Sunday, August 23, 2009

Matthew Crawford and Soulcraft

I've been reading Matthew B. Crawford's recently published book, Shop Craft as Soulcraft. Crawford holds a Ph.D. in philosophy from the University of Chicago and currently is a fellow at the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture at the University of Virginia. He also owns and runs Shockoe Moto, a motorcycle repair shop in Richmond. His academic work (and sometimes mindless "white collar" jobs) coupled with his background as an electrician and mechanic have lead him to write this fascinating commentary on the nature of work, craft, and value in our society. Essentially, he argues that we've gone wrong in devaluing skilled manual work in favor of a "knowledge culture" in which young people are encouraged to educate themselves for jobs that will not require them to fix things or dirty their hands. Early in the book, Crawford lays out his intention:
In this book I would like to speak up for an idea that is timeless but finds little accommodation today: manual competence, and the stance it entails toward the built, material world. Neither as workers nor as consumers are we much called upon to exercise such competence, most of us anyway, and merely to recommend its cultivation is to risk the scorn of those who take themselves to be the most hardheaded: the hardheaded economist will point out the "opportunity costs" of spending one's time making what can be bought, and the hardheaded educator will say that it is irresponsible to educate the young for the trades....
Crawford deplores the fact that cars we drive, the machines that sustain us, and the stuff we use is increasingly impervious to the understanding of a curious, mechanically competent ordinary person. Instead, they surpass our basic understanding and when broken must be repaired only by experts who have expensive equipment--or worse, must simply be replaced. Furthermore, as shop classes become rarer in schools, fewer and fewer people cultivate basic skills that would enable them to fix things. Crawford (like Mike Rose in The Mind at Work), argues that far from being mindless or merely mechanical, jobs requiring manual labor often require considerable intelligence, creativity, and ingenuity. There's a moral dimension to this too, which brings to mind Robert Pirsig's classic, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.

My own ideal day consists of a balance between what I think of as "head work" and "hand work." Having spent much of the morning reading, writing, and puttering at my computer, I look forward to this afternoon when I'll start a new woodworking project, building an easel. Particularly given my amateurish approach to such projects, it will challenge me with problems that I'll have to think hard about solving. I'll cut some pieces badly and drill holes in the wrong places and miscalculate some of my measurements. Still, I look forward to the challenge. For a while, I'll gladly immerse myself in the labor and the uncertainty that comes with it, knowing I'd never be able to make my living doing such work. I'll always be an amateur (from the Latin amator for "lover") in the original sense of one who loves the work even if he's in no way an expert.
New York Times review of Shop Class as Soulcraft
An Appreciation of Sei Shonagon's Pillow Book
On Zora Neale Hurston

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Like a Complete Unknown

Gates and Dylan
In a recent incident that swept across U.S. newspapers, media outlets, and T.V. screens, Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates was arrested at his own home when a Cambridge neighbor called 911 and reported that he appeared to be breaking in. The subsequent confrontation, handcuffing, and the fallout with powerful racial overtones wound up involving President Obama, who invited Gates and Officer James Crowley to have a beer at the White House in order to smooth things out.

In a far less contentious but equally baffling incident, Bob Dylan was stopped by a police officer a couple days ago while the singer was wandering in a New Jersey neighborhood prior to a concert with Willie Nelson and John Mellencamp. Admittedly, Dylan can look pretty scruffy, but the 22-yr-old cop didn't recognize the rock icon even when he showed her his i.d., so she insisted that he return with her to his hotel, where others readily vouched for him. To his credit, Dylan seemed to take this all pretty calmly. This gives a new ironic meaning to the phrase, "like a complete unknown," from the song that many (including me) consider the greatest rock song ever written:

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Alicia Sully, Filmmaker

Alicia Sully in Ghana
As editor of the quarterly newsletter for Friends of Ghana, The Talking Drum, I regularly interview and then write about former Peace Corps volunteers who have served in Ghana, telling about their background, volunteer experiences, and current whereabouts. I've been doing this for over ten years, and the interactions I've had with these Returned Peace Corps Volunteers, few of whom I've met personally, have invariably been interesting.

