Remembering Ismael

Becoming a varnish worker isn’t difficult. With a vehicle to serve as a combined company headquarters, warehouse, and service fleet, about $200 to invest in sandpaper, varnish, and brushes, and a wardrobe of stylish, second-hand tees, you could start today.

Things will go even more smoothly if you already possess some important personal qualities: infinite patience, a tolerance for frustration, and a sense of humor. The humor’s especially important. It helps to keep things in perspective when fresh varnish is ruined by fog, pollen, wind, rain,  insects, or The Yard Crew From Hell: that charming band of brothers given to revving up their leaf blowers just as you’re putting away your brush. 

If you’re especially lucky, you’ve already internalized “The Rule of Good Enough.” No matter how glossy, how reflective, how beautifully deep the shine, something — a gnat, a bristle, a patch of dust, a sliver of unvarnished wood – will tempt you toward perfection.  Perfection, of course, is illusory. Getting rid of a gnat inevitably leads to the discovery that a determined spider has schlepped across your work. Eliminate the spider tracks, and you’re a sitting duck for errant, floating feathers. Better to look at a job that’s very nearly perfect and say, “That’s good enough.”

Why someone would choose to varnish is an intresting question.  Despite the beauty of the finished product, the work of stripping and sanding is boring and repetitive. Unpredictable weather wreaks havoc with schedules, not to mention cash flow. I happen to like the isolation and solitude, but not everyone does.  And it is, after all, physical labor. There’s enough climbing, stretching, leaning, and lifting in the course of a day to keep anyone flexible and strong.

Someone has to do it…

Still, I continue. When someone asks why, I often say, “For the perks, of course.” The easy camaraderie of the docks, the shoes-optional dress code, an assortment of quirky characters to work with, and the absence of office politics — all are delightful. I take my coffee breaks with mallards and coots, while osprey and pelicans supervise from above: leaving the jellyfish and crabs to signal the changing seasons.

Best of all, sandwiched between the sweet bloom of sunrise and sunset’s poignant glow, my solitude allows time for thought: even as I devote physical energy to creating a different sort of beauty.

In truth, the positives balance the negatives rather nicely: at least, until summer arrives.  For most people, summer means a little laziness, a bit of travel, the pleasures of  indolence. On the docks, summer means scorching decks, burning eyes, and suffocating, stultifying air. From time to time, Gulf Coast heat and humidity become so intense that sweat drips from foreheads and chins onto freshly-laid varnish: doubly frustrating because it means unplanned for, and uncompensated, work.

Even worse, summer heat drains away energy. By the end of the day, it can be a struggle to do more than shower, plop into a chair, and stare into the middle distance. A friend calls summer the cereal season, since cereal for supper takes the least effort to prepare.  At the height of summer,  a certain slovenliness begins to develop as dust collects, laundry baskets fill up, and drooping plants beg for their own drink of water. Good intentions abound, but the longer days and unrelenting heat produce an unshakable lethargy.    

Physical tasks aren’t the only chores to be put off.  Creativity and imagination suffer from heat exhaustion, too.  Rising temperatures bring a decline in the ability to focus over long periods of time. While thoughts continue to swirl and the impulse to shape words into coherence still stirs, actually sitting down to write is another matter.

I’ve been thinking about this a good bit.  Certainly, I’m one of the lucky ones. I have the freedom to rearrange my schedule: to begin work early or continue into the evening as I seek respite from the afternoon heat.  

Not everyone enjoys such luxury. The world is filled with people who spend their days in manual labor: farm workers, construction crews, roofers, garden and lawn care teams. Constrained by the realities of employment by others, they lack even minimal control over their days, and they, too, come home exhausted.

Farm Workers in California

Because their stories are less often told, some believe such people have no stories to tell: that they are dull and uninspired, or by nature lacking in creativity. Some years ago, I learned of an English teacher who required her Anglo students to write essays each week, but required no essays from Hispanic students. Confronted on the issue, she seemed genuinely astonished. “But what would they write about?” she asked.

It’s an old attitude, neatly summed up in the assertion that certain people are better equipped for creativity — by education, by natural sensitivity, by intellect, training or talent — while the masses are mute by necessity.  D.H. Lawrence gives voice to this attitude in Phoenix II. He writes:

Life is more vivid in the dandelion than in the green fern, or than in the palm tree.
Life is more vivid in the snake than in the butterfly.
Life is more vivid in the wren than in the alligator.
Life is more vivid in me than in the Mexican who drives the wagon for me.

What is vivid here is the worst kind of prejudice, and a particularly offensive literary elitism. In fact, the people who tend our lawns, build our roads, harvest our crops and roof our homes might have delightful stories to tell, if only they weren’t so exhausted, and by necessity focused on the basic requirements for life. 

In the world of  “just folks,” hints of wonderfully creative communication abound. Yarn-spinners in cafes, musicians in bars and juke joints, story-telling mothers with children gathered around: each has something to offer, and not all are as uneducated or unsophisticated as we sometimes assume.

Not long ago, I pulled up behind a lawn-care trailer at a stoplight. A little rickety, a bit rusty, its apparently hand-made sign assured potential customers that the crew was eager and trustworthy, competent and willing to do both commercial and residential work. There was the expected phone number and website address, but just below the sign, there was another, smaller sign that gave pause. It said, “My Name is Ismael. Call Me.”

After I stopped laughing, I thought about Ismael, wondering what story he might tell had he the time, the freedom, and the energy. For that matter, what stories would any of our construction workers, roofers, farm laborers, or truckers tell if they had the time, the freedom, and the energy?  

Day Laborers at Hopson Plantation ~ Clarksdale, Mississippi, 1940

Whenever I see a mother walking her children home in the heat; a housekeeper washing windows in full afternoon sun; a woman struggling toward a laundromat with an unwieldy bundle, I find myself wondering: “What verse might she write, had she her own solitude, silence, and rest?”

Out on the docks, the summer heat continues to rise. As silent birds tuck themselves ever more deeply into the dappled shade of their trees, they begin, ever so tentatively, to sing. Watching and listening, remembering Ismael and all of the unnamed co-workers who surround him, I wonder again: given respite from their labors and some freedom to rest in the shade, what songs might our hidden birds sing?

Comments are welcome, always

120 thoughts on “Remembering Ismael

  1. Contrarian that I am, I’ve always loved history from the bottom up, but telling the tales of the voiceless is not an easy one.

    “Cereal season”: oh, yes indeed. I’ve had oatmeal for dinner more than once. The heat in South Florida has been vicious this year. Our only respite are the breezes coming in from the ocean.

    1. One of the difficulties of history from the bottom up is that we’re always tempted to tell the tales of the voiceless ourselves, rather than finding ways to enable them to speak their own word. It’s true in every group, and every community.

      I’ve always thought it a wonderful coincidence that so many fruits are in season during the summer. As long as I remember to cut them up in the morning, I’m good to go. The thought that slicing a cataloupe might be just too much in the evening seems silly, but now and then, that’s just the way it is.

      1. It’s difficult enough to find a way for the living voiceless to speak, much more so is how to enable the deceased voiceless to tell their tales. You raise a very good point, though, because there are many people who profess to speak for the Other without asking them for permission. It’s a delicate balancing act, because the Other is usually the victim of oppression and understandably don’t often wish to speak to their oppressors.

        1. And sometimes, Jeff, we talk past people, turning them into objects in the process. In my mother’s latter years, I’d go with her to doctor’s appointments. Once we were in the examining room, it was almost certain the doctor was going to ask me, “What seems to be the problem?” “I don’t have any problems,” I’d say. “But you might ask the woman who’s sitting over there. She made the appointment.”

            1. It happens with children, too. And of course there are couples where any question posed to one is answered by the other. It can be discomfiting, at best.

  2. This post is somewhat elegiac in tone and wistful in theme. It demands of us further research into the many creative human voices that have not been heard from: those who hoe a row, strip a table, polish a boat, or do what they’re able.

    Your post also stimulates into that tiny unexplored cubby in our minds with curious desire to know what the shyer members of the animal kingdom might say…the bunnies, the newts, the caterpillars, the coots.

    1. One of my unsung accomplishments is that I’ve learned to speak basic mallard: enough that I can call them to dinner, or reunite babies with their mamas. I’m not fluent enough to understand their stories, but there’s no question that they’re telling them.

      I think you’re right that further research is needed, only I don’t think I’d use the word “research.” “Engagement” might be better. The issue reminds me of a youngish friend who announced she intended to stand in solidarity with a certain group. When asked how she intended to proceed, she said she was going to post hashtags on Twitter. It’s a start, but it can’t be the end.

  3. ” In fact, the people who tend our lawns, build our roads, harvest our crops and roof our homes might have delightful stories to tell, if only they weren’t so exhausted, and by necessity focused on the basic requirements for life.”

