On Labor Day … I Labored

When I got back from Saudi Arabia in early 2004, arriving in Washington during the middle of winter, the last thing I really wanted to do was get another job in journalism. I have enjoyed being a reporter, writer and editor, don’t get me wrong. I’ve learned a lot, too. But there’s a general ache in my guts, an ache I get because journalism isn’t satisfying, because it isn’t much of an intellectual challenge, because being chained to a computer and a telephone for most of the day isn’t physically invigorating, because there is little spiritual satisfaction in playing “he said, she said” games with activists and government spokespersons or reciting pronouncements like “officials from the Department of Stacking and Storage report that August cardboard box sales rose 1.4% over July levels to an 23-month high.”

I would eventually get work as an editor at a daily oil and natural gas industry publication. But that would be a few months after my plane touched down at Dulles Airport, my wife rejoined me from California, and we’d rented an apartment near the Potomac River in Alexandria. As I looked for work, I still had plenty of time on my hands. Looking for a job may be a full-time occupation but it can also be a fairly demoralizing one, and not something you can spend every waking moment of every day doing. At least I can’t.

So I decided to satisfy an urge — I wanted to learn how to fix bicycles. I went to Bennett, the manager of the nearby shop where Jennifer and I had bought our bikes, and I made him an offer: if you’re willing to teach me what I need to know about repairing bicycles, I will work for you for no charge.

Being a relatively wily man — and a great example of the kind of fine life a person can have without ever going anywhere near a college or university credentialing mill — Bennett said yes.

Maybe he just wanted to see how this flabby, over-educated twerp with too many college degrees would do when it came to actual physical work. Maybe I wasn’t really interested in learning how to fix bicycles, and I’d quit after a couple of days.

“The best way to start,” he said, nodding at the stack of bicycle boxes in the back room, “is to assemble bicycles. It’s not too hard.”

It took a while, and there were a lot of things to remember. Are the cranks on tight enough? Did you grease the pedals before you put them on, and did you tighten them down enough? Are the brakes aligned properly? (I’m only beginning to get proper derailleur adjustment…) It’s hot, hard work but I’ve always liked honest sweat. I kept at it, and as parts on my bicycle failed — first the rear wheel, then the brakes, then the frame — I would get the chance to learn to fix, build, rebuild or replace a new part.

Even after I got a full-time job in the District, and was no longer able to work during the weekdays, I still came in to the bike shop, to help build bikes, to help with repairs on busy Saturdays and Sundays. Bennett even showed me how to use the cash register (an overly sophisticated computer set-up) and trusted me enough to run it unsupervised on busy afternoons.

That was more than a year ago. Since then, I have earned the trust and confidence of the shop’s staff as someone who can actually do the work. There’s a lot I still don’t know — I’d be helpless trying to actually sell a bike, especially a high-end one. But there’s a lot I do know. After all, I built my own bicycle from parts, including the rear wheel from scratch, which has held up underneath me now for more than 1,100 miles. No mean feat that, especially since I was so uncertain at first about relying on something so apparently flimsy as a bicycle wheel that I’d built with my own hands.

The last two years, Bennett has called on me to help him over the busy Labor Day weekend, since many of the regular staff take the weekend off. So all three days of the Labor Day weekend, I was busy, fixing bikes, renting bikes, selling bike do-dads, answering questions from potential customers and assembling the occasional Marin, Fuji or Kona, fresh out of their “Made in China” or “Made in Taiwan” boxes.

It was tiring. Exhausting, in fact. It was also invigorating, especially after a long week of long workdays in front of a computer following the advance of Hurricane Katrina through the most important oil and gas-producing region in the United States.

But note how I did this: I didn’t take a class on bicycle repair at the city recreation department or the local community college; I did not buy a book or study the subject online; I did not seek out state or federal “job training” projects designed to turn out bicycle mechanics, I did not engage in some supervised, amorphous “life-long learning” project that will go somewhere on my “permanent record.”

I went to the manager of a bike shop and said “teach me; in exchange I will give you my labor.” It was a purely voluntary and very informal exchange, and I’m certain had I proven an inept and incompetent apprentice mechanic, Bennett would have told me, “Dude, get out of here. You suck.”

Instead, while he doesn’t pay me, I get all my parts for “free.” That is, I don’t pay cash for them. I do work for them. It’s a fair deal.

It helps that I’m not the only person Bennett has such an arrangement with. There are others, mostly adults like myself with other, professional, jobs (I suppose I could call them careers, though I have really grown to despise that word) who don’t mind sweating over aluminum, steel and rubber in their spare time in exchange for a place to work on their own, souped-up, high-tech bicycles. He’s also had a lot of kids in the place too, some who are willing to work and some who are not. Those who are serious stick around and learn. There aren’t many of them. Those who aren’t, get bored and leave. Which is as it should be.

