A House in the Sky

I broke the iPad in Utah.

Unloading the truck and not paying attention, I managed to toss the thing onto the concrete floor of Matt’s garage and it struck, corner-first, thus shattering it.

Having harangued the girls more or less relentlessly over the course of the trip to be incredibly cautious about our fragile electronic items in an effort to avoid a repeat of the “Tecate, meet MacBook” fiasco of last December, you can imagine how I felt as I processed the thousand miniature shards of iPad glass littering the concrete garage floor.

I lifted the mortally wounded iPad up, and stared at the empty spot where it had lain, the void outlined like a murder victim not by chalk, but by the crystalline detritus of the screen that powdered the ground: the very outline of guilt itself.

***

I made it as far as California without caving in and replacing the device, and the girls were remarkably patient about it, but it was overdue.

While morosely searching craigslist for a used replacement, I stumbled across a post by a fellow who charged what appeared to be a perfectly reasonable amount to fix “un-fixable” damage to phones and tablets and the like, and made an appointment to see him at his place in Santa Rosa.

We drove up on a Monday morning, and knocked on his door.

I had the girls with me as I figured it would be of genuine interest to them to see how one of these things actually gets fixed.  To me, it’s important that they understand that things can get fixed, and further, with enough patience, the person fixing things can be you.

Generations of us, likely starting with mine, have simply stopped fixing things.

My parents, the boomers, at least had their depression and war-hardened parents to goad them into maintaining and fixing their things.  But the boomers became wealthy and things became commoditized and at some inflection point, rather than attempt a repair, you simply threw out your toaster when it broke and bought a new one.

Also true of your stereo, or your TV.

Or, you haplessly left your car at the dealership because it made some “noise” that you felt vaguely uncomfortable about.

By contrast, my father was still on the cusp of self-reliance, not only perfectly happy to change the plugs and adjust the timing on our old Volvo himself, but it would have offended his basic sense of character to take the car to the dealer to do this stuff.

Indeed, my close friend Shaun, who lived just up the street from me, had parents who were off the boat migrants from postwar England.  Once ashore in Canada, his father launched into a heroic series of construction projects, building their house from the foundation up, building his own sailboat, and building a garage with a full machine shop in it, including a lathe, so he could make any parts he needed to repair their vehicles, whenever he might need them.

Shaun’s dad would have regarded an inability to do any and all of these things completely unforgivable.

Understandably, too: when your operating construct of the world is informed by the (well-founded) suspicion that the German Army might show up any second and complicate things, you learn a hell of a lot about fixing what have with what you have, because it is all that you have, and it might literally make a life or death difference for you, your family, and more broadly, your country.

But we, the modern we, have been softened by the beguiling embrace of the long consumer paradise in place since that time, and we don’t fix things any more.  More insidiously I think, our basic curiosity about how things work in the first place has become dulled because of this.

After all, you have to be pretty motivated to want to fix your stereo amplifier when the good people at Best Buy will sell you a new one with 0% financing for the next 18 months and deliver it for free.

So in my mind, the reasons for this decline are thus pretty straightforward: most things are generally cheap and readily available, and the cycle of failure and replacement becomes a norm.

I might also argue that things are designed poorly enough that we have been conditioned to expect them to fail (and accept that failure) when, honestly, they shouldn’t.

Our high end dishwasher back in Brooklyn is a fantastic example: all the buttons on this silent, stainless steel cube are touch-sensitive electronic pads that are in turn controlled by a single electronic unit that operates the whole dishwasher.

If your dishwasher buttons stopped working, and you were to unscrew the door and inspect it, the unit would reveal itself as not waterproofed or even sealed against moisture in any meaningful way.

Given that a dishwasher is a gigantic heated box of water and steam, it is only a matter of time before this unsealed unit becomes damaged by moisture and your dishwasher will no longer function thanks to this porous little lump of plastic failing.

If you call the manufacturer to enforce your warranty, they will respond that they will happily replace the $250 part for free, but only after a licensed technician has determined whether or not the control unit is, in fact, not working and needs replacement.

