Wednesday, September 28, 2005

The future belongs to those willing to get their hands dirty

Back in mid August, I had tickets to a Detroit Tigers baseball game. The tickets came courtesy of work – good, behind-home-plate seats – and I spoiled a few friends by taking them along. A good summer evening to enjoy a game and some friendly fellowship.

After the game, when the four of us piled into my car to head home, my car wouldn’t start. In downtown Detroit, not more than two blocks from Comerica Park.

It had always been one of my worst fears – to be stuck in downtown D-town. And as often as I go there, it was an ever-present fear. It’s why I bought a cell phone.

We were messing with the car, when down the street walks Carl. Carl asked us to try and start the car, fiddled around with some connection cables to my battery, and diagnosed the problem. “Do you have a flat-head screwdriver?” he asked. I did, in my toolkit in the drunk. He stuck the flat-head in a slot near my battery. He told us to start the car.

It rumbled to life like nothing ever happened.

All of us rode most of the way home in stunned silence. Here comes Carl, Jesus in disguise, and after only listening to my car (and perhaps consulting some long-deceased auto god), knew what was wrong. But here were four college students. Why couldn’t we figure out the problem? We had four bachelor’s and one and a half master’s degrees between us, and we were impotent.

What was our problem?

- - - - -

Garrison Keillor wrote a column on today about his mother canning vegetables during his childhood, pressure cooker steaming and glass jars filled with foodstuff to get the family through the winter. He also wrote about his father, stooped over the engine block of the family Ford, fiddling with this and that. Keillor ignored the skills his parents could’ve passed on to become a writer (and radio host). But those handy skills can come in…well…handy, especially when civilization starts to break down, or even if all you can depend on for survival is your two hands.

“Beware of losing basic skills,” Keillor writes. “Hang on to that pressure cooker.”

I remember my own grandmother, steeped in the traditions of her home states of Arkansas and Missouri, canning her own vegetables, fresh from the garden, and storing them in the basement for the winter. She always warned me of that pressure cooker – wheezing as loud as a school bus braking – and told me never to touch it. “It could blow us all up,” she warned.

And I also remember my father working on cars and trucks – especially my own. I’ve never had a new, or even semi-new, vehicle in my life. As a teenager, my cars would need constant repair. Instead of taking it to a mechanic or dealer, my dad would take it to his friend Scott’s, and together they would work out whatever was wrong with it. My dad always encouraged me to watch – “You might learn something,” he told me; none of what I saw stuck. I’m car illiterate; always have been.

In fact, much like Keillor, my mind was built for more artistic passions. I did well in school, I was active in my community, and I worked all through my teenage years. But I never learned such essential and elementary tasks as changing my own oil. Or changing a tire.

Confession: I’ve never changed my own tire, and am scared I don’t know how.

I got another wake-up call last night, on the way to the bar with friends. My driver-side headlight seemed dimmer than the passenger-side light. My first thought: I have a headlight out. My second thought: I don’t know how to change a headlight.

(My third thought: I hope we don’t get pulled over on the way home)

That, combined with Keillor’s article, got me thinking about what skills I do possess. I can cook. I can put simple things together with my meager tool set. I can play guitar. I can design graphically. I can write.

But if I were to crash-land on a desert island somewhere, would I have the skill required to survive for more than a week or so?

Probably not.

- - - - -

I have a deep-held respect for DIY people. My grandmother can garden. My uncle can make his own wine. My grandfather could put together bikes from scraps he bought at yard sales and sell the complete bike in his front yard for profit.

One acquires the necessary skills to survive over the course of ones life, I figure. Eventually, my car will have broken down so many times that I’ll have a mental encyclopedia of all that could go wrong with a post-1981 American-made car. Right?

Keillor’s right. In a sort of anti-yesterday’s-post vision, I came to realize that the skills of our previous generations are slowly being lost. We can’t even remember the phone numbers of our best friends – our cell phones remember them for us. Should the world go to shit, I think the mechanics, the janitors, the country cooks, and the hunters of this world won’t have too much to worry about.

The rest of us? We’d be in our own pressure cooker – struggling to think of all our parents and grandparents had taught us that we either ignored or forgot.

No comments: