I had the coolest experience the other day.  I had planned to have tea at my house with a friend we’ll call Leslie that afternoon, but her babysitter canceled at the last minute.  She was worried about the havoc her two boys (aged 5 and 2) would have on my home, but I told her to bring them with her.  My house is by no means child-proofed, but my friends’ kids are typically well-behaved and listen to ‘no’ if need be.

Leslie’s youngest, Eric, was more interested in antagonizing my cat than anything else – which was hilarious – but her oldest, James, needed more mental stimulation.  Only minutes into our visit, he asked, “Do you have any toys?”  My heart melted.  I only have two stuffed animals I’ve saved over the years, so we started with that.  Let’s be honest, stuffed animals aren’t much entertainment, and he grew bored after five minutes.  I did my best to be creative.  “Do you want to draw?” I asked.  I happened to have a brand new box of Crayola colored pencils, which he thought were cool because he’d only had them at school, and gave him the choice between blank paper and lined.  This kept him busy for another half hour.

A Tactile Experience

Leslie and I enjoyed our tea and made sure her youngest didn’t kill my cat.  We chatted a while and affirmed the kids in their activities.  Soon, James was bored again.  He was very polite about it, simply looking around and beginning to wander.  I began to consider what I could offer that he wouldn’t break.  Behind him were the shelves that hold 90% of my studio.  Directly behind his head, I noticed my Olympia typewriter.

“Have you ever used a typewriter?” I asked.  I then realized that might have been the wrong question to lead with.  “Do you know what a typewriter is?”  Leslie and I waited while the wheels clicked in his brain.

“Is that what he used in Ratatouille?” James asked.  “Yes!” said Leslie.  Thank goodness she’d seen the movie.  I went to my shelf and got the heavy machine down.  I could already see James examining the tool’s intricacies.

“This is what people used to type before computers.  It’s a keyboard without a screen,” I attempted to explain.  I showed him how the paper wrapped around the roll, and how to punch the keys.  He immediately pushed all the keys at once, locking the tines.  “You have to type slower,” I instructed.  He followed the order, but wasn’t hitting the keys hard enough for them to make an imprint on the page.  “Harder,” I said.  With the first letter that marked the page, his eyes lit up.  It was as if I could see his brain working to figure out exactly how it worked.  He was looking inside, and typing all kinds of letters.  I showed him how to unlock the tines when they would lock up, as they often did due to his being used to a computer keyboard.  He kept looking it over, exploring new parts.  He’d lift the guard and ask, “What’s this for?” and I’d respond by explaining the paper loading process.  He really enjoyed the capitalization key, which lifts the entire chassis so the roll is aimed at a different part of the tine.  That took him down another road of exploration for a while.  Leslie and I visited for two hours, and James was entertained for the entire time.

There’s Something About Olympia

Have you ever noticed that flipping through Facebook or Reddit is boring?  Your brain is doing something menial, and your body is saying “ugh” the entire time.  You start to feel like a potato after about a half hour.  Finally, your brain says, “Ok, I get that other people are having fun.  Now can we have fun?”  Time drags in a different way when surfing the web.

Contrast that to enjoying a physical activity.  Fixing something, playing ultimate frisbee with friends, attending a concert, dancing, or going for a joy ride in the car (at totally legal speeds).  It feels like the entire brain lights up.  I’m not a psychology expert, but I do know that time tends to fly under such circumstances.

I’ve interviewed former teachers, professors, and grandparents during this project, and one thing is apparent.  Kids are growing up without these tactile experiences, and that’s probably effecting their brain development.  I know you’ve seen 3-year-olds glued to a smartphone, oblivious to the world around them.

We all know the feeling of not having done math for a while, and then using that portion of the brain again.  It kind of hurts and feels good at the same time.  Synapses fire that haven’t for a time, blood rushes in.  But what if those areas never grew?  Schools don’t teach the times tables, let alone algebra.  Could that part of the brain fail to develop as a consequence?

Take it a step further.  What if a child grows up never experiencing the mechanical, the tactile.  The television raises them, and the computer teaches them.  An entire portion of the brain never lights up.  It’s a known fact that at age three, the brain experiences a major neuron die off.  By age twelve, another occurs.  This is why people who only learn one language in youth find it incredibly difficult to learn any other in adulthood.  That area of the brain wasn’t used, and the potential functionality was lost.

If we don’t vary our sense of touch, the focus of our eyes, the muscles or brains when young, what will happen?  How will that affect our ability to cope in adulthood?  To accomplish physical goals?  To think?  And, most of all, what will happen to our society?  We will surely find out in the not so distant future.  For now, I’m asking those who’ve seen enough change to have a pretty good idea.

Dagmar Booth

“When Atari came out… we used to stay up, especially on a Friday night.  It got to the point where I had tupperware, and I’d put the cereal in the tupperware containers … so [the kids] could get up … and fix their own little breakfast, ’cause we were up playing Atari… We never grew up.”

