Thursday, May 28, 2009

The Case for Working With Your Hands


If I didn't have a fear of the printed word, I'd get Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry Into the Value of Work:

When we praise people who do work that is straightforwardly useful, the praise often betrays an assumption that they had no other options. We idealize them as the salt of the earth and emphasize the sacrifice for others their work may entail. Such sacrifice does indeed occur — the hazards faced by a lineman restoring power during a storm come to mind. But what if such work answers as well to a basic human need of the one who does it? I take this to be the suggestion of Marge Piercy’s poem “To Be of Use,” which concludes with the lines “the pitcher longs for water to carry/and a person for work that is real.” Beneath our gratitude for the lineman may rest envy.

I work with my hands, so this is familiar territory for me. Though in my experience, there isn't that much envy. Which is a shame, because there should be. I get huge satisfaction from a job gone right. Jobs gone wrong are another story, but there are few things more satisfying than working your way through a complex mechanical or electronic problem and defeating it... through thinkin', usually.

The trades suffer from low prestige, and I believe this is based on a simple mistake. Because the work is dirty, many people assume it is also stupid. This is not my experience. I have a small business as a motorcycle mechanic in Richmond, Va., which I started in 2002. I work on Japanese and European motorcycles, mostly older bikes with some “vintage” cachet that makes people willing to spend money on them. I have found the satisfactions of the work to be very much bound up with the intellectual challenges it presents. And yet my decision to go into this line of work is a choice that seems to perplex many people.

Well, um ditto. I get that too. I've got a choice though, when meeting someone new, I can identify myself as a mechanic or as a small business owner. If it's at a fancy dress-up party, I'll sometimes identify as the latter; if only to keep the conversation from dropping down to single-syllable mode. But it feels dishonest. What I am is a fixer. I enjoy it too much to pretend that it's not my core. Many people won't get that, but so what? I don't get lots of stuff. (unless it's explained to me slowly, in simple terms)(har)

Oh, third option -- I'll sometimes identify myself with: "Oh, I work down to the abattoir." Try it sometime. It will ensure your winning any political arguments that might come up, and get you right through that crowd around the buffet table.

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