We’ve been in the house for a bit over a week now, and are slowly figuring out how to inhabit it. Or maybe how it wants to be inhabited.
This is the second house we’ve built for ourselves, and I suspect it will be the last. But then, I thought that about the first house, so who knows. Truth is, I loved building this house. I mean, I freakin’ loved it. Way more than the first, and I had a pretty good time with that one. In part, I think it’s because this time around we had a much stronger sense of what we wanted; our vision was clearer and more established. Our skills are stronger, too, and that’s no small thing. Plus, we had amazing help. I know I wouldn’t have loved building this place half as much without that help. I guess what I’m saying is that I could actually imagine building another house, crazy as that sounds. The moving part I could do without, but another house? Absolutely.
Early on, we decided we wanted to do all the stuff we hired out on our old place. For instance, we installed the septic system. We developed the spring we found up in the woods, bubbling up from the base of a ledge-y outcropping. We ran the power and phone lines. And so on. Partly, we did these things because doing them saved us a lot of money. But we also did them because we wanted to better understand how these systems worked, if only so we’d know better how to fix them should they fail.
One of the unanticipated benefits of doing this work ourselves is that I now harbor very specific memories. For instance, when I open the tap at our kitchen faucet, I can picture the water running through the pipe my friend Jimmy and I unrolled into the four-foot-deep trench he dug with his excavator. It was a miserable day, raining like all get out, not just cats and dogs but lions and friggin’ wolves, maybe 45 degrees, and I was clambering in and out of the trench, head-to-toe with mud. Not quite shivering, but close, my hands all pruned up and tingly-cold. The roll of pipe was 1,000-feet long, and heavy as fuck, and it was all I could do to keep the damn thing turning. Jimmy spelled me for a bit, and because he is stronger and generally tougher than me, I was glad to see how hard he had to work for it, too.
Not long ago I was talking to one of my magazine editors on the phone. He lives in NYC, where most magazine editors live, and he expressed surprise that we were building our own place. “I didn’t think anyone did that anymore,” is what he said. I thought about it for a minute, and realized I couldn’t think of anyone we know who hasn’t built their own house, isn’t currently building their own house, or doesn’t plan to someday build their own house. Ok, so this is an exaggeration – of course we know people who haven’t built and have no plans to – but it’s not really that far off. Around here, it’s just sort of what you do, at least among the sort of riff-raff we hang with.
I sure don’t think everyone should build their own house, if only because I have a lot of friends in the building trades and I’d hate to see them out of work. But I do think everyone should have at least some idea of how to build a house, even if it’s only to understand the basic fundamentals of it all – how to square up a wall, frame a window opening, set a rafter, use a circular saw. Heck, you could teach this stuff in a week, maybe even less.
It seems to me as if somewhere along the way we decided our children didn’t actually need to learn the skills that are most essential to their survival. In one of his books, Daniel Quinn makes the point that even from the most revered institutions of higher learning in this nation, we are graduating helpless human beings who could no sooner put a roof over their heads than transplant their own heart. Could no sooner grow a carrot or slaughter a hog than fly to Mars, no sooner doctor their own flesh wound or make their own medicine than swim to the bottom of the ocean. Quinn’s larger point is that the loss of these fundamental life skills from our culture is in essence a form of oppression, for it only ensures our continued dependence on the industrialized economy.
I’m not sure where the proper balance lies – I mean, I can put a roof over my head, and I still can’t transplant my own heart, and if I ever do need a heart transplant, I sure as hell want the person on the other side of the scalpel to have graduated from one of those educations of higher learning where they didn’t learn a bloody damn thing ‘cept how to swap out funked-up tickers.
Still, I think Quinn’s right, and it’s not hard to see that how the scales are tipping ever more in the direction of dependence (it’s probably worth differentiating between healthy dependence on one’s family and community, and an unhealthy dependence on institutions that see solely through the lens of money). As I mentioned a while back , American teens now spend an average of nine hours each day on an electronic device, in addition to whatever time spent in school. This is not exactly a recipe for reclaiming essential life skills, though I’m sure there’ll be some swell apps to come of it.
As so happens in this space, I’ve written myself into a bit of a corner, with no real conclusion. So here’s what I’ll do: I’ll leave you with this song, from the concert we saw a few weeks back (skip ahead to 1:30 if you want to miss the banter). It’s about a house. And it’s a real beauty.