    Most of these unnamed manual laborers are mainly immigrants who will do anything to bring food to the table. I know of many Latinos who migrate to the United States desperately searching for the American Dream. A few years later they return heavyhearted and empty-handed. The dream was gone with the wind, similar to the movie starred by Clark Gable

    Others are able to plant their roots and survive. I once read a book about a man who came from Africa on a slave ship. The book was “Roots” written by Alex Haley.

    Even though the days of these African slaves were loaded with chores that would would exhaust the most robust and healthy human being; during the evenings they would gather to sings songs, dance, and tell stories about their native land, far, far away.

    Sometimes, when you have nothing else, besides being alive, hope will bring freedom within yourself. Nelson Mandela was free within himself while serving prison on Robben Island. And later when free, brought freedom to his peers and became the first black president of South Africa.

    D.H. Lawrence was so wrong about the Mexicans and other Latinos striving for a loaf a bread in a foreign land.

    This is a great subject and you are able to describe it so poetically. Thank you Linda for giving us the opportunity to read exquisite literature with a rich content. Structure and content well-balanced.



    1. I think it’s important to remember that this is more than a racial issue, Omar, or an immigrant issue. Perhaps it comes closer to being a class issue.

      I had some interesting experiences when I began varnishing. No one thought a thing about my being female — in this part of the world, most varnishers are. My age wasn’t an issue, either.

      But there were people surprised to discover I could speak in complete and grammatically correct sentences. The assumption seemed to be that anyone working on the docks would be there because they had no option: specifically, that they had no education. That certainly isn’t true. I’ve turned up more than a few college graduates in the boatyards, in some very surprising places.

      One thing’s for sure: Ismael’s sign is a smart way of signaling that there’s more to him than people might assume. Whether Ismael is his real name, or whether he simply is usng it, I can’t say. But as one of my friends said when she heard the story, “If I had a yard, I’d hire him in a minute, just for the “Moby Dick” reference.” Me, too.

      ~ Linda

      1. When I saw the title of this post, the thing that came to mind immediately was the first line of Moby Dick: “Call me Ishmael.” My guess is that Ismael really is the lawn-care guy’s name; that’s a fairly common one among Latinos. For example, at

        I see there’s a designer named Ismael Soto.

        Now we have to wonder whether Ismael the lawn-care guy knew about Melville’s Ishmael. Too bad you couldn’t have stopped him to ask, or if he’s a fixture in your area, you still can.

        1. I’m certain Ismael is his given name, since his full name was at the top of the sign. Unfortunately, there was a company name I didn’t catch. I suspect that’s how they’re listed online, since I haven’t been able to pull up his name. (Actually, I have found his name, but none of the people seem likely candidates for a lawn care entrepreneur: especially the ones in the mug shots.) I’ve never seen the trailer before, but I’ll be watching.

          Whether he knew about “Moby Dick” I can’t say, but someone surely did. At the very least, someone recognized it as a good bit of word play. I can’t find it now, but a literary magazine (or perhaps even the “NY Times”) proposed a contest some years ago, the purpose of which was to change the meaning of the first line of a novel by changing the punctuation. “Call me, Ishmael,” was one of the entries.

          Since then, it’s been around in various incarnations. Half-Price Books offers gift cards that look like convention name tags, bearing Ishmael’s name. And I’ve seen a tee-shirt in Galveston that says “My Name’s Ishmael” on the front, and “Call Me” on the back. So, someone might only have been playing off an already-established joke. But I’d rather think Ismael did it himself: perhaps with a bit of pride.

          I do think Melville would be astounded.

  4. These are the people who in our supreme self-satisfaction, we don’t see. These are the people who take pride in their work. How many of us consider the work which went into a well-varnished boat or a newly laid cement driveway? Do we wonder why they chose their occupation, or how they learned it?
    It’s likely that the stories of the field workers, manual laborers, immigrant gardeners, may be far more interesting than anything we can concoct. None of us feel our story is particularly gripping, but it is.

    1. When you mentioned learning an occupation, Kayti, the first thing that came to mind was the traditional stone worker. I’ve never been to New England, but the stone buildings and fences of Kansas and Texas often are works of art. The secrets of the craft are passed down from generation to generation; in Kansas, there even are workshops offered to teach people the skills needed to build historically accurate fences.

      When I began varnishing, I was lucky enough to serve the equivalent of an apprenticeship with one of the best varnishers in the area. Of course it wasn’t a formal apprenticeship, as in the electrical trades, but it’s where I learned many of the tricks I still use. Starting at the bottom and working up isn’t he worst thing in the world.

      Everyone has a story. Some are dramatic, some less so. Some tell their stories with flair, while others choose to remain silent. But the assumption that a person has no story to tell? Silly, at best. It may be that the child who grows up demanding, “Tell me a story!” will be the adult best able to appreciate the stories of others.

      1. It’s interesting to see how surprising it is for some people to see others engaged in a job not usually expected for their sex or their age. In my case both roofing a couple of houses and working in the foundry. Both are hot and dirty jobs, but I enjoyed the work and I was good at it. It also gives me an appreciation of others who do it.

        1. That’s exactly how my mother felt about her job as a riveter in an aircraft plant during WWII. She enjoyed the camaraderie, and she was good at her job. She liked the Rosie the Riveter memorabilia that came along over the years, but she always said it was a touch sentimental. “We were never that clean,” she used to say.

  5. I love the way you segue into the issue of so many stories not being told because the people who might tell them are constrained by their circumstances. It was a story worthy of being written, and you wrote it beautifully!

    1. Thanks, Andrew. The other side of the story-telling coin might well be that stories are being told all the time, but many of us are too distracted to listen. And, just as expectations can shape what we see, expectations often shape what we hear. If we assume someone has nothing of value to say, it’s much easier to dismiss their words as irrelevant or worthless.

      In a sense, that’s what makes the gossip you wrote about so compelling. Everyone had a story to tell, and by gosh — everyone wanted to hear it!

  6. I think you’ve just reiterated something I’ve long known, Linda — that, despite what our Bibles tell us, we’re really NOT equal. Oh, certainly, in the eyes of our Creator, we’re equal, but we don’t all arrive with the same talents. Or opportunities, or drive.

    One has to wonder what kind of world we’d live in if everyone who wanted to write did. If everyone who wanted to sing did. Perhaps it’s far better that, whatever our line of work, we give it our all and be glad for the opportunity to contribute?!

    I never heard the phrase ‘cereal season,’ but having lived in that Texas heat, I can fully appreciate it. Many times, I’d be happy with just some cold fruit — or ice cream, ha!

    As for the rule of ‘good enough,’ gee, I guess I’d make a lousy varnisher, with my propensity toward perfectionism. A spider mucking up all my good work wouldn’t bode well for the spider!!

    1. Whenever I try to make sense of mathmatics, it certainly does seem that I’m lacking in talent — at least in that area. On the other hand, there are other areas where my talents are stronger. I suppose the trick for any of us is to find where our talents — and interests — lie, and then strengthen them as we’re able.

      Actually, I’d love to live in a world where everyone who wanted to write, or sing, or paint, or dance, was able to do that. Varnishing is my line of work — should I devote all my energies to that, and not write? It’s not likely that’s going to happen! (To be fair, I don’t think that’s exactly what you meant, but it certainly got my attention. You’ll pry this keyboard from my cold, dead hands!)

      I think part of our problem is that we’ve lost the concept of a well-rounded person. It used to be assumed that a competent adult would be able to write a gracious thank-you note, find a country on a map, be familiar enough with Shakespeare and Milton to catch references to their work in a speech, and be able to recognize a logical fallacy when a politician served one up. Today? Not so much.

      I do think you’d make a fine varnisher, Debbie. Perfectionists are the best. I’m one myself. The problem is that the gap between what I want to achieve and what actually happens always is there. It may be a small gap, but it’s a gap, nonetheless. Learning to cope with that is the trick.

      1. I love your statement about prying the keyboard from your cold, dead hands, Linda. Me, too!

        Sadly, we’re all expected to be specialists these days. Even doctors no longer seem to know basic things other than their specialty. As a business owner, I rather relish the opportunity to wear many hats — web designer, attorney, accountant, receptionist, PR person, you name it!

        Varnishing sounds like enjoyable, interesting work when you talk about it. I imagine it’s much like web design — too often, what we envision doesn’t come close to what we create!

    1. You must not live in a part of the world that’s awash with boats, Martha. While it’s true that people slowly have moved away from traditional boats with lots of wood toward fiberglass and stainless, there still are those who love the look of beautiful wood. I’m glad.

      It is an interesting occupation. One of the most interesting aspects is that it’s pretty much a 19th and 20th century job in a 21st century world. While computers and electronics of every sort grow faster and faster, varnish dries when varnish will. Whether you varnish one square foot of wood or a hundred linear feet, it’s going to take the same time to dry. It’s good work for the turtles of the world, like me.

