Words On Words

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Lester Bangs in Buffalo

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History of Warner Brothers Music

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Originally published October 18, 2004 in The Miami Herald.

'Mind at Work' offers intriguing portraits of workers.
Mike Rose explores the complex skills required of people who work with their hands, from electricians and plumbers to carpenters, welders and hairdressers.

Buy The Mind At Work!The Mind at Work: Physical Work and the Thought It Takes to Do It. Mike Rose. Penguin. 288 pages.


Why would anyone look down on skilled labor? Whether they wear white collars, blue collars or no collars at all, the trained workers who perform specialized tasks are imminently worthy of respect for a variety of reasons. First of all, their jobs are mostly necessary -- ''real'' work as opposed to make-busy stuff. Second, the amount of brainpower required is considerable. And that's the point of this new book by Mike Rose.

When I was in college, a bunch of friends decided to take the examination for employment with the U.S. Post Office. With the casual determination and unambiguous confidence of youth, they took the test but subsequently reported that they only had done so ''as a goof,'' though several sheepishly admitted that they were ''stunned'' -- that's the exact word they used -- at the complexity and difficulty they had encountered.

''Worse than the SAT,'' one wag recalled with a chuckle, several decades after the fact.

I once toured a post office where a letter-carrier buddy showed me some of what his job entailed. This was a few years back, and I'm sure that automation has supplanted many of the sorting tasks, but scores of very complex memory, hand-eye and motor functions were apparent. And this was just during the indoor part of his job, not the actual outdoor mail delivery to homes and businesses (through rain, sleet, snow and hurricanes). It was no wonder that a difficult entrance examination was required for the position!

In his new book, author Rose reminisces about his mother, a waitress, and the remarkable complexity of her job and the necessity to routinely plan, project, react and multitask in an efficient and friendly way while interacting with customers, cooks, bus-persons, vendors and others.

He similarly visits electricians, plumbers, carpenters, welders, hairdressers and other people who work with their hands and other tools and instruments. In several instances, he also depicts settings where experienced workers are actively involved in training and mentoring young people in their chosen fields.

For some, the successful training and integration of professional skills into one's life, as well as the positive feedback derived from the successful completion of these new tasks provides a huge jolt of self-esteem. For many, this is a truly revolutionary achievement.

The power of work as an energizing force that affects growth, positive change and socialization is especially evident in these sections. The upwardly mobile trajectory of much of American society is clearly attributable to this phenomenon.

Rose employs a variety of academic sources to inform and amplify his observations. This is worth mentioning, lest anyone think this book is merely a collection of the author's individual observations and reflections.

Throughout, Rose brings an openness and curiosity to his portrait of workers and a sympathetic eye to the challenges of their work. There's no condescension, pity, sappy moralizing or manifestos of class warfare. He looks at the multitude of complex and varied skills and intellectual prowess required to complete these jobs and puts it all into context.

You can't help but have an increased respect for the mental part of labor as a result. It's well worth contemplating in light of the economy's ongoing evolution and the changing roles of workers.

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