Working Fools?

In the beginning, the word we used was “helping”.  Helping wasn’t a burden, a demand or an imposition. It wasn’t a curse or a condemnation, something to be avoided at all cost or valued beyond all reason.  Helping was something people did naturally, and it was the best way for a child to enter the mysterious and utterly appealing world of grown-ups.

Helpers garnered smiles of approval as they trailed behind Mother with a dust cloth or ventured into the yard to carry bundles of sticks for Daddy. Helpers cut flowers that made the house pretty and picked up their toys.  Helpers collected windfall apples in a bucket or pulled low-hanging cherries from the trees. Helpers set the table and dried the silverware, folded the wash cloths and put newspapers in their box. If a neighbor who’d been called away was worried about her thirsty geraniums, a good helper knew to borrow a bucket and carry water to the flowers.

Helping, I thought, was fun.

Over time, I learned many of the people I was helping were doing something called “work”. Sometimes they worked on the car, sometimes they worked around the house. Painting was work, and vegetable canning.  Dad worked at repairing a faucet. Mother worked on my new dress. Necessary work helped to bond us as a family, while chosen work defined our differences and became an arena for creativity.

Slowly, I began to understand the complexity of work and differentiate among its varieties – homework and handwork, busywork and piecework.  I learned to associate work with money, and occasional unhappiness. I discovered there were days when Daddy didn’t want to go to work, and times when others seemed worried by lack of work.  Still, working and helping remained so intertwined that the phrase “Daddy’s gone to work” seemed wonderful to me. Even among adults, chatting across the fences or on the porches of our neighborhood, no higher praise could be given than to say of someone, “That one’s a workin’ fool”.

Workin’ fools aren’t so abundant these days. New forces are abroad in the land, forces happy to sunder pleasure from work, to minimize its importance and reduce it to the sort of burden only a fool would willingly endure.

Given our increasing ambivalence toward work, I found it refreshing to discover a current Smithsonian traveling exhibit sponsored by its Museum on Main Street and titled The Way We Worked.

Initially, I was amused by their use of the past tense. The Way We Worked suggests our working days are over – that work itself has become a curiosity, a museum piece, something to be wondered over and then forgotten as easily as that fifty-foot-long chunk of Route 66 languishing in the Smithsonian’s  collection. In fact, the exhibit is strongly historical in nature, though not so dismissive.

“The Way We Worked”, adapted from an original exhibition developed by the National Archives, explores how work became such a central element in American culture by tracing the many changes that affected the workforce and work environments over the past 150 years.  The exhibition draws from the Archives’ rich collections to tell this compelling story.

Equally interesting are the concurrent exhibits created by “partner sites” – small towns selected to join with the Smithsonian in an exploration of the rich diversity of work.  Free to develop their programs as they saw fit, some chose retrospectives or emphasized particular industries.

But in Kansas, one town chose to focus on the present. The Way We Worked in Blue Rapids, a photographic exhibit sponsored by the Kansas Humanities Council in partnership with the Museum on Main Street program, opened February 2  at the Blue Rapids Museum.

The exhibit features eighty large-format photographs taken by Blue Rapids photographer Tom Parker and a running slideshow of more than 400 additional photos he captured during 2012.  Parker himself has described the scope of the project.
“Over the past year I photographed the men, women and children of our town performing the diverse tasks that are at their core the building blocks of rural America. While the other [exhibit] sites focused on their particular histories – mining, agriculture, black populations – ours was a photographic record of how we worked in Blue Rapids during 2012. We called it a snapshot of a single year, and thought of it in terms of the historical record.
It was more time-consuming than I’d envisioned, and much more rewarding. Along the way I spent hundreds of hours with farmers, ranchers, convenience store workers, clerks, grocers, city workers, lifeguards, contractors, shopkeepers, retailers, postal employees, medical professionals, welders, musicians, explosives experts, county fair workers and volunteers – even a cat and a dog.
I was there for funerals and the baptism of twins. I was allowed unrestricted access into the working lives of my friends, my neighbors and complete strangers. Everywhere I went my camera went.”

When I first met Tom and Lori Parker, I’d already become a fan of Tom’s blog, Dispatches from Kansas.  When he told me about the unfolding project, the opportunity to follow it through time seemed delightful. I wasn’t sure what to expect, but that was part of the fun.

As months passed and images of life in Blue Rapids began to pile up, it was impossible not to be amazed by how little some things have changed.

In other instances, the sweetest of memories were evoked. Lunch with Daddy at his work place seems to be as special now as it was sixty years ago.

The photographs shared along the way always were interesting and often compelling. But of equal interest were the photographer’s musings over his project. Recording the frustrations, joys, technical challenges and sheer exhaustion that attend any large, on-going process, Tom clearly understood that blank canvas, empty pages or vacant walls present significant challenges to those charged with filling them.

Triggering [my] edginess is an immersion into the classic images of early American labor with a hefty dollop of worldwide street photography thrown in for good measure. After delving into Robert Frank’s The Americans, Lewis Hine’s works on child labor, Margaret Bourke-White’s collections on industrial design and factory workers, Dorothea Lange on the Dust Bowl years, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Walker Evans, W. Eugene Smith and others, I’ve reconsidered and reworked many of my initial compositions in an attempt to mimic some of their distinctive styles.
It’s an imposing and indeed impossible task, one almost guaranteed to assure defeat. When I discussed this with National Geographic photographer Joel Sartore, he shook his head and said, “Can’t be done. Were those pictures iconic when they were taken or are they iconic because of what they represent to us now?”
Still, for the documentary photographer setting out to record a historical record of a certain sliver of time, it’s impossible to escape or ignore the body of work which we now consider classical or iconic. We start with a preconceived notion tinged, perhaps fatally, with ideas of becoming a modern day master whose photographs would not only enhance a vision of America as portrayed by Frank, Evans and Lange, not only continue their tradition, but compete with their bodies of work.
Sartore offered several bits of advice, one of the best being “Go big or go home.” But the most incisive, and the one I’m printing out to paste on my monitor, aligned the project’s direction in the truest, most linear fashion. “Every picture,” he said, “must advance the story.”

The process of advancing the story was as slow as it was detailed.  Tom would “select an image in Lightroom, transfer it to Photoshop, increase the canvas size one inch on each side, type the name of the person in the lower margin followed by the name or nature of his or her business, center the type, transfer the image back to Lightroom for resizing to approximately 12 x17 inches, and print. And wait.”  It was a lot of waiting, and a lot of work.

I was tired all the time. In the past month sleep was as elusive as coherence or the ability to piece together words into a cohesive whole, similar to writer’s block but much more debilitating.
When people asked when I was going to write another column, I’d say, when I can think straight. But thinking straight seemed to be exclusively the domain of The Way We Worked project, and little else. It filled my days and troubled my dreams. It propelled me from the warm confines of my flannel sheets, often at 2 a.m. And in December, the month of its finale, it allowed for very little else.

As he snapped the project’s final photo at 11:59 p.m on New Year’s Eve in a local bar, there still was work to be done before meeting his deadline. Still, no one imagined it wouldn’t be done.  Through the whole of 2012, Tom Parker had proven himself a working fool – capturing 40,000 images, considering and culling, rejecting and retrieving. He went big and didn’t go home, all in order to keep advancing the story. For that work – and that foolishness – Blue Rapids, Kansas, the Smithsonian and each one of us should be immensely grateful.

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103 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Hello Linda:

    Let me begin saying how much I appreciate the beauty of your words and the pictures that enhances your work. That is a characteristic of your work and we can’t thank you enough for it.

    When I first read the title of your blog post, I associated the word “Work” with “Unemployment”. Maybe because I had been reading about the Great Depression and The New Deal propelled by FDR and his assistants. Work was then scarce and badly needed to put food on the table. It was a sad period in the history of the nation. Work only became plentiful when the U.S. went to war and planes, boats, guns, bullets, tanks, and so forth were needed for the battlegrounds across the pond.

