Stilll Working, After All These Years

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 helping around the house was a way for children to participate more fully in the life of the family.

Eventually, I discovered that 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, so I looked for other opportunities to seek it out: 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. 

Eventually, I began watering flowers for next-door neighbors when they traveled out of town. It required a heavy bucket and multiple trips, but I never thought of it as a chore. It was fun: particularly since I was allowed to go by myself, on my tricycle, carrying my new responsibility with pride.

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 and minimize its importance, reducing it to the sort of burden only a fool would endure — particularly when government checks are increasingly available.

Our increasing ambivalence toward — or reluctance to engage in — work has reminded me in past months of a 2012 Smithsonian traveling exhibit, sponsored by its Museum on Main Street and titled The Way We Worked.

The title itself —The Way We Worked — could suggest that our working days are over: that work itself has become a curiosity or a museum piece, something to be noted and then forgotten as easily as the fifty-foot-long chunk of Route 66 languishing in the Smithsonian’s collection.

In fact, the exhibit was 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 were concurrent exhibits created by ‘partner sites’ — small towns selected to join with the Smithsonian in exploring the rich diversity of work. Free to develop their individual 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,  opened February 2, 2013, at the Blue Rapids Museum.

The exhibit featured eighty large-format photographs taken by Blue Rapids photographer Tom Parker, along with 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.

When Tom first told me about the unfolding project, I wasn’t sure what to expect, but that was part of the fun. As the 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 had changed.

Occasionally, 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.

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?”
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. There 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 his deadline was met. 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.

Today, Tom still is at work: capturing and processing photographs from the world in which he lives. “It seems there’s no end to it,” he says. Then, he grins, and adds, “But isn’t that just the point?”

For my parents and grandparents, for the neighbors who surrounded me, and for all the workers who filled my young world, that certainly seemed to be the point. While doing their best to eliminate drudgery from their lives, they seemed intuitively to understand the truth of Freud’s famous statement that “love and work are the cornerstones of our humanness.”

They understood that, even as age, illness, or infirmity eventually would change the nature of their work, work itself should go on: advancing a multitude of meaningful personal and communal stories.

Comments always are welcome.

169 thoughts on “Stilll Working, After All These Years

    1. I loved that tricycle. The day I was allowed to ride it around the block was memorable, to say the least. I had to wait until my bicycle days to make it to the little store that sold penny candy, though.

      1. I remember having a tricycle. My only actual memory is some visitor kid pushing me flat out on the big concrete path around our house, like really fast. I held on for grim death and must have been petrified (I got glasses when I was 4yo so I wouldn’t have been able to see clearly, as this would’ve been before I got glasses).

        1. That’s how I used to hang on to the merry-go-round at school: for grim death. It was one of those open-platform metal ones that could set up quite a centrifugal force when a couple of determined boys set it spinning.

  1. Your exploration of the concept and reality of work is really thought-provoking. I feel that I should have a pithy quote to add to the conversation, but that first I need to think through the question of “what IS work?” It seems you’ve just got me going… and likely there is “no end to it” for me, either, because probably my relationship with my work is constantly shifting with my evolution and devolution, my ever changing self.

    I had never heard the term, “workin’ fool,” but I hope to remember it and BE it. I loved reading about your own life’s work. Thank you, Linda!

    1. There’s no question that the very term ‘work’ has been reshaped in some unfortunate ways, just as the experience of working has changed.

      For example, when I was growing up, most work was communal, in one way or another. Whether it was women gathered to snap beans on the front porch, a grocer conversing with customers who hung around the store to exchange news and gossip, or the men gathering for the day at the mines, work was one way to cement the bonds of community. I have my own experience of harsh working conditions, so I’m not one to romanticize them — but the roofers, construction workers, dock workers, farmers, and highway crews of the world know some things that can’t be communicated through a zoom call.

      As for ‘workin’ fools’ — who better fits that description than a dedicated gardener?

      1. The communal aspect is something in short supply these days, for sure. You made me remember my father-in-law’s brief writing on this subject when he was a grandfather, in “Notes on My Life.” I might write posthumous “guest post” using some of his musings on the changes he had seen in his lifetime. I often have thought about his description of all the work that they had to do in those “old days,” but his main memory seemed to be of being together in doing it.

        1. And don’t forget those activities that happen at the church. I’m thinking of your posts about the bread baking, for example. It’s work that both creates and sustains community, both spiritually and physically.

  2. I’m assuming you are the little girl. Pretty little girl. I’ve written before about my concern that we grown ups stifle the joy preschoolers find in helping. When they find it is work, the adventure changes. It happens in homes and it happens in schools. We cannot dismiss the influence of TV and other technology in bringing about this problem. Glad to see you back today.

    1. Yes, indeed — that’s me. My mother preferred me indoors and in ruffles, but I preferred being outdoors with Daddy, learning age-appropriate lessons from gathering twigs to gapping spark plugs and changing tires.

      Lurking beneath your comment is another issue: the refusal of too many parents to allow their child to fail or fall. What’s described as a desire to protect too often is an impediment to true independence. Learning to cope with a skinned knee, a failed school project, or a rejected friendship builds confidence and coping skills for the future; something that a generation obsessed with ‘safe spaces’ seems to lack. The sooner we learn the world isn’t a perfectly safe place, but that we can live in it safely anyway, the better off we are.

