For anyone who believes that work should employ the handsâ€¦the concept of being paid to talk must appear bizarreâ€¦Perhaps work will swing back to a more fundamental form, one that involvesâ€¦more honest labor, such as collecting hay into bundles, driving rivets into the hull of a ship, or darning socks. –Robert Roland Smith, Breakfast With Socrates
These people who make cars are trying to make our lives difficultâ€¦They put in all these computers and what are we going to do when they go wrong? They are trying to make cars into space ships. That is what they are doing. But we do not need spaceshipsâ€¦We need good cars with engines that do not mind the dust. That is what we need. – Alexander McCall Smith, In the Company of Cheerful Ladies
When his much-hyped Danish solar water pump suddenly kicks the bucket (or at least forces him to haul several from the neighbor’s) two-and-four-fifths years into what he hoped would be at least a twenty-year life span (given its two-year warranty, its “you better last twenty years” cost and his near-total disinclination, most winter mornings, to go high-diving into the aquifer sixty feet below his Ranch), it really causes a fellow comprised of eighty percent water to evaluate whether he’s a “fix it” kind of a fellow or of more of a “replace it” worldview. Especially amidst the Cosmic irony that was causing unprecedented flash floods across his valley the same week that his own drinking water supply ran dry.
That danged pump. Bamboozled by solar component salesmen, I prematurely sang its praises to perhaps 30,000 live event audience members over its short lifespan. I mean, I was thrilled that the sun was giving me water. Who wouldn’t be? Sigh. I live in a world of enduring fruit trees and tenacious livestock, to whom I tend with disintegrating Globalized hoses and disposable junk wheelbarrows.
So “Fix it when you can, replace it when necessary” sounds like a fine balance for a would-be neo-Rugged individualist writer/rancher of limited real-world training whose work day is split between creating stories, raising kids and yanking goats out of his rosebushes. Maybe “Replace it when overwhelmed by life, but try to learn to fix your stuff little by little” fits even more nicely for a suburban-raised, extremely rural scribe who had been groomed to be a lawyer in a societal sub-group where the plan for generations has been to hire other people to fix any of those mysterious life-enriching machines that break fairly reliably just our of warranty: automobiles, water heaters, swimming pools, circuit breakers.
For all of my griping about the environmental impact, labor practices, and disappointing resulting quality of the actual products enabled by the Box Store era (not to mention the panicked transformation of the former manufacturing economies that have to actually pay their workers), it’s delightful to have a choice. Between “fix it” and “replace it,” I mean. It allows my life to proceed like one giant remedial shop class.
But “fix it” quickly becomes the only option if “replacement” stores go away -â€“ ya know, if Chinese and other “no-pay-â€˜em and screw the local aquifer to boot” factory economies stop delivering widgets to my closest demonized box store. Now, under such circumstances, perhaps the much-heralded “local community” will materialize. In the past, I’ve written about my projected survival under these blessedly hypothetical social and economic conditions -â€“ more than once or even twice, in fact. But such a post-Globalization future is on my mind again now not just because of the recent demise of my crap box store wheelbarrow, but because of that deviant pioneer Charles Ingalls, whose Homeric “fix-it” feats my family keeps hearing about during evening story time in front of the El Nino winter stove fire here on the Funky Butte Ranch.
Now, the Charles Ingalls character is partly getting my goat, so to speak, because the Little House series narrator is an eight-year-old-girl, writing with an eighty-year-old’s memory that appears not to grasp the time frames and sheer muscle power necessary to, say, build a house. Little Laura Ingalls habitually portrays her “Pa,” perhaps with a neighbor lending a hand, as capable of building such a structure (or, say, putting out a thousand-acre prairie fire, or completing any manner of Rugged Individualistic tasks), with nothing but a hand hatchet, over the course of an afternoon. It takes me that long just to get a replacement wheelbarrow tire in town.