      Thanks so much for stopping by, and commenting. You’re always welcome.


  7. You have me wishing that I could varnish boats for a living, despite the heat and the hard graft!
    I love how you give the silent a voice, everyone has a voice and a story to tell, but as you say they lack the opportunity as opposed to the privileged. A marvelous

    1. But you know, snowbird — sometimes the privileged aren’t so good at telling their stories, either. I’ve known people so obsessed with their work (or their status, or their possessions, or…or…) that they never reflect on their own story: their own experiences, beliefs, and convictions.

      Just think how many families never gather around the table for holidays any more, let alone for daily meals. For centuries, that was the primary place for story telling, for remembering individual and family history, and making sense out of life. We surely could use a bit more of that.

      I’m just glad you make the effort to tell us your stories. I suspect that’s part of the reason they call on you for the television appearances and such. People can get information in a hundred different ways, but personal stories are harder to come by.

  8. For a couple of years between my forced departure from Gannett newspapers and my return to full-time employment, I taught remedial English at three New Jersey colleges. (The fact that large numbers of students who have graduated from New Jersey high schools require remediation of their English is a topic for another day.)

    In one of the colleges, the preponderance of my students were Hispanic. I found that these were the best students to teach because, unlike most of their peers, they spoke two languages, and they had lived in at least one other country and understood the concept of culture. In the first class of each course, I would point out to these students that they probably were more interesting people than I was when I was their age. I also assured them that they were as smart as anyone else, that the only thing that distinguishes most people from one another is the knowledge they have accumulated and that, on that account, they might already be at an advantage.

    1. I read an interesting article recently that proposed an end to college-level remediation as a first step toward broader educational reform. It sometimes does seem that a diploma has become a participation trophy rather than a symbol of accomplishment.

      The points you make about the advantages enjoyed by your Hispanic students are good ones. My own view of the world, and of my place in it, certainly was shaped by experiences of overseas work and travel. Although I never was as proficient in a second language as I would have liked, the value of being able to speak to others in their own language was obvious.

      Something else comes to mind: not all knowledge is obtained in a classroom. In fact, some of the most important life lessons can’t be found in a syllabus. From that perspective alone, I’d say there’s little doubt many of your students enjoyed a significant advantage, simply because of the nature of the path they’d traveled to get to your classroom.

      1. With respect to Charles Paolino’s “topic for another day”: I’ve largely stopped saying that a student graduated from high school or college, and instead I usually say that the student was given a diploma.

        1. Well, as a former teacher I know used to say, the new motto of her state’s department of education seemed to be “Head ’em up, move ’em out.” It’s unfortunate.

  9. There are stories in the lives of each one of us, aren’t there? Those of us who have time and energy for words find ways to tell ours, and others, but what about the rest? I think of the great Studs Terkel, and what he gathered up from those who hadn’t time to do so for themselves.

    While in Maine, I was taken so much with Charles Eliot’s little book “John Gilley of Baker’s Island.” He starts the book with this: “To be absolutely forgotten in a few years is the common fate of mankind.” And then he made sure that at least this family was remembered. We’re so lucky in that. (I thought of you most of all, actually, when I put together the post on Maine’s past, even though I knew, in this tremendously busy season for you, you’d likely not have time to read it. To me, reading that history and a memoir written by a shopkeeper I found in a second-hand bookstore, offered as wonderful an insight into the character of Maine as I could hope for.)

    1. I’ve continued to think about Eliot’s book today, and that marvelous line about the being-forgotten that is our common fate.
      I suspect the comfort so many experience in cemeteries somehow is related — even if no personal relationship with its inhabitants exists. Reading the names and dates on the stones — and the sometimes tragic, sometimes quirky inscriptions — is a felt link to the past.

      Perhaps a book functions in the same way — a way which I still believe no electronic medium can match. Eliot’s book was a monument to the Gilley family as surely as any grave stone.

      On the other hand? Hooray for technology! For lo — Charles Eliot’s “John Gilley of Baker’s Island” is available online: apparently complete. Here’s a version from The Century Illustrated Monthly Magazine, Volume 59. I do believe I’ll have a read one of these next evenings.

      1. shoreacres: I suspect you’ll enjoy that book. It’s a quick read, so even with the varnishing (was that YOU up high on the mast!?), you may have time. I agree, Eliot’s book was a monument–and one that reached more of us, potentially at least, than any grave stone. You, BTW, do the same with your wonderful posts of so many magnificent, but perhaps overlooked, aspects of the world–as does Steve in his wildflower portraits.

        1. No, not me in that mast-varnishing photo. I’ve done my share, but I gave that up some years ago. Even when I was willing, I did it only on boats I knew well, with people I trusted to have unfrayed lines and an ability to pay attention.

          Your comment about my posts and Steve’s photos brings to mind a truth common to most of the creative arts: it’s the details that count!

  10. I loved this post, Linda, because it dealt with many things I’ve encountered over the years. But most of all, because it told a story about work.

    I had a blessed life, ‘cause all the way through it , I loved the work I did, even though I went from one sort of work to another, a number of times in my career. I learned that if you do your work well, it’s easy to love it. And that you don’t just have to work at something that makes money. But you have to know how to do that too, so as to avoid getting desperate.

    I love the way you tell a story, and enjoy the comments you get very much as well. That interchange you have with your readers, is what makes your blog so delightful.

    Prejudice is a very self-destructive madness. Interesting people can be found in all sorts of circumstances, in different classes, different professions, and different ethnic groups. Of course, giving people credit, just because they belong to a certain class, or a certain ethnic group, is prejudice too. I mention this not because I think you suffer from prejudice, but because some people, in their effort to overcome one sort of prejudice, adopt another… and then think that one is going to fix the other.

    I think the part of your story I liked the best, was the way you related to perfectionism. That’s been a problem of mine, through the years… and so I chose work which allowed for such madness. But then, when I’d gotten older, and I was offered the position of professor, I finally had to come to terms with this problem. It was very difficult for me. But I finally learned the Rule of Good Enough.

    Here’s wishing you a very good summer. We’re having our third heat wave here in Jerusalem, and some folks say that it’s evidence of climate change. I say, I hope the climate stays this good for as long as I’ve got in this world… there was ice on this planet, and there was heat. This is very livable right now…

    1. Shimon: your last paragraph recalls Robert Frost’s little poem “Fire and Ice”:

      Some say the world will end in fire,
      Some say in ice.
      From what I’ve tasted of desire
      I hold with those who favor fire.
      But if it had to perish twice,
      I think I know enough of hate
      To say that for destruction ice
      Is also great
      And would suffice.

      1. In 2011, I wrote about fire and ice when Canadian rivers were flooding from ice melt, the Possum Kingdom fire was burning in Texas, and a friend’s ranch was threatened. A young scientist-writer, Meera Lee Sethi, allowed use of her poem, which I’d forgotten, but which really is striking.

        Null and Void

        It is in the nature of ice
        to be always on the verge
        of giving in. Steel stays steel
        for thousands of degrees,
        defending its solidity
        against exquisite heat
        —though whether this is
        stalwart or just stubborn,
        none can say.

        But ice, like you
        or I, stands a hair’s breadth
        from its reverse. A trifling
        bit of warmth is all it takes
        to change what seemed
        so hard into the paragon
        of softness; what was once
        resolute of shape becomes
        a sycophant that yields
        like butter to the management
        of mere containers. Sorry
        are the thoughts
        that prickle ice while
        it is melting: all its qualities
        disbanding into what
        it feared the most.

        There is
        not cold enough on Earth
        to keep ice safe
        from water.

        1. The poem by Meera Lee Sethi is truly wonderful and very impressive, all the more so, because I have never been aware of her till now. Of course, since English is a second (actually, a third) language for me, I can’t even hope to know the culture well. But I am always grateful for everything I learn. Thank you very much for sharing this with me.

    2. Like you, Shimon, I’ve had several different careers, and a motley assortment of shorter-term jobs. I’ve been fired, and promoted, and I’ve quit a time or two, but I’ve generally enjoyed my work. And even when I didn’t particularly enjoy it (the night shift at a nursing home comes to mind), at least I appreciated the chance to work, and the paycheck.

      What’s been most amazing, and astonishing in retrospect, is that none of my careers could have been predicted when I graduated from college. It was a little nerve-wracking from time to time, but things always worked out. And I learned the truth of what you say: that the money’s important, to sustain life: but it need not become the meaning of life.

      Your point about dealing with prejudice through over-compensation is important. And yes: of course I have prejudices, too. I know some of them, and when they lead me to judge someone too quickly, I like to remember this, from Mark Twain: “You can’t depend on your judgment when your imagination is out of focus.”

      When I began varnishing, I first had to learn patience. I didn’t begin as a perfectionist, and I had to train myself to slow down, look more closely, and not let the details slide. Then, I came to a point where I was treating exterior wood on a boat like a concert piano, or a violin, and I had to change. Now, I’m happy, and my customers are happy. It’s a good thing.