  3. Perhaps, with Tom still working, and 10 years gone by, it is time for another such project. It has a slightly different theme but I did enjoy looking at the photos selected for Hold Still, the ‘community project to create a unique collective portrait of the UK during lockdown’. Some of the photos show people at work during the lockdown.

      1. We were fortunate but the Hold Still project was done only in the UK. I don’t know if anyone did something similar in New Zealand. New Zealand has kept at work throughout 2020/21 but many people have had to learn to work differently or in different spaces.

        1. You can’t imagine how many of my co-workers on the docks expressed my own sense of amazed gratitude that our work routines never changed. In the beginning, there were a few jobs lost as people began eliminating discretionary spending, but things evened out, and from day one, we worked on. Being outdoors was one reason; being independent contractors was another. We could make our own decisions about how to deal with things, and we did.

          When I spent those years caring for my mother, I had the freedom to arrange my work around her needs. I never expected that same freedom to bring such benefits during a pandemic.

        2. I’m also in Auckland, NZ and yes work/life continued but a lot of it has “gone home” and not gone back to the office building. And many once viable retail/other have disappeared completely. Huge amount of empty premises with For Lease notices on their windows – even in the big malls, closed up spaces with similar signs…

          1. Yes, things are different. The closures and empty spaces are perhaps not as noticeable in Christchurch ( where I am) because the city still hasn’t recovered from the earthquakes. Empty spaces, vacant premises etc have been the norm for 10 years as well as constant changes.

          2. It’s so very interesting to have this perspective from your part of the world. I think it’s going to take another six months before things begin to shake out here. There’s no predicting how much the cities, particularly, will change. It’s particularly interesting to see shifts in attitudes about ‘going to the office’ to work. More employers are losing their enthusiasm for the presumed cost benefits of telecommuting (or whatever it’s called these days) and there are workers who are finding they prefer the companionship of living co-workers to total screen presence.

    1. There are some fabulous photos in that collection. Coincidentally, it was the photo of Captain Sir Thomas Moore that caught my attention: another Tom! I had to look him up to remember who he was and what he accomplished, but he certainly is a fine example of someone who took on a different kind of ‘work’ in his latter years, and inspired by his efforts.

  4. Those first two pictures of you are immediately recognizable.

    In the two paragraphs after the printer’s squiggle you worked yourself about as close to political commentary as I think you’ve ever done here, though not to the point of getting overwrought (i.e. overworked) about it.

    That’s a good story about Tom Parker’s project. I don’t know what to think about his decision to rework some of his photographs in the style of the well-known photographers he mentioned. I’ve generally advocated finding a style of one’s own. I guess his rationale was to maintain continuity with established traditions of depicting work.

    1. I suspect Tom’s impulse to immerse himself in those iconic works was a natural response to suddenly being granted a task that was both immense and without guidelines. Eventually, he lost that impulse, probably because the realities of what he was photographing were quite different from those recorded by Lange and etc.

      As for the rest of it, today a paraphrase of the Old Testament verse is equally true: what the government gives, the government can take away. When that happens, those who’ve come to enjoy certain benefits will have choices to make.

      Beyond that, there are consequences to economic decisions made over the past year or so that only now are being recognized. None of our issues has a single cause, but many supply chain problems are a result of fewer workers producing goods, and/or fewer truckers or longshoremen willing to begin moving those products from one point to another. The high quality varnish I use in my work no longer is available in the U.S. The company hopes it will be in their warehouses by August, and to the distributors by the middle of that month. Had I not seen this coming some months ago, and bulk ordered supplies, I’d be using inferior products or looking for work elsewhere.

      “Help Wanted” signs are everywhere. My favorite café no longer serves dinner, because they can’t staff for the entire day. Down the street, a really good restaurant serves only at noon. They can’t find workers. Construction has ceased in a new housing development for lack of workers, and a friend who needs hail damage to her roof repaired is on the waiting list for — October.

      No matter how many trillions are budgeted for infrastructure repairs and construction, nothing will happen if there aren’t people willing — and able — to do the work. You don’t build a bridge on a Zoom call.

      1. That’s a zinger of a last sentence. Good for you. And it’s good you had the foresight to stock up on the high-quality varnish you need for your work. As you’re aware, in an attempt to get more people back to work, a bunch of states (Texas included) have sworn off more federal unemployment payments.

        1. So much of it is more complicated than just receiving federal unemployment payments deterring workers from working. It is a component, yes. Is it the entire story, no.

          Part of it is a realization that wages have been stagnating for decades while the cost of living continues to rise. What folks worked and lived on mid 20th century doesn’t equate at all to what is going on today. So, part of that is workers are refusing to work for sub par pay. I’ve seen countless articles about work from home—there are plenty of sectors where this is feasible and should be feasible because workers are also realizing that giving up time from their lives to commute to and from the office wasn’t worth the stress and time away from family. Are all sectors able to do this? Of course, not, as was mentioned with the zoom call quip. Also, who wants to work for $2.13/ hr with patrons giving terrible tips? No wonder the food service industry is having issues. That was the hourly wage for servers when I briefly waitressed in 2001. Something has to give.

          But what’s going on is far more complicated and worldwide than government checks. I think we will see over this next decade (hopefully) more equity and hopefully a change for the better in terms of worker’s rights.

          Fascinating topic today and interesting photos you’ve shared! I’m behind on some blog posts and rapidly catching up!

