Monday, August 18, 2008

Learning from Granddaddy

A couple of years ago I had the unexpected pleasure of going to a social event in an apartment that was right above the apartment where my grandfather lived when I was a child. He lived in the apartment from 1935 until his death in 1964, and I spent many of my most joyful moments there. I have been past the apartment building many times over the years but had never been inside. The apartment immediately above his had almost exactly the same layout, so being in it was almost like returning to childhood for a few moments. As in all returns to childhood, everything had changed almost beyond recognition.

As a child, I learned a lot of important things from my grandfather. He taught me how to play solitaire, an important skill for an only child. He also taught me how to cheat at solitaire, which he said was an acceptable thing to do, since no one was really being cheated except an ornery deck of cards. Any other kind of cheating, of course, he strongly discouraged. He also taught me how to read the baseball statistics in the sports page, and eventually he taught me how to keep track of a baseball game on a scorecard. He also taught me how to use a typewriter and let me practice using his old Smith-Corona, the machine on which during my childhood I composed a number of stories about improbable heroes. I learned all that and more from him when I was a boy, soaking up knowledge of the world around me like a sponge left in the kitchen sink.

This year I'm the same age my grandfather was when I was born. I find I'm learning from him again. I'm learning from his example as I recall them, and I find a great deal of what he taught me through example is something that not only I, but many people I know, could benefit from mastering.

My grandfather was born in 1982 and spent his early life on a farm in Kansas. The electric light bulb was invented just four years before he was born, and he did not have electrical lighting for much of his early life. He was seven years old when Gottlieb Daimler and Karl Benz made the first automobile, and he was 26 years old when the first Model-T Ford came out in 1908. I have no idea when he starting driving a car, but I know he never trusted an automobile as much as a horse, or at least that's what he said. As long as he lived, he preferred to walk any distance less than about three miles. It didn't make much sense to start up the car to go any distance that could be walked to in less than an hour.

My grandfather had a telephone, so people could contact him. He initiated no more than about four calls a year. A telephone conversation with him rarely lasted more than thirty seconds, just long enough to make arrangements to meet somewhere in person so that one could have a proper conversation.

Perhaps because he never quite got over the feeling that electricity was a miracle, and a darned expensive one at that, he never turned on a light switch until it was pretty nearly impossible to see which cards were laid out in his solitaire game. The lights were never on during the day, of course. When he ate lunch in the small dining room of his apartment, he never turned on the overhead light, even though there were no windows in the room, and precious little light came through the small window in the adjacent kitchen. Electrical lights were to use after the sun was well down, and even then they were turned on only when there was really something one had to see (such as the cards in a solitaire game.) To my great shame, I probably use as much electricity in a day as he did in a few months, despite the fact that I use compact fluorescent bulbs and have formed the habit of turning lights off when I leave a room. Like most people I know, my house is full of appliances and gadgets that never existed when I was a child. All of them, strictly speaking, are unnecessary. It's a shame that I've become accustomed to having them.

People of my grandfather's generation never used credit cards, and they never bought anything for which they hadn't saved up the money. If my grandfather did not have enough cash in his savings account to make a purchase, he reckoned he had no real need to make that purchase. If there was a need, he saved up until he had the money to make it. As a consequence of those habits, he was a frugal man. He used a deck of cards until at least have the cards had broken in half and were held together with cellophane tape. When it was no longer possible to make out whether a face card was a King or a Jack, it was time to start thinking about getting a new deck, but not before. He wore a pair of shoes until it was no longer possible to repair them by having another sole and heel put on them.

As much as he approved of me, and even doted on me as only a proud grandfather can do, he did express his concern about how wasteful youngsters of my generation had become. Not wanting to dismay him too much, I developed the habit of keeping things rather than throwing them away, just in case I would someday learn to repair them or find some other use for them than the use for which they had been invented. I had several shoe boxes full of pencil stubs too short to sharpen further, eraser crumbs, and rusting paper clips. For about ten years I held on to a spark plug that I had found in an alley way. Unfortunately, I never did find a use for most of the contents of those shoe boxes. The only effect that came from keeping them was a habit to hang on to things that no one could use. That habit does have one good effect. It reminds me how many of the habits a person forms are really pretty useless, if not downright destructive. That's a good thing to be reminded of.

These days, as I look around at homes and offices filled with electrical and electronic equipment, gymnasiums filled with exercise machines that use electricity to tell people who many calories they are burning off, driveways with several vehicles parked in them, people ambling along talking into mobile telephones to tell people the stupendously important news that they are in a shopping mall and are thinking of buying a beef taco, and people using fuel-consuming machines to blow leaves instead of raking them or to mow a patch of turf that a push-mower could take care of in ten minutes, I wonder what on earth my grandfather would think of the world we now live in. If asked what is wrong with this picture, he would know the answer right away. Everything.

Pretty much everything has gone wrong. The average American family, I just heard on a news program, is $16,000 in debt, not counting mortgages for living accommodations. People are going into debt to buy things that make them lazy and sick. Our economy is no longer based on the manufacture and sale of goods and necessities. It is based on the manufacture of bads. People spend far less on needs than on their many addictions. Civilization has been destroyed and replaced with a pseudo-culture of delusions and fantasies. The American dream has turned into the world's nightmare. It needn't have turned out this way. But it did. Or at least it has so far. We cannot continue on the course we're on. Reality will not allow it.

Some of the damage done to civilization and the environment is irreversible. Some of the destructive habits we have let ourselves fall into might be unlearned, if we have the will to do things in ways that at first feel a little awkward and uncomfortable. Learning how to live a sensible and sustainable life might be possible if we study the ways of some of our ancestors. I have a grandfather to remember. You probably have someone, too.


Jayarava said...

Hi Dayamati

I found this quite a moving story. I never really got to know my grandfathers very well and never learned much from them. But I recognise the sentiments and the wisdom here. I studied the Amish some years back for an essay I was writing on the impact of technology. They don't let technology rule their lives either (God does that) and they wouldn't let technology put a man out of work, preferably good honest manual work. And they are amongst the happiest Americans - lowest rates of mental illness at least. Around that time the APA published an issue of their journal on happiness which mentioned this phenomena. Another article in that issue reckoned that too much choice, and not enough limits caused people to be unhappy.

I read somewhere that we westerners are now at least twice as productive than we were in 1945 (by which I suppose they mean that our overall production has doubled), but that on average we work more hours and are less happy. Paraphrasing James Hillman we could say: 100 years of hi-tech and we are still not happy.

The problem seems to be, as I'm sure you know, that we (generalising) have no idea what real happiness feels like, what it consists in, and how to get it, so we buy the ersatz happiness from the adverts, even mortgaging ourselves to do it. We're still not happy so we buy more, and more.

Trying to bail out of that system is relatively difficult. One must still make a living and that means being tied into the system to some extent. Even the Amish, who (perhaps rightly) shun most contact with the outside world, are reliant on us sinners for some things. Subverting the system where possible is almost a duty :-)

Best Wishes