Bodily work

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.

The things we remember

At the K-8 school I attended as a child, lunchrooms were provided for the younger grades, but grades seven and eight were given off-campus lunch privileges and told to go figure it out on our own. (Were we allowed to use the lunchroom if it rained? I don’t remember; I’m sure we felt ourselves too cool to do so in any case.) My friend group rotated through a series of haunts: two local parks, one of which had a wonderful ravine where we hung a rope swing and occasionally lost our shoes in the mud; the two street corners right by the school, where the variety stores sold pizza slices and penny candy; a local grocery store with a small restaurant inside; and the homes of friends who lived near the school, if their parents would tolerate it. (Also if they didn’t tolerate it, just with more sneaking.)

In grade eight, we discovered the public library.

Not that any of us were unfamiliar with the concept, or even with that particular branch, which was about a ten minute walk from school. I passed it twice a day. But I don’t think any of us had realised that it was open during school hours. This branch’s children’s section took up nearly the entire basement of the building. It had a few computers, and orange carpet, and best of all, a secluded nook with low tables and chairs, where we chewed through our illicit sandwiches and everything the middle grade shelves had to offer: Archie comics, R. L. Stine, Judy Bloom, Lois Lowry, V. C. Andrews… Somewhere along the line, one of us (who?) was the first to discover Diane Duane.

(Aside: I have always been enchanted by the wonderful symmetry of that name. In grade two we used to sneak off to the girls’ bathroom, turn off the lights, and scare ourselves silly chanting BloodyMary BloodyMary BloodyMary into the mirror. Could I summon something with a well-timed DianeDuane DianeDuane DianeDuane? Perhaps I could, in the age of googling oneself. Diane, are you reading this? Sorry for being so weird! End of aside.)

I read The Book of Night with Moon, which concerns a group of wizard cats in NYC; I know this because I cheerfully plagiarized it in a short story I wrote that year. And I remember that story chiefly because my mother used it as an occasion to demonstrate how to use a semicolon to separate place names in a list. Thanks, Mom! What the plot of the book is I couldn’t tell you. Nor could I have given you any details about her Young Wizards series of books, which I assumed I hadn’t read when I started the first one earlier this month. But! I must have read them, because I chanced across this passage in Deep Wizardry (the second book in the series) and immediately recognized it:

I didn’t remember anything about the main characters, the thrust of the plot, the way magic works, or any of the books’ Very Exciting Adventury Stuff: becoming whales, going to Mars, battling the Lone Power in an alternate universe, fighting alongside and against various figures from Irish mythology, etc. etc. etc. None of that stuck. But this specific image, of learning to walk on the ocean — and, later, a short note on how tiring it was, because you had to use muscles that aren’t involved in walking on flat surfaces — for whatever reason, this is the nugget my brain decided to keep. Why? Beats me. But I’m delighted it did, and delighted for the memories it unlocked of those dusty lunch breaks in the far corner of the children’s library, sneaking chips and apples from our bags under the table, and passing around the books that turned out to be shaping us.

Back to reno-land

This house, man.

Is it normal that all of our home renovation projects begin completely accidentally? Twoish years ago, the innocent question of “why is this bathroom fan so loud?” led, step by inevitable step, to a complete gut and rebuild of our entire second floor. You know, as can happen. And this round also began with a simple question, to wit, “how are those ants getting into the den?”

Oh, the ants. We should have known something was up when we moved in and found all of the cans of ant poison and insecticides that the previous owner had left behind in a closet for us. And after three years of setting out bait traps and caulking entry points, we have more or less emerged the victors in this particular struggle. Except. Last summer I kept finding ants in the den, and their trail ran off under a side table and then under the carpet and then… where? Armed with my trusty caulking gun and a foolhardy sense of optimism, I moved some furniture, carefully popped some quarter-round out from under the sliding door, pulled up the carpet and found… the hole.


I mean, it certainly explained how the ants were getting in. Compared to their usual cracks and crannies, this was a super-highway. A hidden, horrible, water-damaged, rotting super-highway. Hurrah.

Long story short, we finally have contractors in this week to put things right. This has involved taking out all of the carpet (good riddance), replacing the sliding door, rebuilding the damaged portion of the floor (pictured more fully below), fixing part of the deck to prevent further water problems, building a new crawlspace access hatch in the linen closet, and finally laying down a completely new floor. We did the carpet removal ourselves; the rest, so far, has gone surprisingly quickly. They’ll finish tomorrow, unless I’ve just jinxed it by writing that down.

