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Self-Reliance II   (March 16, 2007)

Yesterday's entry on self-reliance and life skills drew a number of remarkable responses from readers. Since I'm too lazy to find any art to illustrate the theme of self-reliance, I've thrown in two photos of a fence I built a year or so ago--a simple enough project, but carefully planned and assembled. I cut all the gate pieces with a Skilsaw because I'm a Skilsaw kind of guy (i.e. not a craftsman).

First up is mechanic/remodeler/correspondent Anton L.:

I'm 34 years old. Born in the nadir of the 'baby bust' in 1972, I have fewer peers than most who came before and after. One thing that they have in common with the older generation is the (more of less) ability to DO things.

Although I will admit to a self-selection bias, having little patience for people who aren't capable of some minimum level of self-sufficiency. I can do anything within reason, I finally bought a house and have been doing electrical, plumbing, demolition, framing, and a wee smidge of design.

Many people I've talked to about this house have said "Why aren't you paying to get all this stuff done?" Well, I've always wanted to do some of these things, and I am willing to trade some work income for 'life' income as it were. So far it's been great. I have my little brother the contractor to keep me from going completely off the rails, but it's going well.

I've read both books, though I'm more of a "left the bookmark in p21 of 'Gravity's Rainbow'" type. Pirsig leaves me with a bit of a 'man of his time' feeling, as seemingly everyone in the 70s was finding his or her self, with some of the boomer ego showing in the self-help books of the day... That said, Zen and the Art shows a level of connectedness with your surroundings that is sadly lacking in todays technically insulated world.

The fact that even in hippie-leftover Berkeley (as a lifelong resident I can snipe freely) the idea that food can be grown and prepared by schoolchildren and doesn't just magically appear at the farmers market, and is seen as a somewhat revolutionary concept, shows me just how clear the divide has become.

I can sympathize with your baby carriage repairer, though I would have welded that sucker up myself. Which I learned how to do not too many years ago in a public High School! 'Ag Mechanics' was a fairly popular class in my foothills of California school, now long discontinued for liability reasons. Which would be another rant that I'll address at some point, but it's amazing to me now that children were encouraged to learn how to be self sufficient and understand the workings of the machinery that powers quite a bit of the unseen infrastructure. That made possible the harvest and transport of that bunch if carrots to the aforementioned farmers market.

Next up is polymath reader Darrell C.:

Your latest on self-reliance really resonated, Charles. That was me in high school in the late '60s, taking shop because it was what I enjoyed and broke up the rest of the day's math, history, etc. (I disagree with dropping shop from schools that are trying to be only academic.)

That was me as a student at Berkeley in the '70s; when a sauce pan handle broke off I went to a friend who worked in the shop of a science building who could spot-weld it back on.

That was me doing much of the work (self-taught from Sunset and Fine Homebuilding magazines) remodelling two houses, including wiring, plumbing, and tilesetting. (It gives you a special appreciation of taking a shower when you've crawled under the house to solder its pipes!)

And that's me now, refining my skills in Dreamweaver and Photoshop as volunteer webmaster and co-chair of Friends 4 Expo Transit (www.friends4expo.org) here in Santa Monica.

Ironically my son, now 23, went a different direction. Maybe because Dad always knew how to do house things, he became more athletic, social, and business-oriented.

Keep up the great writing. I read it daily. This one felt like an extra-personal conversation that needed a reply.
Astute reader David recalls a childhood of extreme poverty, and speculates--as I do, and perhaps you do, too--on what will happen should hard times ever spread across our fair land:
Charles - Cook, clean, repair something............please that is all beneath me! I pay people to do 'those things'! I am kidding but that is the attitude of most of the people I know. I have seen adult men call a tow truck to have their flat tire changed.

I think most of this attitude started along with 'faux luxury'. I am a sucker for Prada suits, made in Italy. Today people pay huge prices for a Calvin Klein shirt made in Hong Kong or Macau. It is the name not the quality. There was an great article in the Wall Street Journal about garment makers losing margin on men's suits so they decided to sell more upscale suites. That didn't mean increased quality of the fabric or tailoring --- it meant simply raising the price!

