Thermomixed Up Strikes Back! (The Work and Dignity Edition)
S/V INTEMPERANCE, November 2009, somewhere between Montauk Point and Bermuda
“You can’t throw bull with the ocean, she won’t listen.” — Harold “Dynamite” Payson, Build the New Instant Boats
I wonder if it would be possible for some shrewd social scientist to construct a study that would discover the extent to which people are motivated by recognition from peers, when that’s available, versus recognition from “society as a whole” in the form of a salary. The desire to have one’s abilities confirmed by “those who know” is, I suspect, very powerful.
Now before we go any further, let me lay my cards on the table about Crawford and Shop Class.
My father send me a copy of Shop Class the week that Phil C. Bolger ended his life, which is also the same week that Reihan Salam offered a favorable review of Shop Class on The American Scene. My favorite response to Reihan’s post was offered by commentor Sanjay:
Look, Reihan, I feel a little small-minded making this point but: I built a bat house last weekend. I changed my oil this weekend and trued my bike wheels. I can, in fact, operate a lathe. Crawford’s ideas, I like. But the praises I’ve heard sung of this book so far are all by guys like you, who — I mean, no offense, Reihan, but do you own, say, a power drill?
At the time I hadn’t read the book, and between my sadness over Phil Bolger’s death and just not feeling kindly disposed towards the book, I thought I would put off reading it till I was more clear-headed. (Reading a book from an arms akimbo post isn’t fair to the book and its author, plus you have to find someone to hold the book for you.)
Now as it happens this was about the same time that The American Scene was winding down, with much of the conversation from The Scene moving to Twitter, and it was on Twitter that I began to become friendly with Matthew Feeney, mostly around his and my shared interest in surfing and surf culture.
I hold Matt in a strange sort of affection because it is on account of him that I, finally, and after a lifetime of struggling with misunderstanding my relationship with reading and writing, began to peel back the layers. From Matt’s post at The Scene, Infinite Manic Sadness: DFW Universal Inner Child and the resulting comment thread:
Matt F: As someone who struggles with the visual and cognitive mechanics of reading, I found all the surface static to provide, as a source of ongoing pleasure, the attention-incentives that I otherwise have to gird myself with through manipulations of lighting and environment and blood chemistry. For some of us, reading is a highly complicated, vexatious game. For me anyway, Infinite Jest felt like a gift
Me: I know it’s a side note, but can you elaborate further on what you mean by “someone who struggles with the visual and cognitive mechanics of reading”?
Matt F: I’m a painfully slow reader. (My wife, a strong but not insanely fast reader, reads at least three times as fast as I do. I watch her drop books off the side of the bed after a few days that would take me weeks to read.) I read with terrible comprehension. My eyes flee or wander from the line I’m on far more readily than they stay on the line. I am unable to read with any distraction. I read in sensory isolation or not at all. The entire process makes me physically uneasy. It is a literal struggle. My experience of reading the breeziest prose reminds me of Laurie Anderson’s bit, “Difficult Listening”: “So…sit bold upright in your straight-backed chair, and get ready for some…difficult…listening.” I love books, but I kind of hate reading, or reading kind of hates me. It’s like surfing. I’m scared of the ocean, but I love waves.
Me: Thanks for that, Matt. I ask because reading/writing and I haven’t always got along so well, and even know, and ever more than 15 years of (sometimes) getting paid to write, I’m only just starting to understand the mechanics of my difficulties, or the depth to which those difficulties effected me. RE: self as a therapeutic object. I am not familiar with The Infinite Jest or David Forster Wallace, but despite my tenuous connection with reading, I am certain familiar with the tone with which such things are discussed here at TAS and elsewhere. Two things come to mind. The first is the chapter in Band of Brothers that takes place at the Siege of Baston, entitled “The Breaking Point”. The second is a twitter convo a few days ago where in (IIRC) Peter Suderman observed that “Tarentino’s admirers/imitators had only learned his easier lessons.”
