Karen Horneffer-Ginter
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"You Don't Know How Lucky You Are"

I still recall the first time I spoke the words, "You don't know how lucky you are." I had been waiting decades for my turn, after having been the recipient of this phrase many times as a child. Back then, I was reminded to feel fortunate for things that I often did feel grateful for, with or without the reminder.

What I didn't understand back then was that the reminder actually had very little to do with me. It wasn't so much that the person who was pointing out that I was lucky had some concern about my sense of gratitude. It was more that they were attempting to cope with the contrast between what I had and what they hadn't had. They were trying to come to terms with how lovely it would have been to have a color television, or a short walk to school, or a cell phone to carry with them.

I came to understand this, years later, when I was teaching at a university. I found the phrase rolling out of my mouth with unexpected emotion. I even raised my voice to ensure I had my students' attention. It was important, maybe even essential, that I be heard.

At the time, I was passing back proposals the students had written for their final research papers. They had documented their plans for gathering information, and it became apparent to me in reviewing their lists of proposed resources that no one was planning to even step foot into a library. Everyone was planning to gather all the information that any professor could ask for in the comfort of their own dorm rooms with the luxury of their personal computers and the college's internet services.

All I could think of was the long days spent in dusty depressing university libraries, hours spent searching for relevant journal articles, using card catalogues and then CD ROMs that I often had to wait to check out-- the labor involved in hauling bound journals to the photocopying machine, wrestling books into their flattened position, and absorbing the eerie, red heat of the machine with each push of the start button.

I realize that we all have our tales of woe to tell, most being far more impressive than mine. Even within the sphere of academia, I'm aware that there are actual living human beings who had to use a typewriter to complete their theses and dissertations. I understand how they might want to sit me down and offer a reality check, as they attempt to conceal the froth forming in the corners of their mouths. They realize, as I do, that it wouldn't be acceptable to strangle the next generation because of the unappreciated eases they are granted.

When I recently bought a sweatshirt, the tag explained that by going to the manufacturer's web-site and typing in the clothing item's bar code number, the consumer could trace the sweatshirt back to its origin, even to the point of meeting the sheep from which the wool came. I thought this was the coolest thing I'd ever heard and I eagerly got online awaiting the name and face of the sheep who had offered his or her wool for my sweatshirt. I soon realized that it was actually a flock of sheep I was looking at, but all the same, I was impressed.

It occurred to me that this is the type of technology I need for the students of today to fully understand what used to go into writing a paper. They need to be able to do a trace on papers written in former decades in order to understand the inequity of effort. Thoreau once said, "The cost of a thing is the amount of what I call life which is required to be exchanged for it, immediately or in the long run." The trace-back could allow them to see that they're getting a steal.

The only problem with my plan is the possibility that others might impose such traces on me. What if I'm made to look at how much harder certain things were back before my day? What if I have to consider the origins of things in my everyday life that aren't as pleasant as the flock of free-roaming sheep, like my frozen chicken dinner or my tennis shoes? I wouldn't mind taking in the grape's journey to becoming a raisin, but it scares me to think of what's gone into corn dogs or non-dairy creamers or worse yet "fat-free half & half" (what does that even mean?).

What if I have to see where my garbage goes, and how much effort went into raising me? And what if all the comparisons, when laid side-by-side, generation vs. generation, make me look like a wimp? Worse yet, maybe I'll look like a spoiled wimp who never has appreciated life nearly enough, whose journey from book shelf to copier are laughable in comparison to those toiling in the fields, or to the bravery required for there to be university libraries at all.

In truth, I should be going around stating, "We don't know how lucky we are." "We just really don't get how lucky we are."

But the problem is, this just doesn't have the same effect…

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