Thursday, May 28, 2009

The Skills We Don't Have Any More

My name is Bilbo, and I am the world's most inept handyman.

It's true, but it's not all my fault. It's mainly a matter of genetics.

My father is a handyman's handyman. He can build or repair just about anything, a talent which served him well through his long career as an advertising photographer when he had to create all sorts of photographic illusions in a crowded studio without benefit of computer-generated graphics. Need a picture of a man panning for gold in a the middle of February? No problem - build a running stream out of rocks, water, and plastic sheeting in the middle of the room. Water gushing out of the back of an armored car? Easy - shoot the armored car, shoot the water, and layer the exposures. An elephant wearing a ballet tutu? No the circus, convince them you're not crazy, rent the elephant and handler, and get it done. Dad is one of those talented people who can build furniture and illusions with equal facility, who can repair small appliances, re-upholster furniture, graft trees, make wine, and bring old lawn mowers back from the dead. My brothers Mark and Paul inherited this gift.

Me? I got his cooking skills. And Mom's facility with writing and language.


I got to thinking about all this when I read this article by Matthew Crawford in yesterday's New York Times: The Case for Working with Your Hands.

In this lengthy and fascinating article, Mr Crawford talks about the decline in our skill at working with our hands. He notes that "high-school shop-class programs were widely dismantled in the 1990s as educators prepared students to become 'knowledge workers,'” to work in a society that values the ability to manipulate information more than the ability to build and repair objects. He says that, "now as ever, somebody has to actually do things: fix our cars, unclog our toilets, build our houses," but that, somehow, we value those skills less than those of the criminal idiots who wrecked the economy.

And we train more people to wreck the economy than to repair things around the house.

I was the despair of my wood and metal shop teachers...I think poor Mr Linton is still drinking to forget my crude and lopsided constructions. Agnes still looks askance at me when I grandly announce that I can effect some small installation or repair in the house, and always has my medical insurance card nearby when I take on any task more complicated than replacing a light bulb. She nearly had to be hospitalized for shock when I successfully hung two large chandeliers in the house without falling off the ladder or electrocuting myself.

Many years ago, comedian Alan King wrote that he was the world's most inept handyman. He said that he once tried to kill a spider with a hammer, then had to finish the job with a screwdriver.

I've taken on his mantle.

We live in a time when almost nobody actually makes anything any more. Ask yourself...when was the last time you met someone who makes his or her living using their hands and skills to actually build something tangible? When something breaks in your home, can you fix it? Do you know how to replace a faucet, re-wire an electrical outlet, replace a switch, install a light fixture, change the oil or repair the brakes in your car, or fix a leaky pipe? Perhaps you do. But in most cases, I'll bet that - like me - you find someone to do it for you. Even the professional mechanics we depend upon to repair our computerized cars need spectrum analyzers and sensors and flamminated polymetric widgets of all kinds to tell them what's wrong.

We've lost something valuable, here.

I actually can do a lot of minor things. I can fix a leaky toilet, do minor electrical repairs, change a tire on the car, and replace a broken faucet. But I can't build or re-upholster furniture, repair electronic devices, or use shoelaces and duct tape to fix a car that's died in the middle of an intersection.

But I can write about it, and that'll just have to do.

Have a good day. Build something.

More thoughts tomorrow.



The Mistress of the Dark said...

my dad is mr fixit. if its broke he can fix it. If its not broke, he'll break it so he can fix it :)

KKTSews said...

furniture re-upholstery is actually very easy, just time-consuming. And you have to have a place to let the naked beast of a chair or couch sit for weeks while you mess with clothing it anew. You can put it right next to Agnes' sewing machines and quilting contraption if she still has it.

Debbie said...

Bill, your abilities with tools far exceed mine. But rather than thinking of ourselves as inept, I prefer to think we are the real Americans who keep seamstresses, mechanics, electricians and carpenters and their fellow tradesmen employed!

fiona said...

SB got the fixit gene! He's just about finished re -modeling the downstairs B/R complete with natural pine paneling, tiling, new sink etc
Up side, it saves a ton of money, down side, it takes FOREVER!

Mike said...

That's what's nice about working for Habitat. I can get the need to hammer on things out of the way and then go home.

replace a faucet-easy
re-wire an electrical outlet-easy replace a switch-easy
install a light fixture-easy
change the oil-not any more
repair the brakes in your car-no
fix a leaky pipe-pain

Jean-Luc Picard said...

Skills that are not handwed down are lost

Leslie David said...

My father is as helpless when it comes to repair as you are, so he hires people to do things. I live in an apartment--that's what maintenance is for, or when it came to installing shelving, medicine cabinets, I hired someone to do it. I can cook but I failed Home Ec when it came to sewing and since my mother doesn't sew she couldn't help me. I think I would have enjoyed shop more than Home Ec, but it still pisses me off when my Driver Ed instructor didn't show us how to change a tire because he didn't think women could do that. After an accident on the PA Turnpike in a snowstorm which holed my tire, I followed the pictoral directions on my jack (since the writing was in Japanese) and managed to change the tire just fine by myself.

Mrs. Geezerette said...

I'm no fix-it person. My hubby does a decent job of it though.

However, Debbie is right. Hire someone else to fix your broken stuff and help Obama "spread the wealth around." It is the patriotic thing to do.

John A Hill said...

They pay me well to do the job that I know how to do. I figure that I should be willing to pay somebody well to do the job that they know how to do.

Once, when I told somebody that I was an air traffic controller, they said, "Wow, you have an important job!"

I responded, "I drive 35 miles to work each day. The mechanic that keeps my car running has an important job."

It's all a matter of perspective.

Alex said...

This is one of the reasons that I still advise high school students in theater. Set construction. Lighting. Audio. These are what I'd call tactile fields. Where I use my hands all day at a computer, there's something unmistakable real and humble about getting down and dirty with raw materials and tools.