*to Hanlon's razor: Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity.

Sunday, 29 May 2011

Not working with my hands: regrets.

Came across a couple of interesting articles by, or about, Mathew B. Crawford.  A more intellectual, less spiritual, "Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance": the way I like it.  Funny how I have been having a few conversations with people lately about youthful academic choices being in some ways regrettable.  Most of us in these conversations are teachers.  We've agreed that we might rather do something more tangible.

What's a teacher got to complain about?  Surely not the vacations, the job security or pension.*  Not working with kids, if you like them.  Whether you do is something you learn in the first month of your B.Ed., not that those who learn otherwise always leave.**  But there are things alienating in the job, that get more alienating over the years.  These are simple: more paperwork, more politics, less responsibility from the parents and students, and more for the teacher even though there is no way to make the kid study or read in his home - and not too many in the classroom when most consequences have been removed.  I spent a decade paying off my student loans to be able to have ennui about my career.  Great.

I took my B.Ed over ten years ago, and four 'additional qualifications' since.  I also took a basic bicycle repair course.  I learned something in that.  There is no living in bicycle repair, unless you own a shop or weld them bespoke, and even then...  Motorcycles are a better way to go.  I really want a motorbike, as much for the liberation from a cage and the ability to 'filter' through traffic in Japan,*** as for the possibility of tinkering with one.  I love to tinker with my three bicycles, and am guilty of doing more tinkering than the number of hours I ride justify.  Well, better than drink or women, I tell my wife.

I had an argument with my mother and aunt about my cousin.  A smart kid, but not an academic, though great with his hands.  They were pushing him at an Arts degree, but he wanted to take a cabinet-making apprenticeship.  I made it clear he would earn more than me, have fewer debts, and be less likely to quit halfway through from frustration.  Were I to do it again I might still get that Arts degree, though I am unsure the university experience now meets even that at McGill in the 90s.  You can read by yourself, but if nothing else an Arts degree puts you among other some people who want to read the same things. I never had a choice about going to university.  It was assumed.  My father was not able to, so that was something all of us were going to do.  He had quite a few issues, coming from somewhere between the working and middle classes in the north of England, growing up during and after 'the war'.  There was no question that head work was more important than body work, though he was good with his hands.  But then, all men of that generation were, of his class.  He was a poor teacher.  His sons were given the repetitive physical chores that had none of the rewards: weeding, lawn-mowing,^ hammering in nails.  Our motivations were limited to avoiding 'the stick', and 'carrots' in the form of praise were few.  What he taught me was to loathe physical work, home ownership and him.  I have gotten over the former.

It was only once I was on my own, in run-down Montreal apartments with unreliable custodians that I took to working with my hands.  That and tree-planting and road-work for university summer jobs.  There was also the kayak I built in my teens with 'Venturers'.  It is amazing that what I consider to be a very modest skill-set is not a bad skill-set among my peers:
- replacing electical fixtures
- soldering electronics
- replacing faucets and washers
- hanging curtain rails, and lighting strips, using a hammer-drill
- repacking my own bicycle hubs and bottom brackets, as well as more minor work
- general outdoor goods repair, including tying my own webbing for climbing gear
- sewing my own buttons and tears
- things too mundane to remember right now
All of these are problem-solving exercises, and little more.  Rewarding for that reason.

Hard to say I would not go into teaching if I could live my life over, since that's just about the only way that I am able to live in Japan and make a living.  In my more whimsical moments I would have welded bicycles, built wooden boats, been a tree doctor, or a firefighter.  The last one is a living, and one of the few unarguably righteous vocations.  You die a decade young from cancer.  Teaching begins to look better.

*If you are in a public union, not in the States and Britain where these are under attack, or during one of the once-a-decade attacks on it in Ontario, where I am registered.  Not to mention that I have had these conversations with teachers in 'international schools' in Tokyo, who are far less secure.
**We had a few drop out of our class in my B.Ed. for just such reasons.  Some student-teachers scorned them; I respect them for not sharing their unhappiness with the career with students.
***'Filtering' is not legal and would get you killed in Ontario.  I wouldn't ride a motorbike in Canada: more than twice the fatality rate.  I would in Japan, but training and licensing would put me out the cost of a used bike, before I got the used bike.
^One of many reasons I will never buy a suburban house.


  1. great post. I am clumsy with tools, but have the greenest of fingers. Nursing a sick tree back to life, to have it flower or bear fruit like a teenager high on growth hormones is truly satisfying.

  2. I'm just the opposite - got off the education track too soon. Or, rather, making a decent living with a mortgage, two kids and the wife working on her masters sort of forced me off.

    From the summer before I entered college, I worked for residential contractors. Started out as a laborer and worked into being a framer (never would I claim to be a carpenter). I worked in ski shops during the winter for a number of years and thought I wanted to own one some day until I realized the owners never got enough time off to do that much skiing themselves.

    An English degree later, I did three years as an eigo no sensei during the glory years that were the Bubble-jidai. Contrary to what Jacqueline Susann contended, once is more than enough.

    After "earning" a graduate degree and three more years in Japan selling building materials, and I was ready again for something a bit more cerebral. Once back in the States, an undergraduate mentor got me an adjunct position teaching world affairs. However, I couldn't handle the full-time day job, being a proper parent and spouse and the two nights a week teaching. I didn't even care that the money was shit. It was just a thrill teaching a class of students who (most anyway) actually wanted to be there and were interested in the subject. Anyway . . .

    And, Seb, don't give up on that dream of suburbia. You can always get someone to mow the lawn for you. :) (Fucking emoti-coms.)