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Tuesday, February 27, 2018

Maker culture


Knowing how to make things was part of our human birthright. Who stole it?
Little Giant, by Carol L. Douglas. Courtesy Camden Falls Gallery.
I have a to-do list a mile long. One item on it is a muslin mockup of a dress for my granddaughter Grace, who will be the flower girl in her aunt’s wedding in May. I’ll see Grace in Buffalo as I finish my Alabama trip, and I need this mockup to check her measurements. Grace is two years old and growing like a weed. I’ll make the bodice and skirt separately and stitch them together at the last minute, between my workshop in Rye and the wedding.

On Sunday I complained that I’d have to give up my Sunday nap to finish it. “Is there anything you can’t do?” a friend laughed. In truth, I’m only good at things that require spatial skills. That includes math, art and sewing. I can’t cook, although I don’t mind cleaning up afterward.

I learned to sew in 4H. That’s a venerable old organization dedicated to developing citizenship, leadership, and responsibility by teaching life skills. It’s also where I learned basic carpentry, animal husbandry, and how to make a pie crust. The first speech I ever gave was at the County Fair. It was on leavening agents and was called Lovely or Lumpy.

Catskill Farm, pastel, by Carol L. Douglas
Other things I learned at home: how to paint (from my father), how to garden, how to can vegetables, and how to put up hay. My parents were not farmers: my father was a psychologist and my mother a nurse. They were practitioners of the back-to-the-land movement, but everyone of their generation knew how to make and mend things. Today, if we do those things at all, we do them as hobbies or artisanal work.

When my twins were infants, I made them sleepers. It cost me more than they cost ready-made at Kmart. After that, I only sewed for special occasions.

That’s true across most of our economy. It’s cheaper to buy a new toaster than fix the one you have. It’s cheaper to buy baked beans than make them yourself. It’s certainly cheaper to buy a chair than build one. The consequence of this is that our kids have grown up in a world of consumption rather than creation. They have no idea that for humans, creativity is a natural part of life.
Still life, by Carol L. Douglas
Last week, someone sent me this irritating little piece in Smithsonian, which suggests we “leave the cairn-building to the experts.” Ours is certainly a scolding culture, and the goal of all that hectoring is to keep us as passive recipients of others' experiences.

Why the passion for stacking up rocks on the beach anyway? The human animal is designed for creativity. Our throwaway culture has stolen that from us.

In Maine, there’s still much more of a make-or-mend culture than in other parts of the country. People really do patch up their cars and boots for another go-round. It’s also a more entrepreneurial society than our cosmopolitan centers. I don’t mean that in the Bill Gates sense. Kids who grow up with skilled laborers as parents understand that they don’t need a college degree to be useful, productive, self-supporting members of the community. Kids who grow up with self-employed parents understand there are more ways than a 9-to-5 job to earn a living.

It would be nice if we could add that to our measure of performance when we tote up how well a community does at preparing its kids for the future.

1 comment:

Rebecca Gorrell said...

As a high school teacher, I see more and more districts re-instating voc ed programs (with new and fancier names) and it makes me really happy, especially when it's possible for both "college bound" and not-so-college bound kids to take these classes side by side. Maybe this will be the generation which re-discovers that knowing how to make, repurpose, repair, and invent are skills that just plain feel good, as well as skills which serve us all well, when the times get tough, or when we have more time than money, or when we just want to have a day well spent and the lawnmower running again.