Material Blindness


One of my favorite lines in Breaking Bad is when when Jesse (a 19-year-old, small time drug dealer who is, counterintuitively, extremely naive and gullible)  points to a barn in the distance and turns to Walt and says he spotted a “cow house.”  Where cows live.  A “cow house.”

Once when I was taking a class with some frighteningly smart people, we ran across an 18th century reference to “grafting” and everyone came up empty about what it might mean, one person suggesting skin grafting (this was two centuries before skin grafting).  I didn’t pipe up for some reason (I often mystify myself) but the passage was clearly referring to tree grafting.  (I won’t describe it here but its how you perpetuate a particular variety of apple or pear or whatever. If you just planted an apple seed, you would get an entirely different and unique variety of apple.)

On another occasion in the same class, we ran across the word “hen” and several people felt it did not signify male or female but simply “chicken.” There was a brief argument about it.  I tried to make it known, in this case, that a hen is lady and a rooster is a dude (or as some people refer to call roosters — cocks.  Though other people consider it awkward to point to their flock and say “I have 2 cocks.”) Not everyone was convinced I was right and I did not tell them that I OWN a hen and that I was of half a mind to bring it to class next time.

On one episode of Arrested Development (WATCH IT RIGHT AWAY ON HULU FOR FREE!)  Lindsay — the faux-philanthropist — makes plans to attend a fundraising event for the local wetlands.  Her brother quizzes her:  “To do what with the wetlands, Lindsay?”  Lindsay thinks hard and then replies, “To dry them.”

I heard a story recently about a man working for an Italian foreign aid organization, providing aid to Zambia.  He and his team arrived (unbidden) and set up a farm in a small village of hunter gatherers (who were not starving in the least).  The point was to “teach” them how to farm.  Things were going very well for the crops (like tomatoes) and were almost ready to be harvested when hippos emerged from the nearby Zambezi river, just at the right moment, and destroyed EVERYTHING.  The Italians said, “My God!  What has happened here! Why didn’t you tell us this was a risk?”  And the Zambians said, “You never asked us a single question.”  (Here’s his TED talk if you’re interested community development, foreign aid or the like.)


It’s downright weird how detached we are from the natural and physical world around us.  Weird, weird, weird.  And not just from chickens and trees but from the stuff we rely on for our very lives.  Can you fix your own refrigerator? plumbing? wiring? furnace?  ANYTHING?  Can you fix anything?!

Like myself you are like a wee babe, hoping others will tie your shoes.  Bram, on the other hand, has gotten quite handy over the last 8 years — you might be shocked to know this if you ever knew Bram pre-Vermont. Though compared to long-term Vermonters, he’s still a delicate little flower of a princess who only knows how to paint his fingernails.

If I had been bold and cool and clever in high school — instead of fearful, neurotic, rigid and judgmental — I would have taken shop class.   I would have learned how to build things and fix things because these are not trivial things to learn. This kind of knowledge makes you more independent and generally informed about how the world works on the one hand (and saves you LOADS of money) but they also take you out of your head and immerse you in what is reliably true — the chicken, the table, the furnace.  I wouldn’t have been very good at shop (since I’m not great at math) but it would have provided me with something important anyway.  It’s true, I would not likely have gotten a summer job in construction as women are not often hired.  (I wonder why this is?  Women construction workers do exist — I’ve met them — but they rarely last because they are not hired.  Any ideas why this might be? Anyone?)  But this is beside the point — stop interrupting!

So there are two books that might interest you if you’re interested in these kinds of issues.  One is on the more theoretical end of the spectrum (yes, I should STOP DOING THAT) and the other is on the decidedly practical end of the spectrum.

1. Shopclass as Soulcraft: An Inquiry into the Value of Work:  This dude got a Ph.d., went to work for a Washington D.C. think-tank and then after a couple years, said SCREW IT and he did what he always longed to do since working on motorcycles as a kid:  open an motorcycle mechanic shop.

2.  Making It: Radical Home Ec for a Post Consumer World:  Learn recipes to make your own shampoo, toothpaste, house cleaner and so forth.

Finally, here are Bram and other Plainfielders, laying the groundwork for our town’s ice skating rink for the winter of 2012/ 2013:

ice rink2



5 thoughts on “Material Blindness

  1. When I was in high school in the early sixties, the girls were required to take 6 weeks of shop class and 6 weeks of drafting. The boys had to take Home Economics, 6 weeks of cooking and 6 wks of sewing. I think we all benefited.

  2. yes it is kind of sad how detached and ignorant we have become, but how can we change that? they are always reasons for why things are as they are. in this case, i see two major factors.

    1-specialization – now that i shuffle bits around on a computer all day, i can have someone else grow the grain, someone else raise the cow, someone else turn it into pink slime, someone else flip the burger, etc. and i don’t need to know the difference between a heifer and a steer to order a big mac.

    2-economies of scale – almost anything that you try to make yourself for personal use can be bought cheaper. consumer goods are produced and wholesaled in such huge quantities that the unit cost is remarkably low. in most cases you would pay more for the materials than for the finished product. now your labor is worth nothing (which brings us back to point 1, stick to what you are good at and let someone else do everything else.)

    this will of course lead us deeper and deeper into a world where most people become commoditized units of labor, poorly paid and easily replaced, and a few people control and manage the economic activity and reap its rewards. depressing, huh?

    • very well — and succinctly — stated. yes, it’s difficult to imagine how we can shift all this to a more balanced way of living.

  3. My father grew up in the south on a large cotton farm in the 1920s and 30s. He was one of 5 children who helped in producing and growing almost every bite of food they ate, in addition to growing and picking the cotton, and caring for the 40 mules, a dozen cows, countless chickens, and numerous horses. As soon as they were grown, all 5 of them, along with all their cousins and friends, were part of the great exodus from the farms of southeast Missouri to the great factories of Detroit Michigan and South Bend, Indiana. When asked why none of them stayed, my father answered that it was a hard, brutal life, and they couldn’t wait to get out of there. They became “commoditized units of labor” in those factories, but compared to the life they left, they felt very, very lucky. And I must say, they mostly had very comfortable lives, owned small comfortable homes in lovely modest neighborhoods, worked only forty hours a week, had their week-ends for leisure activities, and had enough money to buy tiny fishing boats and other things to enjoy those hours of leisure. That may sound suspiciously idealized, but I grew up surrounded by that world and regardless of the ways in which some managed to make their lives miserable, that was how many managed to live. In the process, of course, their children grew up not knowing if a hen was male or female. But I wonder if the cotton farmers in southern Missouri in 1920 knew that apple trees had to be grafted?

    However, let me just end by saying that I think everyone should learn those basic survival skills, and not feel so helpless in the face of a simple hot water heater malfunction, or so detached from the growing of food, and the care of goats and sheep.

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