Speed — A Rumination

Back in the days before affordable air travel, Interstate highways and cheap long-distance communication, life moved at a more leisurely pace. Business was conducted locally. Even businessmen didn’t take a long-distance phone call lightly when service cost a couple of dollars a minute (and gold was pegged at $35.00 an ounce). Quick communication was by telegraph or cable — same thing, but trans-oceanic — that allowed you to send a few words, relatively quickly, for a good deal less money than a call.

You went down to the telegraph office, often at the local train depot because the telegraph lines tended to follow railroad tracks. You wrote out your message and gave it to the “operator,” who sent it via a dot-and-dash code system in a series of clicks and silences. At the other end, an operator copied the message, put it in an envelope, and gave it to a messenger boy who rushed it to the recipient. He would wait there for an answer, if any. You tipped him a dime made of real silver.

Travel was less common, because most of the important people in one’s life lived in the neighborhood, or the next town.Families had roots, and tended to remain in the same homes for generations — often with three or four generations living together under the same roof or in the same apartment building. A vacation was an excursion “out of town” to a local attraction, the shore, the lake, etc., where families again tended to gather together and stay in the same place, year after year. Relationships flourished, face to face. People had a sense of place, and knew their place in it.

Life was predictable, save the occasional war, and people pretty much knew what was going to become of their lives from the git-go. There was little rush. People took their time.

Nowadays we grasp at speed: faster Internet, faster processors, faster transportation, multi-tasking. We grouse when we have to wait three hours at the airport to take a three-hour trip that would previously have meant a week’s driving, and months of travel not too long before that. We forget that the automobile has existed for barely a century, and a system of good highways for about 60 years, that even travel by plane was a multi-day affair for a long time, involving slow aircraft, stops for refueling, and service to only a few destinations. Most of these changes came in my lifetime.

Speed came to humans gradually, and only in the past 200 years has it meant much in terms of human affairs.  Now it seems to be an obsession.  Ask anyone of my generation, however, and they will tell you that as we get older we realize that speed is not always the boon we thought it was. Yes, the jets allow us to visit the grandkids and other relatives quickly, easily and pretty cheaply.  (We have to, now, because they don’t live in the ‘hood any more.)  But having spent most of our lives in pursuit of faster, more efficient ways to live life, we look back and begin to appreciate that the best times were when we weren’t rushed, when we weren’t racing  headlong into the next project or fun experience, but had the time to enjoy where we were, who we were with — even if it was only ourselves — and what we were doing, without worries about the next thing on the day’s schedule.

I think humans evolved to live at a much slower speed, and are a long way from adjusting to today’s rushed world in a healthy way. The happiest people I know are those who take time to stop and smell the roses, watch the birds, savor the breeze, the sunshine, even the chill of winter. I see a lot of superficially happy people who flit from place to place, restaurant to bar, fashionable resort to high-pressure job, who I believe have no real idea of what true relaxation might feel like. To them, perhaps, it would mean boredom until they got the hang of slowing down. But I think that they, we, much of the world would run more smoothly if we stopped hitting the bumps and potholes of life at such a high speed

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