Commentor cw: You might have what they call in education speak. a reading “deficit.” The way you talk about the effort suggest that you lack fluency. A fluent reader instantly recognizes words or chunks of words without effort or thought, freeing the mind for comprehension. Readers who have a hard time often are haivng to decode each word; that is consciouly look at each word and decide what it means. That makes reading really slow and takes up all the reader’s mental energy so they have none left for comprehension. There are all kinds of varieties of dyslexia and other brain based issues that interfear with developing fluency. Sometimes there are ways to help.
Matt F: cw – I think you’re close, but it’s not a classic fluency problem. It’s not that my eye/brain doesn’t recognize words, but that, after a short stretches of reading, it forgets that it’s supposed to, that that’s what it’s job is. I think of strong natural readers as enjoying a chemical sympathy between their eyes/brain and words, a sort of covalence, or, in another metaphor, that word and eye are like compatible gears, moving each other forward, together. They don’t have to force their eye to stay on the line. It wants to be there. That linkage just fails with me. So, in yet another metaphor, my eye/mind is like a stoned driver who forgets that he’s driving. I regularly find my that my eye has come detached from a sentence and missed a line break and is idling over words on the facing page, and the narrative line has been replaced by a line of my own thoughts, possibly spurred by the last word I could be said to have read. I don’t know what you call that, but it’s not as fun as it sounds.
Me: Matt, it’s very interesting to hear someone who obviously has a gift for language describe his difficulty with reading. Many more thoughts, but too great a risk of drifting into self as therapeutic object, and we wouldn’t want that.
Freddie: My advisor’s current work is in eye-tracking – we are both involved in reading and writing education, although he is much more focused on process and I on policy. Anyhow, one of the most consistent and repeatable findings is that, at the level of the eye, reading is non-linear. And not just a little, either, but radically non-linear. (How people self-report their own eye movements while they read and how our equpment says their eyes move are quite different.) This non-linearity, which requires a great deal more study, has big consequences for disordered readers. As a matter of lore, I can say that, for example, many well-meaning parents and educators often try to enforce a rigid linearity on dyslexic students, believing that non-linearity on the level of the eye is the problem. But it’s likely that the impairment is neurocognitive and not at the level of eye movement, and, again, despite how we encode written language, visual decoding does not appear to be a strictly linear process at all.
Me: More thoughts; don’t worry, almost all technical. As a child I excelled at reading non-fiction, but struggled with fiction. I also struggled (and still do struggle) with spelling, or even simply omitting words or parts of words as I write. (No doubt this is frequently evident in my comments here.) What I’ve come to believe is that I read words as characters, with no real phonetic subvocalization, and I think this was a strategy I developed to deal with the fact that English spelling is haphazard. When I read, I understand the difference between “think” and “thinks” more by context than by the “s” on the end. This reading style served me well in nonfiction because I could quickly scan a page and extract the facts and relationships, without absorbing the prose style at all. But it doesn’t work well for fiction, especially sophisticated fiction. Just at this instant I’m realizing that the first time I really connected subvocalization with text was when a college writing professor told me, “Just write it the way you would say it.” I have always marked that moment as a profound leap forward in my ability to write, but I had never linked up the “psychomechanical” relationship between subvocalization, writing, and reading. At any rate, one of the things I’ve realized from spending time here on TAS is that the insecurity I feel about being poorly read is something that is entirely in my power to correct. Some TAS writers and commenters can expect to receive e-mail requesting a short reading list, but I think I’ll just go ahead and see if Infinite Jest is in the local library.
Commentor cw: I think all competent readers read words as characters, if I understand what you mean. For sure, once readers pass the decoding stage—where they look at the separate letters of each word and even sound it out to understand what the word means—competent readers recognize whole words without effort. It’s pretty amazing really, because in a sense we memorize 10s of 1000s of words. About the subvocalization, I don’t know. I guess speed-readers block subvocalization becasue they think it uses up brain power.