    Now work is also scarce, as jobs are migrating to emerging economies like India, Taiwan, China or Mexico. Millions are people are combing the streets looking for a job to earn a living. Unemployment is being heard almost everywhere like a giant echo across the land.

    The auto workers, the farmers, the welders, the plumbers, the carpenters, the garment workers, and so goes the list, are almost gone. The Chinese are gobbling up our work and no matter how hard we try to bring them back, they are reluctant to return.

    My heart feels out for these people who are in need of work. Work is synonymous with human dignity and it hurts when it’s not there, like a ghost hidden behind the walls of the global economy.

    Just my two cents on the “working fools”.

    Good Day,

    Omar.-

    • Omar,

      There’s no question that issues of unemployment and underemployment are serious ones, worthy of serious discussion. Much of what I know about the time of Roosevelt and the Depression I learned from family members who lived through it – sometimes looking for work.

      But there’s another side to the “work coin”. Increasingly, there are people who are convinced work always is drudgery, people who want only “good” jobs or prefer not to work at all. The thought of celebrating work as an important part of individual or community life wouldn’t cross their minds.

      Part of the beauty of the Blue Rapids exhibit is that it affirms the value and dignity of productive work. Just as you say, it hurts when such work isn’t there. What’s productive is yet another question, of course. Right now, I’d take the fry cook over the Congressman in less than a second!

      Linda

  2. I’ve been enjoying “Dispatches from Kansas” for about half a year now, but all this backstory and focus makes the process Tom embarked on and finished that much more impressive. Great reportage and general “the-world-is-a-good-place” post, Linda!

    • Emily,

      I’m so happy to know you’ve been following Tom. His writing’s as splendid as his photography. That means you probably have followed along with Sadie, too.

      I do enjoy telling peoples’ stories – especially when they’re both enjoyable and inspiring. Evidence abounds that the world is a good place, despite it all – we just need to share that evidence. Nothing like a little “five Ws and an H” to help get that done!

      Linda

  3. Oh, I love this post. I grew up with union sheet metal workers and all things industrial. The sounds and smells and sights are ever with me.

    We have lost so much as human beings. There is a line in the story The Milagro Beanfield War- “…when our poverty was nothing to be ashamed of…”

    When I moved to a wealthy trust-baby city I noticed that no one ever was what they were doing. Every young person wanted to do and be something else. I found that disorienting.

    Remember Life magazine’s The Family of Man?

    This post makes me think of many things. Thank you.

    • Martha,

      Who knows? Some of that sheet metal may have gone into the washing machines and such whose production my dad helped oversee. He worked at Maytag after the war, and memories of trips with him to his office and the production line still are vivid.

      I’ve known people who were forever shaped by periods of poverty in their lives, people who were deeply ashamed of having very little and who never could escape their feelings of inferiority. On the other hand, what looks like poverty from the outside may be simplification of life.

      I do believe there’s something both freeing and grounding in so-called “productive” work – that is, work that produces something. In my own life, a signal that a change was needed came in the form of a sudden passion for floor scrubbing. It was so immensely satisfying when I finished and could see what I’d accomplished. From there, it was just a hop, skip and a big jump to varnishing.

      I do remember “The Family of Man”. Carl Sandburg wrote the introduction – he was Steichen’s brother-in-law. A wonderful book, that introduced many of us to worlds far larger than we’d ever imagined.

      Linda

  4. The first three black and white pictures, I assume are of you. They are adorable and show a spirited child proudly, joyfully and eagerly “helping.” Your words like the camera came into sharper and sharper focus — as you delineated the helping leading to working.

    40,000 pictures divided by 365 days of the year comes to about 110 pictures a day following the process you described. It’s only fitting and the sheer numbers bear something out — that someone who records “The Way We Worked” knows something about working tirelessly.

    I love the fifth photo from the bottom. I have seen that worker looking out — perhaps hoping for a customer to come in from the parking lot, perhaps reflecting on a transaction, perhaps admonishing himself with a “that’s the way the cookie crumbles” kind of day, perhaps stewing a little about a rebellious child at home, perhaps just laughing inside about a moment he punctuated with “go figure.” There is certainly a transparency about it, yet still subject to many familiar work related interpretations.

    The few pictures you shared with us speak volumes. What an exhibit it must be.

    • Georgette,

      Yes, those photos are of me – also the one with the vacuum cleaner. We never were much of a photo-taking family, but there still are a few pictures around that evoke some wonderful memories.

      When I began thinking of those 40,000 photos, my first inclination was to say, “Well, but of course this is the digital age, so a hundred photos a day is nothing.” On the other hand, whenever I sit down to sort through fifty or sixty images and decide which should be kept and which deleted – it can be a hard, long process. If I were a better photographer, the difficulty would increase exponentially!

      I like the photo you mention, very much. In the beginning, that was going to be my header photo. Then, it was going to be the last. Then, it landed where it did, but it’s still one of my favorites. Like you, I’ve seen that man in a multitude of settings – and I’ve even been there myself.

      If you’d like to see more photos, do a google image search for “tom parker the way we worked”. Dozens of photos will pop up – not the entire exhibit, of course, but enough to get a sense of it. And our fellow is there, too..

      I’m determined to find a way to see the exhibit if I can. I want to make another trip to Kansas anyway, and the snows ought to have melted before the exhibit closes!

      Linda

  5. Linda — Wow, what grace in writing. I’m stunned. I was sitting here with a spare (rare) free moment trying to come up with something to write about when your message came through. After sending me reeling hither and yon (and a shed tear or three), I’m slowly returning to earth. You’re the absolute best—best writer, best friend, best promoter. I can’t thank you enough.

    • Tom,

      The best thing I did was go all the way back to the beginning of 2012 and read everything you’d written about the project. That’s when I finally began to wrap my mind around what Sartore was about. I hadn’t remembered the February piece. When I found that, everything you said in December made sense.

      I surely wish I’d been there for the opening, but there’ll be less snow in March. Guess this’ll have to do for partying just now – maybe there’ll be fewer “after midnights” for a while. Love to Lori!

      Linda

  6. Such a wonderful story, a great man, and a talented writer to put all of this down for readers to enjoy. Well done, Linda, well done!

    • Yvonne,

      It was such fun to put together, and a nice way for me to introduce others to Tom’s work. Just mentioning a name or leaving a link is fine, but it’s the story that counts. As a matter of fact, the whole time I was working on this I kept hearing Rod Stewart’s “Every Picture Tells a Story” playing in my head. I really, really hope that’s going to stop, now!

      I’m so glad you enjoyed it, and I thank you for the kind words.

      Linda

      • Thanks Linda for the reply. I actually had more to comment about but I was in a sad mood even before I read your article/post.

        I worked on our farm. It was more than helper sometimes. It was simply necessary for there were just two daughters and I was eight years younger than my sister. By the time I was strong enough to do some heavy chores my sister had left for college. (Blinn at Brenham). I carried heavy buckets to feed the hogs, threw hay to the cattle, helped milk, fed chickens, gather eggs, hang and bring in clothes, and kept up with my dad pulling corn in the fall. I did more outside work than in the house. To this day I hate housework but on Saturdays I had to wax the floors.

        So if you have ever read my About you will have an understanding of why I learned to work hard and that the work ethic helped a great deal in my nursing profession. I am sure that you were not brought up lazy either or you would not be varnishing boats and writing these wonderful pieces for others to read. The words and all the info does not fall onto paper or the computer. It takes dedication, research, and persistence to write something that is so good, entertaining, and informative.

        And, I do hope that song leaves your head. I hate having a song stuck in my mind and the odd thing about it is that I generally do not even like the song.

        Yvonne

        • Clearly, the ability and willingness to work is a transferable skill. If we’ve learned it in one arena, we’ll not lose it when we move to another. In some ways the farm and the hospital are quite different worlds, but being able to complete jobs, cope with fatigue, carry out complex plans and deal with just plain drudgery look pretty much the same in both places.