I knew things had changed when I saw a family ordering $35 worth of coffee at a Starbucks. The father had a workshirt on indicating that he probably worked at a lawn service company. I say this because I grew up as poor as it gets!

I know poor! My mother made a salary of $2500 a year! We would get one Coke a year. We never ate out. Maybe one 25 cent movie a year. Poor meant you did without. You repaired stuff when it broke. You took care of your stuff because it would take years to replace it! I have class photos when I was in grade school and the toe was worn thru on my hard black shoes.

America changed but it looks like we will be back to eating mustard sandwiches within the next couple of years. What scares the hell out of me is that I don't think this 'entitled' generation is going to like being destitute...........'upscale poverty' maybe?

I told a girlfriend one time my mom's favorite saying was 'just chew on your fingers' when we would complain that we were hungry! She just couldn't fathom extreme poverty.

I met this very attractive, professional woman several years ago and after a bit of conversation I found out she had just replaced the clutch in her car - herself! This became a joke among my male friends that we knew we had found the perfect girl if she 'knew how to hang sheetrock'! Most of the women we knew didn't have any basic life skills....................sad.
Correspondent Mark P. checked in with a short commentary on parental responsibility:
From my experience as a parent, I believe that many parents are abdicating their responsibilities to teach children about how to do things. People of my generation know how to do these things. but they have given up on many of these things due to either modern day conveniences or just plain laziness. They let their kids run wild and barely even discipline them properly.

I have taken my kids out to the garage many times to teach them how to do car repair (something I did in high school) or any of a number of things. I hope at least I will be able to teach them how do the things they need to support a household for minimal costs. My ultimate goal is to teach them how to learn the way college did for me. I believe that many parents are doing their children a disservice teaching them how to reach for a phone to solve all of their problems.
Thanks for all of the good reading,
Frequent contributor Mark. D. provided an insider's experience of the decline in craft:
My stepson Jeremy works for Milguard windows. In 3 mos, he went from a know-nothing punk to reinstaller, QC (quality Control inspector. There are basically two companies who do most of the windows in construction in the Bay Area, milguard and anderson. Jer says NO ONE knows how to frame what used to pass for square, since it really costs about 30% more to make things square. But these days it isn't even close. On his word, windows are yanked and windows and doors reframed. Lawsuits are common due to workmanship and the sealer used even when a disclaimer is signed by the construction company. Special extra workmanship is required on some windows, yet the builders waive it. He even reinstalls windows after they are stucco'd because they are popping.

Another construction problem unnoticed is the settling of ground. Ground isn't given enough time to settle and/or compacted enough, and the house settles, yielding huge cracks on 2 story span houses like in the entry way of the house. Also, the drywall shifts and you can see the seams. this is even a problem when construction begins to soon after the wet season. It absorbs the moisture. Most people are too ignorant to know there is even an issue. I was at my sister's house yesterday comparing the stucco on a 1925 house next to hers which was completely redone. Cracks everywhere on hers, particularly around vents, doorways, windows etc. On the old house, nothing. She commented it was probably due to the elimination of chemicals we can't use anymore. i don't know, but it was pretty dramatic. Think how many earthquakes that house has been through. My sister's, none since rebuilt. I'm sure some builder will be able to comment on this.
As a former builder, a number of causes come to mind: many houses are framed with green lumber which warps as it dries; the stucco is simply not as thick as it was in the 20s-40s; as the flat land got covered, then housing moved to sites with fill (as Mark notes, often not compacted), and lastly, the overall quality of the framing is so poor that settling/separation affects the stucco.