Me: Well maybe that’s another clue. I am very fast, high comprehension reader where non-fiction is concerned, especially technical nonfiction. When I read Matt’s description of his reading experience, I had a vision of my own experience of reading as being like a skier skiing the fall-line, just touching the snow as much as he needs to to stay in control. As to the decoding, I think that stage of my reading development was stymied by being too facile, and attached to rules, and when trying to use the rules became frustrated, I started using memorization before perfecting decoding. People who edit my marvel at my capacity for making hash of nearly any word. So when I say I don’t, or didn’t subvocalize (perhaps I’m using the word in a technically incorrect way,) I don’t mean that I didn’t/don’t sound words out. What I mean is that I don’t hear them at all, or I hear them like a skier bouncing across the tops of moguls at high speed; just the barest kiss. Even today, I struggle to read aloud, and when I do I frequently either miss words all together, or substitute synonyms. I sound like one of those “Daddy Can’t Read” literacy PSAs you used to see. Somewhat related but very self-as-therapeutic: recently an especially erudite friend offered to introduce me to her agent, and my very first thought was to look up a high school english teach and even the score. Surprising what will make an old scar feel a twinge, isn’t it?
Commentor cw: your reading experience sounds like kids I have observed. One kid I watched was really good at getting just enough words right and using context to kind of sort of read. But not really. The cure they put her through was reading outloud these slightly crazy texts. Something like, “The cow sang quietly in the field.” The way this kid would normally read this would be something like, The cow “sat” or “stood” quietly in the field. She would see the words cow and field and then just through skimming for first letters and using context would come up with “sat” or “stood.” But this text they had her read wouldn’t allow for skipping any words. It was delivered through direct instruction which is a particular technique for teaching habits or practicing and memorizing things. It’s pretty much teacher lead drill. I don’t know if there was a name for this girl’s particular problem but there was a whole set of readers for people like her.
“The cow sang quietly in the field” proved to be a key, not just in understanding my relationship with reading and writing, but my relationship with my entire eduction, which is to say my relationship with the formative years of my life. Me, writing at The Atlantic, a few months later in Tony Comstock’s farwell post entitled Kludges, Adaptations and Evolution:
Not too many weeks into the first grade it was decided I would be better off in second grade. I wasn’t skipped, I was just moved up. I did the second grade twice, and I’m pretty sure this is why I never learned to read. You know that the joke people make “I was absent that day”? I wasn’t absent when my cohort was being taught was is now called “decoding”, I was in the second grade.
Instead of reading, I do something that’s sort of like skimming. I don’t read all the words, or even all of the words that I do read in their entirety. I sort of skip down the page like a skier bombing the fall-line of a steep, rutted slope, touching the page just enough to absorb the meaning, but not really absorbing the words.
My pseudo-reading works very well for non-fiction, but not so well for fiction. As a child I read non-fiction books and magazines, well above grade level (The Atlantic!), while showing little retention or comprehension of even below age-appropriate fiction. Even today, I struggle with reading. At present I am trying to work my way through Ulysses, and you can imagine how well that’s going…
This fiction/non-fiction schism was baffling to my teachers and parents, and frustrating for me. I got remedial reading help, which was humiliating (and didn’t help), and I when I wrote, I wrote the same way that I read (and still do). In school my papers were filled with missing and misspelled words and always came back dripping with red corrections. I drifted (fled!) towards math, science, music, and ultimately settled in the art department.
Later that year I finally tackled Shop Class, but before we get to my reaction to it, let’s return to the posts from Reihan Salam and Megan McArdle that served as prompts for this series of Theromomixed posts.
The key passage in Reihan’s piece:
[W]e are in a sense living through a cultural war in which some who’ve chosen, say, more leisure and prestige are waging a symbolic struggle against those who’ve chosen more income — the object is to devalue the accumulation of material possessions, to characterize it as “greedy,” etc.
And the key phrase from Megan’s apologia for her recently purchased Thermomix:
There is, of course, the joy of acquisition. And why give that short shrift? The high may be temporary, but the same is true of climbing a mountain. Why valorize one over the other?
