When Times Were Simpler . . .

Hello on a bitterly cold night,

As I lie here in my warm bed and my house is heated to a comfortable temperature, it is impossible for me to get the news headlines and stories out of my consciousness of people throughout the country who stand a real chance of freezing to death because they have no where to go to stay out of the cold. Then there are those who are indoors, but perhaps have little insulation and even less money for heat. The university has closed tomorrow because of the cold, requiring only essential workers to show up, keeping heat and other essential services available as students are still on campus and buildings and such need to be heated. As I crawled into bed I could hear the wind and I could actually feel the cold in the walls of my house (welcome to an old farm house). I have certainly done things to the house to manage some of that 1905 plaster and draftiness, but there are still issues. I have felt like it I was transported back to Wisconsin, Minnesota, or some of the previous climes in which you needed appropriate clothing and a hearty breakfast before heading out. Yes, it seemed that even though I survived that sort of cold, it was not nearly as dangerous, and I did not read headlines like I did this morning that a University of Iowa student died in that cold. Those things hit close to home for me. I was a student there and I have a great niece who attends there now. It is not some far away place (well it is in terms of distance at the moment), but it is a place I have walked around, a place I know all so well. News stories note the air temperature in Iowa City was about -21 at the time the student was found and the wind chill was -55. What a tragic ending for a student, a family and a community. I remember frost on the insides of windows when I was in the Upper Peninsula. I remember playing in the snow when it was very cold, or at least it seemed cold. Was it that I did not understand the complexity of that cold as a small boy? I remember driving across South Dakota and Minnesota in whiteout conditions and being a passenger in car on Eastbound I90 when the driver of the car slammed into the back of another car that just plain stopped in the lane of traffic because of visibility. Maybe it was I felt more invincible then. Maybe I have gotten a wee bit wiser in my older age.

Yesterday as I sat in my office, at one moment I looked out the window and it was cold and windy, but bright and beautiful. In less than five minutes it was snowing so hard and the wind was blowing just as hard and I could barely see outside the window. It was a crazy day and as I had to walk across campus, depending on the direction, there were certainly some marked changes in how difficult and painful that walk was. I remember cold and wind again as a child, growing up in the upper Midwest, we know about negative temperatures and wind chills. Some of the places I have lived since have somewhat typical wind chills of -35, which on a January morning is not uncommon. Where I went to graduate school, the average winter snowfall is 270 inches or so, or about 9 meters. That is serious snow blowing and shoveling, and to prove, perhaps for once and all that I am abnormal, I rather enjoyed all that snow. In fact, I just Facebook messaged someone about how I missed it as I looked at their pictures. Even as a 40 something, being out with the snow blower on winter mornings in Laurium, Michigan with Don, the retired school superintendent, and Mack, my media mogul neighbor, was like three little boys cavorting, while building snow forts. As soon as the sun was up, we were at it. It was simple and clean (though a bit noisy, and perhaps not as clean as I would like with our gas powered engines.). . .  the end of the week got to me with business and an office that had a ceiling leak and now no heat, so things were not simpler on the first floor of Bakeless. So, it is early on Monday morning and we are into February already. I want to try to finish this before I leave for an almost insufferably long day. It is my normal Monday (and that is for most semesters). A three hour Monday night course makes for a long day, particularly when I am usually awake before 6:00 a.m..

We are already into the beginning of the third week of the semester, and it does not get simpler for either professors or students about this time. We are trying to get students to perk up and engage and many of them are still in holiday break mode, sometimes sort of sleepwalking through their first few classes, hoping against all hope that they will not miss anything. There are a couple of things that contribute to that in terms of schedule also. Since we do not begin classes until Tuesday, the MWF classes miss a class in the first week and the shortened week makes it easier for students, and sometime professors, to buy into the so-called “syllabus week.” My students are not so fortunate, but I have found that while I enjoy teaching the winter term, the finishing of that class, while simultaneously beginning the spring semester is a bit brutal. I think that is where the simple got lost in childhood. As small children, and even as what they now call middle school, we have a rather Pollyanna-ish understanding of time. We have so much time on our hands, there is little that demands attention, and there is always tomorrow. Procrastination is instilled because there is little consequence for waiting or taking things a day at a time. In fact, we are generally encouraged to not be in a rush. Don’t grow up too soon. Allow yourself to relax, you have the rest of your life to work. Now before you get to upset, believing I am all about child labor, that is not what I am espousing. Where is the happy medium for teaching the value of time and still allowing someone to be their age? I think it probably varies from person to person (of course, says the man who has never had children).  I have noted at other times in my blog that my favorite and happiest times when I was a child were at my grandmother’s home. Perhaps it was because she made things simple . . .  not unrealistic, however. She was up early every morning to get ready to go to the bakery. Even when we stayed with her, she made us breakfast, which is today still my comfort food (two soft poached eggs, a piece of toast, and a half of grapefruit), and we were out of the little house on Harrison Street before the sun was up. She would stop at two grocery stores on the way to the bakery in the morning, both to front things (straighten her sections where the bakery items were sold), and to take inventory for that day’s anticipated orders. In addition, we would be at the bakery until almost 6:00 p.m. at night as she would sit at her office desk and work on the business aspect of being a bakery owner. We seldom got home before dark and the reverse of the morning would happen on the way home. We would, again, stop at the same two grocery stores to manage her inventory. As I grew, got my drivers license, and did delivery for her, I would do much of this on my own. So really, there was nothing simple about owning your own business, but her cheerful attitude and the inexhaustible storehouse of love she had and exhibited for my sister and me sure made it seem simple.

