Wednesday, August 8, 2007

On hard work.

I can understand why Garrison Keillor, for some time now my philosopher of choice, balked at the fact that over 90% of our generation wants a job with creativity and allows them to make an impact in the world.

"All I can say is, Wow. Good luck. And now you know why we need illegal immigrants to do the inflexible uncreative stuff that simply needs doing right now. We've raised a generation of young people who want to be writers."

He's speaking, of coures, to you and me: the ones with at least some college experience, the ones raised on the rise of the tech and blog and PR money-makers that also start their own world-changing charities.

What a change, says Keillor, of the old days when digging a ditch was honest work. It's funny that my grandparents told me I wasn't going to be a ditch-digger - like it was something to be avoided. Now I find myself in a ditchless working environment, and you know what? I kind of like digging ditches.

"My father was a carpenter and a postal worker," Keillor writes. "He admired people who came early and stuck with a job until it got done. People who embraced work. His Republicanism was based solidly on that old bootstrap philosophy. Finish your coffee and get to work and let's get this hole dug and don't complain about the heat, it's the same heat for everybody. Stick with the job, rest as you need to, then resume."

My dad, too, worked hard for what he has. As a blue-collar tool and die worker, he got up every morning at 4 a.m., drove over and hour to work, and came home late to a half-cold dinner - only to fall asleep in his chair while watching "Lethal Weapon." On weekends he would mow the lawn (before he showed me how), drink some beers, and go out on his boat. These days he owns his own business, remodeling and repainting lake-front homes in Brooklyn, and does pretty much the same thing.

You could say we have different skills - I'm his computer technician, after all - but I think I acquired some of that sweat-of-the-brow appreciation from him.

It's not like my job involves that much hard labor. At times I have to lift boxes of bottled water to take to events, or climb up a ladder to grab some popcorn or used computer monitors, and maybe start up a generator to work out cotton candy machine. But most of what I do involves showing people how to do formulas in Excel, or how to write the lead paragraph of a press release, or how to use the Z-index when designing a newspaper ad. My skills grow every day because I make it a point to constantly teach myself new things. Take HTML: what to other people seems like a mish-mash of unintelligble gibberish is to me an elegant web-page building language. I know what "a href=" represents because I've taught myself.

I understand that not everyone can be creative in their job, and I get how lucky I am to be doing what I love and what I was trained to do. But not everyone can be a graphic designer. Not everyone can craft newsletters or brochures out of thin air.

According to Keillor, most people want to do these things, and he sees them as seriously misguided people. And I agree. Sure, to some it's not as sexy to fix cars (although I do see the beauty in a classic Chevy tooling down the road), or clean toilets, or sell insurance. But these things need to be done. More and more we're relying on people with questionable backgrounds to do the tasks, as our President puts it, "Americans don't want to do."

Well to the hell with want. What needs to be done?

The Greeks had a helluva guy in Democritus, who got his hands dirty doing the experiments that have lead to our understanding of the world around us. But over time, guys like Democritus became rare. After a little something called the slave trade, Greeks (and, eventually, Romans) saw getting one's hands dirty as slave's work - and avoided it all together.

It's this societal arrogance that helped break the branch of Classical learning. Greek and Roman society rotted from within after they found some tasks below worth, fit only for chain gangs.

Like Keillor's father, and mine, I don't mind a day of hard work. There's something to be said about the hard work ethic; about digging a hole, or raking an elderly person's yard, or cleaning toilets. There's dignity and worth to these projects.

When I worked for the Michigan Department of Natural Resources, at Hayes State Park, the summer after my senior year, I learned first-hand the elegance of scrubbing a camp ground vault toilet. It wasn't pretty, and it didn't smell good, but it needed to be done - and that's what they paid me to do. Sometimes, to break the monotony, campers would shove all kinds of non-essentials down the commode for us to find.

I've often thought to myself that, if this whole writing and art stuff didn't pan out, I would be perfectly content with cleaning the office building of people who couldn't imagine doing the job. Shit, why not? There's something to be said for making something look and smell nicer than what you found it.

Some arts, like canning and gardening and mowing your own lawn, are being lost over time. Wouldn't it be a shame if all the wineries would destroyed in a freak accident, and no one knew how to make their own anymore?

There is nothing wrong with an honest day's labor. It's all work, all of it, and it needs to get done. I think our generation needs to accept this, and not be afraid to do it themselves. Embrace the DIY. You might find out something about yourself you never knew existed.

Maybe some day, you'll put that knowledge to good use. Doing dishes in a pizza joint taught me the benefits of a clean sink. Scrubbing sinks showed me what a pleasure Cascade and a sponge can be.

That's not old fashioned. That's living.

Now playing: Absinthe Blind - The Break (It's Been There All This Time)'s+been+there+all+this+time)

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