Tuesday, February 25, 2020

Stuff Gets Lost

Stuff Gets Lost

In his book about kayaking around the South Pacific, travel writer Paul Theroux offers at one point a list of what’s been lost by the Polynesians over the centuries.  He looks at what they used to be able to do and what they are able to do now. The list of knowledge lost to these islanders is formidable and includes not only the ability to navigate a boat but also the ability to fish, to cure meat, to build ocean-going boats, to predict the weather, and to communicate with the volcano gods.

When I first read this list, I started laughing.  I thought, how can these island people possibly survive without this kind of essential knowledge?  But once I stopped laughing I realized that every generation loses some of the essential wisdom from previous generations.

My mother and father – both born on farms in Poland in the 1920s — were able to do stuff I can’t even imagine doing.  They both knew, for example, how to slaughter, salt, and prepare pigs to be eaten. If I were asked to do this, I would not eat the result. Those who did eat what I prepared would probably come down with E. coli or the coronavirus or some kind of plague that no one can image.

But this ability to slaughter a pig was just the beginning of what my Polish parents knew and I don’t.  I once watched my father chop down a tree. He was a little guy (5’2″) who couldn’t figure out how to fix a car or start a washing machine or use a typewriter but with an axe he was some kind of Polish Harrison Ford. And my mom also had her special talents.  She could kill a chicken by twirling it, and she could take the feathers off it quickly and singe its skin perfectly (don’t ask me why she would do the last). I remember watching her do all of this. When I was a kid, we would buy live chickens on Division Street at a chicken store (hundreds of cages and frantic chickens) run by a Hassidic Jew.  If my daughter or granddaughter were asked to go into such a store and pick out a chicken, she would either panic or wage a protest.

My parents knew so much that I will never know about doing stuff.

But then I get to wondering what I know that my daughter and granddaughter don’t know.

The list is endless.

I can dial a number on a rotary phone, hitchhike across the US and back, send a fax, stay up 3 days straight on a bet, climb on a roof and look for loose tiles, sing at least 100 old folk songs that no one else remembers except me, drag a dead deer out of a forest, talk about the best American novels ever written, and walk from one end of Chicago to the other end of Chicago while whistling the “St. Louis Blues.”


This is my latest column for the Polish Daily News. Please consider leaving a comment at the online site where it appears.