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What’s in a post?

In philosophy class in Sydney during the late 1970s I learnt a very strong and useful lesson, that what we do depends on who we are. Technically, this is expressed as essence (or identity) informs action, but more anecdotally my professors taught me that “do follows be”.

This maxim had quite a pedigree: Dr Wilf Radford channelling Dr Austin Woodbury channelling St Thomas Aquinas channelling a collection of ancient luminaries such as Aristotle and Plato. Across the years I have become aware of many (many!) competing perspectives, principally the doctrine that “form follows function” which I understand as the reverse of “do follows be” or something like “we are what we do” (compared with my preferred framework, “we do what we are”).

Happily the years have also helped me understand something I didn’t grasp when I was a young philosophy student, something which my professors probably understood all too well but were not anxious to see in my typed or laboriously handwritten college assignments: a well-adjusted understanding of life includes a well-stirred mixture of “do follows be” and “form follows function”.

Fast-forward 35 years to my current quest to understand shopping, retail, and many other things cultural as one way to understand journalism better. When I buy items or services and try them out, I experience their design and their usefulness but if I’m careful and check in my peripheral-vision mirror, I can also see my own actions expressing some of my personal identity. What I buy and how I use it today says something about who I am now, but these factors can also influence who I become tomorrow.

I was interested to see how this works in practice. Earlier this year I decided to invest $659 in a do-it-yourself raised garden bed system from Birdies Gardens on the Gold Coast. The buying decision came from our joint household desire to acquire such a garden bed for our little mansion in Ballan, because one of us is already a gardener and one of us wants to become a gardener (or is willing to give it a shot). Essence and identity was actively informing action.

But I also wanted to buy and try the raised garden bed for review on Eat Drink Sleep Shop Australia because that’s what we do here, and it was an opportunity for the function of blogger to inform happened next.

The act itself of buying was not particularly riveting even though, in engineering terms, it was a fairly complex process of deploying web browsing software, online searching using Google algorithms, hypertext mark-up language, shopping cart software, electronic funds transfers and email protocols.

But the trying … the acts of receiving, assembly and use? Now, they were character building in the true sense of “form follows function”. Step 1, delivery. This took a lot longer than the five days promised when we ordered. I fired off a polite email in the direction of the Gold Coast and received a prompt and repentant reply, saying that there had been a problem in the factory and a delay in putting together our order. However, everything was on its way now and would we please accept two gifts as compensation: a Birdies gardener’s planting bench and two Birdies worm towers?

“Well, yes, thanks very much, why not?” we replied, and within a few days two large and heavy boxes landed on the front slab next to our little garden shed. Formidably heavy boxes. Formidable enough to stop me moving them anywhere so I simply cut them open right there on the first available Saturday morning and started the “easy process of assembly”.

Remember our DIY-assembly compost tumbler and the handy shelving? I reckoned I could safely double the advertised assembly time (the tumbler box said “assemble in minutes” and took more than an hour) but what is a multiple of “easy assembly”?

Here’s what you find in the boxes: 20 pieces of 820mm-high coated corrugated metal like the Zincalume you use on your garden patio or shed, and four steel L-shaped corner supports; each of the metal pieces is drilled with two lines of 11 holes and once these are overlapped and aligned, this makes 24 joins around the cross-shaped garden bed.

According to the instructions, each hole gets a bolt, two washers and a wing-nut, so … lemmee see (reaching for pencil behind ear) that’s a jigsaw puzzle with 1080 individual pieces. No, wait: there is also a long piece of rubber lining to go inside the corner supports and another to go around the rim as a safety protector … 1082. This was starting to look daunting even though the instruction sheet was barely a page long, including a detailed diagram. A Saturday morning cinch was turning into a major exercise.

There was another element to the puzzle. Each of the 20 corrugated sheets came with a sheet of cling-film attached to protect the light-tan “paperbark” paintwork but this feature was not mentioned in the instructions. Carefully removing the plastic film took more time and effort but was not included in the “easy assembly” time.

And so I began. At first I started timing myself for this blog report but after the first few hours I gave that away as a bad joke. It would be not only ridiculous to try to count this job in minutes and hours but also time-consuming and annoying in itself. Clearly I had underestimated the job. Let’s just get on with it.

But internally I began to grumble. Grrrr. Remove the cling film, line up the corrugated sheets, get a bolt, two washers and a nut and whack them through the top few holes in each vertical line so that I could achieve a relatively rigid structure in the windy Ballan springtime conditions before returning to fill in the remaining holes.

I realised I was gradually fencing myself in because it was easier to work on the inside of the garden so that the bolt heads not the wing-nuts appeared on the outside of the metal (to match the advertising images). So I found a stool as a step on the inside and a bale of pea straw as a step on the outside and plugged on.

