February 8th, 2013

Moose With Mug

"Jeffty Is Five"

Earlier this evening, I read Harlan Ellison's "Jeffty Is Five" for the first time since my teen years. I truly had no memory of how it ended, but the second that the narrator, Danny, leaves Jeffty unattended in front of an array of televisions, a feeling of absolute dread washed over me and didn't leave until the story's tragic ending, one which still managed to surprise and shock me in spite of preparing myself for something horrific. In fact, it took me a few moments to regain my composure after finishing the story.

I find myself juggling a few different thoughts as I write this. First and foremost, I couldn't help but think about the parents of Brooke Greenberg (in an amazing coincidence, just a couple weeks ago I first read about her medical condition). She has been stuck as a toddler for roughly as long as Jeffty stayed five during the course of the story. Her parents are dealing with many of the same issues Jeffty's parents dealt with -- but only worse. At least five-year-olds are self-sufficient in many ways; in fact, it's clear that Jeffty spends lots of time entertaining himself. Brook, however, is mentally a one-year-old and her parents need to carry her around and care for her accordingly. No matter how hard I try, I just cannot wrap my head around what it must be like for Brooke's parents -- even after watching video where they talk about their experiences.

But "Jeffty is Five" isn't just about Jeffty, it's also about how society changes and how the things we hold dear slowly fade away and vanish as we get older. Ellison brings plenty of remembrances of his youth into the story: radio programs, comic books, Golden Age SF writers, the completely different movie-going experience of the '40s and early '50s, the cost of items, and how candy bars used to be made and packaged. Through the narrator, Ellison pointedly states that progress and change come with a cost: elements of the past that we cherish are slowly and inexorably destroyed by the present.

While reading the story, I couldn't help but thing of many things from my youth that are gone or rapidly fading away: reading the Sunday comics in the newspaper; dropping quarters at a video game arcade (and not at a bastardized version of one like Chuck E. Cheese's or Dave and Buster's); looking forward to Saturday morning cartoons; knowing that if you missed the annual airing of Sound of Music or the Charlie Brown Christmas special then you had to wait another year before you had another chance to see it again. Yes, it's nice, for instance, to own a copy of Wizard of Oz you can watch at any time, but watching it is no longer the event it once was.

As I write this and reflect upon "Jeffty Is Five" a little more, I can't help but feel that this is a story that you need to be older to properly appreciate. The first time I read this, I didn't really have a proper sense of time or the way the world changes -- like every other teen that's ever lived, I was the physical embodiment of the changing world. Now that I'm older, much more stable, and acutely aware that elements of my youth are now disappearing (not to mention signs and symptoms of my own inevitable physical deterioration), I fully appreciate the question that's asked at the end of the story. When reflecting upon what's been lost and what we've gained in its place, we're left to ask, "That's progress, isn't it?"

The best I can attempt to answer this question by use of example. I've been collecting baseball cards since I was five years old. Today, you can get baseball cards that have full-color pictures on both sides, bear autographs of the players themselves and contain pieces of game-used memorabilia. Modern production techniques ensure higher resolution for the photos, photo-quality gloss and cleaner, more finely cut edges on the cards. Yet, these advances do not negate the nostalgic feelings I have for the smell of the gum that Topps used to package with cards and the feel of the old wax-sealed wrappers -- the very same gum and wrappers that Topps stopped packaging the cards with because they damaged the cards. Even this particular scenario, one I've rigged to place progress in the best possible position, nostalgia holds enough power to state the progress comes with a qualifier. There's far too much out there where the pros and cons of the trade-off make it harder to decide which really is better.

Thus, as with so many deceptively simple questions, "That's progress, isn't it?" is not a question with easy answers.

At least, I know I don't have an answer.