I met men for the first time when I was eleven years old. My father left me with them. He was an academic. I don’t know much about what he did for the University at Buffalo, and later Washington University in St. Louis. When he was at work, he wasn’t with us. But he wasn’t around much when he wasn’t working. His spare time was largely given to the Church of Scientology. I remember the Org since I was often reluctant baggage carted off there (“Org” being the moniker for a local organization of Scientologists—at least in those days). Since Scientologists didn’t have much use for kids, there wasn’t much for kids to do. Mostly we waited for our parents to finish up whatever they were doing. There was a lot of clay to play with (that’s another story). But we spent most of our time sitting beneath the enormous photographs of the plumpy and unappealing L. Ron Hubbard.
Scientology requires total dedication while paradoxically encouraging complete self-absorption. On top of that, it is very expensive, so there wasn’t much money to spend on the family after bills were paid. And apparently the bills went unpaid, since my father went bankrupt. After that, he drove my mother, my sister, and me in his Opel Kadett to western Pennsylvania, to the town where I had been born. And there he deposited us and drove away for good. It was January 1974.
Western Pennsylvania was another world. Men did things there that men do, often right in front of people. It wasn’t just for show, like bodybuilders flexing biceps. They pulled engines and cleaned deer because those things needed doing. It was a world of functional manhood.
Most of them enjoyed happy marriages, with a gun rack in the truck, and a wife who drove it to the quilting circle once a week. Two vehicles to a home were rare then. Besides trucks, they shared in the raising of children, and vegetables, and not a few dogs. And they lived harmoniously, if somewhat dowdily, with work for women, and different work for men, without drama or violence, in small homes on large lots. They participated in their communities, too, usually a church or an ethnic club, one for the Poles, another for the Italians. Things are different now, but you probably knew that. Today, it is dismissively called “Pennsyltucky.”
In my nineteenth year, I left for a world more like the one I had known before. I went to college and eventually became someone who makes a living with words. I’m a pastor, and I’ve taught philosophy to undergraduates. But I’ve taken western Pennsylvania with me wherever I’ve gone, because it was there that I learned to respect, and eventually to love, manual competence. I worked my way through seminary as a framer. Later, between pastorates, I earned a living as a home improvement contractor. Western Pennsylvania gave me balance, a life in which my hands and my head work in rhythm, my writing alternating with the repair and maintenance of my apartment buildings.
There is a connection between working with your hands and manhood. That shouldn’t surprise. Plato implied as much. The further you get from handiwork, the less significant the differences between the sexes tend to be. Our bodies and the tasks they perform, he observed, are sexed. But according to Plato, the minds that animate them might as well be gender-fluid. His Republic is governed by a class of intellectuals. They keep their bodies fit, but largely to serve their minds. If Plato could have imagined it, he might have preferred brains in vats. That would have solved the problems of embodiment, especially those that arise from male and female bodies.
To make certain that his Guardians served the Republic wholeheartedly, Plato had them renounce private property and family life. Those things were fine for the lower classes, but they might distract rulers from interests of state. For Guardians there could be only one interest, the commonwealth.
Because intelligence is distributed somewhat indiscriminately between the sexes, and because even Plato knew that it is heritable to some degree, he included women among the intelligentsia. This presented practical problems. Bodies come with sexual desires, and since intelligent people are likely to produce intelligent offspring, the intellectuals need to copulate. But the bonds that might form in the course of nature are often divisive. So Plato settled upon two preventative measures. First, in order to discourage bonds from forming between men and women, sex would be on rotation; and second, in order to prevent favoritism, the authorities would remove children from their mothers at birth and have them raised in common.
These proposals may not seem as absurd to people today as they would have to the good people I once knew in western Pennsylvania. The more promiscuous among us have sex so indiscriminately it might as well be on rotation. And we’re separating children from their mothers as early as possible, often for reasons similar to those given by Plato. Here is what I’d like to consider: Perhaps divorcing sex from family life, sending children to daycare, and then handing them over to the state to raise have something to do with the fact that fewer and fewer people make a living by the work of their hands.
Disdain for manual labor has been around for as long as people have managed to make other people do it for them. I recall visiting a distinguished relative, an author of more than thirty books and onetime president of the Evangelical Theological Society. When he greeted me outside his house, he said, “I see that you drive a truck. How interesting.” I got the point: Professionals don’t drive trucks, and they don’t frame houses, either. Today it is politically incorrect to put it so baldly. Yet the attitude has spread. Many consider manual labor fine for do-it-yourselfers but think doing it for a living is degrading. But these people are different from my relative and his cultured disdain in one significant way: He knew craftsmen personally and actually liked them. He had a gardener, and the desk in his study was made by an admirer. He had grown up on a farm. Most people today are two or three generations away from any of that. They have little contact with men whose work calls for manual skill, physical strength, and a tolerance for pain.
Yet we depend on tradesmen as much as ever, in spite of robotics and automation. According to the U.S. Department of Labor, the trades remain as male as ever, but these men seem to be invisible to some people. How else does one explain a book like The End of Men, which argues that women are coming to dominate workplaces across America? Surely its author drives by the men who work on the roads; she may have even seen plumbers and electricians at work in her office building. But does she actually see them? I suspect that she does not want to. Those on the advanced side of history are offended by what nature has to say.
