I’m getting the back steps of the house fixed. The wooden steps are buckling, probably because the wood originally used had not been treated for outdoors use. Seeing that it was just a matter of time before one of the boards would drop under my feet and send me sprawling, I looked for a carpenter.

It often occurs to me how many things I’m surrounded by or use that I have no competence in. When we had a major leak in the garage, water rushing everywhere, it was my housemate, Lori, who knew where and how to turn off the water in the basement. She rents rooms here, I own the title, but I had no idea. Lori knows lots more about cars than I do and does various fixes herself on her 20 year-old car while I depend on Mark’s Garage less than a mile away. We both have dogs but again, Lori knows more about them than I do; ditto the yard, the flowers and plants, and the billion leaves that are falling and will continue to fall for the next month.

When it comes to technology, it’s safe to say that we’re both ignoramuses. I’ve had great experience with Apple’s customer support and I clean both computer and phone religiously, but both are old and I can see a visit to the Apple Store in Holyoke on the horizon.

Lori and I love the DeLonghi expresso maker that’s been in the kitchen for 6-1/2 years and I take meticulous care of it, too, just like the manual advises, but there’s a leak inside and I haven’t even been able to unscrew the special screws that hold the back panel in place, so I can’t see where the leak comes from and what piece I need to re-order.

I feel as though my life has gotten big—lots of information at my fingertips, trips I can book myself rather than using an agent, lots of interesting people to meet in person or online—how else do I do a dialogue on aging with actor Jeff Bridges?—but my personal capabilities are nowhere near my life’s reach.

Think of it this way: It used to be that cavemen mastered all there was to learn about tracking and hunting animals, their way of putting food on the table. Cavewomen knew to cook the animals, make clothes and coverings out of the skins, give birth and raise children. Given the narrow dimensions of their lives, there wasn’t much more they had to know. There might have been certain individuals who, in their off time, tried to create fire, but there wasn’t much off time.

The same when agriculture took over. You knew how to plant and harvest, and eventually how to raise domestic animals for help and food, while the women had the skills to raise a family, sew, wash, and repair clothes, cook and clean. I think one reason for the nostalgia around old Westerns like Little House On the Prairie or even Bonanza has to do with how well the families seemed to take care, doing everything they needed all by themselves or with family and neighbors.

That’s not true now. If we depend on oil or gas furnaces for heat and the heat doesn’t come, we call the oil, gas, or electric company. We don’t know how to service the machinery we need to keep us comfortable, like ovens, refrigerators, cars, or homes. And that’s before we get into electronics. How many times have I watched someone shaking his head over a miscreant computer or a phone that suddenly wasn’t working?

With all the knowledge at our fingertips, we don’t feel in control. If something breaks down we don’t depend on our skills to fix it, nor do we usually go to neighbors to see if they know more than we do; we call the company. We call the specialists and things become transactional: You do the job and I pay you. Things we once either did ourselves or got help with from a close circle are now provided by a specialized service-provider who takes my credit card and processes my payment right on his/her phone.

Earlier today I was at our local co-op for food. The credit card machine wasn’t working well. The man behind the glasses repeated the transaction, and when the machine still didn’t work he banged on it, and when that didn’t work he stared at it as though it was an evil voyager from another planet come to the co-op to threaten his work and peace of mind.

Everything was at his fingertips, and he had no control.

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