DRMacIver's Notebook

Care Work and Fixing Things

Care Work and Fixing Things

I ended up drawing a larger hand for inspiration today. In order of drawing:

  1. Queen of Pentacles
  2. Page of Pentacles
  3. Three of Swords
  4. Nine of Wands
  5. Ace of Wands

To me, these seem to naturally organise themselves around the three of swords, which is a fairly negative card: Heartbreak, loneliness, betrayal, which I naturally want to connect up to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. People are certainly feeling lonely right now what with the disconnection of not seeing our loved ones. “Feeling isolated from those you love” is literally one of the meanings of the card.

Betrayal also feels apt. I’ve not been betrayed by anyone I love, but there is definitely a sense of being betrayed by the world and our institutions. Heartbreak? Maybe not literally, but the world definitely seems a swarm of negative emotions right now. This is definitely a COVID-19 card.

A friend who is rather more expert at tarot than I am pointed out a natural pairing: Queen of Pentacles with Nine of Wands, Page of Pentacles with Ace of Wands.

To me these pairings make me think of two sorts of practical orientations towards the world.

The first is what you might call care work.

The Queen of Pentacles is nurturing, resourceful, trustwothy. She takes care of others. She’s practical, matter of fact, and trustworthy. She’s very much a maternal figure, one you can imagine running a large family.

The Queen of Pentacles does this out of a spirit of warmth and big-heartedness, a desire to nurture others, but I think the Nine of Wands reveals something of the truth of what such care actually looks like: Exhausting. The nine of wands represents defensiveness, perseverance, stamina. He’s tired and wounded, but he persists. Defensive, cynical perhaps, but not angry. He may protect others as well as himself, but he’s cautious.

This combination makes me think of Pratchett’s Witches.

From “I Shall Wear Midnight”:

‘I wish it wasn’t you doing this, Tiff. You’re not sixteen yet and I see you running around nursing people and bandaging people and who knows what chores. You shouldn’t have to be doing all of that.’

‘Yes, I know,’ said Tiffany.

‘Why?’ he asked again.

‘Because other people don’t, or won’t, or can’t, that’s why.’

‘But it’s not your business, is it?’

‘I make it my business. I’m a witch. It’s what we do. When it’s nobody else’s business, it’s my business,’ Tiffany said quickly.

‘Yes, but we all thought it was going to be about whizzing around on brooms and suchlike, not cutting old ladies’ toenails for them.’

‘But people don’t understand what’s needed,’ said Tiffany. ‘It’s not that they are bad; it’s just that they don’t think. Take old Mrs Stocking, who’s got nothing in the world except her cat and a whole lot of arthritis. People were getting her a bite to eat often enough, that is true, but no one was noticing that her toenails were so long they were tangling up inside her boots and so she’d not been able to take them off for a year! People around here are OK when it comes to food and the occasional bunch of flowers, but they are not around when things get a little on the messy side. Witches notice these things. Oh, there’s a certain amount of whizzing about, that’s true enough, but mostly it’s only to get quickly to somewhere there is a mess.’

Her father shook his head. ‘And you like doing this?’



Tiffany had to think about this, her father’s eyes never leaving her face. ‘Well, Dad, you know how Granny Aching always used to say, “Feed them as is hungry, clothe them as is naked, and speak up for them as has no voices”? Well, I reckon there is room in there for “Grasp for them as can’t bend, reach for them as can’t stretch, wipe for them as can’t twist”, don’t you? And because sometimes you get a good day that makes up for all the bad days and, just for a moment, you hear the world turning,’ said Tiffany. ‘I can’t put it any other way.’

Her father looked at her with a kind of proud puzzlement. ‘And you think that’s worth it, do you?’

‘Yes, Dad!’

‘Then I am proud of you, jiggit, you are doing a man’s job!’

He’d used the pet name only the family knew, and so she kissed him politely and did not tell him that he was unlikely to see a man doing the job that she did.

I was listening to Journal Entries yesterday, in particular the entry about the paper situating feminist epistemology.

From the paper itself:

As well as affecting the evidence that they have access to, Hartsock argues that women’s experiences can also affect the way they weight the importance of different questions and activities. One example Hartsock provides, from Marilyn French’s novel The Women’s Room, makes this point especially vividly:

Washing the toilet used by three males, and the floor and walls around it, is, Mira thought, coming face to face with necessity. And that is why women were saner than men, did not come up with the mad, absurd schemes men developed; they were in touch with necessity, they had to wash the toilet bowl and floor (French 1978: 214).

The idea being captured here is that the roles women play in society affect the weight they give to different concerns and questions. There are some questions and topics that they don’t have the luxury of spending time and effort on (and others that they are vividly aware of the material importance of) because they have to clean up piss on a regular basis.

I’ll hold off on weighing in too strongly on the gender politics of this, but I think it is more than fair to say that carer roles are female coded, and care skews significantly female in numbers.