          When I was reading about your routine on the farm, I thought about how similar it is to so much work in the world – in the sense that the same things have to be done, day after day. Just because it’s Saturday, the cows aren’t going to stop eating or the chickens laying. Finding enjoyment in the midst of all those “necessaries” is the trick, I suppose.

          “Dedication, research and persistence” – those words could make up a pretty good motto for just about anyone!

          Linda

          • Your motto of three words fits so aptly. I am still living a life of things that must be done in that I have pets to feed, medicate, coddle and cajole to eat, clean litter boxes, take care of the dogs needs. It is a bit tiring at times but when you love something it isn’t so much of a chore. A parttime helper has often said to me that he does not know how I do what I do- day in and day out. My answer is I do it because I love my pets and when I gave them a home they became my responsibility. So in a way I am still back on the farm and I am still working as a nurse. :-)

            • It’s wonderful how you’ve found a way to combine the best of both worlds. And you’re right – love relieves a lot of drudgery.

  7. I love my job – but I don’t think of myself as “working” for a living. I sit at a desk & type & run reports all day – work should use actual calories or something. I’ve often wished that I worked harder – in the home anyway. I was never a good helper either – I would hide in my room until mom made me come out to dust. So I guess I drifted toward my job with my particular set of lazy skills :)

    Boy I wish I could go to Kansas to see this project! I love pictures of people (unlike my husband – I used to make him take my picture on trips so I could prove that there was a person with him).

    P.S. If those are pictures of you, you are ADORABLE :)

    • The Bug,

      I’ve been thinking about all the jobs I’ve had in my life. There were so many, I had to get out pen and paper and start making a list. I nearly forgot the babysitting and the 11-7 shift in the nursing home. And there was plenty of office work, probably much like yours. There have only been one or two jobs I truly dreaded getting up for each morning, and I got fired from one of those. Sometimes things work out!

      I like photos of people, too. I follow a couple of street photographers, and am just amazed by what they’re able to capture. It doesn’t surprise me that so many photographers seem to be bird-watchers, too. Learning to wait for the yellow-rumped whatever helps to develop the patience for waiting for just the right shot, and vice-versa.

      And yes, those little girl photos are me. I was pretty cute up until about third grade. By fifth grade, all the adorable was gone. I spent one very satisfying afternoon tearing up every photo from that era. There was something about those pink plaid eyeglass frames that was just wrong. ;)

      Linda

      • I hear you. Just go here & you’ll see why (of course I post stuff like this on my blog – ha!): http://danabugseyeview.blogspot.com/2009/09/fifth-grade.html

        • Did I ever laugh at that phrase about being your Mom’s grammar police! And yes, I recognized that feeling of just wanting to be left alone with the books. But I’m telling you – you were much cuter at that age than I was! Great poem.

  8. WOW… What an task Tom Parker embarked on. When he started, I doubt he realized how all consuming it was going to be.

    I enjoyed reading excerpts of his perspective on the whole thing, as well as the selection of his photos. The one of the father and daughter sharing lunch at work is just precious. Some things don’t change, do they? Those special moments, with a parent and child.

    Is there, by any chance, an online exhibit? Kansas is a little too far for an afternoon outing.

    I remember ‘helping’ Mama in the house and Daddy in the yard before I realized what I was doing was work. (Insert Maynard G. Krebs’ horrified screech, “WORK!?” here)

    At the time, it was fun and I got to hang around two of the most adored people in my life. I remember feeling so proud, when they’d compliment me on what a good job I was doing.

    P.S. You was a cute little girl!

    • Gué,

      Truth to tell, I suspect most of us never know how all-consuming many things are going to be. Parenthood comes to mind, but likewise: starting a new business, learning a new system at work, coming to the point of having to care for a parent, starting a garden. Downton Abbey! The list is pretty long.

      One thing’s for sure – parents who value work pass those values on to their kids, and parents who work to preserve value pass that on, too. My folks were so proud of their new house, and they worked like fools to improve it and keep it up. Dad worked hard at his job, and like most women of the era, Mom not only kept the house, she taught Bible School, was a Home Room Mother, worked with our Camp Fire and 4-H groups – on and on.

      To put it another way, we were taught to be active and involved. If something was going to happen, if life was going to improve, if a problem was going to be solved, we were the ones who’d most likely do it. And when we failed, as happened from time to time, recovering from the failures helped build confidence, too.

      There isn’t an online exhibit as such, but if you do a google image search for “tom parker the way we worked” you’ll turn up a passle of photos. With google’s new viewing options, you can see a larger version of the image, and easily click into the original page to see other photos in the set and a word of explanation.

      Yep, I was cute, until I wasn’t. Once we got past that awkward stage, things straightened up a bit, though. ;)

      Linda

      • I’m considering adding an online exhibit to my website, but first I have to contact the Smithsonian about uploading the files to their site. Once I know more I’ll let you know the link to see the exhibit. One way or the other, we’ll make it happen!

        • Oh, that would be great! In the meantime, I’ll do what Linda suggested; ask Uncle Google.

          • P.S. I subscribe to Smithsonian. I’ve a sneaking suspicion that, with a project of this scope, they’ll probably do an article this year in their magazine and maybe have something on their website, It would be an overall view but it should be still be interesting.

  9. FWIW, I was reminded of this Super Bowl commercial:

    • Al,

      Actually, it’s worth quite a lot. I didn’t watch the Super Bowl, but some time later in the evening I glanced at Twitter and saw “Paul Harvey” was trending. I couldn’t imagine what that was about. So I did some exploring, and found the commercial. I teard up the first time I watched it, and just did again.

      Once I got over my nostalgia, I remembered another great “farm bit” done by the Peterson boys on their Kansas farm. There may be hope for the younger generation after all!

      Linda

  10. It is possible to find beauty and humanity in the most ordinary things and activities, isn’t it, if you just know how to look. Tom Parker clearly does.

    • Susan,

      Yes, he does know how to look. So does your poet-neighbor with her threads and sewing machine, and a multitude of other people around us. There was a time in my life when I thought small-town America and the people who lived there boring – no doubt because I lived in one of those small towns and I was bored.

      Today? The ordinary rhythms of ordinary life have grown appealing again. I still can remember the day someone asked me a question and elicited the response, “I want to be ordinary.” I’m not quite there yet, but I’m working on it!

      Linda

      • I remember when you said that! Can’t recall the circumstance, but I’m sure I’m not dreaming! (Well almost . . . )

        • So many comments, so little power of recall – me, too!

  11. What a wonderful project! Love this post!

    • Julie,

      Thanks so much! There are probably a hundred wonderful, creative projects waiting out there for any of us. The trick is to find one and do it!

      Linda

  12. Thanks, Linda, for the compelling words and the telling photographs that got me thinking about work. I love work. I can’t really imagine retiring, and doubt that I ever will. I will be retired, I suppose, but every day will be framed by the delight of working through texts, of pondering ideas, of making something – be it art, wine, poems or sauerkraut.

    Most often work fails to fail me. I, like many, have my moments, but my days slide by like I’m on a roller-coaster and I rarely wake up dreading my days. I hope I’m not lucky. I hope I’m not unusual. I hope we get to work in heaven.

    • Allen,

      You deserve some credit here. In the midst of writing this I stopped by your new poem, and discovered your wonderful last line. Clever and fun wordplay, it put “sunder” back in my working vocabulary – as in, “forces happy to sunder pleasure from work”. Thanks!

      Speaking of words, your sentence, “Most often, work fails to fail me” kept nagging and nagging. I finally found the resonance – Crosby, Stills and Nash’s “Southern Cross”. Remember the line? “We never failed to fail, it was the easiest thing to do.”

      Like so many people these days, my working years are being extended by economic necessity – or so I say. If someone guaranteed me a living income, would I continue varnishing? I think I would. Would I adjust things so I had more time for writing? Yes, indeed. Could I do some of that adjusting now, if I were more intentional about it? Maybe we’ll find out.

