An adapted version of a talk I gave at Duke Homestead State Historic Site in Durham, North Carolina, in June 2012.
The stuffed wingback chair in my office puts me at eye level with my woodworking books, which was not deliberate but maybe not entirely accidental either. Last week I noticed a book I’d forgotten I’d bought: The Village Carpenter, written by Walter Rose in 1937, a memoir of life as a carpenter in an English village in the late nineteenth century. There’s a great deal here that interested me, both as a woodworker and as a rural historian, and I may have more to say about it later, but what struck me most was the relationship Rose describes between the workers, their methods of work, and their tools—the ecosystem of the craft, you might say.
Several years ago, as I tried to get back into serious woodworking, I realized that if I was going to continue I was going to need to sharpen my saws, which were a decade or more old and growing too dull to use effectively. But I couldn’t find anyone who could sharpen a handsaw for me, and I knew I wasn’t going to figure out how to do it from books and videos alone. So I took a class on sharpening hand saws, and I dutifully took along my old, dulled crosscut saw for practice.
It turned out that my old, dulled crosscut saw could not be sharpened. “Modern” saws of the sort sold by big box home centers are made of steel tempered too hard to be sharpened with a steel file. They’re designed to stay usably sharp for a long time… and then to be thrown away and replaced.
Most of us, in other words, aren’t even used to the idea that tools have to be maintained.
I have a new microwave, or rather I have an old microwave that is new to me. I don’t like it. It is bigger and more powerful than my old microwave. I didn’t need a bigger and more powerful microwave, but I don’t object to the size or the power. Actually I wasn’t entirely convinced I needed a microwave at all; I use it for very few things. Mainly I defrost meat, because I am good at putting together dinner on the fly but bad about planning ahead; and soften butter, because my daughter likes to bake, but, well, ditto.
I don’t like this microwave because it has too many single-use buttons and multi-step programmed procedures and not enough basic flexible options. I don’t mean that it is too complicated as such, because some tools have a lot of functions and thus need complicated means of interaction. The problem is that its interface is far more complicated than it needs to be, and sufficiently complicated that its design actually interferes with intelligent use.
Here’s an example. If I wanted, with my old microwave, to soften a stick of butter to cool room temperature, I could simply “defrost” it for about 20 seconds. I had only to lower the power and set a time. On the new one, there isn’t a simple way to lower the power; there are only options for various specific foods and purposes. So I have to press “soften/melt,” then watch a scrolling digital readout asking me to press a number for whether I’m softening or melting, and then another number for what sort of food item I have, and then a third for how many sticks of butter. The old process required me to press four easily readable buttons (defrost, 2, 0, start) and worked perfectly, because I’d experimented a bit to see how long it took to soften a stick of butter. The new process takes a good ten seconds to get started and halfway melts the butter, so that I have to stand and watch it through the (typically streaked and greasy) glass. And if I want to soften half a stick, I’m out of luck. Same for defrosting less than a pound of meat. It simply isn’t an option. And while there may be some way to make the machine do what I want, I’ll have to find a manual somewhere online to figure out how, because the “custom” settings aren’t.
I was thinking, yesterday, about how I would solve this problem. One way would be to plan ahead and/or just use the gas stove, but that’s not really in keeping with the spirit of the age, so take it as a design problem. Here are some observations:
Eating lunch today I noticed on my bottle of soy sauce the words expiration date on label and, an inch away, a dot matrix stamp: 2019.03.28 14:48.
I expect that the stuff was bottled on March 28, 2016 at 2:48 pm and that it’s supposed to be good for three years from the date of bottling. But that’s not the same thing as saying it’s good until March 28, 2019 at 2:48 pm. Certainly a machine can record the exact time of bottling, but the idea that the soy sauce is good for exactly three years, for three years down to the minute, is absurd — as if, at twelve minutes to three on a particular March afternoon two years from now, the contents of the bottle will instantly develop a fuzzy blue mold and smell distinctly of gasoline. Obviously that’s absurd.
For one thing, it was bottled in Taiwan, so it would actually expire at 1:48 am EST and not in the middle of the afternoon.
“Three years from date of bottling” means three years, give or take. Give or take what? That’s the question. Six months, maybe? I would assume that they kept a bottle around for three years and it seemed to be okay. I doubt it’s very scientific at all. But it’s so easy just to take the present time, add three years, and stamp it on the bottle.
The expiration date on my soy sauce is not in itself a big deal. (I’ll use it within a few months anyway.) But this kind of arbitrary precision is everywhere — the practice of assigning a number to something, giving it as many decimal places as we can, and then slapping it on a label, noting it in a chart, entering it into a database — where it takes on a kind of magical invincibility, a rightness that can no longer be questioned or challenged. There are cases where this might have disastrous consequences, but more important is the impression of invincibility. Knowledge is power; false precision is an implication of knowledge; therefore false precision is an assumption of power. False precision is one way that science and industry and government claim power over us. But wallpapering the world with false precision builds false confidence in our own abilities, individually and collectively.
