I’ve spent a good portion of the last week catching up on household tasks of various kinds. Whether it’s something I’m increasingly comfortable with, like gardening, or something where I’m still finding my way like working with power tools on various projects, this kind of work has become really satisfying for me.
I’ll probably pick up Shop Class as Soulcraft as a result, given that it’s getting good reviews. Though Francis Fukuyama’s review of the book this Sunday didn’t do the book any favors, given the aggressiveness of Fukuyama’s ideological packaging of its argument.
I’m completely persuaded that it’s a good thing in general for middle-class folks to learn as much as possible about the machines, objects and processes that surround them, and to learn through direct hands-on work with all of them. If that’s what the book argues, I’m with it. But Fukuyama argues that the shutting down of shop classes in high schools is a result of a campaign by experts to denigrate this kind of work in favor of “knowledge work” or “symbolic analysis” due to changes in the global economy. Fukuyama (and maybe Crawford, author of the book? I’ll wait and see on that one) is smarter than this: I think he knows very well that most of that argument about the future of skills and labor isn’t aimed at plumbers, carpenters, electricians and so on. It’s about the disappearance of unskilled factory labor from much of the United States.
I also think Fukuyama knows full well that European and American middle-classes, especially intellectuals, have long fretted about becoming too distant from manual labor, from practical knowledge, from direct experience. Complaints about the alienated, enfeebled culture of white-collar work go back a wee bit farther than “Dilbert”. I’m perfectly ok with the wheel turning once again: I’ve argued myself that a great liberal arts course would interweave studying the history of cars and traffic, the public policy of transportation, and a hands-on disassembly and reconstruction of an actual automobile. But let’s get a bit savvy here and ask why a sentiment that seemingly rejects middle-class “knowledge work” and white-collar labor is so recurrently popular with middle-class white-collar workers. And why most of the people who enthuse about the message don’t quit their jobs as symbolic analysts but just build stuff in their garage or tinker with farming and so on. Fukuyama is generous enough to acknowledge this point but I’m not sure he grasps it fully. Learning how to do it yourself is just another dimension of bourgeois culture, right alongside being a foodie or going to the theater. Which is fine by me: nothing shameful about middle-class life, as far as I’m concerned. Still, that takes down the rhetorical heat by about ten notches.
So miscellaneous things I’ve found or wondered about this week.
1) Precision is, as in all things, my bugbear. One reason I’ve always preferred cooking to baking is that you can usually fix a dish that’s gone wrong, but if you’re off by much with baking, you’re screwed. This turns out to be even more true when you’re making something like a bookshelf or hanging a screen door yourself. I missed by maybe an eighth of an inch on one of the spade-bit drill holes I had to make for the door lock installation on the screen door and was barely able to adapt the whole thing with some careful filing. If I had missed by much more, I think I would have had to just take the whole door down and call it a loss. That’s one key problem with DIY stuff in general: learning by doing can get expensive.
2) Everyone likes to complain about bad instructions. What I was struck with in the case of the screen door was that the instructions were difficult for me to understand, but they weren’t bad. First, I had the classic problem of a left-handed person: all the illustrations were of right-handed tool use. Sometimes I find I try to reverse what I’m seeing in my mind and then I end up ‘tricking’ myself back into a double reversal. A more complicated installation like this is also difficult to write instructions for both because the instructions have to be flexible (this door could hinged on either side, and had variable widths to accommodate for different doorframes) and because various parts have names that are non-intuitive. The instructions have to build a vocabulary for you, a temporary jargon, because they can’t just say “That thing” and “that other thing”.
3) I finally got a fairly cheap chipper/shredder (and it’s not a very good model: you get what you pay for, I guess) and found to my surprise that a huge pile of debris I’ve been building up for three years reduced to about three or four wheelbarrows of finely shredded mulch. That’s leaving aside the logs and sticks bigger than 2 inches, which I need to chainsaw down and then break into firewood. Makes me think again about the amount of material that must be needed to make really huge amounts of mulch. Not that there’s any shortage of woody waste in the mid-Atlantic area but still.
4) Has anyone come up with a cheap disposable mask that doesn’t fog up safety goggles? So far I’ve tried a couple of different brands, some of which promise that their foam seals prevent fogging, but I still end up close to blind after ten minutes of work when I’m wearing a mask and goggles.
5) My table saw scares the crap out of me, but it does seem to be the answer for making dado grooves on the bookshelves I’m making. I’m still not as precise as I want to be, but I’m getting there.
6) For the third time in my life, I’ve planted mint in a garden without thinking very carefully about how to control its spread. I think mint should come with a biohazard sticker on it.
7) I’ve really despaired about getting my lawn into shape through my own seeding, with no chemical use. But this spring I looked around and realized that it had really grown in after three years of seeding. I guess grass is just a long-term project if you’re not going to go with heavy treatments.
8 ) Before I started trying to do some household maintenance and repair myself, I always thought that the major cost of hiring people to do that work was labor. Same for making pine or ash bookshelves. But for furniture, it’s increasingly clear to me that materials are most of the cost of retail furniture unless it’s very high-end crafted work. Same I think for a goodly amount of household work: the cost is in the equipment you need to do it and the materials it requires.