My wife sometimes says, "I'm glad I never had any kids of my own, because the way things are going, soon the world won't be livable for people." I understand her pessimism, given the crappy way we're treating the Earth and all the threats facing humanity.
But one day last week I had a string of experiences that made me think, "Maybe the Beatles were right: it really is getting better all the time."
In the evening I attended a fundraising event here in Salem sponsored by the Democratic Party of Marion County. Carl Wolfson, a talk radio host of Portland's progressive KPOJ, entertained the gathering with witty, inspiring, and humorous remarks.
Wolfson spoke about going to visit his conservative mother in Florida, where he said everybody in New Jersey is required to move when they hit 65. He went with his partner. After some pleasantries, his mother looked at the two of them and said, "Now, which of you is the gay guy?"
Great story. Lots of laughter. And a pointer toward how attitudes have changed in not so many years.
At my increasingly ripe age of 61, I can remember when nobody I was acquainted with openly acknowledged their homosexuality. It was known, but not talked about. In high school we joked about the "queers" who lived in my small town. They had no way to respond, because coming out wasn't a viable option.
So for me to sit in a room and hear Wolfson speak about his partner, and talk about how gays must have always been around, even in the 1950s, because someone had to design those fins that were put on cars -- it suddenly hit me how much societal attitudes toward gays have changed, for the better.
Earlier that day I was killing time at Salem's Toyota dealership, waiting for a side view mirror to be replaced after a deer had decided that it would be fun to run into my car. I got to chatting with the sales manager.
I commiserated with him about the excessively bad rap Toyota was getting for the unintended acceleration incidents, since some of them seemed to be caused (on purpose or accidentally) by the drivers, not faulty technology.
"In retrospect," I told the guy, "it's amazing that during my high school years I was driving around in a VW bug with not only no engine in the front to protect me in a collision, but also no seat belts."
Now we take seat belts, air bags, antilock breaks, traction control, and other safety features for granted. Just as Rachel Carson woke up the world to pesticide problems with her "Silent Spring," so was Nader instrumental in getting the automotive industry to save a whole bunch of lives.
So here too, things are getting better.
Then I went shopping at a grocery store. And took with me, as is my habit, a reusable bag. A few years ago I never anticipated that I'd be doing this. I'd noticed a few people at the natural food store bringing in cloth bags, but I continued to bring my groceries home in paper.
Until it finally hit me, along with lots of other people: reusable bags make sense. They hold more than paper or plastic bags. They don't rip. They're easier to carry.
Stores started selling them cheaply. Signs began to go up outside of groceries: "did you remember to bring your bag?" What once seemed weird became commonplace. Things got better.
It's easy to get disillusioned about all of the problems facing our country and the world. But it's also easy to remember how far we've come, how we've successfully dealt with social issues, how the present is an improvement from the past.