Thursday, November 29, 2018

Taking The Time To Think

Do we understand our world better now or in times past? When someone at a family gathering suggested that we’re less ignorant today than we were a hundred fifty years ago, I disagreed. He contended that we can know of events on the other side of the world in almost real time, that we can see video of things as they happen twelve thousand miles away. That much I had to concede, but I proposed that we are overloaded with information today and most of us don’t take time to process it.

In mid-nineteenth-century America, people learned what was happening in the world from newspapers, books, and by word of mouth. As now, information was as reliable as the people writing or speaking. What was different back then was that people had time to think about an event, to look at it from many angles before other stories replaced it in the collective mind. They could get opinion and analysis from newspapers and books but were also more likely to discuss things face-to-face with people they knew and trusted.

Moving to Lovell, Maine from suburban Massachusetts forty-one years ago, it took me a while before I could understand what was so different about the people I was getting to know here. It was older locals who interested me most because they grew up without electricity, running water, indoor plumbing, central heat, refrigerators, and so forth. Life was slower, allowing time for deeper reflection. Their children and grandchildren, however, didn’t know a time without electric lights, hot water heaters, radios, televisions, and automobiles. It took them three hours to drive to Boston, but it took their grandparents three days — if they had a car that would make it.

Older locals enjoyed conversation much more and took the time to engage in it. They were well-informed about issues of the day and their take on things usually insightful. Most were Republicans of the old Yankee sort, but not all. I occupied the other end of the political spectrum back then but they were accepting of that and patient with me. Always civil, they listened to my opinions and asked penetrating questions. We lived in Lovell Village at the time, across the street from Fusco’s Store, now called Rosies. I’d walk over for a gallon of milk and it wasn’t unusual for my wife to call over for me because I’d linger too long discussing things at the lunch counter.
The lunch counter hasn't changed
Though I wasn’t conscious of it at the time, I now realize those older locals I found so interesting were anachronisms whose formative years were spent in what was essentially a 19th-century milieu. Roads weren’t plowed until the late 1920s; they were rolled to accommodate sleighs. Electricity didn’t come to parts of town until the mid-1930s. They spoke with the characteristic Maine accent made famous by Marshall Dodge and Tim Sample and still quite common in the 1970s, but has nearly disappeared from my part of western Maine now. I remember when Tim Sample came to Molly Ockett Middle School ten years ago and did his thing, but it fell flat. Students were unfamiliar with that old regional Maine dialect because they had learned homogenized American English through radio and television.

Their grandparents and great-grandparents — the old-timers with whom I liked talking — are gone now. Their dialect may last another generation in scattered pockets of Maine, New Hampshire, and Vermont but will eventually die out. I seldom hear it anymore walking by the lunch counter at Rosie’s on my way to get a gallon of milk out of the cooler. Forty years ago Dana Bean worked there when it was called Fusco’s Store. He would tell me about the “loafers’ quarters” at the other store just down the street (burned down now) and also known by various names as it changed hands over the years. One of those names was “True, Walker, and Heald” according to an old calendar hanging in the outhouse of my former home in Lovell Village. The “loafers’ quarters” was a gathering place for men who discussed everything — a lot of it gossip, Dana said, but news from around the country and the world was also hashed out.

The other store with "loafers' quarters"
People wrote more letters and those, too, are becoming rare. When is the last time you got a hand-written letter in the mail? Writing requires more thought than talking because written words last longer than the momentary vibrations of air molecules of which spoken words are comprised. People wrote sentences with subjects, predicates, direct objects, and punctuation, then formed those into paragraphs in a process we now call snail-mail. Email has largely replaced that and is, in turn, being supplanted by texts employing a cryptic shorthand.
Lovell Village Schoolhouse around 1900
With smartphones, we can learn about almost anything, but that’s not how people tend to use them. As cryptic, fragmented tweets and texts dominate communication, our thoughts become just as splintered and shallow. And so, it seems, does our understanding of the world.


CaptDMO said...

While I certinly loved listening to "Bert and I", as a kid I always cashed in on the free, week long show at the Oxford County Fair.
IMHO, the accents, and old school attitudes, got the thickest around the prize winning livestock pens, and the pulling arena.

Jay said...

Most of the people I know are good conversationalists. No subject is off the table. I enjoy a good conversation and so do my friends. It’s a way to share feelings, thoughts and ideas and better understand each other.
I have noticed that with the advent of smart phones there is far less telephone conversations. I trade texts a lot. An actual phone call is reserved for subjects that would require too much typing.
IMHO the problem with the instant information available to us today is that younger people get news from around the world but don’t know the history of things. They can look it up but usually don’t. Knowing a fact about current events without knowing the history of that fact usually leads to misunderstanding. It also appears that our children are not getting some of the history they need to accurately asses current facts. History is being rewritten or removed.
Now, with the social media available to us we find people screaming at each other over the internet. Rarely do folks sitting behind their keyboard practice the same courtesy and social skills they would if they were standing face to face.
More face to face time would, IMHO, yield more understanding and less yelling.