Fiddlers Mending Pans

by Sarah A. Hoyt  Crossposted at According to Hoyt

As we all know I grew up in the sort of quaint place that fairytales – and fantasy books – wax poetic (and often pathetic) about.  So it will surprise absolutely no one if I tell you it came with the necessary accouterments of proverbs and picturesque sayings.  (Because, to allude to my son’s Ninja Nun comic, the touristry ministry gives you seven kinds of h*ll otherwise.)

One of those charming proverbs was something along the lines of (tries madly to remember) “Why would you want, fiddler, to learn to play the harmonica?”  and, with total disregard for one-men-bands, this was supposed to allude to the fact that if you do something well you should stick to it, and not go haring off in search of new work, and different experiences.  (There was also something about potters not mending pans.)

As charming as it is to think that this served people well in a long-forgotten time of stability when a son followed his father’s footsteps into a profession, world without end, I’ve read enough to suspect that this was not ever really true.  I mean, do some sons follow their father’s professions?  Sure.  Talent tends to run in families, so if your father is a brilliant mathematician, or a really good farmer, (or both) chances are so are you.  But here’s the thing, there’s a good chance that the son won’t follow the father’s profession exactly the SAME way.  Chances are that the son will follow it sideways, with a twist, more so, less so…  The sons who just – to extend the methaphor – follow their father’s furrow to the end, always strike me as a little sad, a little… manque, like something is missing of the essential spark of life that animates other people.

And there’s reason to think those sons (and daughters) are not the majority and never were.  Even in the middle ages there were laws in almost every European country saying that a son had to do what the father did, at least in those professions considered essential.  At least, once the plague opened opportunities of advancement in Europe and broke the chains of feudal serfs, everyone seemed to hare off to better their status.  Laws, of course, didn’t work to keep them back on the farm.  (Laws, most people tend to forget, don’t work without heavy enforcement, and then often don’t work as they’re meant to.  Take the minimum wage law (please.) Because it contravenes economic fact, it has resulted in a flood of illegal laborers.  But that’s musing for another day.)  But they did leave us a useful testimony to the fact that life was never as stable as we’d like to think it was.  The golden age back there only seems so to us because we know how the struggles that consumed people at the time will end.

However, I will concede, if anyone is interested – you, back there, stop pretending to sleep.  That’s such a fake snore! – that we’ve entered a time of marked and tumbling change in most professions.  Disruptive change.

Not all change is disruptive, see.  Oh, I know, twentieth century.  Oxcart to moon landing, yeah.  But look, in the essentials, the automobile was just a faster and safer and more affordable (because no horses to maintain) form of carriage.  And most people (more’s the pity) never got close to going to the moon.  Manufacturing got faster and cleaner and better.  A lot of things got cheaper.

I’m not going to pretend this didn’t change lives.  Of course it did, and I experienced a lot of that change myself, over a compressed time.

What I’m going to say is that it didn’t change the processes of life, or not as much as we expect, or at least not in most professions.  Yeah, if you were an old buggy whip maker, you might have retired early, and your apprentices might have gone to study mechanics.  Heck, to read, say the Miss Marple stories by Agatha Christie in sequence, tells us how much the texture of life changed before and after the war.  But Mis Marple didn’t suddenly have to learn to knit using a computer, say.

Now, this is a gross generalization.  A lot of professions, particularly towards the end of the twentieth century, had to learn to knit using a computer, to work that metaphor further.  But by and large, the processes set at the end of the nineteenth century for “how life works” continued the same way.  Yeah, now a woman as well as a man might go out of the house to earn her living.  But even that is not that out of the pattern, since women in the lower classes worked in the factories since the industrial revolution.

And that’s why I think you need to go back to the industrial revolution, to its total upending of what had been a centuries-old way of life, to see the equivalent of what we’re going to: villages which had been stable for centuries were suddenly emptied by people leaving for town to work in the factories; young people who had always started working at ages that seem impossible to us now, suddenly were at least thought to be better off in school (and most of them ended up in school, after a while) because the industrial revolution required workers trained to work in groups and to obey and be punctual; work became something you did outside the house, instead of in the house, often with the participation with the family.  Etc. etc. etc.

