Oregon Trail screen capture from the original green and black game.
Social Commentary

OTG: The Oregon Trail Generation

I was born in 1983.  This means that according to demographers I’m both a part of Gen X and a Part of Gen Y, a group also dubbed “the Millennials.”  Generations are a tricky business and I would venture to say that people born in the late 70s and early 80s are really a strange micro-generation. I have no idea what we should be called, but I’m a fan of “The Oregon Trail Generation,” because, frankly, we certainly don’t fit the general descriptions of either: 

  • Gen X: Post-WWII Baby Boomers, Gen Xers are usually given birth ranges from the early 1960s to the early 1980s.
  • Gen Y/Millennials: Post Gen X, Gen Y/Millennials are usually given birth years ranging from the early 1980s to the early 2000s.

Those of us who are a part of the OTG have been given many names: Older Millennials, Xennials, the Saved By The Bell Generation, Generation Catalano, Generation Cabbage Patch Kids…the list goes on.  Really, no one has hit on a name that makes sense for us because we’re a part of a weird, amorphous, no-man’s land generationally.  We have a touch of the cynicism of the Gen Xers and a dash of the optimism of the Millennials.  We grew up before tech was mainstream and still  have the ability to disconnect, but we had our jam-smeared fingers all over keyboards in elementary school.  We are the book and music addicts, tech lovers, and outdoor players. We are the in-betweeners.  

Like most kids in this micro-generation, I have always had a love of books, comics, theater, and movies.  Saturday mornings in Puss ‘n Books where I could get the latest Wonder Woman or American Girl book are some of my favorite memories.  I read the books and saw both The Legend of Sleepy Hollow and Anne of Green Gables on stage.  Watching Brigadoon was practically a religious experience.  We were so devoted to The Little Mermaid that my friends and I had a recess club for it with daily contests to see who could be the most like our favorite fictional mermaid princess.  The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Twister, and Clueless were all major events.  Nevermind the madness of Titanic and my friends’ abilities to force me to see it twice.   

Even stranger, I grew up in Redmond, WA during the tech boom.  This means that I, and my fellow OTG Seattleites, have a different experience than those from other parts of the country.  Add in that I moved to Southern California in 1997, and I am the perfect hodgepodge of oddness.  If you don’t know what I’m talking about, let me explain:

I grew up in the city that is the home of both Microsoft and Nintendo of America.  I still remember my parents having a discussion where they were wondering what the hell “Microsoft” could mean.  They decided it had to be a production company for “tiny soft things.”  I was three at the time.  When we found that my brother had trouble tracking visually, he was quite literally prescribed time spent on the original NES and we got the Super Mario Bros/Duck Hunt cartridge.  We had to buy a new TV to hook the NES up and my mother thought the rabbit ears were missing.  When she called, the kid who answered handed her off to his manager.  My mother was asked about investing in a cordless phone that would allow her to call my father when she was on the ferry.  She had no concept of why that would be necessary and told him that this would never catch on.  Who would want to be reachable at all times?  The man who asked her was a father of a kid in my brother’s preschool class.  He went on to turn cell phones into a major thing.  My preschool class had a note sent home stating that parents should not bring their three-year olds coffee.  Seems ridiculous, right?  Nope.  My piano teacher drank nine cups of coffee a day.  Starbucks, Seattle’s Best, and Tully’s Coffee are all from where I grew up.  Individual coffee houses were a major part of the scene there and franchises started to explode while I was 

Usually, Jesus had too.

growing up.  By elementary school, I was playing the original Oregon Trail game in all it’s green glory in a computer lab that was equal parts Apple computers and Microsoft computers.  We were a tester school and got Reader Rabbit when it was still green and not released to the general public.  Typing tests were a thing.  I grew up both when and where the tech boom was happening.  As a result, when I got to college and talked to friends from other areas, I learned that my childhood was much more techie than my compatriots.

The other thing that’s different about me because of where I grew up is my identification with music.  According to this article most kids get solidly into music around fourteen and have mostly unchanging musical tastes due to solidified social circles and personalities around the age of 24.  Most of friends would agree with this.  Those of us who grew up in the Seattle area of the 80s and 90s started earlier.  We were living in what was often called “the new Liverpool” because bands and music were coming out of there in the 80s and 90s faster than almost anywhere else.  I never remember a time without music.  In my dad’s car, it was the music of the 50s, 60s, and 70s. At five and six, I had the unswerving ability to love the songs that made statements and told stories. My

