If you build it…

I have been doing less writing and more carpentry lately as we rushed to enclose the workshop/office before snow flies. Unfortunately, winter arrived earlier than expected so much of the work over the past three weeks was done with temperatures in the teens. Here are some pictures showing the sequences of construction and progress to date.

The 26 by 34 foot structure will house an office on the top floor and a woodworking shop on the lower level. I have done most of it myself (with the help of YouTube) except for pouring the concrete floor, setting the trusses and putting on the roof. Al, my 76 year old handy-man friend, also helped with the      wiring/electricity and some of the heavy work, and my brother-in-law Terry and Becky helped me out when I needed a second set of hands. I also rented a lift that extended 42 feet, which was a big assist when doing the soffit, fascia and other high-wire acts.

The long hours working alone gave me lots of time to think and to understand the satisfaction of a hard day’s labor, which I really had not done in a long time. Although I am an archaeologist and have dug my share of holes, for most of my career I directed projects and told other people where to dig rather than getting too physically involved. As a result, this project has given me a chance to reconnect with unfamiliar parts of my body (sometimes unhappily) but also appreciate the value of physical labor.

In our urban world and often-sedentary careers, we try to replicate or replace the benefits of hard work by going to a spin class or using some other tortuous device at a workout center for 50 minutes or so. Although I did this for years and there was a “high” and various other benefits for this hard work substitute, the activity was sort of like kissing your sister. Real physical labor combines the benefits of a long workout with the feeling of accomplishment—you have created something. Nick Offerman, the great modern day philosopher (not to mention television star and expert woodworker) often encourages people to make things with their hands (2016 Good Clean Fun). He suggests that puzzling out how to make something brings great satisfaction as it requires a coordination of both our brain and hands. I would add that combining physical labor to this equation adds to the fun.

While building stairs to the second floor (a real head scratcher, by the way), I probably did 200 squats, dozens of dead lifts and contortions under load, which would be the equivalent of an extreme full body workout under the direction of a personal trainer. The difference is, after the gym workout I walked out to my cold car. When I finished the steps, I was able to triumphantly ascend to the second floor and do a happy dance, forgetting about my sore knees. In my estimation, when you combine physical labor with creativity one has a ticket to the Promised Land. Matthew Crawford (2009 Shop Class as Soulcraft) refers to something made with manual competence as “soulcraft” because making something has important symbolic value. In the parlance of Behavioral Archaeology, a theoretical school I am associated with, the steps I made are not simply a means to get to the second floor, but rather they have an important symbolic function as well. Instead of trying to convince someone of my worth on this planet with words, I can simply invite him or her to the second floor.

When you build something, you have connected with something innately and wonderfully human. We find great satisfaction in making things, perhaps because it links us with our ancestors. The first evidence that pre-modern forms of humans in Africa over 2 million years ago were doing something human-like is when we find something they made. Not everyone can build a two-story structure, but you can knit a sweater, make a table, or throw a pot. There might be less physical exertion in these activities but the joy in making something with your own hands will bring you bliss.

3 Replies to “If you build it…”

  1. Love this! A workout at the gym never gives on the same feeling as working outside even when doing something relatively unproductive…like weeding a garden! There is satisfaction in the accomplishment of something beyond the exercise. Last week I made Thanksgiving pies from scratch. My friend noted that dough-making is a lot more work than buying readymade, but further commented that it wasn’t worth the effort because no one would notice the difference. Well… I noticed, and I enjoyed the satisfaction of making as well as tasting the homemade crust.

  2. Great job Jim, I can’t wait to see pictures of the finished product. Hope you come up to Grand Island this summer to tell us all about it in person.

  3. Jim, this was a lovely post. I couldn’t agree more with your main point. We get satisfaction from creative activities: in the parlance of Behavioral Archaeology, interacting purposefully with things (tools and materials that yield an end product). In making my pottery sculptures, not exactly aerobic exercise, I enjoy solving the engineering problems along the way. And I do benefit from standing and bending. Yes, going to the gym, which I do, is like kissing your sister–but you may know more about that than I do!

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