The other day, I was teaching a teenager who has just gotten her driver’s license how to drive a manual transmission. I’ve never taught anyone to drive before, so I found it quite challenging to break the necessary skills down into a series of steps a newbie could follow.
“Put in the clutch, start the car, put the car in gear, release the parking brake, give it a little gas and let out the clutch at the same time.”
“Where’s the clutch?” she asked.
Oops. My instructions weren’t basic enough.
I learned to drive a stick shift first. Back in the day, my parents didn’t have anything but manual transmission cars and drivers’ ed classes didn’t use automatics. While I’d ridden in a few automatic transmission cars, by the time I learned to drive I had spent most of my life watching people drive manual transmissions. I didn’t know how to manage the timing of shifting gears, but I knew where the clutch was and that it was necessary for shifting gears.
But my young friend has spent most of her time in automatics. It’s not just driving stick that’s new to her; it’s the whole concept of how a stick shift car works. She had no background for understanding the system.
She’s very sharp and coordinated, so after about ten minutes she was developing a feel for how much gas to give the car when you’re moving from a dead stop — the most difficult skill to master.
I’m glad to help her, but I’m not sure it’s all that necessary to learn to drive stick these days, unless you’re planning to be a race car driver or go into the long-haul trucking business. Fewer than 7 percent of new cars sold in the U.S. have manual transmission.
I prefer driving stick. I’m convinced that it helps keep you more alert when driving because it gives you something else you need to pay attention to. Plus if you’ve ever got a dead battery, you can always start the car by turning on the key, putting it in second, getting a quick push (ideally you’re on a slight downhill), and popping the clutch.
But it’s likely to be one of those skills that will fade away with time. I’ll miss it, though I’m not sure it will be much of a loss. Besides, I suspect that by the 22nd Century, cars as we know now them will be a thing of the past, like driving a horse and buggy is today.
Teaching my friend how to drive stick got me to thinking about the other things I know how to do that are disappearing. I got exposed to hot type printing in my early days in newspapers. I don’t have printer’s skills, but I can read upside down and backwards, which is how you have to read a block of type set in place for the printer, since it reverses when it prints. I didn’t do it long enough to do it as well as my mother, who could read that way well enough cut a story that was too long without having the printer pull a galley proof. But back when I practiced law, I did find it useful for reading documents sitting on a prosecutor’s desk when I was trying to get a deal for a client.
Actually, I have more experience doing paste up for offset printing. The typesetting machines for offset printing produce copy in column widths and it’s regular text, so it’s easy to read. You paste it on a cardboard sheet, and if you need to adjust it, you use an Exacto knife. Of course, most modern printing goes straight from the computer to the printer without this step.
I also know how to lay out a newspaper page with pencil and paper so someone else can do either the hot type or the paste up. Now, of course, that’s done on the computer, and as print newspapers disappear, the whole process changes, because good layout for print and good layout for the Web, not to mention for mobile apps, are very different.
I can also develop negatives from camera film and used to be hell on wheels in a darkroom. I was never a great photographer, but I could do a lot with an enlarger: crop, dodge, change the amount of exposure, affect the lighting. No one needs to know how to do any of this anymore. And with Photoshop, one can do more with a picture than I ever dreamed of doing in the darkroom.
What else? Well, I once could read a slide rule. I wasn’t bad with an adding machine. I ran a cash register back when you had to enter the price, not click on a picture of the item or scan in the PLU.
For that matter, I’m pretty good at doing basic arithmetic by hand or even in my head as the result of learning some number sense shortcuts when I was in junior high school. Though I don’t think that skill is obsolete. Yes, I use a calculator or a spreadsheet program to balance my checkbook, but the fact that I have a general idea of what the answer should be before I start makes me less likely to make a stupid mistake.
I also learned to type on typewriters — both the manual and electric kind. The machines I learned to type on have become obsolete, but typing is still useful.
Here’s the thing about these skills: All of them made me employable once upon a time, but they wouldn’t be worth listing on a resume today. Even typing skills aren’t useful today unless you know how to use a range of computer programs.
Times change. Tools change. It seems to me like things change faster than ever, but they have been changing at a rapid rate for the past 150 years or so. It occurs to me sometimes that my grandmother was born before the Wright Brothers flew at Kitty Hawk and lived long enough to see Neil Armstrong set foot on the Moon.
We’ll all mourn some of those disappearing tools. I’ll miss the stick shift and if I were to live long enough for the car to disappear, I’d mourn even though when I look at the vast stretches of parking lot and highway that mar our landscape, I curse our automobile-centric culture. And there are a few tools that produced a better product than the easier-to-use items that replaced them. But a lot more of the tools were cumbersome and have been replaced by things that do the job much better.
And change is good. Like shifting gears when you’re driving, it keeps your mind sharp.