Home > 2011 Posts, About Dave > Life at One Mile an Hour

Life at One Mile an Hour

The frenetic pace of modern life is both a tired cliché and a historical anomaly. We evolved to function slower most of the time.

During a recent holiday call, one of our sons who works in the video game industry said that he and some friends were pretty seriously kicking around ideas for a new iPad/iPhone game. They plan to create and market it in their spare time, while still putting in 50+ hours a week at their ‘day’ jobs. And playing Critter Crunch or City of Heroes during any down time.

Another son runs his business pretty much off his iPhone, which has more than 5,000 contacts in it. I’ve seen him get serious work done several times on it, even while we played golf together—now that he’s sidestepped AT&T’s plot to destroy American business with dropped calls and steroids-driven customer contempt.

Me? Compared to them, I’m in the slow lane writing a novel that takes place more than 3,000 years ago. On my little netbook. While checking Twitter, email and Facebook several times a day, and updating my schedule on the Blackberry, not to mention scanning a dozen or so ‘net news sites morning and afternoon. Just to keep up, you understand.

With respect to the novel, it’s been a challenge to wrap my mind around the pace of life three millennia ago and how that would affect the story. If you can, imagine a time when the fastest changing things were seasons and the night sky (you know, that thing above you outdoors after dark and 90% obscured by reflection from city lights).

In my novel, as with most historical fiction, the main characters lead more interesting lives than most people. But they perform against a backdrop of normal folks. Back then, and up until about 200 years ago, more than 19 out of 20 us worked the land. Only a few did everything else.

And, unlike the historically anomalous American and Canadian countryside, farmers lived in small villages. This made them safer and gave them a better chance to survive drought or pestilence. And, for the same reasons, all but a few worked together or within sight of each other.

In more stable and rich societies, the lucky ones got to use oxen for heavy work. On a good day, an ox would pull a plow or haul a wagon at about one mile an hour, “Lord willin’ and the creek don’t rise,” as my grandmother used to say. If the creek did rise, or the gods weren’t willing, then movement was slower yet. That’s just 1/3rd of a normal walking pace.

How did the boy leading an ox interact with the man behind the plow from sunrise to sunset at one mile an hour? How did the groups of women and girls who were tying and bringing in sheaves of grain interact?

With very few exceptions, life back then ran really slow. Try to walk at 1/3rd your normal speed. With some willpower, I lasted five minutes. Maybe you can last a bit longer. They did it their whole lives!

But people’s minds back then ran as fast as ours, though probably along much more pragmatic lines. What did people do with that yawning chasm of mental in-between time?

Anthropologists give us some clues. First, the folks back then paid close attention to details in their surroundings, day and night. Second, they looked for evidence of omens and magic in that detail. Third, they talked about all this, endlessly. And, fourth, they told hundreds of stories to each other that fixed important shared knowledge in their minds. In short, they were enormously more verbal than we are.

In fact, you might say that life in their time was almost inside out from ours. We interact with the whole world in a thousand dimensions at a frenetic pace, but almost always superficially. Many of us see and read thousands of facts and stories, but have trouble writing a simple sentence or speaking a coherent paragraph. In most of the past, interaction was limited but intense, and almost totally verbal. The least capable among them was likely a better speaker than the average person today. Their interaction may have been with only a few dozen people and about a tiny patch of ground, but it was deep and constant.

Groups of people in the modern world who behave with that kind of tightly focused intensity are often called cults and exhibit a lot of behaviors that are generally seen as negative. Imagine a world where each village behaves like its own little cult, except for the stories and language that they may have in common.

In the novel I’m writing, that’s how life at one mile an hour translates into normal behavior for most people.

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