As far as I can tell, getting through four years at Yale is a marathon of incompletions. I can’t count the papers I’ve written that got kicked out the door ten minutes before a deadline, in working order but well short of fine-tuned or pride-worthy. Who can chew on Plato or Ulysses long enough to do their depth and flavor justice? My poor housemate Eric spends every free minute he’s got trying to read 400 pages of War and Peace every week, but he also has to go to squash practice and eat a couple meals every day, so he’s screwed. The same goes for conversations, lazy mornings under the comforter, great dates—all of them have to get cut short if we hope to keep pace with life in the Ivy League. We’re under the gun from the moment we set foot on campus, and to linger too long on any one thing means getting hopelessly behind on everything else. So we bang it out, wrap it up, send it in, and keep moving.
The only good medicine I’ve found is the solid, calming satisfaction that comes from making things. With a really basic set of skills, all of which are thoroughly learnable if you set your mind to picking them up, you can bring a side-table or a salad bowl to soul-feeding completion in a way that’s impossible for ideas and relationships. The only things I’ve ever finished to a fare-thee-well at Yale are things I made with my hands, and they’ve gone a long way towards keeping me sane.
Of course a good bit of what makes the whole Yale experience worthwhile is that it asks so much of us. We’re lucky as hell to go to a school that’s willing to absorb as much ambition and energy as we have to offer. This is what we signed up for, and no doubt we’ll be better off for having learned how to manage it once we’re handed diplomas and hurled out into the Rest of the World. But it’s also exhausting and anxiety-inducing to endure so many premature paper-births and early conversation-deaths.
My roommate Evan and I spent most of last spring and a bunch of this fall building a dining room table. Some of the joints are crooked, and it wobbles a little bit so sometimes we have to stick a sugar packet or a beer cap under one of the legs, but by the time we carried it through the front door of our apartment there wasn’t anything left to do to it. We’d sanded and shaved and lacquered it as much as made sense; then, it was done. It’s nice to hand in a problem set or stick a ten-page paper in a dropbox and be rid of it, but it feels a whole lot better to eat dinner at a table that used to be a pile of boards and is now as functional and pretty as it is ever going to get.
But I’ve found you can get that buzz from more hands-on projects. I made the ceramic mug that sits on my dresser and holds my keys, the goofy little set of plywood shelves that fits under my desk, a little side-table for my record player. I didn’t save any meaningful amount of money by doing that stuff, and IKEA definitely makes sturdier furniture than I do, but I wasn’t shooting for thrift or quality.
Without exception, those objects are the result of my having decided to sneak off to one of the handful of places on campus where you can make things (Berkeley Woodshop, Sculpture Building on Edgewood, CEID, and the Trumbull pottery studio are among the easiest to access) and use my hands to keep my head above water and my feet on the ground. Make something! You’ll dig it.