Romancing Tradework

The Style section of the New York Times talks about the trend? movement? three friends of the reporter? towards rejecting desk-work and embracing handiwork.

THE tarnishing of Wall Street and the breakout success of “Shop Class
as Soulcraft” by Matthew B. Crawford, the Ph.D. who left academia to
become a motorcycle repairman, are probably no coincidence.

As corporate America has shed millions of jobs, Mr. Crawford’s philosophical
musings on the spirit-restoring value of working with his hands touched
a big nerve, quickly becoming a national best seller and generating
widespread publicity.

I liked Crawford's book. He does a great job of finding that middle ground between popular non-fiction and academic work. He talks about Aristotle's belief that workers should not be citizens alongside a description of the thrill of fixing motorcycles. Sure, he glamorizes blue collar work and fails to mention the female equivalent of blue collar work – housewifery. But I dare you not to get carried away by his intoxication with his work.

This may be more than a typical style section article, which bases its findings on three people that the reporter knows. A couple of years ago, Steve's cousin quit his job at a big shot at Merck and started up his own electrician business.The guy who fixed our roof used to work on Wall Street.

Crawford's book also hits me at the right time. When the kids go back to school next week, I'm going to start working at home, instead of teaching. It will be brain/desk work part of the time. The rest of the time will be spent doing home repair and watching the kids.

I've been cooking a lot more. I want to try to make this easy Beouf Bourguingon. These ribs and beans look good, too. 

I've also returned to fixing up our old house. I started refinishing the trim upstairs. I've had to put the job on hold, because things got too crazy around here. In September, I'll finish. 

DSC_0053 Here's what the wood looked like before I started. Someone had layered on too many finishes over the years and caused the whole thing to crack.

DSC_0080 Here's where we are so far. 

As my friends update their status with tales of syllabus-writing, I thought I would be more jealous. I'm not.


25 thoughts on “Romancing Tradework

  1. Katie Roiphe discusses a “female equivalent.” I guess.
    I think we’ve spent a lot of time assigning status to certain kinds of jobs. This status assignment has then been converted to income differences. I’m happy to see more attention paid to men and trying to make it ok for them not to be “success objects,” as my friend Warren used to call it.

  2. “This status assignment has then been converted to income differences.”
    (though there’s still an overlay of income-independent status for certain jobs). I too welcome letting men find a path other than “success objects” And think that there is a feminist imperative in there. The old model is a success object paired with a sex object. If we want girls/women to not be objectified we need to do the same with men.
    I’ve always found the “trades” (and I include everything where you make something, other than intellectual property) fascinating. It’s a skill that’s largely missing in my world (refinishing windows! replacing doorknobs! hanging pictures! . . . .). All fascinating and somewhat mysterious.

  3. But what you’re calling “trades” is really just another form of specialization. When I was growing up, my dad did stuff like that but it was just regular household maintenance. The only time he called in a specialist was for complicated electrical stuff. What we all lack are those basic skills. But what we’ve done is created jobs. If everyone started doing all that stuff for themselves, there would be fewer jobs for other people.

  4. Speaking of trade work, I only recently discovered that my grandparents didn’t have either a plumber or an electrician to do the house that they built in the late 50s. Grandpa just had the plumber and the electrician provide the plans, and he did all the actual wiring and plumbing. Likewise, a good deal of the doctoring was done at home with a bulk container of penicillin supplied by the free-wheeling doctor next door. The wiring and the plumbing have both held up very well. The only problem with the set-up is that since the local plumber can’t actually fit in the crawl space under the house, my octogenarian grandpa has to do plumbing repairs himself. Fortunately, that’s rarely necessary.

  5. “refinishing windows! replacing doorknobs! hanging pictures!”
    One of those things is not like the other in terms of either time or skill.

  6. Which, MH? Thus, exposing my utter clueless-ness.
    A contractor/construction worker once asked my husband if he’d ever climbed a ladder (and then, then dirty hands came up — my husband answered that of course he’d had dirty hands, since he reads the NYtimes).
    I am utterly clueless about household maintenance. I buy books and fantasized, but am fearful of doing anything. As I write, the pictures hanging over my desk are held up by thumb tacks. It works on drywall in our house, and they’re the acrylic ones from PBKids. Which is fortunate, because when they all fall from the wall (which happen once), I did not end up with a head full of shattered glass.

  7. So, when did Roiphe have a baby (and, less relevantly, with whom?)? Most notably, I’d like to know when the piece was written with respect to birth. Did she have a baby 6 weeks ago? Or are we talking about something that happened in the past?

  8. BJ,
    Refinishing windows is much more involved than the other two. Go look at a wooden window casing and count the number of surfaces. Each has to be stripped, sanded, stained, and varnished.
    My advice, don’t you or your husband try to make small talk with the contractors.

  9. bj, it sounds like it’s a brand new baby and she has to go to work again in September. But bios reveal she has a (5 yo?) daughter with a previous husband. So I don’t get what this narcotic thing is.

  10. “So I don’t get what this narcotic thing is.”
    No? I haven’t read the actual article, but I don’t see what’s so hard to understand. Surely it’s a fairly widespread experience that a new baby makes the rest of the world disappear, including husband and previous children. I believe our sisters in the mammalian world have similar behaviors–the new baby dissolves or at least weakens the attachment to the old baby. I remember when my second child was born thinking impatiently that it was definitely time for my nearly 3-year-old to get an apartment and a job and just wanting to be left alone with him. Fortunately, it was a temporary hormonal condition.

