All three kids are coughing today, which meant no church for us; coupled with their long sleeps engendered by the time change, this left me with an unexpected chunk of unscheduled time this morning. I decided to pull out my sewing machine. We bought new curtains for our dining room and den — oh, months and months ago, maybe more than a year at this point. They look great but are far too long, and have spent that time haphazardly pinned up or dragging on the ground, and occasionally stepped- or sat-upon by the small set. I had already figured out the amount I needed to trim some weeks ago, so all I had to do was measure, cut, and hem.
Out came this beauty:
I think I’ve blogged about my machine before: a Singer 403A, passed down by my grandmother, that’s about the same age as my mom. I’ve had to replace a few small plastic parts, but it runs extremely well (especially now that I’ve corrected the small, crucial, error I had been making while threading it). Since I needed room for all of the curtain fabric, I hauled it downstairs to the dining room table — stopping in the bathroom on the way, out of curiosity, to weigh it. Eighteen pounds! Without the case at hand, I had to cradle it closely, like wearing 2-3 newborn babies in a sling at once.
I find great pleasure these days in the thing-ness of things, especially mechanical things. Using this machine is such a tactile experience: the weight and texture of the fabric, the smell of hot steel and machine oil, all the satisfying whirrs and snicks and thunks of the moving parts, the whisper of the thread unspooling. I tell the machine what it must do by manipulating a series of levers and knobs. To make it go very slowly, I use my hand to turn a wheel. To make it go quickly, I press a pedal with my foot. If I want to switch to a zig-zag or scallop stitch, I open up the top and insert a little disc that changes the movement of the mechanisms below. So satisfying!
It’s satisfying in part just because I think mechanical things are clever and cool (don’t even get me started on doorknobs). But anything that engages our bodies and our senses also offers a refreshing contrast to the way that so much of our work and pleasure is mediated to us via screens — and even when that work is good and useful, often it still only engages our bodies to the extent of giving us backaches and carpal tunnel syndrome. The screen provides a way of being in and interacting with the world that leaves me, on the whole, deeply ambivalent.
I’ve just finished reading Anna Wiener’s Uncanny Valley, a memoir detailing her time working in Silicon Valley — itself a profoundly ambivalent narrative. Wiener chronicles techbro culture from the inside, from a position that’s both critical and complicit, and there’s a lot to unpack inside — but in light of this morning’s activities I was forcefully struck by this passage:
I sometimes wondered whether there was a unique psychic burden shared by people who worked in technology, specifically those of us building and supporting software that existed only in the cloud. The abstractions of knowledge work were well documented, but this felt new. It was not just the cognitive dissonance of how lucrative and powerful tech companies had become, when their tools did not physically exist, but that all software was vulnerable, at any time, to erasure. Engineers could spend years writing programs only to have them updated, rewritten, and replaced. […]
My own psychic burden was that I could command a six-figure salary, yet I did not know how to do anything. Whatever I learned to do in my late twenties, I learned from online tutorials: how to remove mold from a windowsill; slow-cook fish; straighten a cowlick; self-administer a breast exam. Whenever I wrenched a piece of self-assembly furniture into place, or reinforced a loose button, I experienced an unfamiliar and antiquated type of satisfaction. I went so far as to buy a sewing machine, like I was looking for ways to shame myself.
I wasn’t alone. Half the programmers I knew between the ages of twenty-two and forty, mostly men, were discovering that their fingers were multipurpose. “It feels so good to do something with my hands,” they said, before launching into monologues about woodworking, or home-brewing or baking sourdough. […]
I envied Ian [a roboticist], who was trained to think in terms of hardware, the embodied world. He stared at a computer all day, too, but the laws of physics still applied. His relationship to the internet was different from mine: he didn’t have accounts on any of the social networks, was unfamiliar with memes and unattuned to the minutiae of other people’s lives. He didn’t stand up at the end of the day and think, as I did: Oh, right—a body.Anna Wiener, Uncanny Valley, pp. 218-9.
Note the adjectives modifying “satisfaction” there: unfamiliar, antiquated. Obsolete. And that is the techbro mindset in a nutshell, maybe: the work of the body outmoded; the body itself an obstacle until hacked and gamified; the solution, to everything, more technology. (And here is Wiener’s ambivalence on display, as it often is in Uncanny Valley. Even as she recognizes the psychic hazards of Silicon Valley’s bodiless work to create a bodiless world, she is still at least partially under its spell.) But I would suggest that the satisfaction that she felt in putting together furniture or reinforcing buttons, and the joyous bemusement of her programmer coworkers discovering physical hobbies, in fact points to the great truth that our bodies are not obsolete. They matter, in fact, very much—the things we (can) do with them matter, and our satisfaction in using them is natural and appropriate.
Anna Wiener bought a sewing machine to shame herself. She might do better just to sew some curtains.