the causes, though, and perhaps at least nod at them while cataloging all of one's gripes about the corporate- and gift shop-funded museum world in which we find ourselves. You personally may not bear direct responsibility for creating it, but it didn't happen by accident. Previous generations – your generation – made choices that led to it. I'm sorry you're unhappy with it, but trust me that the young man at McDonald's isn't exactly loving this world either.

44 thoughts on “MY LAWN”

  • …If you are a 60-something white male, hell yeah it is worse now. But for many minorities the past few decades have seen progress. Imagine Bill Bryson's America of 1960 electing Barack Obama. Or allowing gays to openly serve in the military, or get married. So, yunno, some things do seem to have improved. Slightly.

  • Easy, Ed. You've been kinda kvetchy yourself, of late. I've been working my way through Little Dribbling also… agree, it's not his best by any stretch. But has its moments.

  • "This argument of course overlooks great advances that have been made in the rights and lives of women, minorities, gays and lesbians, and other people for whom The Good Old Days were not quite so Good."

    Since they're happier, that explains why I'm not. Now move, I've got a Trump rally to attend.

  • The world is a shit hole filled with shitty little people who are scared shitless.

    And it all flows downhill from there.

  • “I'm sure people were happier back when the places they live did not look like setpieces for post-apocalypse action movies.”

    They shot the SyFy Channel zombie show “Z Nation” here in Spokane.

  • I wish I could recall the source for this — and I'll make a future post if I do manage. In the wake of the recent Carrier plant closure in Indianapolis, I remember reading that the plant's operations were in fact profitable, and that the move was actually a result of shareholder pressure to achieve even-greater returns. Simply for the act of sitting there holding the paper.

    Well, who are the "shareholders" in this country? Mutual funds and pension funds, by and large. And let's just say that people my age (34) or younger are not the ones who principally participate in or benefit from these. "[T]he same generations currently complaining are largely responsible for all that now bothers them": Spot on, Ed.

  • Donald Trumpet says:

    If you didn't laugh out loud at the part where he confronted the store clerk only to find out that he was in the wrong store, then you are a joyless wretch.

    Seriously, man. Larger point taken, and maybe not his best, but still far from awful.

  • Skepticalist says:

    In the 50s and 60s of my youth, we carefully avoided bitching about small things. The cold war, Polio and the Brooklyn Dodgers sneaking off to Los Angeles kept white middle class people busy.

    Paying much attention to things we actually might have some control over was no fun and too far away. Nothing is too far away today and fun just ain;t the same.

  • How many "shareholders" or pension recipients do you actually know?

    Don't blame "old people" for the sins of "rich old people."

  • Fan and contemporary of Bryson here. Grew up one state over. Similar childhoods. He makes me laugh, usually.
    The "old guy goes cranky" thing is tough to see, and when it's pointed out that's tough to see too. I don't remember things ever being so great. It's my job now not to turn into an old crank, though there's lot of opportunity to do just that.
    The kid asking about fries….doesn't do that…every time…..doesn't have a job. And then what? I wonder if Bill ever thinks about that. Hard to spin a funny story out of that scenario.

  • It's kind of like complaints about millennials. Some are accurate (though most share a "half remembered anecdote equals sweeping generalization about millions" quality), but even those that are result directly from the actions of complainers. People bitch about every kid getting a participation trophy these days seem to forget that they were the ones handing out those trophies.

  • Jim Schimpf says:

    Sort of the opposite for me. Growing up in my town, the river next to my house was a sewer (human + steel mill waste + acid mine drainage), water was bright orange. Up the hill from my house was the hospital and you could go in the woods near there and see into the sewer pipe from it to the river. It was also the dump, dad could shoot rats from our porch that came from there.

    Now the river is clear, you can fish off the bridge near the house. No dump, woods are nice to walk in. Town in spruced up and has walking trails along the river. Groundhogs and squirrels now populate the area.

    50 years has made a huge change and we still have 2 steel mills.

  • I'm a 66 yo white boy. Life is WAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAY fucking better than it was before I got on the MedicareSSgravytrain. I am a little worried about the death panels, but I'm white so they won't get around to MEfor a while.

  • BB is about 6 years older than me, so I guess we're both Boomers. As a woman and a gay person partnered with a person of color, I am actually glad things aren't the way they used to be. Depending who you are, I guess ymmv.

  • There is a peculiar irony that this blog post complains about Bill Bryson not writing (entertainingly) like he used to. So he's expanded the kids-these-days meme to, well, A Short Rant on Nearly Everything. Can't say I saw it coming, but it's an awfully well-worn track. I'm training up myself to be a sniggering curmudgeon, though probably not as endearing as, say, Andy Rooney.

  • This post is exactly what's wrong with Gen X'ers. They think the whole damn world should revolve around them!

  • My introduction to Bill Bryson was The Mother Tongue, which was and still is great, and I think I've read everything he wrote since. About 5 years ago I noticed that I was channelling Andy Rooney's voice when I read his latest, because he had turned into Andy Rooney. Every whiny word fit. "Have you seen hamburgers these days?" Sounds like he's just a little farther down that same road.