Every measurement is an estimate. If I were king of the world, I’d decree that every published measurement must be accompanied by a margin of error, e.g. “Expires on 2019.03.28 14:48 ± 6 mos.” It would be honest, it would be accurate, and it would remind everyone many times a day of the limits of human knowledge.
(And no, since you ask, I cannot think of anything better for a king to do than to demand accountability and humility from the powers of the world. Can you?)
Completely by accident awhile back I ran across this ad from Life magazine:
Heinz ran that ad in August 1958, at the height of the popular interest in Pennsylvania Dutch food, when that cuisine was being made over in the popular imagination into a mishmash of generically comforting old-timey domesticity. And, of course, co-opted by the Culinary-Industrial Complex, because what hasn’t been? Today you may just (and justly) reel in horror from the thought of vinegared baked beans or of canned tomato soup with canned corn and a pretzel floated on top. Purists of 1958 might weep over the cheapening of a long tradition of sweet and sour accompaniments to a Sunday dinner or holiday feast, an array of homemade pickles, salads, and preserves. Store-bought wouldn’t do. By the time I was a kid in the 70s and 80s, though, aside from an occasional batch of home-pickled beets, the nearest I got to that tradition was commercial pickles on a salad bar. So to me, authentic Pennsylvania Dutch pickles meant a jar of locally processed chow chow.
Today, even that much tradition is fast fading away, and some benighted soul clinging to the last tattered shreds of uncertain heritage might search in vain for chow chow on a salad bar, even if he hadn’t up and moved to the South.
One man’s authenticity, in other words, is another’s bastardization. And that paradox isn’t the product of industrial food.
Nine days from Thanksgiving and the leaves still cling to the trees, many of them, even the half-shorn maples still gold and rusty, the oaks just dipping the edges of their leaves into copper. I confess to being buoyed by the sight. Once the leaves are on the ground, once I rake them into piles and see them vacuumed up by sweet sweepers, gone to someone else’s compost, fall is over, whatever the calendar says, and winter, minus the frequent snows of my northern youth and the really biting cold that forces you to remember you’re alive, dammit, is a dreary brown season of freezing rain and mud, its challenges dull, its joys slippery and its comforts of the could be worse variety: “To rest contentedly beside the hearth / while those outside are drenched by pouring rain.” If the great maple outside my study window wants to cling a little while longer to its glorious past, I won’t complain.
Then again, the times being what they are and the internet bringing the world’s facts and fancies instantly to my fingertips, I’m painfully aware why this autumn has such a long tail: The world is growing warmer. Anthropogenic climate change. Impending disaster. My fleeting pleasure at avoiding the annual fate of every human being who ever lived in a temperate climate, the cyclical suffering endured by billions of people over tens of thousands of years, is granted by the same forces threatening to end civilization as we know it and plunge the world into chaos and hot darkness. So I’m told.
It’s hard, on a gorgeous fall day, crisp and clear and sixty degrees, to worry much about what the weather will be in a thousand years. It’s also hard to enjoy the day to the fullest nagged by thoughts of dying honeybees and failing crops and flooded cities and millions upon millions more refugees than we already have in the world. The existence of one truth doesn’t make the other false. To call the one a silver lining cheapens both, and to speak too freely of God’s grace seems flip. At the same time, to don sackcloth and ashes, or to pull my shade and worry up a tweet-storm, does nothing to feed and house the people of 2116 — or of 2016, for that matter.
Better, then, to take a walk and enjoy the day. If that walk can carry me to the grocery store or to church or to eat or have a beer, and thus save a trip in the car, then I’ve avoided a trifling contribution to the thing I’m worried about. If not, I might have the chance for a conversation with a neighbor. At the least I won’t have done any harm, and surely taking the trouble to appreciate the good in what’s here ought to be the starting point for asking what needs changing.
I think, though I am not quite sure, that this is the sort of observation that might begin to help us out of the mess we’re in politically. It is not an end point, but it is a starting point. I don’t expect to find universal salvation in taking walks. But if we don’t know our neighbors and our neighborhoods, all the policies in the world won’t save us. And if we can’t enjoy the days we have, we won’t enjoy the better ones we think we deserve.
Practice resurrection, friends.
A sermon preached at St. Joseph’s Episcopal Church in Durham, N.C., October 30, 2016.
Gospel: Luke 19:1–10
It’s funny what we remember and don’t remember from childhood. The church my family attended until I was seven years old is a complete blank to me. I can’t recall the name of my Sunday School teacher or a single thing I did there. I do, however, remember three very important lessons from those days. One, Jesus loves me. Two, the animals went in two by two. And three, Zacchaeus was a wee little man.
In case you’ve forgotten, or never had the joy of singing the “bible song” about the little dude, or, like me, couldn’t quite believe your memory when it was jogged, here are the lyrics, sung to something not unlike the tune of “Old King Cole”:
Zacchaeus was a wee little man,
A wee little man was he.
