Handwork for the over-educated and generally helpless youngish lady of the early 21st century

My formal higher education went on for approximately 500 uninterrupted years before I segued smoothly into the highly lucrative career of selling secondhand books.

During my tenure as a pusher of moldering paperbacks, primarily of the Danielle Steele and Tom Clancy variety, I engaged in on the job training including, but not limited to: Updating the online database at 3 am; biting my tongue when customers referred to the Twilight books as “classic”; collecting abandoned Starbucks cups; having my upstairs apartment broken into while I was downstairs being distracted by the criminal’s hardened accomplice; smiling blandly when customers told me $5 was too much for that copy of Beyond Good and Evil (actually, that was probably true); not becoming too embittered to notice when someone smart and interesting came in; getting more familiar with the music of Tom Waits (thank goodness; just thank God); reading so damned much I probably broke all my own reading records; ditto for blogging; ditto again for eating too many bon-bons.

In other words, my work remained primarily cerebral and those strange appendages at the end of my long monkey arms capable only of doing the same three things that were required throughout university: 1) read, 2) type; type more, 3) bring food to mouth; repeat.

Having closed down the bookstore about a year and a half ago, I’ve had time to think about what I might like to do. I certainly plan to continue performing, joyfully, the three important skills listed above. But I’ve begun to notice during this period of self-reflection that I am essentially helpless in a number of ways my parents’ generation, and especially their parents’ generation!, would find to be both confusing and appalling. Example: I can’t sew a button onto…anything. I can’t start a fire, for either emergency or entertainment purposes. I have never grown any of my own food. I ride my bicycle a hell of a lot, but have no idea how it works or have any notion what to do if something goes wrong, except pay someone else to deal with it.

I recently began what I foresee as the lifelong project of becoming less pathetic. I want, after all, to be able to survive in the post-apocalyptic world when, if I want smoked tofu on my sammich, I’m going to have to grow, cook, and smoke the damned soy beans myself!

In March, I took two workshops at a local cycling co-op and now know how to fix a flat bicycle tire AND how to change my brake pads. I’m taking more workshops next month. I enjoyed it SO MUCH. I’m fairly sure I have no brain for mechanics–that would require an understanding of something akin to science and possibly engineering, and I think I have negative comprehension of both these things–but I loved how practical it was. I loved how messy it was. I loved how entirely unlike the abstract work I have mostly done it was. In another life, with a different kind of brain, I would be a bicycle mechanic.

I would maybe not be a seamstress, but I’m willing to change my mind. I’ve been taking a sewing class (for beginners, of course) for the past month; it concludes next week. I’ve made: a little purse of infinite ugliness and even less skill; an amusing pencil-case comprising pink and white gingham, black thread, and the skill of a drunkard–but a drunken adult human, as opposed to a drunken infant monkey (see above); I’m almost done a pair of pajama pants that include at least one fairly straight stitch along the long edge of one leg; and next week I will construct a cool pillow case made from top-secret material of pure awesomeness for a dear child I know who’s about to turn two.

And then…well, I think, given that I haven’t dropped the class and I seem, in spite of everything, to be getting better, that I’ll get a little sewing machine and Make Stuff. You see, I may have a PhD but it’s not in threading a fucking bobbin. It’s taken me 4 solid weeks to remember how to do that and how to get the thread from the non-bobbin whatsit into the correct spot so that sewing may occur. Luckily, during class yesterday, the thread broke about 8 times and I got plenty of practice. But what I still won’t know is how to sew a button onto anything; the teacher has decided we need to learn how to use machines, which is all very well and good except that an electric sewing machine won’t help me AFTER THE APOCALYPSE.

I’m also about to complete a class devoted to edible urban gardening. I’ve already got a couple little strawberry plants growing in my living room, which the cats like chewing on but they’re (both plants and cats) still doing well enough. I have grand dreams of bushels of kale to stuff into my face every day. And I plan to grow strange things I’ve never tried but which I’ve discovered in the seed catalog: such as the roughly melodious and ominous-sounding “bloody dock”. I knew there was a literary quality to good, fresh food; I’m glad that gardeners know it too.

I’ve been enjoying these new endeavours, some more than others. But I’m so slow; I’m the dumbest kid in each class. My brain works just fine, actually, it’s my hands that are certifiable morons; they’re so damned uncoordinated at these new things. Making them remember that there’s more to life than writing has been like, well, learning to tie one’s shoes–unnatural and at times, seemingly impossible.

What has kept me going is a triptych of unrelated inspirations, on top of the satisfactions of just making things: I get to read Middlemarch both before and after all classes; being extra busy because of said classes and therefore cooking less, I’ve been enjoying more than the usual allotment of peanut butter and banana sandwiches; I have, I reckon, at least a 3% greater chance than I did before of surviving more than 24 hours after the comet hits. All good things, of equal importance.

12 Comments Add yours

  1. I bow to you. A really enjoyable post despite the apocalyptic undertones.

    1. Colleen says:

      I don’t think they’re subtle enough to be classified as “undertones”; thank you for your gentleness. 🙂

  2. heidenkind says:

    I’ve been teaching myself how to do things like make cheese! And bake bread. In our dystopian future, we should start an overeducated colony. 😉

    1. Colleen says:

      Definitely! I want to start making bread too. I also want to learn how to make (vegan) yoghurt but my biggest roadblock, surprisingly, has been finding a thermometer that’s sensitive enough.

      1. heidenkind says:

        Candy thermometers don’t work?

      2. Colleen says:

        Not sure…just every time I ask salespeople for thermometers accurate at low temps they tell me to try elsewhere. :/

  3. One last thought: try growing potatoes, maybe the purple variety, very easy to do in an urban setting. Again, a bloody fine post with the right touch of humor.

    1. Colleen says:

      You know, I don’t know that I love potatoes quite enough to have that many of them. But then I’ll probably be constrained by what can grow in partial shade in this hardiness zone–and potatoes seem to fit the bill.

  4. Practical skills, so underrated today, but rewarded with such a feeling of empowerment. Growing up on a farm I think I learned more practical skills than domestic, so no suprise that in this household I am the handywoman and he is the cook.

    1. Colleen says:

      That’s cool. I helped lay the hardwood flooring in our house, and that was immensely satisfying. Building things is something I plan on working towards too. 🙂

  5. J.G. says:

    I, on the other hand, loved the post-apopcalyptic overtones. Maybe because I (too) have been wondering if I will have any skills that would justify my existence after the end of the world. I can sew on a button, though!

    1. Colleen says:

      You’re well ahead of me! But I’ll figure out this crazy science soon, I will.

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