Problem or Progress?

Do you wear a watch? The answer to that question may depend on your age. You could say that watches are the new handkerchiefs.

I rarely iron. Nonetheless, when I was a young girl my mother taught me to do so and the first items entrusted to my care were my father’s handkerchiefs. I remember taking great satisfaction in watching a wrinkled piece of fabric turn into a tidy, pressed and folded square. Yet, the box of handkerchiefs my grandmother gave me when I was a young teen lay  unopened in my closet for decades.

While disposable facial tissues are described in an account of 17th century Japan, in the United States Kleenex were introduced after World War I, slowly replacing handkerchiefs over the course of decades. While some very environmentally conscious individuals are urging a return to the cotton square, most Americans never think twice at the idea of grabbing a tissue from a readily available box.

I always wear a watch. I have a utilitarian one for every day and a dressier one for Shabbat and special occasions. However, that marks me as being of a certain age. An increasing number of younger people see a watch as an accessory—almost like a vestigial appendix. After all, with your phone never out of reach it is just as quick to glance at it as to flourish your arm. Receiving a special watch as a graduation gift has gradually become as obsolete as girls putting up their hair or boys transitioning from short to long pants.

And so it goes and quite correctly so. Items like buggy whips, corset lacers and roller skate keys that were once utilitarian become nostalgic remnants found in antique stores. The challenge is differentiating between “no-longer-needed” and “still-needed-but-no-longer-available.” In this vein, I read an article about students lamenting how unprepared they were for those university classes where laptops were banned. They had trouble physically handling hours of note-taking and some couldn’t read their own handwriting. In the same vein, grocery stores screech to a halt if there is a computer failure requiring checkers to compute the correct change in their heads.

I’m not immune to this. I am relieved not to be responsible for growing all my own vegetables and preserving and pickling them to get through the winter. I lack the skills that my ancestors had to sew all my family’s clothes or cobble our own shoes. I was not required to master Latin before graduating college. Not being experienced in some of these things and not being competent in others  doesn’t make me feel deficient. Barring a complete societal breakdown, I don’t expect to need these skills (well, I probably wouldn’t need Latin at that point) so I spend my time honing others instead.

The natural reaction is to assume that skills that my generation no longer needs are marks of progress while the lack of skills among the next generation represents a problem. Rationally and responsibly evaluating what actually matters and what does not is a trickier proposition. As I am in the midst of a cooking jag for Passover, heavily dependent on my food processor to grate pounds of potatoes that my grandmother cheerfully grated by hand, my sympathies are stronger for the computer-dependent university students above than they might have been at another time of year.

27 thoughts on “Problem or Progress?”

  1. I remember as a child spending hours grating potatoes. I remember the scraped knuckles but I can’t say I remember the cheerful part of that. I am grateful every year for my processor

  2. It is amusing–and somewhat unfortunate–to make a purchase where the change is, say $2.93, and hand the clerk 7 cents. All too often you will get a strange look. When you say “I get $3 back now”, they will look at you like you are from Mars…. not only objects but skills are being lost to time.

    1. I’m embarrassed to say that since I have a calculator in my phone, I have to think twice about math problems that used to be computed easily in my head.

  3. Kirsten Van Ooyen

    Dear Mrs. Lapin,
    Can you imagine cleaning the leaven out of your home without a vacuum? How fitting that I read you musing while joyfully giving thanks for my vacuum cleaner and the electricity that propels its glorious engine!

    Chag Pesach Sameach to you and yours,

    1. And what about the washing machine, Kirsten? I was running cleaning rags through the wash on a continuous loop! Wishing you wonderful holy days as well.

  4. Wishing Passover Blessings & Joy to the Lapin’s. Just as when looking at a watch, I receive awkward stares when I pay with paper money and coin. If someone had told the “20 year-old me” that paper money would no longer be considered a desirable means of paying an amount due, I would have thought them to be either a communist or insane. C’est la vie, but I don’t have to conform, for the time being, anyway.

    1. Rabbi Daniel Lapin

      Hello Darin-
      Consistency is the hobgoblin of small minds is close to what Emerson said and I think conformity for its own sake is a similar murderer of initiative. Three cheers to independent spirits

  5. I adore your wit and wisdom! Einstein once said something about the more we depend on technology the more civilization will suffer (sorry I cannot quote it exactly). I see that daily with smartphones, they are a blessing and a curse. I remember my sisters and I in the kitchen enjoying conversation while washing dishes or helping prepare a meal. That came to a halt when my family got its first dishwasher and other appliances, to our great loss.

    Wishing you and your loved ones a joyous Passover. You are a pearl of great price! Thank you for sharing your wisdom!