  • After reading "City of Thorns" and "Evicted" I desperately needed reading material that was a bit lighter and funny. I started Bill Bryson's latest 2 nights ago with great hope. Although we are the same age, all I could think was what a grumpy old man he has become. Shame.

  • Arjun Jobil says:

    I must be some kind of weird exception. Although i'm a recently retired person living on SS and a part-time job, i still enjoy life. And i actually enjoy all the changes.

    IMHO, many older people are too disconnected from any social activities or interests outside of work. IOW, staying connected makes it a lot easier to enjoy the changing world.

    I feel sorry for people in their 20s and 30s today. When i wasn't working in a professional kind of job, it wasn't that hard to find a decent-paying factory job to tide me over. Those days are unfortunately gone. I don't see how anyone can really live on $1,000 a month at a minimum wage job.

    Now, get off my lawn, you little brats!

  • U.S. in the EU says:

    I struggled to try to explain home things are different now to my dad (boomer). I used the example of just trying to find a place to safely save any money at a reasonable rate. His axvice was always put it in the bank at 6% and wait. When I explained that 6% safely doesn't exist he didn't believe me. So we drove down to the local bank. Nothing but financial instrument that were either risky or low rates return. I think he started to comprehend that we're facing a diffefent world then he did.

  • But why aren't you saving more? With that 0.1% interest rate, your money will double every 69 and 2/3 years!

  • @U.S. I'm constantly dealing with this issue with my Boomer parents. My 10-year-old car comes in for a lot of scorn (it runs great, it's in great shape except for a couple of bumper dings, and *it's paid for*, unlike the kids' college tuitions which suck up my extra bucks). My mother, a Boomer who never worked a day in her life, is constantly making snide remarks about how in *her* day, women knew how to budget and didn't have to work (because sitting at home all day waiting for the school breaks when the kids come home from college is just so fulfilling? Also, if I didn't work, I would be living in my 10-year-old car, and I prefer living in my crappy little starter house that I've spent the past 20 years in, thank you very much).

  • HoosierPoli says:

    First off, Bryson is only 64. That's too early to excuse grumpy old man syndrome.

    Secondly, much of the book is a sidelong jab at the wreckage of Thatcherism, pointing out that the decay of Britain is connected to an increased devotion to individual wealth over communal endeavor. It's hard not to read his complaints about decrepit public transport, encroachment on green spaces, and general underfunding of everything as a broadside aimed squarely at David Cameron.

    "This place used to be better, and the Conservatives fucked it up" strikes me as a fair complaint, if not particularly funny.

  • All true, but I hafta say, I laughed until I cried at his description of elderly male nose and ear hair.

  • working my way through Little Dribbling also… agree, it's not his best by any stretch. But has its moments.…is a very good summary. And when those moments surface, jeez he's funny.

  • To my parents credit, neither has ever waxed nostalgic about growing up in the 1950s.

    My mother grew up in Appalachia, Mercer County PA (about 90 minutes north of Pittsburgh). She went to a one-room schoolhouse.

    My father grew up in a nasty little steel-town called Coatesville PA. As an "ethnic white" he was maybe one step above blacks and hispanics on the food chain.

    As he described it to me, the darker skinned you were and the more ethnic sounding your name was meant worse treatment at school – both from students and teachers.

    It was very uncool to be ethnic in the 1950s and you can see that reflected in TV shows and movies of the time.

  • I haven't read the last few Bryson books yet but I bet the latest book is still much better than that crapfest of a movie they made out of his biggest hit.

  • @Katydid

    I make enough money where I would be embarrassed to say how much I make.

    Let's just say I could run out today and buy pretty much any new car I want – in cash.

    I drive a 12-year-old car that I purchased used when it was about 5-years-old and I probably will keep it for several more years.

    I have no desire to pay the massive depreciation on a new car. I'm happy to let someone else pay it and then buy their car when they trade it for the flavor of the week.

    Depending on the model, some cars depreciate as much as 30 percent the first year! To me it's just throwing money away, but some people just gotta have that new car.

    I like to buy a nice used car at the 3-5 year point. A lot of cars come off lease right around then. If you do you homework you can pick up a 3-year-old car that's in practically new condition for less than half the price of purchasing new.

    Cars today are extremely well made and easily go 200,000 miles with proper maintenance. My car has 125,000 miles on it and is as tight as the day it came off the assembly line.

    Likewise my wife's car is 7 years and we expect to have it for many years to come.

  • I've noticed the "grumpy old man" syndrome in more than one comedian. George Carlin comes to mind first – one of the greatest of all time, a true bearer of both wisdom and humor. But his later works (I particularly recall a video special) was pretty much an endless litany of complaining without much humor at all. Like Ed with Bryson, I found it more sad than funny.

    Perhaps the issue is that there's actually a very fine line between humor and darkness; many comics do seem to be dark/depressed people under all the humor. (See Robin Williams, for example, and many others.)

  • terraformer says:

    This is one of the posts that I simply love about G&T. Taking a current situation, and putting it into words that make so much sense that few, if any, other writers bother to describe.