          1. My comment about the Zoom call wasn’t meant to be a quip. It’s an expression of a truth that too many in our society don’t understand. As the years pass, and the work force ages, the shortage of skilled welders, steelworkers, plumbers, electricians, carpenters, and such increases. The irony is that young people graduating from trade schools after one or two years, or beginning apprenticeships, can be making good money before many college graduates have finished calculating the interest on their loans.

            I certainly agree that direct government payments (not only unemployment, but also the guaranteed monthly incomes beginning to appear in some areas) are only one issue, and perhaps not the most important. My point here was that the understanding of work itself has changed. Work often is satisfying and enjoyable; just as often, it’s repetitive and boring. But I grew up seeing how effort and productivity could provide satisfaction beyond that of any particular outcome, including a paycheck, and for that I’m grateful.

            Just for grins, I stopped at three of the local cafés I frequent to see what they were offering the staff they’re advertising for. I don’t know what the fast food places are paying, but at those cafés, servers could start at $12.50, $13.00, and $15.00 per hour, plus tips. Also, one of the Buc-ees where I stop is advertising for workers: $15/hr, full medical, and two weeks vacation. Just for a second, I thought about giving up varnishing!

  5. So interesting in light of where Ben and I are in Washington camped on our friends property and participating in the lives of our friends. There are seven kids, five of whom are adopted. They are the hardest working kids I have ever known. By far. Their mom has disciplined them to understand the importance of work and taking pride in their work. Sometimes it’s punishment, but mostly it is teaching them that work is what makes the world work. And because the adopted ones have experienced extreme trauma in their past and three are black she is teaching them too that who they become now will determine their future.
    The oldest, a biological child is delayed because of extreme prematurity. The other bio child seems to be exempt from the hardest work. I wonder if he will have the same advantages when he grows up. He is 8. The hardest workers are 9, 10, and 12.5. Built into their lives is also plenty of play and reading.

    1. The lessons learned from work as a child — the ability to persevere, to identify and solve problems, to experience the satisfaction of accomplishment, and to develop flexibility and creativity of thought — are the building blocks of maturity. Think of the changes you and Ben have gone through since adopting your new life style. You’ve had to work harder than most of us to make it work, but it’s precisely those qualities that have made it possible. Your friends’ kids are lucky; it sounds as though they’re learning the same lessons — and perhaps a few more from you!

  6. Love this post. My parents used to say that work never killed anyone that they knew about. They both worked hard to pay for a farm and I learned to work out of necessity. I can’t say that I ever loved to work but I have always known that if you want something in life then hard work is required. I find the images here very interesting.

    1. I think a lot of people would feel differently about work if the word ‘effort’ were substituted. Work isn’t only paid employment, and it isn’t necessarily drudgery. But anything that’s done well requires effort: caring for animals, gardening, photography — even cooking. Our parents and grandparents never expect an effortless life, but a good number of younger people today seem to assume such a thing is possible. When they discover it’s not, disappointment and even resentment are inevitable.

  7. Yes, those early photos of you are so endearing and reminds me of how photos can bring back those childhood joys. It is rare to see photos of chagrined looking children except very early one were the exposure was often such trial and error that kids got bored standing in front of the camera.
    As for work fading into history. I am not sure, the highways in Australia are chock a block during peak hours. I also thought the US, like Australia, wasn’t all that generous in giving out Government checks.

    I remember my mother forever saying that Gertie (me) was the best when it came to household ‘helping’ especially with washing the dishes and laying the table. ‘He could hardly reach the sink’, my mother would regale to visitors much to my embarrassment as a teen-ager. It is still a joy, and I never use the electronic dishwasher, much prefer the rummaging around in the sink of warm water.

    Growing up at around 12 years I became obsessed with getting a camera and each day before school would stare at a Kodak box camera on display in a shop around the corner of our street. I had to get that camera, and I did after having earned enough money collecting used newspapers and old rags from the neighbourhood. I even stripped lead from underneath peoples windows which was a known petty crime amongst schoolboys . Scrap lead sold well!

    I was so excited when I bought this camera.
    Great Post Linda. So inspiring and thank you.

    1. I’ve always smiled at your dishwashing tales, Gerard. Like you, I enjoy that task: almost as much as hanging laundry on a line. Unfortunately clotheslines are forbidden here now–at least in many of our suburbs. The same people who promote solar and wind power reject that particular way of using solar and wind power as being aesthetically unappealing. So ironic.

      I laughed at the thought of your petty thievery. Today, it’s copper that brings in good money, and the thievery isn’t so petty. Commercial air conditioning units were favored targets for a while. Some just couldn’t resist all that copper tubing. Paper drives used to be a popular fund-raiser for school groups here. Every home had a box where the daily papers landed after being read. Eventually, they’d be bundled up with twine and carted off. I can’t remember how much we earned, but I do remember that we were paid by the pound.

      Of course, we had our entrepreneurs, too. I had a grade school classmate who would eat dirt for a nickle per teaspoonful. In those days of penny candy, a nickle would buy a good bit, and if he had a good day and ended up with a quarter, he could go to the movies (20 cents) and get a box of Junior Mints.

      We sure did live in different worlds. I’m glad for air conditioning, the internet, and a good car, but a dirt-eating friend isn’t to be lightly dismissed.

  8. I found this column very thought provoking. Made me think of my grandfather working hard 6 days a week on his farm, producing most of his family’s food, chopping wood, improvising repairs using whatever he could scrounge from his junk piles. Never had much money but was always well respected and lived to be 98.

    My dad left home before daylight, worked hard all day, then worked in our vegetable garden until it was too dark to see. After retiring he volunteered at an old folk’s home and helped out at his church.

