When I was a kid, not so many years ago geologically speaking, I found a .22 rifle in the barn at my grandparents farm. It didn’t really work and it was hard for me to ascertain exactly why given my rudimentary gunsmith skills as a 13 year old. But I didn’t have a .22 rifle and it seemed to me that if I could only figure out how to make it work, that omission in fate’s plan could be altered. So I asked my grandfather if it was ok if I tried to make it work again. To his credit (though the overprotective parents and governmental agencies of today would probably disagree), he agreed telling me only to “be careful where you point it.” So I went about finding the screws that held it together, took it apart, cleaned things, put it back together, loaded it, pointed it in the general direction of an innocent tin can and pulled the trigger. Much to my surprise, it went off with that satisfying .22 plink though I’m sure the can emerged unscathed. However, the action did not feed a new round into the chamber.
So I unloaded it and went about trying to figure out how to make that work. Again having no idea what I was doing but with general 13 year old’s understanding of friction, I took the bolt out and oiled what I assumed to be a mechanism related to the stuck bolt. Somehow all the pieces went back together, the gun was reloaded, the trigger pulled and this time the bolt got the second round loaded about halfway. I repeated the process, toying with something new, repeating it about 3 times if I recall correctly. Finally, I figured out something through trial and error and upon firing a round, the bolt slid back and forward completely with a solid click. Suddenly, I had a .22 rifle.
I recall that event as an exceptionally satisfying moment. Something had been broken and I had fixed it. I seem to have a strong inclination for fixing. Broken things offend my sense of reality. I have a particularly challenging time at Christmas when I pull light strings out of the box knowing half of them will be worthless. Taking something that is broken and making it work again is an exercise in observation, attentiveness, trial and error, patience and an attitude unwilling to accept that fact that things break.
This all comes up as I read Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry Into The Value Of Work. Like so many of the beautiful things in life, I ran into this book serendipitously as I browsed in the Dallas Public Library online catalog. The book is a philosophical examination of our devaluation of the manual trades seen through the lens of removing shop class from the public education. For those of my readers who don’t even know what shop class is or was, once upon a time in a land not so far away, our education system was more rational. Knowing that not every student was bound or even suited for college, classes were taught in secondary school that readied students for other careers. I took home economics and shop class in junior high, two classes the kids of today probably have no conception of. I distinctly remember building a flour scoop out of tin that my mother uses TO THIS DAY. I built a tack hammer out of steel rods in shop that 25 years later hangs on a peg in my garage and is at least occasionally used. I remember learning how to balance a check book and make biscuits in home economics. Apparently, these critical skills aren’t even taught in our education system anymore. Shop was a way for the mechanically inclined to learn about drill presses and table saws and lathes. It provided the foundations of the manual trades like plumbing or electrician. Somewhere along the way, we decided that those trades weren’t fit for our kids and we are systematically removing the classes of shop and home economics from our educational system. We look upon blue collar jobs with a mixture of disdain and pity until our toilet overflows and then we just desperately want someone to make it go away.
One of the first ideas in this book is the ethics of maintenance and repair. We live in a consumerist society where everything broken (and many things that aren’t!) are thrown away. We rush out to find a replacement to take its place and soothe the existential anxiety in our psyche. The idea of maintaining something through regular care and attention is a lost art. This value loss is evident throughout our society not only in our constant need for something new to buy but in our inability to maintain our bodies, our government, our financial state and our psychological well-being. My grandfather would have no more thrown away something broken that might be fixable than he would have bought water in a bottle at a convenience store. Of course, this meant there was a lot of broken shit around the farm but it also meant that his 13 year old grandson would have the chance to fix a .22 rifle that had sat in the corner of the barn for years. It also meant that he could run into a problem and through self-reliance, come up with a solution because he was attuned to the inner workings of things as well as the true cost of replacing them. We no longer have that attenuation nor that self-reliance as values. In fact, we are bombarded daily about replacing the things we already have and that function perfectly well. The ethic of immediate gratification has been drilled into us and we have begun to accept it as fact. It is difficult to logically question the slightly uncomfortable feeling I get watching a Ford F-150 ad that subconsciously encourages me to replace a perfectly working car. It is even more difficult to enjoy what we have and nurture it.
Yet the satisfaction that comes from fixing something broken or creating something new out of existing parts is qualitatively different than the satisfaction of replacing it. Buying something provides a brief surge of dopamine and pleasure that fades rapidly as we grow accustomed to the item. Fixing something boosts esteem, confidence and understanding. Throwing things away is a pervasive new ethic we have only recently acquired, one driven by an omnipresent advertising industry and an economy that can only function with regular and extensive consumption. We are told that consuming leads to happiness and many of us no longer are even capable of fixing something broken. Even when we desire to, we’re often thwarted by the object in question that has been designed in a way to prevent maintenance or repair. As an example, there at least some models of Mercedes Benz with no oil dipstick.