My introduction to the trades came through a little blue-collar Evangelical church in my hometown. I wasn’t especially pious. The preacher’s son was my best friend. Since he had to go to church, I went, too. The little congregation prospered, and soon we set out to build a new sanctuary. I don’t think anyone even considered hiring a general contractor. The skills called for were present in the congregation, and money was tight.
Those skills were often put to use in the service of the elderly and single women in the church. I recall working on a roof and nearly falling to my death one Saturday. It had a fairly steep pitch, perhaps an eight. The sheathing had rotted, and my foot went through it. I lost my balance and was about to go over the edge. A man who had strung a rope around the chimney and had tied it to his waist swung over and grabbed me. The accident was unusual, but the work was not. There were many days spent wheelbarrowing concrete or hauling lumber.
A couple of things about the work. First, it was necessary. This wasn’t the Boy Scouts or some other program dedicated to character development. It just needed to be done. Character developed, but that was beside the point. And two: The best men—the most skilled, I mean—were taciturn. Often they would go completely silent, either because they were focused on some task or because they were performing calculations that were opaque to the rest of us. And they never boasted; no need. We all acknowledged their mastery, and we waited for them to tell us what to do.
Hierarchies of knowledge and skill form in the trades. On my first day on the job as a framer, the guy in charge told me to cut the siding of a house so we could put up a ledger for a deck. My saw was a worm drive. They’re hard to handle; and in those days they weighed about fifteen pounds, producing enough torque to twist the saw right out of your hand if you didn’t have the strength to master them. The house was board-and-batten construction, which meant an uneven surface. Every sixteen to twenty-four inches a batten would interrupt the run. Because this was a ledger, I had to hold the saw parallel to the ground to keep it on line, at the proper depth, for about twenty feet of cutting. All the while I was being watched to see how I did.
I botched it and was sent to haul lumber. My place in the hierarchy of trade skill was set. I’d have to work my way up.
Hauling has its own hierarchy. Imagine being told, as I was dozens of times, “Stage the site.” This means cutting the metal bands that hold the lumber that has been dumped by the lumberyard—often a long way from where it has to be—and sorting it out so it is at hand where it is needed. This often means moving four-by-eight sheets of half-inch plywood, sometimes wet from rain, or pressure-treated two-by-tens, still wet with the chemicals that make them rot-resistant. As you set to work, some guys almost effortlessly shoulder two or three sheets of plywood at once. This isn’t a youth group mission trip. We do this for a living, and speed counts. Who do you suppose is honored, and who do you suppose feels like the low man on the site?
This is how hierarchical masculine cultures are formed in the trades. They grow naturally out of an uneven distribution of strength and skill. It begins with bodies and what they can do.
Some are blessed with greater strength and agility, but it is good to remember that gifts are not always received with gratitude. Besides placing us in someone’s debt, gifts can define us. When I use that axe I was given for Christmas, or put on that sport coat, I am transformed. The axe strengthens my hands and my arms as I put it to work. Even the structure of my brain is altered. And the coat changes both my body temperature and what people see when they look at me. I see myself with new eyes. So, receiving a gift in some sense requires submitting to it.
Our bodies are given as either male or female. And the two sexes are full of meaning, like pages of text. But the texts must be read and their meanings drawn out.
Back in western Pennsylvania, men and women worked to accentuate what made them distinct from each other, not to live without each other, but in order to make themselves useful and attractive to each other. The objective was not independence; it was interdependence. The rebuke given to a soft guy, “Be a man!” at times was accompanied by “What that boy needs is a good woman.”
There has been a lot of handwringing about men not going to college, as if the only kind of meaningful, identity-enhancing work is that which feeds the knowledge economy. As a landlord, I see another side to it. Most of the single women who apply to rent my apartments are deep in student loan debt. The men generally are not. The women tend to work in education and health care (traditionally female occupations), and the prospects for wage growth are not good. The men have turned to forms of employment with a lower cost of entry and potentially higher long-term returns. Some of them have gone into the trades.
One fellow is in his twenties and has no college education. But he has no debt and had $12,000 in the bank when I took him on as a tenant. He pays his rent early every month. He repairs the apartment himself when there is a problem and just sends me the receipt for materials. (Believe me, this never happens with the single girls.) He is a mechanic at a local car dealership. He gets out and has a social life, but he drives a used pickup truck, which he keeps in good repair because he knows how. He’s not the only young man who manages this sort of life. I know several. They are independent, responsible, and pleasant to be around.
These men work with their hands because they want to. In my experience, even educated men long to work with real, physical things. And when they do, their minds descend into their hands. Rather than diminishing these men, the descent tends to elevate the work.
Human nature doesn’t change, even though the world does. And so, over time, things return to form. I can see a world developing in the distance that looks a little like the western Pennsylvania I once knew. It is populated by men and women who think of themselves as men and women, and aren’t afraid of the different work their bodies beckon them to do. They even like each other. I may not live to see it, but it must come. History is tethered to nature, not the other way around.
C. R. Wiley is the author of Man of the House: A Handbook for Building a Shelter That Will Last in a World That Is Falling Apart.