To know the difference between a drill and an impact driver would be an act of rebellion.
I’ve never done this before—written a letter to an author—but here goes.
I recently finished reading Shop Class, and find myself compelled to send you a note. Your book was one of the most refreshing things I’ve ever read; I enjoyed it totally.
That said, what you wrote also hit eerily close to home and has forced me to examine my own circumstances and upbringing. I hope you don’t mind if I do so here.
I was raised on a hearty diet of white-collar privilege—private schools, expectations, and inevitabilities. I’m not complaining. You understand. I led a thoughtful, activity-rich childhood. One thing completely absent from that education, however, was handwork. I was never taught to wield a hammer or shown the advantage of a ball-end allen wrench. Reading your book made me realize this fact. Like all of my peers, it was expected that I work diligently at school and that I enroll in a respectable university. State schools discouraged. Four years minimum. I should study a subject that interested me and then go to work in a professional manner. Medicine, law, finance. Sales as a last resort. Something worthwhile. If I was lucky, I’d get solid vacation time and work for a corporation that embraced Casual Fridays.
More importantly (and much more tragically), I learned to look down upon blue-collar work and those that performed it. The trades—the doings of actual things—were beneath me. I should feel sorry for the laborers. Handwork was a burden, after all. One became a laborer only if all other options were exhausted. Or if he had gone to public school.
You might find it interesting that "shop class" was indeed offered at my high school. I think it existed to foster sympathy.
My priority should be thinking. Doing was a waste of potential.
For reasons then unknown, I always felt out of place. A black sheep. Something about all the schooling and a predetermined career felt so unsuitable. Oddly, however, working with my hands became a sort of forbidden fruit. I’ve always felt a natural urge to build things, and being subtly told by circumstance that doing so was a waste of time made me want to focus on nothing else. To know the difference between a drill and an impact driver would be an act of rebellion.
And so, back then, my weekday evenings were spent riding my bicycle to new-home construction sites. In the nineties, in Phoenix, new homes went up around us constantly. I’d pedal to one of the numerous, recently-framed structures nearby and pilfer the scrap piles of usable two-by-fours, plywood, and castoff nails. Then I’d strap all that loot to my bike and struggle home. If nothing else, I became adept at scaling dumpsters and riding a bicycle no-handed.
During the weekends, I’d fulfill the need to use my hands by making something out of my acquired pile. Usually something over-ambitious—a new, giant bike jump or a multi-storied fort. Thank goodness we didn’t have trees in Arizona; if we had, I undoubtedly would’ve killed myself constructing a sky-scraping treehouse.
To their credit, my parents always took silent note of my… “creativity”. As such, they made sure I was enrolled in plenty of art and computer classes in school. I don't blame them; that made perfect sense. Someone who desired to build things would undoubtedly take an interest in such subjects. Perhaps I could become an architect or an engineer, or better yet a generic designer of some sort—a member of your described “creative class”. I could join that segment of the population that not only did professional work but artistic work as well. The double-whammy of fulfillment and success.
And that’s—more or less—what happened. I didn’t know any better so I went to college, became a "designer", and settled into a life of compensation for computer-based brainwork.
But your book made me realize something. Something so simple and obvious now, looking back. Something that would’ve been impossible to realize, given how I grew up.
I think I should’ve gone into the trades. Seriously.
I think I would’ve enjoyed mastering a discernible skill over aquiring a bunch of arbitrary ones. Carpentry. Plumbing. Metal-working. Something. I'm sure I would've hated the work, but I would've loved the work. You’ve articulated a feeling that I’ve felt for as long as I can remember—that doing things with one’s hands might be as fulfilling as it is productive. That our brains and thumbs are connected in a very real and intrinsic way. That this connection should be valued, perhaps above all else.
I now understand that some people—regardless of what’s expected of them—have hands that need to be used. That aching thumbs can feel good. That the trades and tradesmen are something to live up to, not to look down upon. That maybe the bankers are the ones to feel sorry for (especially on Fridays).
So, I’m taking notes for my next life.
Until then, I'm making do. I'm searching for that fulfillment in non-professional places. I’ve found something, recently, to keep my hands occupied again. Something to make my thumbs and mind ache, as they should, together. As they did when I was younger, building crap out of scrap. We'll see if it's enough.
I wanted to tell you that your book made me feel like what I’m doing—what I’ve always done and wanted to do—isn’t a tremendous waste of time. You've inspired a small amount of confidence. And I just wanted to say thanks for the encouragement.
This is a mountain bike I built for my brother. It's also the first frame I built for someone other than myself. I don't take that responsibility lightly, but I figure my brother makes as good a guinea pig as anyone. He needed a new bike, anyway.
I built the bike somewhere between his size and my own so that I could snatch it back from him when he didn't like it. It's been a while now; I don't think I'm getting it back.
Riding my own bike for the first time was something special, but seeing someone else ride a bike that I made was something else. Different. Good different. Scary different. We'll see if I do it again.