    It seemed natural that I started at age 13 cutting grass and doing odd jobs for neighbors.
    At 16 I started as an electrician’s helper and retired as an electrical contractor 48 years later. Now I work most days on my 6 1/2 acres in Florida, using the tractor, chainsaw, cutting grass, and building things. I help with housework and cooking because my wife, at age 70, still has a full time job and works from her office in our home.

    I find it sad that so many young people owe thousands of dollars for college degrees that taught them no skills that anybody would pay for. Also many of them never learned to change a flat tire, scramble an egg, or sew a button on a shirt. The happiest people I know are working people who earn their way through life.

    1. Your last paragraph certainly resonated with me. It also reminded me of a line or two from one of Flannery O’Connor’s stories: “She had observed that the more education they got, the less they could do. Their father had gone to a one-room schoolhouse through the eighth grade and he could do anything.” My own father graduated from high school, but that was the end of his formal schooling. After working at John Deere in the Quad Cities for a time, he and my mother moved to Iowa, where he began working at the Maytag Company. When he retired, he was in the ranks of upper management in the industrial engineering department, was well-respected, and good friends with many of his co-workers. That taught me a few lessons, too.

      One thing that the kind of work you describe provides is an understanding that actions have consequences. Care for the garden, and it grows. Feed the livestock, and they thrive. Take time to measure and cut carefully, and the building will stand. Learn how the watch, the car, or the pump works, and you’ll be able to repair it, rather than sending off an order to Amazon. That approach to life requires a little more effort, but it’s a lot more satisfying.

  9. Lovely photos and fond memories, too. Of course, back then, you left school at 14, walked out the school gate and straight into employment. This is what my Mom and Dad told me. Work was abundant, and it was engrained into folk to just get on with it and earn your keep or you were out on the streets. The pendulum has swung far too much to the otherside of the arc these days.

    1. I think that’s the way it was for my father’s parents. Neither of them was formally educated; they left Sweden to come to this country during a time of economic dislocation in that country. Oddly, they came on the same ship, but didn’t meet until they reached Minneapolis. Because Grandpa had been a coal miner, they moved to the Iowa coal fields where he could find work. They began their family, and made their goal getting all of their kids through high school. They were savvy, and clever, and worked together with others in their small midwestern town to create a close-knit community of Italians, Swedes, Croats, Poles, and Welsh. It wasn’t a perfect world, to be sure, but it had some significant advantages over today’s.

  10. Your own developing understanding of work has been reflected in this engaging history – and, of course, the nature of work is currently undergoing a major upheaval. Wonderful post, Linda

    1. Thank you, Derrick. Needless to say, I worked a bit on this post, but I’d say you and the Head Gardener know a thing or two about work, yourselves.

  11. Dear Linda,
    thanks for this post. We find it interesting how the meaning of work changed for you. It would be interesting to research how the meaning of work changed in our societies. If we remember it correctly Karl Marx did that partly by studying alienation.
    Cute pictures.
    Thanks for sharing
    The Fab Four of Cley

    1. P.S.
      I just read in THE GUARDIAN “Books that defined each generation”. There I read:
      “What most of the books I have chosen have in common is a perspective on work as something without inherent meaning. Hard work does not always pay off, cannot be counted on to render us happier or even wealthier.”
      That’s the way from meaningful work to alienated work, isn’t it?

      1. Of course hard work doesn’t always pay off. After hours of hard work, I’m sitting here right now because unexpected rain just ruined a perfect final coat of varnish! Am I happy about that? No. Will I lose money on the job? To a degree. But I still understand my work as having meaning, and when the rain stops, I’ll be back on the docks, repairing the damage and starting again.

    2. Marx had some interesting theories, but in practice Marxism has been (in my opinion, of course) a scourge upon humanity. I did grow up in a time when plays such as Death of a Salesman were standard fare for high school drama clubs, and ‘the man in the gray flannel suit’ stood as a symbol of alienation. Still, my own experience provided proof that alienation wasn’t inevitable, and for that I’m grateful.

      1. Inspired by Marx early texts Bert Brecht developped the V-Effekt (alienation effect). Alienation is an important technique in modern and post-modern art.
        Alienation is defined as an effect of the division pf labour. We always work alienated in our societies. Marx was a very important inspiration for the Frankfurt School of Philosophy which inspired very much the French neo-structuralism.
        When I was teaching at the McGill I was shocked that my students didn’t understand modern and post-modern European philosophy. That was because they haven’t read Marx who gave the basis for the influencal theory of alienation and a re-interpretation of Hegel’s philosophy.
        For a European intellectal you know about the the development from Kant to Hegel to Marx and then to the post- and neo-structuralism.
        We all live alienated; being aware of it you can use this distance to your object for productive criticism producing something new.
        All the best
        Klausbernd :-)

  12. We have to remember that the generation our parents, (or in some cases grandparents) belonged to passed through the Great Depression when people were glad to get any work at all. If they were lucky enough to get a steady job, they would bend over backwards to keep it. People went hungry in those days, and were worried about keeping a roof over their heads. My dad told about his parents having to move in with their parents because his dad couldn’t get work. They lived out in the country and his grandfather gave a row in the garden to each child to plant whatever they wanted. My dad planted popcorn. He caught some flak for his “frivilous” choice in the beginning, but there came a time when popcorn was supper. While it wasn’t very nourishing, it was filling.

