Mimsy Were the Borogoves

Mimsy Were the Technocrats: As long as we keep talking about it, it’s technology.

The lost tradition of unannounced visits

Jerry Stratton, November 24, 2020

Leave a note: “Leave a Note If you don’t find us; Tilt the Roster To Remind us.”; community

“Leave a note if you don’t find us…”

Imagine this: you’re downtown shopping and think, it would be nice to drop in on cousin John. You don’t text John, or call him, you show up at John’s door unannounced because you happened to be in the area.

What’s your reaction to this scenario? Fear? Horror? Longing? Embarrassment?

It is a tradition long out of style: being in the area and just dropping in. It used to be common for people to drop in, unannounced, on friends and family. I’m not talking about just walking over to the neighbors to drop something off—and even that now often comes with a text ahead of time—but making a long trip, and not telling people ahead of time, or only telling them in a letter and only in vague terms.

A relative on Facebook about two years ago complained about people dropping in while she was working from home. In this epidemic of isolation and enforced solitude I started thinking about it again. It was a practice we weren’t comfortable with even before social distancing. But fifty years ago, the social rituals we go through today, or even a year ago, to visit friends would have seemed like the science fiction rituals of an alien planet. It’s an example of how drastically technology can change the way we live.

Dropping in was common enough that one of the reasons we kept the house clean was “in case company comes”. Sundays we had to pick up our toys as soon as we got home from church. To this day, I do my weekly swiffering on Sundays after Mass. Those were the days, and times, company was most likely to drop in unannounced.

If you grew up in the seventies or earlier, you probably experienced these visits. My parents still do it occasionally. Usually, it’s people in the city an hour or so away, but they once drove from Michigan to Texas, for the sole purpose of visiting me, without letting me know that they were on their way; the last I knew, they’d been planning on visiting a week after they actually did. I discovered ahead of time that they were already on the road because I tried to contact them to plan for their visit and couldn’t reach them. That was a Saturday. On Sunday, I realized that the reason I couldn’t contact them might be that they were already on their way. I managed to track them down, and, sure enough, they were at a relative’s in St. Louis, halfway here.

That’s just not something I would ever think of doing. But my parents, at the time, did not have texts, and while they had mobile phones they considered them mostly an emergency tool and left them turned off to conserve battery time for an emergency.

Some days were set aside just for unannounced visits. Often Sundays, and a couple of holidays. Thanksgiving wasn’t one of them, that I recall. I’m pretty sure Christmas was, and maybe New Year’s Day or Easter. On those days, if you stayed home—my impression is that if you had kids, you were the visited, not the visitor—relatives would just drop in. And why not? Imagine trying to visit several people in one day, trying to coordinate it without your cell phone! You’d probably give up and not see anyone. And that was unthinkable back then.

There was even a system for letting people know you’d been there when they were out. We had a bird-house-like box nailed to the wall next to the door. It had a pencil and notepaper, and a rotating disk with a rooster engraved on it. Underneath, it read “Leave a note if you don't find us, tilt the rooster to remind us.” You left a note and turned the rooster so that we’d know there was a note. I haven’t thought about that for years. I’m not sure it was ever used. If someone wasn’t there, you mostly just moved on to the next person in the area, or finished your errands and went home.

One person from my parents’ generation wrote:

The rest of us (and that is many of us) have lots of drop in company and just enjoy the surprise and hope they have a good time. No excuses just take us as we are and if we have plans just say so and they always understand.

Most of the people from my generation not only found dropping in hard to understand, they were hostile to the very idea. While we didn’t grow up on cell phones we did grow up with answering machines, so some sort of announcement was often possible in our early adulthood. In the previous generation, there wasn’t any easy option. My parents and their siblings—and me to a lesser extent—grew up in a very rural area. A shopping trip could be an hour drive one way.

It was very difficult to get in touch with people before cell phones, text messages, or answering machines. They didn’t even have call waiting, which meant that even if someone was home, you might not be able to talk to them because the phone was busy.

I’m pretty sure my parents sometimes called before visiting people and sometimes didn’t. If they had plans in Grand Rapids, forty minutes away, and didn’t know how long their plans would take—it might be shopping—then they might not call. I can’t say for sure why not, but my guess is, why make the person on the other end wait around? If they’re home when you’re done shopping, you’ll visit. If they have something else to do, let them do it.

Also, in the days before the deregulation of AT&T, telephone calls could be more expensive than driving a few miles out of your way while going to the city! You might, if you knew your plans well ahead of time, put in a letter that you were going to be in the area on such-and-such a date, and would try to drop in. Because you did write letters. They were cheaper than phone calls.

But even if my parents did call, and there was no answer, they’d drop in anyway. All we had were land lines. Think about it. You call someone before you drive an hour away, they don’t answer. Are you going to assume they’re not home two hours later when you finish your shopping? You’re only in the area once a month or less. Your land line is an hour away, so it’s either don’t see them, or drop in unannounced.

I do remember as a kid enjoying unannounced visits from the aunts and uncles who only showed up once a year. As I recall those usually happened on Christmas, New Year’s, or Easter. I had the impression that they were “making the rounds”, seeing a lot of people sort of at once. Nowadays it would be even weirder showing up on one of those days unannounced, but then there was the tradition, and without cell phones, how would you coordinate visiting several people on the same day, who themselves might be out visiting when you call but not when you arrive?

There was a third group of people on the thread besides those who did it and those who hated it: those who missed it.

I kind of wish some people felt comfortable doing it. I always wanted my home to be open in that way.

Another person, on a different group, wrote that they missed it because it meant, as kids, getting a sense of their parents’ lives and the choices that made those lives.

…someone would be in the area and stop in, apologize if it were close to dinner time, but couldn’t pass up the chance to say hello. That’s how we kids met our dad’s buddy who joined the army with him, and the last time we saw one of our uncles.

It embodied a spirit of an extended community that’s missing today. If we were to bring it back I can’t see doing so in the same form. People’s lives are different now, and it’s mostly for the better. It used to be impossible to organize even something as simple as a movie trip without a week of planning. Now it’s as simple as texting everybody who might want to come.

In a sense, the drop-in has reversed itself. Instead of dropping in on people unexpectedly, we can now mass-text people where we’ll be tonight, or in an hour, and if they want to show up they can. But of course that isn’t the same sense of openness and community. It’s a much more private and controlled get-together, by invitation only and at a specific time.

The old behavior was the result of not having the technological ability to do better. Expecting people to miss something like this is like the parable of the pizza parlor. Before long, no one will know it ever existed to miss it, and even if told, would be justifiably unwilling to give up what they’d need to give up to get it back.

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