The dual to care work is what you might think of as fixing things.

The ace of wands is “Creative Force”, “Enthusiasm”, “Confidence”, “Courage”. Some actions suggested are “Inventing a better way”, “being ready to tackle the world”, “tackling a challenging task”.

This pairs well with the page of pentacles: “Have an effect”, “Be practical”. “Mold the physical world”.

“Fixing things” is absolutely the essence of what French terms “the mad, absurd schemes men developed”. It’s a category with a very masculine coded energy to it. It’s what you do when there is a big problem and something must be done to solve it.

(Side note: I really doubt there’s much if anything that makes one gender or another intrinsically better suited to these roles. It’s mostly just gendering and culture. I do think the gendered aspect of these roles is important to pay attention to to understand how this plays out).

Care work and fixing things both exist to solve problems in the world that affect people. Fixing things is for big one off failures - they might fail again, sure, but they don’t fail on any predictable schedule, or in exactly the same way. Each problem is big, and novel, and you need to figure it out and do something clever (but hopefully not too clever) to solve it.

Care work, on the other hand, consists of fixing the endless grind of little problems which affect the world on a day to day basis. Problems that are important but unglamorous, and that will keep coming back over and over.

Care work is work that is centered on tasks you know you’re going to have to do, while fixing things is centered on less predictable tasks that you only know are needed when something breaks.

Care work is by no means unskilled, but one of its distinguishing features from fixing things is that once you have acquired the relevant skills you just have to do the work. There’s no clever shortcuts, you just need to keep things up day in and day out. You’ll gradually get more efficient as you learn what corners to cut, how to do individual tasks better, etc. but the savings are at best constant factors - they might make it significantly faster, but they don’t fundamentally change the nature of the task.

In contrast, fixing things is very cleverness driven. You find the right kludge or clever way of looking at the problem, and suddenly the whole thing cracks wide open.

A distinguishing feature of this is that care work looks less impressive than it is, and fixing things looks more impressive. Care work you look at and go “Pft, I could have done that” (you probably could, but you don’t want to and also it would have taken you much longer and you’d have blown the time budget as a result), while fixing things you look at and go “Wow, I could never have done that” (you probably could, they just invested a lot of time and effort to develop a good intution on the subject).

I do sometimes suspect that there is a discounting in the other direction too: We treat care work as exhausting, and fixing things as fun and creative, but I do notice (among other things) how much burnout there is in software developers and suspect a great deal of this is that the relative ease of any given fix compared to the endless toil of care work causes us to discount the hidden costs of context switching and constantly fighting new and unique fires each time.

In general I think there’s a risk that whichever one you think is most important, you tend to discount the other, because each of these things is hard in very different ways. Carers think of fixers as lazy, and fixers think of carers as stupid. They’re both wrong of course.

There is definitely a credit gap, where we over valorise fixing and under valorise care. There is, I think, no doubt that this is the case, and little doubt that the way we gender the relevant tasks and skills is a major part of that. One of the major things we are seeing in the COVID-19 crisis is how many things that are care work in this sense are critical in a way that was not previously appreciated.

We are also, however, also seeing the need for fixing things. The systems we live in our breaking in all sorts of new and exciting ways. We’re seeing people adapting creatively, finding new ways to use things, adapting and figuring out new things on the fly as we find new problems and new ways things are broken.

We’re also seeing this at the larger level: The basic response to the disease demonstrably needs both parts. We need both to take care of people as and when they get ill, and we also need new solutions to try to ultimately solve the problem. Focusing on either to the exclusion of the other would be a mistake, and it would be a mistake that potentially kills hundreds of thousands of people.

Part of this is, I think, going to involve acknowledging that this dichotomy between the two skill sets is rather blurrier than we often pretend it is - there’s no sharp line at which you go from care work to fixing things, and each includes some of the other.

Another part is going to be to learn to value the skill set of the other side, and acknowledge that each has different tasks and difficulties, and without both being well handled the whole system falls apart.

A way I’ve seen this personally is figuring out what a valuable help customer service people can be to software development. Customer service is very much care work - most of it is just talking to people, hand holding, answering the same basic questions over and over again. It is, as French puts it, “coming face to face with necessity”, and as a result they understand how actual users use the system, and this is an expertise that as your coworker you can draw upon through the simple expedient of treating them with respect and asking them questions.

They, too, can draw on you and your expertise, because as a developer you have the ability to change the system, so they can just come to you with problems and you can fix those problems.

The ideal, of course, would be that everybody would be amazing at both care work and fixing things, but I think the reality is that this is impossible. Berkson’s paradox is probably causing me to overestimate its difficult, but ultimately both are hard skillsets that take a long time to acquire, and don’t overlap that much (although in order to peak at either you probably have to learn some of the other), so it’s worth a certain amount of specialisation despite the overlapping skill sets, and given that we should learn to treat each side with respect, and to learn the skills adjacent to the other way of working.