What we can learn about Kansas civic engagement from assembling cheap furniture at home

September 5, 2023 3:33 am
New Hampshire Residents Go To The Polls In Presidential Primary

Keeping track of our government, not to mention participating in elections, can be frustrating work, writes opinion editor Clay Wirestone. (Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

Somehow, and for reasons unclear to me, I’ve become the person in our family responsible for building furniture.

I assure you, this was not my intent.

Back in high school, I constructed a serviceable breadbox in shop class. That was the extent of my professed talents in the area, and as I set out on a career of writing and editing text, worries about hammers and nails and screws and boards faded into the distant lands of misty memory.

Or so I thought.

As apartments and homes arrived, so did furniture. And as furniture arrived, so did the flat boxes from a certain Swedish store whose name I won’t mention here, as well as knockoffs that should be ashamed to call themselves inferior, given what I’m comparing them to. Someone had to assemble these collections of particleboard and metal fasteners. That someone was me.

Why? Well, my husband preferred a method of assembly I call “stare at the instructions, bang a couple of boards together, say something unprintable and stomp out of the room.”

I would remain, study the pictogram guide, and laboriously piece together the couch. Or coffee table. Or chair.

I want to stress that my relative success in this area had nothing to do with talent. Oh, no. I frequently would confuse one side of the board with the other, or mix up screws of varying lengths. I would mutter under my breath as I went back five steps in the instructions, only to do everything the opposite of how I had originally figured it.

Patience makes a difference. Clarity helps. A willingness to admit mistakes and begin again turns a stack of brown wood into a slightly statelier stack of brown wood in the shape of a TV stand.

Can you see where this is going?

We’ve passed Labor Day, which means that political campaigns start heating up in states with off-year elections and the presidential primaries. Once again, we’ll be told that the future of our country depends on us. Will we make the right decisions? Will we be able to distinguish one screw from another that’s ever-so-slightly longer (and supports Donald Trump imposing martial law and remaining president forever)?

I think a lot of us look at politics and public life the way my husband looks at assemble-it-yourself furniture. It infuriates us.

– Clay Wirestone

I think a lot of us look at politics and public life the way my husband looks at assemble-it-yourself furniture.

It infuriates us.

We don’t want to touch it or think about it. We most certainly don’t want to do the dirty work of making something workable out of the confusion. That’s why we turn to others — the smart people, or so we think — to make sense of it for us. They can handle the politics. We just want to live our lives.

Perhaps that makes sense when it comes to cheap items for the home. It doesn’t make sense when it comes to our state and country.

We’re responsible. We have a choice, and offloading our responsibility to others in no way diminishes the reality of that choice. We can demand more of those who claim to represent us. We can learn about public affairs and politicians. We can vote each and every time, no matter the election. We can do this, even if it scuffs up our hands and forces us admit to mistakes along the way.

Listen, I wish that all my furniture arrived in one piece and deposited in my living room by magic.

I wish that the Kansas Legislature devoted itself to actually representing the people of Kansas rather than passing tax cuts for the rich and refusing to raise a finger to help those in needy.

That’s just not our world. That’s not reality.

Pause, take a moment, look at the instructions. Line up the boards and compare the three dozen screws to one another, dividing them by length. Take a deep breath and begin assembling the project, one more godforsaken time.

I’ve done it. You can do it. We can do it.

Clay Wirestone is Kansas Reflector opinion editor. Through its opinion section, Kansas Reflector works to amplify the voices of people who are affected by public policies or excluded from public debate. Find information, including how to submit your own commentary, here.

Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.

Clay Wirestone
Clay Wirestone

Clay Wirestone serves as Kansas Reflector's opinion editor. His columns have been published in the Kansas City Star and Wichita Eagle, along with newspapers and websites across the state and nation. He has written and edited for newsrooms in Kansas, New Hampshire, Florida and Pennsylvania. He has also fact checked politicians, researched for Larry the Cable Guy, and appeared in PolitiFact, Mental Floss, and cnn.com. Before joining the Reflector in summer 2021, Clay spent four years at the nonprofit Kansas Action for Children as communications director. Beyond the written word, he has drawn cartoons, hosted podcasts, designed graphics and moderated debates. Clay graduated from the University of Kansas and lives in Lawrence with his husband and son.