Thursday, January 16, 2014

Work and The Real

I almost cried when I saw this ad. I miss it so much! Honourable physical work, using my hands and knowledge to make real things.

Last summer, I had a conversation with an American academic. I think his thing was history. I thought the guy was a prat, but I put that down to him being an academic who had failed to get religion. (Later on I found out that he thought I was a prat, so I guess fair's fair.) Anyway, as Americans and academics usually do, he opened the conversation with a personal question, "What's your background." What he meant, of course, was "Where did you go to university and what did you study." As I'd already had a glass of wine or two I decided I wasn't going to play along, and said, "I'm Anglo-Irish Canadian."

As Americans are also rarely conscious of when an English person is teasing them, he pressed on and said, "No, I meant where did you go to university and what did you study?"

Just for a change, I decided to be bull-headedly honest, and said, "I dropped out of my parents' alma mater, the University of Victoria. Mostly because, half way through my second year, I remembered suddenly that I had hated every minute of school I'd ever experienced and I couldn't think of any reason at all to be there, wasting valuable youth-time and huge amounts of money." Which was mostly true. In fact, I had, like most people of my class in my country, simply assumed that "going to university" was something you just had to do, like it or not. At one point, for some reason or other, I was suddenly aware of the fact that I had absolutely no idea what I was doing, and so quit rather than waste time continuing to do it.

Later on in that conversation, I asserted that the best educational money I ever spent was $80 on a typing course at the Y. (I went away thinking that the party had been a grand success, having had a wonderful time and sincerely thanking the hostess. My rather rude American interlocutor, I was later informed, had complained to the hostess about me and my friends after we had left and told her what a rotten time he'd had, which in British social interaction is a totally unthinkable thing to do, so I think I win. What a twit.)

Anyway, since giving up on university, I've learned that what I am is an autodidact, and, though we didn't call it that in those days, homeschooled. My education was built on the curiosity instilled by a combination of my mother's keen and wide-ranging intelligence and the will of the Holy Ghost, and fed by an early addiction to library cards. I think I got my first one when I was about four and my parents were both employed by the public library. It was the perfect babysitter, and I grew up with the smell of the stacks as the happiest and homiest smell I knew (apart from the lavender in Grandma's linen closet.)

Library cards are free, or less than 20 dollars if you want a subscription to a university library. University degrees, on the other hand, can range from $40,000 into six digits, and at the end of them, you still can't get a job because in practical terms "looking things up on Google" and "fornicating" aren't a very high-level skill set.

It reminds me of the question I once asked a class of catechism students preparing for Confirmation: "How many of you plan on going to university?" All hands but one. "OK, and how many of you have one specific driving intellectual passion or interest that you need to go to university to pursue? Like engineering or chemistry or Latin and Greek?" No hands. Ah. I see.

I ask the one kid who hadn't stuck up his hand what he planned on doing. He said, "Well, my dad is a plumber, and I looked up the starting salary of a self-employed plumber and found out that it's about $50-80 thousand a year. So I thought I'd do that." I congratulated him on being the only smart kid in the room, and told him how to get a library card at the University of Toronto.

What I most despised about the fellow at the party was his pompousness. He assumed that because he was a university professor he automatically deserved some respect. Now this might have been the case in, say, the 13th century, when ten year old schoolboys were expected to know before entering university more than most post-doctoral students know today. It is the pompousness, the arrogance of most academics that convinced me in the intervening years that my decision to quit until I knew a few more things was the right one. An academic who isn't aware of the problem in academia is part of that problem.

I was taught rhetoric formally in a series of workshops taught by Scott Klusendorf (the logic came naturally) who offered it as part of his apologetics training programme. I took his short evening class first in 1999, then in May 2001 went for a five-day weekend with a small group of other "young" people who wanted to get involved in the pro-life movement. Being taught the basics, what a logical fallacy is and how to hold your own in an argument, in our intellectually barren era makes you the equivalent of a time traveller visiting the Battle of Hastings with a gattling gun. With even rudimentary skills, you will always, always be the baddest mofo on the rhetorical block.