  11. You can’t hang a picture, bj? How have you put up pictures on your walls at home? They have special dry wall nails at the local hardware store. That’s what you need.
    I actually like refinishing the wood. I could have finished those three windows in a week, but I’ve been so busy. I had to put the bed back in place and bring the mattress back in the room, because there was no hope of getting back to it in the next two weeks.
    Really liked that Roiphe article!

  12. The recipe for beans has, as its main ingredient, canned baked beans. Which means I will stick to my current bean recipe: Open can of bean, pour in pan, heat-up.

  13. “How have you put up pictures on your walls at home?”
    thumbtacks 🙂
    yeah, I have used nails & picture hangers a few times. But, then, my pictures never hang straight, and I have to put that putty stuff up to make them straight. That’s one nice thing about canvas, without a frame. It’s light, so stays up perfectly well with thumbtacks. I’m joking a little bit of course, but it is an extensive project to get pictures hung around here. Our current un-done project is to hang a heirloom mirror that weighs about 50 pounds. It cannnot be held up with thumbtacks. Therefore, it’s squooshed behind a bookcase weighting for magical inspiration.

  14. For something that heavy, don’t go with a drywall anchor. Most of them will hold the weight, but it makes me nervous. First, find a stud (use a stud-finder). Mark the middle of the stud and drill a pilot hole and then put in a screw. The pilot hole should be about 1/2 the diameter of the screw’s shaft.

  15. This clip seems relevant. Don’t let the German scare you, it’s all visual. And the punchline is “The picture is hanging crookedly,” but getting there is all the fun.
    Bonus geekery: Duct tape is like the Force; it’s light on one side and dark on the other and it holds the universe together.

  16. thanks for coming by, la labu.
    Yes, of course, there are many women electicians and mechanics. But there are more women who work around the house than do traditional blue collar labor. He could make more comparisons with working with your hands in a mechanic shop and working with your hands in the home. One of the common criticisms of this book is that he minimizes the toil and the difficulty of blue collar labor. Not to mention the lack of health insurance. These problems are ten fold for women who work at home; they don’t even get paid for their labors. I would have liked a chapter on that. That’s all.

  17. I think of the classic female blue collar jobs as nursing and waitressing, maybe child care. I can’t help but notice that these are all professions with high quotients of human interaction … and that no one’s exactly clamoring into these professions.
    Frankly I think lots of the “back to the trades” movement is about reducing one’s exposure to other humans because humans are driving you crazy. Note that people say they want to stop talking to clients and start working on wooden floors instead. (Or planting vegetables, or braising beef.) I can TOTALLY relate to that — I get to a certain line of stress and I just want to shut down and keep it simple, work on something I can actually see.

  18. I also think it’s about people being sick of sitting in front of a computer all day and working really hard to create something that isn’t tangible. I am getting ready for the American Political Science Association meeting, or the annual weighing of the brains. I’m dreading it. I’m sick of always, always being tested. I’m sick of my profession not actually providing me with a paycheck. My next job might be at the Banana Republic.

  19. I agree with Jen–the equivalent of blue collar jobs for women used to be called pink collar jobs–secretaries, teachers, nurses–as well as some more manual jobs like domestics and waitresses. Some of those have become more highly professionalized–but I think for many years, lots of women who worked with their hands used a typewriter, a stick of chalk or a bedpan.

  20. Frankly I think lots of the “back to the trades” movement is about reducing one’s exposure to other humans because humans are driving you crazy.
    That is one of the top reasons people enter the trades, IMO. Another is the satisfaction of seeing one’s work completed, and to see it last. Folks I know who sit at a computer never really get to see their work come to a discrete end, or sometimes see their work scrapped.
    What you won’t find in the trades is the romanticization that comes from white-collar men, who are looking at “back to the trades” as a male-identifier. Trades work is hard on the body over the course of a career. Lots of knee replacements, shoulder work, carpal tunnel, back problems. etc. Out in the field, there aren’t any illusions about that.
    Not to mention the lack of health insurance.
    Hmm…that’s less of a problem for union workers; most unionized trades have a self-funded ERISA plan where we get to “bank hours” in a reserve for when we’re laid off (and we have our own section of the FMLA that takes that into account—banked hours are not to be used under FMLA). In my Local, we can bank up to six months worth of hours…but it takes a long time working in order to do that. The piss-poor economy means most of us don’t have much in the way of banked hours, so yeah, during layoffs it isn’t long before we have no insurance. (it should probably go without saying that most tradespeople are all-the-way-live for a single payer national healthcare plan (especially the ones who served overseas and saw firsthand how advantageous that sort of plan is); but I’m gonna say it anyway, since “big labor” gets the blame for why we don’t have nationalized healthcare. Don’t blame the trades! Our rank and file was all for it, both for the hit-and-miss of our employment, and for the massive financial hits to our self-funded plans.)
    no one’s exactly clamoring into these professions.
    We’re having a hard time attracting qualified people, too. Job insecurity, relatively high retirement ages (full retirement is age 60 in my union—60 is pretty old to be hauling bundles of conduit up ladders), and the logistics of trying to keep a family together when work turns to crap and one has to travel….tack on the deterioration of job conditions and safety as unions have lost power, and now you know why there’s a shortage of skilled tradespeople.

  21. “Frankly I think lots of the “back to the trades” movement is about reducing one’s exposure to other humans because humans are driving you crazy.”
    A subset of that is not wanting to have to deal with a boss. Unfortunately, being your own boss is a lot harder than it sounds.

  22. The boeuf bourguignon is a good recipe; I made it over the weekend and threw it in the fridge. Tonight, I heated it up and served with spicy spinach and egg noodles. Yummy.

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