Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Master Of One's Own Stuff

“These scribes are going to be hard to put in, so put some glue on the back edge and use some shims to clamp it into place.”


"First, hand me the dado blade. I need to cut a rabbet."
"Will do ..."

I rummaged through a tool box, trying to look like I knew what I was doing. I held up a screwdriver.

"Is this what you want?"

"That's a screwdriver."

'I know ... "

Dan found the dado blade by looking in a drawer. I knew I was in for a humiliating few days.

I have been helping Dan in the woodworking shop. Dan is a master cabinet maker/carpenter/all around guy who deals in physical reality. I am a writer/comedian/person who deals in abstractions. I thought it would be a lark to get my hands dirty. 

Precious little me.

My biggest workplace hazard is a paper cut. Dan's is sawing off his fingers. Being surrounded by heavy machinery and hand tools was a welcomed distraction from computer screens and the suck of the internet. 

Now, working in the shop is a bit of an obsession. It is where I go for serious ego-deflation.

I am white collar. Dan is blue collar. I am impressed each of us even have collars.

Dan grew up in Biggar Saskatchewan and worked on his uncle's farm from the age of seven to 15.

I grew up in Montreal Quebec and worked at pumping gas, serving food and mangling the French language from the age of 15 to 23. The years seven to 15 I spent avoiding any semblance of responsibility.
Sitting at a computer and spitting out, say, this blog, requires a modicum of ability. A grasp of grammar and sentence structure helps, as does a vocabulary. Having something to say is icing on the cake. The hardest part of writing is sitting still and blocking out the external world. Writers have to go into a kind of trance. Being in a trance is dangerous around heavy machinery. Full attention is better.

Dan's work requires a firm grasp of external reality. Measurements to the exact millimetre. Dexterity. Physical strength. The ability to carve, mold, hammer, glue, sand, drill, AND draw.  This is the ultimate arts and crafts. His work is spectacular.

He also has to envision what a piece will be, engineer its functionality, assemble and refine parts to create a whole unit. All this in physical reality.

There was a time when doing things yourself was part of life. Now we farm out different aspects of ourselves; we hire people to mow our lawn and garden, fix the roof, walk our dogs, pick up our dry cleaning. Dan can rewire a kitchen because it's something he learned from working alongside electricians. Dan is not an electrician, but can do the work himself. Self-reliance comes naturally to him, the result of growing up in a rural environment. 
It is a quality I admire very much.

Modern society has denigrated the useful arts, to the point where it has made your average city dweller infantile. We are becoming a society of lard-ass automatons, unable to think and do for ourselves. Snobbery toward those who work with their hands, those who build, is ignorant. Where are all the jobs now, the media tells us? The skilled trades. 

There's a brilliant little book called Shop Class As Soulcraft by gearhead and philosopher Matthew Crawford. It examines our lack of connection to the material world and celebrates the honour of the manual trades. There's a chapter called To Be Master Of One's Own Stuff where Crawford illustrates the idea of spiritedness:

Spiritedness is an assertion of one's own dignity, and to fix one's own car for [ example] is not merely to use up time, it is to have a different experience of time, of one's car and of oneself.

I am a hell of a long way off from being master of my own stuff, but at least I'm willing to try. I want that different experience. I now have the splinters to prove it.


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