Father’s Day Repost: Here Is the Most Important Thing Pete Lukens Taught My Brother and Me

My dad was in the Army and served in Vietnam in the mid 1960s.  In typical Pete Lukens fashion he doesn’t discuss his military service much, but not because he is unwilling to; he has always answered any question I ever asked after all.  Rather, it is just his way to quietly do what needs to be done, no matter how difficult, without asking for much in the way of recognition. A story my grandmother told me several times is that my father never even told anyone when he was coming home from Vietnam; he just showed up on my grandparent’s doorstep in North Wales, Pennsylvania one day. He did his duty, came home, and moved on with his life, career, and family.  Doing one’s duty without complaint or expectation of reward is a good quality to emulate.  No doubt an important lesson for a young man, but it is not the most important thing I learned from him.

I also learned from my father to always have a keen argument prepared if you want to debate because opinions are worthless if you haven’t done the hard work of crafting a strong case.  I guess it is of no surprise what I do for a living and that I enjoy a good debate.  Most of all, he taught me that it is worth knowing things just for the sake of knowing; learning is intrinsically, not just instrumentally good. Being prepared and educated and logical is a good quality to emulate.  It is a very important lesson that I have learned from him, but it is not the most important lesson

I could probably go on and on about several more such things to be admired and emulated, but I want to really discuss is why teaching my brother and me how to build and fix things wound up being the foundation of greater virtue.

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Building and fixing sounds secondary to duty and preparedness and logic and all the other virtues, right? Let me explain further then, because building and fixing is what has most often allowed me to exercise those virtues.

Clearly, there are some practical implications to knowing one’s way around a table saw and framing square:

  • I rarely if ever need to hire a contractor to work on my home which has saved us tens of thousands of dollars over the past few years
  • If and when I do hire a contractor I can tell a good one from a bad one and know if they are trying to rip me off
  • I can build things for my home that are completely unique
  • Having carpentry/home improvement skills was a great side hustle when I was in college and graduate school
  • I am pretty sensitive to the charge that academics are effete and lacking any practical skill so I like to maintain a pair of callused, working hands
  • I like being able to assist friends and family when they need help with their homes
  • I like to think that I am impressing my wife with my construction worker like manliness though I’m not sure she sees it that way
  • Working with my hands is entirely different from what I do professionally and is therefore a nice diversion

If we consider just these instrumental things then it would seem that Pete Lukens passed on to my brother and me some practical skills and perhaps a good hobby that makes us useful.  It is however much deeper and more important than that. The most important thing that Pete Lukens taught his boys was not the manual skills per se, but rather the will and desire to exercise those skills.

The most important thing that Pete Lukens taught his boys was to be spirited men.

To be clear,  I’ve never heard my father use the term “spirited men;” I am borrowing the term from Matthew Crawford because it ably captures what my father taught us. To be a spirited person does not mean to be loud or ostentatious.  Anyone who knows my father knows that he is certainly not those things.  Rather, the spirited person is one who is engaged in the struggle for individual agency in the face of a world that is hyper-specialized, hyper-technological, hyper-consumerist, and hyper-disposable.  In short, and to borrow another phrase from Crawford, my father taught us the skills and more importantly the will to be “the master of our own stuff.”

 “It is characteristic of the spirited man that he takes an expansive view of the boundary of his own stuff—he tends to act as though any material things he uses are in some sense properly his, while he is using them—and when he finds himself in public spaces that seem contrived to break the connection between his will and his environment, as though he had no hands, this brings out a certain hostility in him.” (Shop Class as Soul Craft: An Inquiry into the Value of Work, 2009).

I relate to this hostility as I find more and more things in my life designed to prevent me from knowing how they work or that put their functioning outside my command.  I also feel this hostility whenever I encounter building permit rules that seek to take away my ability to work on my own home so that I must hire it out to a professional who may or may not exercise the same care that I do. It is a constant assault on our agency, and it is the nature of the spirited person to resist that assault and to fight to maintain his or her self-reliance.

“A decline in tool use” writes Crawford “would seem to betoken a shift in our relationship to our own stuff: more passive and more dependent. And indeed, there are fewer occasions for the kind of spiritedness that is called forth when we take things in hand for ourselves, whether to fix them or to make them. What ordinary people once made, they buy; and what they once fixed for themselves, they replace entirely or hire an expert to repair.”

