Let Us Now Praise Working Fools

In the beginning, I learned to call it “helping.” Helping wasn’t a burden, a demand, or an imposition. Helping was something people did naturally, and being allowed to help around the house was considered a perfectly acceptable way for children to enter the mysterious world of grown-ups.

Trailing behind my mother with a dust cloth, or venturing into the yard to carry bundles of sticks for my father garnered smiles of approval. I enjoyed approval, and so I looked for opportunities: cutting flowers to make the house pretty, or picking up my toys. I collected windfall apples in a bucket; pulled low-hanging cherries from trees;  set the table and dried the silverware; folded the wash cloths; put newspapers in their box.

When a vacationing neighbor called home, worried about her thirsty geraniums, I borrowed a bucket and carried water to her flowers, thinking it great fun.

Over time, I learned another word for helping: “work.”  People worked on cars, and worked around the house. Painting was work: so was putting screens on windows, or vegetable canning.

Slowly, I began to understand the complexity of work, and to 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 people who worried over lack of work.

Still, working and helping remained so intertwined that the phrase “Daddy’s gone to work” seemed wonderful to me. Even adults chatting across fences or on the porches of our neighborhood could offer no higher praise 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 work from pleasure: minimizing its importance and reducing it to the sort of burden only a fool would endure.

Given our increasing ambivalence toward work, a Smithsonian traveling exhibit, sponsored by its Museum on Main Street and titled The Way We Worked, is especially delightful.

Initially, their use of the past tense amused me. 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, and far from 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 work force and work environments over the past 150 years. The exhibition draws from the Archives’ rich collections to tell this compelling story.

Equally interesting are 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, 2013, at the Blue Rapids Museum.

The exhibit featured 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. Describing the scope of the project, Parker said:
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 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 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.

By the time I 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. Of equal interest were Tom’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… 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.

This Labor Day, Tom still is working: processing photographs from yesterday’s “Orchestra on the Oregon Trail” event near Marysville, Kansas. “It seems there’s no end to it,” he once said. Then, he grinned, and added, “But isn’t that just the point?”

Originally posted in 2013, the entry has been revised and updated. Comments always are welcome.

91 thoughts on “Let Us Now Praise Working Fools

  1. Awesome way to celebrate Labor Day. Enjoyed the pictures of you growing up. thanks for sharing. 90% of the time, I still love what I do.Have begun to say no to some jobs that I would have reluctantly done in the past. I am one of the fortunate people who discovered a career path that resonated with my natural bent. Well, speaking of coffee, I need to get my first cup. think the coffee pot is about ready. DM

    1. I can’t imagine that anyone loves (or even likes) what they do one hundred percent of the time. Ninety percent sounds good to me. Right now I’m running at about 70 percent, but as soon as the temperatures drop ten degrees, I’ll be much happier.

      It can be hard to turn down work, but learning to do that is important, too. Besides, the reason we turn down work is that we’re booked up. There’s nothing bad about that.

      Being able to change the work we do is a blessing, too. Just hanging on in a bad environment for the sake of the pension — just putting in time, as they say — was terrible for my dad. He still loved his work, but conditions changed. We all were glad when he retired.

      I hope your day was a good one. I suspect it was a family day — I hope so!

  2. Thanks for the great article on this Labor Day, Linda. This working fool appreciates it. Hope to see the Smithsonian exhibit and especially love the local affiliations such as that with Tom Parker that capture the present day workers. It’s something that seems so innocuous but will no doubt become more and more evidently valuable with the passing of time, as did the work of Hines and Lange and all of the earlier social documenters.

    1. I think you’re right, Gary, that the record we make now will be more valuable in future years than we can imagine.. It’s always hard to see that big picture when it’s still being created — you know a little about that!

      What we think is true about our society, and our way of working, may be true: or perhaps not. On the other hand, we may be moving toward something even better than we can imagine now. Wouldn’t that be a wonderful thing?

      In honor of the day, here’s a quotation from Flaubert that might be of use to you some day: “Be steady and well-ordered in your life so that you can be fierce and original in your work.” Amen to that.

      1. “…What we think is true about our society, and our way of working, may be true: or perhaps not. On the other hand, we may be moving toward something even better than we can imagine now…”

        That is so true, We know and trust the past but the future remains a stranger. We don’t know this stranger yet we imagine its worst aspects and fear it. But every age is both the best and worst of times, as Dickens so fittingly put it, and while there will be aspects of the future that will be foreign and possibly repugnant to us, there will no doubt be wonders that we cannot even imagine.

        I try to keep that in mind.

        Love the Flaubert quote. Thanks you, Linda!

  3. Another rich, evocative post. I would love to see the traveling Smithsonian exhibit, and I am fascianated by the Kansas project, because I have mused many times about the lives and careers of the people living in my town in houses I’ve never entered and whose paths I’ve yet to cross. Thank you once again, Linda, for connecting us all.

    1. In a very real sense, the Smithsonian exhibit is doing for us what Solomon Butcher did for our forebears: offering up not just a photograph of individuals and families, but a portrait of a whole society, in a moment in time.

      One of the things I loved about Tom’s project was that it so clearly showed a world where, despite all the so-called radical changes we like to rant and rave about, some things haven’t changed at all. And where there has been change, there have been equal parts innovation and adaptation. Things aren’t all bad.

