Pharos-Tribune

January 12, 2014

CEPEDA: The joy of making things


Pharos-Tribune

---- — My family isn’t big on New Year’s resolutions but it’s pretty clear our 2014 will be about the physical, the tangible and the tactile.

It crystallized two weeks before Christmas when gift lists started emerging. This was a departure from the last two years when all that my two sons wanted were envelopes stuffed with cash and video games.

After having resigned ourselves to quiet Christmas mornings with no piles of bright paper and discarded bows, this year was blissfully different. The change back to wanting actual presents caught us off guard, making us scramble to make it all happen. But my husband and I happily trooped up and down our stairs early Christmas morning after a marathon session of wrapping and tagging boxes of every size and shape.

Again there were piles of discarded boxes and packing peanuts to tidy after our boys settled in to watch lava lamps glow, build LEGO sets and wield new lightsabers, with nary an iTunes gift card in sight.

During my holiday break I unplugged completely and finally finished knitting a blanket I had neglected for years. My husband dedicated almost his entire break to mastering the banjo he took up last summer. The kids went sledding and ice-skating. We all did a lot of talking.

Is this what it looks like when a family of fervent, iPhone and iPad-toting Netizens grows fatigued of being always connected to and fully immersed in virtual worlds?

Maybe.

My oldest son has never known life that did not depend on his electronics and their connections to the Internet. Yet the end of his 2013 was consumed by fantasies about moving out into the wilderness and living strictly off the land.

We had finally gotten him out of a failing school district and into one where the high school boasts that 62 percent of its students are “ready for college coursework,” as measured by the Illinois state report card. Yet the big deal in our freshman’s life is that he’s stocked his sophomore year with metal shop and woodworking classes.

In a recent Wall Street Journal profile, the feminist provocateur Camille Paglia suggested that our society is suffering from a decline in the standing of men and suggested that traditional male trades need to be “revalorized.”

“Michelle Obama’s going on: ‘Everybody must have college,’” Paglia said. “Why? Why? What is the reason why everyone has to go to college? Especially when college is so utterly meaningless right now, it has no core curriculum [and] people end up saddled with huge debts?”

In Paglia’s opinion, the push for universal college is “social snobbery on the part of a lot of upper-middle-class families who want the sticker in the window.” She’s right, and I’ll add that it’s shared by public schools systems whose sole measure of success has become the percentage of students who enroll in college.

This is buoyed by the simple reality that society doesn’t value makers and laborers as much as they do thinkers — though the doers are essential for making things happen.

I get to think for a living but in 2013 I spent most of my money on plumbers, electricians, carpenters and heating/air conditioning repairmen. Despite their sky-high hourly rates, everyone in my home was unspeakably grateful for them each time something flooded, broke down or needed to be built from scratch.

According to Kevin Kelly — the editor of a 472-page wish book of neat stuff called “Cool Tools: A Catalog of Possibilities” and an Internet community pioneer — a “third industrial revolution is stirring.”

He insists that small groups of self-educateds and do-it-yourselfers are springing up, building things in wood and metal and propelling a shift toward what Kelly’s interviewer at The New York Times, David Carr, referred to as the “so-called maker culture, a movement toward building real, actual things with our own two hands.”

There’s no way my family and I are giving up our beloved Netflix or iPhones. And I truly hope my sons will eventually find a shred of excitement for college. But for now it seems that an industrial revolution — not to mention my calling as a master knitter — has taken root in my home and I’m welcoming it with open arms.

Esther J. Cepeda is a columnist for the Washington Post Writers Group. She can be reached at estherjcepeda@washpost.com.