Here’s a sample passage from Little House on the Prairie: He was a fast worker. In one day he and Pa built those walls as high as Pa wanted them.
Of course, that was just the relatively mindless task of throwing up twelve foot walls. Building the roof was evidently much more time-consuming for Ingalls than the rest of the house’s skeleton. It involved planking trees which Pa downed, hauled and hand-split over the course of “days and days.” Have you ever tried to split one log by hand? Try it, then get back to me after voting to re-elect Obama. The fact is, Do-It-Yourself (or DIY) life, under the best of circumstances, takes a lot of time and leaves you more exhausted than Dick Cheney’s ethics tutor. And some people actually enjoy it. Makes me think that humanity might have split at some recent point into two subspecies I’m calling Homo sapiens fixitus and Homo sapiens replacitus. I deeply suspect that on the appropriate chromosome in my body, the latter is dominant.
In truth, though, the Little House era is on my mind for reasons other than just its unintentionally surrealistic time frame. In Charles Ingalls’ Nineteenth Century day, things at least could be fixed. Not so today in the case of more and more of the accouterments that keep we Digital Age humans alive.
Want an example? Take my defunct premium, cream-of-the-crop, Grundfos Flex 6 SQF-2 model water pump, the industry paragon, with a Peyton Manning-type reputation for under-pressure reliability. Here’s what Jimmy O’, the local well guy who provided my replacement pump, suggested I do with the old one (still laying useless next to my windmill tower) when I asked him if it was repairable (once he stopped laughing): “Bring it to the dump. You ain’t gonna find anyone around here, myself included, who can repair this. That thing is one big computer chip and when it fails there ain’t nothin’ you can do about it. It’s designed to throw out and get a new one.” Like a spilled Happy Meal soda. Like so much of our culture these days. Until and unless replacements are no longer forthcoming. Which, believe me, is not a state of affairs for which I’m rooting.
Still, anyone who owns a Twenty-First Century motor vehicle knows what I’m talking about: your once trusted local mechanic simply shrugs at your “check engine” light and sends you off to the dealer, whose service department can afford the computerized diagnostics of a system that no longer operates with such quaint analogue components as “gauges” and “drums.” In fact, “the shop” has been the only profitable division of most auto manufacturers for several years now (even before recent recalls), given that they own said proprietary and increasingly pricey computer gadgetry, necessary to diagnose what a knowledgeable grease monkey once would have replaced with a wrench and a cinder block. “Fix it” is now the job of a computer programmer more than a skilled mechanic. (I will eat a floor mat if recent mass automotive recalls are actually caused by a flap of carpet near the accelerator rather than some issue with zeros and ones.)
And so, the world is getting more challenging even for those congenitally among the fixitus subspecies. Yes, you hear even among the DIY-inclined that DIY is an endangered concept, since for very intentional reasons, our stuff is getting harder to repair at home. Take my neighbor Pat, about the Ruggedest Individualist I know. This is a lady who remembers when Nissan was called Datsun, not because she’s an auto history buff but because she’s still ordering tractor parts from that era. I headed out to her remote ranch to pick up some hay recently, and found her and her husband choosing to spend their Sunday replacing the entire air filter system in their Ranch operation’s pride and joy: a new Dodge truck. While her border collies pogoed around me, I try not to go immediately bleary-eyed while Pat “explained” the mechanics of the new installation. When she was done (or during a breath that I hoped indicated that she was done), I asked, “What do you hope to get out of this? Better mileage?”
“How much?” I asked. Maybe there was something that could make me intentionally spend a Sunday anywhere near the hood of my truck. Even we vegetable oil drivers want to fuel up less often.
“Oh, probably a half, maybe as much as one mile per gallon. Depends on conditions.”
I nodded politely, fighting the urge to roll my eyes. Amazingly, the marginal gain in fuel efficiency wasn’t the stand-out aspect of Air Filter Sunday. The reason that I heaped words of praise on the grimy couple — which is my normal admiration- and regret-about-never-taking-shop-class-filled response when confronted with genuine fixitus specimens â€“- was because this woman clearly actually enjoys tinkering with trucks.