      We need to stop and look at one another from time to time. We are connected. The only question is whether we’ll recognize the fact.

  4. What a great piece to read on Labor Day. I thoroughly enjoyed the work and words of Tom Parker (and you, of course). I love that some of his photos captured the changing idea of what is woman’s work and what is not in the photo of the guy vacuuming. Growing up, that’s a sight I never would have seen.

    I have similar memories of helping my mom and dad around the house as I grew up. Thanks for helping me bring those memories to the surface.

    1. I was luckier than I realized as I was growing up. I’ve heard the stories of my dad hanging out my diapers on the clothesline (yes, cloth! not disposable!) and he was sure I knew how to change oil, change a tire and gap sparkplugs before I was allowed to drive. I do think Dad was more liberated than Mom was. I only wish he’d lived long enough for me to ask him all the questions I have now.

      I think part of the reason people enjoy getting together and telling stories on holidays is precisely that — it refreshes our memory, both individually and collectively. It’s a real gift. I hope your day was a good one, and likewise your memories.

  5. Work is one of the essentials of our humanity. We need it to feel affirmed in who we are. It comes in a multitude of ways. it is a way we occupy our minds and bodies.

    About two weeks ago I read an insightful column by Robert Reich about work insecurity today. He noted the growing trend away from the security of a decent paying job. More and more people are facing lives with no reliable steady work. Many have to find multiple jobs to make ends meet. Employers increasingly see workers as expendable, not valuable contributors.

    This isn’t good for people or economies.

    1. I watched that connection between work and worth erode in my mother’s life as she aged and became more limited physically. Tasks like changing bed linens and scrubbing floors became more difficult, and it bothered her tremendously. Finding work she could do that wasn’t just “make-work” was a challenge.

      After she joined a knitting group that made blankets and hats for premies in the hospitals, a fall damaged one hand, and things got dicey. When the hand surgeon asked what her goal was for recovery, she said, “I want to knit again.” And she did. It surprised the doctor, that’s for sure, but having that work to occupy her mind and body was important.

      I often disagree with Reich, and I can be put off by terms like “work insecurity,” but there’s no question that individual effort needs to be accompanied by rational public policy for the sort of economic morass we’re facing to (begin to) be resolved. A willingness to work multiple jobs when necessary is one thing; I’ve done it myself. But being forced into multiple, low-paying jobs and being told it’s just the way it is, is something else.

      Still, today’s a day to celebrate working people: especially the ones who gave us the skills and desire to support ourselves. That’s a great gift, to any generation.

  6. “Go big or go home.”

    Over the last few days, I have read a number of tributes to labor. The worst of them are social realism knock-offs, the best of them follow the path you used into this essay.

    I have an idea for next year, let’s all write a Labor Day essay on the same theme. I propose “The Accounts Receivable Clerk.”

    1. I think that’s a splendid idea for next year. If we could broaden the topic just a bit, I have a bank clerk I’d like to include: one who toiled not just in the basement of Lloyd’s Bank, but in the sub-sub-basement. That would be T.S. Eliot, of course.

      I don’t know precisely what Eliot did for all those years, but I’d be willing to find out. I wonder if he wore a bowler hat. I don’t think they’d have let him roll his trousers.

      Thanks for the kind words. I hope you were able to keep your labor light, today.

  7. One of your best posts ever, Linda. I loved how you interspersed your childhood photos into the piece. Parker has completed a magnificent project. Thank you for sharing it.

    1. Thanks, Rosemary. I enjoy remembering my childhood from time to time, and when the connection seems natural, I enjoy sharing it.

      There were times when I thought Tom’s project was going to be the death of him, but it wasn’t. Since then, he’s had some physical problems that made even carrying his gear problematic, but those are resolving, and it thrills me to see him going on to new projects. He and his wife Lori are delightful people, and one of my favorite ties to Kansas.

  8. Happy Labor Day! And what a way to celebrate the “workin’ fools”. What wonderful memories and delightful photos of you as a wee worker, or helper. A clever way to instill good working habits–don’t call it working. I couldn’t wait to actually go to work and earn money. I jumped the gun at 15 without a work permit. It didn’t seem dishonest at the time.
    This is a wonderful ongoing project.

    1. Happy Labor Day to you, Kayti. We’re almost past the holiday, but no matter. We can celebrate work tomorrow, too, or even the next day.

      My folks had Tom Sawyer’s whitewashing trick down to a fine art. Still, it was fine by me. I had some chores to do just because everyone was expected to contribute, but I had others that provided nickels and dimes — and I had a bicycle, to get me down to the gas station with the penny candy counter. Life was good.

      Babysitting was my first “real” work. I still remember that fifty cents an hour. Big money! In high school, I worked at a music store, but I can’t remember exactly when that was. If we were supposed to be sixteen, it was late in my school career, because I was just 17 when I graduated. Things were a little looser then, of course, and since everyone agreed that kids working was good — well, it was easier to pull off.

      The project is wonderful. People are used to rolling their eyes, heaving a sigh, and saying, “Your tax dollars at work…” In this case, I’m pretty happy to have those dollars working, too.

  9. This is excellent, Linda. I try not to say that every time or it doesn’t sound genuine, but I really do enjoy your writing or, more to the point, I really enjoy your thinking which is the basis for your words.