In fact, the times I've taught the Pro-life 101 rhetoric seminars, I've usually had to warn particularly keen students that they are being given the equivalent of intellectual superpowers: facts and the ability to string together a logically coherent argument. And they have to decide right away whether they're going to use their powers for good or evil. Usually the people who take this training (that used to be the standard foundation of all education) end up becoming rather alienated. One of the things it does it take them out of the Matrix, one they were not previously aware they were in, and they discover just how much utter rubbish and nonsense nearly everyone around them has soaked up through intellectual osmosis. It's not for the faint of heart, and like all superpowers, tends to make you a bit of a loner in the world.

(A while ago, I was listening to a pod-cast of a lecture by Alan Watts, one of the Big Names in "philosophy" for the 60s revolutionaries. I remember his book lying around the house when I was a kid. I had never read him before, and was curious. But I simply couldn't believe the utterly meaningless, contradictory, contentless piffle he was jabbering. It made me very, very angry. After you're out of the Matrix, you tend to spend a lot of time angry. It's like your kryptonite; watch out for it.)

Anyway, what's all this in aid of? Why did it pop into my head today? I was thinking about the announcement of a good friend, one of my mentors here in Rome, a priest who is shortly to leave his long-held post in the ranks and "retire" back to parish work in the US. He told me yesterday that he has spent too many years "trapped behind a computer" and wants to get back to being a priest full time. That is, saying Mass and hearing confessions. Who can argue?

It might sound strange on the outside, but in truth, I've been in a constant state of uncertainty about my work (I'm seriously tempted to use quotes on that). This is my tenth year with LSN and 15th in the pro-life movement, and I'm tremendously chuffed about our accomplishments. When I started it was just the three of us and we had a tiny audience. We must have found what the freemarketeers call a "niche" or a market gap because since 2004 we've gained about 20 employees and volunteers, an office and 501-C3 status in the US, correspondents in four countries and about 6 million page views per month.

But I used to be a pastry chef. Actually, I started in the pro-life movement in 1999 because I was looking for a job after an illness pushed me out of this physically demanding work. And now, 15 years down the line, my friend's comment about being chained to a computer particularly piercing. When I used to get up at three am to go to work, by the end of the day, I had made food for people and made a bunch of little kids happy. It wasn't cosmically important, politically necessary or "contributing" in any way to the world of thought and affairs. I was in my 20s and knew at least enough then to know that I didn't know anything. I was still autodidacting (baker's hours are perfect for reading a LOT of books).

In the end, I had to take almost a year off from work (living on the dole! ugh!) in which I had just enough energy and money to take myself down to the Dalhousie University library five days a week and read modern philosophy (specialty in bioethics). And one thing led to another. But my intention had always been to get back to having what I've always thought of as a "real" job.

Despite my mother's academic and intellectual accomplishments, my family background is old fashioned upper working and middle class. My mother's (adoptive) family were in the mills in Manchester. My father's parents owned a (rather nice) dress shop. My father and grandfather built their house at the top of that cliff on Vancouver Island. My mother, after finishing her degree in mathematics and marine biology married a Canadian Coast Guard engineer and ended up becoming the first female engineer working on the boats in the arctic in the CCG. (Icebreakers!)

Given the ephemeralness of the internet, and the rather poor opinion I have of modern intellectual work, I am constantly plagued with doubts about what I do. I have never thought of myself as being on the "front lines" of the pro-life movement. Those are the people who leave the house every day and go down to stand in front of abortion facilities, and who organise crisis pregnancy centres to get baby clothes and jobs and health care for pregnant women. That's the front lines. That's living nose-to-nose with The Real.

You might have wondered where I was for the Christmas holidays. Thanks to the great generosity of a few readers, I was able to have my first real holiday in Britain, visiting friends and the fam until I got back to Italy late Sunday night. And it felt strange to be back here. It's familiar and I was very glad to see my lovely friends and my poor, long-suffering puss-cat. I love my flat and I love Santa Marinella, and there is a big part of my brain that thinks of it as home, and though I had a fantastic holiday, I was tremendously glad to be home.

But there is an air of unreality to all this that I can't shake. Maybe it's my working class upbringing. Maybe it's just a healthy skepticism about the ultimate value of "the news" and being a "public voice".

