In one of my earliest blog posts, I speculated that the best way to get by in life is to get a trade. You know, something like carpentry or computers that allowed me to get by while leaving plenty of time and mental space to pursue my real interest, writing. I’m still looking.
Screw the post office.
The great philosopher Spinoza, who inspired this blog in name and substance, set the template. He was a lens grinder, a pretty high-end trade in the 1600s.
Later on I read that Faulkner advised much the same thing: since there is no space in American culture for writers, he said, you need a trade. So be a doctor or a lawyer. Faulkner himself had a brief stint as a postmaster. He didn’t last long. For some solid reasons:
I reckon I’ll be at the beck and call of folks with money all my life, but thank God I won’t ever again have to be at the beck and call of every son of a bitch who’s got two cents to buy a stamp.
Now the New York Times is getting in the act. Matthew B. Crawford, holder of a Phd in Political Science from the U of Chicago, has taken up motorcycle repair as a vocation.
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.
He goes on to enumerate the various dignities to be associated with getting your hands dirty for a living (“I once accidentally dropped a feeler gauge down into the crankcase of a Kawasaki Ninja … When finally I laid my fingers on it, I felt as if I had cheated death.”) as contrasted with the indignities of the cubicle experience:
Managers learn the art of provisional thinking and feeling, expressed in corporate doublespeak, and cultivate a lack of commitment to their own actions. Nothing is set in concrete the way it is when you are, for example, pouring concrete.
Insert Zen and the Art of blah blah blah joke here.
Crawford has thought about this a lot. He’s written a book about it. Upshot: we can’t all be motorcycle mechanics, but we can re-evaluate the value of real, hands-on work. Given our current woes, the field for productive labor looks wide open.
He’s right, of course. There is an inherent dignity in actual work, the kind that sees you projects progress on the power of your own hands, solving problems, getting cuts and bruises and the job done. But. I’ve dabbled in various trades, most recently farmwork since I’ve been back in the purple state. And the main thing I’ve learned is that I don’t want to to keep on doing them for a living.
Maybe the article failed to resonate because I loathe all forms mechanics. (The work, not the people. Good mechanics are miracleworkers in my opinion, or at least wizards.) I don’t like engines, and they can’t stand me. For the most part we’ve agreed to stay away from each other. It’s better that way.
But I’ve also been about as far from the workshop as you can get in the trades, working as a surveyor. Yes, surveying in property lines on a remote Wyoming ranch is pretty cool. But standing at a tripod for hours in a frozen field in the middle of a Colorado January is not only a pretty good recipe for frostbite, but also leads to high likelihood of job dissatisfaction.
So I’m still looking for the ideal trade to get a living for my family and get some good writing done. Narrowing it down somewhat, I think, but with all due respect to Mr. Crawford, I don’t intend to be shopping for mechanic’s jumpsuits any time soon.