Thursday, December 19, 2013

Problems that can be Solved by Punching Things

I was sitting at the front desk in the library, typing away to the background lull of studying students. The hundreds of mouths muttering over their books like a medieval choir of monks chanting chemistry formulas. But that night, the medieval chorus had a drummer. A small irregular beat, dull and heavy. The drumming increased in intensity till I recognized the sound for what it was- the desperate pounding of a sleep-deprived student.  A bleary-eyed student who had been ridiculed and mocked by four consecutive chapters of review questions, who had read and reread the textbook until her fingers were stained an off-yellow color by the highlighter, a student who had turned to the last refuge of the all-nighter-- caffeine-- only to have her quarters stolen by a surly vending machine which dangled the beverage just out of reach. 

When I walked over to the machine, she was kneeling, trying in vain to reach an arm up through the dispenser slot. She had already tried rocking the machine[1] and stabbing the buttons without success. I explained I had some experience with this particular recalcitrant vendor, and stepped forward to assess the situation. The drink had been trapped diagonally between its shelf and the transparent plastic cover. With one succinct punch to the plastic pane, the drink rebounded and fell down with a plunk.

She thanked me, I smiled, and we went back to our tasks.

There is something deeply satisfying in a task that can be solved simply by punching something[2]. Much of the "work" I've done in my life has been in pursuit of an academic education, and therefore, mental, abstract, and immaterial. While that also means the things I work on are new and interesting, occasionally the lack of substance of it all can be extremely frustrating.

Which is why it is nice to fix things by punching them. Problems that don't need calculation and planning, don't need creativity or a new angle, they just need brute effort. There's a job. You pay the price in pain and sheer exertion. Job is finished.

Splitting wood is my favorite chore for this exact reason.  Yeah, sure, you can refine your swing, sharpen your axe (or maul, in my case), but when it comes down to it, there's nothing to do but hit the wood really hard with a really heavy piece of metal. Your progress is extremely evident. You see how much wood you have to split, and you see how much you have split. You know everything, and the only variables you need to monitor are how fast you're going and how hard you're hitting. Simple. Satisfying.

In my mind, that's as close to the Platonic ideal of work as it gets.

Now don't get me wrong-- I love mental work too.  I will fiddle with tricky riddles or math problems long after I should have looked up the answer. A lively debate or intricate paper can be fascinating and fun. But sometimes the world is just a little too complicated, and I don't even know how to get a firm grip on understanding the situation, much less on how to solve it.

Sometimes, you just want to have a problem you can punch until it's solved[3]

[1] Don't do this. Vending machines kill more people than sharks. 
[2] This does not apply to people.
[3] Seriously, people are not one of the problems you can solve by punching. It just makes things worse.

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