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Manliness and Archaic Skills

Posted by Dirck on 2 August, 2011

I was contemplating the last little stub I’d posted, and the regular presentation of cursive writing as a dying practice.  Yesterday (Happy “We Didn’t Used to Have a Stat Holiday in August” Day, by the way), I heard part of a program on the radio that began to crystalize my notions.

There are a lot of things that people used to do that are no longer strictly necessary in the modern word, things like razor-stropping, which have been dropped because technology in its seductive form has stepped forward with easy alternative.  “Why waste several minutes a day honing that cut-throat when you could just buy a disposable seventeen-blade job that won’t open a vein if you’re startled at the wrong moment,” it croons, and it’s hard to say no.  However, there are also some items of a similar description that are intermittently very useful.  Things like basic plumbing or spare tire application; the sort of manual activity that is not a pile of actual fun and which (here’s the rub) you can pay someone else to do for you.  The past generation or two, in the thesis of the radio programme, have seen it as a point of pride to not do these things, or at least to be to busy with your own Regular Job to bother with it.

…and now we collectively rather regret having neglected this “old learning”, as the modern economy is making it more onerous for the average joe to hire a plumber or dry-wall repair specialist.  Why didn’t Dad take us aside on a Saturday morning and show us the ways of the engine sump and the toilet’s occult wax-ring mysteries?  How have we come to a point where getting a nail into a piece of wood is a daunting prospect?*  Websites like The Art of Manliness are trying to fill in this gap, and that’s a good thing.  While lounging about and being coddled is not something I personally shrink from, in a short term way, it’s worth balancing the value of the concepts of coddled and atrophied when deciding how much time to devote to it.

A quick side note: the radio suggested that the “man” in manliness was being used in the sense of the opposite of “boy” rather than of “woman”.  I don’t think we need to baulk at the prospect of female capability in home repair or car maintenance.

Returning to topic: Skills that are dismissed as pointless by the generation which finds an alternative are deeply regretted in the subsequent generations who find that having an alternative does not equate to having a proper replacement.  Handwriting is almost certainly one of these.  “Cursive” is being used in a broad sense by those who would see its dismissal, almost to include all forms of pen-to-paper writing.  Have we not, after all, keyboards?  In this computer-moderated writing, are not my characters perfectly legible, without any deformity caused by hand-spasms or lack of attention?  Sure.  True.  But there is also the loss of personal flair (even if you have a really cool font), and various other little intangibles that only an actually hand-written note can convey, as noodled with in my thoughts last week on Marshall McLuhan.

Coincidentally, my son impressed his parents this past weekend by typing “toy train crash” into the Youtube search line on his mom’s laptop.  He cannot, to my knowledge, form these words with a pen (or crayon).  “Hah!  Thus we see the superiority of the keyboard!”  No.  Thus we see the ease of the keyboard, the lowered requirement for fine motor control.  There’s nothing wrong with that, apart from the opinion of those who equate ease and comfort with outright immorality, but I still intend to teach my son the sort of writing I do so he will have the fine motor control it offers, and so he will be able to read what his parents and grandparents have written without undue difficulty.

I am strange, of course, in my regard for old skills.  I can start a fire without matches if pressed.  I can work a compass in conjunction with a map to find my way.  Why bother?  Because those skills might prove useful, in the same way that the Swiss army knife I carry habitually proves useful about once every ten days.  The need is infrequent, but oh, the comfort from finding it is a need that can be satisfied!  If it should happen that cursive, or indeed hand-writing, proves one day to be as frequently necessary as a fire-board, so be it.  It’s still worth knowing, just in case….

Today’s pen, still making words despite the presence of iPads in the world:  Parker 180
Today’s ink, so old-fashioned: Diamine China Blue

*I use “we” a little broadly; I’ve done a reasonably competent job of building walls in my basement, of soldering pipes and of installing new light fixtures and switches.  My dad, I suppose thanks to his wartime-European upbringing, thought it worth instilling some self-reliance in me, and I’ll bet some of your dads were the same.

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One Response to “Manliness and Archaic Skills”

  1. […] sometimes tinted with optimism.  Recently I ran across another article on which repeats the “keep that, it’s more important than you think” line regarding handwriting, and I think anyone with an interest in handwriting, cognition, […]

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