Informing the hand

 People who work with their hands have, I have found, an interesting relationship to work.   Cognitive and neuro scientists have determined a function called kinesthetic memory, or muscle memory, which is a result of just using our bodies, especially our hands.  It helps us orient our bodies in space, and do actions in ways that are back-grounded (think about typing-  if you have done it often enough over many years, your fingers seem to just “know” where to go).  This is not without mistakes, but in general if we use our hands in specific, functional ways for a long time our brains learn too, and it creates a sort of action feed-back loop.  It’s really quite amazing.  Some educators are using this information to focus more on small and large motor development in early childhood, and some even into elementary school.  The idea is that physical passivity not only makes us lethargic and overweight, but actually deters learning- core functional learning in our brains.  This does not mean more tortuous gym classes, but finding ways to expand what is done in classrooms to encourage active, physical behaviors as part of learning.  Some aging specialists even think this focus can help people with dementia.

If I could talk to my great-grandfather again I am sure he would say the equivalent of “duh”.  So much about everyday life required using one’s body, one’s hands, a hundred years ago.  If we agree with this line of thought, then we run smack into what develops from using our hands:  the issue of quality, or competence in these actions, dare I say craftsmanship? 

Husband has a secret language with people who are expert users of hands.  I have always admired men’s hands.  The strong wrist, the slight bit of hair that escapes from a dress shirt, contradicting the starched formality of the suit.  The blunted finger tips, the calloused and worn skin.  Women use their hands too, but I have always preferred to let a stare linger over men’s.  Husband’s fascination is more of a sort of secret handshake, an understanding that can be difficult to express. 

We met a master baker over the weekend (  He is “retired” in the way many experts are.  As he explained, “If you don’t use your hands (he holds them up) then you forget.”  Husband nodded.  Husband later expanded on the idea telling me it is more than the sheer loss of large and small muscle strength, which is annoying, but also the loss of a sort of magic, the forgetting how, the feeling rusty-ness that sets in and gets worse with time (He is struggling to avoid all that right now, as he has taken on more administrative duties and has had less time in the studio).  Our baker friend even taught himself pastry and chocolate making (which would have been separate businesses from bread in Europe he told us, in his Italian accent) to keep his hands, head, and bank account busy.  He shrugged and said “But we are in America.  It is all the same here.  I mostly make bread because I can’t find it like I like it.”  His shop is only open on Fridays and Saturdays, and those in the know order cakes from him.  It isn’t easy to find, he and his wife run it out of the back of their small post-war house in a tight residential district.  You have to take the alley to get to it; there is no parking, and only one small sign.  But inside is an expert space of machines, materials and the products of many years of using hands correctly, with skill.

I could rhapsodize over the lingonberry and lemon tart.  I could drool while telling about the crunch of the batard, the perfectly balanced oil, herb and fluff of the bread in the focaccia,  or the flakiness and rightness of the cinnamon to apple ratio of the apple dumpling, or many of the other things we bought and shared as a family that day.  It should be enough to say that the “it all tastes the same” feeling of most commercial bakeries is due to the use of industrial materials and techniques that MAKE the products all the same (regardless of shape, color, texture, or label).  The contrast are real bakers and pastry makers, who try new flavors, know how to manipulate delicate materials and, as our baker said, “. . .use only real things- butter, farm eggs, sugar.  None of that other stuff.  No.”  He also lamented the lack of time-taking in many bakery efforts, saying that good bread needs time, directing us to what he considered was a good U-Tube video showing how to make real bread (using pre-heated cast iron pans), saying “even a six year old can make it”.  I would say a six year old can start to understand it, the real meaning of bread.

Experts of the hand have a respect for their tools, which they come to feel are extensions of their hands.  They know their materials well, and can literally “feel” when something is not right, and in Husband’s case, even “hear” when a tool is not being used correctly (students who are not using a hammer or torch correctly for example, he can hear from across the room, even in a messy din).  We also know people who work with cloth (also known as fibers artists), iron (blacksmiths), wood, and glass.  I know gardeners who have these traits as well.  The issue of craftsmanship is, I believe, so deep in the nature of who we are as human beings that it has been both derided and made exclusive, and every level in between, yet the use and informing of the hand does not go away.

Last fall we sat in on a lecture by a man who is called an expert in the theory of craft in art.   I found him neither an expert (his philosophical ideas were circuitous, unarguable, and uninformed by current theory), nor a person who understands the hand in any fashion (or a do-er, as Husband says).  We spent most of the evening after the lecture ranting to one another about what was and was not said, and finally decided we should write the book that has not been written about the topic.  Husband also began designing a class to “inform the hand”: A summer course of four weeks in which students would have two days of intensive, active learning with master hand users.  Two sets a week of blacksmithing, wood working, baking, sewing, glass blowing, etc.   Students would be required to turn in a paper in the end reflecting on these experiences, comparing and contrasting the use of hands through materials, tools and techniques, and what they have learned about craftsmanship.  Struggling to transform into words that which can seem to difficult to express- and thereby better practicing both the understanding of hands in craftsmanship, and written expression as well.

This morning I will make pancakes.  My kids say I make the “best in the world”, and I love that they say that- even with their limited experience and direct motivation.  But it is husband’s grudging respect for something he can’t do well (yet) that I love the most.  Materials, experience, practice, experimenting, and the hand I say.  Even if it has only been used in making pancakes, we can all understand and pursue informing our hands.

He who works with his hands is a laborer

He who works with his hands and his head is a craftsman

He who works with his hands, head, and heart is an artist

(Attributed to Francis of Assisi)