Columns » Katherine Whitworth

Look Ma, no hands

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In the commercial, representatives of the shuffleboard set are recounting the hardships they suffered back in the stone ages: the horse and carriage, washing clothes by hand, 45-rpm records, fiddling with a television antenna. Cut to the present, and a man sitting behind the wheel of a car with a look of weighty revelation on his face. He says, with a sense of wonderment, “I used to have to parallel park myself.” Cut to the steering wheel turning by itself (“look Ma, no hands!”), the car gliding into a parking slot. The words “Isn’t progress great?” appear on the screen.

Plenty of “futuristic” movies and television shows have portrayed a world in which human beings no longer have to do a lot of things for themselves. Machines have been invented to do housework, fabricate food, select clothes, walk the dog, watch the kids.... If one of them should malfunction, thank goodness they can repair themselves too, because we’re not terribly handy with a wrench anymore.

This push-button paradise may be appealing in all its liberating convenience, but how far is too far? Is parallel parking really so difficult that we need a $70,000 car to “virtually” do it for us?

How-to manuals have been around for centuries, but in the last decade the genus has evolved a new species. These new books don’t just tell you how to do something, they tell what you should know how to do (one even going so far as to insist that you should know how before turning 30). Combining the contents of three such books produces a lengthy list of fairly pedestrian tasks — changing a tire, ironing a shirt, curing hiccups, and yes, parallel parking — that seem like things any average Joe would be able to do.

At first glance, I’m sure I’m capable of performing nearly all of these tasks; but when I sort the list into things of which I have empirical knowledge and those I can only imagine myself doing (plus the humbling and unexpected subcategory of things I thought I knew how to do but have since discovered I was doing incorrectly), my head deflates with a mournful whine to its normal human size. Even disregarding the dubiously necessary (opening a coconut) and the patently frivolous (making stained glass), I’m only able to say that I can do 64 of the 159 things I “should” be able to do. It occurs to me that the reason that these books weren’t common 50 years ago is that 50 years ago the average Joe could probably do most of the things they would have contained; the books seem especially irrelevant in a largely rural and agricultural state like ours. My grandfather, who built with his bare hands — with the help of neither a plumber nor an electrician — at least one of the houses he and his family lived in (yes, it’s still standing, over on North Taylor), would find this sort of thing really embarrassing.

This apparent lack of know-how may be akin to a similar decline in our knowledge about stuff in general, and there’s a book for that, too. These dense compendia of names, dates, and places promise an Ivy League education in a month’s worth of trips to the bathroom, but if some of the information they present seems beyond the scope of an average college-educated American (do you know who invented anesthesia?), it would sail right over the head of the average know-nothing.

I’m talking about the kind of person who, upon failing to produce a piece of fluorescently common information on Jay Leno’s popular “Jaywalking” segment, chortles defiantly as if only social outcasts or the deranged would know something as esoteric as the name of our current president or the planet upon which we live. Even worse are those who giggle and shrug, unfazed and unaware of the fact that many kindergarteners have more general knowledge than they do. (They also must not know who Jay Leno is, or they would recognize the outstretched microphone for what it is: an invitation to humiliation on national television.)

President’s Day has, for whatever reason, become synonymous with car sales. But the Lexus dealership in West Little Rock has no need for such incentives: The sales department estimates that they have sold at least 50 of these new “self-parking” cars since they arrived in November. Impossible to keep them in stock. Only a demo on the lot. Perpetual waiting list.

I look forward to the show when Leno hits the streets to ask people whether or not they know how to parallel park.

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