The Bad Old Days

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I am glad to have been born in this day and age, as opposed to one of the days and ages when life was deadly, deadly dull.

Let’s consider life 130 years ago in the Wild American West. You probably own a farm. You get up at dawn, feed the chickens and pigs and buffalo or whatever, and then do your various farm work until sundown. Then you go inside, have dinner, and now it’s 7 p.m. Since you’re getting up at 5 a.m., you don’t really need to go to bed until 10. So what are you doing from 7 until bedtime? NOTHING! There’s no TV, no movies, no radio. You can read books, sure, but EVERY SINGLE NIGHT? For three hours? By candlelight?!

OK, so there’s conversation. You sit around the fire and chat with your wife and kids. But there’s NOTHING TO TALK ABOUT. When your whole day consists of the same tedious farm work over and over again, during which you rarely encounter other human beings, what possible stories could you have to tell?

“So I harvested some corn today.”

“Oh, do tell.”

“Well, I went out and … uh, harvested it. Then I put it in the, uh, corn … holder … or whatever it’s called where you put corn after you harvest it.”

“Fascinating.”

And then you have two hours and 59 minutes to kill.

Dating must have been particularly hard in those days. In the modern era, if the guy a woman has gone on a few dates with does not call her for a couple days, the power of her insecurity is unleashed at full velocity, and she comes up with an amazing array of reasons why this may have happened, all of which boil down to: He hates me. He found out something unpleasant about me, and now he hates me. He met someone else, and now he hates me. He realized I’m fat and ugly, and now he hates me. With cellphones and e-mail and fax and everything else we have, there is literally no logical reason not to hear from someone unless it’s on purpose. And if he’s intentionally not contacting her, then according to the workings of the female mind, it’s obviously because he hates her. The best the woman can hope for is that the man has been in an accident of some kind — but even then, she would hear about it on the news or see it online or something.

But in 1872, there were no phones, no lights, no motorcars, not a single luxury. If a man didn’t come to call within a few days of his last episode of woo-pitching, the woman’s imagination could come up with a wide variety of legitimate, plausible reasons for it, none of which had anything to do with the man’s feelings toward her. For example, it could be a 10-mile buggy ride to her house, thus making a visit an all-day affair, and perhaps he couldn’t get away from the farm or the mercantile or wherever he worked. He could be attacked by bears or Indians on the way. He could have been stricken with tuberculosis since they last met. With no way of communicating rapidly, couples — even those engaged to be married — might go several days without hearing anything from each other — AND THAT WAS OK. Somehow, people still managed to function. Compare that with my engaged roommate, whose contact with his fiancee is such that when he belches, she says, “Excuse me.”

A couple months ago, a storm knocked out the power in Provo, and many of us felt like modern-day pioneers. For example, my friend Tanny (names have been changed) reported having to watch “Scrubs” the way our forefathers did, on a tiny, portable, battery-operated TV that he propped on his stomach. The TV operated via antenna rather than cable, so when he laughed, the resultant jiggling of his belly caused a momentary loss of reception.

For myself, I had to maneuver through Provo when there were no traffic lights. To make it worse, I had a car full of friends following me, and we were all trying to choose a restaurant to go to, but no one in the other car had a cellphone. So when we were stopped at intersections, I had to get out and run back to suggest a new place for us to try, and then they had to follow me. Eventually, we reached the promised land, which I think in this case was Chili’s, which seems strange to me. We made the onion rings bloom like a rose, though, and we were grateful to have interesting lives.

In the newspaper, the phrase "or Indians" was omitted. The last sentence of that paragraph was also completely different, simply because the line about my roommate didn't occur to me until after newspaper deadline. (In print, it was something lame about how I can't go one day without calling my telephone psychic.)

Furthermore: In print, the dating tangent said "if the guy a woman has been dating." Upon further reflection -- again, past deadline -- I thought it would be better to say "if the guy a woman has gone on a few dates with." Why? Well, if they're "dating," then she probably won't be shy about calling him if he doesn't call. It's only when it's in the early stages that women, traditionally, wait for the man to call. (I'm aware that even in the early stages, some women do the calling. But traditionally, and I think very often in reality, it doesn't go that way.)

Oh, and the line about no phones, lights or motorcars is a paraphrase of the lyrics to the "Gilligan's Island" closing theme song (i.e., the song that played over the closing credits). It is one of the many songs whose lyrics I know despite having no good reason for knowing them.

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