We have Netflix and cable and pay-per-view and more remotes than I know what to do with, but for me, inside, there will always be three TV channels.

CBS, NBC and ABC. Since I grew up in New York City, that translates to channels 2, 4 and 7, which had all the good programs. Then there were 5 and 9, which showed black-and-white reruns, 11 which showed Yankee games, and 13, the educational station, which we never watched. (I was born just a couple of years too early for Sesame Street, and my parents were not Masterpiece Theatre types.)

No matter how many remotes we have, I will go to my grave feeling that “normal” is three TV stations. I suspect many other boomers feel the same way.

Which brings me to the topic of change.

We live at a time when change is, quite possibly, happening faster and more unrelentingly than ever before in human history. Big changes like industries evaporating and little changes like moving from the iPod 4 to the iPod 5.  I thought of this again yesterday when, reading the Sunday paper, I came across a photo of Marc Andreesen.

Andreesen was one of the inventors of Netscape. When I was covering tech in the 1990s, he was the just-minted wunderkind, the graduate student with a mess of floppy hair who represented everything new and cutting-edge.

And now he looks like this:


Middle aged! (Like the rest of us.)

I have a hard time with change. I live near the geographic epicenter of technological change, and I try not to be a dinosaur, but I have a hard time with it. We are an innovative, tool-making, world-changing species but  there is also a big part of us that is designed not to expect change.

Think about how we learn to understand the world as babies – a stable, unchanging world. Would it be possible to learn about it any other way?

Parent: Ball. Say, ‘ball.’ Here. (Rolls ball to baby.) 

Baby: Baa. (Holds ball. Pushes ball back.) 

Parent: Yes, it’s a ball! Here’s the ball. (Rolls ball back to baby.)

What would happen if every time that ball came to baby, it had a different name? “No, not ball, gorphin! No, not gorphin, schminger!” What if every time baby pushed the ball, it did something else? First it rolled, but then it floated, and then it exploded? How would we learn to function in the world? How would our primitive ancestors have survived if everytime they plucked the same purple berry it was different – one time tasty, one time sour, one time poisonous?

Some of us – if we are lucky – have stable childhoods. That was my case. No divorces, war zones, plagues, bankruptcies, deaths. My family lived in the same apartment from the time I was two until I was grown; I went to just two schools; we celebrated holidays the same way each year. Even climbing the ladder of school, the continuities outweighed the changes – different teachers and subjects every September, but the same structure to the day, many of the same classmates, the same rules for what was prized or punished.

A lot of human history was pretty unchanging too. Millennia of nomadic societies. The middle ages. If you lived in medieval Europe, you probably spent your life entirely in one village. Your parents were shepherds, so you were a shepherd.  “Change” amounted to the rare arrival of a stranger in town; a new overlord demanding more tithes; a good harvest season or a bad harvest season.

In my life these days, the most unchanging thing may be my cat.  He changed a lot in the first six months of kittenhood, but now our life with him is completely unchanging. We feed and cuddle him; he finds funny places and positions to sleep; sometimes he brings us dead mice. That’s it. And that will be it, more or less, for the rest of his life. Technology is constantly changing, consumer products are changing, industries are dying and empires are dissolving, but the cat remains the same.

The requisite cat photo / By Ilana DeBare

The requisite cat photo / By Ilana DeBare

Parenthood is not like pet ownership.

Many of us go into parenthood thinking it will be stable. We think,  “Okay, my wild youth is over, now I’m settling down and having kids.” And sometimes — especially in those first few months with an infant, or during the 11th inning of a Little League game — it does seem as timeless and tedious as the Middle Ages.

But kids grow. As soon as you’ve reached equilibrium with one stage – “okay, I know how to handle a toddler” – they have moved on to an entirely different stage. You find yourself trying to take a ten-year-old to the zoo. Just six months ago they loved going to the zoo with you! And now they would rather be buried up to their necks in a hole with molasses and red army ants than look at elephants, or for that matter look at anything, with you.

This summer we’ve had Daughter home with us for three months after her freshman year of college. It’s been delightful. She is happy to be home, happy with her adult life, happy to be with us. She volunteered to cook dinner once a week. She even asks to play games with us in the evening!

And this won’t last. In two weeks, she goes back to school. We’ll have her home for winter break, but after that… summer study abroad. Internships and jobs in New York. It’s unclear when she will be at home for such an extended period again.