    1. Until you mentioned your dad’s popcorn planting, I’d forgotten the stories my mother and aunt told about having popcorn for supper. They were lucky; their grandfather had a couple of milk cows, and they always had access to milk and cream, so a favorite Sunday night supper was chocolate cake with whipped cream. The way they would talk about it when they began to reminisce, it was clear what a treat it was.

      Multigenerational families were common where I grew up. Or, if people didn’t live in the same house, they were close to one another. It always was easy to spot the country homes where accomodation had been made for a newly married couple, or a widowed aunt who joined the household. The additions always looked a bit ramshackle — or, to be more fair, like a house that had decided to grow an extra wing or dormer, ‘just because.’

  13. One of my fondest memories is of going to work with my father! People don’t view ‘work’ today as they once did. Things will never be the same in this country and I feel sorry for the young ones coming up.

    1. I’m so glad you had that going-to-work-with-dad experience, too — and I’m not at all surprised that you did. Apart from the fun of just ‘being with dad,’ there was something exciting about being in the grownups’ world. The nature of the work environment didn’t matter; the classmate whose dad ran the gas station was as excited to wash windows and check air pressure as I was to look down at the factory floor and see the wonders of automation at work. Did you get to help your dad with his work, or did you just go along and “be there” with him?

  14. Hi. Without work, most people have way too much time on their hands. After retiring from my career, I immediately began doing volunteer work. My volunteer jobs were put on hiatus because of coronavirus. I don’t know when or if the jobs will be brought back.

    1. Some of our local organizations that depend on volunteers also suffered during the pandemic. It was a difficult situation, since many of the services they offer were even more sorely needed during those months. Now that we’re fully open, or near to it, new routines are being established, and people are re-engaging. I hope that you can re-engage, too, or find new opportunities that are equally satisfying.

  15. I looked at Tom’s latest post on Dispatches From Kansas about the recent Nickel Days event. It looked so much like the Sodbuster Days annual event in the last hope town of my parents of Good Hope, IL. In sorting some things our son left in our house when he moved, I found two 1st place trophies for the Sodbuster Days kid pedal tractor pull and the backseat driver lawnmower competitions. The dates were 1999 and 2000. Today that little kid flies, and teaches others how, huge cargo planes for the USAF. What we learn in youth carries us into the future. There, we pass it to others.

    1. And your Sodbuster Days sound much like the Old Settlers Days that we enjoyed during my time in Iowa. When I looked online, I was happy to see that they’re still being held. In St. Charles, Iowa, they’re celebrating their 135th anniversary — and there still will be a pedal tractor pull for the kids.

      You’re absolutely right that the skills and attitudes we develop as children affect how we deal with the responsibilities and opportunities of our later years. And sometimes the past affects us in unanticipated ways. When I left more formal employment to begin working as a varnisher, I didn’t know for years that my mother grew up helping her own father refinish woodwork in Victorian homes. He did the needed carpentry, she sanded, and then he varnished. It helped to explain why she was so upset with my decision to begin varnishing. She wanted ‘better’ for me, and felt I was going backwards.

  16. The nature of work began to change following World War II, when workers in this country had so much expendable time and money, and newly available “time-saving devices” available, we couldn’t fill our homes and farms fast enough with them.
    Now, especially as cities grow and diversify, we have “apps” to do the work for us: mow the lawn, walk the dogs, fix the plumbing and electrical, cook and deliver the meals…the list is endless.

    That said, in small towns still devoid of these services, and on the remaining farms and ranches, “work” is still going on…but for how long? The children in these places increasingly go off to the universities to study and not return, because there are no jobs back home.

    Work is still going on around the world…in poorer, more heavily populated countries. We are just insulated from it, and it’s not being done by our fathers any more.

    1. Like a vacuum cleaner or an automatic washing machine, apps can make certain jobs easier, but people still are required. After the February freeze, it wasn’t apps making needed repairs to the pipes, or cutting down the trees. An app may allow for scheduling a food delivery, or hiring a dog walker, but it’s still a person who does the work. Hidden behind the ease and convenience of ordering from Amazon are the workers: the supply center workers and the drivers who make it all happen, and who sometimes bear an uncanny resemblance to sweatshop workers of earlier times.

      Regarding the convenience of apps, there have been two instructive happenings this past week: the realization that some power companies were remotely changing peoples’ thermostats, and the crash of the DoorDash app. As one verklempt DoorDash customer was advised after complaining loudly and publicly about the non-arrival of a fastfood burger: “See that big, square metal thing in your kitchen? That’s a stove. You can use it.”

      As for ‘real work’ being done only in poorer, more heavily populated countries, I’d have to differ. Every day, I drive past a huge highway and bridge expansion construction site on my own way to work. It’s been fascinating to watch it develop, and fascinating to watch the men and women working while I’m stopped in the daily traffic snarls. Obviously, CAD programs and who knows what else lie behind what I see, but the intricacy of the work involving metal workers, concrete trucks, safety harnesses and the biggest cranes I’ve ever seen is compelling. Those nameless, faceless workers are myriad: not only on road crews, but on shrimp boats and oil rigs, in truck stops, and at grain elevators and ports. They’re an important, and often unacknowledged, part of the glue holding the country together.

  17. Love all the photographs of you as a little girl.

    You mentioning the traveling exhibit from the Smithsonian was especially interesting to me. I just recently sold a print of a painting that traveled with that exhibit. The artist is local—Paul Collins—and he did a whole series of oil paintings for that traveling show. One of the local corporations now owns them and from time to time we get to see them on display. Small world.

