Thursday, August 26, 2010

Six Wooden Objects — Sawyer Stone

Looking around my room, I count six wooden objects I made — and all before high school. The skills and know-how I used to make them seem distant to me now and I’m hungry to (re)learn how to do more with my hands. Maybe those skill and knowledge sets are simply dormant and could be woken and coaxed out of their groggy state. Five of the wooden objects in my room I made in elementary school shop class and the sixth — a three-cubby shelf — I made in the small disorganized shop in my family’s basement to go in the treehouse my dad and I took almost seven years to build. When my parents recently moved out of my childhood home, about twenty years after I originally drew rough sketches for the treehouse on a brown paper napkin, I recovered the shelf and it now sits simply and proudly beside my bed.

It’s been a long time since I sketched out that vision for my childhood treehouse, or any other vision, but recently I had an idea to make a small wooden extension for the very limited countertop next to our stove. It would fold down, against the side of the counter when not in use, and would fold up and lock in place to rest that bowl or plate for which there never seems to be a spot. It seems simple enough, and certainly less of an undertaking that an entire treehouse, but there’s a certain amount of learning-as-I go that will need to happen. Walking home from work recently, I came across an abandoned bed frame, the headboard for which seemed like a good piece of wood for my counter extension. I hoisted it up on my shoulder and carried it the rest of the way home. Now I just need a saw and some hardware.

One of the gear shifters on my bicycle hasn’t been working properly for months, but I’ve been ignoring it until recently, when twice I’ve flipped my bike upside down in the grass behind my house, pliers and hex wrench out, hands soon greasy, determined to figure out how the bike works, and make it work more smoothly. I know I could take it to a bike shop, ask a friend more experienced with bike maintenance, or look it up in a book or online, but there’s a certain learning and satisfaction that comes from tinkering and figuring it out for myself.

The bathroom sink in the apartment I moved into two and half months ago has been slow to drain since we moved in. Early on, I’d reluctantly poured some “natural” drain de-clogger down it, in a passive attempt to resolve the problem, with no luck. Why hadn’t I just gotten on my hands and knees in the first place? It wasn’t until last week I decided to take matters, and the drainpipe, into my own hands. After pulling the various items out of the cupboard beneath the sink, exposing the pipe, I kneeled amongst the dislocated toilet paper and all-purpose cleaner. Reaching in, I removed a willing section of drainpipe and out came a long blob of hair and gunk – yuck! But that is what I was looking for and was glad I found because now our sink actually drains instead of backing up like it had a plug in it. So satisfying. So simple.

Looking back on my elementary and middle school experiences, two aspects that have long stood out for me, and that are some of my most identifiable valued learning experiences, are shop class and work program. At the time, I may not have extolled the virtues of shop class, or work program — taking out trash, washing dishes, or vacuuming the hallways — but looking back on it, I wouldn’t have wanted to miss all of that, and I worry that shop class and work program may have been eliminated from that and many other schools, depriving current and future students of the enriching experiences that hands-on work offers. They wouldn’t even know what they’re missing.

Despite having had shop class and other manual leaning experiences, for which I am grateful, when it comes to making or fixing certain things, I have often felt disempowered or not manually competent, to borrow a term from Matthew Crawford’s book Shop Class As Soulcraft: An Inquiry Into the Value of Work, which I recently started reading. In general, I feel manual skills were undervalued in my upbringing, and in society at large as well. While I don’t support the dichotomy often presented between knowledge work and manual work, I was being better prepared for the former, not the latter. And while I highly value (the intertwined) intellectual and manual work, it is the latter for which I often feel less competent than I’d like to be, and I am eager to learn more hands-on skills such as woodworking, pottery, bookbinding, and farming. And what better place to do that than in community — in a community of people with all sorts of skills and knowledge and experience, eager to share and grow with one another.

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