Thursday, October 09, 2008

No person can make this pencil

I spent part of yesterday installing doorknobs and strikers, and replacing door latches. I'm helping a friend remodel a house. I am his grunt work guy. I'd never installed a doorknob before. How could that be? Yet it was.

I spent over an hour installing the first doorknob. Among several perplexities was an instruction about "bosses". Bosses? Wha? Stumped, frustrated, I felt I didn't need no stinking bosses. Yet I did. After completing one installation, things got much better.

As I installed and installed, I marvelled at the engineering which allows an installation, with excellence, by an amateur; and at the free market which delivers that beautifully engineered product to Home Depot. I was reminded of Milton Friedman's not to be missed consideration of the pencil:

When I grew up, my family didn't personally fix very many things. First problem, our tools were God knows where in the garage. Finding a socket wrench might've taken - who knows(?) - half a day. I was busy shooting baskets in the driveway. Who had time for an all out search for a socket wrench? Second problem, my father's perfectionism. He preferred to hire professionals who would "do it right".

I never enjoyed fixing things. In my mind, I equated such activity with monotony. Only as an adult did I begin to realize how foolish I was. Fixing things requires intelligence and reasoning which is analogous to any number of challenging and interesting tasks, including things such as playing chess, working calculations, understanding physics - and a huge number of other challenging human activities. When I was a young adult, I never fully understood that. I never had scorn for fixing things - not ever. I just never dug it as a fun activity.

I will say: it's far more fun to install things at my friend's house. First, the proper tool is readily available. Given my life experience, that's a barely fathomable miracle.

Second, when I was a young man: if I accomplished something, I always then hoped for my father's praise. My father is a fine man, but praise wasn't his strong suit. He believed in pushing you harder. He believed it was important to never be content, but rather to always strive to do better. He wasn't about to spoil me and ruin me by praising me. Instead, he would look at my work and point out where I could've done better.

I didn't know how, as a young man, to stop myself from narcissistically craving a father's praise which I knew, intellectually, probably wasn't coming. My narcissistic desire was completely human and natural - especially at younger ages. I didn't understand myself well enough to break out of the vicious cycle.

Now, very thankfully: I know my father loves me. He doesn't have to overtly demonstrate it for me to be assured. I also know he has pride in some aspects of who I am. He doesn't have to overtly demonstrate it for me to know it.

Also thankfully: I now make my own judgments about my own work. I looked at yesterday's excellently installed knobs, strikers, and latches, and said: "My work is good." I felt my work was between me and God. He was urging me to do good work, and my work was good. Such is a relief and a blessing.

Ecclesiastes 2
24 There is nothing better for a man than to eat and drink and tell himself his labor is good. This also I have seen, that it is from the hand of God.
25 For who can eat and who can have enjoyment without Him?
Victor Davis Hanson, "What Really is Wisdom?":
I have seen no difference in intelligence levels between those who inhabit the world of the physical and those who cultivate the life of the mind. That is, the most brilliant Greek philologists seemed no more impressive in their aptitude than the fellow who could take apart the transmission of an old Italian Oliver tractor, fix it, and put it back together--without a manual. And I knew three or four who could. The inept mechanic seemed no more dull than the showy graduate student who could not distinguish an articular infinitive from an accusative of respect.

My seventy-year old Austrian professor who, off the cuff, could recite the lettering peculiarities of some 100 or so Athenian inscriptions on stone was brilliant-but no more intuitive or impressive than my grandfather who at 86 could scan 100 rows of vines under irrigation, instantly access how many acre feet of water were in the field, how many more needed, and then screw up or down an iron gate on a 20-foot standpipe and ensure the ditch water reached the end of each row--and only the end of each row.
there are two fonts of wisdom: formal education, and the tragic world of physical challenge and ordeal. Both are necessary to be broadly educated. Familiarity with Proust or Kant is impressive, but not more impressive than the ability to wire your house or unclog the labyrinth of pipes beneath it.

What is wisdom?

Not necessarily degrees, glibness, poise, or factual recall, but the ability to understand human nature. And that requires two simple things: an inductive method of reasoning to look at the world empirically, and a body of knowledge and experience to draw on for guidance.

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