I will say that I can think of warmer ways to spend a February day. But we’ve got a lovely new door in now, and the floor is half laid, and only one child has slipped on the sawdust and hit her ribs on a power tool, so things are generally looking up.

And the ants? I trust that getting everything shipshape in this room will finally end the war. But I am also reminded of a children’s book we own, by Robert Quackenbush, called Henry’s Awful Mistake. Henry, an anthromorphic duck, has asked his girlfriend Clara over for dinner, and as he’s in the middle of cooking it, he spots an ant in his kitchen. Through a series of ridiculous escalations as he tries to kill the ant, Henry’s house is eventually washed away in a flood (!). At the end of the book, Henry is in his new house, and Clara is finally coming over for dinner, when he looks over his shoulder and spies… an ant in his living room. Whereupon Henry makes his wisest decision in the entire book:

Nothing good happens on facebook

Of this I am convinced.

Longtime readers may remember a series of posts I wrote in 2018 — egad, it’s been five years already? — about my growing discomfort with social media and eventual decision to delete my facebook account entirely:

Old news, right? So why am I harping on this again now? It’s because about two years ago… I got sucked back in. I really did. In some ways I still can’t believe it, but there it is.

The trouble is that even though it seems that not especially many people actually like using the site, it’s seen as necessary because everyone else is still using it, which perpetuates the cycle of we’re here because we’re here, because we’re here, because we’re here… The pattern help resources for a tricky blanket I was making? On facebook. The parent association for Anselm and Perpetua’s school? On facebook. Local contractors? On facebook. The neighbourhood association? On facebook. The easiest way to find new library programming? On facebook. And because I wanted to be involved and in contact and at least a marginally informed local citizen, despite my misgivings, I went back. Now, it wasn’t a full embrace of the site. I used a fake name and had no friends. But still. There I was all the same.

For a while it was ok, although I noticed some changes since I had left in 2018, namely that it took about five too many clicks to get to my groups from the home page and that my feed was absolutely stuffed with ads impervious to any ad blocker I installed. But the more I used it, the more it felt like everything had been purposely designed to irritate. Trying to re-find a specific post you glimpsed in your feed? Irritating. Trying to force a group page to display posts chronologically instead of by recent engagement? Irritating. Having little to no control over the content that crosses your screen? Irritating. Reading a feed that’s 1/3 impossible-to-remove ads? Supremely irritating. I remember when facebook’s UX/UI was a lot friendlier (you know, back when I was walking to school uphill both ways). And then there’s the actual content I was seeing — there are some downsides to seeing what your neighbours think is worth arguing about with strangers[1] — and the whole thing put together meant that whenever I checked the site, I would log off in a worse mood than the one I started with.

A few days ago I came across a recent piece by Cory Doctorow, writing for Wired, which is ostensibly about TikTok but actually about how internet platforms die, a process he refers to as “enshittification.” Here’s the premise:

HERE IS HOW platforms die: First, they are good to their users; then they abuse their users to make things better for their business customers; finally, they abuse those business customers to claw back all the value for themselves. Then, they die.

When I read his piece, it was like a gong rang somewhere back in my brain. Yes — this is exactly what has happened and is happening with facebook, over and above all the issues I had with it the first time I quit. It’s made things unpleasant for regular users — from what I understand it’s pretty bad for advertisers as well — and it’s not going to get better. It sucks now, and it’s going to keep sucking until it collapses. So why am I sticking around for that?

I thought about it a little more and realised that everything I was going to facebook for, I could get somewhere else. It was just functioning as an aggregator, and not even a good one! If I need crochet pattern help, I can go to reddit or ravelry. My kids’ school sends out announcements through their learning management system. I can read news stories at the source. I can make a habit of checking the library calendar from time to time. I’d already reconciled myself to things like missing out on friends’ baby pictures, but with the way the newsfeed works these days, I probably would have missed them anyway. I keep in touch with people via email, or text, or messaging apps, or (believe it or not) actual phone calls. There is literally no reason for me to keep using facebook, and a lot of good ones not to.

So I deleted my account. Again. And this time — I mean it.

[1]All I’m saying is that the rail line has been here since 1890, so if you don’t like hearing train whistles or engines, maybe don’t buy a house next to them. Thanks for coming to my TED talk.