      We had rain today, at last. It’s welcome, and it seems we’ll have more during the week. The forecasters are fussing because people are taking seriously the Farmer’s Almanac prediction of a cold winter, but they may not have noticed that the osprey are here already, and the jellyfish are gone. The cycles will be what they will be: may we experience many more.

  11. I wonder if the “My name is Ismael. Call me.” knew of his literary allusion? — I refer to the opening line of Herman Melville’s “Moby Dick,” which I thought of immediately.

    You touch on the assumptions we make and the prejudices that all of us internalize, often without being aware of them. No matter how you slice it, all of us belong to some slice of the populace that believes itself better than some other slice, often for no other reason than because our slice is the slice we are in and their slice isn’t. I think of the line from a song in “My Fair Lady” — “An Englishman’s way of speaking absolutely classifies him. The moment he talks he makes some other Englishman despise him.” (That whole play is based on the assumption that our judgments of our fellows are based on external trivialities, and that the only thing that separates the flower girl from the world of the privileged aristocrat is her accent.)

    I won’t go into the ironies of the Biblical Ishmael, the rejected son of the handmaiden and how they play into your theme.

    You make an important point about how often those profundities that find their way into print come from those with the leisure and means to document them and the access to publish them. How often are the entrees into print based on skin color — and gender? (There’s a big brouhaha ongoing in the SciFi/Fantasy community about diversity, representation, and how much of what is published in that genre is the work of white middle class men, and how much of the publishing and critiquing of that and other genres is done by white middle class men. There is no little irony in the fact that the same debate is ongoing in the film industry.)

    1. There could be one of several explanations for the “Moby Dick” reference — see my comment to Steve Schwartzman, above. No matter the explanation, someone associated with the business — perhaps Ismael, perhaps a friend, perhaps someone who didn’t get the joke but recognized it as a joke — added the sign to the trailer, and some delight to my day.

      Your point about different ways of speaking is a good one. Most weekends, I listen to a hunting and fishing show. The callers are primarily guides, or avid sportsmen. They call in from Louisiana, deep east Texas, south Texas, and west Texas ranch lands, so there is a variety of accents. Most of those callers would be judged uneducated, or worse, by some people I know. They couldn’t be more wrong.

      There also was a bit of a recent stir regarding a lack of inclusiveness with the Man Booker prize. I’m of a divided mind. Diversity is a wonderful thing, and where female authors, or authors from various racial and ethnic backgrounds, are producing quality work, they need to be recognized and promoted.

      However, pretending that mediocre work is worthy simply because of the race or gender of the author is irritating at best. I’ve had my own experiences of being promoted into positions or included in symposia simply because “a woman is needed.” I’d rather have less recognition, but achieve it by my own merits.

      1. My point about the publishing industry is an old one, that goes back further than Georges Sand, and Acton Bell, and the hundreds of women authors who had to publish “under false colors” to get published at all, to the old argument that educating women/any racial or ethnic group except white Europeans was pointless because they were supposed to be of inferior intelligence.

        “However, pretending that mediocre work is worthy simply because of the race or gender of the author is irritating at best.” I appreciate your rejection of “tokenism” — I quite agree. However, there is a great deal of mediocre work out there by white middle aged men. My point is, how can we determine whether women and minorities have anything “worth saying” if we do not get to hear their voices? I’m thinking of some of the exceptions that prove the rule –Harper Lee, and Alice Walker are two who come to mind.

        It all comes down to gateways, and who controls them. When those who control the gateways (publishers, editors, reviewers, industry and finance leaders, lawmakers) are white middle-aged men, very few women and minorities get through those gates. (Historically there was more federal funding for heart disease research, because very few of those responsible for allocating federal funds were/are at risk for breast cancer. With that in mind, you’d think there would be more federal funding for Alzheimer’s disease research!)

        The slogan of the United Negro College Fund, “A mind is a terrible thing to waste.” occurred to me later, as I was watching a TV show about Anne Frank and the holocaust victims, particularly the millions of them who were children. The presenter made the point about how, in addition to the tragic loss of human lives, there was the loss of the potential contributions those children and young people might have made to science, medicine and the arts. But for every such instance of extreme prejudice and hatred, there are millions of little tragedies that play out against the background of the harsh economic and social realities that people must cope with every day. (How many potential Neil deGrasse Tysons, Langston Hughes, Shirley Chisums, Maya Angelous, Samuel Delanys, Condoleeza Rices, or Booker Washingtons overdosed, dropped out, or were killed in racial and gang violence?)

        Another program focused on the iconic photographs of Dorothea Lange that documented the plight of the migrant farm workers, Anglos as well as Hispanics, and the victims of the Dust Bowl and the Great Depression of the 1930’s — and the human toll those years took. My dad told of how, during the Depression, his parents’ business failed and how he and his family had to go live with his grandparents out in the country, and about how he and each of his four siblings were given the opportunity to choose a crop to plant in their garden. He chose popcorn, and was ridiculed for choosing it, until it was discovered how filling it was, when there was not enough food for three meals in a day. He worked 40 hours a week in order to be able to attend high school (and still graduated with honors and a semester early.) I often wonder how different his life would have been had WWII not happened, if he had been able to accept the job offer from the FBI (by the time he received it, he had already joined the Marines), or if he had been able to attend college (he could have gone on the GI bill, as many did, but by then he had a wife and child to support).

        The Ismael you highlight is obviously a man of initiative and enterprise. One wonders what he might be accomplishing if he had gotten a few of the breaks and advantages too many of us take for granted.

        1. Of course, there is truth in the points you make, particularly regarding the gateways and those who tend them. On the other hand, I’ve always appreciated the advice given by photographer Chase Jarvis: “If the gate’s closed, jump over the fence.”

          It’s not easy, but more and more writers, musicians, photographers and artists are finding ways to get their work in front of the public, while avoiding those gatekeepers. While that may mean there is a good bit more mediocre work being published, exhibited and performed, it’s also true that the pleasure of creation and sharing is open to many, many more people.

          Initiative and enterprise are good for business, but they’re good for life, generally. Even people like our fathers, who didn’t get some of the breaks they deserved, proved that in the dignified and productive lives they led.

  12. You almost made me lay aside my books and pick up the brush and varnish – at least for four or five paragraphs. Then whammo with the reality of summer sun. I gave up varnishing in about three minutes!

    A beautiful post paying tribute to the voiceless workers who make our lives pleasant. I hope many of them enjoy the delight of work well done. I believe “the working man” enjoys his achievements much more than we recognize. Does a housekeeper cleaning your kitchen not admire the shine she leaves on your stove? Does the cherry picker not delight in beating his previous record for bags of cherries picked? Does the lawn mower not appreciate a lawn made beautiful by his own hands? Does the flag man not feel a nice twinge of appreciation when he drops the flag and lets the traffic flow? I remember the pleasure mother got from believing her family’s outhouse was cleaner, whiter, and more comfortable than any in the county. And who wouldn’t appreciate the clorox smell? Makes me think of God’s promise at the end of life when he says, “Well done, good and faithful servant.”

    1. The reward for enduring August (and sometimes September) is working in October — the most beautiful month we have. Of course, October is also the most beautiful time to travel, and the month when I try to take some time off. That’s another good reason to endure August.

      There’s no question there are rewards for certain kinds of work that sometimes escape us. I thought of that when I read the recent NY Times article about the environment at Amazon.

      Though the focus in the article was the constant pressure, the demand for productivity, and hyper-competiveness, it reminded me of years when I would go for days without being able to identify what I had accomplished at work. Scrubbing the floor may be a lowly task, but when it’s done, and shines, it can give inordinate pleasure — as your mother knew. Not so very long after I realized that floor-scrubbing was more satisfying than many aspects of my daily work, I knew it was time for a change. I usually point to sailing as the trigger, but sailing and floor-scrubbing have one thing in common: they ground a person in the real, physical world. In the real world, cause and effect still are related.

      1. Shoreacres, you truly are an amazing lady. No wonder you only publish one post per week, you give such attention to every comment. Each of your responses read like a stand alone post.

        While I worked in the yard today, I mulled over some of the things you said and what I had said in my comment about the laborers who took pleasure in doing their work well. Particularly about my mom. It is true that she loved a challenge that she could master, even to cleaning the outhouse, but she did not want the same for me! Although they (mom and dad) lived fourteen miles from the high school, they saw that I got there! Always dreaming dreams for me and doing all they could to advance my good.

        1. Honestly, it’s the writing that requires the time, more than the comments — although things have changed since the first years of my blog, when there were very few comments.

          You’ve reminded me of an amusing story about my mom and me. I was the first in the family to attend college, and it was a Big Deal.The graduate degree was a surprise to my folks, but a pleasant one.

