Tools of the Trade,

published at 12:07pm on 07/04/06

The New York Times recently ran a photo feature about the tools of the trade of today’s traveling chefs, and the carrying cases they use to transport their collections of knives, spoons and other implements. These are wonderful collections, both in the tools themselves (says Ian Lai, “There is a lot of energy in the tools”) and in the cases that these chefs have found to carry them.

I was thinking that these days, it is becoming increasingly rare for people who have their own tools or, for that matter, their own trade. My friends the traders (to trade is their trade) live on their Bloomberg terminals at their offices (“I have six screens on my desk!”) and this technology is essential for the proper execution of their daily work, but these tools could never carry the same emotional weight as my great grandfather’s cooperage tools hanging above the fireplace at my parents’ house. In half a century, nobody will be hanging a computer terminal over their fireplace and pondering it as a family heirloom. Of course one could argue that nostalgia only goes so far, and the people who once worked in the factories that dotted all of downtown New York felt about the same about the tools of their particular trade as, say, the real estate broker does to her computer terminal.

I do know people who dote on their computers as if they were children, pouring every last penny into them, souping them up like hot rods to drive faster and harder. That seems to be a tool of a trade, even if that trade happens to involve hours and hours of WoW, night after night. And what of the writer sitting at a laptop, day after day? Is the iconic image of the writer with her well-worn typewriter just that, an idealized image of something that we would like to believe is the relationship between our great writers and their tools? Is the typewriter, or the laptop, or the pen and paper really just a means to an end? On a tour of the New York Public Library, we saw the manuscript for A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, hand-written on individual leaves of paper, all stacked and stored in a custom-built wooden box. Do people give that much attention to their works these days, or are the words the most important piece of the equation, the medium less so?

For some reason, a writer’s words tapped into a computer rather than scrawled (or even hammered, Olympus-style) onto a page makes them seem less real to me, less meaningful somehow. Quickbooks is somehow less real than a paper ledger (if similarly dry in substance). While someone could possibly hand down a slide rule from master to apprentice, handing off a battered Thinkpad could never carry the same meaning. Are the tools themselves less important today as the skills of a trade (and the accoutrements of that particular trade, i.e. the tools) are pushed aside simply in favor of the work that is done to accomplish the tasks of a job?

Or am I just feeling a personal sense of longing towards a time when maybe life was less complicated, when people had more skills, and when tools (in the traditional sense of what we might think of when we say “tools”) in general were more ubiquitous? Fully understanding that this particular time about which I am feeling so nostalgic probably never existed, should it really bother me that the sink in my bathroom is clogged and that I have no snake to clean out the drain? Should it bother me that I will call the building management people and have them send up someone from maintenance to clear it out for me. I may possess all the skills to do the job myself, but I certainly do not have the tools to do so.

Living in New York, I find that there is no stigma attached to living without even a basic understanding about how our environment actually operates. This is a city where cooking is shunned for takeout and calling your building’s super is the first line of defense against anything that happens in the home (though your Chinese takeout will probably arrive before your super ever will). I know that I, for one, have lived without a functioning stove in my apartment for over three months, and while it is becoming a nuisance, it is certainly not a life ending predicament. Maybe I feel like it should be.

When I was growing up, my father always told me to have a trade. I say that is good advice, but I now think that you should learn as much as you can about all the others as well.

Being a Jack of All Trades tends not to woo employers these days as much as being a master of one, it is equally frightening to be the one who doesn’t know how to change the fuse when the lights go out. Being a Jack of All Trades and a Master of One seems probably to be the right balance to strike.

After all, the world becomes a far more interesting place when you know what the hell is going on around you.

Filed under: Observations

At 3:45 am on 07.12.06, Other_Sally said,

It’s not so bad. I’d say your camera functions as a tool of the trade, and is both hands-on enough and personal enough to be potentially considered an heirloom in later years. I actually think that some laptops will take on the status of typewriters as newer technology comes to replace them. I can definitely see our modern cellphones considered “quaint” and “charming” antiques by following generations.

Yep, there will come a time when you will sit, old and gray (or rather, botoxed and colored) with your grandchildren, fondly showing them your salvaged phone and reminsicing about the times when computers had some *weight* to them, and you forged a bond with your laptop as you held it on your hands, rested it on your lap, took it into a coffeeshop. “People related to the technology they used then!” you will cough.

They will roll their eyes and say, “I can’t believe your computers used to be so big you had to lug them around in a case. These new hyperskin-installed modules are so much easier to use.”

And you, being a crotchety grandpa, will hit your grandson on the ear, causing his internal music drive to go into hiccups and spew out snippets of songs at random.

At 10:59 am on 07.12.06, djd said,

I respect tools. Someday, I tell myself, I will buy a fixer-upper (probably the only kind of house I could afford in Somerville) and then I will finally have to learn how to fix things. I recently wrote an article about a local building materials co-op that offers classes… hmm.

My best friend’s dad collects portable typewriters. He will give me one, the friend says. I wonder if I would use it or just leave it out as quietly tragic sculpture?

When someone stole his tools, musician/sculptor/contractor Boy Thayer wrote a song about it.

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