    I drive through farm country here a lot, as do you there, and I am always impressed with the stone walls. One or two hundred years ago, there wasn’t anyone to call for a truckload of rocks to build a wall. People “harvested” them from the earth as it heaved them out of the ground or as a result of removing them while plowing fields. Then they loaded and hauled them to the places that needed walls or foundations built. The sheer amount of work folks used to do is hard to imagine now. Of course, hand-in-hand with that was a lower life expectancy both from the hard work and questionable nutrition and food quality although ours can be just as questionable today. Throughout history folks have worked much harder than the majority of people today. Whether for the better is debatable. Definitely better though than a life spent in front of an Xbox or glued to an iPhone.

    I had a different start to my working life. I didn’t begin voluntarily, but both folks worked. My brother and I got our allowances based on how well we did our housekeeping chores while my mother was at work. There was a maximum we could get based on chore grading. We could only get less. We learned how to iron, sweep, dust, fold the laundry etc. I had a paper route, sold Christmas cards door to door and, when old enough, worked first in my family’s deli and then supermarkets. In college a gas station and landscaping. I am a proud working fool. I am also a tired working fool, having reduced my days to four, and look forward to 2018 June when the mortgage will be paid off. No condo for us. We’ll still do our yard work happily. More hiking and photographing though.

    1. I’m glad you enjoyed the piece, Steve. I’m especially tickled that you mentioned thinking. Years ago, when I was asked to hand out some cheap advice on how to put together a blog entry, thinking was part of my recipe. I still try to do some, now and then.

      When I was in Kansas, I watched people repairing a rock wall. Even though they’d brought in a small front loader to help move rock from here to there, it was no easy job. During my formative years, mining and farming were the physically demanding jobs I encountered most, but even the factory work wasn’t easy. There’s something about physical labor that’s satisfying in a way paper-pushing isn’t. I think part of it’s that when you push against the physical world, it pushes back, and seems real in a way cyber-tasks don’t.

      I suppose people did work harder years ago, partly because the necessities of life demanded more labor: true ice boxes required getting ice, coal furnaces or wood stoves required shoveling or tending, putting up the garden’s yield took time, laundry wasn’t just thrown in a machine. When I visited my grandparents in the summer, it seemed like we always had work to do. And yet, it also seemed as though there was plenty of time to sit on the porch and “visit,” as we called it.

      A family business demands a lot, even of the kids who are left at home, as you were. On the other hand, I’m sure you learned a lot, and a lot more than just ironing and sweeping. Responsibility, independence, and all that.

      Easing into retirement’s not a bad way to go. I laughingly call eight hour days and no weekend work “semi-retirement,” but it is quite different than when I was building the business, and sixty hour weeks were common. No more of that, for sure!

  10. What a project and what a treasure. The comments about pictures being “iconic” certainly ring true. The more people change, the more they stay the same-ish. Nothing cooler than seeing pictures of an era (NARA is always fascinating). Hope the current times are captured well enough to show all the aspects of life.
    Lovely holiday post!

    1. It is interesting to ponder what people a century down the road will think of our time. To listen to some, it will be robots who will be looking back at us, but I really don’t believe that. At least, I hope the robots don’t take over. I’ve known a few robotic sorts in my time, and they weren’t particularly charming.

      In any event, it occurred to me today how hard it is to spot the beginning or end of an era. We may think we know what’s happening, but t’aint necessarily so. A lot of change bubbles along beneath the suface. Then, when it springs up, people say, “Where did that come from?”

      It’s like watching your lovely lawn suddenly filled with mushrooms — or seeing Santorini West spring up at the edge of Trinity Bay. It’s just slightly amusing that, if it weren’t for Google earth and street view, I don’t believe there would be a single photo of that place on the interwebz — and I think I know why. Yet another reason to stick with a real camera instead of an iGadget.

  11. It’s remarkable to me that you are able to give this holiday a fresh take. Nice going!

    Of course you remind me of my recent foray into Dostoevsky and his observation that “It occurred to me once that if they wanted to crush, to annihilate a man totally, to punish him with the most terrible punishment, so that the most dreadful murderer would shudder at this punishment and be frightened of it beforehand, they would only need to give the labor a character of complete, total uselessness and meaninglessness.”

    And you remind me too of the photographer August Sander and his unforgettable photographs of working people, whose book, The Face of Our Time, was banned: “In 1936 the Nazis confiscated all the publisher’s copies of Antlitz der Zeit; the printing plates were destroyed and the book was officially banned because the subjects did not adhere to the ideal Aryan type.” http://www.utata.org/sundaysalon/august-sander/

      1. Your mention of Sisyphus reminds me that it might be time to bring back my post that explains the origin of my blog title: a poem containing the phrase “the Sisyphean poet.”

    1. Sander sounds a good bit like Tom. I was struck by Fallis’s comment that, “All it would take was film and time, and he was prepared to give it.” The medium differed slightly with “The Way We Worked,” but the effort expended over time certainly didn’t. Thanks for linking the article. I enjoyed reading it, tucked it into my files, and passed it on to Tom.

      It’s been my observation that many who can’t explain what they mean by meaningful work, still want it. I’ve had a bit of experience as a clock-watcher in an office, and hope never to end up there again. It wasn’t Dostoevskian, by any stretch, but it was enough of a taste that I can appreciate his words.