          When I decided to begin my own varnishing business, Mom nearly came unglued. Only after many years did I discover the source of her distress.

          During the depression, her father varnished woodwork in homes, and she helped him. She sanded; he varnished. When I went into varnishing, it brought it all back for her: a somewhat undependable father, the Depression, poverty. She felt as though I’d gone backwards, straight into what she wanted to escape, and what she wanted me to avoid. Until I knew the story, I couldn’t understand why she kept saying, “You can’t be happy doing that. You just can’t!”

          The point, I suppose, is that our parents do have their dreams for us. But we have dreams, too. Encouraging someone to realize their dream is good. Trying to impose our dreams on another, regardless of their wishes, isn’t any better than taking away their ability to tell their own story.

          As I hear they say on Facebook, it’s complicated!

  13. Linda, I admire your lyrical, almost haunting, ability to string words and thoughts together. It’s quite easy for me to imagine you plying your craft with varnish in the same rhythmic cadence as you do your writing.

    As for manual laborers who toil in heat, wind and rain, I admit to subconscious stereotypical biases. We all have them about each other and we can’t make strides to eliminate them if we don’t acknowledge them. That said, I’m weary of those who presume to speak for ‘others’ because often their agendas are covertly self-serving.

    I am very conscious of the laborers I pass and the working conditions they endure – the landscapers and mowers, roofers, road construction crews – I say prayers for them, offer drinks or aid when I have an opportunity to do so.

    I love the wit of the Ismael sign. I wouldn’t presume that their voices aren’t singing and speaking or that their words aren’t written or even that they have no worthy thoughts. Only that they share them amongst themselves and with family and friends. I would assume they suffer the elements in similar ways and that their minds delve into reveries in the same way yours does or mine would. There are too many artistic and literary examples that rise from all walks of life to make us think that’s not true.

    Is that enough? Of course not. You provoke with your observations and questions. I don’t presume to know what works, but I know I should turn to those voices we’re trying to hear to give me better answers.

    1. Ironically, it was varnishing that developed some of the qualities that were necessary before I could begin to learn to write: patience, attention to detail, perseverance, a taste for solitude. And, as an added bonus, my work provides a good bit of time for thinking: musing, pondering, day-dreaming, and imagining, as well as analysis.

      Your comment about those who “toil in heat, wind, and rain” reminds me of the days when the post office’s unofficial motto enshrined those realities: “Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds.” It was a source of pride, and for the most part, a fair description of reality. (It’s also a translation from Herodotus’s “Histories,” where he describes the courier system of the Persian Empire. Who knew?)

      I’ve often toyed with the idea that the best way to overcome some of our prejudices, stereotypes, and simple misunderstandings, would be to unplug everyone from their devices and send them out to flag traffic or hoe cotton for a year. Poiticians and bureaucrats could be given the privilege of working for two years. Don’t you think that would be fun?

      1. I so love what you have to say. Your varnishing craft and profession has intrigued me since I first read your ‘about’ page. Manual labor of many sorts offers opportunities for solitude and reflection. My favorite chores as a youngster were ironing and mowing the lawn – both provided lots of musing time. And the patience you require as varnish dries, and imperfections from something as tiny as a gnat disturb your efforts … well that’s a level of patience I haven’t acquired

        Working in another’s shoes; living another’s reality – those could be helpful to foster understanding, to a point. But our career politicians and behemoth bureaucratic employees are the real killing culprits. So many of them are now feeding at the taxpayer trough, there’s no incentive to reform what’s truly needed for our citizens. It’s become an almost ‘criminal’ taking in my mind.

        My only solace when that disturbs me is to focus on what my community and I can do locally so that we living in our tiny realm have the best opportunity to improve our lives.

        1. I have a friend who experiences ironing in the same way. She loves it, and says she does her best thinking while ironing. I never mowed lawns when younger, but I did a lot of leaf-raking: a task that offered the same opportunity for a little solitary reflection.

          One-size-fits-all solutions usually don’t fit very many. That’s why the kind of local efforts you mention are so important. It’s why I patronize local businesses, and buy as much as possible from local farmers. It’s a way of helping to keep the local community healthy and vibrant.

  14. Wonderful observations, Linda. I believe that much of the laborer’s creativity is expressed in the stories he passes on to the next generation.

    Your job keeps you in good shape. I could never withstand that heat. You must think I’m so soft when I write about losing my A/C. If you haven’t already, I hope you start thinking of an exercise plan to keep that flexibility and strength when you retire. :) I’m so impressed that you are still hanging in there. You’re amazing. If I were there, I’d pour your cereal in the bowl for you.

    1. And not only the verbal stories, Bella. My most treasured objects carry stories, too — like the blanket chest my grandfather made from a too-small oak dining room table that the family had outgrown. There’s nothing wrong with Ikea or Hallmark, but the hand-made valentine and the rough-hewn table generally carry more emotional freight than “store-bought.”

      I don’t think you’re one bit soft when it comes to A/C. When I moved back to Houston in 1981, I was driving a car with no A/C. It had been just fine in San Francisco and Salt Lake City, but my goodness — the hit and run driver who totaled the car did me a great favor. And if I didn’t have air conditioning to come home to from time to time during the day, or to enjoy at night, life would be quite different.

      Retirement? I’m not sure I want to retire. I enjoy my work, and it clearly has some benefits. And, since I’ve lived and worked overseas, done some overseas travel, spent a good bit of time sailing, and so on, I’m not overwhelmed by a desire to retire so I can do the things I’ve wanted to do for decades. Most of what I want to do can be done on a modest income and a flexible time schedule — both of which I have.

      I sure do appreciate your offer to pour cereal, though. Do you suppose red or white wine goes better with granola?

  15. I do so love this one! I find myself wondering the same thing about folks I encounter who most folks don’t even give a second glance, much less a second thought. I’m certain they would have some hilarious, trying, and intriguing stories to tell about the folks for whom they work. Wouldn’t you just love to hear their perspective on things?

    1. About that second glance: I used to amuse myself with the thought of writing a book titled, “I Passed for Blue Collar.” One thing I learned early is that working as a laborer can make a person nearly invisible. That might sound like a negative, but there’s an upside. An invisible person can see and hear things that others might prefer to keep hidden. Of course, that means discretion is important, too — there’s a difference between telling a good story and gossiping, and even some of the best stories should never be told.

  16. Linda, what a beautiful post, it brought tears to my eyes. Yes, I can so feel your points. Good enough. The cereal season (either that, or watermelon), the sweat dripping off the forehead ruining the work – been there, done that, can feel it. Thank you for sharing a bit about your work, it is always so interesting to me.

    The people who ‘have no stories to tell’… I worked at a restaurant for a while, waitressing, where I made many friends among the Mexican immigrants, some illiterate, some with doctorate degrees, all with wonderful stories to tell and big dreams. The Serbian high school teacher, who became my friend, the beautiful Colombian waitress, the uninsured single mom who gets her tooth ripped out because she has no insurance or money to fix it…

    Thank you so much for this, I thoroughly enjoy reading your writing.

    Oh, and I revarnished our kitchen cabinets some 9 years ago, cleaned them (they were 40 years old, hardened oak), scrubbed them, took them apart, then revarnished them, it took forever, and it is the smell that gets me, but the end result is worth it.

    1. Watermelon’s good — but only seedless. Having to pick out the seeds is just too much work, sometimes. :)

      Waitressing is hard work, too: as are most jobs around a restaurant. One of my favorite boat washers gave up that occupation to work at a local restaurant. He says he misses working outdoors, but the pay is more dependable at the restaurant. There aren’t so many worries about not being able to work because of the weather, and he can pull extra shifts from time to time, to help with expenses.

      Your cabinet work was harder than mine, I think. Because I work outdoors for the most part, I don’t have to deal with the fumes. When I do take on interior work, I do it only in the months when I can keep the boat open. Being closed up for hours at a time with varnish isn’t particularly healthy. They say it can affect your mind — I can’t risk any more damage to mine.

      One of the things I did enjoy about urban living was the variety of people I met in the course of a day. In a strange way, the docks replicate that. There aren’t as many French or Croatians, but I suspect every country in South and Central America is represented. Communication can be a little hard from time to time, but it’s getting easier.

      1. There was a time when I found it a bother to pick out the seeds of a watermelon, but now I’ve gotten a ‘slow juicer’. They don’t make a lot of noise and are very efficient. I make juice out of the watermelons that have seeds, and it is a greater pleasure than eating the chunks with the seeds in them. I recommend.

  17. Why varnish indeed…and especially outdoors. I have enough trouble laying down some good coats of lacquer indoors during the summer humidity…blush, blush and more blush. I have also learned when good enough has been reached. There have been more than enough do-overs as the result of going 1 more process too far.