      I certainly don’t wake up dreading my days, and haven’t for years. As you rightly point out, it’s a great blessing. Now, I’ll have to think about what kind of opportunities might be open in heaven. I hope God’s not outsourcing!

      Linda

      • No, I didn’t remember the line, but loved the video, especially on this cold February day while my sailboat is on the hard. Soon… As for God “outsourcing” there has to be a sermon in that! Many thanks and good luck with creative adjusting.

        • I keep forgetting the whole world doesn’t keep boats in the water year ’round. Oh, my. Here’s to an early spring!

  13. The story of the working people has always been the story of America. Let’s hope that spirit never goes away.

    • montucky,

      Actually, it was your post about the 84-year-old fellow who delivered your logs last fall that first put the phrase “working fool” back into my mind. For a while I thought this post was going to be about him and others of his ilk. Then it morphed into this post, but I still was thinking about him as I wrote.

      The good news is that I still have his wonderful example for another post, and we all have his example for life. I suspect his spirit has influenced more than a few people!

      Linda

  14. I, too, was reminded of “So God made a Farmer.” A beautiful reminder of the blessings of hard work.

    • Martha,

      After hearing the commercial, I checked Paul Harvey’s biography and was interested to see that both he and my mom were born in 1918. My dad was a little older, but not much – born in 1912.

      The same era, many of the same values – and they deserve to be passed on. We don’t need to be swinging an ax or plowing a field to benefit from learning persistence, accountability, problem-solving. Those values help to breed not only confidence, but happiness.

      Linda

  15. The pictures of you as a little girl are great – I’m particularly taken by the fabric on that armchair! I love looking at the interiors/exteriors of old photograhs as well as the people. Way back, it was black and white documentary stuff from the US and here that got me hooked on photography. Really lovely to see all these images.

    And what a project. Just doing stuff for a blog post is incredibly intense and time consuming I can’t imagine what it was like for TP over the whole year! Hats off to him. I’m going to take a look at that link. One photographer I like (oophs can’t remember his name) took huge b/w landscapes of early 1980’s London. These are so fascinating now, London has changed SO much, it is really mind boggling.

    Regarding work, we always had a saying that ‘We work to live and Americans live to work’ ! I’m not sure if that’s true but I have definitely noticed that there seems to be a reluctance to do low paid, so called ‘menial’ work. This is usually picked up by migratory workers from Europe who haven’t been used to having ‘things’ whenever they want. I’m not sure the boom years were that brilliant for the work ethic.

    My mums side of the family had a strong work ethic (maybe that Methodist background!). However my father was less into work (possibly why they got divorced…), though he did it and had a well paid job as a civil servant, but when the opportunity came along to retire at 57 he jumped at it. That just seems really young now! In the end I opted for a job that I did with my hands – like you I love that feeling of satisfaction when the physical thing is accomplished.

    • Sarah,

      Not only is the fabric great, so was that little table with the lamp on it. The table’s sitting in my living room. The base of the lamp was lovely cameo glass, and when the lamp came to the end of its natural life I disassembled it and now use it as a vase. (Which it was, before someone drilled a hole in the base to turn it into a lamp!)

      What makes Tom’s accomplishments even more remarkable is that, like most of us, he was busy earning a living in the midst of all this – writing columns, taking wedding photographs, etc. If I ever hear myself griping again about not enough time, I’m going to smack myself.

      Your saying is funny. Over here, I’ve always heard it as “Do you eat to live, or live to eat?” Same principle. I do think technology has affected attitudes toward work. Sitting at a computer doing data entry for eight hours a day is a completely different experience than picking peaches eight hours a day. In one case, you end the day with a blank computer screen. In the other, you end by looking at your bushels of peaches.

      I’ve done so many things in my life, but like you, I enjoy the physicality of my varnishing. Beyond that, it’s a tie to the past, and to my grandfather who also varnished – though he specialized in home woodwork.

      Retirement at 57? Well, I’ve known many who’ve retired at 60 or 62, although that seems to be changing now. Retiring at 70 isn’t that uncommon now, though it must be said that many of those folks still are healthy and vibrant and may well have another twenty good years ahead of them.

      My choice was to sail and travel when I was younger. I gave up income security for experiences and memories – not a bad trade, that!

      Linda

  16. What a magnificent photographic undertaking. I would love to do something similar with the running theme of “This WAS a working wetland” or some such, but it’s just TOO MUCH WORK, lol!!!

    • Wendy,

      How about “Working the Wetlands ~ Tradition, Family & Change”?
      That may sound a little too much like a Louisiana Folklife Center lecture, but you could tweek it. Then all you’d have to do is make a list of the folks working out there: fishermen, roustabouts, trappers, charter captains, shrimpers and crabbers, LDWF agents, musicians, botanists, crazy-weird-dudes living at the end of roads that almost aren’t there – and grab your camera. Easy-peasy!

      Thanks for stopping by, and for the grins. Maybe it is time for you to start thinking about your next book!

      Linda

  17. Linda,
    This piece brings back a lot of memories. My siblings and I had wonderful examples of work ethic in our parents. Laziness could not be counted as one of their faults, and we all understood that it was the worst criticism that one could receive. My brother recently told me that we were lucky because our kids were workers.

    I’m reminded of a time when Dad was very sick and we didn’t think he would make it through the night. My sister said a prayer and the only part I remember is when she spoke about Dad’s hands that had worked so hard for so long and provided for all of us. I thought that was exactly how Dad would want to be remembered, as someone who gave a full day’s work.

    The photos in this piece are great.

    • Bella Rum,

      Of course I’ve known for some time about your folks’ work ethic, especially your dad’s. “A full day’s work for an honest day’s pay” was one of those little sayings that wove its way through my childhood. I suspect your dad knows the saying.

      Funny about hands. My mom always fussed about what she called my “80 grit manicures”. I tried to explain to her that the various scars are just another kind of scrapbook, but she wasn’t buying it. I can’t blame her at all – my going back to manual labor was a terrible shock to her system. But I’m content with the decisions I made, and I haven’t run out of work yet.

      It’s ok to consider being called lazy a criticism, as long as you don’t confuse recuperation with laziness. To all things there is a season – as you well know. (Can you hear me clucking? That’s me – mother hen.)

      Linda

  18. I love those pictures of you as a child! A darling little helper you were! I had fun following the Peterson Brother’s other films on farming too. The work ethic is not dead, it is hidden away in the farmlands, and in hibernation in the cities. I see farmers working hard all around me and in all seasons.

    Yet, here it would seem that the farming life is on the wane. I recently heard on the news that Alabama A&M is going to be dropping many Agricultural courses in favor of technology offerings. It seems that their students of Agriculture are dropping off.

    In their words:
    “To meet the future needs of society, CALNS offers diverse programs, many of which are not traditionally associated with agriculture or family and consumer sciences.” http://www.aamu.edu

    This state has a rich, and notorious, historical past. So much so, that when we chose to move here, we go a lot of flack for it. (To hear our friends opinions of Alabama and its people, we were prepared to see much of this state’s bad character alive and well today.) After so many years of slavery, the Civil War, and the work to abolish ‘separate but equal,’ it was (I don’t even have a word to explain how we felt – surprising, encouraging maybe?) to see that people of color were in charge of the fields that their ancestors worked as slaves. I have to imagine it was with great pride that the African American farmer acquired and worked his own lands… but it seems to have fallen out of favor now.

    Is it the economy? The selling off of all the farmland for housing? Lack of interest on the younger generation’s part? I haven’t a clue.

    There was, and for the moment still is, a rich background in farming. It is hard work and it is work that is falling out of favor with many of our youth. It makes me wonder:

    If no one wants to grow the food, and if all the good farmland is covered in homes and industry, then where will our food come from?

    I seem to have gone off, or diverged onto a side vein to your post today, but it is on my mind, and I hope you don’t mind.

