2017-07-27 / Opinions

ACROSS THE SAVANNAH

The work of hands holds the world together
By TOM POLAND
Southerrn Writer

Email, laptops, iMacs, and smart phones Dick Tracy would envy. Hear that noise? It’s a chorus of tapping keys that ranks among the country’s more common workday sounds. Welcome to the Information Age and the kingdom of Knowledge Workers.

The first time I heard someone say jobs in the future would belong to “Knowledge Workers,” I didn’t know what they meant. I do now. A so-called knowledge worker is someone who manages information within a specific subject area. I suppose I’m a knowledge worker too. I’m more at home with a keyboard than I am a saw or drill, but I’m not unique. There are others just like me and their number is growing. Work, today, for many, comes down to pressing plastic keys.

Having spent most of my life tapping a keyboard, I never picked up too many handyman skills. I had a chance though. Back in high school I took shop under John Hawkins. He taught us woodworking skills, how to build a gun rack, a mailbox stand, and things like that. We studied welding techniques, how to use a torch, and he introduced us to basic wiring. That’s about as far as I got.

I envy those who work with their hands. More to the point, I admire people who do things: maintain our cars, repair leaks, and build garages. They hold the world together.

In the 1990s, educators drifted away from shop classes in the mad rush to turn students into “knowledge workers.” Now we have a lot of people sitting in front of computers who roll a mouse adroitly but avoid a router like the plague.

There’s a great divide in this country: jobs that fall into two camps: keyboardists whose work rides a wire and those who work onsite with tools. Office workers use tools like PowerPoint, Excel, and Microsoft Word. Landscapers can use those tools too and can even design a rock wall on a computer, but sooner or later you have to work with the earth, a level, stones, and saws. And that makes all the difference.

The stonemason’s tools are his hands. The beautiful tiered walls, flagstone walkways, and patios he builds are functional art. His natural stones and their hues, lines, and textures please the eye. Not so the drone sitting at a desk typing out some bland report or a tedious software user’s guide. And millions of drones are out there typing away.

Approximately 65 million adults use a computer at work. We’re an online nation. Approximately two million more people become Internet users every month. Over half the population is online and the number keeps climbing.

It’s easy to imagine a future citizenry of pink, soft people sitting in cubicles tapping away. Somewhere beyond the walls of their corporations, agencies, and businesses you’ll find the muscular, tanned workers who lay the cables and build the towers that make the Information Age possible for the so-called Knowledge Workers.

I hope we never run out of people who do true work with their hands. We need talented hands— carpenters, plumbers, and electricians— more than we need business analysts. You can’t plug a leak or build a cabinet over a wire. We need people who don’t mind rolling up their sleeves and getting dirty. And yet we convince too many young people that earning a living means going to college. Off they go studying philosophy and art appreciation only to find themselves helpless when their toilet clogs. The work of hands is an admirable thing.

Even so, some people look down on those who work with their hands. “Well, you know, he does good work, but he should have gone to college.” Or “He’s just a plumber, you know.” Or “I’m glad someone does that. I’ve got better things to do with my time.” Such comments betray flawed thinking: “that’s all they’re capable of doing.” Trust me, it’s not.

I’m working on a coffee table book about master artisans and many are handy around the house. I’m talking about basket weavers, potters, wrought iron gate makers, and people who build fine musical instruments. People who make collectible brooms, decoys, and fused glass art. People who make split oak baskets. They find joy and beauty in the work of hands, and it can be mighty hard work. Their day often runs from dawn to dusk.

For many of these artisans, the tradition was passed down to them. You could say life bequeathed them a calling. Not all prosper, but one true joy in life is loving what you do. If you love your work, it’s not work.

As a boy I used to cross the Augusta Highway and go up to the grove of oaks shading Cap Dunn’s small blacksmith shop. Every day he’d be there smithing, hammering molten ingots of iron, cherry-red sparks flying. As rivulets of sweat streamed down his dark face, he made things and you could tell he enjoyed the work. One day, amidst the banging and flying sparks a set of horseshoes materialized right before my eyes. Yes, it was smoky, grimy work, and I could see that he didn’t make a ton of money. Never think, though, that just because some work is dirty and the money’s not so hot, the person doing it is stupid. Quite the opposite. Besides, the man who loves his work is rich in other ways.

Down in Charleston there’s a fellow who casts bronze bells for churches, tower clocks, and anyone needing a real bell, not some ersatz electronic recording. It takes him two days to melt the bronze ingots and pour the incandescent liquid into molds, and then the sandblasting and polishing begin. It’s tedious and time consuming but the result astounds all when church bells peal Sunday morning.

I envy artisans, craftsmen, and tradesmen. They do real work. They stave off disaster for us keyboardists. When I need something made or repaired, I hire experts. Once in a great while I succeed in making something with my hands and when I do it’s cause for celebration. I wish I could build furniture, repair things, and keep things shipshape. I’m just not cut out for it, but thank goodness others are. So here’s something to think about. What if your son or daughter announces that going to college and sitting at a desk is not an option, that they’d rather make fine furniture or landscape yards? All I can say is this: There’s much satisfaction in designing, building, and finishing something. It can be a beautiful desk or yard or fence, most anything.

I like to think that at day’s end, artisans, tradesmen, and craftsmen feel better about their work than the business analyst who runs figures and sees a new BMW is within reach.

You see, craftsmen leave us beauty and functional art, a legacy. And the legions tapping computers? Well, they simply leave work, usually around 5 o’clock.

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