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  • Dr. Ted Klontz

Obsolete Elders: Universal Knowledge

As a young man growing up in a mostly rural farming environment, I was always enthralled by the things that my grandfather, father, grandmother and mother knew how to do. I tried to remember everything I saw them do. To keep the knowledge that they had, alive.

I would guess that my father knew half of what my grandfather knew about machinery and how to fix things, and as my bride suggests I do “MacGyver” things.

I knew that I was just retaining maybe 10% of what my father knew how to do, (i.e. pull an overturned tractor upright without killing my uncle who was trapped under it; how to do a complete tear-down and rebuild of our family’s car engine one Saturday morning; align the front end of that same car in the afternoon with nothing more than string and a piece of chalk, how to pour and finish concrete, wire a house, take apart and put back together a TV set, etc.) As I think about it, it’s probably more like I mastered 1%. Even then, I felt sad about the loss of such wisdom as death stopped the instructions. I lamented the loss of my grandmother’s and mom’s wisdom too. Angel Food cakes, canning vegetables, churning butter, making maple syrup, smoking hams, making pickles, darning clothes, making clothes on her sewing machine, knitting, crocheting, pumpkin pies, etc. I always felt a certain sadness at the loss.

Through the mail, we sent my son a bed, that we no longer needed, and he said he did. It was not a typical bed. It was a “Sleep Comfort”. Unlike a typical bed, this one has dozens and dozens of pieces. Pieces ranging in size from a nickel to 3’ sections. Pieces that had to go together in exactly the right sequence. Complicating the puzzle were the many pieces that looked alike but were subtly different. Complicated. And, if there had ever been instructions, they were long gone.

My bride and I dutifully took videos as we deconstructed the bed, filming the process step by step so that he might have some guide as to how to put it back together.

Laid out on the floor it reminded me of an internal combustion engine, taken totally apart and given to someone in bushel baskets, as people brought to my father when I was a kid. I wasn’t sure that even I could put it back together if I had to. When we finished, we stuffed it into two huge boxes that we shipped 1,500 miles away.

He would be first to admit that being a handyman is not his strongest asset, and I was thinking “There is not a chance that he can do this, and we’ll probably have to wait until we see him to get it done”. We heard nothing about the bed arriving nor did we receive a panicked call about “What am I supposed to do with these boxes full of stuff.” No calls that would give us the excuse to send him the videos. Nothing.

After a month of waiting, during a call with him I casually asked if he had received the bed and if he had managed to get it together. He said “yes” to both. l offered that I imagined that it had taken him an entire day to put it together, I was sorry it was so big of a project, that he had probably had to hire someone to help, etc. “Nope”, he said. “Took me about an hour, good to go, thanks.” I was shocked. He then told me how he did it.

A few weeks later my car wouldn’t start. The gentleman from AAA who came out to help me start my Prius said that he didn’t know how to jump start a hybrid. “Really”, I thought, “let me get this right, a person whose profession is to provide roadside assistance doesn’t know how to jump start a car, one of the simpler fixes?” Though I had done it a couple of times over the years I wasn’t sure enough of myself to tell him how to do it, so I began looking through all the papers and instruction manuals in my glove compartment while he is standing at the front of the car. As I was having trouble finding the information, he call’s out “I got it”, and sure enough, when I got to where he was, he was fixing the wires to the right places, told me to try to start it and like magic, my car started right up. I asked him how found out how to do it and he pointed to his phone. “YouTube.” Which was exactly the same answer my son gave me when I asked how he managed to put the bed together. YouTube.

What my father and grandfather taught by example and exposure, is now available on YouTube. Everything. And more. While it feels really, really good that there is so much collective wisdom of the ages and the elders and the skilled, it made me wonder if in some way it doesn’t make what through the ages has made parenting and grandparenting so special and so necessary, less important. More obsolete. That our descendants don’t need us in the same way that we needed our ancestors.

I wonder what, if anything, is lost in the process of having someone, on the YouTube channel, help us put together a bed or start a car. Someone who is more trustworthy, clever, smarter, present, accessible, and reliable, than I as a dad or grandparent could ever be. I wonder what the consequences are if someday, YouTube goes away.

Science suggests that as we rely more and more on computers to direct us from here to there, rather than read and use maps; that the part of our brain that used to do those things, is atrophying. If we realize we don’t have to learn how to do anything, does that part of our brain atrophy also? If it does, does that really matter?

What’s your take? Your experience? Opinion?


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