You, of course, have to pay the licensed technician to make this determination, but the wait is three weeks and the cost for him to make the inspection is… $250.

There is a longer story here that involves many angry phone calls on my part but it is a racket, certainly, and hard not to be cynical when you complain about the time it will take to get the technician out to inspect the unit and the company representative shamelessly asks if you have contemplated replacing your “old” (less than three years old, mind you) dishwasher with one of their newer ones, which are available for guaranteed three day delivery and include free installation.

***

The double tyranny of never bothering to fix anything is that you fail to learn how things work, and it becomes self-reinforcing.  You teach yourself that you can’t do it.

On this trip of ours, however, one lesson imparted time and again by the exigencies of overland travel in remote areas is the following tripartite:

  1. things break, and
  2. those things might be important, and
  3. the only person who can be relied on to fix them is yourself

It could be your coffee press, or it could be your suspension, but the failure of either can represent a sobering turn of events in the backcountry.

Ever change out a snapped rear shock absorber on a beach in Mexico?

You know what?  Me neither, until this trip.

Bend the (poorly-designed) pin that engages the clutch on your winch, did you?

Take a deep breath, because you and your friend, having never disassembled a winch before and not really knowing how they work, are going to disassemble a winch, learn how it works, and hack a solution that keeps the clutch permanently engaged so at least you can use the thing in an emergency.

A disassembled winch, after all, is arguably nothing more than Lego for adults.

***

The second derivation of re-learning how to fix things is that you need to understand the problem you’re actually solving for.

Ashek and I, for example, pulled my winch apart and spent a couple hours assembling and dis-assembling the thing, trying to get this absurd little pin to seat properly in its detent so the clutch could be engaged.

Here, again, was an inexcusable design flaw: the two of us found ourselves operating on a nine thousand pound winch rendered completely inoperative by a corroded spring (the likes of which you see in cheap ball point pens) and a metal pin barely large enough in diameter to intimidate a paper clip.

And we couldn’t make the damn thing work.

Finally, it dawned on us that we didn’t actually need the clutch engagement mechanism to work.

All we really needed was for the winch itself to pull, and so if we simply hacked the thing so that it was always engaged that would be a good result.

Once this dawned on us, two beers, a cordless drill and some safety wire later, the winch “worked” again (although I would counsel fellow overlanders to avoid this particular brand given how regrettably familiar I am with its shoddy internals).

And for the past year, the girls have watched things break, and watched me sigh deeply, and then try to figure out how to get them fixed.

Sometimes they’re just glancingly interested, and sometimes they really get engaged and want to help, but to me it is valuable that a part of their mental landscape when it comes to problem-solving is that, regardless of your expertise (or lack thereof), to not be daunted when things break, and instead start to puzzle through solutions, which may have you completely rethinking the nature of the problem you have in the first place.

***

When I was much younger, either by accident or design, my Mom left a copy of Edward De Bono’s book “Lateral Thinking” sitting out and I picked it up and began to read, curious to see what it was even about.

It fascinated me – here was a book about thinking itself, which I had previously assumed wasn’t so much a trainable skill as it was some kind of unknowable primitive instinct.

There was an example of problem-solving in the book that completely struck me then and I still remember it, though I am sure I my recollection is imperfect:

A farmer owes a significant debt to his scheming neighbor, who offers to forgive it on the condition that the farmer offer his daughter’s hand in marriage.

The guy is a creep, and she doesn’t want to marry him, but her father can’t afford to repay the debts, so things are looking pretty grim.

The creepy, scheming neighbor offers to let the fates decide.

There are a lot of small black and white stones in the field they’re standing in.  He proposes to put a white stone and a black stone into a bag, and allow the girl to reach into the bag and chose one.

If she picks the white stone, he will forgive the debt and she will not have to marry him.

If she picks the black one, she will have to marry the creep.