I’d also like to remind readers of the Help Wanted post I made here at the League nearly a year ago:
I thought I’d let you all know that The Montauk Catamaran Company is hiring.
From what I’ve been able to glean on the internet and from asking some inappropriate questions of some of my Twitter-friends, I reckon the job pays about as well or better than adjunct professor at a state college, or an associate editor at a smarty-pants magazine (not a strong statement), and with a similar level of job security, which is to say – none.
By contrast the job has no particular education or skills requirement. Experience with wood-working would be good, but not required. Experience with fiberglass and resin would be good, but not required. A person who went deeply into debt to ready themselves to apply for this position has probably made a mistake.
Mostly what we’re looking for is someone (or two or three) who is a quick study, a diligent worker, and has a keen eye for detail. An applicant who could show they were a whiz with drywall compound and spackle would be an instant hire. Someone with old-school auto-body repair skills would probably find a place on the crew.
But if you have none of these skills, do not despair.
If you’re smart, if you can follow directions, and if you can show up when you say your going to show up, even when the job turns out not to be as fun/exciting/brag-worthy as you had initially hoped, we can probably train you into some measure of usefulness in short order.
I can’t guarantee that any of what you might learn in our boat-shop is likely to be transferable to a “real job”, and most especially not transferable into the (much ballyhooed) knowledge economy. Wax on/wax off, grasshopper. (On the other hand, a good friend of my leveraged his experience as an Alaskan halibut fisherman into a sweet position at Time.com, so you never know!)
On the other hand, it’s several months of steady work, indoors, at a reasonable rate of pay, and working for a good boss.
And when you’re done, and we launch Mon Tiki, and she floats upright, and schoons majestically, you can say “I built that.”
All earnest inquiries seriously considered.
The fellow who answered that ad was Joe Shetler, a young man who was in the process of applying to MFA programs and not particularly happily employed at a museum in Washington DC. In short order he relocated to the East End and began working on MON TIKI at a rate of pay about 40% higher than he had been making at the museum. In my post The Zen of Twee I talked about Joe’s experience working on MON TIKI contrasted against the High Maker Culture that’s currently riding high in Brooklyn. Quoting:
From the New York Magazine article The Twee Party:
One afternoon last June, the quaint silhouette of a three-masted sailboat made its way into New York Harbor and pulled up at the Red Hook Marine Terminal. The Black Seal, a 70-foot-long schooner, had just completed a 3,000-mile wind-powered round trip to the Dominican Republic. There, it had taken on twenty metric tons of cocoa beans, mostly from La Red de Guaconejo organic-cacao cooperative, whose beans are said to yield chocolate with notes of “sweet pipe tobacco” and “Cabernet Sauvignon.”
When he got back to the shop on Monday he need to “debrief” a little bit on his experience of being introduced to New Yorkers as “This is Joe, he’s building a sailing yacht in the Hamptons.”
The gist of disconnect that Joe was feeling was that people were very impressed with the idea of his building boat in the Hamptons; he could tell by their affect that they were impressed, and that his endeavor accorded him a measure of status that he would not have been afforded if he had been introduced as “Joe, he works construction in Arizona.” (And not mere “construction”; I hired Joe because he was a finish carpenter for one of Arizona’s top builders of high-end homes, including (ironically?) a preposterously lavish house for Robert Kiyosaki, author the lots-of-reasons-to-hate-it Rich Dad, Poor Dad.)
And more than that, Joe offered, “Building a boat is about the most ordinary thing a person can do. All around the world, waterside peasants are building boats and plying their local waters, fishing trading, transporting. There’s really nothing precious or elevated about boat building,” the social awareness of Joe’s peace, justice and conflict resolution training at Mennonite college was rankled by the mishmash of social signals and the reality of the very ordinary, often mundane work we were doing.
That brings me to the note I sent to Matthew Crawford after I finished his book. October 10, 2011:
My father gave me a copy of your book. I resisted reading it for a couple of years, but was finally convinced by Matt Feeney to give it a go. I read most of it in one gulp on a train ride into New York City.