    • Linda, in case it wasn’t obvious, I loved your post today! You always make me THINK. ;)

    • Lynda,

      You’ve raised enough issues here for a semester-long course! So, just a few thoughts and observations.

      I think many of the old virtues – the work ethic, respect for parents, patriotism – still are alive and well. We rarely see evidence of them in the media, and so, in our media-obsessed age, they seem to have disappeared.

      Appearances can be deceiving, though. After the Ram commercial with Paul Harvey at the Super Bowl, I followed the response on Twitter. Some people who grew up with Harvey or had a connection to agriculture were proud, or pleased. Some people who’d never heard of him said things like, “WOW! Who’s that dude? Good words.” I can’t speak for anyone but myself, but I’m tired of whining, personal attacks and attempts to divide people. I’m ready for some decency, and there are places where it still thrives. I’ll admit I didn’t expect to find it in a Super Bowl commercial, but there you are.

      Other factors? The demand for immediate gratification, or easy money. The inability to set long-term goals and meet them. The culture of celebrity, and the inability to distinguish between Wendell Berry and Honey BooBoo. What a world, huh?

      One of the biggest problems farmers and fishermen have is that bureaucrats with not a lick of experience are setting the rules and regulations. It seems to me the most critical conflict today isn’t between black and white, north and south, or urban and rural. It’s between Washington and the rest of the country. That is, of course, only my opinion.

      Well, I think we’ll survive. I really do. I get terribly frustrated some days, but I still get up, go to work and sing my own little song of the South. ;)

      Linda

  19. Last night we watched a documentary on PBS about some of the people who turned the Santa Clara Valley into Silicon Valley. One of the main ones was Robert Noyce (who I just noticed was born in Iowa and died in Austin). As a co-founder of Fairchild Semiconductor, he was instrumental in bringing in the modern electronics age and all the familiar devices that have come with it.

    Noyce eventually became disenchanted with the parent company of Fairchild Semiconductor because of what he found to be its regimented structure. Noyce had earlier left Philco for that reason, and ultimately he quit Fairchild to co-found Intel. I bring all this up because the ways people are allowed to work—or even encouraged to work—can be so different from one company to another. People talk about corporate culture, and there really is such a thing. My preference is to be left alone to do my job, and I have the impression that yours is the same.

    • Steve,

      Robert Noyce wasn’t just born in Iowa. He grew up and attended college in Grinnell, about 20 miles from my house. Grinnell was the only “real” library within easy striking distance when I was in high school, and I spent a lot of time doing research there. On this virtual map of the campus, you can see the Noyce Science Center .

      As for being left alone to work – there’s a reason for those tongue-in-cheek signs in workshops and garages that detail charges this way.

      HOURLY RATES
      We do it – $25/hr
      You tell us how to do it – $45/hr
      You help us do it – $75/hr

      My first experience of being left alone to do my job was transformative. I was hired to go to Liberia to do one job. When I landed in Monrovia, my job had been given to someone whose spouse was needed in-country and the only way to get them both to stay was to provide jobs for both. My new assignment was to “find something to do”. So I did. One thing led to another, and it was both satisfying and confidence building.

      For years people told me I should hire employees to build my business. I gave it a try for a while, but eventually went solo again. As I tell people, full responsibility can be a gift. If I need help, I ask for it. If something goes wrong, I fix it. If everything goes right, I take the credit. Simple.

      Linda

  20. Linda, thank you for another great post. It would be a perfect Labor Day post. Of all the experiences in my life that shaped me, perhaps being a farmers’ daughter was the greatest influence. So many important lessons — that you could contribute meaningful work even at a very young age (and not “busy” work either); working as a team; working until the job was done (you didn’t stop haying because you were tired); the satisfaction of working with your hands and body; working in nature; actually knowing what your Dad and Mom did all day (instead of going off to a mysterious office).

    I love Tom’s photographs and the dignity of his subjects. He captures ordinary life, ordinary days in an extraordinary way.

    I see that your blog title includes the word “task,” which does have connotations of burdensomeness and smallness — and I find that interesting because your posts reveal such joy in their themes and language, and they are big gifts. So important.

    • Rosemary,

      Since the “task” of my blog title came from a poem referencing Sisyphus, I suppose the burdensome nature of the word’s a given. I’d never thought of it in terms of “smallness”. I did grow up in the land of Ralph’s Pretty Good Grocery, so maybe that’s just a tiny bit of midwestern modesy. Perhaps the blog itself has grown. Interesting thought.

      I’m struck again by the parallels between your life on the farm and my life in Liberia. I had to wait until that time in my life to fully learn some of those lessons – especially working as a team, working until the job was done, working with body as well as mind and being in nature. That kind of work slows a person down, too. You have to learn to work with the world, not against it.

      The preservation of human dignity seems to be to be one of our primary challenges today. There’s no question that Tom’s work has advanced that cause.

      Linda

  21. Yet another outstanding post. You are amazing.

    I was struck by this paragraph: Workin’ fools aren’t so abundant these days. New forces are abroad in the land, forces happy to sunder pleasure from work, to minimize its importance and reduce it to the sort of burden only a fool would willingly endure.

    It brings to mind a wonderful letter Wendell Berry wrote to the editor of a magazine in response to an article advocating a 30-hour work week. In the letter he wrote, “The old and honorable idea of “vocation” is simply that we each are called, by God, or by our gifts, or by our preference, to a kind of good work for which we are particularly fitted. Implicit in this idea is the evidently startling possibility that we might work willingly, and that there is no necessary contradiction between work and happiness or satisfaction.”

    The entire letter, which is well worth reading, is here.

    God bless the workin’ fools. May their tribe increase.

    • Bill,

      Who’s amazing is Wendell Berry. I read the entire letter, read the article it was responding to, and then read the letter again. Then, I bumped into this current article from Forbes. It’s the same argument, dressed up in new clothes to make it more attractive.

      That aside, while the articles come at work from different perspectives, they reach the same conclusion: work bad, life good. It’s a terrible foolishness, with real consequences for all of us.
      The article in “The Progressive” raised my blood pressure at a number of points, but it also reminded me of Bob Black’s essay, “The Abolition of Work”, in which he said:

      “No one should ever work. Work is the source of nearly all the misery in the world. Almost any evil you’d care to name comes from working or from living in a world designed for work. In order to stop suffering, we have to stop working.”

      Granted, Black’s an anarchist, but his views have had influence, especially in the Occupy movement. Unfortunately, he not only misunderstands the nature of work, he holds a limited and naive view of human life. I’m glad to be on Berry’s side with this one.

      Linda

      • Makes me wonder what Black did to pay the bills. If not work, then what?

        • Well… He started out like this: “Black graduated from the University of Michigan and Georgetown Law School, and later took M.A. degrees in criminal justice from the State University of New York (SUNY) at Albany and in criminal law from the SUNY Buffalo School of Law.”

          Since then, he’s devoted himself to the causes of anarchy and the abolition of work. In the Wiki, there’s a wonderful photo of him at the 2011 Bay Area Anarchist Book Fair, pushing his wares.

          A lawyer and writer/lecturer making a living by promoting the end of work. Delicious!

  22. Your description of Tom’s process of editing his work in order to advance the story reminds me of roomie’s art school project. The most intricate work seems to be the editing — what to keep, what to drop — enough to tell the story and no more. Off to visit Tom’s website!

    • nikkipolani,

      You’re right about the importance of that selection process. And I don’t know this, but I suspect Tom probably experienced something common to all of us. In the middle of a project, we suddenly discover the story’s taken off in a different direction, and all the keeping and sorting and tossing we’ve already done has to be reconsidered, for the sake of the story.

      I hope you enjoyed the website. I actually found Tom when I was searching for information on light pollution – he had written about a particularly obnoxious cell tower that had gone up near his home, and it was a fantastic piece. It took me a while to appreciate the fact that he was a photographer, too!