      I can’t help drawing a parallel or two between the banning of “The Face of Our Time” by the Nazis and the banning of “Into the River” in New Zealand after complaints from a group of Christians. Not adhering to type can take a multitude of forms, it seems.

        1. Thanks for that link. It’s been interesting to read some of the discussion — both there and here — among teachers, particularly. It’s going to be interesting to see how things are resolved.

  12. Still a great story and inspires me onward to an idea that’s been brewing in the recesses of my brain for several years now; well, especially since the last sets of storms in 2008 and a year after this blog was started. On another note, the earth has shifted. Did you feel it? We’re headed out of the dog days of summer, I hope, into Indian summer, and then into fall. Looking forward to it . . . .

    1. The good stories always bear repeating. Just think of the books you’ve read more than once, Wendy. I’ll bet there are several — or even a lot.

      I’m glad to hear that you’ve got something stirring. Funny you should mention the storms. Today’s the anniversary of the 1900 storm, and I know that you know next weekend is the anniversary of Ike.I went over to Bolivar and Oak Island on Sunday, to have a look around and catch up with some people. As always, there were hurricane stories. It’s never far away.

      You’re right about the season taking a turn. I heard over the weekend that the hummingbirds are just north of Texas. If the front they’re promising doesn’t stall, they may ride it down. The osprey are coming back, too.

      Oh! — at the wildlife refuge, there were American lotus and water lilies galore, although the lotus are well past their prime. I was completely confused at first, because I thought I was hearing coots. But no — they were juvenile Gallinules. When the first coot shows up, we’ll know that autumn is well and truly here.

      1. The lotus pods brown yet? Which refuge? Ah, those tricky Gallinules! My early-morning entertainment this week has been watching the hummers and listening to their tiny squeaks!

        1. And speaking of books worth re-reading. Last weekend I read “Follow the River” about a young woman kidnapped by Shawnee and her escape over treacherous terrain based on historical documentation. Truly unbelievable.

          1. I recently read a piece by John McPhee that was filled with affirmation, because so much of what he said I already do, or try to do. When I was reading about “Follow the River,” I remembered this, from the article: “Creative nonfiction is not making something up but making the most of what you have.” It couldn’t be said more clearly, or succinctly.

    1. Thanks, Becca. I’m glad you enjoyed it. It was fun remembering some of my younger days, and it seemed a good time to introduce newer readers to Tom’s work. There are good things happening in the world, as well as bad, and the good doesn’t always get the press it deserves — as you know.

      A happy week to you, too!

      1. You are so right — we do not get enough “good news” reported and shared! It certainly would lift the spirits of the world! Your blog is one of the bright spots of good news and information! :D <3

  13. What a wonderful and clever post for the Labor day!! God Bless all the working fools.

    Funny thing, when I was young, my goal was to avoid manual labor at all means, perhaps due to the fact that I had to do so much of it when I just wanted to read. With age, I crave the labor more and more, feeling the need in the bones themselves to get out there and get to work!

    In my non-manual non-body work I enjoy only 10% of it, a far call from 90% that some claim. . . Mainly, in agreement with Dostoevsky ‘s quote above, because any usefulness or meaning has been for the most part, taken away from it.
    Thank you for sharing these thoughts and photos.

    1. One of the best things about your appreciation of the world, and your desire to be in it so fully, is that your children will gain the same appreciation. When I saw that “hand-painted” horse, I wanted to be one of your kids!

      I’m not sure if I said this before, but I certainly thought it — chidlren’s play is their work, and even though it’s not productive in the sense that farming or coding or retail sales might be, it’s important, and formative.

      It’s hard, to be in a situation where the work we do seems purposeless. I was privvy to a conversation recently where medical professionals were talking about the new coding regulations that are taking effect — I think in October. They were frustrated, because the coding and bureaucratic demands were taking ever more time away from patient care. As has happened with so many segments of our society, we’ve allowed the bureaucrats to get their feet in the door, and they’re not exactly improving things.

      Yet another reason to approach education as you are!

      1. Thank you, Linda. Sometimes I want to be my kids too! :)
        Oh, yes, ICD-10 regulations on coding. I work for the company that does money recovery for hospitals. We have dedicated people (and coders) who spend most of their time on those regulations. . . It blows my mind with sadness how much bureaucracy there is on top of bureaucracy. There seem to be seventeen layers in every simple step. Then you wonder why healthcare is so expensive, every layer takes his own cut. Long gone days where a small village doctor came to your house, checked you out, and took some of your moms eggs as a payment…. I had been watching with horror over the last 2 years as every day more and more hospitals either went under or got bought out by large conglomerates. It is sickening, yes, pun intended.
        I chose to give births with midwives, not doctors. First one was in a hospital, and midwife was very frustrated because her hands were basically tied with endless regulations of the hospitals. She did not follow many of them… A year later, she and her group were no longer at the hospital. Second one was a home birth, and best decision in my life ever, we all followed what baby and mama needed and not what the hospital needed. . .

        1. I’ve begun following a physician whose blogs alternately intrigue and horrify. Sometimes, they make my blood run cold. But, to truly understand what’s happening in our medical system, we need to pay attention to the people who are working in that system: not just the politicians who are seeking votes by telling blocks of people what they want to hear.

          Given what you’ve said, I think this post would be interesting to you. I have a feeling it will be more familiar to you than it was to me, but it certainly is informative.