    1. I wasn’t familiar with Paul Collins or his work. He’s certainly interesting, with a wide range of subjects. I enjoyed his painting of the American farmer, but some of his paintings of children are especially appealing. The cube and ball abstractions weren’t so appealing, but I never expect to enjoy everything an artist produces.

  18. When I was in college in the early 1990s, we were advised to select a career that would involve “doing what you love.” It was an appealing idea, seductive even, that one could make a living doing something one enjoyed without it feeling like “work.” The implication seemed to be that we should avoid work that didn’t feel rewarding. I believe our advisers meant well, but I also think most people don’t end up in jobs that make them happy all the time. The ones who do are very fortunate.

    1. I don’t know a single person whose work makes them happy all the time, and I rarely have ‘fun’ at work — although it is great fun to watch the birds, fish, and turtles that gather around. On the other hand, I enjoy my work, and find it satisfying; the pleasure my customers take in the result is as rewarding as the paycheck, although I’ve yet to convince my landlord that their pleasure should pay my rent!

      I’ve avoided those whose counsel is limited to “do what feels good” for a few decades now. Feelings can be remarkably untrustworthy, unless accompanied by a certain degree of disciplined thought and action. If I did only what felt good in my work, I’d soon learn the truth of my Swedish grandmother’s proverb: “Who does not want to work in the heat, will have to starve in the cold.”

  19. I love this post, Linda. So many memories popped up in reflecting on how I was raised to do difficult work and to lend a hand when it was needed, but mostly to see what needed to be done before being asked. I always realized the gift in “sweat of the brow” tasks and projects, and I learned to use common sense to solve problems. I have always felt pride in my achievements… any approval I got along the way was icing on the cake. Mostly, I think productive people are generally the happiest people.

    There has been a lot of change in my lifetime – supposedly we have easier ways of achieving everything. I am thankful for many conveniences, but I also see that it has created a lack of common sense, and people getting soft. Recently, I had a visit with a young person visiting from Seattle. He questioned why I did all of the physical work I do here, and how could it even be good for me to push myself like I do. He said he thought it was terrible that I came from the era that I did – that I’d been brainwashed into thinking I had to continue such a life. Why in retirement would I choose to continue working this hard? Gee, I guess he missed the part about seeing the pride on my face, and understanding the happiness and satisfaction as I spoke about my work week. I am not even sure he really looked around our little piece of land to know I have a little slice of heaven here… he was too critical about all of the work involved.

    1. The perfect comment. Love it.
      The most unexpected things that bring joy and satisfaction in life
      Perfect evaluation of Seattle visitor’s understanding…as I look at all the “Help Wanted” signs everywhere here….

      1. I noticed this week that Skippers is closing after lunch now. No more Greek dinners. They advertised for serving staff for three weeks, and never got a nibble. Now, we can’t nibble there at night.

    2. Problem solving and pride go together, and developing that ability to see what needs doing before someone else points it out is a real gift. The kind of attention that demands surely is a part of why you’ve been so successful with the deer; you learned early to recognize and meet needs. That’s especially important with creatures who don’t have language, and sometimes it’s useful even with those who do.

      The denigration of physical labor is, ironically, one more sign of people’s disconnection from nature. When you sit in an office in front of a computer, you may get ‘work’ done, and it may be very important work. But splitting wood, pulling weeds, trimming trees, hanging clothes on a line — all teach an important lesson: that the physical world can push back. In the physical world, actions have consequences that can be experienced — and a lack of action can have consequences, too.

      I can pinpoint exactly the night that started me on the road to my work with boats. I’d come home from my well paid, high status job, and decided to scrub the kitchen floor. When I finished, I looked at it and said aloud, “Well. At least I can see what I accomplished.” I suspect a similar experience is behind some of the job-changing that’s going on these days.

  20. When work becomes only a means to make money then it will become a burden and a source of unhappiness. If however work is seen as a way of helping others then it turns into a meaningful activity. We need more ‘working fools’ again.

    1. And isn’t it interesting that much of what’s considered ‘work’ today used to be a natural part of life. Cooking, laundry, home repair, car maintenance, grass cutting — all of those things simply were there to be done; they were part of family life. As people became better off financially and began hiring people to do even the most basic chores, it seems to me that class divisions (which always have been with us) began to harden.

      On the other hand, it’s worth noting that my working community on the docks is far more diverse than anything I’ve every found in an office — and no one had to set quotas for it to emerge. I come in regular contact with Blacks, Hispanics, other women, Texas ‘good ol’ boys’ and Vietnamese. There’s only one issue that gets worried about: who can do the job? I like that.

      1. Linda, I really appreciate your thought-provoking comment on how class distinction emerges when we start hiring people to do all the chores we used to do ourselves. As we look down on the menial tasks so we eventually perceive those who do them.

        1. What a wonderful way of putting it: when we look down on particular jobs, we begin to look down on those who perform them — or, at minimum, harbor some mistaken ideas about the people doing the work we’ve scorned. Many problems in our society are as much a matter of class and culture as race.. Of course the issues are intertwined, but we can’t reduce everything to skin color. What angers me is that after decades — centuries, even — of trying to move beyond systems of classifying people by skin color, today’s ‘revolutionaries’ are moving us right back into those same systems.

