Manual Connections

The Carpenter by Frans Mortelmans. (artwork can be purchased at

The Carpenter by Frans Mortelmans.

(artwork can be purchased at

Lack of experience diminishes our power of taking a comprehensive view of the admitted facts.  Hence those who dwell in intimate association with nature and its phenomena are more able to lay down principles such as to admit of a wide and coherent development; while those whom devotion to abstract discussions has rendered unobservant to facts are too ready to dogmatize on the basis of a few observations.

–Aristotle, On Generation and Corruption, 316a5-9

If there is one thing I wished I had learnt from my Dad, it is the ability to fix things around the house. Dad is the consummate DIY man. The only time I remember seeing a repairman in the house is when our TV broke down.  Everything else, he fixes. His rationale is that it costs less to repair the broken appliance (or build a metal shelf from scratch) than to call in a repairman.  But if it were true, he wouldn’t have come home one time with an old transistor radio and restored it to factory condition despite already having a perfectly functioning one.

As the years went by, I noticed he fixed things less. I don’t think it’s because he’s getting lazy, but that they don’t make things like they used to. The microchip has replaced many mechanical parts in appliances he used to know how to fix. And maybe that explains the old transistor radio. Maybe he wanted the feeling of being able to fix something broken and make them work again. But there is very little doubt – necessary as many of the repairs were (fixing things was never a hobby to him – he had do them because he’s the man of the house) – that he took great pride in being Mr Fix-it. I know, because of how he never failed to lament that there would be no-one in the family to be able to, for example, do the wiring around the house when he is gone.

I hesitate to say that Dad came from a generation where people are more likely to make/fix the things they use instead of buying them and replacing them once they are damage because I don’t see his siblings, or most relatives on my Mom’s side being able to do the same. But there is little doubt that in compared to the past generation, we have a much less intimate connection with the things we use and consume. Our raw food comes nicely washed, cut, packed and neatly displayed in unoffensive rows in the supermarket or grocery store. Our electrical devices – television, computers, washing machines, heck even irons – are now designed to not let you consider for a moment they are complex machines with a thousand parts that have to move in clockwork precision for them to work. They are like the robot EVA in the Pixar movie Wall-E, enigmatic in their deceptive simplicity. You don’t know how they operate because there’s no screws for you to unscrew to peek inside. Our furniture no longer reminds us of carpenters with their hammers and chisels;  rather we recall images of clinical factories with their endless rows of conveyor belts. And they’re so easy to assemble! Anyone can make furniture if they purchase from Ikea!

But this isn’t one of those posts about how soulless and disconnected modern living has turned us into. I love the design of the iPad, I love visiting supermarkets and being able to have a functioning furniture within minutes of purchase (and not wait days for the carpentry shop to deliver your order to your doorstep), and I can’t wait for the first mega-mall to open in Phnom Penh (where I currently reside). This is about addressing some of that nagging feeling of alienation as we grow up and the world changes so rapidly around us, and yet not quite understanding what it is that was left behind.


Now that I stay on my own, I cook quite regularly. It doesn’t quite make sense when you consider how cheap food is here if you’re not too fussy and how much time it takes to prepare a meal even if it’s just for one, or two persons. I could probably buy salted duck eggs somewhere but I prefer making my own now that I found the recipe online (and which was the response to the girlfriend coming home with a packet of fresh duck eggs that she bought on a whim). I’ll probably look into growing some vegetables at the balcony if time allows. And even though it probably is more convenient (and the food’s probably more hygienic) to do weekly grocery shopping at the supermarket, I go almost daily to the wet market nearby where meat like chicken is definitely fresh – because they are slaughtered just around the corner. Witnessing such daily episodes of animal suffering hasn’t yet turned me into a vegetarian, but it has helped reduce my meat intake. And of course, practicing my poor Khmer language skills in everyday conversation has its own rewards.

Like Dad and his Fix-it instincts, I often tell people these habits are products of circumstances, but there’s no doubt they’re all very conscious, deliberate choices. There exists a relationship between man and the things he uses and consumes, but because the production of such things have been all but removed from us, we take them for granted. We often talk about connecting with the spiritual world via meditation, yoga and religious rituals but what about connecting via manual activities? I think there is a case to be made that careful attendance to the manual task at hand reveals the false dichotomy between the spiritual and the mundane, material realm. Whether you’re fixing a broken machine, or fermenting your own rice wine (gotta learn to do that one day), it puts you into the centre of how things really work in this world, as opposed to understanding them from a detached point of view. We all know the fermentation process as something involving the breakdown of sugars but it is an abstract knowledge. When we go about trying to make our own wine, it becomes a personal experience. It is also tremendously empowering. It’s the kind of achievement that makes you feel you’re not totally dependent on some invisible corporations producing everything that meets your daily needs.

I could be speaking from a biased perspective, but when I compare the faces of the people in the shops around my neighborhood back in Singapore to the harried, subdued looks of the office workers in the city, the folks with mud, or grease, or flour on their hands just seem that much more… alive. I suspect it is not only for the reasons described in the passage above, but through the interaction they have with the people who come to their shops, they become aware of the larger roles they play in a small community, as opposed to the nagging sense that one might ‘belong’ to a globalized economy but whose impact appears to be minuscule in the larger scheme of things.

There has been lots of talk about the desire for work-life balance back home lately. Opponents to work-life balance often point to how the previous generation worked longer hours and never complain about it. Putting aside my reasons why I think work-life balance is important (despite the fact that I put in really long hours into my work), I would say that it is not because the present generation is no longer prepared to work less, but that the nature of work has changed. We may have come a long way from Henry T Ford’s innovation of the assembly line, but the principles of scientific management behind it is felt in almost every aspect of modern work-life. For most of human history, when people work it isn’t just for a living. It is life itself. Very often, entire families are involved. The work brings them in direct contact with the rest of the community. The business of work is inseparable from the business of living.

Today a clear line exists between work and ‘non-work’. Work is where you put in the hours to earn the dough that enables you to pay for whatever you do after work. The other needs of a human being – relationships, leisure, falls outside the domain of work. What can fulfill a person at work in the past has to be sought elsewhere nowadays. Family time now means taking the kids and spouse out for dinner, or the movies. Family time in the past meant spouse cooking at the back of the shop while your kid is apprenticing with you… during work. I am not saying we should return to some idealized pre-modern society, because frankly things weren’t rosy for a vast majority of people back then, but any talk about making modern work more humane and less rationalized has to take into account such historical factors.

It’s a long process, but change is happening even as we speak. But what can we do in the meantime? Get your hands busy. Pick up a screwdriver, or a spade, or a sewing needle. Make something. Make connections.

And then, perhaps, like my Dad, pretend you’re doing it to save money.

(postscript: I was rummaging through a batch of second-hand books the other day when I chanced upon this book – The Case For Working With Our Hands – Or Why Office Work is Bad For Us and Fixing Things Feels Good by Matthew Crawford. It echoed this same topic I had been mulling over for quite some time. Talk about the Laws of Attraction! )


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