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Does anyone tinker any more? Tinker, verb: attempt to repair or improve something in a casual or desultory way. Synonyms: mend, dabble, monkey around with, adjust slightly, mess about with. Slang: rearrange the deckchairs on the Titanic.
Is there time for non-specific activities like pottering, fiddling, thinking, testing, experimenting, and inventing? Or are the days consumed by just getting through the week? We do lessons and interest groups. We do travel and worship. We do family, friends, and neighbours. Tinkering, not so much.
Some very smart minds say we need to tinker. NASA now selects its new engineers on the basis of whether they had mechanical hobbies in their youth. MIT offers remedial building classes to students who rely too much on computers for design ideas and construction strategies. And shop teachers (in the few remaining high schools that have them) notice too many students who don’t know how to hold a hammer correctly, or how to use a power tool.
The modern lifestyle of two working parents may not allow for much actual spare time. For teens and twenties, available spare time is often spent on entertainment media and social media. Velcro runners, T-shirts (no buttons), computers, and push-button toys affect how young children develop manipulative skills. Yes, X-Box games will develop some manual dexterity but will boys learn “righty-tighty, lefty-loosey” or just how to explode the enemy ninjas? And which is more useful? And which is more rewarding?
Maybe it’s easier to have kids indoors in front of the TV rather than out in the yard getting dirty and making a mess. Basements have rental suites, home theatres, or storage rooms rather than workshops. Garages have two cars and patio furniture, recycling boxes and bikes—little room for a tool bench.
We don’t repair small appliances like we used to; we return them, we replace them. And that’s partly because they don’t have mechanical parts that could be repaired. Take apart a rotary phone and you can play with the parts. Take apart a cellphone and you’ll find only two pieces of plastic, a chip and a screen. It is modular and can’t be repaired. It is uncommon for us to recondition appliances inherited from grandparents; old lawn mowers, outboard motors, or sewing machines ourselves. Specialists do that.
I think of our Cuba holiday when we saw the most ingenious vehicles on the road. The Cubans are great tinkerers. They can cobble together a motorcycle out of mixed parts and keep it going for years. Eight-year-olds in South Africa make trucks out of pop cans. Boys in Brazil build their own boats. But necessity or poverty needn’t be the impetus for tinkering.
Remember when kids made simple go-karts out of backyard odds and ends? Those children learned about axles, acceleration, and accidents. Now, many don’t have backyards, let alone scrap material. They don’t have the time or the space to work on something. They may not develop the interest in working on something.
I don’t long for the golden olden days of some fictional idyllic past, but I do want our society to retain its hands-on skills. Economists say Canada faces a shortfall of skilled tradespeople in the near future, and government is investing in training programs to meet this need. Yet, many apprentices struggle with mechanical skills and drop out before completing their programs. Instructors notice the growing number of applicants who haven’t had hands-on experiences, and who haven’t had to persevere to get something to work.
The upside is that tinkering is play. It’s good to think and create. A young man could explore materials and improvements. He could envision what is needed and create that part or system. A young woman could discover motors and tools, practice carpentry and safety in the workplace. They could learn the value of hands-on skills. They could learn to like it.
Anne Hopkinson is a Burnaby resident still working on the three Rs: reading, writing, and rambling.