A World of Things

It is very easy when living in the technology field to ignore the actual physical space we occupy. Skills once thought essential are slowly being forgotten as we move farther and farther away from a culture of being able to create and fix things.

We visited my wife’s sister’s family for Christmas this year. They have a beautiful thirteen acre wooded plot out in the country, and I savor our visits and the time that we get to spend there. My favorite times are standing outside listening to the quiet and watching the birds. On this particular occasion, we met in town before heading out to their place, and when we arrived my wife and I wondered if we beat them home. We didn’t see the truck they were driving, so I got out to knock on the garage door. Jeff, my brother-in-law, was washing his truck in the garage, draining the water down two drains centered under the parking areas for two cars, and using the hot water tap.

I was more than a bit envious. His garage is heated, has several electrical outlets, hot and cold water taps, and drains. It is, in short, the perfect place to do a complete detailing of a vehicle in winter. Jeff greeted us warmly, and asked if I’d like to wash our van next. I could not turn down that offer, especially since we were just at a car wash that turned out to be closed. We finished his truck, pulled it out of the garage, and pulled the van in. Jeff walked me through a thorough deep-cleaning of the van, pulling out plastic bits to spray out the sand and junk that accumulates in the undercarriage, and explaining how certain parts of the frame are more prone to rust because of the lip. The van had never been so clean by the time we finished. He asked when the last time the van was waxed, which was probably before I bought it. We talked about the different kinds of waxes for a bit, and agreed to let the van dry in the garage and wax it in the morning.

I slept in till eight, and by the time I got up, Jeff had already put the wax on the van and was waiting for it to dry. We worked together to finish the job, and he even got out his buffer to get some of the marks out of the doors.

Jeff is a park ranger, and over the years he’s accumulated a collection of very practical skills focused on maintenance and preservation of things. It’s an interest we share, and reminds me of my first few years in the Navy when I worked as a machinist. The main goal of the enlisted man in the Navy is the maintenance of the ship. That means everything from cleaning the toilets and sweeping the deck, to replacing broken bolts. It means working with your hands.

It wasn’t too long ago when families made most of the things that they needed. At the least, the things they needed were made locally. Towns had to be somewhat self-sustaining or they would not survive. As more and more of our things started to come from factories, and the factories where the things were made were moved to far away lands, our need for creating things left, and with it the skills to do so. I was completely fascinated by this video posted by Shawn Blanc of a blacksmith creating a knife, and then a leather worker building a beautiful sheath for the knife. Being a blacksmith would have been exhausting work, but I can only imagine the satisfaction at having built something like a knife out of pieces of steel.

There is no steel in programming. Only thought. We like to think that there is blood and sweat in our applications, but the truth is that there is only deep thought. Computers are tools; fascinating, engrossing tools, but still just tools. We should all pay as much attention to the rest of our possessions as we do to our computers. At least I should. I’m not one to make new year’s resolutions, but in the coming year I am making it my goal to become less reliant on my computer, and to take better care of the things God has granted me.