Wool-gathering at the wheel: As dangerous as DUI

Sallie Satterthwaite's picture

This column keeps surfacing from somewhere deep in my online documents while I’m looking for something else, but it’s old. I can tell by the updating I’m doing that at least most of it was written quite some time ago. The content suggests that I was holding forth on communicating while driving. And that was before “texting” was even a real term.

It would appear we’re very close now, as a nation, to prohibiting texting while driving. “There goes another lost civil right,” I’m sure someone will rant. It’s going to be one hard case to make since texting can be done below the window of the car you’re driving.

But here I am, ruminating while driving. Like that’s safer. In some cases, researchers say, wool-gathering at the wheel may be as dangerous as driving or texting under the influence of alcohol. Dangerous in more than one way. Having neither dictionary nor tape recorder with me, I have to pound ideas in through my forehead, saying, “Remember this! Remember!” Writers are infamous for writer’s block, and you get some funny looks when you do that, but I believe it validates my status as a real writer. Try to explain to your nearest neighbor on the Interstate what you’re doing and why. Just that alone sounds like a wreck on its way to happen.

Another modus operandi is to write myself notes. Sounds like a husband’s technique, doesn’t it? The problem is that you now have a tangible item to look for and it bears a strong resemblance to a scrap of a lacy envelope or a lunch napkin or the back of a deposit slip. It’s very ordinary and easily mistaken for waste.

Dave, ever helpful, laid a small tablet of paper at the very end of the island in our kitchen, in a spot you have to see as you come and go. “Here,” the helpful fellow says. “Write yourself a note before you forget.”

I could hardly wait to nail down the first errant thought. And when it happened, I knew I was supposed to do something with it but couldn’t remember what.
Thirty-odd years, times 52 columns a year, looks like about 1,600 of ’em, and that doesn’t count the first few years when I had to type them on paper.
At the risk of having already used the following, here are a few thoughts maybe worth thinking about.

Kind readers often asked me what I’m reading at the moment. “You must read a lot of books,” they presume. Not to let you down, but in fact I read books rarely. I’m a news junkie and devour either newspapers or the evening TV news. There are stacks of books around the house, to read “when I have a chance.” If I happen to finish the newspapers, I have a book within reach on the bed table. And I’m going to be asleep before I find the bookmark I left in it several weeks earlier.

I’m still making my way (very slowly) through Bill Bryson’s 1995 “Made in America.” A friend lent it to me for a distraction from knee replacement rehabilitation, with a note that she wanted it back when I’m done with it. Ummm, I’m only on page 163 out of 417.

I doubt there’s an American alive today who hasn’t marveled at the difference in the time it took information to travel great distances in the 18th century. “The Bastille was stormed in July 1789,” writes Bryson, “but President Washington, newly inaugurated, didn’t learn of it until the autumn.”

In the electronic age, Washington would have seen it “in real time,” debriefed the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, if he had one, and had all the details before breakfast. The problem was largely one of transportation. A paved road was a rarity and roads that covered any distance at all were more accurately defined as “trails.” Most transportation – and therefore news dissemination – depended on horse-drawn coaches, horsemen, steam boats and canal barges, and, where available, rail.

That does nothing to assure accuracy in reporting. When Joan Crawford heard the news in 1941 that the Japanese had destroyed Pearl Harbor, her response was “Oh, dear, who was she?”

My point, here, assuming I have one, is that there’s no sure trick to remembering when your brain has reached the saturation point. Would be glad to share your tricks of the trade.

That is, if I recognize them as such.

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