The Common Good

Lessons from Caine’s Arcade: The Vital Joy of Making Things

Caine's Arcade in his dad's auto parts store
Caine's Arcade in his dad's auto parts store

In case you missed it, the viral video of the week is a delightful short film called Caine's Arcade. In the video, a 9 year old from East L.A. constructs an elaborate cardboard arcade in his dad’s used car parts store and dons a custom-made shirt on days the arcade is open for business.

But because of their location and changes in the parts market that have moved his dad’s business mostly online, Caine gets no customers until a filmmaker named Nirvan walks in one day.

At long last, Caine gets to present the ticket options (a handmade fun pass costs $2 for 500 turns) When Nirvan wins a game, Caine crawls inside the box to manually dispense Nirvan’s winnings from a the roll of tickets.

Watching the film for the first time this week, I was filled with a joy so overwhelming it eventually brought tears. According to Nirvan’s Twitter stream, I was not alone in that reaction. Even grown men allegedly cried.

Perhaps it was the storytelling, which is lovely, lean and effective. Perhaps it was a longing for the simpler days when arcade games provided a technological thrill that we understood was restricted to certain locations, at certain hours, rather than at such close reach, pleasure is sometimes indistinguishable from a prison.

But maybe Caine’s story strikes us because in him we see the embodiment of something we’d like to think the American people still are, but haven’t seen in evidence much anymore. Creativity like his is part of the mythos of America, but we all know — even musician Jack White knows — that it’s increasingly hard to find these days.

As White told the New York Times Magazine in a recent interview, “You ask a kid, ‘What are you doing this Saturday?’ and they’ll be playing video games or watching cable, instead of building model cars or airplanes or doing something creative. Kids today never say, ‘Man, I’m really into remote-controlled steamboats.’ They never say that.”

Notre Dame sociologist Christian Smith finds much the same in his recent survey of American young adults, Lost in Transition. Though Smith et al don’t say it as plainly as White, an unspoken implication of their research on the challenges and morality of 18- to 23 year olds is that the passive consumption of TV and social media has largely replaced tactile creative pursuits.

For the emerging adults they interview, work exists mainly as a source of the financial means to buy things — and “things” rarely if ever include cultural experiences or materials for hands-on activities like knitting, painting, music, cooking or woodwork. Some of this could be undoubtedly traced to shrinking school budgets and the disappearance of courses like home economics and shop class. But school isn’t the only place you learn such things.

It was my grandmother who taught me to knit, my father to play guitar, my mother to cook and sew, my uncle to fold paper into precisely creased birds, boats and boxes. And what they didn’t actually teach they modeled. When I improvised my first bookshelf several years ago, using scrap wood from the streets of Brooklyn, I must have accessed latent memories of my grandfather stirring up sweet-smelling sawdust motes in his basement shop as he sawed and hammered on various repairs or projects, me and my siblings trailing along. And when I dragged a heavy sander up three flights of stairs to redo the parquet wood floor in my Williamsburg bedroom, it must partly have owed to once seeing my parents lay and seal tiles for a wood stove to stand on.

Through their lessons and example, these relatives bequeathed to me a deep love of making things. So when I see Caine painstakingly cutting out the cardboard pieces for a new game, I get it. What motivates him is not just an entrepreneurial spirit, but the joy of imagination and creation. And the joy is such because it’s what he was made to do — not just in the sense of a boy probably wired for a future engineering career but as a human being.

By the biblical account, humankind was made to carry on God’s creative work through the cultivation of the earth. God provides the materials, but it’s our job to plant gardens, weave fabric, make wine and food, construct buildings and so on. Thus the hands-on joy of making things is part of being fully human.

How can we better live that out in our own lives and interactions with younger generations? Maybe it’s slowly cutting back nightly TV or Facebook time to make room for more constructive pursuits. Maybe it’s budgeting more time for a project so a child can watch and learn while we work. Or maybe it’s letting a kid cut up boxes we don’t need anymore.

Let’s prove Jack White a bit cynical, shall we? Can we help inspire a generation of Caines? Whatever your age, it’s not too late to join him.

Anna Broadway is a writer and editor living near San Francisco. The author of Sexless in the City: A Memoir of Reluctant Chastity, she is a regular contributor to the Her.meneutics blog and has also written for Books and Culture, Patheos, RejectApathy, Radiant and Beliefnet.

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