Our young Swedish friend Miranda arrived from Melbourne and found herself press-ganged as a bolt-washer-wing-nut assistant for the holes close to the ground. I had discovered that despite all my good intentions it was physically impossible for me to stand on either side of the corrugated structure and reach down to fit a bolt and washer from one side and (while holding them steady) attach a washer and wing-nut on the other side. We didn’t realise it but it was our choice of the 820mm-high raised bed which had caused this; I would need orang-utan arms to do the job on my own. Thanks Miranda!

The sun was firmly nestling in the western sky by the time Miranda and I had worked our way around the structure and reached the stage where most of the 24 joins had some nuts and bolts in place and the garden bed was finally standing: about half complete. But, ah yes, the old problem of “instruction sheet not matching what’s in the box” finally raised its head. Two things became very obvious: many of the holes which were supposed to line up didn’t; and we were going to be short of washers by a long way.

Grrrr! More grrrr! Check the instructions again; check the diagram. Well, for a start the diagram clearly shows a rubber washer on the inside of each wing-nut and there were none of them. But it also shows a separate steel washer on the inside and the outside. But what’s this? A closer examination suggests that the head of the bolt is roughly the same size as the washers … perhaps the bolt people had supplied bolts with washers incorporated but had not told the instructions people to change their text and diagram?

The local hardware is just across the street so next morning I strolled over and for a handful of change I bought 100 more washers which would hopefully complete the job. It turned out I needed more than 100 but as the job progressed I became less and less obsessed with perfection at each join (bolt, washer, washer, nut) and keener simply to finish the #@$#! job. By mid-afternoon all the holes that lined up were fastened. I did a tour de force with our mighty little Ozito cordless drill to tighten up all the fastenings and as I went, one or two more of the recalcitrant holes came into alignment … fix those one at a time.

Stand back! Now it’s easy to see why all those holes had not lined up perfectly. I was working on a piece of ground which had previously been levelled as a car-parking area: nearly flat but not perfect. Lay a spirit level along the top edge of the raised garden bed (better still, just squat down and look with a beady eye) and the problem is obvious. It looks as though the holes have been machine-measured and engineered for installation on a flat surface and would be perfect on a similarly machine-measured and engineered surface. But there you go … my garden is flat but not perfect, like most gardens, and so a percentage of those holes will forever remain unfulfilled.

Tell you the truth I can’t really bring myself to care right now: the structure seems fine, the dedicated gardener in our family is very happy, and if any of those damned holes leak I’ve got a solution: Selley’s pipe and gutter gunk (sealant) ought to do the trick just fine!

NEXT … fill the above-ground swimming-pool sized void. We visited Crossroads garden supplies at the edge of town and consulted the guru … he reckoned we’d need four bales of pea straw to line the base and provide nutrients, topped with 5 cubic metres of half-and-half soil-compost mix: $270 later, including delivery, and the ingredients were piled in the yard, waiting.

Naively, I had imagined us plonking the straw bales into the bottom of the void then the garden truck backing up and tipping the soil inside, job done. Ho ho: not so fast. “The little truck that could” couldn’t reach over those 820mm sides so we scored a big shovelling job. Divvied-up it was a morning’s hard labour. Our Central Victorian Highlands’ version of the Antarctic blizzard made this a nerve-wracking and challenging task but doesn’t beer taste better when the gardening’s done?!

Back to my philosophical ramblings … my conclusion is that the imperfections in my garden, which revealed the consequential imperfections in the engineered design, have helped me stop obsessing about perfection and get closer to a more peaceful state of mind (“near enough is good enough”).

This is a reassuring result for me and one which can be useful in my work as a reviewer of products and services. Might even be something in this for other reviewers.

Many reviewers, especially in the food and travel field, but also in the literature and new products fields, draw attention to imperfections. I know; I have done it myself and have read and edited thousands of similar literary, movie, food, wine and accommodation reviews since 1981. Drawing attention to imperfections does what sociologist Daniel Miller says some academics do to other academics: make yourself look big by making others look small.

You see it a lot: Reviewer X goes to Restaurant Y and criticises the service, the ambiance, the ingredients, the style of cooking, and then the amount of the bill at the end. Many reviews go so far as to allocate a score for these features, effectively ranking the restaurant on a long list from “perfect” to “rotten”. I think this encourages the next guest to look for imperfections instead of enjoying the overall experience, and it encourages customers to anticipate being ripped off, sometimes even before they sit down.

Wouldn’t it be better for us journalist-reviewers to focus on the excellent aspects of a meal, or a performance, or a holiday/travel experience? There’s no need to sugar-coat everything or to ignore frustrating moments, but in my experience frustrating moments can be exploited in the telling of a story without trashing a product or a service.

Take the bolts, washers and our raised and filled garden. In the end the important things were that the price was affordable, the service pleasant and accommodating, and the construction and filling worked fine in the end, with a few minor adjustments and allowances. Now, a month later, the veges and flowers are shooting up and soon we’ll be harvesting.

Maybe I’m becoming a gardener after all?

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