Several years ago I interviewed Stephanie Arnold, whose small eastern Ghana town was so pleased with the three-year latrine contruction project she organized that they built a statue to her and had Jerry Rawlings, then Ghana's President, visit to unveil it. I've met and talked with several members of Ghana I, the first Peace Corps group ever, including Bob Klein, whom some refer to as "the original Peace Corps Volunteer" because he was the senior member of that initial group and stays in touch with most of them, helping to organize regular group reunions. Bob has been the moving force behind the Peace Corps Archival Project, housed at the JFK Library in Boston. He has traveled the country conducting and taping interviews with many volunteers, whose recollections have been stored there for posterity.

Normally, I talk with these profile subjects by phone, and our conversations typically stretch on for over an hour, as was the case when I spoke last April with photographer Peter DiCampo, whose profile appeared in the summer issue. My most recent write-up is on Alicia Sully, whom I was unable to talk to by phone because of her travel schedule in Africa. Instead, we communicated in several extensive e-mails. She got a university degree in filmmaking and then went to Ghana as part of a Peace Corps water/sanitation group. Before long, she began making short films about health issues, including Guinea worm infestation and HIV/AIDS. Some of her Peace Corps experiences are documented in her blog.

One of her films, available on YouTube, was produced in close cooperation with citizens of the small northern Ghana town where she was posted. This two-part film in Dagbani, subtitled in English, concerns "kayayo"--young women from poverty-stricken northern Ghana who travel to cities to work and earn money to send home. In some cases, these women become prostitutes and experience the multiple health problems associated with that lifestyle. Peter DiCampo, who has himself done photography and research on this issue, will soon be working alongside Sully, doing a series of presentations in northern Ghanaian towns.

Sully Film, Part I
Sully Film, Part II

Since May, Sully has been working with What Took You So Long (WTYSL), a small multinational group of volunteers committed to publicizing the work of successful Non-Governmental Organizations in Africa. She learned of this group through Sebastian Lindstrom, one of its leaders, because of Lindstrom’s affiliation with a project in Kumasi, Ghana.

The group is now in the middle of an ambitiously long journey using local transportation which started in Morocco and will proceed down the western coast of Africa to South Africa. Thus far, the team has traveled through Mauritania, Mali, Burkina Faso, Ghana, and Togo and is headed south for stops in Nigeria, Cameroon and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Sully’s responsibility along the way has been to shoot and edit video spots on the various NGOs visited. These are available on the WTYSL website.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Jane Jacobs

In the summer of 1965, the summer after my sophomore year in college, I worked as a community organizer and youth activity director at Lafayette Avenue Presbyterian Church in Brooklyn. I was one of about 15 students living at Hope House (just behind the church) and doing similar work. This was my first extended experience of life in the city. During that summer, I discovered Jane Jacobs' book, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, an argument--at the time radical--for maintaining the integrity of city neighborhoods with mixed uses: housing, restaurants, stores, businesses, etc. She argued that the enemy of vital neighborhoods was specialization and pointed to certain areas, such as her own Hudson Street neighborhood in Greenwich Village, that had maintained their vitality and interest and safety.

Here's a review of two recent books on Jacobs that pit her theories against those of Robert Moses, who transformed parts of New York with his large-scale, impersonal developments--huge housing projects and highways that often destroyed the character of local neighborhoods. Jane Jacobs, who died in 2006, remains one of my urban heroes, and thanks to what I recall of her influential writing, wherever I travel (San Francisco, Rome, Berlin) I look for the sort of mixed-use city areas she lauded and celebrated. They are seldom the most glamorous neighborhoods but are the places you want to hang out in and explore, imagining yourself to be a local.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Reading and Rapture

From David Ulin, "The Lost Art of Reading," in The Los Angeles Times:
We live in time; we understand ourselves in relation to it, but in our culture, time collapses into an ever-present now. How do we pause when we must know everything instantly? How do we ruminate when we are constantly expected to respond? How do we immerse in something (an idea, an emotion, a decision) when we are no longer willing to give ourselves the space to reflect?

