Monday, November 10, 2008

Cultural background

I was born and raised on Long Island in the suburbs, and my father was largely absent from my upbringing (he was a truck driver, not one much inclined to being more involved in my life than necessary, and he parted ways with my mother when I was 13). Lately, I've been more and more aware of the thousand tiny things, most of them too small for people to even notice them, that I never learned and that other people who live near me just take for granted.

There's a handful of little details that people learned without realizing they learned them, things that are too hard to explain or even notice, and harder still to realize need to be explained because they seem obvious. I've been running into many of these in the "handyman" category lately.

For instance, most boys born and raised in Vermont to old-time Vermonters learned things about woodcutting that I was never exposed to, and some are too small or subtle to be included in the manual that comes with a chainsaw. There are details about how small engines are maintained that I just can't quite pick up only because no one will show them to me the way they would to their own children, so it's a struggle for me just to tune up my own lawn tractor, let alone get a generator working when it won't quite start. I don't know how to stack wood, how to tell at a glance how much wood I have in a pile, and even some things about how to use a woodstove efficiently, let alone repair it. Even knowing the right questions to ask the guys at the hardware store requires a baseline knowledge of which mine is full of gaps.

Sometimes it's hard to get a neighbor to help or a friend to explain things because they've been burned too much by "flatlanders" -- the local term for someone from a suburban or urban place (or more generally, "not here") who has come to the area and settled down, with the connotation that they aren't here to be "a real Vermonter" but just to bring their suburban ways to the rural landscape, ruining both. I don't blame them. I've seen people who came to Vermont looking not for Vermont, but for their old home with a postcard behind it. They expect to be able to get sushi delivered at midnight, and have no interest in learning how to handle Vermont weather, let alone things like cutting their own wood. They want the idea of Vermont, not the reality. And old Vermonters are jaded from dealing with them being like that, and tend to look suspciously on anyone "not from around here" who doesn't know how to handle a snowblower or a chainsaw.

I think I can safely say that's not me. Sure, I was born and raised in Long Island, but as far as I'm concerned, that was a mere clerical error: I was misfiled. I want to live like a Vermonter. I want to learn all that stuff and I want to do my share, pull my weight. But how do they know that's true?

But it's easy to overstate this aspect of the issue. Most of the time, Vermonters are more than happy to give us flatlanders the benefit of the doubt and try to explain this stuff. The problem is that there's too much baseline knowledge which is too obvious, which people learned by mere exposure. Most of it, the old-time Vermonter doesn't even realize he learned; it just seems obvious. And what's left, they're probably reluctant to try to explain. Wouldn't it seem just wrong, patronizing maybe, to explain to a successful, respected man in his 40s something you would be teaching your five-year-old son? Especially when that man does indeed have some handyman chops in other areas, despite these big gaps in his knowledge?

So while they were learning obvious things about how to use a winch to guide a felled tree, or what the sounds of a gas engine mean about what's wrong with it, or even just what tools are used for these things, I was learning baseline suburbs skills that they would be lacking if they moved to Long Island, and would have a similar hard time picking up through the culture shock. Great. So I know how to read mall maps efficiently, how to keep my wits in three lanes of constantly shifting aggressive traffic, and how to avoid salesmen in stores. And a thousand other things that are too obvious to me for me even to think of them to list here, but which would bewilder the old-time Vermonter caught in Suffolk County staring at the menu in a small local pizzeria. Fat lot of good that does me.

Little by little I'm picking these things up that my dad never taught me, that my youth never exposed me to, that no one now realizes to explain. But at times it's frustratingly slow. And every time I have to ask a friend to come over and show me something basic to him, I wish I won't have to do that again soon, but every time, something else comes up almost immediately. I wish I could take a remedial course in this stuff.

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