Most people have a number of very separate careers through their lives. I have, I started off life as an aircraft mechanic, which led to a fairly logical step of working on racecars before I finally got round to going to college.
Today I spend most of my working day sitting in a cube and working on a computer or going to meetings. A significant amount of the time it’s not the most stimulating job in the world, but I have been lucky to work for some exceptional managers.
Turning up the right conference room with a working pen is considered a successful day by some.
After a long day of sitting on my arse I like to do something that makes me feel I’ve contributed or achieved something during the day. If not at work, then at home is a great substitution.
Messing around with the car, setting the gears on my bike or perhaps a little DIY is a little like therapy after a day in cubeville. I’m convinced a little manual labour, especially something that needs a little thought or precision, stimulates something deep down in the reptilian-man brain.
Take the last few months; I finally finished rebuilding the back end of my Miata. It got backed into by an SUV a little while ago, the rear end, the diff mount and rear suspension got tweaked rather badly. It turned out to be a bigger job than I expected, in total almost two hundred hours to strip, repair, rebuild and finally tweak the rear end straight. As big a pain in the arse as the job was, working with my hands is rather theaputic.
Today it all paid off when not only did the Miata turn a wheel for the first time in 5 months, but drove in a straight line down the road with none of the clunking from the back end. Rather pleased with all the hard work.
I love mechanical things, stuff I can study or look at and see how it works. Understand the principals and how the parts interact to make it all go. The cam followers or the rear diff on the Miata, Calculating how to trim the laminate flooring to make it all fit around a series of 45 degree corners in a room where nothing is square.
I love my digital camera, I can’t conceive of using a film camera any more, it’s the poster child for instant gratification. But I can’t take it apart and see how it works. Many years ago a friend game me an Olympus manual SLR camera that he broke. I stripped it down, fixed the winder mechanism and I had a perfectly functioning camera.
However, should my digital camera break, all I’m going to be able to do is bang it a couple of times to see if percussive maintenance is going to work, check the batteries and if it’s still not working then throw it away. There is nothing I can fix or play with to get it working again.
Then there is DIY, a friend is so incompetent around the house that he called someone to install a few shelves. This as embarrassing to males in general, not just him.
How long does it take to drill a few holes, install some plugs and screw everything together? 10 or 15 minutes tops, yet he calls in a guy to do it for him.
I’m buying him “Sex in the City – Series 1” for Christmas, it seems fitting for someone that emasculated.
He sees a big job and does not have the knowledge to break it down into the required steps (this is even worse, because he’s a manufacturing engineer in real life) to make the job more manageable.
I grew up generally fiddling and playing with mechanical things. I get it from both dad and granddad, neither would dream of paying someone to do anything for them short of putting a new roof on the house. Both worked in different ways with their hands and brains. By the time I was 12 or 13 I knew what all the tools in dads garage or my grandfathers shed did, and how to use them. By 15 my uncle had shown me how to weld and granddad taught me how to change a head gasket on an Austin A-series engine (a skill that was much used on my Allegro a few years later), set the timing and set up the rockers on an OHV engine.
Growing up this was normal stuff, I did not consider it to be anything special, but I now know it’s maybe a little unusual. Both my brother and I learned trades when we left school, he became an electrician and I ended up with my aircraft mechanics licenses.
I get that now things have changed and that Britain does not actually make much now. In the 80′s at Bishop Reindorp School, I along with every other boy did four years of Craft Design Technology. It consisted of some woodwork, metalwork, technical drawing and learning how to make things from plastic. All great practical skills to have.
The idea of making stuff with your hands seemed normal, in part because when I grew up the UK still had a significant manufacturing base, My dad worked with his hands, as did most of my friends fathers, it’s just what they did. The manufacturing industry has shrunk so much over the last generation. With that reduction (in 1970 manufacturing employed 28% of the workforce, today it’s 9%) the need for, and teaching of the skills like metalworking and reading engineering drawings, skills that’s needed to make stuff has followed the same trend down.
And that’s rather sad. Yes I’ve had my failures, I’ve broken engines, sent myself flying across one of mums friends kitchens because when I discovered that I’d not switched off the power before installing a new light fixture. But I had a go at it. I used my experience to break a seeming complex task down into a number of steps and carefully worked along them. Occasionally I find a gap in my knowledge and learn the hard way (or hit the floor in a hard way).
And next time I installed a light fixture, that hard won experience taught me to switch off power at the breaker coming into the house…