If she refuses to play the game altogether, the creep seizes her father’s farm and throws him in jail.

She agrees, naturally, to the game given her lack of a real choice, but to her horror sees the creep reach down to the ground and pick two black stones and drop them into the bag before holding it out to her and saying, “pick”.

What on earth should she do?

Well, this clever girl reaches in and picks a stone, and then drops it on the ground “by accident”.

Then she looks at the creep and says “Whoops, I dropped the stone, but we will know which one I picked by looking in the bag and finding out which one I didn’t.”

Of course, the other black stone is in the bag and she avoids marrying the creep and her father’s debt is forgiven.

The idea that abandoning logical thought, or more accurately, linear thought, can lead to unexpected but valuable and desired outcomes is remarkable, and one I often to have to force myself to re-learn.

Watching the girls for this past year, it is clear to me that kids think this way instinctively and we, sadly, do our level best to train it out of them.

Do we expect that the despotism of standardized curricula and standardized tests, administered to children at younger and younger ages, can produce anything but standardized thinking?

Some have thought about this much more rigorously than I have, but we spend a lot of time, culturally, professing enormous fealty to the value of the entrepreneur, the innovator, the visionary, and yet we do everything we can to diminish these capacities in our own children, even though they are there at birth, tucked away in some marvelous, unknowable corner of their minds.

***

We were on a beautiful beach in Oregon, a cove beside a waterfall, and I pointed at the cliffs, the sand, the thick stand of trees, the towering rock islands just off the shore, and I turned to Leonie and said “If you could build a house anywhere here you wanted, where would it be?”

Leonie thought about that for a minute, and I wondered if she would chose one of the islands, or maybe the cliffs so she could have a good view.

Her answer?

“I would build a house in the sky, Dad.  I think that would be incredible.”

It would never have occurred to me to answer the question that way, as it would never have occurred to me that “the sky” was even a potential answer in the first place.  My eight year old had just completely out-thought me, seeing an option that I hadn’t even considered, and to top it off, she was right – what would be more incredible than a house in the sky?

***

Back to present-day Santa Rosa.

There stood Leonie, and Sylvie, and I, waiting in the foyer of the iPad doctor’s office, and he presented himself to us, and after a quick but practiced examination very reassuringly explained that he could fix our sad little machine.

In almost the same breath he looked at the girls and said he felt his house wasn’t exactly kid friendly, and further, he was in fact a member of the No Kids movement.

My eyebrows popped up and I absorbed, quietly and incredulously, this somewhat awkward disclosure and then decided, fair enough, we’re off, and simply asked him how long he figured the repair would take.

He would need a couple hours from beginning to end, and so we herded the girls back out of the door and went searching for ice cream.

***

While we waited out the repair, I thought a little more about the revelation of this no kids philosophy.

Given how quickly it came up in our very first meeting, it was likely to come up again when I went to pick up the iPad, and I wanted to at least organize my own thoughts about it.

And it did indeed come back up when I went to retrieve our newly-mended patient.

I left the girls with Val in the truck, but in the minutes remaining while the glue cured on the new screen, he felt it would be a good time to ask me why I even decided to have kids in the first place – given, of course, that the most environmentally destructive thing humans can do is reproduce, and that things are only getting worse, and resources getting more scarce, over time.

This would be his using Malthus, I suppose, as a motivational form of birth control.

I don’t know that I have ever shied from a provocative conversation in my life, and so I took a deep breath and tried to organize the hundred thoughts that simultaneously raced through my mind.

I ended up giving an answer that I thought was very straightforward, and it was some version of this:

Truthfully, I don’t know that Valerie and I thought carefully and in some protracted way about having children.  In response to some primitive, biological inclination, it occurred to us at some point that we wanted to have a child, and so we did.

Certainly, at no point did we project forward a downward arc of resource availability concluding with some kind of armageddon, and work backward to decide to protect our then hypothetical children from a bleak future by not having them in the first place.