If you’ll forgive my directness, one criticism (not the best word, but workable) and one question:
I found I agreed with nearly everything you wrote, but found I took issue with how it was pitched. In many instances it felt like it was aimed at an audience who would ultimately regard it as great advice for other people’s children. When my wife read it it barely spoke to her at all, again, not for its argument, but how the argument was pitched. (My wife grew up in a modest household in a rough neighborhood in Brooklyn, went to high school at the NYC public school for kids who are too smart for Styvesand, and has a keen ear for class signifiers. “Who’s this book supposed to speak to? Who doesn’t it suppose to speak for?”)
I particularly enjoyed the point you made about plumb and level being inarguable, and the (hope I’m getting this right) Aristocratic Egalitarianism that brought to the job site, especially as contrasted to the king’s court, therapeutic intrigues of the workplace (I’m guessing this is where your conversations with James Poulos were especially pertinent.) But I found myself wondering why other vocations that are less hands-on, but no less rigourous were barely mentioned. Again presenting my wife’s experience; she’s a jack-of-all trades digital designer, but she especially enjoys the no bullshit, it either works or it give an error code aspect of programing, and enjoys the company of programs, and for reasons that are a virtual and strong echo of the Brotherhood examples you have. If I had to I could posit a half-dozen different reasons why this sort of work might have been left out, but I’m curious what yours were.
Let me close my apologizing for the negative tone. Like I said, I enjoyed reading the book and agreed with most of it. My wife and I have been talking about it on and off all last week, especially in relation to the recirculation of Steve Jobs’ Stanford commencement address.
Also, I’ve cc’d M. Feeney. I had not known until a couple of days ago that he had been so closely involved with the text. I’m grateful he persisted with is admonishment that I ignore Rod Dreher’s name on the jacket and give it a read!
Between the recent transition in my professional life — from photographer and filmmaker to boat builder and mariner– and the internet company I keep — American Scenesters, Ordinary Gentlemen, and various Atlantians, I’ve had a few occasions since sending that note to think about Mattthew Crawford and his book.
The most recent occasion was on the afternoon of October 29 of this year. As it happens that was the third anniversary of me and my crew standing a gale in the sloop INTEMPERANCE, about 200 miles southeast of Montauk during our offshore passage from New York to Bermuda.
That passage was the most emotionally relentless experience I’ve ever endured.
Our last “contact” with land was the weather forecast we got at the very edge of VHF range. We were headed towards winds 30-40 knots with higher guest and seas 15-25 feet, and worse, the forecast behind us was for winds 50-70 knots. There was no turning back, only going forward.
At the height of the gale I was on the foredeck putting the third reef in the main and I thought, “If there was a button I could push so that I could be safely back in my bed, I’d push it. I would give up this boat and any hope of ever doing this again to not be here right now.” I was quite sure that when (if?) we got to Bermuda I was going to put INTEMPERANCE up for sale and fly back home and be content to sail dinghies around Lake Montauk.
Three years later, at three in the afternoon I was on the deck of MON TIKI, built with my own hands, and launched just a week earlier.
The wind was howling, 40 or 50 knots, with higher gusts. I was checking the mooring lines I had and setting extras. After nearly getting taken off my feet by the wind for the third time I resorted to crawling around the deck on my hands and knees. My boat was just a few feet from the dock and I had the very real and prudent thought, “You’d better be careful. You could die right here. Move slowly be sure of what you do.” The last time I had been this ill at ease on a boat was that gale on INTEMPERANCE three years earlier.
I was on my belly, working a line around the lashing strake of the forward part of the port hull and struggling with it a little.
I was afraid. I thought I might lose my boat. I thought of how humiliated I’d feel. I thought “You really are a Rich Buddha, aren’t you? So proud of how clever and authentic you are?” I had my brown duck Carhart jacket on, purchased because I liked the way it looked on Bodie from The Wire, and I liked the way he stood his ground in his last stand.
And that’s when I thought of Matthew Crawford and his book, and the dignity of working with your hands.