A welcome to readers

As a resident of this planet for more than four fifths of a century, I have enjoyed both successes and disappointments in a wide variety of vocations, avocations, and life experiences. This blog satisfies my desire to share some thoughts and observations--trenchant and prosaic--with those who are searching for diversions which are interesting, poignant and occasionally funny. I also plan to share recommendations about good/great movies I've watched and books and articles which I've found particularly mind-opening, entertaining, instructive. In addition, I can't pass up the opportunity to reflect publicly on how I am experiencing the so-called Golden Years. Write anytime:

Monday, August 1, 2011

Work Default: Jeans, Sweat, and Brooks Brothers Suits.

Prayer for the Small Engine Repairman

Our Sundays are given voice
By the small engine repairman,
Whose fingers, stubby and black,
Know our mowers and tractors,
Chainsaws, rototillers,
Each plug, gasket and valve
And all the vital fluids.
Thanks to him our lawns
Are even, our gardens vibrant,
Our maples pruned for swings,
The underbrush whacked away.
"What's broke can always be fixed
If I can find the parts,"
He says as he loosens a nut,
Exposes the carburetor,
Tinkers and tunes until
To the slightest pull on the cord
The engine at once concurs.
Let him come into our homes,
Let him discipline our children,
Console and counsel our mates,
Adjust the gap of our passions,
The mix of our humors: lay hands
On the small engine of our days.
"Prayer for the Small Engine Repairman" by Charles W. Pratt, from From the Box Marked Some are Missing: New and Selected Books. © Hobblebush Books, 2010.

This poem describes beautifully how my default view of "work" first began to come apart. As you read, remember, I was a boy schooled to believe that manual labor of any kind indicated that the laborer was somehow inferior. These working folks were to be ignored and avoided except as specifically necessary to my existence. Other than that, I was taught that they had no meaningful lives which in any way spoke to me about which folks  I could or should relate to.

My first conscious change of attitude, preconception, a "default shift," if you will, happened in our local hobby shop, a one-man operation which I visited often in the afternoons after school or on Saturdays during the War.  There were several of us who met there, kids with only pocket change (bubble gum money when it was available) and little more. The hobby shop was an easy bike ride from home and from grade school,  so a few of us buddies would gather there and check out the old and new offerings and fertilize our fantasies of building and then flying model airplanes powered with real gasoline engines.

The models were "stick models," carefully created by gluing slender sticks of balsa wood together and covered with craft tissue paper, which was then shrunk, painted, and covered with decals and provided appropriate accessories such as wheels, cockpits, and a small gas engine. The engines' names alone fueled hours of my pre-adolescent fantasy life:  Hornet, Spitfire, Super Cyclone, Mighty Midget, Tiger Aero, and a whole range of engine sizes and designs made by Ohlsson (O and R)  called Red Heads because the top of their vertical cylinder was painted bright red. Our language expanded to make  comfortable use of terms like Xacto knife, .049 and .025, props, glow plugs and hot plugs, Eveready, and Testors heat proof paint and model cement, fast drying and extra fast drying, solvent, dope, and banana oil.

At the center of this hobby shop's collection of yet-to-be-built-or-fly airplanes was the heavy workbench with a cash register at one end where Mr, Hoblitzel presided over  an assortment of large and small vices, sturdy motor mounts for starting and testing repaired engines, an incredible variety of wrenches, screwdrivers, pliers, mallets and hammers, a wide variety of sizes and lengths of thin wires, a box of Bandaids,  a few half-empty Coke bottles, often with cigarette butts floating in them, a small plastic radio with long wire antenna and equally long and electrical plug extension, some Hersey bar wrappers, a couple of upright cylindrical Eveready dry cell batteries with metal posts on top and two (rarely) screw-on metal holding nuts, and an always sleepy, ill-tempered cat, Adolph.

The shop smelled of a combination of cigarette smoke, new and stale, gasoline, the exhaust odor of a mixture of gas and mineral oil, acetone, yesterday's banana peel on the bench, glue hardener (toluene), sawdust, and the left over fumes from the process of soldering electrical connections and small engine parts.

