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Do you read me?

Updated: Jan 4

Earl Fowler


It occurred to me while walking through a mall the other day.


A woman of my well-seasoned vintage, give or take a decade, approaching from the opposite direction was wearing a sweatshirt emblazoned with the words:


No, I can’t do Snapchat or TikTok

But I can write in cursive

do math without a calculator

and tell time on a clock with hands


Skills like hers used to be pretty handy, no pun intended, but my Snapchat-happy, TikTok-addicted grandkids are having none of it. Nor can they whistle the theme song from The Dick Van Dyke Show, walk on stilts, or snap one of those triangular plastic insert adapter thingies into the centre of a 45 rpm record so that it will fit the hi-fi spindle designed for LPs. Neither do they have the slightest idea what I’m talking about if I mention 45s or LPs.


(They’re not even pretending to pay attention when I start waxing on about Edison cylinders. And you in the back: If you don’t desist from whistling the theme song from The Dick Van Dyke Show this instant, hair will begin to grow on your knuckles.)


The more I thought about it, the more I realized that my food-court friend group and I have become nothing more than loose associations of baby-boomer life skills that have almost no utility in the modern world.


(Alexa, play “Honey” by Bobby Goldsboro.)


For instance, I enjoy ironing my ancient flannel lumberjack shirts while watching hockey or football on TV. Nobody under 50 irons anything anymore and no one has noticed a single shirt I was wearing since my high school graduation.


(That was my mom. And only because the cardboard was peeking out from the collar when I got home that night. I remember the moment. The big hand was on the 6 and the little hand was on the 9.)


I know how to balance a chequebook, count exact change while standing in line at the grocery checkout counter, even how to buy traveller’s cheques if matters came to a head. Useless, useless, useless.


Not that I do it, but I could change my oil like I used to watch my father do. I probably wouldn’t throw the dirty old oil into the back alley like all the dads on our block did. Or toss the KFC bucket from the driver’s side window after those picture-perfect takeout picnics with 11 different herbs and cousins. ’Erbs?


I can fold and unfold a paper map without ripping it (maybe just a little tear at one end). Spread it out over the steering wheel and read it while cussing creatively. Can even decipher the index, with all those street names and letters and numbers in bold and everything. The grandkids find this hilarious, but the joke is on them because we missed the turnoff to the giant Ukrainian Easter egg in Vegreville 50 klicks ago.


It is to laugh.


I can talk into a black phone plugged into a wall. If we still had one, I could make a phone rotary dial spin with my left index finger while holding the receiver in my right hand, and take enormous satisfaction from accurately reaching the intended party at the other end of the miracle. I wish I could call the time lady. She had a way of calming everything down when you were in the dumps.


I can drive a stick shift. The biggest fight I ever had with my dad was when he was teaching me how to use the clutch. “Clutch in! More gas! Clutch out! Take your foot off the gas! Clutch in.” The Fairlane shuddered. I walked home shaking. But today I can still drive a stick. To what avail?


I’m content with a limited number of pronouns and uncomfortable with calling a single person “they” or “them.”  I know the difference between “it’s” and “its” and “to” and “too,” and don’t see a need for RANDOM CAPITALIZATION or poop emojis or any emojis or using extra letters to make one’s poiiiiiiiiiiint. It drives me crazy when people stick useless apostrophes on the ends of words, including their surnames in signs, simply because they end with an “s.”


But as Montaigne liked to say, mostly because he was French, que sais-je?


I’d like to say I know how to sew or knit or embroider or use a hand plane but let’s move on. I’m with the kids on this one. (I got through my Grade 7 industrial arts class only by plucking out a shoddy, badly nicked bowl another kid had thrown into the discard pile and submitting it as mine. Don’t think my dad was ever prouder.)


I miss the rippled feel and smell of card catalogues at libraries. Those tiny slips of paper and the tiny pencils. Not having to explain to people that libraries still exist.


It’s been more than 40 years since I’ve tried, being happily married to my soulmate and all, but I’m pretty sure I could still approach a woman the old way (shit-faced in a bar or while she was counting her change at a supermarket) rather than streamlining horse pucky on a dating app with a cutesy name.


Jeepers, anyone have any idea what happened to Pop Tate? Saddle shoes?


I can name all the players in team photos of the 1966 Montreal Canadiens and tell amusing, longwinded stories about how the Sea-Monkeys and the nuclear submarine I ordered from the back of a comic book turned out to be freeze-dried shrimp and more cardboard. My uncle fed the shrimp to his exotic tropical fish. The fish all died within a week. The sub sank.