You see, my dirty little secret is that for all my local living ambitions, I don’t actually want to spend my life stuccoing adobe, making furniture or changing air filters. The actual animal husbandry part of Ranch life — the hoof-trimming and weeding, egg-gathering and even manure-shoveling — that I love. It’s intuitive, organic, relaxing, and filled with love. Not to mention nearly totally lacking in the opportunity for electrocution or flooding. Fixing a roof, though? I never need to do it in order to live a full, satisfied life. For that I am at best willing to assist someone who knows or cares what’s going on. Better yet, I’d like to be inside snuggling or writing whilst someone else fixes the roof.
But the opportunity to even be a DIY-er seems to be diminishing, even for those who derive pleasure from its time-consuming charms (my reasons for envying in the Homo sapiens fixitus folks are purely ones of survivalism). When I saw Pat a week and a half after the hay pick-up, I asked her how the new air filter was working out.
“Seems to drive well,” the congenital DIY-er said a little disconsolately. “But it messed something up with the main computer — some kind of â€˜check engine’ light is on. I have to drive the rig (five and a half hours) up to Santa Fe where they can reboot the system.”
“Reboot the system?” Did James Dean or Peter Fonda ever need to do that in their road movies? Pat’s tone reminded me of the way members of indigenous cultures speak when they try to explain post-colonization suicides despite a “higher standard of living.”
So now that nearly every life-critical (and less so) function in our lives depends on cheap silicon chips, cheap plastic, cheap steel, and even cheaper wiring, from our clock to our ride (and even, as I so recently and joltingly learned, our solar-powered water supply), it’s to the point that the more knowledgeable survivalists I know explicitly recommend buying duplicate older model vehicles, pumps and appliances which can actually be tinkered with and repaired after the manner of the tail-finned Cadillacs still belching around Havana.
In my own recessive DIY life (and I admit it’s all relative by ecosystem: in the suburbs where I emerged from the womb, merely owning a wheelbarrow is considered hardcore and evidence of a radically exotic and DIY lifestyle), another complicating factor is that I don’t usually learn very well from manuals, even ones not translated by gibbons. Who are these people learning Portuguese, calculus and root cellar construction from books?
I learn from experience, and it’s easier when it’s something I enjoy, like the aforementioned animal husbandry — I picked up goat hoof-trimming no sweat, from a combination of Googling and intuition. And starting early helps. I imagine even Charles Ingalls learned most of his skills from his own Pa, which kind of makes me wish I had forsaken the Victorian Lit class in favor of more “how the hell electrons move”-type labs. Let me assure you, I am intent on remedying that hole in my kids’ education.
But nature is part of the equation as well as nurture. My clumsiness, a classic characteristic of we Homo sapiens replacitus, figures in to my remedial DIY issues. When I suggested to my sweetheart that maybe I’d buy a taller ladder than our current one, perhaps even a collapsible one, so I could, among other things, change a floodlight and access the attic, she seemed in her reply to suggest that my getting more altitude was not necessarily a wise idea. From a cost/benefit perspective.
“In the end it might cost less to call a contractor,” was how she put it. I wonder what she meant by “the end.” She was probably factoring in another emergency room visit. With good reason, she didn’t like the word “collapsible” associated with anything I climb.
On to the rub: I’ve been examining my recent emotional state given so many “things” in my life falling apart (pumps, trucks, wheelbarrows, floodlights). Living both at the time when DIY might become more crucial than it has been in centuries and at the time when it is becoming less and less feasible for the normal, right-minded Homo sapiens replacitus fellow to fix anything, I was starting to really doubt my own putative “Post Globalization Local Community” economic self-worth.
