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Getting Your Hands Dirty

A few basic skills could help you survive the apocalypse — and reconnect to the real world
By NINA MACLAUGHLIN  |  October 13, 2010

It's easy to get apocalyptic. Worst case scenarios can be conjured in a few broad strokes — oil crisis, poisoned reservoir, terrorists murder the Internet. We could go from gchat yammering and retweetage to having our bank accounts drained and our networks fried faster than you can say Mark Zuckerberg.

There are so many arguments to be made for acquiring basic skills with your hands. Within the context of unstable futures and the possibility of a societal collapse, it's a no-brainer. When there's no oil, you're going to need to know how to fix your bike. When the supermarket shelves are bare, it's going to help to know how to grow green beans and slaughter yourself a chicken. Being comfortable with a hammer and a drill, understanding what 16-on-center is all about — these are things that will come in handy when the world as you know it stands on the threshold of implosion. After all, a few extra canned goods won't help much when the grid is gone.

But sometimes even modern life seems apocalyptic enough. Our culture can be a kind of slow-moving catastrophe: when everything's downloadable and disposable, we get disconnected from the world around us. We lack an understanding of the way things work. Matthew B. Crawford makes a lucid case for craftsmanship in his book Shop Class as Soulcraft. The think-tanker turned motorcycle mechanic talks about the trades in a practical way, but also in a philosophical way: being able to use your hands adds meaning to your life. "Real knowledge arises through confrontations with real things," he writes.

Herein, a few suggestions on how to acquire competence with your hands, and how to gain the skills and satisfaction involved in confronting the real.

Making it right
"Have you ever tied your shoes without looking?" asks Miguel Gómez-Ibáñez, president of the North Bennet Street School, a place that offers training in traditional trades and fine craftsmanship. "Your hands know what they're doing — they start to be more of your brain than you think."

Established in 1885, North Bennet Street runs fulltime professional programs as well as classes and workshops in carpentry, cabinet and furniture making, locksmithing, bookbinding, violin making, jewelry making and repair, and restoration carpentry. (There's an open house on November 5-6.)

The school is finding that its student body is getting younger, Gómez-Ibáñez says; 10 years ago, mid- to late-30s was the norm. But it's been dropping. "It means a lot more people are choosing to learn to work with their hands from the get-go. It means they're finding their calling earlier."

Matt Wajda, who runs River City Furnituremaking, a custom furniture building company in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, is a graduate of North Bennet Street as well as an instructor there. "My friends who wear suits for money are losing their jobs or under threat of it. Maybe for the first time in a while, the trades are being thought of as a viable, satisfying career."

He talks about the "65-degree falls days when you're wearing jeans and a T-shirt and there's nine of you out there framing a house and everyone's moving and no one's talking and everyone's firing on 10 cylinders, no motion wasted. You're witnessing a dance," he says. He talks about the rawness of it, and the pride involved.

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