Friday, March 26, 2010

Tangible Work

Yeah, yeah, I know it's been 10 weeks. But really, should I post even when I have nothing worthwhile to say?

BTW, I think the ability to form complete, cogent ideas with well-chosen words in under 140 characters may become a whole new form of poetry, like haiku. We (western civ) haven't created a new form of poetry in some time; we're about due! So I wholeheartedly embrace Twitter, which teaches economy and brevity.

OK, so the topic at hand here is craftsmanship. I started listening to the audiobook for Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry Into the Value of Work yesterday, and it is really resonating with me. I've talked before about my delight in needlework and creating tangible things... well, I still feel that way about it, but now as I re-read that old posting, I realize that the nature of my work has changed a great deal since then. I still "herd invisible bits and bytes" around all day... but I have a TRADE now, as opposed to being a sysadmin for a corporate office. I go to people's houses and fix their computers, printers, networks, etc. I lay my hands on a device and seek to make it function properly. Yes, I did that before... but the gratitude and relief is so much more palpable from my current clients, and I feel so much more pride in the services I provide.

Shop Class as Soulcraft talks about that very thing; in a far more intellectual and academic way (the writer has a doctorate) he makes a case for the value of creating useful things, and being able to fix them. He also talks about the deep satisfaction that comes from doing a tangible job, the intellectual stimulation of figuring out how to work around a variety of problems and variables through gained experience, and the sense of community that you develop as a tradesman that is entirely missing from the "knowledge work" that everyone seems to aspire to nowadays.

He also talks about how the Shop Class is disappearing from school curricula and so a whole generation is growing up without knowing how to fix anything useful. It immediately reminded me of my shop class in 7th grade at J.T. Moore Jr. High, and my teacher Mr. Wyss. At the time I didn't realize, but that was my favorite class in the 2 years I was there... and for that matter, in ALL my schooling I have the fondest memories of that class.

See, I wasn't supposed to have the slightest interest in Shop. I was an Artistic Intellectual with vague musical and theatrical aspirations, and so building a bookshelf or knowing how a carburetor worked was just a random thing I was required to learn by the public school system. Shop had no practical application or virtue that I comprehended. But how much I loved the things we did in there... and I became competent at so many of them! Silkscreening t-shirts, building a bookshelf, wiring and building an unlovely (but functional) lamp, learning architectural drafting and drawing my own ideal houseplan, taking apart a lawn mower engine and learning how all the parts worked... I loved ALL of it. I don't remember a single thing we did that I didn't find interesting. But how little I appreciated that gift Mr. Wyss gave us then!

In retrospect, the 2 classes I enjoyed the most at Moore were Shop, followed by Home Economics with Mrs. Boysen, because we were always working on something tangible. Those classes "didn't count," of course, but I poured far more of myself into them, and my eternal difficulties with my peer group never seemed to be an issue there. These were things I could be certain of and were always interesting. I made good grades in all my other classes because I was smart enough to get by... but when I think back on English and History and Math and French, I feel a vague sense of dissatisfaction and shame, because I never felt like I was really learning or retaining anything, and I KNEW that I wasn't really interested in any of it.

I still have that bookshelf I made in Mr. Wyss' class; I keep my cookbooks in it on top of my fridge. I also have the old folder from Mrs. Boysen with the carefully handwritten recipes she had us write out for biscuits and how to boil pasta correctly and white sauce. I've actually had to refer back to that biscuit recipe on occasion! I even have the drawstring bag made from an old towel with my machine-embroidered monogram on it from her class. I had such pride and satisfaction in the things I learned in those 2 classes, and they were the only things I ever shared from school (with any pleasure) with my parents.

It was a surprise to me 10 years later that I had a knack with computers... I had no interest in the sort of science and math that I dimly understood had to do with computer science. I managed to get through high school without taking a single computer class (and was proud to have done so, for I was Artistic!) I had the great good fortune to stumble onto Apple Macintoshes my first year at college, and ended up as a student worker in the computer lab on campus. Even years after I didn't understand that my comprehension of how to mess about with computers was a worthwhile thing... it was just something to do to make a bit of money, and nothing I had any interest in pursuing as a career. It wasn't until I gave up on theater and history and academia as a future in my mid-20s and got a job on the Belmont campus in the computer store that I began to see that I genuinely enjoyed futzing around with computers, and had a gift for it. Even when I was offered the job at William Morris as the tech support for the Nashville office, I cried because "it was the death of my theatrical dreams" and would probably destroy my soul. *snicker* What a pompous young idiot.

Now all of those experiences have woven around and I am happily making and repairing things, increasing my knowledge by experience, fixing computers for people. I still read History, have a theatrical personality, and fancy myself an intellectual... but I am a satisfied, proud Tradesman by profession. I consider myself a most fortunate woman.

Thank you, Mr. Wyss. Thank you, Mrs. Boysen.