recently, i’ve been reading a really wonderful book entitled shop class as soulcraft, by matthew b. crawford. it’s a book i’ve had for over a year now, and have been waiting with great anticipation for the right time to read. it is, as its subtitle states, an “inquiry into the value of work.” in it, crawford makes the argument that the modern economic situation has resulted in a separation of thinking from doing in our professional lives. such a separation results in a degradation of work and a disengagement of ourselves from our livelihood, which leads to an incomplete, incoherent self. white-collar, “information” work is no more exempt from this formulation than typical blue-collar, assembly-line mindlessness.
crawford inspires. back in high school, and throughout college, i always thought i’d be pretty good at two things: repairing automobiles, and being a university professor of english lit. yes. those two seemingly incongruous activities. my engagement with automobiles was sparked by my first boyfriend, who was obsessed with mazda’s rx-7 and the rotary engine. because i wanted to understand him better, i spent time poring over articles about the unique capabilities and frustrations of the rotary engine. for the same reason, i became interested in the engineering of locks. i was fascinated. and yet, my primary love has always been literature – words, words, and more words. i can go on for ages about a specific line, the way the words are juxtaposed against each other, the powerful effect of certain images. this, i believe, will never cease. but neither will my love for all things manual: things that require dexterity, reflective thought, and attention to detail.
this is me.
i think this is why in recent years i have taken up, and become quite proficient in, craft activities. i sew and knit into the early hours of the morning, even when i have assignments due or other things to attend to, because these are activities which require thought, precision, and minute attention to the task at hand. they are absorbing. producing something with my hands, being able to see it in the world and know its tangible goodness, using it in my daily activities (or seeing others do so) – these things give me enormous pleasure and satisfaction.
it will be, i believe, one challenge of my life to reconcile these two impulses. but i do not think that they are mutually exclusive.
back to the book… if it’s not already clear, i am loving it. i find crawford’s arguments to be convincing, not only because they are presented with logic and reasonableness, but also because my own personal experience echoes and therefore intuitively understands what he talks about. i find myself positing arguments against his statements, but being unable to sustain them. perhaps the best thing about this book, though, is crawford’s voice: it is at once academic and informed by a rigorous intellectual education, as well as conversational and colloquial. he entertains. crawford writes in a way that makes you feel as if he is an intelligent, amusing friend, relating the stories of his life. and sometimes, yes, he makes me laugh out loud. my favorite moment is one in which he describes a time when he was fixing a 1983 Honda Magna V45. the point of the overall subsection is not the point i wish to relate here, which can basically be summed up with the following: crawford and i share, on a basic level, a propensity for the same “mother f process.” this is the passage:
Based on what I’d read about valve train problems in this bike, I decided to check the valves first. The thing is, with the close fit of the frame, getting the valve cover off the rear bank of cylinders on this bike is like trying to get a ship out of a bottle. It just seems flatly impossible. You persist only because you know it must have been put on at some point in the past, and in theory every sequence of moves ought to be reversible. […]
I smelled something burning, and discovered my pants were on fire. I was standing too close to the propane heater, in between bouts of valve cover jujitsu. The cover was still stuck where it had been a few hours ago. At this point I’d exhausted my entire lexicon of “motherfucker”-based idioms, and was running perilously low on slurs against the Japanese. I was nearing a familiar point where I’ve descended through every level of madness and despair, and a certain calm takes over. I was reduced now to a more or less autistic repetition of valve cover manipulations I’d long ago determined to be futile, when suddenly the cover just fell out of its trap and lay free in my hand.
This is a common experience, actually, and in an effort to save time in assembling and disassembling things with an inscrutable Oriental fit to them, I used to try to hypnotize myself into a Zen-like state of resignation at the outset. It doesn’t work, not for this Grasshopper. I have my own process, as they say. I call it the motherfucker process. (118-119)
amen to that, brother.