Getting Good

When I was a kid, my mom lived in a Cape-style house at the end of a street that dead-ended at a cemetery. The word “DEAD” on the DEAD END sign was circled in black spray paint. I also had a very strong resemblance to Wednesday Addams at that time, so it was a whole theme.

The second floor of the house had once been a small apartment, and my bedroom had a room off of it that used to be a tiny kitchen. It still had a sink and painted wooden cabinets, and my mom helped me equip it with a hotplate, a glue gun, a blender, and an old sewing machine, among other dangers. It was basically paradise for a kid like me, who liked to spend a lot of time alone figuring out how to make things. That room saw the rise and fall of my fleece hat business, my homemade chapstick business, my paper making obsession (hence the blender), and my foray into screen printing, among many other endeavors.

Looking back, having “the kitchen,” as we called it, was one of the greatest gifts of my life. It allowed me to spend hours upon hours playing The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill on repeat while trying to make the things I could see in my head come to life by my hands. It was how I came to have the skills that enable me to do what I’m doing now. Turning something that’s in my mind into a physical object is a pleasure that’s hard to describe. It’s so satisfying because it’s so hard, and takes so many different hard-earned skills, all working in harmonious concert. It’s a damn symphony, I tell you.

Turning something that’s in my mind into a physical object is a pleasure that’s hard to describe.

The kitchen was also the location of countless hot glue burns, needle stabs, sliced fingertips, tears of frustration, and botched projects. Folks reading this post who make things will understand what this is like. People who have trained in any physical skill, be it classical piano or basketball, will also understand what it’s like to struggle as you try to get your muscles and bones and senses to work together to accomplish something that slowly, slowly moves from impossible, to maybe possible, to second nature. But many people in these modern times don’t have the experience of refining a set of physical skills, and as a result physical expertise is not often valued.

The other day, I read an interesting essay about a thing that happened on Twitter. In a viral video, a disembodied pencil draws a strikingly realistic image of a woman’s hand, all in just a few clean strokes. The image is satisfyingly simple yet lifelike. The author of the article cites the video as a prime example of the kind of instructional video that “slyly elide[s] the long hours that lie between seeing how something is done and knowing how to do it.” What ensued after the initial video was posted was a hilarious string of images of people’s attempts to replicate the drawing. The images revealed that, despite it looking so easy, making a drawing that looks effortless is something almost no one can do. Almost no one can do it because being able to do it requires untold hours of practice, far more hours than you would ever get in a drawing class. People who have highly developed physical skills have them because they practice obsessively.

A few weeks ago, I was working on a group handbag project with one of my classmates, who was struggling to make a certain tricky cut around a handle. They asked me to try, and I was able to do it fairly well. “But how?” they said, in the simple phrasing we both have learned to communicate across the language barrier. “My hands know,” I replied, because that is the only way to explain it, language barrier or not. I have been doing things like that over and over and over, for three decades, and now my hands have their own intelligence, one that can’t be put into words and explained logically.

Usually, with a few exceptions like surgeons and male athletes, we don’t pay very well the people who do their work with their bodies. We are still stuck in the paradigm that the body is basically a vehicle for the mind, and the mind is where all of our intelligence is. But I don’t really know what else to call the ability to make a beautiful thing by hand, or to perform a ballet, or to play a jazz composition, but intelligence.

This past week and a half, I made my final project for my first course. I used the pattern making techniques I had learned over the previous two months to turn my idea into an executable pattern. I used the prototyping techniques I had learned in the class to put the bag together piece by piece. But that’s not the whole story, because it doesn’t account for all the time spent cutting out card stock with an X-acto knife, a skill I’ve been practicing since 1998. It doesn’t account for the hundreds and hundreds of hours I’d already spent in front of a sewing machine over the past 20+ years. It doesn’t account for the hundreds of bags I’ve made before this. It doesn’t account for the thousands upon thousands of hours I’ve spent making all kinds of things, experience that gives me some intuition when trying new but related skills. So, with that, here are some pictures of my finished bag!