Hoblitzel, an older, thin-haired stoop-shouldered man with wire rim glasses, wore filthy, over-the- shoulder gray striped coveralls, almost stiff from years accumulating shop dirt and grease, an equally dirty and torn blue denim work shirt with sleeves rolled up his hairy forearms, and he had fat stubby fingers with very dirty, uneven nails. He was the epitome of the "manual laborer" I had been taught to ignore, avoid, or at least discount as a valuable human being.

Just by being in the shop, what I learned from Mr. Hoblitzel was an appreciation, yea a reverence, for people who could intuit what was going on with engines and motors, large and small, and then (irrespective of fingernail dirt) manipulate the smallest screws and brass bolts, cut the thinnest piece of sheet metal in just the right shape, listen to the sound of an engine running and tweak something or other (not in the books), even-out the sound, and miraculously improve the little engine's performance.

I also learned that an older, rough, formally uneducated man in overalls can be really smart, well-read, and enjoy the symphonic music and opera coming from that little plastic radio.  More than that,  l discovered that it was a mistake to "judge the book by the cover," as we used to say in the literary world, and that even a tough looking man who does manual type labor can earn and merit the love and adoration of little boys, and return that love without even trying--welcoming and accepting  our presence in his shop even when we didn't have two nickles to rub together, teaching us what he knew about mechanics and engines and materials and tools without any thought of payback, accepting our curiosity without assuming that we were also stupid, welcoming our questions without asking us not to interfere  or bother him, allowing us to see that it was OK for a grown man to get teary when hearing a particularly moving Puccini aria, and learning that it was not a damnable sin to say "damn" when his model's engine unexpectedly caught hold and caught him unaware when the prop spun and cracked him in the knuckles and drew blood.

After my learning experience in the hobby shop, I expanded the deconstruction of my default system everywhere I went. I became more  observant; I paid attention to people who were not OT ("Our Type") and  was astounded to find 'pearls of great price' hidden under the most common, and often unattractive oyster shells. On the other end of the spectrum, I also found out that some clean, polished Brooks Brothers suit-wearers--doctors, lawyers, ministers, educators, bankers, and the like--those who had been held up to me as "OT"-- were also common human beings who were just as subject to sloth, stupidity, and error as those who wore work clothes, had dirty nails, and weren't formally educated. I also discovered that many OT weren't worth knowing regardless of their haute couture veneer.

More simply put, I understood that many of my trusted assumptions about humans, their work,  and their personal  attributes and value, based largely on maxims ingrained in me early in my youth by parents, church, society, school, and my buddies, were, as David Foster Wallace said in his commencement address, balderdash. Once I accepted this new awareness and understanding and hit the delete button for my original default setting, a whole new world opened itself to me and I could see myself, my own talents and failings, in light of the realities I saw in other people--not, as earlier,  through the distorted lens of my default setting. I could wear jeans, work up a sweat in the garden, shovel manure, and be myself without the continuous concern about making an good impression or worrying about what others were thinking.

But even more important, I discovered a veritable treasure trove of amazing and interesting  people everywhere: in churches, but not only in the pulpit, but also cleaning the floor in the social hall or cooking for Wednesday night dinners; in doctors' offices, but not just in the examining room, but also in the lab, at the reception desk, in the waiting room, or running the elevator; in the lawyers' offices, but only in the legal library, but in the waiting room where other clients had their own stories; in the bank, yes, behind the large polished mahogany desk in the back room, but also in the tellers' cages, filling the coffee machine, and fixing the phone system; in schools and colleges, not only lecturing and grading papers and filling out endless forms or computing budgets, but handing out jocks and cleats in the equipment room, re-shelving books in the library, or manicuring lawns and plowing snow. I am now enjoying this endless feast of human beings because most of the "balderdash" has been set aside.

Oh, and I learned that even Adolph could be made more pleasant when given my almost empty Sardine tin to lick because his gums hurt and he had no teeth. Was that a the purring of a cat or of a well-tuned Red Head .049?

No cheering yet; this was just the first default setting that needed examination and analysis. Stay tuned in as I take on some more.

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