But to derive an understanding of a life worth living from a curve that represents peak oil, or the cost of real estate, or measures of biodiversity, is oddly superficial and when distilled is, to me, in equal measure an act of pessimism combined with an act of narcissism (things only get worse, and this is known to me because I, quite remarkably, can see the future).

And it is terribly sad – a bleak way to understand the world and to conceive of human potential and the possibility for change.

I think it is a basic misunderstanding of happiness itself.

We can observe that resources are being depleted over time, and we can agree that there are meaningful issues around sustainable growth and our impact on the planet.

But does it make any sense to argue that we as humans are at a point in our history of singular, wretched inflection, where our journey from here on is some grey descent to self-condemnation?

If there was a time machine in this room and you gave me the key and said, “It’s a 50-50 bet that the world ends tomorrow, so I am giving you the opportunity to take your two young daughters back in time to any era, so that you can raise them in the golden age of your choice,” I’d have to say I would simply hand the keys back.

Because, truthfully, where would we go?

At what point in the sweep of history, from premodern times to any modern era, would we rather be?  And, broadly, when has tomorrow ever been worse than yesterday?

Away from some relatively obvious conclusions (while they would probably be game to see some dinosaurs first hand given their experience with fossils, I’m not certain I have the chops to keep them safe from the odd Allosaurus) is there any time, or any place, other than this country in the present, where it would have been demonstrably preferable to be a young girl?

I’ve read my history books, after all.

In the past five thousand years or so, my girls wouldn’t have had many opportunities to own property, to educate themselves, to work, to travel, to vote, to speak, to write, to marry the person they loved, or simply to think freely.

More recently, we could send them back to America, circa 1900 to enjoy the enlightenment of the Progressive Era, and you could certainly say that if we did there would be a lot more oil and land available to them, but what the hell does that mean next to the right to vote, to think, to participate fully in your culture?

Forget having to endure the two World Wars bracketing the Great Depression, and the decades-long anxiety of the Cold War, imagine taking your kids to a place where they would constantly be precluded from doing things because of their gender?

The girls wouldn’t be able to vote until 1920.

They could still be legally barred from practicing law in this country until 1971.

They could not have entered the Boston Marathon before 1972.

None of this has anything to do with resource consumption and availability, you’ll note, and yet all of it is, on its face, critically important for their ability to be happy as people, in life.

And so, to say that less of a particular resource or set of resources in the future will necessarily mean unhappy lives for them is, I think, a particularly narrow view of what it means to be happy.

Which is not to belittle how crucial it is that we learn to act as far, far better stewards of this planet of ours going forward.

My point is that adjudicating the future of civilization through the lens of a current perceived value of resources is a very equivocal way of imagining things.

What if, after all, they don’t need or want any of the things that you think are so valuable right now?

As one of my economics professors in college quipped, “the stone age didn’t end because we ran out of rocks.”

The thing is, there could be a future in which oil doesn’t matter to them.  In which we effect responsible stewardship for the planet.  In which we mitigate our impact on it.

It doesn’t mean there will be, of course, and I concede that is part of the 50-50 bet on the world ending tomorrow, and why it is reasonable to think about these things with a sense of urgency, and contemplate the risks that face us.

But does anyone really presume to argue that today is the day that marks the inexorable decline of civilization toward its end?  And further, because of this, that we must abandon hope, and chose self-extinction and spare our kids the future by not having them in the first place?

Not me, because to think this way is an indictment of optimism itself.  And I’m just not convinced it’s all that bleak.

Finally, after arguing against the wisdom of having children, you might feel a little bit foolish if, years from now, it is one of my girls who cures your cancer.

Who defends you from unjust laws.

Who wins the Boston Marathon.

What if it is one of my girls who conceives of and builds a thing for you that is so extraordinary that you could never have even contemplated the possibility of its existence in the first place?

What if she builds you a house in the sky?

7 thoughts

  1. Robbie

    This post brought tears to my eyes. I think it is an extremely well-written, thought-provoking piece. You should seriously consider submitting it to the New York Times.

