Labor Day Musings: On Skills and Skil 77s   (September 7, 2009)

Here is my Labor Day entry, reprinted from 2005, with a new note.

Here's a shot of me and my friend Steve Toma, proving that a Skil 77 (the big worm drive power saws) and two 50-year old guys make a righteous production team. We met on a jobsite back in late May 1973, and are still going strong (unretouched photo from a rainy jobsite in Honoka'a, Hawaii, 2004). The Skil 77 is the professional carpenter's choice; it weighs 16 pounds (feels like 25 lbs. late in the day) and has to be handled with one hand except for above-the-head or other tricky cuts. A normal (i.e. sedentary) person unused to actual physical labor would have trouble lifting it with both hands, never mind lifting it with one hand to cut a 2X12 board.

Those 2X12 rafters laying on the slab in front of us were "pond-dried," i.e. completely waterlogged, and each one must have weighed over 100 lbs. The fact we framed this huge garage and hefted all of the rafters up in two rain-plagued days without getting hurt is a testament to the way experience teaches you to lift and cut safely.

There is no substitute for the physical skills of building, gardening and mechanics; no amount of "work" talking on the phone or staring at a computer screen gives you the same appreciation for food and water, for the joys of exertion, for the visible nature of the day's accomplishment, for the turns of weather, for the pleasures of hand-skills which come unbidden and without thought, or for the accumulation of decades of physical experience.

The usual Labor Day bromides count the blessings bestowed on American workers by the labor unions' bitter struggles early in the 20th century to obtain better working conditions and wages for industrialized laborers. Not to take away from those enormous achievements, but what I think of on Labor Day is how much we've lost in becoming an overwhelmingly skill-deprived, physically inept (can't cook, can't fix anything, etc.) society of unhealthy service workers who have largely lost the keenly felt benefits and rewards of physical labor, both skilled and unskilled.

2009 note: It seems to me that in addition to the "natural capital" of arable soil, oil, coal, fresh water, etc., and the "built capital" of tools, electrical grids, etc., and "social capital" of government, education, healthcare, etc., there is another less easily quantified capital: experiential capital.

I will illustrate: a citizen watches 100 hours of cooking shows, passively slumped on a sofa. The TV and electricity is built capital, and the "content" of the show (the "talent," the production crew and the "knowledge of cuisine and cooking" being presented is social capital; yet the passive viewer learns essentially nothing about actually cooking. The beginning cook will learn more about cooking in an hour of actual cooking than he/she did in 100 hours of watching what is essentially an entertainemnt simulacrum of actual food preparation: the veggies have all been prepped and sliced, the spices measured, the kitchen is clean, the shrimp have been sliced and their gut removed, etc.

Only the actual experience of cooking, and making mistakes (overheating the oil, burning the garlic, under-cooking the bok choy, etc.) creates experiential capital.

You can watch This Old House for a decade and be entirely unprepared to lift a Skil 77 over your head and saw off a rafter tail.

That America which is over-entertained and under-experienced seems ill-prepared for the coming devolution of the Savior State and the abundant/cheap oil, abundant/cheap money/credit paradigm which currently favors playing Guitar Hero over actually learning how to play a real guitar and watching rather than doing.

As Emerson noted: Do the thing and you shall have the power.
Essays: V. Compensation (1841) (Ralph Waldo Emerson)

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