This consumption ethic runs deeply in our moral system as we now find it easier and easier to throw almost anything away from TVs to spouses. We don’t even notice that we do it many times. I recently went to lunch with Mara and some friends and we poked fun at the idea our grandparents would wash ziploc bags without considering the implications of our readiness to cast aside something used a single time. We do this because we think it makes our life easier and in fact, it probably does. But nothing fulfilling was ever easy and we do not replace the time gained from throwing away ziploc bags or broken lawnmowers or perfectly good TVs with time spent on activities or relationships that fulfill our soul. And then we complain on social media about our inability to be happy. The irony is immense.
In my industry of software development, the job no one wants is “maintenance developer”. You’ll never see that on a resume or a job listing. You try not to tell candidates there may be a great deal of maintenance involved with the position while at the same time trying to discover in the interview if the potential candidate has difficulty doing maintenance. Maintenance and repair of any thing whether it’s a car or a software system or a firearm requires the curiosity to discover how the system works, the patience to fight through all the things that don’t fix the problem, the vision to put yourself in the shoes of the original creator and an appreciation for existing work that many people no longer carry. Software developers from the consumerist society disdain maintenance work and are quick to push for a rewrite or development of a new system. Maintenance is dirty, difficult work that has been lessened in my industry and our culture, not necessarily in that order. Yet the developer who can apply a mechanic’s mindset to existing systems is almost always in demand much like mechanics or plumbers or electricians in the material world. Everything around us will continue to require maintenance and eventually, the mindset and culture focused on replacing that which works perfectly well will break down irreparably.
Our cultural and personal ethos, whether considered or silently adopted, is a function of our belief system where the inputs are what we consider valuable and the outputs are happiness and fulfillment. Our current ethos is maximized to provide the most short term happiness while building up physical, financial, psychological and societal debt we hope to never deal with. Our belief system has changed over the past 40 years for a plethora of reasons. We no longer are a rural society where each family had to be capable of providing for itself. We created a consumerist society by moving manufacturing jobs overseas in pursuit of the cheapest method of production. We pushed for a one size fits all education system where a college degree is the pathway to a career which devalued an apprentice or trades school path. The cost of things is our only value function where we decide on everything based on its price never considering the long term attributes of quality, ease of maintenance or effect on the society at large. We have a laser-like focus on the short term and our own immediate happiness which has tremendous negative effects on the debt we carry personally, emotionally and societally.
What can we do to change this? For one we need to reconsider our attitudes towards the future of work and our disinterest in the manual trades. We will always need people who work with their hands and allowing kids to find their way into those careers should not be discouraged. Instead of free junior college for everyone, the President could provide primary funding for apprenticeships and shop classes. Of course, that’s never going to happen but continuing to push a model that believes everyone is fit for college and should get a degree solves nothing. Our problem isn’t that we’re undereducated, it’s that many of our young people are loaded with debt with no hope of ever paying it off, all for a piece of paper that they are discovering does little for them in a world where the middle class is slowly being eroded.
Second, from a personal level, we could be more aware of what we throw away. Adopting a more Stoic philosophy and focusing on being happy with what we have will go a long way towards eliminating the trash culture we have. It will have negative impacts on our consumerist society but we need to change that as well if we hope to ever have a real recovery that isn’t just the stock market going up.
Last, develop an appreciation for what is required to maintain and repair those things we have chosen to bring into our lives. Begin to notice the desire to replace our possessions with newer shiny possessions and question it. What causes me to want a new TV when I have a perfectly good one? What causes me to pay $70 for an oil change when I know exactly how to do it myself and it requires only slightly more time?
In an unhappy, narcissistic world focused on consumption, one of the fastest ways to finding meaning lies in a return to an ethic of maintenance. Replacing the fleeting, ephemeral pleasure of the new with the long lasting satisfaction derived from fixing or creating something is a lofty and noble goal. It requires more time, effort and dedication but in return provides long lasting relationships and a greater understanding of those things we choose to bring into our lives. And maybe, just maybe, it will give us fodder to write blog posts about a curious kid with a broken gun and a grandfather with a mechanic’s mindset. I think I’ll go pull out that old .22 and see if I can’t give it a good cleaning. It’s squirrel season and a walk in the woods with my grandfather’s gun might go a long way towards easing the soul.