This blog was recently featured on Metafilter and in the Metafilter Podcast. Full disclosure: one of the hosts of the podcast, Jessamyn West, is a friend of mine. During the podcast, when talking about the fact that we were setting up a model train layout, Jessamyn said we were doing it “because [we] live in 1968.”
This made me laugh, but it also made me a little sad. Not because I was insulted, I actually took it as a compliment, but because there’s a lot of truth to it. Model railroading is a dying hobby. When I’ve gone to train shows or read train magazines or gone on forums it seems that most of the practitioners of this hobby are… well… let’s just say they probably shouldn’t be buying any green bananas.
This is kind of a shame.
Now, I have no real vested interest in the survival of this hobby, though I certainly don’t want it to die. At this point I’m not even sure I’d consider myself a model railroader. I think I’m mostly making a model that happens to include a train in it. I don’t know much about how railroads work, how one is supposed to run one, and I barely know my points from my frogs.
“Points” and “frogs” are railroad terms. I guess I am learning something.
What I find to be a shame is that any hobby that requires the use of your hands seems to be dying, if it’s not already dead. Kids, and many adults my age, can barely turn a screwdriver. Many people joke about setting up Ikea furniture and how difficult it is. I’ve set up plenty of Ikea stuff. Sure, it’s difficult if your only tool is that little Allen wrench they give you but if you have the proper tools and you’re good with them, Ikea furniture is a cinch.
I’m not going where you think I am. I’m not going to complain about these damn kids and their computer games.
I am mostly a fan of video games. I grew up in the 1970s and 80s and I saw the birth and evolution of video games from Space Invaders to the amazing, immersive worlds they are today. The Boy has built things in the virtual world of Minecraft that are as impressive, more impressive, even, than anything he’s ever built out of Lego. And he once built a robot that solved a Rubix’ Cube out of Lego.
Fans of Lego will be sure to note I did not refer to them as Legos.
I believe video games, in addition to being a means of escaping the real world for a bit, can teach valuable skills that will be useful in the world our kids are growing up in and the world we already live in. But they’re not going to help you when your sink backs up or you need to assemble your Ikea glübfreün before the inlaws arrive.
Using tools, building things with them, and fixing things with them are also valuable skills. I’ve been collecting tools since I was a kid and today I have a pretty impressive collection. That’ll be a whole ‘nother post one of these days. From an early age I’ve tried to instill in The Boy how important tools are and the importance of knowing how to use them. He doesn’t show it, but I think he’s getting it.
When he was five he helped me set up some Ikea furniture. After a little while he said “Dad, I can do it myself”, and he did.
I won’t lie, when The Boy and I started talking about possibly building a train layout one of the reasons I decided to jump at it is because it’s an activity that exists in the real, as opposed to a virtual, world. We are typical parents in that we let our child use computer games and watch TV but we also try to limit that activity for reasons we cannot fully articulate, other than it must certainly be bad for some reason to spend that much time staring at a screen. Never mind that some friends that have no limits are perfectly well adjusted kids while kids who are only allowed to use Khan Academy once a month as their screen time allotment spend their free time burning ants with magnifying glasses. And those kids have a lot of free time.
Still, we limit his time. I guess it’s mostly because we want to raise a well-rounded human being. Someone who is equally at home in front of a computer, on a baseball diamond, in the kitchen, or in the shop.
There is a quote I like, in fact it’s hanging on the wall above me as I type this. It’s by Robert Heinlein:
“A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects.”
It is generally the philosophy I try to live my life by. My work depends on me being a jack of all trades and at home I am constantly trying to learn new skills, never learning anything enough to master any one skill but enough to be competent.
It is also something I am trying to teach my son. Certainly if he wants to specialize in something and become, say, a chef, or a lawnmower repair person, or an ass doctor or any number of other careers that require specialization, he’s welcome to do that. But no matter what he does for a living I hope he can also cook an omelette, change the oil on his lawnmower, or treat his own hemorrhoids.
Or build a bench out of wood on which he can lay conductive railroad track so that he can then attach wires that he can connect to a control panel filled with switches and lights that he’s soldered together himself. And he can then run model cars and an engine, based on historical research he’s done, past models of houses and buildings that he’s built out of plastic he cut himself with a hobby knife, painted and weathered with pigments and paint, brushes and an airbrush. All this will exist on land made out of foam and cardboard carved and shaped by hand, layered with plaster cloth and textured with any number of substances that will allow his world to resemble the real world. Hills and cliffs and lakes and pavement. Physical, not virtual.
Because that’s as it should be, whether it’s 1968 or 2014. Not all humans should do this, but all humans should be able to do this. We are not insects.