Saturday, June 25, 2011

A Conversation in Deed, by Matthew B. Crawford

(Mike Hsu lovin' life)

I like to fix motorcycles more than I like to wire houses (Matthew Crawford is an electrician as well as a motorcycle mechanic). Both practices have internal goods that engage my attention, but fixing bikes is more meaningful because not only the fixing but also the riding of motorcycles answers to certain intuitions I have about human excellence. People who ride motorcycles have gotten something right, and I want to put myself in the service of it, this thing that we do, this kingly sport that is like war made beautiful.

My job of making motorcycles run right is subservient to the higher good that is achieved when one of my customers leans hard through a corner on the Blue Ridge Parkway, to the point of deliberately dragging his well-armored knee on the inside. This moment of faith, daring, and skill casts a sanctifying light over my work. I try to get his steering head bearings as light and silky as they can be without free play, and his swing arm bushings good and tight, because I want him to fell his tires truly. Only then can he make the road fully his own. If I am riding twenty yards behind him, I want to hear the confidence he has in the chassis I have tuned, expressed by the way he rolls on the throttle, brashly, through the exit of a turn. He is likely to pull away from me; I may find him waiting for me at Cumberland Gap without a verdict that lighter fork oil is called for, to get less damping in the front end.

I try to be a good motorcycle mechanic. This effort connects me to others, in particular to those who exemplify good motorcycling, because it is they who can best judge how well I have realized the functional goods I am aiming at. I wouldn't even know what those goods are if I didn't spend time with people who ride at a much higher level than I, and are therefore more discerning of what is good in a motorcycle. So my work situates me in a particular community. The narrow mechanical things I concern myself with are inscribed within a larger circle of meaning; they are the service of an activity that we recognize as part of a life well lived. The common recognition, which needn't be spoken, is the basis for a friendship that orients by concrete images of excellence.

My point, finally, isn't to recommend motorcycling in particular, nor to idealize the life of a mechanic. It is rather to suggest that if we follow the traces of our own actions to their source, they intimate some understanding of the good life. This understanding may be hard to articulate; bringing it more fully into view is the task of moral inquiry. Such inquiry may be helped along by practical activities in company with others, a sort of conversation in deed. In this conversation lies the potential of work to bring some measure of coherence to our lives.

Shop Class as Soulcraft, pp. 196,197

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