          Whether we’re dealing with birth or death — or whatever comes between those two events — keeping the needs of the person at heart is difficult in the hospital setting. Hospitals used to be seen as places of healing, and of course they still are. On the other hand, the number of people who swear they never would willingly enter a hospital is increasing: perhaps exponentially.

  14. Great post for Labor Day weekend, Linda! Funny how “helping” as a child naturally segued into “working” as an adult, though I’m not at all sure today’s youngsters appreciate that. Are they more astute than we were, do you think, or are today’s parents more likely to call work work??

    Loved the photos of Little Linda — you were a cutie, and I can tell you had an enjoyable childhood. It didn’t hurt us one bit to be expected to help/work!

    Mr. Parker’s project was so expansive — what a blessing someone of his talent undertook it!

    1. As I recall, Debbie, the town as a whole made the decision to have Tom document their work. I know the townspeople were deeply involved in the process, and I suspect that’s part of what made it difficult for him now and then. He didn’t want to let them down.

      Whatever they call it, I think the most important thing is for children to see their parents working. Too many kids today grow up with the idea that not-working is perfectly acceptable. Of course, too many kids grow up with only one parent, or none. That doesn’t help. On the other hand, a couple of overly-protective helicopter parents may not be any better. My mother sometimes could tend toward over-involvement, and to this day I swear the constant refrain of my childhood had to be, “Mother! I want to do it myself!”

  15. Dignity in work is all, satisfaction and contentment are almost guaranteed when that is present.

    Working for money is necessary, but comes a poor second to the joy of a job well done.

    Even in retirement that is true.

    1. And only someone with a lifetime of experiences behind her could say so much, so succinctly. Your observations are true, Friko — although even dignified, competent, and utterly satisfactory work can leave us exhausted.

      I do hope you’re recovering well from your mossy slide. My great lesson for the day was never to assume that wasps, once gone, won’t return. In the process of watering my ficus tree, I bumped a nest I didn’t know was there, and got five paper wasp stings for my trouble. The good news is that now I know I’m not highly sensitive to them. The swelling is almost gone, and I’ve had no itching or pain. A few more lessons like that, and I’d be ready to sign on as your gardener!

  16. Here’s a question that your post raised in me, and I wonder if anyone has ever worked at answering it: in countries that celebrate Labor Day, do more women go into labor on that day than would be expected by chance?

    1. Now, that’s a question to ponder. I suspect someone has done the research, because a quick scan of sites with birth statistics shows that they’ve explored a plethora of other topics: serious and otherwise.

      What I do suspect is that hurricanes and births are correlated. Whether it’s the lowering barometric pressure, stress, or some other factor, I can’t say, but I’ve known several women who began labor unexpectedly when a storm showed up. Since September is a prime hurricane month, maybe that ups the odds for a Labor Day birth, too.

      1. That’s a good find. I noticed that every day in September is in the top 125 on the list. The popularity of September for births implies the popularity of December for conception. With the cold of winter in the Northern Hemisphere already making itself felt by December, it seems people find pleasant ways of warming up. The Christmas holidays may provide extra opportunities for presence and follow-up presents.

        1. In NZ the 10 most common birthdays all appear in the 13-day period from 22 September to 4 October, so the holiday season is a factor again. In NZ this means that babies are born in spring time, which is what the rest of nature does. Supposedly spring babies are healthier and stronger. Now the question should be, how many of those Dec pregnancies, North and South, were planned!

  17. What a perfect post for Labor Day! I enjoyed seeing the pictures of you and your father. You were adorable! . . .and I also enjoyed learning about The Way We Worked, etc.

    1. I was a pretty cute kid. On the other hand, my mother occasionally reminded me about the little girl with the little curl, right in the middle of her forehead. Apparently I was very good most of the time, but was equally capable of being horrid. I remember none of that, of course.

      By the way: it occurred to me last night that I loved root beer floats, and floats made with vanilla ice cream and orange soda. I’d better rethink my opinion of grape juice and whipped cream!

    1. You’re welcome, Shimon. I’m not one of those who has piles and piles of photos, much to my regret. But the ones I have mostly concern daily life, and I’m glad for that. Even one photo can trigger a hundred memories.

  18. As always, fascinating. What a remarkable project. I can see why it would fascinate you. I think of work as separate (though not mutually exclusive for the word “Job.” A job sounds troublesome, less pleasant. Work can be “life’s work” and that is exciting, filled with meaning. (Or work can be a job.) Sometimes “Work” (the good) turns into “job” (the necessary but not fun.) Which may account for why my house tends to get out of hand. Now tidying is such a JOB! When I was a kid, work was more like helping!

    I loved your photos. They are so special and you’re so darned cute! I’m not sure there are a lot of photos of me working! I’ll have to look for some. Lots of me reading, though!

    Speaking of that, I assume you have read Studs Turkel’s wonderful “Working.” Talk about those who have a calling. But I’ve always loved his work.

    1. When you commented that a job sounds troublesome, and less pleasant, I had a sudden thought: poor Job of the Bible was troubled with unpleasantness, too. There’s no etymological connection between Job and jobs, but there’s no question that many people feel their jobs are equivalent to Job’s troubles.