    As one of the folks in the labor market, although I do work in a retail store but my work is labor and not sales which in itself can be quite laborious…I have mostly been treated with respect and my skills valued over these years. The majority of customers have appreciated my efforts to make their possessions like new or somewhere close. Occasionally I have run into someone with an attitude but not all that often. I am myself with everyone and that usually works just fine.

    That said, I have seen and heard plenty that makes me shudder at the ‘tudes out there. I just shake my head and wonder just what is bugging some folks. Some of the most intelligent folks I have met don’t carry their wisdom on their sleeves.
    I think society has developed into a place where people are too occupied with their status as humans of some desired category rather than just plain old humans fortunate to be alive.

    For some reason, this topic has reminded me of this commercial and what it may say about where we are on the trail of evolution. Yes, it is a real product. Probably not the direction you were thinking responses would take you.

    1. You started me thinking, Steve… I don’t believe I’ve ever used lacquer, except on some bronze fittings and port holes, after they were polished up. My sense of things is that varnish is much easier to work with, over a broader range of conditions.I stick with the varnish manufacturer’s solvents, and avoid a lot of issues that way. Formulations have changed over the years, too, and I think a lot of products are better, now.

      Do you have repeat customers, or are most of your projects a one-time thing? Because boat vanish here has to be refreshed every 6-9 months, I have almost all repeat customers at this point. In fact, I’ve been with some of my customers over twenty years. It’s amazing, really.

      Your comment about making things like new reminded me of something else about the boats — furniture, too, maybe. Striving for perfection becomes an issue when a restoration is involved. Classic boat owner are like classic car owners in that respect. Many of their boats aren’t used; they’re shown. It’s worth taking the time and spending the money to bring them back to original condition, because they’re not going to be out doing boat-ish things, anyway.

      As I think about it, most of my customers don’t see their boats as status symbols. They use them, and enjoy them. There are days when I head to a boat to do some work, and find it gone. I don’t complain — it’s nice to see boats that don’t just sit at the dock.

      1. I think the difference is in how an object will be used. As you say, the majority of your efforts will be experiencing the forces of Nature. Conversely, mine will be indoors and seen more as objects of beauty…although like you I appreciate their being used. I think in both our cases we will see perfection or flaws in the process while our clients are looking at the final results in their totality and what we see as the little flaws they quite often don’t see at all…or at least the majority do not.
        Yesterday a customer asked me to look at a table in her parlor that needs some attention. It is a lovely mahogany piece easily 200 years old which requires a special touch not needed in newer pieces. I won’t get it in the shop for a few months but am looking forward to the work which needs to maintain as much of the original finish as possible.
        Varnish is much more forgiving in open time than lacquer which sets in minutes. Both will sag if applied too heavily and both will leave inconsistent sheen if applied too thinly. But you have much more inter-coat labor than I…and I spray while you brush.

        1. And in fact, the greatest compliment a brusher can receive is that the work looks “as if it has been sprayed.” The only spraying I’ve done is on louvered doors — or gratings. The thought of coating a few hundred square inch holes with a brush might lead a person to decline taking a job.

          I had to smile when I read this: “We will see perfection or flaws in the process while our clients are looking at the final results in their totality and what we see as the little flaws they quite often don’t see at all.” That’s so true — and even more of an issue for me now that I have my eyesight back!

  18. On the theme of talent unnurtured and unfulfilled, there’s a section in Thomas Gray’s “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard”:

    Full many a gem of purest ray serene,
    The dark unfathom’d caves of ocean bear:
    Full many a flow’r is born to blush unseen,
    And waste its sweetness on the desert air.
    Some village-Hampden, that with dauntless breast
    The little tyrant of his fields withstood;
    Some mute inglorious Milton here may rest,
    Some Cromwell guiltless of his country’s blood.

    1. Somewhere back in the first quarter of my life I must have had to read this given that I have a English minor. How much is wasted on youth! I am so glad you brought it back to me in this time, the last quarter of my life. How touching.

    2. There were two surprises in the page you linked. One was the role Horace Walpole played in Gray’s life and the publication of his poem. The other was the suggestion I found that T.S.Eliot’s “Four Quartets” (especially “Little Gidding”, with its emphasis on stillness) were influenced by Gray.

      The line about the flower “born to blush unseen” is interesting. It reminds me of my thoughts about the shy violet that chose to bloom unseen. Two poems, two views, but only one result: at least as far as the flowers are concerned.

  19. Some really great themes in this post. I was also especially intrigued by your note in one of the above posts that sometimes the privileged are lost in the art of storytelling. I also think that many of us aren’t ready to hear the stories that are told by these migrant workers etc. These two are probably related. Those who aren’t ready to hear stories that aren’t theirs are probably less able to tell stories that are theirs. Thanks for sharing your story, and giving us a glimpse of how your days unfold. I’m sure you hear some VERY interesting stories on the docks! I know I do.

    1. I not only hear stories on the docks, Allen, I’ve been the source of a few myself. The story of my falling into the water a year or so ago still is bandied about. That they installed some ladders after the incident is good. That some people call them the “Linda Leinen memorial ladders”? A little embarassing.

      I’m going to quote this back to you, just so you know how perfect and true it is: “Those who aren’t ready to hear stories that aren’t theirs are probably less able to tell stories that are theirs.” I still haven’t made it over to read your post from your trip, but I have to imagine that it helped to shape the wisdom in those words.

      1. Glad to know that this quotation rings true for you as well. I’m also happy to know that your mishap has righted a lack in the marina, but I think Linda Leinen Learning Ladders has a much nicer ring.

    1. There’s a lot of life to be lived every day, Becca — sometimes, it’s easy to let things pass unnoticed. I certainly miss a lot, myself. But when I do see something interesting or fun, I like to share it if I can.

      By the way: I saw some lovely willows yesterday. They weren’t the same species as your desert willow, but they made me think of yours.

  20. I remember stepping out into the cool of an eighty degree morning after working third shift at Minneapolis Electric Steel Casting Co. I would then drive to the U of M for my morning class – and with my ears still ringing with the thump of mega-ton machinery and the wail of sirens on every crane and fork truck – I would listen to a bored English professor drone on as he stared blankly out the window.

    I am not saying that academia lacks the drama of a steel foundry (though it is a hell of a lot safer) what I am saying is that life will reveal it’s riches where ever you look for them.

    1. In my experience, academia was fully as capable of producing drama as your foundry. It just wasn’t as productive.

      But I take your point, and agree. It can be tempting to believe that life is “back there” or “out there” or somewhere in the indeterminate future. In fact, it’s right here, right now. Finding it isn’t the problem. Engaging with it might be.

      Your mention of your third shift at the foundry reminded me of one of my favorite films — over thirty years old now! What’s not to like about a woman with dual jobs as a welder and exotic dancer, who wants to fulfill a dream?

  21. Wonderful piece — and it’s ALWAYS imperative to give a voice to such souls. (Steinbeck, I adore!) I know a few people who escaped the monotonous safety of office jobs to pursue their passions, despite the uncertainty and dangers. They’re happier for it. But for those with no choice… They’re always on my mind. Living in FLA for quite some time, and seeing the roofers with their boiling tar in the mid-day scalding heat: Truly unimaginable.

    1. Working at a monotonous or boring and unsatisfying job is necessary sometimes: especially in the service of a particular goal. And I have friends who love work I’m fairly certain would drive me right over the edge. But you’re right: having a choice about how we earn our living can make all the difference in the world.

      There’s another aspect to choice, of course. When I’m tempted to begin whining in the summer, I remind myself that I did, after all, choose to do what I’m doing. And I’m always aware that there are people around me who are grateful for any work. Sometimes, life isn’t easy.

  22. A very poignant post, Linda. There is so much prejudice when it comes to «normal» people or those who struggle to barely survive. Of course they are as much creative as the rest, have their stories as much as anybody else. If one doesn’t believe so, it’s like saying their lives have less value. And isn’t that an abomination?

    In addition I totally understand your attitude towards repetitive work such as varnishing. It has its own beauty.

    1. You’ve had wonderful opportunities to meet ordinary people from around the world, Otto, and to document the realities of their lives. It’s true: whether in a refugee camp, an isolated village, or a politically complicated island, people are people. The same holds true in our suburbs, or in the neighborhoods that people fear to enter.

      One of the things I enjoy about oral history projects (or visiting a nursing home, for that matter) is watching people bloom when someone pays attention them, asks questions, is interested in what they have to say. So many people think they have no story worth telling, but when encouraged, they begin to appreciate their own lives in ways they never imagined possible. They gain a sense of dignity, and worth.

  23. Linda, you so beautifully express a thought I’ve had more than once. We have plenty of traveling workers in Michigan at this season. Without them, I suspect I would have far fewer succulent black cherries to enjoy during that all-too brief time in July when they all pop at once. Just a couple of nights ago I saw a program about vineyards and the challenges workers have when the harvest is destroyed by environmental conditions and the work dries up as much as the fruit. They say that may happen to our Michigan wines as well. No great loss for the wine fan but a big loss to those who make their livings picking the grapes. Are their stories of seeing different places? The way they are treated?

