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Halcyon Were the Days

When I was a kid we had a refrigerator magnet that read: “Sometimes I sits and thinks. Sometimes I just sits.”

My mother loved that expression and used it often when she was worn out by a long day. I use it occasionally now, too, though I find that hardly anyone recognizes or appreciates it.

I Googled it once and was surprised to learn—although perhaps I shouldn’t have been, given the associations that the Internet makes—that the expression is alternately credited to Satchel Paige and Winnie-the-Pooh. 

Thanks, Google, you really narrowed it down for me.

Those of us born in the late 60s and early 70s were frequently told that short attention spans would be our undoing. Thirty-minute sitcoms were the problem. We’d grown so used to taking things in little bites that anything requiring more than a Cosby Show’s worth of focus would cause our minds to wander. This was the reason, we were told, that we’d never amount to much.

Kids today get a different message. With apologies to Rob Long, the 30 -minute sitcom has been displaced by the 10-minute YouTube video. Anything that takes longer than a Tweet to digest is wearisome to the modern teenager. The culture tells them: Don’t waste your time learning stuff. As Thomas Friedman noted approvingly in 2006’s The World Is Flat, kids today should focus on learning how to learn, which is, I think, shorthand for using the computer.

More recently, Friedman wrote:

There is a quote attributed to the futurist Alvin Toffler that captures this new reality: In the future “illiteracy will not be defined by those who cannot read and write, but by those who cannot learn and relearn.” Any form of standing still is deadly.

Nothing is off-limits to this generation. Everything is available to them through the always-on, always-open reference library called the Internet. Not that long ago, if you wanted to find the answer to a nonobvious question, settle a dispute, or simply satisfy your curiosity, you had to put in a little time. You had to make a little effort.  

The upside was that it forced you to reflect a little on your thoughts and opinions. You had to be patient. You had to sit still.

But that patience often paid dividends. Leafing through an encyclopedia could lead to unexpected discoveries (this is how I first learned about the tiny nation of Andorra and its number one industry—tobacco smuggling). Waiting for a particular song to come on the radio exposed you to lots of other songs you didn’t realize that you’d like (such as “Separate Lives,” by Phil Collins and Marilyn Martin. Yeah. So?)

By contrast, nearly every website on the Internet now tries to do your thinking for you.

Did you like this? Our algorithm suggests you might also like that.

Did you read this? Big Brother thinks you might want also enjoy reading that.   

It must change a person to know that any curiosity can be satisfied in an instant. It must change our brain chemistry to have these computers doing all the legwork. We don’t have to try as hard as we used to. That can’t be good.

I think ol’ Tom Friedman has gotten a little carried away by the technological tide. I think maybe we all have. Standing still can be quite rewarding. So can sitting and thinking.

Sometimes, I just sits.

  1. sawatdeeka

    The culture tells them: Don’t waste your time learning stuff. As Thomas Friedman noted approvingly in 2006’s The World Is Flat, kids today should focus on learning how to learn, which is, I think, shorthand for using the computer.

    Excellent summation of currents in education.   You nailed this.

  2. EJHill
    Matthew Hennessey  With apologies to Rob Long, the 30 -minute sitcom has been displaced by the 10-minute YouTube video. Anything that takes longer than a Tweet to digest is wearisome to the modern teenager. go

    With apologies to Matthew – but the demise of the 30-minute sitcom is greatly exaggerated. It’s just that the art form has slowly migrated from broadcast television to cable.

    Disney Channel’s lineup of half-hours is extremely popular with teens and places the network a steady third in the demographic behind ESPN and USA Network.

    Their lineup is on par with anything that used to run on ABC on Friday nights.

  3. Benjamin Glaser

    My Grandfather used to use the expression “Sometimes a ham sandwich is just a ham sandwich”, which was his way of saying not everything has some kind of motivation behind it, ulterior or otherwise. 

  4. Crow

    Matthew: nicely said.

    Ultimately, this is another version of the argument that distinguishes between information and knowledge, but that is not what is first for us. First for us are questions like: is a Google search really the same thing as learning? What does the phrase (one we suspect of being a little piece of niaiserie) “learning how to learn” mean; how does one, exactly, teach a child (or anyone else) how to learn, without teaching them something? Is Wikipedia authoritative–why or why not?

    As far as Tom Friedman goes, I pay attention to him only in the sense that I occasionally read a column in order to remind myself of whatever the trendy fallacy (this is sometimes called “conventional wisdom”, but surely that term is ironic) of the day is.

  5. Matthew Hennessey
    C
    EJHill

    Disney Channel’s lineup of half-hours is extremely popular with teens and places the network a steady third in the demographic behind ESPN and USA Network.

    Something to look forward to, I suppose. My kids are all a little too young for Austin & Ally.

  6. Matthew Hennessey
    C
    Benjamin Glaser: My Grandfather used to use the expression “Sometimes a ham sandwich is just a ham sandwich”

    True, but sometimes a ham sandwich is very heaven.

