It was the close of Spring last year that I (like many fellow prisoners on this iron space sphere of death) found myself encumbered with a glorious lack of social expectation. It was as if the evil genie summoned by our secret introvert wishes finally delivered a small, long-overdue blessing as the sole upside to the regular and continued risk of horrible plague-mangling. And like so many, I found myself really examining who I was as a person, and how I could be better looking for a new distraction from the general horribleness that is... <gestures around, generally>

My Prusa i3 MK3S; an infernal miracle machine
My Prusa i3 MK3S; an infernal miracle machine

It was thusly, equipped with funds that could not be expended on activities now tainted by the threat of minor death, that I began my journey down the rabbit hole of 3D printing. This technology I'd been admiring from afar for so many years had finally matured enough (unlike myself) to become quite accessible and enjoyable. Not merely a trick or gimmick, but actual science-magic, 3D printing promised a lifestyle of instant gratification. Should you wish for accoutrements not yet within your grasp, you could now suddenly will these things into existence. At such a low cost so as to be (for all practical purposes) free, and so subversive in its empowering self-service modal in the face of planned-obsolescence and disposable consumables, one could hardly believe such a thing to be legal.

Well, it started innocently enough with some straightforward PLA (a material often recommended to beginners for it's balance of versatility, low cost, and forgiving learning curve). I made a test cube, then a benchmark boat, then a frog. I began to create my own models and make them actual. The satisfaction was real, but the descent into obsession was more of a sudden breakneck free-fall, and it wasn't long before I found myself trolling Craigslist for spools of more exotic filament materials, discards of other would-be enthusiasts who lacked the lack of a life I now did not lack (reminder to self: investigate building the Lack enclosure).

A fan of it's durability, PETG became my next go-to material for what I considered to be, at the time, a refined sensibility. My default printer speeds slowed to a hot crawl; just one of the many demands of this fickle plastic. No longer would my prints accept the wide tolerances I had naively set out with. Days were spent calibrating, testing, and recalibrating. Learning every nuance of the machinery fascinated me, and when I finally added PETG to my corral of reliable possibilities, I discovered TPU.

TPU was my latest realization that we are indeed living in Future Times™. A rubber-like sort of plastic, it could yield crushable models that would retain their shape, or dense rigid pieces with excellent "hand-feel" (perfect for toys and game pieces). But with this newfound capability came even more exacting demands; new idler adjustments, minimal extruder retractions, and higher material price-points. Wild excitement fueled my navigation into waters I previously found intimidating and uninviting, and I returned rewarded with knowledge of a machine that truly felt limitless in it's possibilities.

I soon found myself with a solution itching for problems. Every family member became someone who needed a print, every home project an excuse to fire up CAD modeling software. Spools of filament quickly filled my modest storage box, and soon after, my closet.

Then one day, it stopped. I took a break to work on some software projects I had been putting off and just like that, another obsession spirited away my attention to a place that was no longer part of the tangible world. Months passed and the machine languished, recipient of my occasional glances while I worked daily at my nearby desk. I had other concerns, and as our pandemic year plodded on, worsening with every day, my inspiration and creative will withered and I became impoverished of a single interested motivation.

As subsequent months very marginally improved, so improved my disposition toward meaningful endeavors. I found myself spitefully over-engineering solutions for the most minor (and none of the major) frustrations in my life: a small spacer for a door latch, a rod holder for this very specific shelf, a riser for my computer monitor. The machine did not judge my questionable extravagances for what could have been otherwise resolved by simple pieces of cut wood. 1

The year ended arbitrarily and without the punctuating fanfare of a healthy human solar revolution. I reflected that while I had been (so far) fortunate to remain more or less unscathed, so much of my personality had been consumed and dulled by the daily throb of unchangeable, constrained routine. That routine of family maintenance, of work duties, and of general lack of options became the drab backdrop of our collective human record. As social circles remerged, I found myself unexcited to discuss much of anything, for our stories were all the same: an exhausted "just... hanging in there" accompanied by a half-hearted grin with occasional news of personal tragedy as an horrifying change of pace (and even then recognizing that this was a privileged best-case scenario; our malaise incomparable to the adjacent suffering of so many around us).

But rather inadvertently, I found an unexpected well of conversational joy upon recalling my not far-forgotten dalliances with extruded plastics. While I cannot attest to the genuine interest of all my conversational compatriots, none put a pause to my pedantry. Whether wandering minds or appreciative ears are to blame, I cannot say, but I was met by a level of indulgence previously unexperienced by my over-explanations and nuanced detailing. I might speculate that the events of the past months may have yielded a humanity with (counter-intuitively) a deal more patience, but that consideration is a bit too far-fetched even for me to take seriously. In any case, it is not out of line to suggest that 3D printing saved the atrophied legs of my social life from completely collapsing upon returning to terra firma.

My printer has now begun to see use again; not in the long marathons it was inaugurated with, but in the regular rotation of other proper tools for the projects set before me. I regard it now less with a mad unfocused need, and more a considered appreciativeness. We exist in a future of gradually escalating wonders, and because of that subtle pace of advancement, we often remain unimpressed, tepid in our assessments, always expecting more even after previous expectations are met. On the face of it, it's a small thing to add a single dimension of realness to a rendering of imagination, but I can't help but become a bit entranced by it. I'll take it.

  1. and ultimately, was. Sometimes a few screws, a 2x4, and a saw are really all you need.