We live in a world where it is possible — in fact, where it is the norm anymore — to get an education but never learn how to do anything. In fact, that is probably the point of education anyway, since a person who cannot really do anything makes a good human resource, a good cog (or chainring!) for a business or government machine whose end is not the sale of a product or the provision of the service, but the management and perpetuation of the enterprise itself.

A skill, on the other hand, is something you can take with you wherever you go. A few tools, maybe, and you’re in business. (When it comes to being an editor, all I need is a pencil. When it comes to being a bike mechanic, the few wrenches I keep in a kit bag on my bike and I’m off!) It is not dependent on the enterprise, or on the goodwill of anyone but paying customers. And not even that, if they are willing to pay for what you can do regardless of how cranky you are.

In fact, I will go so far as to say that skills are one of the handful of things that make us truly human, that make us different from the animals with which we share the world. That’s important, very important, because nearly everything about the organized, industrialized and managerialized world we live in tries hard to deny us our humanity — school, work, media, politics, even the denatured communities too many of us live in. Take skills away from people, leaving them only with empty and pointless educations useful only in the contrived systems we’ve carefully constructed to oversee the functioning of our overly complex world, and you’ve taken away the ability of human beings to fend for themselves, to take care of themselves and provide for themselves.

You’ve even taken their ability to engage in voluntary cooperation, to create real and lasting communities. And without that, you don’t really have human civilization. You have something more akin to a hive, where all know their functions and their places and none can really choose any of those things. Some labor. Some manage. And some are sacrificed, against their will and even their knowledge, for the supposed wellbeing of others.

A friend of mine, who once worked as a chemist in industry but now spends his days cataloging Arabic and Persian-language books at a major university library, shakes his head in despair at how thoroughly American industry is being “deskilled”; that is, as production has moved overseas, the skills associated with actually making stuff, whether it is auto parts, consumer electronics, or basic and finished chemicals disappear from our society. Those were hard-won skills, and not easily replaced.

Combine that with the de-industrialization of the country that Paul Craig Roberts has described so well, and you have the horrifying sight of a whole industrial-age, national population being thoroughly deprived of skills and knowledge. Tens of millions — possibly hundreds of millions — of people who do not know how to make or do anything. I am not denying that there are significant advantages to free and open trade. But while all human societies have traded, all have produced too. In fact, throughout human history, people have not just been consumers of someone else’s goods, but producers of their own as well.

It seems a given to me that few human societies, especially one of 300 million people, can survive long when so many of its members are incapable and incompetent.

I don’t believe for a minute it is possible to reverse this on a macro level. Certainly not through politics, since political action — subsidies for overseas investment and social policies that viewed actual production of actual stuff as somehow icky and beneath us — got us here in the first place. Politicians of all stripes seem to think that only massive subsidies, government programs and government agencies are capable of “providing jobs” — a state of affairs that would probably not be necessary had so much deliberate government effort been put into exporting manufacturing, production, skills and know-how to begin with.

It is too late, I think, to save this society and this economy from the poverty and deprivation that is slowly overtaking us and the misery and tyranny that will eventually engulf us because of all this.

But it is not too late to save yourself or your family and the communities we’re going to have to build in the future. It is not too late stand up and become a human being, not a human resource, and learn to do something. I fix and build bicycles; it may not be much but it has given me the confidence to know that I can, with my own hands, make things that will carry loads, transport people long distances and do that reasonably well. There are dozens, possibly hundreds of other skills, that we have lost and will have to slowly and painfully relearn in the future. I, for one, would like to learn to weld steel, so maybe I could someday actually fix or even build bicycle frames. And maybe someone, somewhere, would be willing to teach me.

(I may soon find out how good a bicycle mechanic I really am, since a kind acquaintance at church is contemplating giving me or selling me the old bicycles that she and her late husband rode 30 years ago and that have been gathering dust, cobwebs and rust in her garage. There is a brisk market for used bikes these days, and Bennett suggested someone committed to selling used bikes might be able to make a pretty good living. So, if I get those bikes, can I fix them up and sell them for a gain?)

Acquire those skills the old-fashioned way, by learning from someone who knows how or by striking out on your own and teaching yourself. It’s scary at first, but it can be done. Then teach those things to others who are willing to learn.

It’s how people create civilizations. And it’s how, in bits and pieces, we’ll save ours.

Charles H. Featherstone [send him mail] is a Washington, D.C.-based journalist specializing in energy, the Middle East, and Islam. He lives with his wife Jennifer in Alexandria, Virginia.