    >

  2. Wish we’d run into you guys again as our paths criss-crossed this summer. We met you at the hot springs in Big Bend last November, where your Zofingen shirt caught my eye. We’ve crossed paths (but missed by a few days) several times this summer (Oregon, Calf Creek, and more) as we drove our partially-converted solar-camper-van Sprinter across to Seattle and back, from Philadelphia. I feel like I could have written this entire post myself, except that it wouldn’t have been quite as good! Really great reflections on several important things interwoven with a nice story. Looking forward to discovering what your book will be, whenever it gets done. I hope we can cross paths without missing you again some time in the future, and find more time to talk. One contrarian point, though: I think a house in the sky would, in reality, suck pretty badly. Energy considerations, access, safety, hanging out with neighbours, serendipitous encounters with neighbourhood cats, weather exposure … seems like a nice place for a visit, but I think it could turn out to be like a modern version of geodesic domes: such a great idea until you have to live in them. If you’ve never seen it, try to check out Mike Rowe (Dirty Jobs on TV, plus his less honest job shilling for Ford) in his testimony to Congress about blue collar jobs. I think you’ll enjoy his observations about work, fixing things and the sorts of skills we’ve come to value in modern America.

  3. Oh, one other thing while I’m babbling. Fridge magnet seen the other day: “Everyone talks about leaving a better planet for our children. How about better children for our planet?”

  4. Robbie – I loved this entry. Thanks for sharing. I sent it to my parents and they loved it too! I’m so glad that you & fan are having such an amazing adventure together, although you are missed in NYC. I’m moving to Austin in a few months and I hope to see you guys travel through there…

  5. Upon some cursory research (read: skimming Wikipedia, sorry), I’ve discovered that I am, apparently, part of the childfree movement. Didn’t even know I was joining when I chose to never have kids. One of many memberships I didn’t ask for, but what the heck, that’s life.

    That said, while I have made a choice to do a particular thing, it doesn’t automatically grant rectitude to that choice as one that satisfies the needs and desires of everyone else. It bothers me when people feel justified to question the choices of others based solely on their own moral prerogatives. It would be one thing if your choices demonstrably affected his life (such as choosing to sacrifice electronics technicians to the god or goddess of your choice), but as you stated, he has no way to know that further peopling of the planet – particularly on the small scale of two children – is going to make his grass grow any more slowly. Not to mention, if he really wants a better world, we’ll need responsible people to procreate as well as the irresponsible people who wouldn’t listen to his reasoning anyway, much less expend as much thoughtful energy on it as you have.

    Also, I can tell you that I haven’t been brought this philosophically close to “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance” for a long time. I remember greatly disliking it as a novel but undergoing quite a bit of thought realignment as a result of the content. In short, it was a fascinating manual but an abysmal story (totally subjective opinion, I know). I was raised the son of a mechanic who – to this day – cannot help but tinker with every damned thing he sees. I don’t drive a car, so my auto maintenance skills have certainly waned, but I still tend to do some of the same with most other things.

    What gets me about modern products is exactly what you said about quality. Sometime in the 1940’s or 50’s (i’m lacking exact research here) the auto industry decided to develop and perfect planned obsolescence as a business model. And it would seem that your dishwasher was designed by someone who either intentionally enacted the same insidious business practice or just continued it from everything they knew before. Every once in a while, I like to imagine what the world would be like if we weren’t so obsessed with maintaining the known jobs and industries we have and decided to build things right in the first place, then move onto other projects. Like space travel, renewable energy, or building houses in the sky.

    Thank you for this post. It was lovely, and I hope to follow you more now that I know this is here.

  6. Your writing tickles critical thinking of how I need to daily carry water and chop wood as we live so rural on the Colorado Plateau. Questions needing thoughtful/mindful reflection before action can take whole days as I am now a retired teacher man. Your visit to our home was a gift. Thank you. Pictures of dogs remain on the refrigerator. When may I read the story you began last winter?

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