Those changes — kids growing up, adults growing old — aren’t unique to our era. But all the other modern changes added on top make things feel overwhelming sometimes.

How much of my desire for stability – my refusal, deep inside, to accept that there are more than three TV stations – is a quirk of my own upbringing? How much is hard-wired into us all as human beings?

And how much might be generational? Will generations like my daughter’s — raised with technology turning itself inside-out every year or two — have any less of a gut yearning for constancy?

Picture yourself on a boat on a river, with tangerine trees and marmalade skies –

Oops, not that kind of boat. Picture yourself on a boat, yes, but more like punting on the Cam, just floating lazily down a quiet summer river. You’ve got an old-fashioned Polaroid camera. You’re taking photos of the shoreline, trying to preserve the views you love the most.

But it takes time for you to click, and for the camera to whirr and process and slowly spit out an image.

By then you’re long past the scene in the photo.

It’s gone.


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12 Responses to “Change”

  1. Gabriella West Says:

    What an eloquent post. Change does seem to be happening too fast now. I know that the sale of the Washington Post to Jeff Bezos was a real WTF moment for me. And you’re the one that scooped it!

    I feel a sense of disorientation and loss too. And I’m a Gen Xer with divorced parents, no “family home” to go back to. I sometimes wonder why I moved here: Did I want to be in the middle of flux and change? Well, it certainly worked out that way.

  2. Danny Shapiro Says:

    Great stuff Ilana. Just one thing: you forgot WPIX channel 11 whichc broadcast Yankees games….

  3. Tom Moore Says:

    I commented on our generation’s lack of stability in my “post” in the Harvard 35th reunion book – my parent’s generation lived in the houses they moved into around 30. My grandparent’s generation was even more rooted – my ex’s grandmother lived in the same house in Newark from the time she was born until age 95 (moved to nursing home). And my wife’s childhood was much less rooted than mine (she was born in 1974). I find it interesting how much of our anomie was anticipated by Philip K. Dick, who passed away 30 years ago. I am not surprised by all the disheartening developments he foresaw (or perceived aborning while he was writing), but am nevertheless disheartened by them. For example, our “surveillance” state has been predicted since Orwell. That doesn’t mean we have to enjoy living in it.

  4. Susan Ito (@foodiemcbody) Says:

    Beautiful and moving, Ilana, and so true. I laughed at the ball analogy – “What would happen if every time that ball came to baby, it had a different name? “No, not ball, gorphin! No, not gorphin, schminger!” What if every time baby pushed the ball, it did something else? First it rolled, but then it floated, and then it exploded? How would we learn to function in the world? How would our primitive ancestors have survived if everytime they plucked the same purple berry it was different – one time tasty, one time sour, one time poisonous?” SO TRUE and so perfect.

  5. Yonit Brownstein Says:

    Thank you Ilana! As always a thought provoking pleasure to read your words…

  6. susan Says:

    Thanks for this piece, Ilana, which stirs up all kinds of emotions. I have always marveled at the courage of my father’s parents who left Europe when they were your daughter’s age, never to see their families or villages again. They learned a new language and culture and technology and built a successful new business but when the silk industry crashed in the Depression they lost everything, including their house, and had to start over again, which they somehow managed to do. I have always wondered if I could have done the same.

  7. lindseycrittenden Says:

    I love your writing here, Ilana. First of all, I totally relate to the “3 channel” view of the world — although I have to add KTVU (channel 2) since they aired some fun afternoon stuff like Creature Features and grown-up movies my mother had no idea I was watching, like “Marjorie Morningstar.” But most of what l love here is your voice–lyrical and intimate and so much the insightful person you are.

  8. Kaveh Says:

    Enjoyed reading this. Nice to hear your daughter is enjoying her summer with you–well done there! Hard to accept certain kinds of change, like aging, or children growing up and moving away. I feel this now, as daughter #2 is about to go to college. (Thanks to our new tools, we can stay better connected). Hard to realize that were it not for changes like these before us, we wouldn’t even BE here, having these experiences and trying to preserve the shoreline views. In the end, there is only so much one can hold on to and, hopefully, things worth preserving will live on.
    Okay, time to go and kick the shminger!

  9. rabbiadar Says:

    So true, and beautifully put. There’s also the nasty fact that the older we get, the faster time flows. So the same 4 hours that seemed an age when my sons were infants pass before I can do anything but blink now that an evening with them is an occasional delight.

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