      Linda

  23. What a wonderful post, and those images….! Such a fascinating detailing of the process. Thanks so much.

    • FeyGirl,

      In a sense, he was doing for people what you do for the inhabitants of your corner of the world – recording not just their existence, but all of the little quirks, beauties, squabbles, touching moments and so on that take place in any community.

      Remember Judy’s photos of the Great Blue Herons on the nest with the chicks? The interaction between the parents and kids in those photos wasn’t so very different from the interaction here between the little girl and her dad at lunch. All we need is the eyes to see.

      Linda

  24. My late dad used to tell us he started picking cotton at four years old as a way to “help” on the farm. And once you’re a helper, you can’t go back! Thanks for nudging that memory, Linda.

    Tom has done a great service here, and I can hardly wait to check out his website. How interesting, to spend all that time and energy on such a ginormous project! It’s kind of sad, though, isn’t it, that “helping” is no longer the rite of passage that it used to be?

    • Debbie,

      My goodness – your dad hardly was as tall as his cotton sack! I was going to say four years old is awfully young to pick cotton, but I started school when I was four, and I certainly was helping by that time. Today, children often aren’t allowed to enjoy or participate in activities they’re more than ready for – including working with adults. Who knows? Maybe its because fewer adults are willing to tolerate having the kids around.

      I’ve never heard it put the way you’ve said it here, but I think you’re right. Once we’ve had a taste of truly helping someone, it’s the sort of experience we look for in other circumstances. There’s real pleasure in it, whether we get recognition or not.

      Tom surely did undertake a huge project. It was sort of the photographic equivalent of what Annie Dillard said about recipes and Moby Dick. Remember? ““It is no less difficult to write a sentence in a recipe than sentences in Moby Dick. So you might as well write Moby Dick.”

      Go Big!

      Linda

  25. Linda, you shine as the facets of a bright new day.

    Crab

    • Crab!

      What a delight to have you drop by. And look at you, dropping compliments like that – can you see me smiling?

      Actually, I am smiling, because of something you couldn’t have known. When I was in Liberia, my Kpelle name was Neni-kwele, which translates pretty freely as “bright woman”. At first I thought they’d just recognized my intelligence and good sense. Then, I found out “bright” refers to someone with light skin.

      I think I’ll take “faceted as a bright new day” as a third option!

      Linda

  26. I don’t know if it’s a widespread social symptom, but where I live many of the young people — some just out of high school — have already learned the intricacies of government benefits. As a friend of my son’s recently said when asked if he planned to apply for an apprenticeship program, “It isn’t worth it. I can make more money on unemployment.”

    Your opening paragraphs reminded me that adults sometimes make room for children to help them, even though the help may be creating more work, or at least slowing it down. It’s one of the treasures of life when that happens, a hidden gift to the future.

    I’m off to visit Tom’s blog now. Thank you for this post and its beautiful messages and images. You’re what I’d call a writing fool.

    • Charles,

      I’m afraid the growing dependence on government is widespread, and it’s being encouraged by a variety of groups, including the government itself. Helping those in need is one thing. Systemic abuse is another, and I must say my feelings were less than charitable when I stood in the meat market recently with my chuck roast and pound of ground round, watching the person next to me pick up four lovely filets with her Lone Star card (food stamps). Your tax dollar at work, as they say.

      You’re right to highlight the patience and forgiving nature of adults who make room for children to “help”. It’s not only a gift to the future, it’s an investment in their own future. When those parents turn 70,80 or 90, if the children remember that patience, they may be more forgiving with parents who also want to “help”, even though they may slow things down or create more work.

      Can you believe I’d not thought of the phrase “writing fool” until you brought it here? My goodness – it’s perfect!

      Linda

  27. Hello Linda;

    Sorry to be so late to let you know what a wonderful post this is. Would you believe that I finally got to read it waiting to get my hair cut and using my iPhone turned sideways so I could get the print reasonably big? Oddly, it was kind of fun to be immersed in your time tripping while waiting for a mundane grooming necessity.

    Shame attitudes towards work have changed such that many people use it to describe things they have to do rather than want to do. When I hear the expression ‘my life’s work’ it has such passion to it. Yet, it is a fortunate few who get to say that is how they fill their days.

    Naturally, I was really interested in the photographic discussion. It is interesting how we use the word ‘icon’ or ‘iconic’ these days. We are defined by them..that is our icons and/or avatars!! But, in any case they all represent something. I think it is a challenge in photography to be both influenced by iconic photos and to let it inform and inspire the next generation of wonderful photographic story telling. Technology will change but what touches the heart probably doesn’t. You can’t really set out to take an ‘iconic’ photo but it must be a real thrill when a photographer knows deep down inside he or she caught something special.

    Thanks for showing us this project and Tom Parker’s passion for this excellent story telling.

    • Judy,

      One reason I post more-or-less once a week is because I want people to have time to read. And my posts certainly aren’t time sensitive. There is no “late”, and if there is, I’m one of the worst offenders. I’m always showing up days or even a week behind everyone else – as you so well know! I still have your little “elf” open in a tab, waiting for me to stop admiring your technique and put a few words down.

      We’ve allowed such a limited understanding of work to take hold. For many people, “work” means whatever we do to get money. It’s something to be gotten through so that we can get on to “real life”. Such a shame. I’ve been trying to think of a better definition. It’s not perfect, but I might say, “To work at something is to devote time and disciplined attention to it”. That at least would allow for “working on photography” or “working on writing”, without having to bring remuneration into the equation. For that matter, with that definition, we even could talk about “working on patience” and so on.

      I think both you and Tom are right. Trying to create an icon that will stand the test of time is probably a guarantee of failure. Capturing what “is” with an eye filled with love and attention is far more satisfying in the moment and more enduring in the end.

      Linda

  28. I haven’t gone through all your comments so don’t know if anyone has mentioned. There are some who aren’t defined by their work, esp. work who are paid with real money. Often these are people who work at home as mothers, housewives, for one reason or another, they may not even have worked outside of their homes all their lives.

    I feel that our society is defined too much by occupations, what you do for money, ie, a job, defines who you are. I know many people who don’t have a job, for one reason or another, needless to say a career. I’m not saying they are unemployed people looking for work. How does one define oneself in such a case? Quite difficult in a society that values productivity.

    • Arti,

      You’re exactly right. We’ve limited our understanding of work to such a degree that it’s become synonymous with “a job”, and the structures that surround employment. After I was born, my mother didn’t work outside the home again until I’d graduated from high school. Did she “work”? Oh, yes, she certainly did. But her volunteer work with the various organizations and the school never was paid. Did that make it less important? Of course not.

      Today, more and more families are making the decision to cut back their standard of living in order for home-schooling to take place. Do the parents who are educating their children get paid? No. Are they working? Oh, my goodness – I can’t even imagine!

      The only quibble I might have with what you said is that our society values productivity. In fact, I think many of our problems are rooted in the fact that we no longer value productivity. As one of my friends once said, “The people in my department are like children hiding in the bathroom until the dishes are done.” In the same way, many Americans assume that getting money is the only reason to work, so if you can get money without working – why now stay home and watch Oprah?

      For some other thoughts, see my response to Judy, above. You and I are on the same page with this one.

      Linda

  29. So I got sidetracked; from osprey maps to pondering star-gazing cats, I am now here enjoying a beautiful slice of poetic prose! I also enjoyed the clapton/cale ‘after midnight’ – what fun!

    I hope to catch up on what I’ve missed in the manana. this was a great start!

    and now I’ll properly say, ‘good night!’
    z

    • Z,

      The best thing about your comment was that reference to Clapton/Cale. If you were listening to that, it means the cyber-system was up and running. Hooray!

      I hope your sleep was uninterrupted – you’ve had enough “rocking and rolling” for a while, before or after midnight!

      Linda

      • cale did a GREAT JOB with that song, and clapton was so humble in delegating it to him and staying in the background like a doting father! they both get better and better with age, don’t you think?!!

