Jim Thompson
Jim Thompson
By Jim Thompson
HCP columnist


I wish I could claim originality of the title this week, but alas, I cannot. It is from John Dos Passos and was in his 1941 essay, “The Use of the Past.”

It is so accurate, so modern, that we might think it from last week if not the present day for we indeed think we are so knowledgeable, so creative, that all before us and all after us are inferior to our “superior” intellect of today.

In nearly seven decades, this is what I have observed for certain: What is considered creative and what is considered fashionable only lasts for a season.

Since the time I was in kindergarten, when I had a “Daniel Boone coonskin hat,” and I remember my older brother sitting in the back seat of the car with me admonishing my dad to “peel out” (the cool phrase of the day), sayings, ideas and common knowledge have come and gone.

Look at music. What was hot last year is barely remembered this year. The same is true in nearly every field.

This phenomenon happens throughout life regularly. When my dad was a model maker at Kenner Toys in Cincinnati, they were always looking for the “hits.” We do the same today.

At the same time he was searching for hits, we in the engineering department of that little old soap company in the same city were enamored with the idea of “metrication” – converting from English units to metric units – a process that still isn’t complete over 40 years later. We wasted millions on that. It wasn’t a hit.

On one hand, my observation is that people want everything to be the same. Look how resistant they are to organizational structural changes, the idea of moving across the country (an idea that used to be much more readily accepted than it is today), or any changes in their daily routine.

On the other hand, put a brand-new idea or device in their hand (remember the Blackberry and the introduction of the iPhone?) and they readily accept it – as long as they did not incur the risk of developing it. They will also readily discard it when something they perceive as superior comes along.

I have said all the above to say this: What concerns me today is that individuals, institutions, companies and governments are adapting some ideas at great costs with the implied understandings that they will (a) succeed and (b) last forever.

I think this is dangerous thinking, at least if you are making investments in these ideas. I speak of fashionable ideas and concepts such as climate change, sustainable, compostable, circular economy and on and on. I suggest one or two of them may only have the duration of a Barry Manilow album (although, if pressed, I could not pick out which ones).

Why can I say this? In the history of humankind, there are very few ideas that have withstood the test of time. After all, at one time the learned people of the world insisted all the universe revolved around the earth. They even made Galileo eat takeout for a while when he questioned this.

I’ll further submit that future generations will demand that most of the ideas l have listed, and more left unlisted, absolutely must be declared obsolete and old fashioned. Why? The scientists and philosophers of the next and succeeding generations must have something new to chew on just like those of this generation did.

Universities even insist on this – Ph.D. dissertations must be original work (the very reason English majors have been reduced to writing dissertations on “The effects on the mind of punctuation in Shakespeare’s sonnets when read under a streetlight on the island of Mykonos”).

Thus, it is an imperative these scholars will not be content to chew on the old ideas of this generation any more than this generation was willing to accept the advice in the 1967 movie, “The Graduate” that the future is in plastics. What is hot for us today will be boring in 10 or 15 years, if not sooner.

So, be careful what you consider permanent. Nothing is forever. Carefully examine with all the resources you can muster the merits of what seem to be today’s great creative and fashionable ideas. They just may be the last of the summer wine.

And as a lighthearted final thought, let’s look at a puzzling example of the fashionable that I cannot begin to figure out…have you noticed how suddenly in the last few years, everything, especially in urban areas, is being painted gray? Interiors, exteriors and everything in between.

They have even repainted the outside of the Atlanta Airport concourses gray – a huge job. How many hotel exteriors have been repainted gray? One of our daughters has painted her condominium’s first floor rooms gray. We were at a birthday party a couple of Saturdays ago and the entire interior of the house was gray. Heck, I even own a gray car now (it would have taken at least three weeks to get the silver one I wanted).

Who started this? Was it the book? How will it end? Will it outlast some of the current fashionable ideas I mentioned above? Who knows?

Jim Thompson, formerly of Marshall, is a graduate of Hillsboro High School and the University of Cincinnati. He resides in Duluth, Ga. and is a columnist for The Highland County Press. He may be reached at jthompson@taii.com.