Remaining spirited in the face of increasing passivity and dependence is a good in itself, but there is more to my father’s lessons on building and fixing than the bulwark it has afforded me against the feelings of lost agency or decline into disposability and consumerism.  Surely I could be content just knowing that I can do a thing.  Perhaps my family would derive a sense of security just knowing that should a pipe spring a leak or a toilet not flush or a light need replacement I could do it in a pinch.  After all, as two professionals, we could argue that it is good I have such “emergency knowledge” but that my time and my wife’s time is better dedicated to activities that further our respective careers.  Hire a plumber.  Hire and electrician. Hire a carpenter.  Our elite educations and career choices have disburdened us from having to do home repairs.  I think that this is probably a common refrain these days, and is probably why I know very few people now who even mow their own lawns.  I just can’t get behind this sort of reductionist economic argument though, and I cringe at the idea that my education or economic station have somehow disburdened me.  It is a cringe worthy idea mostly because I don’t find deploying these manual skills to be a burden.  The reason why needs some explanation.

What my father taught my brother and me as did every parent who ever handed down these skill to his or her children is that value is not just in the outcomes we achieve like a light that works or a lawnmower that now runs or the utility of a new built in bookcase of our own design.  There is value in the activity itself separate from the material results. Here I will lean on (as Crawford does) the work of Alisdair MacIntyre.  In After Virtue MacIntyre differentiates between goods that are internal and external to a practice.  External goods are easy to grasp as they are the tangible products which I may produce myself or I may have produced by paying another: a shelf, a new bathroom, etc.  However, there are also goods that are internal to a practice that are available only to the person who engages in the practice.  Regardless of the finished product (or even lack thereof) there is the satisfaction of exercising a skill like crafting wood or fixing a door that won’t close properly or installing a tile back splash.  There is a sense of accomplishment available only to the craftsperson.  More than that, there is the opportunity our labor gives us to engage with others and contribute in some meaningful way; it was a chance for my brother and me to spend time with our father and a chance for me to spend time with my wife and daughter or an opportunity to help a friend or neighbor fix their house.

To be sure, there are economic benefits to not having to hire a contractor and being able to build “sweat equity” in one’s home, but to me those are secondary to what working with my hands allows me to express.  For instance, ever since we bought our house my wife has complained that her closet was dark and difficult to access (which it was) so I renovated it along with the rest of the bedroom.  I guess I could say I love you by buying some flowers or a Valentine’s day card, but I would rather build something—surely this also meets the definition of a good internal to a practice!

Politicians, philosophers, and sociologists across the political spectrum have gotten a lot of mileage out of bemoaning the increase in listlessness and decline of spiritedness in American society, especially among its young men.  The decline is epitomized in consumerism and passive consumption without accompanying production.  What some have termed decadence can on a personal level be understood as a lack of spiritedness.  I don’t think my father ever put in quite these terms, but implicit in what he taught my brother and me is best captured by Raymond John Baughan.

“Run, climb, work, and laugh; the more you give out, the more you shall receive. Be exhausted, and you shall be fed. Men do not really live for honors or for pay; their gladness is not in the taking and holding, but in the doing, the striving, the building, the living. It is a higher joy to teach than to be taught. It is good to get justice, but better to do it; fun to have things but more happy to make them. The happy man is he who lives the life of love, not for the honors it may bring, but for the life itself. (The Uniscovered Country, 1946)”

That, my friends is the quintessence of spiritedness.  We do things not for reward or recognition, but because of the good internal to the practice: the satisfaction of doing and giving. Along the way to learning that lesson I have learned many other great lessons: craftsmanship, thoughtfulness, preparedness, self reliance, and a keen grasp of my duty to family and community. The spirited person excitedly looks upon a problem or challenge as an opportunity to coolly think through a solution and to patiently, thoughtfully, carefully, and yes even lovingly, see that solution to completion. When we complete a task, not mater what that task is, we take satisfaction not merely in the products of that task alone, but also in the doing that has permitted us to be our best selves. So thank you Dad for teaching Mark and me to be spirited men.  I am teaching Elsie to be a spirited woman.

An I bet you thought you were just teaching me righty tighty lefty loosey and to measure twice and cut once.

