Quaint Skills

I do a lot of old-fashioned things. I’ve made all the bread for my family for about three years without using a bread machine. I make cookies and muffins quite often, except in the summer. I sew on occasion, which I consider a hobby. I mostly sew things for my kids, like accessories for their stuffed animals, pillows and little tote bags. I occasionally make them elastic-waist shorts and pants to wear to bed. I patch up clothes and stuffed animals when they get ripped. In previous years, I’ve had large gardens and canned tomatoes, made pickles and made jam.

I enjoy these things, but I’m not really good at them.

The bread I make is more of the functional variety than artisan. I do think my baked goods are good and I’d rather have one of my homemade cookies than a Chips Ahoy almost any day, but I don’t think they’re any better than any other homemade cookie. My sewing level is only slightly beyond beginner; I still can’t put in a zipper. My garden got overrun with weeds every year to the extent that my husband didn’t want me to have another one this year.

In short, none of what I do is all that exceptional. And yet, the fact that I do these things is so uncommon in the present day that people often act like I’m some type of superwoman. My oldest son has friends who have offered to pay him up to $10 for a dozen of my homemade cookies, and all my kids always take extra cookies in their lunches to share with their best friends, who reportedly really look forward to them. I was shocked to learn that some of my kids’ classmates literally never had homemade cookies before. My father-in-law prefers for me to bake him a cake from scratch over any other gift I might buy. People are amazed that I make our bread, our own soap and that I can sew at all.

When did it happen that these skills became something so unique and exceptional, rather than something that every middle-class woman had to do for her own family? In the larger scope of human history, being able to buy mass-produced bread or having to throw out a pair of pants because you can’t sew back on a button that’s popped off is by far the exception. I worry very seriously about the degree of helplessness that most people have in modern society. Many people have more money than time and find that it’s not cost-effective to do some of these things, but the economy is declining and some reports say it may not recover. What happens if it becomes too expensive to pay others to do those things and nobody knows how to do them anymore? I take pride in being able to do these basic things for myself, and it bothers me that so many people seem to take pride in their inability to do them.

Somewhere along the way modern society has taught that doing these things ourselves is too difficult and time-consuming. Whether it’s breastfeeding a baby instead of using formula or cooking dinner from scratch instead of getting a box of Hamburger Helper, people now think that there’s no time to do things without shortcuts. I initially began doing some of these things for myself both out of interest and because we were in a situation where I had more time than money, but I discovered to my surprise that in most cases these activities were not as difficult or time-consuming as I’d been led to believe. I now work two jobs, 7 days a week and I still have time to make bread, sew a rip in my husband’s shirt and patch up the kids’ stuffed animals. Each of those tasks only takes about 15 minutes of actual effort.

I hear all the time from friends and acquaintances that they admire what I do and wish they had the time and skill to do it themselves. I wish I could convince them that they could do it, too. I didn’t know how to sew, cook or garden when I got married. I taught myself and have at least passable skills, so I think it’s more than possible for others to do the same. It’s not a gendered issue, either: my husband knows how to do these things as well.

Helplessness is a matter of status. Being unable to do things for oneself is usually a sign of having more important things to do and enough money to outsource it to someone else or to just dispose of items that need to be fixed. There was a point in time, not that long ago in the big picture, when it just wasn’t an option to be so helpless. Now such people are in the majority and those who can do such things are a little strange but intriguingly quaint.

Being unable to care for ourselves and disposing of things rather than repairing them are not sustainable choices. Depending on others to prepare all of our food is a little scary when you know about how little our food supply is regulated. What will happen when people suddenly need those skills again? Will there be enough people to teach them? For my part, I’m already teaching my kids; one of the worst things I can imagine is for my children to be completely helpless adults. If they choose not to do things for themselves, at least they’ll know how. But once you’re used to exclusively eating fresh bread, processed store-bought bread never tastes the same again.

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