          1. You are spot-on with respect to people transferring their disdain they feel for a ‘low’ job to the people who do the work. And it has nothing to do with race. In the economic boom in West Germany the Germans quickly forgot the hardships they experienced after WW2. Cleaning sidewalks and streets, working for the sanitation department and many other similar low-paying occupations were looked at with disrespect.

            1. Have you heard Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “street sweeper speech”? The “I Have a Dream” speech is more famous, but I’m always reinspired by the street sweeper speech. Here’s one excerpt:

              “If a man is called to be a street sweeper, he should sweep streets even as a Michaelangelo painted, or Beethoven composed music, or Shakespeare wrote poetry. He should sweep streets so well that all the hosts of heaven and earth will pause to say, ‘Here lived a great street sweeper who did his job well.”

              You can hear him deliver a larger portion of the speech here.

    1. I’m glad you enjoyed that. There’s something so satisfying about ‘helping’ in all its forms — and at all ages. Even in her nineties and somewhat limited physically, my mother wanted to help with household chores. I had to remember, from time to time, that getting the chore done in a timely manner wasn’t the most important thing.

  21. P S. I am remembering my own helping today, not least of all involving catching my fingers in a wringer washing machine’s rollers. That only happens once in a lifetime, right?

    1. Oh, gosh. Those rollers were flat dangerous! We had a wringer washer for a time, and although we never had an accident, there were stories. I have a friend who grew up using a mangle to press sheets, tablecloths, and such. I’d never heard of the contraptions, but they’re apparently used in commercial laundries today. Getting a hand into a mangle’s overgrown rollers would result in a mangled hand, for sure.

  22. I’m sure you appreciate that your parents allowed and encouraged your “helping” participation. Wise folks. It’s so important for individual development and communal participation that children help and learn the value that work promotes. Nice essay, LInda.

    1. I was especially lucky that both of my parents were engaged in teaching and nurturing, and that both enjoyed having me around. Some people seem to think the 1950s were akin to the Dark Ages, but post-Depression, post-war parents wanted a lot for their kids — education, independence, economic stability — and they did what they could to instill values that would make those goals attainable. Valuing work wasn’t the be-all and end-all, but it was important.

    1. Exactly so. That ‘meaningful result’ certainly will differ from person to person, but it’s rarely just a matter of financial gain. That’s important, of course — but not the only thing to be considered.

  23. OH, those freshly sun-dried laundered and ironed skirts, helping by picking up sticks, and riding the tricycle around the block
    Great pictures and memories shared.
    Today’s kids have been robbed of so much – mostly by helicopter parenting and trying to make the world Disney Land for their kids.
    Best essay ever.

    1. When I was a kid, one of the most commonly heard complaints from me was, “Mother! I want to do it myself!” When I mentioned that to a friend, she said, “Right. And the complaint heard from a good number of today’s kids is, “Mom! Why won’t you do it for me?”

  24. I loved your essay on work and the adorable pictures of you as a child. Yeah, work has changed for a lot of folks. I hope the administration in Washington get a handle on just how much people need to work to live. Thanks for the informative read, Linda.

    1. While the nature of work may be changing, the importance of productive work for human development still endures. Certainly, the growing resentment of the need to work isn’t healthy. Every now and then I read a news story about demands by college students to be provided this or that, and think, “One day, a good number of chickens are going to show up, ready to roost.”

      1. As long as the Gov supplies food money, work is not something humans generally embrace. When the immigrant inflow is such that jobs no longer go unfilled the chickens will indeed come to roost.

  25. When I opened this one, I thought you were heading down the road toward some Father’s Day musings; wasn’t I surprised to find this more of a Labor Day tribute?! Sadly, today, “work” in some sectors seems to have become a dirty, four-letter word. But there’s a nobility to work, an honor and privilege, and those of us who grew up as you did, Linda, are grateful for the opportunity to be of use. The lucky ones, of course, get paid to do that which they love! Instilling an appreciation for honest work in the hearts and minds of future generations is crucial for us as a society, too. We can’t expect a few to pull the majority of the workload while the masses sit on their backsides and get paid to do so.

    Love the photos you advanced here of Little Linda — she’s such a cutie, and I can relate to how your parents encouraged you to “help.” Wise Midwesterners, indeed!

    1. Actually, this began as a Father’s Day tribute, and mostly ended that way, too — since Dad was the one who taught me most of what I know about how to work, and how to appreciate the opportunity to work. I do worry about the increasingly generous benefits being offered to various constituencies — the “free this, free that” syndrome. People say, “But it’s government money” — neglecting to consider precisely where the government gets its money.

      In any event, I went to work today, and I’ll go to work tomorrow, and I’ll enjoy the freedom I have to do just that. This is the time of year when it can be hard to adjust — there’s that little matter of the heat — but all of us who are out there working in the heat do adjust, just as we adjust to cold, or rain, or storms. Of course, as another entrepreneur, you probably get the same question we all do: “Isn’t it great not to have to work forty hours a week?” As a friend always says, “I don’t know. I work sixty.”

  26. I’ve been working almost my entire life, starting by going door to door selling greeting cards at age 6, then a newspaper route, then working in my parents’ delicatessen, the a couple of grocery stores after school, then gas stations while in college, then landscaping, and finally a career in furniture repair and window treatment installation. I am now well beyond the age of retirement, if that is still considered 65, and have no immediate plan to completely stop working. Although I could happily do seven days a week at photography I would miss the work I have done most of my life. I really don’t understand the reticence to work, in some cases bone idle laziness, in other being spoiled as a youth. And despite my recently exhibited bleeding heart liberal expressions on Steve’s postings, I am not at all happy about the idea of Universal Basic Income. I do support a living wage, but a wage requires work. Society cannot survive without its members contributing as equally as possible.

