physical

Work With Your Hands

Northampton, Massachusetts

In middle school, my shop teacher was a grizzled old guy. Suspenders, beard, calloused hands – a stereotype if there ever was one. He told us to “make sure you keep things steady” while his hands shook. Neat guy.

One day he told us a story about taking a factory job as a younger man. Our teacher, the new employee, had to work 30 days in the plant without taking a day off. If he worked those 30 consecutive days, he got hired on as a full-time employee. If he missed even one day, he would be let go.

Well, he missed a day because he was violently ill. And of course he got let go from his new job. His lesson, if I remember it right, was that the real world was a tough place, and you had to work hard and pay your dues to make it.

I probably knew it earlier than seventh grade, but after hearing my shop teacher’s story, I figured out that maybe I didn’t want a blue collar job. I wanted to make things, yes, always. But not work in manufacturing – as my father had. It’s not that blue collar work was “below me.” I wasn’t “too good” for a factory job. It’s just that shop class never clicked, and hearing my teacher’s story made me worry about the prospects of working at a place like that. My future was going to be spent doing creative things with my mind.

Luckily, today we can “work with our hands” in other ways: digital projects, hobbies, crafting, writing, etc. It doesn’t have to be a full time job. The stakes are much lower.

At my previous job, there were a few college professors that spent their entire days in the abstract, teaching and reading and lecturing. When they got back home, they got their hands busy doing things like woodworking and car repair. I understood that need. It’s why I enjoy fixing things around the house when I can.

As humans, our best tools are our hands, and maybe tinkering tickles some ancient need we have as toolmakers.

It’s one of the reasons why I love making and pouring over physical things like photo books. Holding something physical, making artistic decisions about materials – I create things with my mind, and then get to hold them in my hands.