    When I was a kid my mother took clothes to an ironing lady. One day she saw a very cute stuffed dog on the lady’s shelf and commented how much she liked it, thinking maybe she could find one like that for me come the next birthday. “Oh, that was Princess,” Mrs. Spinney said. It sort of horrified my mother and fascinated me (“You mean, I might be able to do that with Major” — our big old collie!). But there had to be a story to Princess, just as there is a story to Dixie Rose and another to Gypsy or Lizzie or Stimpy. And those are just the pet stories.

    I wonder what Ismael’s story is? Maybe some day you will find out.

    1. Jeanie, your thoughts on your crops, and the workers who pick them, reminded me of one of my favorite Woody Guthrie songs: “Pastures of Plenty.” I particularly like Tom Paxton’s version, but no matter the version, it’s a haunting song. We used to joke about children who didn’t know that milk comes from a cow. It’s no joke that, today, most of America has no idea where or how their food is being grown, or how it arrives at their table.

      I’d completely forgotten the “ironing ladies.” They were common during my growing up years, since taking in ironing was an acceptable way for a woman to bring in a little extra cash. I never ran across anyone as interesting as Mrs. Spinney and her Princess, though. I can’t even imagine….

      But you’re right to suggest that even our pets have their stories. The best ever are the ones I can tell about my squirrel. Cats and dogs have many virtues, but they’ll never provide stories to rival a squirrel’s!

  24. “In fact, the people who tend our lawns, build our roads, harvest our crops and roof our homes might have delightful stories to tell, if only they weren’t so exhausted, and by necessity focused on the basic requirements for life. ” stands out more than anything else from this post. Resonates, even.

    You’re an excellent communicator.

    1. I’m so pleased you stopped by, SciFi. And thank you for passing on the link to my blog on Twitter. It’s much appreciated.

      I’m glad you found something here that touched you, and even more pleased you took the time to say so. You’re always welcome here!

      ~ Linda

  25. Wisely written, and as always so interesting. Actually you all talk about life things… not far from all of us. I enjoy reading your stories, dear Linda. Thank you, by the way, once again Thank you for your lovely comment about my video. But I did wrong, I have to post to my video blog, so accidently your comment gone too dear, sorry for this. Magpies are amazing birds. Love, nia

    1. I so much enjoyed the video, Nia. I’m glad you told me you had moved it, so I could come back and put another comment there for you. I think the Magpies are delightful. Even when everything around them is chaos, they go on about their life. A good lesson, maybe. And their chattering is fun to listen to.

      Life is life — that’s true. I see them building on your hills, and I think of how I feel when I see the same things here. Maybe the new builders that have come will leave things neater. xoxo Linda

      1. You re so nice… when I read you, your words, your thoughts, I feel better… There is so much problem in my geography and really we need beautiful minds, people, and yes events… Thank you so much dear Linda, have a nice weekend, love, nia

  26. Interesting… never would I have expected what started with a manifesto of the varnishing gal would end with a bird in the shady tree metaphor. And Ismael? Just makes me think of Moby Dick. What a myriad of ideas and connections. And hey, do you know that people have been publishing their posts/essays compiling them in books on Amazon? Worth exploring.

    1. Speaking of birds in shady trees, or on shady balconies, I’ve managed to get some decent photos of the papa cardinal and the babies for you. I’ll send them along tomorrow with an email. I don’t have them sorted and processed yet, but I’ll get it done. I may have more time than I anticipate, if we get another full day of rain, like we did today. It was wonderful.

      Yes, the “Moby Dick” reference is obvious, and so clever. Honestly, there’s no telling what stories might be hidden in any crowd of people.

      Speaking of Amazon, did you happen to read the NY Times article about the business? I’d never thought of Jeff Bezos as a Tiger Mom, but by the time I finished reading, it seemed apt. Well, or perhaps Jeff Bezos as Simon Legree. How convenient for Mr. Bezos that he owns the “Washington Post,” which published the rebuttal article.

      1. I’ve heard about the commotion about Amazon with the NYT article. But my reading of NYT is rationed. I’m afraid I might have come to the end of my 10 articles for the month. :(

  27. Well, Linda, what a woman you truly are! You make me feel like a decadent old softie…..I loved this account of your work and all it teaches you. And the Ishmael story.

    The post and the comments called to mind the work I used to do in hotels when I was much younger. What characters hang out in those places! There was the night porter with the winter job – unpaid – as a spiritualist medium. And, most poignantly, the old, disregarded, worn-out guy who washed plates in one hotel I worked in. When I took the trouble to listen to his story, I discovered that he had been one of the “Red Clydesiders” – a working class dockyard workers’ offshoot of the rising Labour party in Scotland in the 1930s – and had known their famous leaders including the legendary figures Jimmy Maxton and John Maclean.

    He had also funded one of his nephews through medical school, in the time long before we children of the Sixties in the UK had our university education supported via fees paid and grants awarded.

    “Full many a flow’r is born to blush unseen,
    And waste its sweetness on the desert air…”


    1. Of all the words I’d chose for you, Anne, “decadent” and “soft” certainly don’t apply: not to you, who can ease back for a pedi while waiting to see if your block is going to blow up!

      It’s often a surprise to discover who’s around us in our workplaces.My personal favorite was an ex-English teacher who’d decided to become a maintenance man. He was given to quoting poetry — a lot of poetry — and when I finally asked him how he’d memorized so many verses, he confessed that he had a literature degree, and had been a teacher. He loved poetry, but not the increasing bureacracy associated with teaching, so he quit.

      I’d never heard of Maxton or Maclean, or of the “Red Clydesiders.” It’s a fascinating history, and now I know the origin of a phrase I often heard in the past: to be “read the riot act.” As a youngster, I always knew what it meant — at least in the sense that I knew I didn’t want anyone reading me the riot act — but I had no idea it was an actual act, or how it came to be.

      I’ve been thinking a good bit about Gray’s poem. It’s a bit of a philosophical question, whether unseen is necessarily wasted. I think I’m pretty sure how the selfie generation leans, but I tend to lean in the other direction.

  28. I am inclined to think that everyone sings a song, exhausted or not, but, like you, wonder if we are just not listening. And if people don’t have the energy to create a new song, many folk recreate an old one.

    I am thinking of my mother-in-law, who had 11 children. I didn’t know her well but I remember one day listening to her tell a story. It took me about 10 minutes to realise that she was actually telling an old story from the Bible but recounting it so vividly that it became her story, and happening in the here and now.

    In the same creative spirit, many of us tell stories as we prepare familiar old recipes eg my grandmother made these pancakes and she did this and that and we ate them on the verandah. One day when my grandma was busy……etc . As to how we collect these stories and make them known; that is the hard part. A NZ writer and historian, Glyn Harper, has just published a book about the NZ soldiers of WW1. Much of the material for Johnny Enzed came from the soldiers diaries and letters. Harper says “They were remarkable letter writers and diary keepers so I was spoilt for choice.” The soldiers were tired and exhausted but they created their stories which would have remained unknown if it were not the efforts of scholars like Glyn Harper.

    1. What you say about our ability to make old stories, our stories, is so true, and important. Families do it around the dinner table. Faith communities do it in worship and traditional celebrations. One of the things that so distresses me about the demand that whole chapters of American history be “cleansed” is that the statue-topplers and symbol excisers are editing our nation’s story to fit their biases, rather than trying to understand how each chapter fits into the entire narrative. So it goes.

      You mention of Harper’s book reminds me that this coming Thursday, our local historical society is focusing on letter-writing at their monthly meeting. The woman making the presentation argues that, convenient as email might be, it’s leaving great gaps in the historical record that will make it increasingly difficult for historians of the future to understand us and our time. Before scholars can explore an historical record, the record has to exist.

      1. When I first started to send emails I diligently copied every one of them onto paper. Gone are those days, so, yes, we are making life difficult for future historians. Did you get to the meeting?

        1. I did the same thing, and so did many of my friends. It was as if we expected those emails to disappear in a flash. And, in fact, they may, one day. But we don’t worry about it any more.

          The meeting’s tonight, but I won’t be going. Now that the weather’s cooled just a bit, I need to make up the hours of work I lost while it was so unbearably hot — most of my meeting-going takes place in the months when the days are shorter, and darkness puts an end to the work day rather than the clock.

  29. Great post, as usual. Creativity and even genius are likely spread out evenly among the people of the world, yet only those who have the luxury of leisure and basic education can fully express it (at least in a way that can be preserved for the benefit of the rest of us). I read recently that a person’s chance of living in extreme poverty was about 90% two hundred years ago and is less than 20% today (I can’t recall the exact numbers). As we become a more just society, there are more opportunities for those hidden birds, and fewer of them are permanently trapped in silence. Perhaps that is one reason for the accelerating progress of the world.

