The closest I've ever been to my father was in the Wayne County Family Services building in Detroit. We were sitting beside one another in a small room, our knees nearly touching, while a man in a white coat and khaki pants was drawing out two cotton-toothed swabs from a glass jar on the counter. Mom was there, too. She'd pulled me out of class—I was young; a freshman in high school—to attend her child-support hearing in which the judge had ordered a DNA test done before my father had to fork over any of his money.
In the room the three of us sat in silence. My father wore a sharp black suit that looked expensive. Everything about him looked expensive. His pomaded hair, his silver-rimmed glasses. Even the car he drove, a Lincoln Continental that I'd later see him pulling away in, seemed to me the personification of success. But little of that mattered. He was just a man in a nice suit. Someone I'd never spoken a word to. In fact, the only time either of us opened our mouths was when the man with the cotton swabs reached in to scrape out DNA samples from our cheeks.
I sometimes recall this memory of my father when I put on a suit. I look in the mirror, and just as I'm lifting my collar to sling my tie around my neck, I laugh. I laugh because it was not my father who taught me how to tie a tie, nor pick out a suit. It was not my father who taught me how to change the oil in my car, drive a six-speed, build a fire, or shave with a straight razor. All that I owe to one website: YouTube.
Since its inception, YouTube members have used the video-sharing platform as a stage for everything from mediocre comedy bits to popping the "Biggest Pimple in the World." And there is a specific genre of video that has given young men and women who've grown up without a father the chance to learn trades typically instilled by dear old dad. Videos like "Replacing Breakers in an Electrical Panel" and "How to Slaughter, Skin, Gut, and Butcher a Rabbit" have taught hundreds of thousands of viewers skills that are generally acquired from "the man of the house."
Don't get me wrong; a woman is more than capable of imbuing her child with any of these aptitudes, but just like more than 10 million single mothers in the United States, mine played the role of both parents while working 60 hours a week—she didn't have time to, say, pop open the hood on my '95 Caribbean green Mercury Tracer and show me how to replace the water pump and timing belt.
"As you get older you start relying on people other than your parents to educate you," says Andrew Jardine, a 23-year-old network sourcing specialist at ABC in Manhattan. Andrew's parents divorced when he was eight years old, and he and his identical twin brother, Shane, have since used YouTube to teach themselves things (like changing flat tires) that their mother, Darlene, wasn't able to fit in when they were growing up.
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, a third of American children are living in fatherless homes, and some sociologists have gone as far as to say that the absence of a father in a child's life is the greatest social problem facing America. Certainly it would be absurd to consider YouTube as an adequate alternative to an actual father-figure in the home; however, by using it as a free parenting tool, single mothers can help develop father-oriented traits in the child's growth process.
When I graduated college and couldn't find work as a journalist, I took on a gig in Chicago managing parking services for the Hyatt Regency. The valet company put me up in an executive suite in the hotel, and before I caught a cab to my final interview I stood in front of the mirror, with my tie around my neck, staring dumbly at the two ends of fabric in my hands. I didn't have the slightest idea how this tie was supposed to end up looking like The Duke of Windsor's. Every other time I had to wear a tie I just pulled on a pre-knotted one my friend's dad tied when I was younger. Now I was on my own, untied. So I fired up YouTube—my trusty, informal educator—and asked the search bar: How do I tie a tie? It was mom who first gave me the idea, actually. I'd called her to ask if she knew how to tie a tie and she said, "Just look it up online."
"How to Tie a Tie - Expert Instructions on How to Tie a Tie," a video posted by YouTube user geoffdorn, now has over 14 million views. In less than two minutes, in monotone fashion, the video walks you through the process of tying a four-in-hand knot. And while it may not be as entertaining as Jim Green's rifle-cleaning video, geoffdorn's step-by-step tutorial has evoked comments like: "Graduation is tomorrow but I want to be prepared cant wait to show my son this some day," and, "I'm here because my dad doesn't love me."
YouTube will never be there to pat you on the back. YouTube will never be there to straighten your tie, tighten your oil filter, or share that freshly skinned rabbit over a bottle of Old Weller 107—not yet, anyway. But what it can offer is manly advice at your fingertips. These videos were never intended to become what they are to so many people; they're not labeled as "guy stuff." They're just posts from men and women who understand that not everyone has a handyman, or a well-dressed man, or a dad around to teach them crafts of modern life.