Sunday, January 6, 2013

DIY Does Not Suck, Despite What You Must Think

I haven't written in here forever. I haven't had anything to say.

But I've had this tab open in my browser for a very long time. It's an article on BuzzFeed, 39 DIY Gifts You'd Actually Want to Receive, by Alanna Okun, because I've wanted to remark upon it to someone. However, I don't have visitors, and my commentary might start a fight, so I'm just going to complain here where nobody will see it.

Alanna Okun, Assistant-Editor - Shift
Image: Miscellany News, Vassar
Let's start with the title of this article. It's insulting because it presumes that do-it-yourself (DIY) crafts are inherently repulsive or undesirable. The title suggests that despite the fact these gifts are DIY, they have other qualities that counteract this negative aspect. Unlikely as it may seem, given their DIY nature, a reasonable, mature person might somehow be interested in the items selected in this list.

That's insulting because the DIY ethic should be encouraged. Consumerism is a mental disease and infinite growth economy is a very dangerous fallacy. These philosophies encourage greed, hoarding, materialism, unhealthful competition, envy/jealousy and paranoia. They do not contribute to communities and social relationships, and they impress a heavy burden upon environmental concerns at every level. Conversely, people relearning self-sufficiency is a useful step toward emergency preparedness. People learning how to better their dexterity and cognition by hands-on crafts should be encouraged, not derided. Exercises and activities that support people exploring creative expression and crafting items for their household or gifts for others are beneficial to people and communities. Ms. Okun believes that making things with your hands is deserving of insult, and that purchasing mass-manufactured crap from a corporate behemoth is the superior decision.

That said...

In her article, item #2, the painted camera strap, seems a very odd choice for a list of amazing, impressive items. Basically, it is a regular camera strap that someone has daubed color onto. Ms. Okun's assumption is that much of her readership must not own a smartphone or even a digital camera, that they instead tote around rapidly obsolete analog, film cameras. That's how important this simple and uncreative gift idea is, to her. She looked around at everything everyone was making, and a discolored analog camera strap stood out to her as an artifact of genius and innovation, owning the #2 position on her list.

The fact that it took someone 45 minutes to make this item astounds me. That must include drying time for the wrong kind of paint.

#4 is the Studded DIY iPhone Case. This is a regular phone case someone glued things onto. The concept of smearing paint onto an object was slightly more mind-blowing to Ms. Okun than this, the concept of gluing one thing onto another. I'm beginning to think that Ms. Okun heard from an acquaintance that DIY things were crap, and without research or even a shade of doubt, accepted this ill-formed opinion as gospel. From that point on, she avoided even learning about anything that might be DIY. Hence, at this late date and at her stage of development...

Let's see, she graduated Needham H.S., MA, in 2008... she will turn 23 years old this year. Huh. Okay, so she's not totally a worldly, seasoned adult, but someone who has successfully navigated two decades yet still is mystified by painting and gluing is... well, I wouldn't have expected that. She has more experience with PBR tallboys than painting and gluing. Well, why not? Our privileged western society enables all sorts of aberrant and unexpected lifestyles.

That explains her astonishment at #5, Decorated Tea Towels. Perhaps it was her time at Vassar that impressed her with the importance of a good tea towel. Myself, I wouldn't know what to do with one, but if I saw one printed I could guess whether it was a stencil or a roller-ink print or anything else, and I would be left evaluating the skill of the artwork. The fact that someone magically impressed an image of something representing something else onto a piece of fabric, onto a tea towel, makes this stand out as an artifact of advanced civilization, testimony to the relentless ability of the human spirit.

#6 Nebula Pillow, "Because the only thing better than a pillow fight is a SPACE PILLOW FIGHT." I can think of a few things better than a pillow fight. Seriously! Here, let me try:
She's freakin' awesome.
  • the love of a good cat
  • Sebastian Joe's Nicollet Ave. Pot Hole ice cream
  • that certain snow that packs tight, hefts light, and holds true even at high velocity
  • vaginas
  • Dorothy Parker, Mark Twain, David Sedaris, Maya Angelou, Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., Xenophon
  • Tina Fey, Amy Poehler, Maria Bamford, Amy Sedaris, Will Ferrell, Paul F. Tompkins, Stephen Colbert, Janeane Garofalo, Penn & Teller
  • international travel and the food this entails
  • homebrewing
That wasn't hard at all. I cut myself off rather than attempting to compose a semi-complete list. Let the record show I am unimpressed by hyperbole as a band-aid for poor writing.

Nos. 7-10. Ms. Okun begins to feel the strain of creative copywriting and momentarily abnegates her self-imposed responsibility with a mere "Directions here." These four items are astounding enough to merit inclusion on her "OMG everyone look at this" list, yet they don't provoke enough of an emotional response for her to transliterate their cultural imperative into words. After this she relies heavily on "Find out how here" and variants thereof, having clearly spent her wad on the first six marvels of homesteady industry.