      I did find this, which is interesting. In the 1550s, the phrase a “jobbe of worke” was used as a contrast to continuous labor. The more common current understanding of a job as work done for pay came in the 1650s. When I’m approached about taking on another “job,” the job is a discrete piece of work within my continual labor, so the older meaning still is around.

      I have read “Working,” and enjoyed it. I vaguely remember either Turkel or a reviewer talking about the best work as that which keeps body and soul together: in the process, as well as in the end result. I couldn’t agree more with that.

  19. A lovely tribute to Labor Day.And I find it interesting how the understand of “work” has changed with time. You have written an excellent essay and post about it here. And I thank you for introducing me to Tom Parker. Seems like a very committed photographer. On a different note; I find it interesting that the US has a different designated Labor Day than the rest of the world. :-)

    1. Ah, yes. May Day for us generally has had more to do with baskets filled with flowers than with parades: whether of laborers or military sorts.

      I found this interesting tidbit: “On May 4, 1886, a bomb exploded at a union rally in Chicago’s Haymarket Square, which led to violence that killed seven police officers and four others. The incident also led to May 1 being celebrated in most nations as Workers Day. The U.S. government chose Labor Day instead to avoid a celebration on May 1 and New York’s unions had already picked the first Monday in September for their holiday.”

      Tom exemplifies so many of the qualities you’ve written about in your blog: passion for his photography, perseverance, a constant search for extraordinary ways to presernt the ordinary. He’s a fabulous writer, too, but over time he’s written less and photographed more: to the great benefit of his photography. Dabbling in multiple fields in one thing. Excellence in one is quite another.

  20. Work whatever the century involves the hands and the mind and, if we are lucky, the heart as well. Sometimes we even get paid! Yet a lot of work is unpaid. I suspect there is more unpaid work in the world than paid.

    1. I suspect you’re right about unpaid work, although there are many forms of payment. Sometimes appreciation is just as good as dollars, and there’s a good bit of bartering that goes on even within the cash economy.

      I’ve had an experience or two of mindless work, and I’ve done work that involved the hands only to the extent that they were needed to push a pencil. And, I’ve worked now and then when my heart wasn’t in it. You’re so right that the very best work is that which involves all three — or at least two out of three!

  21. That photo of you vacuuming is a treat!

    I especially like the shot of Dad and daughter sharing lunch.

    I don’t recall ever having lunch with Dad anyplace but the house but I do recall riding along with him in his company pickup out to John’s Island to visit a customer from time to time. Dad sold and serviced tractors and farm equipment back then and knew all the farmer’s within a day’s drive of Charleston.

    Anyhoo, I remember feeling so important, riding along with him in his truck and I look back fondly on those moments that he and I shared, just the two of us.

    BTW, this was back in the days before mandatory seat belts or child booster seats. Just me and Dad on the bench seat.

    1. I ought to print that photo of me vacuuming and put it on the fridge, just as a reminder of what I’m supposed to be doing around here.

      I love the thought of you and your dad taking those trips together. For me and my dad, it was trips to the dump, or into town for some little thing. Always, after the chore was done, he’d say, “What direction?” I’d tell him, and off we’d go to “explore.” It was wonderful fun, and probably helped to turn me into a bit more of a wanderer than my mother was happy with. We were taking those trips around the same time, and just as it was for you, there were no child seats or safety belts. Even when I was in the back seat, I’d hang over the front — just for the conversation.

      It’s funny you stopped by today. I was thinking of you and your dad this weekend, after a little trip over to Anahuac. I emailed you at work, but it just occurred to me you might not be at work, since you’re blog-reading in the middle of the afternoon. I’ll drop a note via wu-mail, too. I’ve some news you’ll be interested in.

      1. Yep, I’m home this week. Took some vacation time and have been doing some clearing and cleaning out. I’ll be dropping off a few bags at Goodwill tomorrow morning. I just need to resist driving around to the store entrance after dropping off my donation and buying more stuff!

        I’ll likely check my work mail tomorrow, to weed out the junk from the important things. Like your email.

  22. Would be nice to keep the “helping” attitude, My great-grand daughters, five and seven, ask me often if they can do the dishes. Occasionally I let them, but often I don’t. I always feel bad about that. I know I should joyously encourage their helping ways. I think we adults are not real good motivators. We get in too much of a hurry.

    1. Not only do we get in a hurry, everything around us encourages us to do everything faster, to multi-task, to try and do it all, all at once. I have a problem at work now and then. Of course people want work done in a timely manner, but if it’s too hot or too cold, I can’t lay varnish. If it rains, I can’t work at all. And even if the weather is perfect, varnish dries at its own speed. You can’t make it dry faster. One coat a day is usual, with two coats possible on a really good day. It takes time.

      That’s one reason the “slow” movements have cropped up: slow writing, slow reading, slow food.It’s not a matter of laziness, it’s a matter of paying attention. When I read the results of studies that show how many hours a day people devote to television, social media, and the internet generally, I’m astonished. They can spend five hours a day on social media or texting, but don’t have time to spend a half-hour outdoors with their kids? Amazing.

      It’s not everyone, of course, but it’s clearly a social trend. Sometimes I think those of us who are bucking it, in whichever ways we choose, need to be public about it, for the sake of humanity. (Our own, if no one else’s!)

