The '80s are largely regarded as a vapid era of coked-out yuppies, Reaganism, cold war jitters, conspicuous consumption, and incredibly poor neon fashion decisions, but for anyone who spent their adolescent and teenage years growing up in the decade, the '80s were more than just bands with big hair and sex comedies: They were the last gasp of an America that, for all intents and purposes, no longer exists.
So much of what you could get away with in 1988 is completely unheard of now. If the 21st century is marked by a general anxiety about saying and doing anything that might be considered even remotely socially unacceptable or dangerous, the '80s were marked by a complete and total disregard for those concerns. This played out in any number of ways, but the ones that are of interest here are the ones that were enjoyed by those of us fortunate enough to have grown up in the pre-Internet era, where everything seemed possible and the things that get people jailed or burned at the stake of social media in today's world were hardly blink-worthy.
1. Schoolyard fights.
There was a time, believe it or not, when children could get into schoolyard fights without being arrested. One thing that my parents — and my friends' parents — taught was that although we should avoid violence whenever possible, there were times and places when it was a necessary and proper response.
The surest way to end bullying was to fight. It may have resulted in a few days suspension, but it usually solved the problem.
2. Being surrounded by second-hand smoke... And first-hand smoke, for that matter.
Once upon a time, there were smoking sections and non-smoking sections all throughout America. People smoked in malls, in restaurants, in bars, and on planes.
One of the first acts of adolescent rebellion was to smoke a cigarette, usually pilfered from a parent or relative's pack and usually in the company of one's delinquent friends. Smoking was still thought of as cool.
And yet, somehow, even without a nanny state to protect us, we survived. Mostly because we caught Hell when we were caught.
3. Having way too much free time.
Time to cut school, time to smoke... stuff, time to shoplift, time to get in trouble, time to hang out at the mall while cutting school, smoking stuff, shoplifting, and getting in trouble... You get the picture.
It was great.
4. A total disregard for helmets.
Just didn't seem necessary. Scars were badges of honor.
5. Playing with fireworks.
Summer and New Year's always meant one thing: fireworks wars. This joyously reckless and dangerous activity meant gathering up bottle rockets, firecrackers, roman candles, and anything else we could find and launching them at our friends (and maybe unsuspecting neighbors).
Aside from the occasional minor burn, nobody got hurt except maybe a garbage can or two, but I wasn't there and that's just a rumor.
6. Cooking without parental supervision.
Two parents working meant coming home to an empty house after school. This necessitated learning, among other things, how to cook in a pre-microwave world.
7. Mall arcades.
Smoke-filled, noisy, and dimly-lit, these adolescent dens of iniquity were the perfect place to burn hours while cutting class or waste time after school to avoid homework. If you could get a job in one, you were all set.
8. Having your feelings hurt, getting called names and getting over it.
Getting called names and being teased was just a part of being socialized: of learning to live in the world. We didn't know what "shaming" was. We didn't expect to be empowered by others. Life was expected to be unfair. We just put up with it. Asking for adult intervention was far too embarrassing to even be considered and for the most part, would have resulted in absolutely nothing.
"Sticks and stones" wasn't just a saying: It was a way of learning to have a thicker emotional skin. Maybe that's good, maybe it's not. Doesn't matter now.
Life seemed easier. That's just how it was.
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