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Roger Barbee: Let your work 'form' you

By Roger Barbee

Matthew Crawford, in his book "Shop Class as Soulcraft, an Inquiry into the Value of Work," examines how we view work in modern America, and observes that in the last 30 years process has become more important than product.

His observation came to mind when I saw the aftermath of the weed-eating done on a long bank across from our house. The weeds and grasses had been dutifully cut, but the now-shortened growth revealed the litter that had previously been concealed.

Left behind with the dead weeds and grasses was paper, a few cups, and one bright, green bottle directly across from our driveway. The sloppy work reminded me of the fortune of meeting such workers as Billy, Wendy, Todd, Lane, Ken, Mr. Shillinberg, Robert and Scott, and Curtis, all who worked at or on our house. Each of the named workers, in our experience, has not stressed process, but the product. In our relationship with each, he or she has worked to produce the best result. The process, for them, was a means to a product, be it the removal or trimming of trees, the building of a deck, keeping our cooling and heating system in shape, putting a new roof on the corn crib, helping us find a river house, or correcting what an employee had poorly done.

Last year we were interested in getting prices for concrete to replace our gravelled driveway and walkway. A few fellows came out and measured and gave us a price. Curtis' was not the cheapest price, but his was the best offer. As a wise person said, "You can't afford cheap," and our decision to go with Curtis proved to be a good one. He listened to our wishes and made them a reality by creating something that was practical, but also pleasing to the eye. The lines of the path to the workshop are gentle curves, the small patio near the shop is a pleasing place to sit, and the driveway/parking area is practical and pleasant. All of this is, I suppose, what we paid for, and that is good.
However, Curtis and his men gave us more than poured concrete.

They paid attention to details. Never, in their three days of labor, did I see any of them take the easy way. The back lines of the small patio are not squared, which we expected, but gracefully curved to match the lines of the adjacent walkway. All the gravel that was removed to other locations was hard packed, not just dumped, and every "artifact" dug up was salvaged for our inspection. The entire project was done economically but beautifully. No time, line, or slope was overlooked or wasted. Yet, for me, what speaks most about Curtis' work is the rock.

For 10 years I had lived with the cinderblock holding the front support of the car barn. It had been put in crooked or it had settled to one side over the years. It looked awful, but it did hold the post, which held part of the roof, and over the years I learned to live with it. I told myself that, with the gravel driveway, it didn't look that bad. Then Curtis, while moving dirt and gravel with the skid loader, asked me, "Want to get rid of that block?" Sure I answered, but how? He grinned and placed the bucket beneath the support beam, telling a worker to go to the rock pile and get "a pretty rock." With that he gently lifted the roof, had the worker remove the offending cinderblock, and show him the "pretty rock."

"Good," Curtis prounced it, and after the rock was correctly placed, he lowered the post gently back to position.

One could argue that Curtis had done too much, that moving rocks and cinderblocks was not in the contract, and it wasn't. However, his craft was in the contract, and he did not want that unslightly cinderblock in his poured concrete. Better than I, he knew that the "pretty rock" would not only serve the same purpose, but in a more pleasing manner. By removing the cinderblock, he merged form and function. Now, everytime I go in or out of the car barn, I look at that rock and think of Curtis, his men, and their craft.

Crawford asks us to examine how we relate to our machines and our work. He laments the poor value that we place on trades, and that we value formal education at the cost of manual labor. He asks us to examine our work, no matter what it is because "the work a man [or woman] does forms him [her]."

As a teacher of mine often said, "It doesn't matter if you dig ditches as long as you dig them well." Strive to be like these workers named and others like them in the valley; let your work form you as you create your own craft. Allow no litter to define your work.

Roger Barbee is a retired educator who lives in Edinburg with his wife Mary Ann, four dogs and five cats. Email him at redhill@shentel.net.


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