Saturday, January 14, 2006

The Toolmaker

I just read a book by Jill Patton Walsh, who is one of my favorite authors...

I first heard of her when she finished Dorothy Sayers’ unfinished novel Thrones, Dominions. I liked this enough to pick up her book about an atheist in a fantasy Inquisition-era Spain, called Knowledge of Angels. That one really got under my skin, with its portrayal of the suffering of a man of the sort I described in my last entry, a bishop whose faith is built on logic alone, when that faith is undermined by logical counter-arguments. So I read more. A book about aristocratic refugees in an imaginary Eastern European country, during and after their communist revolution (A Desert in Bohemia). A book about survivor guilt, years later, after a lifeboat accident (The Serpentine Cave). And then I discovered that she was primarily known for her children’s books. My university library had one. A story about a family who escapes Earth just before it is destroyed (The Green Book). A (true) story about a light-house keeper’s daughter who goes from isolation to celebrity after she rescues boaters. (Grace). A story about the fall of Byzantium (The Emporer’s Winding Sheet.) A story about the plague ( A Parcel of Patterns.) She is one of the least known of my favorite authors -- probably because she is still alive and writing. And she answered my e-mails a couple of times.

I wrote to her because some of the things she’d written were about women and academia (the Imogen Quy mysteries) and because she was clearly a Dorothy Sayers fan, and Dorothy Sayers was all about the kind of questions I was facing... After a year in grad school, I was starting to feel like I was wasting my time. I was starting to wonder if an academic career was really enough to give my life meaning. This was before I knew Ken (although I’d already seen him in our quantum mechanics class – okay, stared at him in quantum mechanics class – I figured he was way out of my league). The future I pictured for myself, if I stayed in grad school and kept on as I was going, was as bookish spinster. I didn’t really want that future. It didn’t seem like enough. I couldn’t imagine that I would ever do important enough work to justify my life by work alone. I certainly wasn’t doing it as a first year grad student. On the other hand, I didn’t really want to believe that I needed a husband and a family to make my life meaningful. Did I want to say Donna Reed’s life was more meaningful than Emily Noether’s? Did men need families to make their lives meaningful? Now, facing a much different future, I’m embarrassed by the memory of asking these questions of practically every woman I admired, or who was still single. Professors and authors. I put them in an uncomfortable position, and must have sounded hopelessly young. But Jill Patton Walsh was very gentle with me. I think she told me, more or less, that I was going to be disappointed if I was hoping for someone else to give my life meaning. But I couldn’t count on my work doing that for me either.

Okay, so the book of hers I just finished was called Toolmaker. It’s about a man in a prehistoric hunter-gatherer tribe who is better than his fellow tribesmen at making flint axes and arrow heads and so on. So they ask him to do it for them, leaving him no time to hunt. They bring him food. But he becomes too specialized, losing the ability to hunt for himself, and when times are lean, they are no longer interested in his toolmaking ability. He loses his status in his tribe. I won’t tell you how it ends. It’s a sort of parable, but you can take lots of different lessons from it... One of the most obvious being that it’s a bad idea to look down on your toolmakers, just because they don’t hunt. (Another being that it’s dangerous to become too specialized...)

Now, when you hear this story, who do you think of as the modern "toolmakers"? Are you thinking "intellectuals," scientists, professors, etc? ‘Cause I’m not. I’m thinking of the guys in the machine shop, who make the tools. The longer I stay in this field, the more natural the analogy of research scientist as hunter seems to me. (Their elusive prey? Grants.) And too often they do look down at the people who do the real, dangerous, and difficult work of shaping precision instruments capable of probing the smallest scales under the worst extremes of temperature, pressure, and in the presence of dangerous chemicals.

I finally started the machine shop class. The instructor has told us we should not hope to become machinists after only eight weeks (their apprenticeships last for years) but I am hoping to at least gain a better appreciation of what it takes. We spent the first day grinding a cutting tool that we will later use with the milling machine (I don’t know how or why, yet.) And we cut the our raw materials for our other products into rough outlines of the shapes we needed – and I do mean rough.

I still want meaningful work. In some ways the stuff I do in the machine shop seems more meaningful than the stuff I do in the lab. Ken says he felt the same, when he took the class. He misses that. But I also don’t want to rely on work alone to give my life meaning. The toolmaker in the book spends a lot of his time lonely, outcast, at one point, almost suicidal.

It’s so funny. I used to worry about this stuff, and think that what I needed was either to do something more important than homework, real research, or find a man, and I agonized over which was more important... Now I’m in a lab and I’m married, and I see that the problem never really had anything to do with either one.

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