Sunday, January 15, 2012

Fingerprints On My Ceiling

My wife and I are the third owners of our house here in Hawai'i, which we love very much.

Like many Hawaiian houses, ours has what is called an open-beam ceiling.  When you look at the ceiling you are actually seeing the underside of the roof  -- there is no insulation and no attic, not even a layer of dry wall sheeting.  The beams are larger than normal roof joists and not only support the roof, they are a distinct visual element of the house, painted white against the natural wood of the tongue-and-groove roof/ceiling planking.

Mainland readers may be having trouble with the concept of a ceiling without insulation, but it is quite common here because the weather doesn't require it.  For the same reason many houses in Hawai'i, ours included, have no central air-conditioning and no heating.

When our house was built about twenty years ago one or more of the carpenters wasn't wearing gloves when the roof planks were installed.  I know this because if you look closely you can see fingerprints on the ceiling, most likely the result of the oils in the carpenter's skin darkening over the years.

Some might consider this feature a flaw, but I think it is kind of fascinating.  For one thing, it is a clear reminder of an individual human contribution to creating my house, and certainly a reminder that is a uniquely personal one.  Each time I look at those fingerprints, I visualize somebody up on the roof struggling to fit each plank into position, maybe thinking "just five more and we can quit for the day and go have a beer...."  Real people built this house, and they worked long and hard to do it.  Twenty years later the signs of that hard work are still evident, and the fingerprints represent an obvious connection between the workers' sweat and our current happiness.

I doubt the carpenter who left his fingerprints ever thought that one day people would be pondering who he was and appreciating his efforts on such a personal level. He knew he was creating something that would last into the future of course, but his impact on people would be through the structure he was building, not through the loops and sworls on his fingertips.

Come to think of it, we all leave traces as we go through our daily lives, though seldom as uniquely identifiable as fingerprints on a ceiling, and like the carpenter we're often unaware of the influence we have on the experiences of other people. Our traces aren't necessarily physical residues.  Our interactions with people alter their experience and change the direction of their lives, even if the impact might be small and subtle.  A smile, a word of encouragement, a derisive gesture or condescending comment may alter a person's mood and behavior and in turn determine how they interact with others, the effects continuing to ripple outward.  It seems likely that when you meet a stranger there is a high probability that they represent some small amount of your own previous traces.  This suggests that the quality of your interaction with the stranger is determined in part by your past behavior with other people.  Buddhists might regard this as one aspect of Karma, the causal theory that our intentional actions have consequences that may return to us through long and complex causal chains.

The plausibility of this interconnectedness can be illustrated by the work of the famous psychologist Stanley Milgram on what he called the Small World Phenomenon (other have referred to it as the "six degrees of separation principle').  Through a series of clever experiments Milgram demonstrated that any two people can be connected to each other through only 5 or 6 intermediaries.  For example, in one study Milgram asked people to move a letter to a random stranger located in a geographical distant location. Since no one knew the stranger, they were to pass on the letter to a friend who might know the other individual, or who would pass it on to another person who might.  On average it took just 5-6 moves to reach the target.  Friendship in this case is the trace that ripples outward.

It is possible that the carpenter who left his fingerprints on my ceiling is long gone, maybe even dead.  Yet the trace he left still exists, and it will continue to have an impact for a long time to come. Assuming of course that someone has read this blog........


PaddleDoc said...

I like your appreciating for the person who builds. I often hear people say they built a house, when in fact they are appropriating the work of the real builders because they paid for their endeavors. The left over fingerprints are interesting as we generally try to eliminate such evidence. I once stepped off the loading deck onto the knotty pine planks I was stacking off the dry chain in a lumber mill. The foreman saw my moment of imbalance and came over to reprimand me, "do you think people want your dirty boot prints on their wall?" Of course I agreed with him and managed not to stagger off the deck again. I suspect my boot prints were not fully erased by his casual scrub of the sleeve and maybe someone does have them on their wall. Hadn't thot of that misstep in several decades, thanks!

Richard Sherman said...

Thanks. Actually, I am in awe of skilled workers of all kinds. Partly this is because they are doing things I simply can't, but it is also because if they are really good at what they are doing they contribute to everyone's well-being and yet we seldom give them enough credit.