    Our community is considering allowing an “integrated poultry processing complex” to be built here. In other words, a chicken factory where desperately poor people (almost all of whom will be immigrants) can get low-paying jobs standing in the cold and deboning chickens all day.

    It saddens me to imagine our community being defined in some ways by a horrible place like that. But I also wonder about the poor Mexican women who tend to work the processing lines, and who might now have health insurance for their children for the first time–children who will now have the opportunity for a public education. Might her silent labor create the chance for her children to sing in ways that she never could?

    Much to think about. I remember my Grandfather, who had to quit school after the third grade to become the head of his household after his elderly father went blind. He saved the family farm during the Depression and worked hard every day of his life until old age and death finally stopped him. He wrote no poems, novels or even blog posts. He was barely literate. But he sang old songs in the field that I still remember. There were probably gifts that lay unused in his soul, but his life spoke as beautifully as that of any brooding self-pitying intellectual, scribbling poems in a bedroom while living off the wealth of a robber-baron father.

    For now we just all do our part and I believe we collectively climb the ladder that will lead to a time when no one is trapped any more. I dream of a world when all of humanity will have the opportunity to self-actualize. I choose to believe that day is coming.

    Thanks for the great post Linda.

    1. I know you understand this, but still, I can’t help noting that not every intellectual is brooding or self-pitying, and not every person of means (or even of great wealth) is necessarily a robber-baron. And I’ve known more than a few people of great intellect and means who have insisted on remaining trapped in imagined victimhood, so there’s that. As for Utopia? It’s a great Texas town, but a goal for humanity? I have my doubts.

      In any event, your points are well taken, and you’re exactly right that the desires of the Mexican mother for her children are little different from the desires of my grandparents for their children, or the desires of my own parents for me. Just as your grandfather worked to save the farm, my own grandfather may have saved his sons by refusing to let them work the coal mines. Whatever the circumstances, people find ways to do what they can do to progress, both individually and as communities.

      I love that you remember your grandfather’s songs. There’s something about songs: one can embed itself so deeply in memory it carries the whole of an experience with it. I’m sure you’ve found that even the opening chords of certain songs takes you back in time, almost instantaneously. It’s an amazing experience, and one everyone should have. That’s why we need to keep singing, and encourage others to sing, too.

      1. You’re right. I do understand that.

        I prefer to think of my hope for humanity not as utopia, but rather as “the age to come.” The time when everyone will sit under their own vine and their own fig tree, and no one will make them afraid. :)

  30. I get the summer heat thing. I move to poetry in the summer instead of working on my longer projects. While getting the right feeling into a short poem is hard work, it’s the right size project for a couple of warm evenings when I have a few minutes to sit and reflect on what moved me during the day.

    1. I suppose when you get right down to it, we could call is the writer’s version of seasonal work. I read differently in the summer than in the winter, too. It’s an interesting phenomenon — but I’m glad to know I’m not alone!

  31. Linda, you really must stop writing these provoking posts. So much to think about and then delve into. As your post has suggested, if folks that must work so hard and for so little had some peace and quiet then they too would have a lot to tell or to write about. Those of us who have not walked in down trodden shoes have no idea what treasures lie within inner most thoughts. With a little education and some tools to make art or to write, there would be scads of talent unleashed and to be enjoyed by the masses.

    I love the name Ishmael. My brother-in-laws name was Ishmael and he was simply known as Ish, a long time city fireman.

    1. Now that you mention your brother-in-law, you’ve reminded me that I once knew someone who was known as Ish. The only problem is, I have no idea whether it was a person, a fictional character, or someone’s pet. Ah, well.

      After I wrote this, someone commented to me that there”aren’t that many Leonardos or Beethovens around.” That’s not the point at all. Genius is one thing, but the joys of creativity can — and should — belong to everyone. Not everyone can write “Hamlet,” but anyone can write a poem.

      Even in daily life, there are opportunities for creativity. I’m sure the women of my mother’s generation put so much effort into their entertaining and needlecrafts precisely because they were creative outlets. We look back at those tiny cheese biscuits and fancy tea sandwiches and think they weren’t worth the time. But they could be things of beauty, just like the lace-trimmed pillowcases and bedsheets, or the wonderful, hand pieced quilts.

      We nurture creativity in children — or at least, we used to. Maybe we should spend a little more time nurturing it in ourselves, and in the “big people” around us.

      1. All so true, Linda. I need to get myself in gear and try and I stress TRY, to begin writing(creating) the story of my son’s dog, Lady, again. I have a problem with the fact the my writing is not good enough but I suppose some effort is better than nothing at all. :-)

  32. When you talk about assumptions, especially on assuming anyone would have nothing to write about…its just so poignantly unfair to think such a thing.

    I can remember one of the things that surprised me when I visited Egypt. Our tour guide who had a special personal relationship with the people and the country before our journey had said to bring pens for gifts. As we travelled I came to understand that there was a great shortage of paper to write on (TP too) and pens with which to write. One stop we made the guy taking our tickets wouldn’t take mine at first as he wanted a pen. I didn’t have one on me, but I felt so stricken and it was one time when the bus wasn’t parked so far, so even when he said ok, I still ran back to gather up some pens.

    Now truly, can you even imagine what it would be like to have thoughts and want to write them down and have nothing to do it with! Assume nothing about what is in another human’s dreams, creativity is both an undeniably strong impulse and as fragile as a dream trace at the same time. Oh, I can’t imagine a teacher making assumptions about the human spirit like that!

    In one village we stopped at, family of our driver if I remember correctly, a young girl was showing us some graphic art she was doing on paper. it was wonderful. She needed to be encouraged so when our tour guide suggested gifts, I bought nice art paper and art pencils for her to give to that young lady.

    1. So many people who leave to go cruising take t-shirts, rolled up tightly and stuffed into every unused corner of the boat. Like pens, they’re small, light, and desirable — perfect gifts for people who are just like us in loving to be remembered.

      I must say, pens are a wonderful thought, and one I’ll keep on my mental list of good things to remember. I’ve been sitting here thinking of the mugs, cups, boxes and such filled with pens in the businesses I go into. So often, when we think of our riches, we think of the big things. Sometimes, we don’t even see the blessings we have.

      Long before pencils and pens, of course, our ancestors were painting and carving on the cave walls. The urge to record, to remember, to create, is deeply human. Here’s a sudden thought: perhaps my own negative feelings about technology — and the feelings of many others — are less about the technology itself, than about the passivity it engenders. Sitting in front of the tv, playing video games, conversing through texts or tweets, can be active, but there’s a lot of passivity, too. Using our technology to create is one thing. Becoming a passive consumer is another.

      1. A movie I watched just yesterday on Netflix called Words and Pictures on exactly this topic.

        We are truly bombarded with imagery which while mind-blowingly amazing leaves nothing to the imagination! I can remember traveling out west in transit to our next army base and writing long letters back to friends trying to describe vertical rock formations rising out of vast flatness. I spent a lot of time trying to put experience into meaningful words from things seen and things recorded with senses of smell and touch. Why would you struggle to search for the right words if you can just watch a video on Arches National Park or the Painted Desert?

        However, for the ones who must write, whose being can only be fulfilled by writing, or the painter who lives to paint….that cannot be stopped. It is just the awakening for some which gets stunted by the easy stimulus.

        It is interesting how you do adjust to the tools though. I can remember when I could not concentrate of anything creative without a pencil and paper. Then a typewriter. Then finally I find I can compose with a computer keyboard. There is a certain psychological romance to the tools.

        1. It’s not just the romance of tools, but the ability to pair the best tool with the task. Many, many people counsel writing by hand, or transcribing material by hand into journals, but writing by hand is such a chore for me, only the effort remains, and none of the creativity. With a computer keyboard (or a typewriter, should the great EMP come — I need to get one of those fully manual ones!)
          I can both keep up with my thoughts, and avoid that arthritic kinks that come along after too much writing by hand.

          I suspect all of the arts have parallels. The difference between snapping a photo with a so-called smart phone and a real camera comes to mind. There’s nothing wrong with an iPhone photo, or instagram for processing, but it’s just different than setting out with that wonderful combination of tool, experience, and knowledge, and making those artistic decisions on your own.

          1. I am completely with you on the keyboard now. I would be hard pressed to survive if I had to sit in a college lecture hall and handwrite reams of notes at this stage. I gratefully abandoned hand writing most things. Though I do try and remain an advocate of the handwritten letter or greeting card. I have many old handwritten letters I treasure, but nary an e-mail print out of one. Did you know that Countess Tolstoy hand transcribed her husbands notes, scratch out and rewrites of War and Peace of the whole book 7 times? Every day he wrote and at night she transcribed. My hand hurts just thinking about it. And them with 14 kids!! Goodness!!

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