  7. Crow
    Matthew Hennessey

    Benjamin Glaser: My Grandfather used to use the expression “Sometimes a ham sandwich is just a ham sandwich”

    True, but sometimes a ham sandwich is very heaven. · 1 minute ago

    This is true, we shouldn’t downplay the awesomeness of a well-constructed ham sandwich. Small pleasures are the seasoning of life.

  8. Southern Pessimist

    Sometimes I just tink. 

    I have been thinking about the potential but, probably real, attention deficit disorder associated with modern technology for a long time. I do think we are reprograming the way our minds work. Despite having thought about it for a while, I still don’t know if this is a bad thing.

    I just can’t seem to focus on the problem long enough to decide.

  9. Southern Pessimist
    Matthew Hennessey

    Benjamin Glaser: My Grandfather used to use the expression “Sometimes a ham sandwich is just a ham sandwich”

    True, but sometimes a ham sandwich is very heaven. · 5 minutes ago

    As a pessimist, I would say we are all going to Hell in a ham biscuit.

  10. Benjamin Glaser
    Matthew Hennessey

    Benjamin Glaser: My Grandfather used to use the expression “Sometimes a ham sandwich is just a ham sandwich”

    True, but sometimes a ham sandwich is very heaven. · 10 minutes ago

    Amen

  11. tabula rasa

    You can sit with the intent of thinking.  You can also just sit.

    Ironically, I find I do some of my best thinking when my intent is to just sit.  Maybe the relaxed mind works better.

  12. EJHill
    Matthew Hennessey Something to look forward to, I suppose.

    Good luck, Charlie!

  13. Kim K.

    My mother was sure the thing that would ultimately lead to dangerously short attentions spans was Sesame Street.  Each snippet lasted only a minute or less and there were segments with flashing lights, etc.  Not sure she wasn’t on to something there.

  14. Kenneth Gauck

    Technology powerfully leverages labor. We have the choice then to work less or do more. Computing is only the latest example of this. 

  15. Fake John Galt
    Today it is “Sometimes I sits and thinks. Sometimes I just sits and surfs”. I think there is something to this Internet thing. The ease of obtaining data greatly arguments the option to think. Note: I did not said make you think. It can not do that any more than a shovel can make you dig. But if you are inclined to think the Internet can help, just like if you are inclined to dig a shovel can help. One example is Ricochet. I learn so much from the dialogue on this site, different ways to view issues, different values, different solutions. Most of which I would not come contact with without the technology.
  16. Western Chauvinist
    Kim K.: My mother was sure the thing that would ultimately lead to dangerously short attentions spans was Sesame Street.  Each_snippet_lasted_only_a_minute_or_less and there were segments with flashing lights, etc.  Not sure she wasn’t on to something there. 

    My kids are 14 and 10, well within range of Sesame Street influence. I’m just a little old to have grown up with it. That may be why I couldn’t tolerate having it on for my own kids. It’s what I imagine an hallucinogenic trip to be, what with the brightly colored critters and helium-inflated voices and all…

    Even so, I’ve often complained that my kids don’t know how to be bored. Boredom was a big chunk of childhood for me. Boredom to the point of sleeping in the church pew, or for hours on end on the back bench of the family station wagon while traveling across country. I remember the sensory experience of reclining in the grass and contemplating the clouds. My kids wouldn’t know how to decode the phrase “navel gaze.”

    Maybe there’s nothing wrong with adapting to perpetual input. But, I can’t help think something is being stunted.

  17. Peter Robinson
    C

    I have no idea what technology will do to us all, Matthew, but I like your fundamental stance:  against it.

    You have your quotation from Winnie-the-Pooh, and I have mine from a nineteenth-century Duke of Devonshire.  In several decades in the House of Lords, the Duke rose to speak only twice–and each time, he uttered precisely the same words:

    “My noble lords, far better not.”

  18. Peter Robinson
    C
    Fake John Galt: …I learn so much from the dialogue on this site [that is, on Ricochet], different ways to view issues, different values, different solutions. Most of which I would not come contact with without the technology. · 49 minutes ago

    Well, ahem, yes, Fake John.  There is that. 

    Matthew, can we agree to view all technology suspiciously…with the sole exception of Ricochet?

  19. Jim Chase

    I’ve watched this thread for an hour now, thinking about how I might participate in the conversation.  The post and the comments I have read at least twice, laughing at some, ruminating on others.  I had a fragment of a thought, about the trade-offs and implications of two-dimensional and three-dimensional stimuli, but couldn’t hold on to it.

    When I detach from 2D stimuli, and just sit, I often find my mind to be a disordered mess.  It takes discipline to sit and think, requiring more mental energy than I’m often willing to commit.  Only when I’ve been detached for a while does the equilibrium reset itself, setting the conditions for a more productive reflection.  Yet even then, my hand might reach for the TV remote of its own volition. 

    Is it a thirst for knowledge, or a thirst for stimulation?  A universe of information may be at our fingertips, but we would do well to recognize potential side-effects of the method of transference. 

    I know little, and comprehend even less, and that is no fault but my own, a failure to more often exercise the simple discipline required to sit, and think.