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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.