  23. Not only did daddy go to work, mommy did, too. In the mornings everybody left for someplace, they to work, my brother and I to the babysitter or to school. Until we were old enough to be latchkey children, we didn’t go home until they got home. Saturday was housework day. Clothes were washed, beds were changed, dusting and vacuuming happened, bathrooms were cleaned. I resented the intrusion of housework into my time off from school, especially as my brother didn’t have any household chores like I did. (I’m still not big on housework. My threshold for “critical mess” is a lot higher than my mom’s. Living alone doesn’t encourage neatness either. . . )

    By the lights of the 1950’s era when I was a child, housework was women’s work, never mind that my mother had a full time job, she and I did all the housekeeping, too. Yard work was men’s work, but my brother was severely asthmatic and got out of that, too. For most of my career as a medical transcriptionist, I worked nights, typically 9 p.m. to 5 a.m., and I worked from home, so no getting dressed for work (or getting dressed at all if I didn’t want to!) and no commute. But after I got out of the USAF, I did secretarial work and worked in offices before I got the opportunity to become a medical transcriptionist.

    I’d probably still be working, but my mom is 91 this birthday, and I’m spending my time with her traveling to where ever she wants to go — we’ve got another trip coming up in October that I’m really looking forward to.

    BTW, fan as you are of short grass prairies, you should check out Palo Duro State Park.

    1. Well, it sounds as though when it came to housework, you might as well have been an only child, as I was. On the other hand, I did get the advantages of working with my dad as well as my mom. Not only was it much more fun, I usually got to be outdoors (raking, shoveling, car-washing, and so on).

      Mom had her schedule, and for years it was inviolable: washing on Monday, ironing on Tuesday, baking on Friday. I’m sure Wednesday and Thursday had their chores, too, but they’ve faded. As she aged, she became more flexible. As she aged more and became less physically flexible, I was around, and the perfect solution to her housekeeping needs.

      You’re right about the casual approach that living alone can encourage. I do fairly well with the important things, but dust? My tolerance for dust is remarkable — although I do notice it more, now that I have my new eyes.

      You’re wise to take the time to travel with your mom. When they’re 70, or even 80, it’s still easy to think, “Oh, we’ll do that later.” By the time 90 rolls around, realism demands a different approach.

      I’ve been thinking about Palo Duro. And I was thinking about your recent comment about your water. My friend who lived up that way used to talk about “gyp water” — water with a good dose of gypsum in it. He said it was the worst, ever. Is that what affects your water, too?

      1. Ground water is OK. It’s hard as a rock, but then it’s filtered through limestone. However, we also use water from Lake Alan Henry and Lake Meredith, and it tastes yucky. My mom always comments about how good my iced tea is and asks what I use. Apart from the fact that I don’t use instant tea, but brew it, I use decent water. I use the reverse osmosis water for everything I eat or drink including ice cubes. It’s surprisingly affordable here.

  24. Yes, I remember this excellent post and I’m sure I told you then how much I like it.

    “New forces are abroad in the land, forces happy to sunder work from pleasure: minimizing its importance and reducing it to the sort of burden only a fool would endure.” Amen. In our culture most see work as something to be avoided or minimized. Our very life goal is to arrive at that happy time when we no longer “have to work.” Sigh.

    I am grateful for GOOD work, work that is fulfilling and meaningful. I wish it on everyone. Sadly, just as there are way to many who do not value good work, there are also way too many who are trapped in lives of soul-crushing drudgery. Of course the title to your post calls to mind the poignant images of Let Us Now Praise Famous Men.

    1. I couldn’t believe that no one was going to make the connection between Agee and Evans’ work and the Smithsonian project — or my title, for that matter. Have we come that far, that even such a recent and iconic project has been forgotten?

      Perhaps so, since an on-the-street reporter found innumerable young people yesterday who had no idea about the details of the attack in New York on 9/11. It occurs to me that we may well be in the process of trading the power of allusion for illusion. I’m glad you recognized my little tip of the hat to the earlier work.

      Like you, I cherish good work. I’m getting to the age that I occasionally hear, “When are you going to retire?” I grin and say, “Never.” Then everyone laughs. What they don’t realize is that I’m perfectly serious. The nature of my work may, and probably will, change, but work as a component of life — productive, creative, satisfying — is something I need. I suspect you’re the same.

  25. In Saint Lucia and, I dare say, most of the rest of the Caribbean, the holiday (which is celebrated on May 1), seems to have lost its significance. Generally, people don’t seem to understand or just don’t care about the importance of the history of work, its changing nature, or the huge impact – both tangible and intangible – it has on our lives.

    Your post brings all of the above to the fore. You have taken what would appear to be a mundane subject and turned it into something at once provocative and evocative. Great stuff!

    1. Thanks, Andrew. You comment about the history and nature of work is on target.It’s interesting, too, to think about work as it’s understood in different cultural contexts.

      I had a friend who lived in Gibraltar for a time. He used to laugh about the Spanish fishermen, who’d go out every morning, catch as many fish as they needed, and then, even if it was only noon, come back in and spend the afternoon drinking and socializing. The next day, they’d do it again. Perhaps they’d be back in by 10 a.m., or they might be out all day, depending on the catch.

      Though my friend never called them lazy, he certainly had a hard time dealing with what he saw as a casual attitude toward work. I always wished I could have taken him down the coast to our Port Mansfield, which the locals know as Port Mañana!