        • I do think so – and don’t forget, we’re talking real age here. I think Cale’s around 70 now. I missed him the last time he came through Houston – no concerts scheduled at present, but I’m hoping. Here’s one of the best JJ Cale stories ever: “I was at this show in the front row… We met JJ and the band after the show, everyone was very cool. In front of the club I asked JJ where was the Limo? his reply to me was ” This is the real world son” and he got in a yellow cab.”

          • I love your story, and love him even more! It’s great when one’s fame doesn’t inflate the ego!

  30. I’ll bet that was an interesting photo exhibit. Your photos brought back memories of a tow-headed little girl and a green Studebaker with seat covers made of woven plastic fibers like are used in interwoven strips for lawn chair seats and seat backs. My mom says I would slide across the seat to get out of the car, and when I got down, my fine baby hair would stand up on end from the static charge I picked up sliding across the plastic seatcovers.

    I also have a picture of me on my tricycle, but it was taken indoors and is decidedly NSFW. When I was that age, my dad was a traveling salesman, selling carbon paper and typewriter ribbons (does anybody know what those are any more?) for Columbia Ribbon and Carbon Company, in a territory that included the Texas panhandle and New Mexico, who would stay gone a week at a time. Since both my parents worked (my mom was a legal secretary for a local law firm at that time, having gone back to work after the year or so she took off to have my brother), he and I stayed with a neighbor lady. So, in a way, each morning, we all “went to work” with my mom, and got dropped off on her way to work, and “came home from work” with her when she picked us up on her way home.

    • WOL,

      Oh, gosh. I do remember those car seats, and I remember the ones that were covered with heavy clear plastic. They produced the same effect when you slid across them. We don’t get much static electricity down here, but the last time I experienced it, I reached out to pet Dixie Rose and when I touched her ear, it crackled and she jumped three feet. She gave me a wide berth for a while, too.

      The experience you and your brother shared is another reminder that there doesn’t have to be one right way to do things. It’s also a reminder that our world can be a little crazy. I can’t find the article just now, but there was a case somewhere in the past few months where a family was forbidden to leave their kids with a neighbor. As I recall, the woman who was caring for them had three children from two families, and didn’t have state licensure. Thus did a perfectly acceptable arrangement come to an end. Instead of being cared for by someone they’d known all their lives and who cared about them, they were forced to go to a licensed facility.

      There are days when I feel like my own mother, who often said, “I’m glad I’m going to be dead before this country becomes whatever it’s becoming.”

      Linda

      • That lady who kept us when we were very young had a grown son and a teen-aged daughter. She was a wonderful, jolly, kindly woman we called “Ontie” (“Auntie” but with the “au” pronounced “aw”). Her first husband, “Uncle Doc,” was a long-haul trucker and was burned to death when he was involved in a wreck while driving a gasoline tanker truck. I remember the gristly detail that the change in his pocket melted. I think I was around 4 or 5 when it happened. It was my first encounter with death.

        It didn’t seem unusual to us going to the baby sitter each day. Mom went to work, we went to Ontie’s, and that’s the way the world was. She was and is a dear, motherly woman — we still keep in touch. I named my first “lady” doll (versus a baby doll) after her daughter, who had lovely long brown hair.They had a fruit tree in their back yard, and I remember swinging on the swing set looking at that tree in rampant bloom. It was around the time that the tune “Cherry Pink and Apple Blossom White” ( http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EhuNqGhQBGM ) was popular (she like to listen to the radio), and I can’t hear that song without thinking of it. She would put these rectangular metal stretchers down the legs of her son’s blue jeans before she hung them out to dry so they would dry with a crease down the center and she wouldn’t have to iron one in –!! Funny how these odd little details stick in the mind. We stayed with Ontie until we built the first house we owned. We moved the summer I turned 6 and started school.

        The neighbor lady across the street from our new house kept my brother all day and me after school. In each case, my mom paid them to keep us, especially when they had to feed us as well. It was a very acceptable way for these stay-at-home moms to supplement their family income. That lady had a chest freezer and put up” fruits and vegetables. People used to advertise in the paper that they had “pick’em yourself” vegetables and fruit for sale at so much a bushel. Her three kids, my brother and I would pile in the car and we would drive out to where-ever it was and help her pick. She would get like a bushel of purple-hulled peas or string beans, and everybody had their bowl and a strategically placed sack for the hulls and we would shell peas and “de string” the string beans all the next day. She also put up peaches, but she would not let us help her peel and pit them as we were not allowed to have sharp knives.

        • Lovely memories, and such delightful details. I have some of my own, including one of the older couple next door who always would come over, test the temperature of the water in my plastic wading pool, and bring over teakettles of hot water to add if they thought the water too cool.

          “Shelling parties” were common at my grandmother’s. We learned a lot – about how to work, and how to listen. As for pick-it-yourself, it won’t be long until Froberg’s strawberry fields open. They’re already picking for the market!

  31. Fine words as always, Linda, and some fine images, too, including that first one of you and your father, which comes across to me as much more than a family snapshot. (You are cute in it, though!)

    And talking about small children starting out by helping, we’ve got a three year old great nephew here, who will lend a hand with almost anything…

    PS. Thanks for all the links.

    • Andrew,

      I do love that first image – for that politically incorrect cigarette, for the saw that did it’s work without so much terrible noise, and for that perfectly inscrutable expression on my face.

      The building in the background, off to the left, is my grade school. There was a large football field and track between our house and the school so it was about a block’s walk, but it was close enough that from the first week of kindergarten I walked there by myself or with a little friend from next door. Later, junior high and high school required walks of two miles or so, and we did it every day, in both directions, unless it was just absolutely miserable weather.

      At three, they’re eager and willing. At thirteen, things change a little. But by thirty, if the foundation was good, the helpful three-year-old reappears, to everyone’s benefit!

      Linda

  32. Linda — your gift of storytelling makes all subjects enthralling … I am glad you included photos of yourself as well. :D

    It is a shame, the picture of work has changed not only for the employees but for the companies. Many companies don’t respect long-termed employees, and many people don’t take pride in their work, nor want to invest the time. That being said — I loved visiting my dad at work. And these days it makes my heart sing — when I see parents take the time to share their work with their children.

    Thank you for sharing your gift with us. becca

    • becca,

      It’s true. The relationship between the worker and employer has changed. My dad worked at Maytag his entire life. The importance of the company to our town was immeasurable. There was a Maytag Park. I had a Maytag scholarship. There were Maytag-sponsored events galore. Eventually, that all came to an end, for a variety of reasons, including what some say was poor management.

      In any event, the day came when Whirlpool bought Maytag, and the plants in our town were closed. Mom’s beloved Maytag stock became Whirlpool stock, and began plummeting. It was amazing to watch. She refused to go into mutual funds or divest that stock because of the strong emotional attachment. Eventually, we got some changes made, but it still grieved her that Maytag was no more. At least Whirlpool continued to pay the pensions. They’d been frozen years ago, but every little bit helped.

      I love the thought of you visting your dad at work, too. And truth to tell, it makes my heart sing when I see parents sharing anything with their children these days. Too many parents see their children as nothing but work.

      Linda

      • “Too many parents see their children as nothing but work.”

        Oooh, this is so sadly true. I worked for a number of years as the Nutrition Education Coordinator with the WIC Program. So many mothers (by no means all, but more than I would care to admit) … lacked the nurturing know-how to bond with their off-springs … so little loved shared … I had such concern for that youngest generation. I keep them in prayer. I loved when I could witness loving exchange and promotion of positive self-esteem between parent and child.

        • Breaking the generational cycle is so important, in so many ways. It’s a commonplace to say those who are abused often become abusers, but less often understood that those who never were loved don’t always know how to love. You’re right – it’s wonderful to witness good things happening.

  33. Hello Linda,

    I cannot think of any better way to praise what is almost a lost art-“work”!