    A Christian fan, Karla

    1. Rabbi Daniel Lapin

      Thanks Karla–
      And from the tone of your letter, I perspicaciously deduce you are addressing Susan Lapin. She is elbow deep in Passover preparations (which she inexplicably enjoys–but that is part of the point you are making) Thanks for the good wishes

      1. Sorry, Rabbi! Yes, you are appreciated too! I thank God daily for the both of you! Thanks for the lessons! KE

  6. WOW, yet one of the few emails that drive me to THINK…..THX and have a BLESSED PASSOVER….

  7. Blessings to you and your family this Passover, Susan. I truly enjoyed today’s Musings. I also ironed my father’s handkerchiefs when I was a young girl, and got so much satisfaction from it that I still carry my own cotton handkerchief in my purse (neatly ironed, of course). Generally, though, I find change easier to embrace when approached with a positive attitude, like learning to navigate using The Waze app and creating my grocery list through the store’s online app. Remember the TV show, Monk? He always said his detective talents were “a blessing and a curse”, and so much new technology is the same. I definitely put the food processor in the blessing category.

    1. Rabbi Daniel Lapin

      Dear Ginger-
      I am really impressed! What emotional and intellectual range you possess; carrying ironed hankies in your purse along with your smartphone and using Waze! And a Monk fan as well? Wasn’t Tony Shalhoub perfect in that role? Very fine acting there. As for food processors, all I can say is that I have been called a lot of things in my time but food processor might be fairly accurate

  8. Brian F. Tucker

    I am happy to be able to create and send cards and art work by e-mail rather than post. But I still am glad that God gave me the talent and skills to create the art the old fashion way. By hand.
    Happy and blessed Passover,

    Joyce & Brian

    1. Rabbi Daniel Lapin

      Thank you Franz and Sandra–
      Very much appreciate your kind sentiment

  9. Your Musing as always raises several important points worthy of consideration. First is how with the passing of Father Time, invention telescopes many onerous human activities into quick trivialities, and renders many once necessary artifacts obsolete. Visit a local WalMart and see how simple supply and demand has decimated the prices of wristwatches, certainly to the dismay of the poor jeweler. But all the Millennials carry their hours, schedules, calendars and lives in their cell phones or computers. So who needs a wristwatch anymore?

    Another point you raise was brought home with a vengeance by Alvin Toffler ca. 1970 in Future Shock. Toffler discusses how so many objects we rely upon have become one-way disposable commodities: yes, handkerchiefs, but also, pens, cameras, paper artifacts to include clothing. With this observation came a dire warning of untoward social consequences: societies that allow throw-away artifacts to proliferate will also unwittingly foster throw-away relationships among humans. Sad to see, one can see evidence of that in America today. Thank you for bringing such matters into popular awareness. An enemy is best fought, once you have identified him. Thank God for your Musings and Thought Tools so rich in philosophy and AJW! Happy Passover to you and family and long life to your food processor!

    1. The disposable society definitely translates to all areas of life, James. I appreciate the blessing to my food processor. I truly wonder at the food my grandmother put out without gadgets that I rely on.

    2. Rabbi Daniel Lapin

      Thanks James-
      Actually, upon review, very few of the Toflers’ predictions have come to pass. Do we really have throw-away relationships today or is there just a paucity of relationship in the first place. For example in the most fundamental of all relationships, marriage, divorce rate has been fairly constant for many years but what has changed is that a far smaller proportion of men are marrying than ever before. So, yes, razors, lighters, pens, and so on, for sure disposable. Even phones are increasingly disposable with all the really important stuff, your date; your life, safely stored on the Cloud. But some relationships are still cherished; others…such as Tinder-sparked hook-ups….? Well, were those really “Relationships” in the first place?

      1. One is ill-advised to challenge your impeccable logic, dear Rabbi, however I speak of relationships not confined merely to the marital. There are various other relationships one might enumerate (I won’t). Indeed many of Mr. Toffler’s prophecies I also regard as off-base, such as humanity residing in undersea compounds, etc. Yet another prophecy of Toffler’s that I respect is that ‘in the future not only change will increase exponentially, even the RATE of change will increase exponentially.’ In this I figure he was not far wrong. Change has shaken the foundations of our world. Whoever thought Eastman Kodak would ever deemphasize the manufacture of photographic film? Indeed today’s frightening rate of change makes your AJW so attractive: ‘In a world of constant change we need to adhere to those things which do NOT change.’ Bless you for sharing it with us!

        The real underlying problem is indeed the rate of change, which drives or contributes to increasing impermanence in American society; and Americans especially are always on the MOVE, and such frequent relocation itself contributes to the use of lightweight, disposable, throw-away cultural artifacts. I draw from my experience of residency in Europe, where I have experienced far less population mobility and far more personal loyalty to genuine friends and even acquaintances, provided, as you suggest, the relationship existed in the first place.

  10. Oh, how I relate being a Baby Boomer, Susan! Working with many Millennial clients I’ve come to discover they are totally dependent on their smart phones for telling time, banking, socialization, photos, communication (text in lieu of talk, of course)…basically everything! I’m often reminded of this when asking them to drop off an earnest money check and they look puzzled not having a check book! A blessed Passover. We began Triduum tonight at Holy Thursday service.

  11. Wishing you and your loved ones a joyous Passover!


    (One of your Catholic friends in San Diego)

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