The only thing that made the industrial revolution slightly less (a very little less) frightening than what we’re seeing now is that it was slower.  Or at least it seems so to us, from where we’re standing.  (And even then, the fast pace of change and the fear and angst it occasioned, particularly among those with power but more generally too, ended up giving us the French Revolution, the Napoleonic wars and, generally speaking, rivers of blood – I’m very afraid we won’t emerge on the side of this without experiencing the equivalent, but that’s a musing for another article.)

From where we’re standing, only biblical type phrasing seems appropriate, only the Bible – is for some reason – quite lacking in metaphors having to do with machinery and tech.  So, I’ll have to make do and tell it onto you verily (yea!): Brothers and sisters, the day is coming, roaring like a freight train, and when the day arrives, of our way of life there won’t be left stone standing upon stone.  (Yes, today I am devoted to stretch all metaphors till they scream, why?)

Call it singularity, if you want to.  I won’t because the word comes freighted (trains again) with ideas of immortality and brain jacks, and I really can’t be having with that just now.  But the essence of the singularity as something past which everything is different, so different that understanding before and after is very difficult, is there.  Yes, I think change will be that extraordinary.

Now, perhaps I’m silly, because I’m a writer and right now my profession is getting hit on the snout with the rolled newspaper of catastrophic change in tech.  (Mostly for the better, mind.  But the better doesn’t seem so, when we’re in mid-change.  Security is gone and we must adapt faster.)  But it seems to me that most of your professions are in for it, too, and not far behind mine.  Oh, I don’t think heavy manufacturing is close to changing that much yet – except a lot of it is already done by robots.  Doctoring is probably safe for a while longer.  But things like… teaching.  Uh, your time is coming, roaring like a freight train.  And don’t get me started on a bunch of other professions.  At the end of this, we’ll be able to write a scene like at the beginning of City (by Clifford Simak.)  You know “And sometimes the children asked, what is a teacher?  What is a movie studio?  What is a publishing house? What is a freight train?  Historians told them to be quiet.  These words were just made up and the stories just metaphors, to be enjoyed and not thought over.”

So, what can we do?  Besides try to make sure that this time – unlike the last catastrophic tech change – we don’t end up wading in blood up to our metaphorical ankles?  (It might be out of our hands, but its our duty as humans to try to prevent it.)

We can tell the proverb about fiddlers and harmonicas to take a flying leap.  You see, what makes this change so difficult, right now, is that we’re in the air, with all our paws (what, you don’t have paws when you leap? Odd that!) flailing, not absolutely sure where we’ll land, or how to brace for impact.

As with any leap, the way to make things easier is to look ahead and set ourselves where we can fall standing on all four paws and ready to run, attack or cower as needed.  And in this over-stressed metaphor world, seeing what’s ahead means learning as much as possible about the tech that’s causing the change.  And following the lives of those who are ahead of us in the leap.  (Thank heavens for blogs.)

In the interest of the first, I, the world’s least technologically inclined fiddler must now learn to play the harmonica of tech.  (NOT a real harmonica, for those of us who know of my inverse musical talent.)

I am headed for Oregon this weekend, to take Kris Rusch’s and Dean Wesley Smith’s Think Like A Publisher workshop, part of which involves the tech of making ebooks.  Yes, of course I am terrified.  Look, after weeks of my nooddling with the attempts to put up a donate button, my husband did it for me yesterday in about seven minutes (Look, there, on the sidebar to your right at According To Hoyt, though I don’t intend to mention except while posting the free novel.)  The problem is when faced with most tech stuff my brain stops being able to think linearly and, instead, spins in a tight circle upon itself.  But never mind that.  I’m sure it was very hard for Og, who had just used stones picked up from the ground to get his mind around the flint-chipping thing.  But if Og didn’t manage it, the young men with their sharp flints left him behind (hopefully alive, I make no promises for the morals of cavemen) and killed and ate all his normal hunting prey, so that Og was left to finish his miserable life eating only grass and berries.

