Call me a hand-crafted man. A man who — in an assembly-line land, in a buy-in-bulk land — values the kind of work that needs time and sweat. Like carpentry. Or writing.
But that cuts a bit to the left of the truth for me. Because where writing is concerned, I am becoming a machine. One that hums at all hours of night and sucks a fuel of taurine and caffeine. One that sputters and falls behind. One that whirs so fast it thoroughly ruins the product.
Back in October, I emailed the man who turned me onto this craftsman kick. He taught me English for two years at an all-boys high school in Cleveland. Tall and skeletal, he barked at the class like a drill sergeant. He put us through grammar boot camp. He called himself the Grammar Hammer.
We had not seen each other in two years. I wrote that I was following up on an old promise: When I turned 21, he had said, we would have a beer together and shoot the shit like old pals — on him. I typed deliriously around midnight, looking ahead at the homework I knew I would half-ass before flopping into bed for a few hours. I sent the email, seeking spiritual guidance.
On the first day of class freshman year, he held up a photocopied image of a chair. This chair was made by the Shakers, he told us, an 18th- and 19th-century sect of utopian Protestants who founded communes across the Northeast and Midwest. They foreswore sex, shared possessions and built all furniture by hand. Their straight-backed chairs — simple, sturdy, firm — outlasted them. They are the greatest of chairs.
He tacked the image above the chalkboard and demanded we shape our work with the care of a Shaker craftsman. Whether we understood it or not, it was now our job to cleave to the Shaker motto: “Put your hands to work and your hearts to God.”
He preferred to use his own update on the adage, though. “Fine wine takes time, men,” he told us. “Don’t give me grape juice.”
I received a response message from him a month later. He was never one for electronic mail. “Thank you for the kind words in your e-mail of 10-20-10,” it began. “When you do get home, please contact me at school. I want to treat you to a beer!”
In December, I climbed to the fourth floor of my high school. He was in the English department office, door locked behind him, typing at a computer. It was the last day before winter break — a half day — and the rest of campus were cheering at the annual seniors-versus-faculty basketball game.
Not him. He was applying for the school to go to a Junior Council on World Affairs summit. He let me in and apologized for holding me up. He just had to send this off, and then we could drink.
But instead we headed back to his classroom, where he had some more work to finish, and where his cubbyholes confronted me. They stood behind his desk, half a man high, four or five feet long. Dozens of wooden cubbyholes stocked with student essays, scantrons, college recommendations yet to be sent. They helped him manage his work, but they also managed him.
A student dropped by with questions about a college essay. My teacher seemed weary. He was coming down with a cold. On the last day before break, the work would not let him leave school.
It was not until later that I began to think that I had become him — and in an unexpected way.That maybe we were not the craftsmen we wanted to be. We were men who shaped their work with care, yes, but also men who were shaped by the machines of their own workload.
Each night I type until near sunrise. Each night I pour grape juice, hoping for wine. And maybe the typing preoccupies me more than the words themselves. As long as I keep sanding and hammering, I will not have to worry about the quality of the product. The furniture rolls in and out endlessly.
Not even the Shakers built without flaw. An 1823 Shaker manifesto, on perfection: “Such a state never will be attained, neither in time nor in eternity.”
We walk to a Belgian bar through Cleveland snow, two tired craftsmen, distracted by our chairs.