What do I do well, that a community would value? I tell a mean story, I suppose. My goats seem superlatively happy, so I grant that I might be a competent shepherd. All in all, I’m no diesel mechanic. No roof-builder. No Charles Ingalls. Why, I’d been wondering, would any future tribe want such an obvious Homo sapien replacitus as a member?
I guess we all admire skills we see in others that we might ourselves lack. And so I wonder why on Earth, in the putative regional, local, maybe even tribal society that would in my version of a best case scenario form if local living abruptly migrates from voluntary to mandatory, would I be included?
I’m talking about in a culture that has trimmed the fat. You know, in a “which twelve people would you bring to your desert island?” kind of way. In my book (so to speak), forgetting about emotions like love and humor for a moment, the house builder, the well driller, the fire starter and seed bearer would all be high up on the list. The storyteller who also can raise a goat? Well, I’d be fun to have around, perhaps. But I’d pick me, perhaps not last, but fairly far down the middle of the list.
Then I had an epiphany on a hike the other day. Or maybe I should say that I thought it before I believed it, and this Dispatch is an attempt to exorcise my doubts and really believe it. And the epiphany was not just that I am, by nature more of a “Think it Yourself” kind of a fellow than a “Do It Yourself” guy, at least when roofs and well-drilling are involved. And electrical wiring, auto maintenance and chainsaw operation. No, the epiphany was that I should accept that. And even treasure it.
Perhaps my principal contribution to both my beloved current society and any potential neo-clan life might actually be as valuable as designing and installing roofs. Not that I shouldn’t have the ability to safely-if-not-deftly climb a thirty-foot ladder to do some emergency solar panel re-wiring during a windstorm. But maybe I should accept that my more obvious strengths are — could it be? — essential to any healthy society as well. That still looks wrong as I re-read it on the page.
But it is the truth, or so insists almost everyone I know except my sweetheart when she’s trying to, (again, so to speak), get my goat. “Sounds like that freeloader Frederick,” she says, comparing me when she’s aching for a tickle fight to that storybook mouse who sits around dreaming up winter stories while the rest of the varmints busily risk cat attack in the course of rounding up a supply of food to keep them alive long enough to hear his stories. His clan-mates seem resentful of Frederick in the autumn and downright worshipful in the depth of winter. When in fact both food-gatherers and artist had been “working” all autumn long.
I grant you my life doesn’t feel like work. But it is valuable, according to my friends, none of whom are dependent on me financially. The argument, according to my hiking buddy KB being, “What fun would survival be without the after-party?”
Hmm. True, perhaps, but integral? Well, even anthropologists like Claude Levi-Strauss even went so far as to speculate that cultures with engaging oral histories tend to have more enduring (and accurate) life spans than those that don’t. In other words, telling the tribe’s story might be key to its survival.
That resonates with something I learned from a Yup’ik elder during a visit to a remote village called Toksook Bay on the West Coast of Alaska in 1998. It was an astounding setting for an interview: in this fellow’s house, a keg-sized hunk of just-hunted musk ox sat red, dripping, and unprocessed on newspaper on the kitchen floor, while a gaggle of grandkids and nieces and nephews watched a rainbow-haired Dennis Rodman play hoops on the recently installed satellite connection at the far end of the living room. Outside, everything was white as far as the eye could see, except for the parked snowmachines.
On assignment for the Washington Post, I had asked the eighty-something Phillip Moses, who saw his first Westerner at age nine when a bush plane landed in the village and who has been fighting off missionaries ever since, if he was glad that the Yup’ik language was once again, after a banishment by the Bureau of Indian Affairs of more than half a century, being taught in public schools. And he said, “Yes, it’s great. But our school was once more than our language. It was our storytelling, it was our map when we were on the move. You learn the word for â€˜mountain’ because that mountain means you can find water on the other side, which leads downstream to good fishing grounds across from that island, which is where the village is. So you never get lost.”