Berries are okay, but I don’t like grass.  And I really like steak.  So I will muster this flint chipping before the lack of knowledge destroys me.

And, lest you think I’m done abusing metaphors: the fiddle player will one way or another become a one woman band and march over the horizon to mend some pans.


  1. Don’t look now, but the abused metaphors have filed a restraining order requiring literal meanings at all times.

    (And yes, the times they are a-changing so damn fast it’s a completely different paradigm every time you look. About the only people who’ll prosper from this are the ones selling brown cords to disguise the… nervousness).

    Um. I think I’m past legal posting time. Again. (Note to self: do not let the narcoleptic post after bedtime)

  2. Yeah, after all the predictions for change, for the singularity, for the future . . . how did it all come down to this? Never in my wildest dreams did I ever conceive of any part of “No Publishers, no book stores, and so much stuff to read you’ll never run out again.” Which _might_ be a slight exaggeration.

    Recycle paper? What is paper?

    I mean, automation in manufacturing, sure. But how many products are not going to be made at all any more?

    And schools. There have to be schools. Every parent is not capable of homeschooling, nor have the time to spend doing so. Really. I don’t think they can ditch the schools. Tutors and coaches and video taped lectures? No teachers? Eeep!

    GPS on every car, and the computers can take over the duties of the traffic cops. Surveilance cameras instead of security guards.

    Telecommuting. Okay, I can see that. My husband was home sick today, and put in four hours at the “office.” Video conferencing could eliminate all need to drive to the office.

    More freight going the long distances by train? Yeah, that’s happening with the containers. Or will we give up on trains and go all the way to trucking? Possibly with computers doing so much of the driving, the former drivers just snooze for most of the trip?

    Those are the easy things to see coming? What is going to blindside us?

    I guess I’ll just retreat into my hippy roots and go with the flow. “Like, Wow, man, who’d have thought?”

    1. They can ditch the schools, Pam. Everyone but the poorest parents are doing so. There are online highschools already. When I homeschooled Marsh, it was ONLY heck because of his IQ. Had he not eaten me out of home and curriculum, it would have been (relatively) easy. Courses in everything — some of them excellent — interactive courses, understand, on line. Latin, ancient Greek, Math, Geography. TRUST me.

  3. I think that when things change so quickly it’s easy to get overwhelmed. My husband jokes that I’m a Luddite but it’s not at all that I dislike or disapprove of technology… I just don’t want to take the time away from something else. Technology isn’t intrinsically fun to me, so learning it isn’t full of “gosh, wow, look at that!”, it’s simply work.

    At the moment I’m avoiding studying for an Algebra mid-term. I like it. I understand it. I know I’m capable of doing well. Even so the mere thought of working on it makes me feel pressure in my head. There is too much else demanding that I figure it out, and changing from one track to another is so difficult.

    1. Synova,
      I’m like that about tech too. Until I had a reason for learning, I didn’t want to. I’m too busy with stuff I want to do. Also, I’m a kinetic learner. I learn by doing. And when I only have a book telling me what to do, it ain’t gonna happen. good luck on Algebra midterm. I actually LOVE math. It’s better than popcorn. The problem is I have digit dyslexia (I transpose digits, sot hat 294 and 492 are functionally the same to me or become so in my head and I write one when it should be the other.) So it’s effort. Mostly still worth it, but I wouldn’t want to make it a career.

      1. Side comment: digit dyslexia doesn’t have anything to do with mathematics. That’s arithmetic, which can be complex or extended (think of accountants, for instance). Arithmetic is just one of many things that can be described using math, to the astonishment of mathematicians.

        Math is a form of puzzle-solving. Does this equation come apart into simpler bits? Do these equations form a set that can be combined into something more complex? There are a few actual numbers involved, but they serve the same purpose in math that adjectives and adverbs do in prose, that is, they’re modifiers that may or may not make any difference in picking the puzzle apart.

        Many of the people who made significant contributions to mathematics were hopeless at arithmetic. It’s a pity that teaching always approaches mathematics via arithmetic. It’s sort of like trying to teach race driving starting with how to rebuild a transmission.


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