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May 1st, 2008
A young person’s guide to old people: Part II

The Devil’s Clack Dish: A column
Scene Editor

Why do old people get so cranky about new stuff?

One word: fear.

Why? Well first off, all the new technological advancements are something that young people grow up with. They don’t have to learn about it. They live with it. They understand it they way they have grown to understand their native language. Nobody has to give you a manual on speaking English when you are a child. You speak it because you are around it all the time. Sure, you take classes on the intricacies of the language at school, but you couldn’t take the class if you didn’t already understand the words.

When I grew up, the most advanced computers were housed in buildings, not in a notebook. When I look through the manual for the DVD player, it reads like War and Peace written in pig latin. It’s decipherable but difficult. Meanwhile, my nephew instinctively knows what each button is for with no reading, prompting or thinking. So, part of the fear I’m talking about is that I am the old model human, out-dated, unimportant and superfluous to the system. Everyone at some point in their lives will feel this. That’s a pretty terrifying fear – but wait, there’s more.

Years ago, I had a young computer instructor friend help me when I got my first computer (a MacIntosh SE, so it wasn’t even that hard). When I asked why I have to push Alt-Control-Escape or Alt-Shift-Control, the instructor looked at me blankly and said, “What do you mean, why?”

“Well,” I countered, “What does each key actually do?” Again, he gives the blank stare. “You know,” I say, “How do they actually work? What are their tasks?”

The instructor was puzzled and said, “Well, you can’t know how everything works! Do you know how the power comes into a wall plug or how your microwave works? Can you explain that?”

He looked nonplussed when I said that not only do I know how the microwave works, I know how the combustion engine works, how we get water and how the television and the radio work, as well.

He shook his head, “Well, you don’t need to know how this works, just push the keys I tell you to push.”

So, here’s another fear: maybe we a growing a nation of idiots who don’t feel the need to know how something works. And even worse, don’t know how to do anything with their hands but type. (Typing is the thing my father told me to take in school so that I’d have something to “fall back on.”)

During the big “millennium crisis,” when people were panicked about how we were going to get power or water when the year turned to 2000 and all the computers went screwy, I wasn’t particularly worried, because I knew there were water company and electric company retirees who could explain how we got water and electric before there were computers. The people who drummed up the panic about the Y2K crisis were the credit card companies. So much for paperless business. No paper, no proof.

Then there’s a third fear that makes me cranky. I grew up in a small town where people knew my name and holidays were celebrated with joy (a day off!) and feasting – not with money. The days were filled with library books, baseball and football games, bicycles, marbles, pretend pirate ships, imaginary castles, penny candy, swimming at the public pool and sitting on the porch drinking iced tea with the neighbors.

Sure, there was evil afoot – drunks who beat their wives, thieves, molesters. Wherever there are people, there are behavior problems. But, in general, the passage of the seasons was greeted and respected and enjoyed and people felt safe with one another. You never had to ask yourself what month it was. You never had to worry that your neighbor wouldn’t help you with something. You did not get too concerned about a child sent on an errand.

When I was five years, old my grandpa gave me a nickel to get a Push-Up (you know, orange sherbet on a stick) at the local park. I remember this day vividly. I remember walking the four blocks to the park barefooted. It was around 7 p.m. and the sun wasn’t going to set for at least two more hours, but the light was heading towards that magical twilight time. The summer air was pleasant against my skin. The trees were green and fragrant. As I walked along, neighbors who were doing lawn work, tending their flowers or sitting on their porches or washing their cars in their driveways called my name.

“Hey Hollyann!” “Where are you going, Hollyann?” “Does your mother know you are walking barefooted in the street, honey?” When I proudly told them my grandpa gave me a nickel for a Push-Up, they expressed that mock adult surprise that so delights a child, “A whole nickel!” and “Well, well!” And “What a lucky girl you are!” I got to the park and stood in line at the refreshment window of the pavilion. The well-trod dirt was silky on my bare feet. The woman at the window got my Push-Up and as she handed it to me she said, “Aren’t you Jeanie’s little girl?” I nodded. “You look just like her,” she exclaimed.

On the way home, as I ate my drippy, sticky treat, the neighbors said, “That sure looks good!” and “Can I have some?” (People learned early not to ask me that, as I would generally walk over to them and proffer the gooey thing for them to get a lick — “No, no, honey, I was just kiddin!'”) When I got home, my grandpa had already gotten an earful from grandma because several of the neighbors had called to say, “Did you know Franklin let that child walk to the park by herself?” My grandpa just said, “Well, we don’t have to worry about Hollyann with all the damn nosy neighbors in this town, do we?”

He was right. They were nosy and that could be insufferable. Life in a small town is often narrow and constricting. But my fear as I get older is that the only time people are nosy now is when they don’t like the way your lawn looks. I fear that our grandchildren and their children will not ever know the pleasures of kindly neighbors who care for one another, look out for the other guy, visit the elderly, bring a casserole to the grieving, send a card for birthdays. If we don’t look out for each other, who will? It’s a lead pipe cinch that large corporations aren’t going to do it.

I also fear that you think my little tale of Push-Ups and parks is an idyllic one, and here’s the real shocker: that was just an example regular, old, normal everyday life. This wasn’t a particularly special day – it was just a day, like one of many, that I remember from my youth. People caring for one another (and being nosy) was the norm – not the unreal plot of a silly sit-com or a mushy chick-flick on the Lifetime Channel.

We have to care about each other more than we care about the dollar bill. That last sentence will strike older people as obvious. It will strike younger ones as out-dated and naïve. And that reaction is my greatest fear of all. It makes me a feel cranky with myself because I fear we didn’t do right by kids everywhere. I’m afraid that when you get old and cranky, you are going to be that way because, even though you had new stuff lavished upon you throughout your life, you will resent what you were never given. And I don’t mean the Push-Up, even though they are still a fine treat.


» A young person’s guide to old people 02/15/08

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