Friday, November 7, 2008

The age of the generalist

Over at Sharon's blog she talks about a truly important subject that I think we should all face up to. It encompasses preparedness and practicality and frugality, but it may soon, for many of us, encompass necessity as well.

This is the notion that there are things we all need to know how to do regardless of sex, religion, socioeconomic status, or profession. Simply because you can hire someone at this particular point in time to do something that you could do but don't feel like doing, does not mean that this is a good move. Our society has told us for years that secretaries don't need to know how to build things or that construction workers don't need to know how to cook or that professors don't need to know how to grow vegetables because here, in America, we have all the resources we need and someone else can do it for you with greater efficiency. I think many of us are starting to realize that this is not feasible anymore.

I have been in a particularly good mood after the election of Barack Obama. I can see the possibility of change for our government and our nation, whether or not that will come to be the case. However, even if Obama has great intentions and plans, and even if he does straighten some things out, we cannot delude ourselves by thinking that he's going to magically "fix things." It is far too late to fix things. Our way of life is unsustainable. Period. We are probably not going to experience economic success for quite some time, if ever again, at least to the degree that we have during the 20th century. Period. We are going to have to suck it up. Period. Barack Obama cannot ensure that each and every person will be able to hire someone to fix the roof or grow our food or make our clothes. We might need to know how to do some of these things, and there really is no excuse for not knowing how to perform basic skills.

For one thing, you save money by doing this. I am amazed at how supposedly "frugal" people have truly extravagant spending habits. I am not faultless. I spend way too much money. Self-sufficiency is a way out of this destructive cycle. And besides, if you do get serious about doing things for yourself, you won't have much time, if any, to buy things you don't need. You won't have time to enjoy a gigantic flat-screen television, so buying one is a non-issue. And I find that it's a good sort of business. It's not like working in an office, burning out your eyes in front of a computer screen for eight hours or more a day. It's actually therapeutic for many people, myself included. For instance, there's a reason many people claim knitting is "addictive." Once you start knitting it becomes increasingly difficult to stop. It's the same way with gardening--once you get going with a garden or even just with houseplants (as I can't have a garden on campus, I rely on my potted plants to keep me company) you can't stop. It becomes natural and even soothing. And then there's the knowledge that you have done something tangible. To hold a hat in your hand that you have made is really incredible. This is why I am still in love with cheesemaking--you start out with cold, fresh milk, and in a few hours you have something different altogether. Every time I make a batch of cheese I am amazed. It almost feels like voodoo.

Having said all this, Sharon makes another great point--there is probably some task that for all of us becomes our feet of clay. We don't know how to do it, therefore we don't bother to learn because there will be a period where we will not be very good at it. This is true for everything and for most people unless you happen to be a prodigy. I am not a prodigy. But I am also very capable. I have two hands, I am healthy, I am young, I am getting a fabulous education (and for me, the most important thing about education is not that you get a degree, but that you learn how to learn), and I have mentors all around me, ready to teach me how to do whatever it is I want to do. I have learned sewing this way (from my mother, who is a whiz with a sewing machine--one of the scariest and most intimidating domestic machines I can think of), cheesemaking (from my boss, Chris, who is truly brilliant), cooking (from the women of my family, which is full of incredible southern cooks), spinning wool (from Lorri, my latest idol), and myriad other skills that will prove to be invaluable no matter what happens.

The point of all this is that a) learning should never end, b) there is always something new you can learn to do that will be useful, c) there are teachers everywhere. We should all take advantage of our abilities and approach that skill that particularly intimidates us with newfound ambition and optimism. Yeah, you might be terrible at it for a while, but you'll get there.

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