Dagmar is the wife of John Booth, whose interview was posted a week ago.  If John has the gumption of a horse, Dagmar has the gumption to race him.  They were adorable to talk with together.  Dagmar is completely caring of her husband, while still getting his goat when she could.  I’m sure you can see it pictured in her eyes, though in person the twinkle is much brighter.

Dagmar Larieu Booth was born October 10, 1945 in New Orleans, LA and has lived in the area her entire life.  She recalls her childhood was great fun.  She grew up next door to her grandmother in a double shotgun house.  There were 10 children (cousins and siblings) in the family that would all congregate on Saturday evenings when the adults would gather to play cards.  The children would play up and down the street, getting reacquainted and inventing new games, eventually crashing on the floor around their parents in the evening.  She laughed remembering the lack of air conditioning, wondering how in the world they lived without it.  New Orleans is famous for its heat and humidity in the summers.

Dagmar loved to roller skate when she was younger.  She told me of the games that she and the kids would make up and play.  They weren’t allowed to be in the streets, but a broken section of sidewalk forced her and her friends to circumvent it into the street for a moment.  Dagmar describes how the neighbors would watch and care for the children, including calling a child’s parents when they saw wrongdoing.  In this clip, Dagmar concludes that our society is in need of the discipline that came so readily in those days.

A standard question I ask is what has changed since childhood, especially in relation to technology.  Dagmar took us in a wonderful direction.  She started to tell us about when the television came to her neighborhood, and what it was like to get one in her family.  She told of the chores that the kids were expected to care for in the morning, that they couldn’t just roll out of bed and watch their favorite shows.  From there she told us what she thinks about children’s use of technology and how it’s changing our social structure.  Finally, she speaks to the telephone.  She recalls what the Party Line was like, what it was like to get a private line, then how the cordless phone changed ones ability to do household chores.  This leads to household appliances and how they have changed and affected daily life.  (The audio cuts in a funny place as we boiled down into chit chat about lawn mowing for a moment.)

One of my favorite portions of this interview was talking about the advent of the microwave oven.  It’s something I’ve largely taken for granted, even though I don’t use one myself, anymore.  I don’t have a family of my own, so I’ve never considered the impact it can make on a group of people under one roof.  Dagmar describes how great it was to get that microwave so she didn’t have to make John’s meals when he would get home after second shift.

Dagmar also describes the changes she saw in baby care.  Her three girls were born during a major time of change in the field.  She talks about the impact of the dishwasher, as well as cloth versus paper diapers, and formula.  She is still in awe of the things that came about that made life easier.

Many of my interviewees discuss the loss of cursive writing.  There have been jokes about how one might sign their cheques or give an autograph.  But Dagmar really brings the impact on our history home by describing an experience she had with her teen grandson at a museum.

Dagmar speaks to the changes in our society.  She states that we don’t get together with each other anymore.  She then tells a story that really cements the notion that we should be gathering with our friends more often, because you never know what will happen.

Dagmar’s interview eventually boiled down into chatting about life and growing up.  To end the interview, she tells us about when video games entered hers and John’s lives.  Dagmar bought Atari for John when it came out, and they stayed up all night playing it.  John then gets a jibe in about how long they’ve been married, ending the interview in laughter.

Ella is a force to be reckoned with.  She heard about this project through a flier posted in her hall, and called four times in one morning just to make sure she’d have the chance to tell her story.

Ella Louise Cecilia Middleton was born on April 11, 1931 in Flint, Michigan.  Her mother passed away when she was born of complications.  Sadly, her father, originally from the Grand Rapids Area, didn’t know what to do with the new infant suddenly in his care.  He was very young at the time and she was his first child.  For the first six months of her life, Ella was in a sort of nursing home, until relatives scolded him for his neglect and pressured him to take her in.

Ella’s father remarried when she was three.  On her fifth birthday, her first sibling was born.  A situation that sometimes may alienate those caught in it, Ella recalls her step-mother being kind to her, increasingly as she grew, in spite of having a total of three children of her own.  Still, Ella walked to the beat of a different drum.

When Ella reached her early teen years, she was put in charge of the groceries.  Her step-mother stated that her father would pick a terrible selection, and knew Ella would enjoy the responsibility.  So, each week, Ella would go down to the market and collect the groceries.  Once bagged, the grocer would hold them until her father arrived to pay for them.  You see, she really enjoyed the responsibility because it took place next to the theater.  While waiting for her father, she would pay for an 11 cent movie using her babysitting money.  She states that those movies brought her up – they taught her to be an adult.  In her words:

Today she still loves to watch television and has it going all the time.  When I would call to schedule the interview, she always had it on in the background.  She believes it has been a lifesaver.  “What would I do?  Sit here and stare at the wall?” she quipped.  She told me that she’s seen all the movies that Villa Maria screens, but she still attends the events.  She’s glad to reminisce.