And so on. Jump to #26, Magnetic Tote Bag. This is where we see Ms. Okun, BuzzFeed Staff, Assistant Editor at BuzzFeed, misspell "cryptic" and fail to catch it for three weeks and counting. People make mistakes. Bloggers make mistakes. Soi-disant editors do not make mistakes.

#32 Floor Cushion. "Genius," Ms. Okun proclaims this. I've seen genius (Neil deGrasse Tyson, Nate Silver, Ada Lovelace, Marilyn Vos Savant to be quite literal) and I beg to differ. The beanbag chair has been invented, the ottoman has been invented, and floor cushions have been invented. Ms. Okun's selection does not represent a substantially innovative or elegant design, so I question her choice of words.

#36 Glitter Bottle Necklaces. The selection alone tells us who we're dealing with.

#39 Animal Bookends, "Because nothing says 'I love you' like a bright-blue hippo." Really. Really?
  • doing household chores
  • a little kiss on the back of the neck
  • standing by one's side through family illness and personal tragedy
  • representing the loved one in the best possible light to friends and family
  • remembering what the loved one likes on a pizza, or making a coffee the way they prefer
  • daily verbal reminders like "don't ever change" and "I love how you [inherent trait]"
And in going over this list, I will concede the point to Ms. Okun. All of these are substantially better ways to say "I love you." But I am hard-pressed to conjure a technique equivalent to a bright-blue hippo. Nothing does say "I love you" quite the way an irrelevant, non sequitorial gesture of wasted effort and resource consumption does.
"Believe me, this took less work than it takes to describe."
Chet: "I know how much you love reading, darling, so Happy Valentine's Day."
Elisa: "It's my birthday, actually. This is May."
Chet: "... I knew that."
Elisa: "What is this? Why are you giving me a blue hippo?"
Chet: "You love the color blue..."
Elisa: "My favorite color is peach. I'm wearing it right now, in my sundress and my hairband."
Chet: "...and you love hippos."
Elisa: "I love the Patagonian cavy, with peacock spiders a close second. I haven't thought about hippos since my department staff meeting last month."
Chet: "But you love reading, I know this for a fact. This is a bookend."
Elisa: "You were with me when I bought a Nook to replace my broken Kindle."
Chet: "Hey, I took a lot of time to make this for you."
Elisa: "It looks like you took a toy hippo, glued it to a block, and spray-painted it. I'm guessing the drying time for high-gloss paint took longer than the actual assembly, including resource allocation."
Chet: "Why are you looking at me like that?"
Elisa: "Because I'm peering into the near future, where I'm less of a partner and more of a caregiver for someone like you."

The icing on the cake is how the instructions preserve the original crafter's mistake. She only theorizes what she could have done to improve the end product but does not rewrite the instructions for a perfect finished product. Additionally, the instructions do not include any ideas for making the toy stick to the wood. In two words, "Directions here," Ms. Okun transforms mere laziness into blatant, underhanded deceit.

Seriously, this is a thing. Grilled rat and snake on skewers.
Image: my 2011 trip to Battambang, Cambodia
I'm led to conclude that this Best Of list is actually a subtle anti-DIY screed. The extent of Ms. Okun's hatred of all things DIY has driven her to appear to promote it. "Hey everyone," she caterwauls, "look at some homemade stuff. What's amazing about it is that it isn't complete shit, like we'd every one of us expect it to be." She then proceeds to select and underscore not the most interesting DIY crafts, not the most beautiful or the most useful, but a trove of items purposely chosen to mock the practice.

It would be like trying to convince someone that international cuisine is not dangerous or disgusting but actually quite admirable and delicious, then proffering grilled rat or snake for a snack. Yes, valid and tasty in Cambodia but not as accessible a choice to a privileged Westerner as, say, pad thai or Korean BBQ.

Or like trying to ease a skeptic into the joys of self-publicated literature, then gifting them with a select title.

Am I envious because someone else, barely above drinking age, scored a writing position with a hip online culture magazine right off the bat? Maybe.
Am I especially critical of other, more prominently displayed editors? Surely.

Even so, what the hell is this article? What kind of person looks at this sad selection of minimal-effort crafts and thinks, Wow, everything I understood about DIY is wrong... in a good way! What kind of person marvels at this and is filled with the urge to transmit this information to others?

UPDATE: It turns out I'm not that familiar with BuzzFeed. I just read a bunch of articles. I, um...

Someone like me would not find a place at BuzzFeed. Best of luck to Ms. Okun, and happy new year to everyone else.

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