  • I like to re-read certain books. One of them is 'A River Runs Through It'. There's a brief passage in it where he's pining for that lost time when all the Beer wasn't made in Milwaukee. We got past that, we're living in a Golden Age of Brew. We'll get past whatever it is Bryson is moaning about this week. And he's always been a bit of a complainer.

  • Hi, MK! I have no plans to buy another car; mine runs well, is paid for, and looks reasonably okay. I may buy used next time, but considering how long I keep my cars (my last car was 16 and having major mechanical problems when I said goodbye), I figure the cost amortizes out anyway. TBH, all the unnecessary crap in cars today (the computer systems just waiting to be hacked) just drives up the price and makes them more likely to fail.

  • anotherbozo says:

    I guess the Bryson book in question is "The Road to Little Dribbling." Since I might have been tempted to buy the thing without checking reviews, you've saved me some money, Ed. Like you, I've very much enjoyed Bryson on almost any topic and could easily have given him the benefit of the doubt.
    So Bryson's in his 60s. Maybe by the time he's in his 70s, like yours truly, he'll take a longer view. I'm filled with sadness at the state of the world now, but also the feeling that I was very, very lucky to have come up when I did. The American playing field was as close to level as it ever had been, or has been since. The oil industry paid for excellent public schools in my home town, at a time when they were solidly funded by real estate taxes. I got an almost free college education in the California before Reagan. I got a student deferment for graduate school, thanks to the Sputnik program, even though I wasn't in science. I supported my burgeoning art career with a series of full-time teaching jobs (at one college these are now taken over by badly compensated part-timers). I bought my own loft in Manhattan before real estate prices went through the roof. And on and on.
    If it's not a function of age, maybe Bryson's myopia can be laid to his own inherent intellectual shortcomings. He's always been great at details, but maybe ultimate causes elude him. Or he just needed to crank out one more book, and true inspiration wasn't forthcoming.
    Need I qualify the above? The "level playing field" only approached that description because of my low melanin quotient: in the 50s and 60s that field wasn't any too level for brown and black citizens.

  • Townsend Harris says:

    Bryson's generation shat the bed.

    White pre-boomers and early boomers – born late 1930s through mid-1950s – lucky to not get drafted and killed passed a huge, steaming pile of feces, got out of bed, and walked away with a concerned "that's too bad; it's your problem, kids".

  • Incipient boomer geezer, like Bryson but haven't read the book. Couldn't help but wonder if the title was a sly comment on the status of his prostate.

  • One of the things about postwar USA prosperity – we were the only industrialized nation that hadn't been bombed to crap for years. The remnants of the British Empire was busy trying to feed the British while they rebuilt, the USSR wasn't really exporting much, and western Europe – there was a reason for the Marshall Plan, and it had a lot to do with keeping the Iron Curtain from heading west. The untouched economic and industrial might we had built to fight the war was retooled for civilian production, and – for a brief, shining moment – the world was our market.

    We can't be the Military Hegemon *and* the Economic Hegemon simultaneously under current geopolitical conditions. There's also the curious thing that, as real wealth increases, a disproportionate amount goes to a smaller and smaller segment of the population. It's as if working people can't be trusted with either economic security or disposable income – they'd just spend it on goods and services, instead of investing like a Real Person™.

    US in the EU – great story! Mind if I share it (without identifying information)?

  • 'swkellogg Says:
    April 7th, 2016 at 3:32 pm
    The world is a shit hole filled with shitty little people who are scared shitless.

    And it all flows downhill from there.'

    So THAT'S the Trickle Down Theory!

  • I'm a boomer, and there are things I miss, but I'm pretty impressed with the world we have now. The USSR was truly scary, and the cold warriors worked hard to keep things as scary as they could. Now we've got pissant terrorists. If they kill 3,000 people it's a big deal. That's less deadly than the nuclear war they were planning, except where none of the bombs go off.

    We're even seeing a lot of hopeful changes. Cars are going electric and self driving. Renewable power is becoming a real cost effective thing. Computers and the internet are a gas. Even politics has been changing. People, and especially young people, are starting to question the prevailing dogma that has been sinking us for 30+ years.

  • Even the geezer rants aren't what they used to be. Why, when I was younger, the old people really knew how to complain. The old people these days aren't doing it right.

  • Reilly, the olds are not skinning the young. The pension funds are another source of wealth that the one percent are obsessed with plundering. When companies are bought, one of e first things declared is that the pension fund is unworkable, and has to be dissolved or renegotiated. A lot of pensions are gone. A lot of public pensions are "reformed" into oblivion. I know retire city of Detroit workers whose $12 grand a year pensions got a haircut.

    There is a Polish saying: all times are good once they are old. The world always looked shittier than it does now. For my part, I see polite people, kindness and decency. I see life getting better for groups of people that it used to be shitty for. But keeping the world non-shitty is a Sisyphean task, and has always been.

  • Life goes on, and every generation has it easier than the one before. The one before bitches about that, even though they made it. The new generation, because they have it easier, perceive it as harder, and bitch about that. But it just keeps on going, until one group or the other screws it up and the scale resets. Peace makes war through board indifference, war makes peace through the death of large numbers of crazies. And endless cycle. What a show :)

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