A few years ago, I traveled to Romania for a friend's wedding and stayed with the family of the bride. Her father, a construction foreman, had built their small but comfortable cement house, and it was like a biosphere dropped into a dense urban neighborhood: a few hogs in a pen outside, a few chickens in a coop and an abundant garden.
I thought of him recently when I needed to do a small job at my house — replacing the decaying side door of my garage. Seemed easy enough. My Romanian host could have done it in five minutes, in between smoking a side of bacon and mortaring a chimney.
But a quick glimpse at my home repair book made me realize I would be nuts to try it myself. Mortises? Jamb legs? What?
Forget that. I called in a pro.
I've done enough around the house to know that I should never do anything around the house. I'm just an Internet Age pixel slinger, and though it beats breaking rocks for a living, I must own up to the limited practicality of my skills. There's no control-alt-delete for a cracked window pane or a leaky faucet.
This has always been a bit of a wound to my masculine pride, and lately, with the recession throwing keyboard punchers like me out of work by the thousands, I feel especially insecure. Take away my cable modem and I might as well be dancing for nickels outside the 7-Eleven.
Matthew B. Crawford has an interesting take on this, having worn collars both white and blue. He ditched a job at a Washington, D.C., think tank and opened a motorcycle repair shop in Richmond, Va., then returned to the fuzzy realm of words to write the new book Shop Class as Soulcraft (Penguin Press, $25.95).
He says trade work like carpentry or auto repair can provide the security that's suddenly hard to find in the professional world. Even more important, he argues, the jobs offer a refreshingly clear measure of success.
"Working in an office, the chain of cause and effect can get a little confusing and opaque, and responsibility tends to get spread around," he said. "To take a tool in hand and see a direct effect of your actions in the world answers to a basic human need, I think."
Maybe that message will resonate among the members of the information class, many of whom have been all too disdainful of those who work with their hands.
Back in 2001, Jim Olsztynski, editorial director of Plumbing and Mechanical magazine, wrote an essay titled "Blue-Collar Bias," in which he blasted school counselors who "advise students they have better futures as third-rate paper shufflers than as craftsmen."
When I talked to him recently, he said he hoped that such attitudes might be changing.
"Right now, I think anyone would value a good plumber more than one of these wizards of Wall Street who got us into this mess," he said.
It would be wonderful to think so, but the evidence on that score is disappointing.
Local schools that offer career training to high school students are seeing their enrollments boom, but not in trades like machine tooling or heating, ventilation and air conditioning. And kids from the higher economic classes remain conspicuously absent from the student body.
Even if we're not due for some karmic payback, I think "blue-collar bias" might indeed be changing. Massive big-box hardware stores and the parade of DIY cable shows have made all of us think we can do it ourselves. When it turns out we can't, it's hard not to admire those who really do have the skills.
But let's spare a kind thought for the lazy, clueless mopes like me, the ones who should have trigger locks on our staple guns. Where would the trades be without us?
Someone has to be willing to admit defeat and pay the bill.