How to Build Beautiful, Glorious Competence

competence in making and baking bread
Go on, bake that bread

Not long ago, my colleague gifted me curvy, branchy parts of an American Beech tree he felled on his property.  You’re right; it’s a rather odd gift.  He gave me three variously sized branches with the knowledge that I would carve something from them.  And that he, in turn, would use the thicker tree trunk to carve something significantly cooler than my wooden spoons—a circular kind of seating perhaps.

Handmade Competence as Unremarkable

In our culture, it would be natural for nearly anyone to respond to me and my colleague in one of two ways. One way: “It’s cool that you carve wood. I just don’t have the time for that kind of stuff.” Another way: “so nice to hear you have fun making furniture on the weekends, i.e., when you’re not doing your ‘real’ job.” 

It’s worth keeping in mind that both of these responses are fairly modern.  A hundred years ago, talking to someone about carving wood would be as unremarkable as talking about the weather.

Yet today, talking about carving wood is remarkable. And that’s a shame.  Because though these may be hobbies—it’s not like I forgo eating when I fail to carve a spoon for myself—they are also richly satisfying ways of interacting with the world.

On good days, carving a bowl allows me to know—and see and touch and feel—when the bowl is finished to my liking.  On not so great days, the incremental process of creating something from scratch lends me timely, visible feedback on how I might alter my technique the next time around.  Sadly, email lends us neither of these satisfactions.  

Competence and Creativity

On a deeper level, vernacular crafts—be they whittling or carving wood, harvesting and preparing food, making music—attune us with our own human creativity. They vitalize us. They generally involve the use of our hands.  Such crafts represent acts of substitution, a changing out our consumer selves for our action-oriented, creative selves.

And so it begs the question:

how much Existential suffering;





Disorders of mood and personality;

Obsessive-compulsiveness; and

Neurotic tendencies

might be softened, eradicated even, with less of a dependence on corporate commodities? In other words,  what might happen when people regularly get up each day with the undeniable sense that they are capable, empowered, useful, and worthwhile humans? You know, as Stuart Smalley would counsel us.

And what of the retired and retiring masses? Are we to “put them out to pasture?” After toiling away and dithering in soulless jobs for 30-40+ years? Are golf courses, cruises, and casinos the only means through which our culture can express our appreciation for their hard work?

And what, exactly, is the average worker—the cashier at a pet spa, the barista at a hipster latte shop—contributing to humanity and the biosphere? Greater well-being? More pristine air, land, and water?

Must it be this way? An endless fight with corporate capitalism to secure mind-numbing, ecologically destroying jobs for all? Bill Coperthwaite put it beautifully when he said,

“I would like to see beauty all around us, not only in the things that are about us in our daily lives, but also in how these things were made, in how we paid for them, in how our choices show that we treat our fellow dwellers on this earth with respect.”

Introducing a Politics of Competence

Among our many modern challenges lies the establishment of a Politics of Competence into our discourse. This can work in a way similar how people reintroduce endangered animals into the wild.  After all, like native species, basic household skills are rapidly becoming extinct.  

This Politics of Competence can begin with groups of enlightened people. These people might consider one commodity they usually buy, be it a good or a service, and devise ways of producing, providing or creating the thing themselves.

For example, they might try their hand at baking a loaf of bread rather than buying it at the supermarket. They could confide in a trusted friend instead of a self-credentialed psychologist. They might walk those 1.5 miles to the library relying on nothing more than their innate, human power instead of depending on the engine and fuel of a car.  

Ove time, these creators would enter into a social network of truly free, reciprocal gifting, rather than into a tangled in a web of marketplace transactions—I’m looking at you, poorly named “sharing economy.”  These emerging practitioners of the vernacular arts and a growing network of self-determined people would break free from the modern impotence and become what they truly are: creative, capable, confident human beings.

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  • Jefftown37

    You touched on this in your 2014 post on the “sharing economy”, but it is kind of awkward that so many basic activities are now expected to be curated by a smartphone app. The irony is that the technology might revive more wholesome activities, but in doing so remove some wholesomeness.


      You point out a nefarious trend: “tech-mediated relations”. I like how you frame the revival of wholesomeness while subverting some wholesomeness in the process. It sounds like you’re rather ambivalent about the role of tech-mediated interactions among people. I’m with you in this regard. And I suspect, like you, I remain unsure of the “problems” technology claims to be “solving.” For example, in our field of transportation, early on, private vehicles were seen as a “solution” to the horse manure-fueled issues encountered in dense, urban conditions. Yet one has to wonder whether dense, urban conditions were ever necessary in the first place. And if they were, why horses were ever “needed.” It’s striking to realize that as of 1810, the modal household type in the Northeastern part of the U.S. was the self-sufficient, rural household. And in these households, women often held the purse strings. It wasn’t until the definition of “exchange” transformed into the more modern conceptualization of “commerce” that gender and race relations became systemic, horrific issues.
      Today, in our ostensibly “free society’, we find ourselves operating in a neo-feudal state where the technorati determine when and how we enjoy access to information of means of online communication. In this reality, I’m most interested in re-invigorating some space—both spatial and temporal—to interact in one another’s physical presence and to create communal meaning outside of the digital hegemony.
      Thanks for joining me on this exploration!