He climbed up in a sycamore tree
For the Lord he wanted to see;
And as the Savior passed that way,
He looked up in the tree,
Zacchaeus you come down
For I’m going to your house today.
The author’s no Bob Dylan, and I feel like there’s something missing in this version of Luke’s gospel, but, you know, there’s no better way to remember something than to set it to music. And so even today, even this very morning, children all over America are learning that Zaccheus was a wee little man.
So the guy was short. Do we have to go to “wee little man”? I keep wanting to say it in a bad imitation of a brogue, as if he were a leprechaun. Imagine what it would be like to spend your life being referred to as a “wee little man.” (Imagine being referred to as a “wee little man” two thousand years after you’re dead!)
Zacchaeus probably didn’t have to imagine it. Even in Luke, “short” seems to have been his identifying characteristic, and given that human nature sadly hasn’t changed much in two thousand years, I suspect that he may have been mercilessly made fun of for his lack of stature in life as well as in death. It happens. Children will mercilessly make fun of one another for pretty much anything, given the chance. So will adults, for that matter.
If you’re Zacchaeus, if people greet you with “hey shorty” or look over your head, pretending not to see you, if they always pick you last for dodgeball games and pass you over for promotions… if, in short, nobody ever seems to take you seriously… Well, what do you do? You could learn to laugh them off. You might choose to believe your mother when she told you the other kids were just envious. You might meekly curb your ambition, accepting that you would never command the respect of your tall friends.
Zacchaeus didn’t do that.
Zacchaeus became a tax collector.
We know what tax collectors were in first century Israel. Agents of the occupation. Traitors to their people. Flanked by Roman soldiers, they collected taxes from hard-working Jews and, to provide for themselves, tacked on whatever bonus they liked. Since Zacchaeus was not only a tax collector but a chief tax collector, we can assume he provided for himself quite well indeed…. at the expense of those rotten little so-and-sos who never took him seriously.
Oh, they’ll take me seriously now, all right.
Zacchaeus was not only a wee little man. He was a mean little man. If being short held him back, he could always get meaner.
Zacchaeus got revenge.
A poster-sized timeline showing the shifts in demographics, allegiances, and key issues from 1789 to 2010.
NPR’s Natalie Jacewicz asks whether Millennials are hypocrites when it comes to chocolate:
In a survey of participants ages 18 to 35, millennials reported caring about ethical issues like environmental sustainability and social responsibility in chocolate production. But when choosing chocolate privately, these self-proclaimed ethical shoppers were all chocolate bark and no bite. (Sorry.) Most showed little preference for labels advertising ethical sourcing and instead preferred labels with ingredients they recognized — items like “chocolate” and “butter,” rather than “tertiary butylhydroquinone.”
When talking in general terms, participants in the study (which, it bears mentioning, was funded by Hershey) said they favored ethically sourced chocolate, but when presented with unbranded chocolate bars and asked to choose, ethics took a back seat.
Most participants consistently paid attention to whether or not they could pronounce the ingredients in a bar, but only a small, socially conscious group — representing 14 percent of participants — showed strong preference for ethical labels.
A “corporate sustainability specialist” quoted in the story says this goes to show that young people “tend to be quite aware of social issues and environmental issues. But if you push a bit harder, it’s a lot of talk, but not always action.” In other words, corporations can just ignore that ethics stuff, because people don’t really care about it anyway. Hershey doesn’t have to worry about enslaved eleven year-olds in its supply chain. Nothing to see here.
But Jacewicz notes that young people are more likely to buy organic milk, eggs, and meat — so what’s going on? The psychologist who led the study suggests that because chocolate is an indulgence rather than a staple, people aren’t thinking about ethical issues when they buy it — they are, by implication, thinking about themselves. I’ll buy that, but I don’t think it’s limited to chocolate. Note that participants in the study wanted only ingredients they could pronounce; they were quite concerned about the quality of what they put in their bodies, not only about “indulgent” qualities like flavor. But I’d suggest that’s also true of people buying organic staples. The USDA’s organic standards say little about animal welfare and next to nothing about workers, and though organic agriculture is supposed to be about process, most of the marketing of organic produce has always been about the product — the suggestion that organic food is better for you, that it’s more nutritious or contains fewer carcinogens, or just that it tastes better. Marketing has encouraged people to buy organic food out of concern for themselves and their families, not out of concern for workers, animals, or the planet.
So there’s nothing necessarily inconsistent about buying organically certified milk but looking for “natural” ingredients rather than ethical sourcing certifications on a chocolate bar. The food movement hasn’t succeeded in establishing an ethic; for the most part, it’s only given people new ways to think more deeply about their own welfare. Organic food might be branded as ethical, so people can feel good about themselves when buying it, but that isn’t the same as genuine concern; it’s just another form of “me first.” That’s what sells, and until we stop judging success by what sells, it will keep right on selling.