The X-ray specs were even more of a disappointment.


I haven’t done it for decades, but I could in theory write a personal letter (in cursive!), put it in an envelope, lick a stamp (Yuk! Did you know those things come with their own saliva now?) and drop it through a slot. I could also remember all the words to “Rikki don’t lose that number” for the rest of the bloody day now. She might use it when she feels better, when she gets home. Send it off in a letter to herself.


Speaking of which, I could offer my fascinating insights into Peter Frampton or Gerry Rafferty and why I thought Veronica was more attractive than Betty even though Betty was a nicer person, and why it wasn’t just the Lodge fortune that led me to that conclusion. A pile which, in any case, paled beside those of Richie Rich’s father and Scrooge McDuck, who actually swam in his vault.


I could prepare an impressive resumé. Ha ha! Just kidding.


I can still use a compass and a slide rule, though not at the same time.


I can pop wheelies on a Mustang bike with high handlebars and a banana seat. I can use a dead-tree dictionary. (Again, not concurrently.) I can read an entire newspaper in one sitting and snap the pages open with panache, which I have never seen anyone younger than 47 perform with alacrity.


I know what “panache” and “alacrity” mean.


I know what XXX movies, formerly known as Twitter Twitter Twitter moving pictures, are.


I know Lassie once appeared in an episode of Taxi and that Garry Shandling wrote an episode of Welcome Back, Kotter, which had the best TV theme song ever if you don’t count Cheers, and that Walter Cronkite appeared in The Mary Tyler Moore Show episode in which Ted Baxter finally bagged a Teddy Award.


I also know that Ted Baxter and Les Nessman were far better journalists than the sycophantic fibbers & falsifiers on Fox & Friends and that as God is my witness, I thought turkeys could fly.


I could of course continue in this vein, gifting you with war stories from the trenches about my year of following the teachings of a Yaqui shaman named don Juan Matus and recounting hallucinogenic revelations from my days of licking frogs in the desert (equally tasty in the dessert), but let’s wrap this up before I start expatiating on the one and only correct way to catalogue Dylan bootlegs.


The point is, none of these finely honed skills, not a single iota of this hard-won knowledge, is worth a single sparrow fart in this don’t-give-me-no-hand-me-down Sony PlayStation Micro Xbox of a world. Pre-socratic Greek philosopher Heraclitus had it right 500 years before Christ: Matter is energy, everything flows, everything is flux. “All things change to fire, and fire exhausted, falls back into things.”


Solomon and Garfunkel had it right in Ecclesiastes, Sage, Rosemary and Emily Hartley: “Vanity of vanities, all is vanity. Sooner or later, everything put together falls apart.”


The main capability the boomer and previous generations possessed, our superpower, was the ability to read deeply, carefully and with boundless enjoyment. It wasn’t universally embraced, of course, and I’m not saying there are no avid readers or gifted writers among the ranks of millennials and Generation Z.


But as Polish poet Tomasz Rózycki ruefully observes in his imaginary book tour titled “First Crisis of the Reader,” we’re living at a time when:


Meanwhile, there aren’t enough seats

for so many authors who hope

to get noticed by the one and only Reader tonight.


Some noteworthy stats from historian Peter Baldwin’s new book, Athena Unbound: Why and How Scholarly Knowledge Should Be Free for All:


In the major Anglophone outlets, at best around 3,000 books are reviewed annually, out of 500,000 total published in the US and the UK …


Of the 10,000 US books published in 1930, only 174 were still in print in 2001. …


In a medium-size US university library, only 20% of books are checked out even once.


And in short, to again quote Rózycki, this is an age where:


Reading — he smirks —should be done rarely

and reluctantly.


Words to live by for my children and grandchildren. Yours too, I’ll bet. Except they couldn’t be bothered to read them. Tant pis, because the single most valuable asset conferred by frequent and wide reading is a knowledge base that makes one less vulnerable to false narratives and idiotic conspiracy theories. Hate to come across as boomer-elitist, but Trump said it himself: “I love the poorly educated.”


Which is all to say, we may be superannuated but at least we can be snippy and supercilious about it.


If only I’d learned how to embroider when I had the chance, I’d go back to the mall and preen in a T-shirt that says:


AT LAST,

a shirt with not too many

BIG WORDS




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