Reflections on Career and Making Time–A Lesson from the Great Bill Watterson

I’m not a professional gardener or carpenter or furniture maker or restorer.  These things are my passion, but they are not my job.  In my professional life, I am an associate professor at a small state university in Massachusetts where I teach courses in public policy, biomedical ethics, and social research.  I do love teaching, and I also really enjoy the time I spend working with ethics boards within various medical systems.   It is a good job that I mostly enjoy and that affords me a decent salary, benefits, pension, and flexible schedule.  I also get a lot of freedom, which I appreciate.  How I got here deserves some explanation

A small state school in eastern MA was not what I was trained for–I was trained for a position at a major research University.  That I didn’t end up working at an R1 (that is, a PhD granting research institution) surely caused some disappointment among the faculty and deans at the University of Pennsylvania where I earned my masters degrees and doctorate.  With all due respect to my beloved professors, I don’t care–I made the right choice.

Life at an R1 university is not for the faint of heart.  Your life is tied to an endless cycle of funding proposals, data collection, conference presentations, and publishing, publishing, publishing.  Some of that is fine, but at that elite level, the demands for funding and publications affords one little time for other things like, for instance, growing, building, and restoring, not to mention family.  No thank you.  I received such a great education and my training as a researcher was second to none.  I also made a lot of close friends and I remain close to several professors whom I admire deeply.  I have no regrets about going to an elite graduate program, but I also have no regrets about turning my back on that particular rat race when it came time to find a faculty position.

I have been enjoying my sabbatical and reading things unrelated to my professional life (don’t be alarmed, I have also wrapped up some research projects).  Today, I read through Bill Watterson’s (he of Calvin & Hobbes fame) commencement address at Kenyon College in 1990 and it beautifully expressed the way I think about my own career and extra-curricular pursuits.

“But having an enviable career is one thing, and being a happy person is another.

Creating a life that reflects your values and satisfies your soul is a rare achievement. In a culture that relentlessly promotes avarice and excess as the good life, a person happy doing his own work is usually considered an eccentric, if not a subversive. Ambition is only understood if it’s to rise to the top of some imaginary ladder of success.”

Thankfully, I have had the opportunity to allow my interests and ambitions to spread out over many areas. To be sure, many are linked to my professional life, but many are not except, perhaps, in a very abstract sense.  I am an ambitious person and I there are few things I love more than tackling an ambitious project; that should be obvious given the things I write about her.  However, my ambitions are diffuse rather than focused.  Does that make me a bad academic?  Perhaps in the R1 sense of the term.  Does it make me a happy person?  Absolutely it does.

“Someone who takes an undemanding job because it affords him the time to pursue other interests and activities is considered a flake. A person who abandons a career in order to stay home and raise children is considered not to be living up to his potential-as if a job title and salary are the sole measure of human worth.”

I would not consider my job undemanding; being a good teacher (and that is a title I will claim) takes work, as does publishing and consulting.  But I get his point.  Again, there were some folks at my graduate program who really did not understand why I didn’t want to go to an R1.  It was hard to explain that there were other really, really important things I simply refused to sacrifice in order to get there.  I don’t know if that makes me a flake.

You’ll be told in a hundred ways, some subtle and some not, to keep climbing, and never be satisfied with where you are, who you are, and what you’re doing. There are a million ways to sell yourself out, and I guarantee you’ll hear about them.

I’ve written before that people often say to me things like “how do you find the time” or “I wish I had time to work in the garden.”  For one, I don’t spend several hours a day watching TV or scrolling through a Facebook feed as the average American does. Secondly, I consider things in terms of opportunity costs–a tip I learned by reading the chapter “economy” in Thoreau’s Walden many years ago.  I want a bigger house or a newer car or a few thousand dollars more in my salary.  O.K., what do I give up to get those things?  Time away from my family? Less time to teach my daughter how to use hand tools? Must I give up volunteering at my daughter’s school or serving on the board of my local farmer’s market or homeless shelter?  Do I need to cut back on how much time I spend in my garden or at my workbench or writing this blog? Is it worth giving up those things in order to have a bit more money?  The answer is usually no.

This is not to imply that I am endorsing hedonism.  I am doing no such thing.  In fact, I believe that the whole point of life is to be spirited and useful and not just self indulgent.  I am simply saying that the demands of more work and greater efficiency in order to pursue yet probably never achieve an artificially narrow definition of success and happiness forces us to disregard all of the manifold ways that we may contribute to the welfare and happiness of our family, our community, our environment, and yes, ourselves.

“To invent your own life’s meaning is not easy, but it’s still allowed, and I think you’ll be happier for the trouble.”

And indeed I am.