  26. Thanks for this. I think that work is generally seen to be a detraction from the real business of life for many of us. What a gift it is to be able to find work that allows you a measure of satisfaction while taking care of our needs, and perhaps a few wants as well. Every now and then I try to imagine retirement, and can’t quite imagine wholly disengaging from what engages me now, although I do have a kind of pining for some relief from the pressures of deadlines…

    1. I wonder if there’s a difference, now that work isn’t so directly a way to produce the necessities of life (through gardening, building, sewing, canning, etc.) but only a means to earn money, with which we purchase the necessities of life. I’ve no answer for that one, but it does seem an interesting question.

      I’ve listened with some amusement to breathless assertions that, if only we could cut the work week to thirty hours, people would have time for arts! music! poetry! My suspicion is that if people don’t have time for such things at 40 hours a week, it wouldn’t change a whit at 30 hours.

      I do think about retirement from time to time. Even if a large pile of cash fell into my lap, I don’t think I’m ready to stop working. Of course, my situation is different, since I can work as much of little as I choose. I had no idea, when I left the world of deadlines, that the loss of pension plans and medical insurance would be balanced by the gift of freedom — and the responsibility that comes with it. If freedom is what most of us seek in retirement, maybe I’m already retired!

  27. I’m exhausted thinking of Tom processing 40,000+ images — and I like image processing!

    I heard recently that the concept of retirement is a relatively new one. For the days when I’m weary of spreadsheets and business wranglings, the idea of working forever is pretty despairing. I like what you’ve said a few comments up about work being a component of life. I think we’re made for it.

    1. Well, he did do it over the course of a year. Still, when you consdier the time required to make the arrangements, take the photos, travel, do all of the decision-making AND keep up with his regular employment in the process — it was quite something.

      I do remember those days of spreadsheets and wrangling. Thanks goodness life-long work doesn’t have to include spreadsheets, or lead to despair. My grandmother used to work in her garden. Mom worked on her needlepoint. A couple of friends in the Hill Country did woodworking until very nearly the day of their death. All of them were productive, and what they did was valuable, even if it didn’t bring in cash on a regular basis.

      Maybe we need to move away from such a sharp distinction between work and retirement, and focus instead on all the varieties of work, so that “retirement” does’t mean we stop working: only that our way of working changes.

  28. Another totally engaging blog post here, Linda. I enjoyed the photos of you as a little girl with your parents – so reminiscent of my own growing up days at home in Minnesota. And as to work, yes, our attitudes toward this are changing drastically. I love to work: to enjoy exploring the boundaries of my creativity, to engage with colleagues and friends, to find meaning in making a contribution to society. What must go is the need to work at a job that offers only drudgery, just in order to make money. Our future will produce some wonderful changes to this old order and I can’t waits to see it happen.

    1. I fully agree that less drudgery and less focus on money-alone would be a good thing.

      On the other hand, even the most creative pursuits involve a certain amount of drudgery. My varnish work is a perfect example. Only if I can tolerate the work of stripping and sanding will the varnish shine. Many varnishers end up out of business, or simply quit, because they aren’t willing to do the prep work properly, and the result looks terrible.

      Gardens require weeding, writing requires a lot of rear-in-the-chair time, and so on. It’s not Dickensian drudgery, to be sure — but too many people confuse discipline and drudgery. Or so I think.

      Of course, for children and young people to move toward a deeper understanding of fulfilling work, seeing people who enjoy their work is important. That’s where we come in!

  29. “Gardens require weeding, writing requires a lot of rear-in-the-chair time, and so on. It’s not Dickensian drudgery, to be sure — but too many people confuse discipline and drudgery. Or so I think.”

    Well said Linda. What an interesting way of looking at it. It is the ‘drudgery’ that seems to split the spirit, at least with the young. After the discipline is “assimilated” is that one finally understands that both are needed in order to succeed.

    1. Sometimes, I think both discipline and drudgery become one; then the will to complete tasks; the volition is what one hopes to acquire in order to move forward. I highly admire the U.S. for its labor movement and its work ethic; something which a country like mine is fighting for but has been demoralised with so many welfare programs and political crisis. If my country wants independence, they must work for it; and it isn’t happening. I consider myself American, because I am in the ‘Americas.’

      1. Exactly so. Confronted with any task, it can be tempting to “skip the hard parts” — to move too quickly toward completion. If I’m dusting the house, it’s not particularly important that I miss a spot. If I’m varnishing a boat, ti’s something else entirely.

        Beyond that, we’ve become so accustomed to “fast” that anything which requires “slow” often is interpreted as drudgery. It can be quite a revelation to discover that a task we expected to be entirely unpleasant really isn’t, if we just slow down enough to take it one step at a time.

        1. I agree, I’m still amazed you varnish boats. I also used to do woodwork when I was younger. I used to turn wood on a lathe; goblets, whistles, children’s toys. I know exactly what you mean. These highly skilled craft taught me so much about other things in life. I sold several, but no one could really pay all the labor that went into making them.

    2. And one person’s discipline can be another’s drudgery. The level of tediousness isn’t necessarily intrinsic to the work. Much depends on personal preference, or inclination, I suppose. Things that seem perfectly enjoyable to me (like writing) are looked at as sheer drudgery by some of my friends. Thank goodness we have some freedom to please ourselves when it comes to such things!

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