Whatsoever thy hand findeth to do, do it with thy might; for there is no work, nor device, nor knowledge, nor wisdom, in the grave, whither thou goest. -Ecclesiastes 9:10
This week I began my new job as a construction plumber after two years in an office role. The transition was daunting to say the least, considering that I had never before seen, much less used, some of the power tools I relied upon. In characteristic fashion, I had prepared as much as I could, reading far ahead into an NCCER plumbing curriculum and purchasing all the hand-tools I might need. But that did little to lessen the sense of “sink or swim.”
Rising at 4:30 AM on Monday, I immediately put on my favorite–Breaking Benjamin–and did deadlifts and kettlebell swings to the sound of their anguished resolve like I was going to war. Fortified by a breakfast of steak and avocados, I screeched into work at 6:05AM only to discover that “arrive between 6:00 and 6:30” really means around 6:30. Assaulting bleary-eyed coffee-clutchers as they arrived with the inverse Tourettes I call professionalism (“morning-sir-pleased-to-meet-you-sir-how-can-I-help-sir”), I eventually found my Journeyman and we were off.
After a cursory examination of the job-site, I was given a dual can of primer and glue and told to have at it. Actually breaking into a cold sweat as I carefully yet quickly painted and joined the pipe threads, I lurched back to ask for an inspection. Cringing at the anticipation of a profoundly negative appraisal, I was told merely to go lighter on the primer in the future. My pulse began to slow and heart palpitations subsist as it gradually dawned that I had signed up for plumbing, not BUD/S, and that a little conscientiousness and curiosity goes a long way. By the end of the day I was cheerily clamoring up ladders to run cold water lines, insulate them, and clamp them into place.
The rest of the week unfurled similarly, with each new task presenting common-sense, rather than insurmountable, problem-solving opportunities and the chance to benefit from my Journeyman’s ample experience. My favorite moment by-far was arriving at a bathroom with no fixtures to speak of and leaving it ready-to-use. It felt like tidying up a little corner of chaos.
At one point, several hours in with a chipping hammer, I had another, albeit far more experienced apprentice ask me what I was smiling for. Unbeknownst to me, I must have been sitting there with a goofy grin on my face the entire time. Earlier in the day he had told me he doesn’t like construction but feels it’s all he can do. This saddens me deeply on two levels. Firstly because I have frolicked in the “greener grass” he doubtlessly envisions. Most of my life has lacked the physicality and open air he and I are now immersed in, firmly ensconced within the upper middle class niche where air conditioning, collars and keyboards reign. In fact, I was peering over the precipice of a graduate degree and student loan debt just before resolving to enter the trades. I wish I could tell him that I’d take aching muscles over carpal tunnel any day, that the satisfaction of seeing what one’s hands have made complete before you is sweeter than spreadsheets, that making money is hard and keeping it even harder no matter the profession or class. And second, it saddens me because he has on some level internalized the lie that the trades are for underachievers, predicated on the American education system’s assumption that everyone should be passably good at everything academic, whereas specialty is more often the default of our species. An ineptitude at deciphering theoretical maths or literary texts is irrelevant when one can bring clean water and waste disposal to their fellow man. It raises the hair on my neck to hear usefulness being so belittled, for the result of shame is to make things disappear. How far we’ve come from the sentiment of the famous American Standard poster! Though it is now solely the noses rather than the adoring faces of the nation that upturn at the sight of a plumber, I’m proud to be one. It’s honest, it’s real, and it’s difficult in a strengthening way–if you let it be.