Beware the article that begins, “When I was a boy. . . .” It threatens a dose of paternal solipsism guaranteed to anesthetize the hardiest of souls.
When I was a boy, such monologs were pandemic: aural snapshots of dad walking 10 miles to school in blizzards, or of dad working 60 hours a week in a jute mill, or of dad killing a wildebeest and feeding his shipwrecked family on it until the next steamer passed by.
But alongside the usually apocryphal content of these father-to-son chats were dollops of actual useable wisdom, gained by Dad often through hard, cruel life experience and passed on to my brother and me in the hope that we would fare better than he in adulthood.
Note that I’m writing from a male point of view; I know mothers and daughters have their tête-à-têtes also, but I had no sisters and was not privy to their contents. Note also that I’m not talking about the universal and timeless values all parents should teach their kids: morals, ethics, manners and the like. I’m referring here to nuts-and-bolts skills and knowledge—like bleeding brakes, writing checks, and changing television and radio vacuum tubes—that boys used to need to know.
Used to. These skills are no longer needed. Never in history has evolution occurred so rapidly as in the last 50 years. The skills I acquired as a youth—replacing faucet washers, waxing (“Simonizing”) the family car (in spring and fall, always on a Saturday afternoon), defrosting the freezer, changing a tire, extracting whale oil from blubber—all right, I threw that last one in to see if you were paying attention—these all bore an urgent functionality in the time of my childhood.
Nowadays, find me a man who changes his own oil and I’ll show you an evolutionary throwback.
But wait, there’s more. Not only has the majority of practical advice from my generation been rendered null and void, it’s now our children who are the crucibles of useable knowledge, thanks to technological advances they have, literally, grown up with.
Now, if you are 40 or younger, you are of the generation that already has this knowledge, in which case I have no idea what your kid is teaching you. What I can say, from experience, is that a 64-year-old with a 22-year-old son is smart to keep his eyes open and his mouth shut, and I’m guessing you’d do well to do the same.
Technology has existed since the wheel, but the advances of the last 30 years have put children behind that wheel and relegated parents to the backseat where, safely belted into their backward-facing parent seats, they watch a world whizzing by that leaves their gray heads spinning.
My son lives in a different world from me, and I can only hope that I have enriched his as much as he has mine. I have taught him the life skills I know, but many of these are irrelevant in the 21st century. Handwriting is dead to him. Physical books are his nemeses. Formatting and typing letters, reading maps, using library card catalogs, balancing checkbooks, shining shoes, opening doors for ladies—there are apps, software programs, hardware and electronic sensors that do all of these for us, and do them better. (Maybe not shining shoes, but it’s coming: My dad taught me how to get stuck toast out of a toaster with a fork, usually without getting shocked, but my son has a SafeToast app that does this for him, I don’t quite know how. He puts his phone into the empty toaster slot and . . .)
I still love physical books. Long after everyone else is reading words projected onto the inside of their eyelids while they sleep, old Adam will be sitting in a creaky Shaker chair, turning real pages, reading by lamplight (using whale oil he rendered himself). Nevertheless, our house is laced with systems, wired and wireless, that can display any digital content from any of our desktops, laptops, netbooks, tablets and cellphones onto any LED screen or display or, for that matter, onto any other surface.
There are little boxes attached to our TVs and wall outlets that do Geek only knows what. Our son gave us a gizmo last Christmas that plugs into our bedroom TV, and I still don’t know what it does. I know that a $6.99 debit shows up on our Visa bill each month, and I know better than to question why that thing is sitting there.
So what can I teach our son about getting along in the 21st century?
Well, those values. No matter whether we’re communicating with others through EyelidVision (don’t try to steal this idea; it’s mine, and I’m going to try to sell it to the boy) or, heaven forfend, talking face-to-face, the basic modi homo sapiens should still be valid. Honesty, empathy and compassion for all creatures great and small will never go out of style. Promise?
Adam Granger lives in St. Anthony Park with his wife and son and is a regular contributor to the Park Bugle.