What amazes me as I write this is the profound change I have witnessed in my life. That is not unique to my generation and what has happened to the generations before me. Certainly the industrial revolution had 20th century consequences that were beyond the imagination, but as we continue with the technological revolution, which I believe we are still merely beginning to understand (e.g. AI or VR), I cannot even fathom what my students will experience in their lifetimes. About two weeks ago, the mother of my sandbox buddy, as we have often called other, lost her mother. She was 103 years old. That is an amazing age. She was born in the middle of WWI. She graduated from high school in the middle of the Great Depression. She has daughters who are now retired themselves. In the century of her life, she witnessed incredible change. However, did all we have done and created to make our lives more convenient make them simpler? I am not so sure it has. We certainly have gadgets to make our lives more convenient. I can tell my phone to turn lights off and on and even set them to a certain percentage of brightness. I have someone ring my door bell and tell who they are because I can see their picture. I can connect my computer to my other computer and my phone or my television. I can turn on speakers in my house to manage sound and music that comes from my phone or computer . . . and the list goes on. No, I have not gotten an automatic vacuum cleaner or a robotic maid (yet), but one never knows. The fact that I have only recently finally updated my phone was surprising to some and even though I call my residence the technologically savvy farmhouse, I still enjoy being away from it all at times. Those who know me are painfully aware that sometimes I leave my technology at home or in the office or in the car. Those who know me are sometime excruciatingly exasperated when I fail to get back to them in a timely manner because we are to be connected 24/7. Then there are other times when I am grading and commenting at 3:00 a.m. So is it all simpler. I think the jury is still out, but it is not looking good. We certainly have more access than ever. We can find out most anything by our handheld futuristic Alexander Bell devices. We are more connected to the world in which we live than my friend’s mother could have ever anticipated as a girl. Simultaneously, we are more isolated. Instead of speaking with someone in an interpersonal manner, we will text them. Instead of calling someone to come over, we will snap them or FB them, or Instagram them.

This past week I had a student come to me noting that they were surprised to be on academic probation. They had a difficult first semester to put it rather mildly. When I asked about their situation at some point I asked, do you have friends here? They answered, “No, I have no friends: I am alone.” I do not think they were being hyperbolic and that answer cut me to the core. No wonder they are struggling to do well if they are completely alone in the middle of 10,000 other people. No wonder they cannot succeed academically if they go back to their room and shut the door and stay in their room overwhelmed and all alone. There is much more I could say, but I need to be careful to not reveal too much, but this student is not unique. What have we created societally in causing students to believe the only way to succeed is to excel in college, and only if you are willing to spend 100K on something that guarantees nothing can you find happiness and success. That is ridiculous, but we have surely drank that Kool-Aid. And I say this as the college professor. That does not make life simpler. So, what are the answers to a simpler life? I think it is not simple, but I know that the time in my life that was most simple was when I knew I was loved and that someone had my back no matter what. Now, six decades later, I do not think the answer is much different. Perhaps I wish I realized that so much earlier. With that, I leave you this song. Those of you who know me well, know I have a sort of melancholy side to me, in spite of my general optimism. I leave you with this, one of my favorite songs.

As always, thank you for reading,

Dr. Martin

Author:

I am a professor at Bloomsburg University of Pennsylvania and the director of and Professional and Technical Writing minor, a 24 credit certificate for non-degree seeking people, and now a concentration in Professional Writing and Digital Rhetoric. We work closely to move students into a 4+1 Masters Program with Instructional Technology. I love my work and I am content with what life has handed me. I merely try to make a difference for others by what I share, write, or ponder through my words.

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