Thursday, July 22, 2010

Player Piano

Player Piano by Kurt Vonnegut Jr. is one of my favorite books of all time. You should check it out. I believe it was his first novel, a "science fiction" read about people in a small town in New York being replaced by machines and technology. The human worker became obsolete. Vonnegut reveals how this trade affects the sociology of a community, never mind the ego of a person. I have been thinking a lot about this book lately, and wish I had a copy here with me to read again. This line is the heart of the book:

"In order to get what we've got, we have, in effect, traded these people out of what was the most important thing on earth to them — the feeling of being needed and useful, the foundation of self-respect."

I've been helping José remodel two bedrooms at his family's house. We've sanded, patched, painted, and varnished. He's redone some of the electrical wiring, new lights, new fixtures, new ceiling fan. It's hard, messy, dusty, puts-an-ache-in-your-back-work and I love it. I love looking at something I "did" at the end of the day. Proof that I am capable of things I don't do often, or have never done. My dad would be proud of me.

Watching José splice and string new electrical wires in the ceiling, rig up a new light and fan, I think about a professor I had. He was presenting the argument of which is better: to have generalized knowledge, to be able to do a little bit of everything. Or, on the other hand, to be a specialist. To know everything there is to know about one, small topic. In the scientific world, perhaps it is better to be a specialist, to be able to put forth all this knowledge in your research, to develop a sound thesis. But in this life, I feel it is more important to be a generalist.

That is the attitude of many of the locals here: if you want something done, you have to do it yourself. You'd better learn how quick, learn from your own mistakes. Everyone here who has etched out a life for himself has had to become something of a handyman. Everyone knows how to cook, how to garden, how to build, how to fix everything they have, how to be self-sufficient. Those that don't are generally transplants like myself. People coming from a different place, a different time in sorts, where conveniences have drowned out the choice to do something in a simpler way.

This morning I was teaching one of my tutoring students about technology and different ways of communication. We started discussing how sad it is that certain knowledge, lessons that have been learned for ages, are getting lost in our advancement of humanity. He loves to boat and fish, he is a licensed captain. To do this, he spoke, you must know trigonometry, you must know how to use a compass, to find the latitude and longitude by simply calculating. These days, most captains only know how to use a GPS, if it isn't working for some reason, they are literally lost at sea.

Last night I was sitting outside, watching the swift clouds wisp across the inky sky, only a few stars peering through the darkness. I was thinking about how strange it is that this place, like any other, has grown and changed so much in the past one hundred years. It maybe seems more strange here, in Galapagos, the "Living Laboratory", that there is now wireless Internet access, air conditioning, washing machines, new cars, and phone lines. How quickly things change and we get used to a new format, new setting, new convenience.

I have only been back on San Cristobal for two months, and yet it seems like it's been so much longer. The time rushes past, yet drips by slowly, seemingly at the same time. I want to relish more moments of ancient wisdom of this place. To connect with the past, with a simpler life. That satisfying feeling of making do with what one has, of learning new skills, of sitting peacefully, not doing, only taking in the rawness of this place.

To revel in the feeling when the power goes out, and you must make do and remember how to...