Knowledgeable correspondent Cheryl A. (to whom I am indebted for recommending the book Fiasco, described in my March 9 entry) provides a valuable point of view: that of mate/family member:

I read today's blog with feelings of happiness for myself and sorrow for others. My husband is a self-made man. He paid for all his own schooling, sometimes holding down up to 5 part-time jobs simultaneously. His father taught him how to wire a home, do plumbing, etc. He also helped his mother cook. (Such things are often an indication of men who make good husbands.) As a result, he does many of the repairs around our home - I draw the line at the roof! In addition he is a fabulous chef!! I feel sorry for others who are at the mercy of repair people and dining establishments.

Thanks for all your insights!
And correspondent Chuck D. offers a wide-ranging response to both life skills and literature:

Loss of craftsmanship. This is been going on for a long time, particularly through the second half of the 20th century. I suspect both the cheapening of materials being used and the loss of skilled craft in handling them reflect two things - the development of mass markets where everything becomes fungible "product", and the attempt to hold down the price of materials and labor in the face of rising costs.

Some of these changes are clearly the result of improved technologies. Anyone who has ever looked at the complexity of the box gutter sees why it was immediately replaced by extruded aluminum spouting the moment technology made aluminum spouting possible.

Craftsmanship is simply expensive because it is labor intensive. And because it takes so much time, you can't produce a lot of whatever it is the craftsman makes. This is the reason pipe organs in churches and concert halls are so costly and limited in number. Much of the design and construction still has to be done by human hands despite centuries of evolving technology in other areas.

Lack of life skills. I think this is mostly a reflection of our times. People have become accustomed to believing they no longer need to know these skills. In the prosperity of the last 50 years they are used to living in, they are used to having money to pay somebody else to have these skills for them.

I agree with your rant about the loss of gardening skills and what it means. But I think the real point is this: why does Alice Walters or anyone else think anybody is going to invest the time and energy into growing their own food when they "know" all they have to do is drive down to their local outlet of the big-box 700-store grocery chain and buy their 3000-mile Caesar salad or their can of beans right off the shelf?

The crunch will come for these people if/when the grocery store supply chain breaks down or they no longer have the money to buy food. People in Appalachia may have been poor during the Great Depression but they generally had enough to eat. In a time when money was scarce, they didn't need it to buy food. They grew their own or bartered with their neighbor for it. For the people you describe, if times become tough and they no longer have the money to pay for these things, they literally may be too dumb to live. And they very well may not.

In this situation the tragedy may be for those folks living in cities who literally have no land or backyards to grow anything in.

Decline of literature. We can actually broaden this to include the other art forms beside literature.

First let's concede that some periods of time simply produce a dearth of great artists and great art while others produce more than their fair share. How much this may have to do with what people (audiences) of that time want to hear or see, I don't know. But I suspect it is quite a bit. We may simply be in one of those times of dearth.

however, in our time I suspect there are at least two causes for this decline.

First is the ubiquity of American popular culture. Along with creative financial products, this is what we have sent around the world. In this country it risks overwhelming many other forms of cultural expression. The problem with popular culture is that it is essentially an object to be consumed like a meal or a soft drink and then replaced with something else that becomes the next meal or soft drink. Creating something of quality or lasting value is not a concern here.

The mid-19th century and the Civil War era are full of wonderful popular songs and music which are now totally forgotten. And see how many teenagers or 20- somethings can tell you who Clark Gable, Gary Cooper or Cary Grant are.

Second is something I think is often missed. Sometime in the 1970s the US Supreme Court let itself be persuaded that so-called commercial speech (think advertising, TV shows for example) should be given the same First Amendment protection that political speech always had. Not too surprisingly, one of the side effects of this seems to have been a cultural race to the gutter since that's where the most money can be made. If you don't think there's anything to this, consider how quickly "artists" say "protected free speech" whenever someone takes offense at their perceived crudity or whatever.
Thank you, guys and gals, for an amazing range of commentaries. Thank you, Bill M., for suggesting the themes of quality, self-reliance and popular literature.

For more on this subject and a wide array of other topics, please visit my weblog.


copyright © 2007 Charles Hugh Smith. All rights reserved in all media.

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