Don’t get me wrong, I carry a notebook around everywhere I go, since if my only recourse was memory, I’d forget what this Dispatch was about by the time I was three paragraphs in (perhaps I have). And I love weaving amusing diversions that can allow real information to get slipped through cultural censors via the written word. Indeed, my favorite review of Farewell, My Subaru reads, I laughed hard, then went out and planted a vegetable garden.
Even without my sweetheart’s teasing, I need the reinforcement. Fairly constantly for what I like to think is a generally low-maintenance fellow. Because I am still having a little trouble humbly accepting that the rest of any putative tribe will still want to hear me joking around even when an emergency elk has to be brought down and butchered in order for our ears and laughter-releasing bellies to still function. I’ve been dealing with this insecurity since college, where the self-named “techies” thought they were more rigorous students than we liberal arts “fuzzies” â€“- the latter being a kind of N-Word to engineering and hard science majors at the jerky country club of a university I attended.
The storyteller, I have to keep reminding myself (or keep fishing to be reminded by others), was a valuable part of every Shamanistic/Neolithic culture. He or she was historian, comic, calming influence, decision-advisor or even decision-maker. (Isn’t that kind of what these Dispatches are?) Still, in that who-would-you-want-on-a-desert-island way, I feel like I should be able to repair a roof. Or at least a chicken coop. OK, a fence.
I sure hope we have some more time, as a society, to discuss these issues. Already I recognize that our artifacts will be far different, in substance, than the three cultures that preceded me here on the Funky Butte Ranch. As I groove through my writing/ranching/hiking/demanding payment from magazines day here, I notice I expend a lot of hip-flexing exertion in picking up stray strands of neon blue tarp and shards of goat-wrecked green bucket plastic. And as I was contemplating this Dispatch I realized that these nano-particles, not the flint and obsidian shavings I find on the Ranch’s higher spots, are the clues that future archaeologists are likely to find as they piece together evidence of our current Globalized lives. That and synthetic colored hay bailing twine. Sigh. At least there aren’t any pharmaceutical residues in my aquifer, the way there are in so many municipal water supplies these days. That, too, should keep the future scientists guessing through a few tenure cycles.
I’m sure the Mimbreno culture of the previous Millennium had life harder than I do in many ways, but at least, in considering a polycarbonate material for a greenhouse, they didn’t have to ask, “Polyâ€¦what now? Is that a good kind of poly or a carcinogenic kind? And who’s paying for the research?”
In the end, I will either survive or I won’t survive if I lose the Globalization safety net. My goats, I think, will provide me with a Biblical-era kind of wealth, and their milk can be a powerful source of barter currency. But I mean, in some of my valley’s back canyons which I find challenging even to hike in modern footwear technology, I find masterfully-crafted wood and metal wagon wheels and other remnants of Ingalls-era endurance that frankly fills me with terror when I think that not only did these people make it here, they repaired their dang wheels — and well before Triple A.
So, come on now: a show of virtual hands: would you want the storyteller in your tribe? And in voting, let me know if you consider yourself a member of the Homo sapiens fixitus or Homo sapiens replacitus subspecies. A techie or a fuzzy. A geek or a jock. For my money (or for my goat milk), it takes all kinds to build a post-Globalized society. (Indeed, Japan has legislated to accommodate its replacitus population, mandating that electronic components be recyclable so that when you want a new digital camera, you just turn in the old one, the way Americans do with waste oil.) Or so I want to believe, if I’m to guiltlessly let others fix the roofs and hunt the elk, while I recount humorous version of both around the campfire.
While I’m waiting for the feedback, I’ll try to occupy my marginal DIY self collecting firewood, filling the distilled water in the solar batteries, reading the eerily-appropriate The Bike Lesson to a toddler for the nine thousandth time, and explaining to said toddler what that red planet is that keeps coming over the horizon during the evening goat milking this month. I figure with the way even neophyte DIY life is morphing already, by the time my kid comes of Age, a Cosmic perspective could quite possibly prove as useful for him as an eighth grade auto shop class would have come in handy for me.
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