This is where real reading comes in -- because it demands that space, because by drawing us back from the present, it restores time to us in a fundamental way. There is the present-tense experience of reading, but also the chronology of the narrative, as well as of the characters and author, all of whom bear their own relationships to time. There is the fixity of the text, which doesn't change whether written yesterday or a thousand years ago. St. Augustine composed his "Confessions" in AD 397, but when he details his spiritual upheaval, his attempts to find meaning in the face of transient existence, the immediacy of his longing obliterates the temporal divide. "I cannot seem to feel alive unless I am alert," Charles Bowden writes in his recent book, "Some of the Dead Are Still Breathing" (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt: 244 pp., $24), "and I cannot feel alert unless I push past the point where I have control." That is what reading has to offer: a way to eclipse the boundaries, which is a form of giving up control.
Ulin evokes Winifred Gallagher's recent book, Rapt: Attention and the Focused Life, an argument that we are what we focus on and that today's world is constantly pulling us in so many directions that we are in danger of losing the value of rapt attention and the depth of thought and involvement that can come of that.

While in the Adirondacks recently, I devoted my rapt attention to Susan Cheever's American Bloomsbury, a study of the interacting lives of Louisa May Alcott, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Margaret Fuller, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Henry David Thoreau. I had not realized that so much of America's literary heritage originated from a specific neighborhood in Concord. Among the other writers who lived there or were somehow associated with the group are Henry James, Emily Dickinson, Oliver Wendell Holmes, H.W. Longfellow, Walt Whitman, Herman Melville, and Edgar Allan Poe. As Cheever notes, "From their collaborations with each other and the Concord landscape came almost every nineteenth-century American masterpiece--Walden, The Scarlet Letter, Moby-Dick, and Little Women, to name a few--as well as the ideas about men and women, nature, education, marriage, and writing that shape our world today."

I had previously read Susan Cheever's memoirs, Home Before Dark and Treetops, because of my interest in her brilliant and troubled father, John Cheever. Her fascinating study of this community of Concord writers and their interactions would be a great supplement to a course on early American literature.

Sunday, August 09, 2009

Once More to the Lake

Curtis Camp from Lakefront and Backwoods

French Camp and Eagle Crag Lake from the Curtis dock

Last Tuesday J and I returned from our annual sojourn on Eagle Crag Lake, ten miles from the town of Tupper Lake in New York's Adirondack Mountains. We stay at a two-cabin compound that has been in her family for three (going on four) generations. The original "camp" (which is how folks up there refer to these places) was built in 1922-23 by Joseph Oster, stepfather of Lillian French, who with her husband Walter were the original owners of the property. At the time this was the second structure on the mile-long lake.

There was no road access, so all building materials were carried in from the raiload tracks a couple hundred yards away. One write-up on the camp's history states, "The well house behind the camp contains a 15' deep cement encasement for a wire cage to hold food for cooling. The year the hole for the cement was dug it was left incomplete until spring, and when work resumed in may, a dead bear cub was found at the bottom of the hole."

Around 1983, the family bought the adjacent camp (built in 1932) from its original owner, Steve Curtis. This expansion allowed J's parents to stay there through the summer, with the French Camp available for the succession of more temporary family vacationers.

Our annual visit provides respite from the South Carolina heat and an opportunity to reconnect with J's brothers and sister, along with their families, who come and go while we're there. When we're lucky, one or both of our daughters are able to visit with their kids--as T did their year with our two granddaughters. We've also developed friends around the lake whom we look forward to seeing each year.

E.B. White's essay, "Once More to the Lake," originally published in 1941, tells how when he was young his family spent each August at a lake in Maine. When he had a son of his own, he decided to recapture the experience, taking him to the same lake. White's recollection is filled with hardwon nostalgia. He writes, "We had a good week at the camp. The bass were biting well and the sun shone endlessly, day after day. We would be tired at night and lie down in the accumulated heat of the little bedrooms after the long hot day and the breeze would stir almost imperceptibly outside and the smell of the swampt drift in through the rusty screens."

He concludes with a memorable paragraph that I think of each time I make my initial entry into the frigid Eagle Crag Lake water, cold enough to take my breath away:
When the others went swimming my son said he was going in too. He pulled his dripping trunks from the line where they had hung all through the shower, and wrung them out. Languidly, and with no thought of going in, I watched him, his hard little body, skinny and bare, saw him wince slightly as he pulled up around his vitals the small, soggy, icy garment. As he buckled the swollen belt, suddenly my groin felt the chill of death.
The back of cover of One Man's Meat, where the essay was collected, pictures E.B. White walking along balancing on a rail line. It looks much like the now unused line that runs near the family camps, a reminder of a time when it was the only access to that remote location.