    It is what builds our character, our communities, and our nation. It is so essential to the human spirit, that many would perish without being able to revel in its action.

    That we have spent so many good jobs to other places seems almost suicidal. People need to feel productive and contributors to a well oiled machine. It seems that machine, presently, is broken.

    You write clearly and very effectively. I am drawn into the written images and points of view. I am reading “art”, a craft you seemingly have mastered.

    Thank you for this, it was both entertaining and through provoking.

    • WildBill,

      One of the things so many seem to have forgotten is that the process of working is as important as the product which results. It’s that process you’re speaking of, I think, when you talk about work building us as individuals and communities.

      When I was being raised, “shoddy workmanship” was as bad a judgment as “working fools” was good. Even in the kitchen, crimping a pie crust edge, it was assumed we would take the time to do it well, to make it attractive as well as edible. If only I could put my Grandma in charge of our country for a decade!

      As for people feeling productive and having a sense of contributing – for generations that took place first in the family. The family in our country has been breaking down for years, and now we’re beginning to reap the consequences. Some of my objections to assorted welfare programs are rooted here – as early as the 1970s I worked with programs which by their nature made it harder for families to stay together. But that’s another issue for another time.

      I’m so glad you enjoyed the post. Entertaining and thought-provoking is one of my favorite combinations, so it tickles me to have achieved a bit of that here!

      Linda

  34. What a very worthwhile and demanding project photographer Tom Parker worked on ! What a fascinating post you wrote too, Linda ! Thank you both for reminding us of the notions of work and helping. Both were very much part of my life from an early age. The garage my Dad had built became a family affair where grandparents, uncle and my mother of course became responsible for, each in our own domain. I learnt to be responsible for my part (working at one of the two gas stations during my free time). I appreciated the value of each of our own jobs. It seemed natural to be part of our family business.
    Thanks for this very enjoyable reading and for the thoughts it evoked.

    • Isa,

      Isn’t it true! Families who work together, who share goals and the satisfaction of achieving them, have so many wonderful memories. And even when things are difficult, when there are struggles and sometimes failure, working together to get through them provides its own sort of memory, and perhaps some comfort in the future.

      Even as children, I remember we sensed something different about our classmates from farms and small-business families. I suspect now that what we were sensing was a great maturity, and perhaps even then some pride in what they were helping to achieve.

      I’m so glad you enjoyed the post – how lovely to know it evoked some memories for you, too.

      Linda

  35. Hi Linda
    I had just written you a long, congratulatory and I hoped entertaining reply to this brilliant post, concluding with the tale of my days as a British Merchant Navy stewardess – avoiding thirty nine sailors whilst hoovering cabins and cleaning toilets in force nine gales for a whole summer in the 1960s – pressed the wrong key on my computer, and lost the lot. AAArgh…..

    • Anne,

      Oh, I’m sorry. I have to be so careful when I use my laptop rather than my desk computer. The keys on the keyboard are arranged differently, and more than once I’ve done The Great Erase.

      Well, I must say – you’ve left enough clues for me to imagine certain parts of your tale! “Force nine” is a good start. I read “Fastnet, Force Ten” about once a year, just to terrify myself – and I’ve done enough cooking and cleaning underway to have a sense of what that was all about. On the other hand, I never had to cope with those 39 sailors – I can only imagine!

      Well, there’s no question it would have been entertaining, so I regret the loss of the post. But as always, it’s delightful to have you stop by – with or without your post!

      Linda

  36. I’m amazed and impressed that you found so many “work” related pictures in your old family albums. They are all fantastic! I love you with the vacuum cleaner (especially like its placement next to the 2012 picture).

    I’m going to go check the Smithsonian traveling exhibition. I wonder whether its going to come to the west coast.

    40,000 pictures doesn’t sound like a lot until you divide it by 350 days and think of each one having to be photo-shopped etc! sheesh what an undertaking. Where did Tom find the time to sleep?

    My favorite picture is picture #3 ie the one of the bank (I think its a bank). I don’t remember the last time I walked into a bank where the teller wasn’t sitting behind bullet proof glass!

    I also don’t watch the SuperBowl (I work Sundays) and had missed the farm commercial. I’m so glad Al shared it here!

    I’m off to check out Tom’s blog…

    • rosie,

      The truth is that’s about it as far as my “working” photos. There are a few more raking leaves and cutting wood, and some of my dad doing things like painting the house, but that’s it. There are many Christmas photos, of course, and vacations. I’m not sure why there aren’t many birthday photos. I suppose the truth is we just weren’t a photo-taking family. It’s also true both my mom and I may have gotten rid of a lot of them. That’s ok, too. There are plenty to sustain the memories.

      From what I can tell, Tom didn’t sleep much last year. He was working as well as working on the project. That in itself is quite an achievement.

      Your comment about the bank surprises me. My bank looks pretty much like this one, at least in terms of openness. All of the tellers have their candy dishes at their windows, and the coffee pot’s always on, and everyone calls you by name when you go in. In fact, it’s such a nice place that I usually go in instead of going through the drive-in.

      A funny story about that farm commercial. I assumed at first it was from a Paul Harvey radio broadcast. In fact, it was a from a Farm Bureau speech he gave, and our radio “garden line guy”, who was in college at the time, was there for the speech and met Harvey. He was so excited he played the cut about five times the weekend after the super bowl!

      I was surprised to hear you work Sundays, and then I realized – of course. Museums are open then for the benefit of those who work during the week!

      Linda

      • You still have banks that are open like that without bars or bullet proof glass? well goodness and gosh. I wonder whether I’d be permitted to take photos in my local bank? I’m going to try.
        Yes I work Sundays. Not fun!

        • Yep. You’d think we were Mayberry over here.Truth to tell, I think traffic accidents are our biggest problem, with an occasional breakin or purse-snatching during the holidays. You even can walk into the convenience store/gas stations and just pay a real person behind an ordinary counter. I’m not sure I’d do it at 3 a.m., but….

      • I wanted to mention that I just realized that I also don’t have a single photo of my birthdays. Nothing of me blowing out the candles.

        • I found my 3rd birthday pic. I know it was my third, because there are three candles on the cake. ;)

  37. Fascinating post, Linda. And I sure do wish our MSU Museum (which is a Smithsonian affiliate) was part of this exhibit. I love the photos of you as a little girl. Darned cute! I remember loving to help. I’m not sure I ever felt working was all it was cracked up to be. There was joyful work and the work that wasn’t so — I guess I have done both in my time. And there is difference between work and a calling. I think Tom Parker is a remarkable man — with a calling.

    • jeanie,

      I wasn’t aware of the Museum on Main Street projects – they’re just wonderful. You certainly have a ready audience for that kind of exhibit up there.

      I think most of us intuitively understand the difference between work and a calling. The question is how to transform work we experience as mundane and distasteful into something that can have meaning.

      I faced some of that as mom aged and I had to take on more and more responsibility for her care. In the beginning, it did feel at times like something I “had to do”. After a while, it became something I wanted to do. It wasn’t alway fun (for either of us!), but we made it work,

      And as you so well know, there are days when just getting out of bed and making coffee clearly is “work”. Thank goodness you’ve got a helper, too!

      Linda

  38. My goodness, what an enjoyable post about ‘helping’ and ‘work’ in a collection of enlightening writing and photos. I haven’t thought to voice what ‘work’ meant; though, I have just assumed and thought that way as I grew up that way. So different now days. It has been a long while since I have checked in on Tom Parker and my what a wonderful endeavor on his part! Thank you, Linda, for an outstanding post!

  39. [...] “Over the past year I photographed the men, women and children of our town performing the diverse tasks that are at their core the building blocks of rural America. While the other [exhibit] sites focused on their particular histories – mining, agriculture, black populations – ours was a photographic record of how we worked in Blue Rapids during 2012. We called it a snapshot of a single year, and thought of it in terms of the historical record. (Continue reading “Working Fools”) [...]


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