But I can't help wonder if it isn't in some way the little whispering of the Holy Spirit. Maybe it's the voice of St. Philip whispering "Amare nescire" in my inner ear.

Deep in the core of my middle-class Cheshire soul, a "job" involves making things, fixing things, or dealing with external economic reality in the day to day world. In my brain, I'm simply not qualified to be making a living telling people things, still less telling them what I think. And even if I were, how "of the Real" can the internet possibly be? If I were properly educated (which I think has been all but impossible since 1950) and I were writing books, I think it might be a little more justified. Even as a painter I think I would be closer to the Real. At least my work would stand a chance of surviving an EMP blast.

But in reality, I'm just some schmoe, talking. I'm Joe-Nobody and it leaves me profoundly uncomfortable that I make my living this way. It simply feels like messing about on the internet, and it's making me feel like I'm part of the problem. There's too much fakery out there and not enough people living in the Real. And I can't help but think I'm contributing to that.

While I was away, visiting friends in Scotland, I chanced to meet a man who was a "ranger". That is a job designation (in that insanely over-regulated country where you can't be a waitress without getting a government-approved "qualification") that means he works for the Scottish National Trust keeping track of the lives and health and habitat of every creature on one of the estates the trust manages. We were being shown around the old kitchen garden of this beautiful 17th century stately home and he pointed out where a mating pair of barn owls had taken up residence.

I told him that I was terribly envious of his job, and related that my dream job is Puffin Counter on Skomer Island, where I intend to flee when the Day of Wrath comes (and will deny that I ever knew any of you, just so's you know).

Anyway, my priest friend, when I related some of my own discomfort at living my life glued to the little square Palantir, said that my vocation is to write, which I suppose must be more or less true. He said to keep doing it, which I will. But... well... I dunno. I can't help still feeling it. I'm terribly envious that he gets to go do real things in the real world, and I have to stay behind here in this strangely disconnected realm.

And now, dammit, I've spent the morning fooling about on the internet and have missed the Thursday morning farmer's market... again! Ugh!



Steve T. said...

Don't be so hard on yourself. In a certain sense, you preach truth in the Areopagus. There are children who live today because you opened someone's eyes to the Real. No, you don't actually get the immediate joyful feedback of a rescue at a Satanic mill, but the product of your hands are walking or crawling this Earth even now, and on that Day, they will testify for you.

This post is exactly why I'm teaching myself welding; so I can teach my sons. I rejected the academic path partly because of the academic blowhards of the sort you encountered, partly because I recognized the ill preparation I'd received in my education as compared to those who came before me, and finally, because my blue-collar background underlined the ultimate absurdity of it all. My children are constantly told how smart they are, and they'll all go to Harvard. I'm not so sanguine. But there are buildings I can point to and say, "I help make that." I intend to equip them to say the same.

Chloe said...

Steve's right Hilary. Stick at it. I met you over Christmas and you helped steady me at a time of crisis for us all and cheered us all up. Come again and I'll make you another three pots of tea.


nic j said...

Lots of people do a lot of stuff and produce a lot of objects, but that doesn't mean they are doing any good.
What he said. Much as we may find it odd, what is online is a real medium.

I have to leave and go to evensong now or I'll miss the psalms.

Hilary Jane Margaret White said...


that really was an outlandish amount of tea.

Michael Demers said...

I'm 66 years old now and I still regret not having done well in my typing class in high school.

Chloe said...

Come back soon and ave some more!

Chloe xxxx

Chloe said...

Sorry! Should be 'have some more' not ave!


Michael Demers said...

Hilary, when are you going to let people link to you on their blogs/websites complete with a feed?

Anonymous said...

I am a jaded soul, so take what I say with a grain of salt. But don't let anybody but God tell you what your vocation is.

"A brother asked one of the elders: What good thing shall I do, and have life thereby? The old man replied: God alone knows what is good. However, I have heard it said that someone inquired of Father Abbot Nisteros the great, the friend of Abbot Anthony, asking: What good work shall I do? And that he replied: Not all works are alike. For Scripture says that Abraham was hospitable, and God was with him. Elias loved solitary prayer, and God was with him. And David was humble, and God was with him. Therefore, whatever you see your soul to desire according to God, do that thing, and you shall keep your heart safe."