Saturday, November 11, 2006

On Manual Labor

Okay, Fall is back in favor.

I'm coming to admit that my recent aversion to Autumn had to do primarily with the trees I was dealt. The big oak in front of our house was the main culprit, with its tiny, brown, flat leaves that fell to carpet the lawn for 4 months straight and were impossible to blow.

But now, in the new house, we have an amazing variety of trees and leaves. Out front is a deep red Japanese Maple that is still mostly intact after slow weeks of color change. Just over the border to our neighbor's yard is a vibrant orange maple of some sort (Sugar Maple?). It has glowed like a neon sign for almost a full month, coloring the afternoon light in my office a bizarre shade.

In the backyard is an even bigger Japanese Maple, this one a rich purple with jagged leaves. There are also several other maples and some River Birches that long ago dropped their yearly burden into our creek. Our back deck and postage-stamp back lawn are adrift in gold and red.

So I'm liking Fall, from a visual standpoint.

I'm also liking it from a work standpoint, since all of these crumply leaves are easier to blow, rake, and pick up than the graphite sheets of oak leaves from years past. A few Saturday morning hours of blowing, a little raking, and the help of 3 boys cleared the entire front yard today; a job that used to take dawn to dusk.

When we began this morning, my wife took the three younger boys for their Thanksgiving haircuts while Timothy and I got started. He raked all the leaves that were in the driveway (a considerable amount) while I blew the lawn. As we finished that, the haircut expidition returned and Stephen came out to help. They loaded several bags with leaves while I did clean-up work with the rake.

Then we took a football break. Timothy can really throw and is even getting good at catching. Stephen tries really hard, but is still at the place where looking impressive while throwing is more important than getting the ball to the receiver. In the midst of the break, Stephen had to leave for a birthday party and Jonah came out to take his place. Timothy and I continued to throw while Jonah blocked with the rake, and I considered it good QB practice.

Finally we finished loading the bags (Sam came out and picked up a single handful), and I sent the boys in to start cleaning their rooms (later today is Timothy's 9th Birthday Party; we're going to play putt-putt) while I collected the tools. That's when I noticed the side yard.

It's a small area, but it was already a couple of inches deep in purple leaves (again with the maples), so I figured I'd rescue the grass underneath. Not wanting to get bored, I went inside and grabbed the iPod, vowing just to listen to whatever was on there (most likely Country music left on by my wife).

But it turned out to be Audition, a 30-minute podcast from Mars Hill Audio. First came some snippets from some recent bioethics interviews (Leon Kass, et al.); good stuff, if a little weighty for a Saturday morning. Then they finished out the podcast with a reading from an article called "Shop Class as Soulcraft."

Wow. It's about craftsmanship, working with your hands, and it is great stuff. If you have ever worked with your hands to make stuff, either for work, hobby, or leisure, it's a great read. Here's a brief snippet:

I began working as an electrician’s helper at age fourteen, and started a small electrical contracting business after college, in Santa Barbara. In those years I never ceased to take pleasure in the moment, at the end of a job, when I would flip the switch. “And there was light.” It was an experience of agency and competence. The effects of my work were visible for all to see, so my competence was real for others as well; it had a social currency. The well-founded pride of the tradesman is far from the gratuitous “self-esteem” that educators would impart to students, as though by magic.

I was sometimes quieted at the sight of a gang of conduit entering a large panel in a commercial setting, bent into nestled, flowing curves, with varying offsets, that somehow all terminated in the same plane. This was a skill so far beyond my abilities that I felt I was in the presence of some genius, and the man who bent that conduit surely imagined this moment of recognition as he worked. As a residential electrician, most of my work got covered up inside walls. Yet even so, there is pride in meeting the aesthetic demands of a workmanlike installation. Maybe another electrician will see it someday. Even if not, one feels responsible to one’s better self. Or rather, to the thing itself—craftsmanship might be defined simply as the desire to do something well, for its own sake.

So you should probably go read it. And here I'm specifically instructing you: Dad, Steve, Brian, Al, and Gary. All of these folks are master builders or fixers, whom I hold in awe (I myself am a very minor fixer, and haven't built anything of consequence since grade school). I'll probably read this article a few more times and continue to wish I knew how to make something real.

And if one day one of my boys tells me that he doesn't want to go to college, that he'd like to be a mechanic, or a plumber, or a welder, then that will be fine with me. Anything but an actor.

The article is here for free.

The 55 minute reading is here for download for $3.

The 30 minute Audition podcast from Mars Hill Audio is available from iTunes. And, of course, more Mars Hill stuff, including a subscription, can be found on their website.



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