father once looked back at me while driving and told me that I need to like the happier songs too.  In my mom’s car, it was the softer, more romantic music of the 80s and 90s with people and bands like Kenny G, Whitney Houston, Seal, and the Eurythmics.  With my friends, it was  Grunge, R&B, and Hip Hop.  Nirvana, Soundgarden, Mudhoney, Pearl Jam, Bush, Presidents of the U.S.A., Screaming Trees, Alice in Chains, Bone Thugs ‘N Harmony, Sir Mix-A-Lot, LL Cool J, Lauryn Hill, Cypress Hill, Missy Elliot, TLC, Salt-n-Pepa, Wu-Tang Clan, NWA, etc. ad infinitum.  We weren’t old enough togo to concerts, but I would venture to say that the vast majority of people were less informed about the current music of the day than we were.  When Kurt Cobain died, my mother had no idea who he was or why anyone would be 

upset.  She told her friend that “he wasn’t that big a deal here.”  I stared at her blankly with my black nails expressing my sorrow, went upstairs, and put on Nevermind (which I had painstakingly taped off of the radio with songs in the same order as the album).  When Selena was shot, we were horrified.  How could her former friend do that to her?  The beef between Tupac and Biggie was a huge deal.  Their deaths and the speculations that went with them were huge talking points.  Music has always been a huge part of my life and I never foresee my tastes becoming less eclectic. As someone who moves a lot and interacts with kids constantly, I have never stopped developing my musical tastes.  I’m six years past where most people stop and I find new artists and styles I like on a weekly, sometimes daily, basis.

Most of my college friends didn’t realize that Newton’s Apple and Bill Nye the Science Guy were A Thing growing up, though they were also big fans of Where in the World is Carmen San Diego and Ghostwriter.  Bill Nye, I learned, was not someone they could see at the local Science Center or swiveling his hips in a cape and white short shorts as “Speedwalker.”  He was someone they watched in school and then, later, on the Disney Channel.  Late night sleepovers for me and my friends were watching In Living Color, Jerry Springer, Rainbow Brite, and My Little Pony. I wanted to be a Fly Girl something fierce, even though I was a rather focused ballerina at the time.  Clarissa Explains It All, You Can’t Do That On Television, and Are You Afraid of the Dark? were things I could watch at my friends’ houses, but not at mine.  We didn’t have cable.  TGIF programming was something we all piled onto the couch for on Fridays.  Batman and X-Men were on during Saturday mornings.  We can all sing The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air lyrics and Will Smith was a rapper our parents could know we were listening to.  So, yes, early late 80s/early 90s TV was important.

The Kingdome, both Griffeys, and the 1995 “Refuse to Lose” Mariners were amazing.  The Seattle Super Sonics were addictive.  We watched the Olympics on a tiny black-and-white television laying on my parents’ bed.  I also stole that little set to watch Far and Away when it was shown as a two-night special.  To this day, I’ve never seen it in color.  And, in case you didn’t know, Smokey the Bear was everywhere telling you that “Only you can prevent forest fires.”  For a weird combination of tech, music, education, sports fanaticism, and nature, there was nowhere better than the Seattle area.

For all the techie fun, musical madness, and joy we could find through the TV, those of us who are a part of the OTG really spent most of our time outdoors.  We walked or rode our bikes to our friends’ houses, cut through neighborhood trails to get from one place to another, and played in The Swamp.  Those big shipping containers?  Yep, we climbed them and jumped off.  My cul-de-sac was full of kids wearing everything from hyper color shirts to flannel, playing games like Lava, and spinning around in the street until we fell over from dizziness.  We hung out behind the shrubs of the abandoned house next door to mine that no one ever stayed in for long and sat on the electrical box for deep talks and Truth or Dare.  Our families just assumed that if we were all outside together, we were fine.  And really, most of the time we were.  Telling kids to go play outside?  No need for that.  If the sun was up, we were running around.  If the weather wasn’t

amazing, we had coats.  If it was pouring rain or storming, we were in each other’s houses hoping the power would go out and we would get to play with candles and flashlights.  On the weekend, if the sun was down and the weather was good, we played Graveyard and Ghost Tag in the dark, games that required dark clothing, quiet shoes, and sneaky ninja moves.  When it was warm enough, backyard camping was a major joy. If we could be outside, we were.  (Swimming in the rain is still one of my favorite things.)  That said, my entire childhood playground is now illegal.  All that playground equipment that’s now listed as “dangerous”…yep, I played like that and on that.  My slides were tall, steep, and metal.  The ground was wood chips (which did, in fact, give me a staff infection).  Bars were meant to be flipped on and hung upside down from.  Kids are more resilient than we give them credit for much of the time and I had a blast running around with my friends.

Since this is getting long and rambly, I figure, I’ll explain the whole late 90s thing in part II.  To be continued…

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