    We have become a soft lot…at least many have. Here in New England our woods are lined with stone walls. Those stones, for the most part, came from plowing fields for farming and, in some cases, to build a homestead. Horses did the bulk of the work but hanging onto a team and directing them is not exactly a walk in the park. And building stone walls is heavy work. I am sure you can recount similar stories from the places you have lived. Maybe some might say, with our increased life expectancy these days, that they worked themselves to death.

    I loved seeing the pictures of you at a younger age and was disappointed that I couldn’t click to enlarge. Be still my heart, you were adorable…probably still are. :) I believe I have seen some FB posts showing that there are still folks documenting the work people do. If not then someone should. There is no shame in working with one’s hands and I have more respect for those who do then a bunch of pencil pushers who look down upon such workers.

    1. My first paid work was babysitting: typical for a girl of the time. Then, there was detasseling corn in the summers, and working retail at a music store. I earned fifty cents an hour detasseling, but look what I found when I looked up the pay scale for today’s detasselers: “Corn detasselers in the United States make an average salary of $34,222 per year or $16.45 per hour. People on the lower end of that spectrum, the bottom 10% to be exact, make roughly $16,000 a year, while the top 10% makes $73,000.” I wonder if a shortage of people willing to head to the fields for twelve-hour shifts has played into the pay raises — as well as inflation, of course.

      Your comment about doing photography seven days a week brought a smile. I heard a couple of CEOs story-telling last week. One had looked forward to retirement for years, so he could play golf all the time. He finally retired, and started playing golf. After six months, he was working again; the loss of the rhythm of work and recreation drove him crazy. “Just playing” all the time wasn’t as nice as he’d imagined.

      As a matter of fact, I do know what it takes to build a stone wall. Although the husband of the friend I visit in the hill country brought in the really big rocks with his front loader, the bulk of the rock work done on their place was done by my friend. She’s given it up at this point, but they managed a rock house, a huge garden, and plenty of walls before he died and she quit — at about age 85. Some of the most beautiful rock work I’ve seen is around the Flint Hills of Kansas. I’ve got some great photos, and a great story to go with them. All I need to do is settle down and (ahem) work on it.

      1. Worker shortage does seem to be driving wages up. Covid seems to be taking care of the minimum wage without Congressional action. I’ve heard of several national chains and some local businesses offering $15/hour to start in an attempt to bring more employees on board. Detasseling sounds like tedious work and I’d think not an attractive job for minimum wage.

        Being a homeowner adds a bit of variety to just “playing” at photography. I’d guess most CEOs have someone to do all that for them. When I get home from a shoot I have property to care for, a house to maintain, and a beagle to walk. Plenty of diversity.

        As always, I’ll be looking forward to the story of the Flint Hills stone walls.

  27. The whole string from “helping to work” – decide where you fit in the scenario has definitely changed

    – I remember when I went from using a wringer washing machine to getting one that did everything inside the lid after you selected and pushed a few buttons in.And then finding I didn’t even have to lug the wet washing out to the clothesline, as magically I had a dryer indoors.

    This last item I don’t have now, but that’s okay, I’m on my own…

    1. There have been a lot of changes. Many are good; some are clearly unhelpful, and many are going to take more time to sort out before we know where they fit. As for the laundry routines, it just occurred to me how rarely I see a laundromat now. They used to be everywhere, and for a lot of people, especially women, they served the same purpose as a barbershop. They were social centers of sorts: places where there was easy-going conversation that helped pass the time. That could make a very interesting article. Throw a pile of clothes in a basket and set off down the road, stopping at an assortment of laundromats to do a little comparing and contrasting.

      Speaking of laundry, after our last bad hurricane, the Tide Corporation brought one of their mobile laundries to my neighborhood. It was like a giant semi; they set it up in a Target parking lot. It gave people without water and electricity a chance to get some clean clothes, and that counted for a lot in those circumstances.

      1. There have been those mobile help mates here a lot including showering facilities with every thing supplied except clothes.

        Some of the laundromats were open during our major lockdown, but you had to leave your bags and pick up later. No loitering and chatting.

        We have a lot of homeless people and there was a number of incentives put into place rapidly although some of the people did have homes but relied on “money in my hat” in the busy places…then that avenue dried up.

  28. I think work gives us a purpose, especially when we are doing work that we know is necessary. I know of people who believe, truly, that the government should pay everyone to simply be alive, but I don’t agree. A life of enforced idleness would grow old rather quickly, I think. Working allows us to stretch our wings, to challenge ourselves and to feel pride in our accomplishments. Of course some jobs are sheer drudgery, but I’m not talking about those. Excellent post!

    1. I’ll confess that I grinned at your statement that “a life of enforced idleness would grow old rather quickly.” I think many people learned that lesson during the pandemic. Whether the primary concern was maintaining cash flow or sanity, people had to find new ways to be productive. “Netflix and chill” is fine, but it grows old quickly; at least, it does for most.

      As for drudgery: one person’s drudgery is another’s enjoyable effort. There are plenty of people who think what I do is nothing but drudgery. Granted, it can feel that way at times, but as soon as the temperature drops below ninety, all’s well again. What’s ironic is that the most joyless work I ever engaged in also provided me with the best paychecks. When I gave it up to start my own business, it was three years before I stopped digging for change in the sofa cushions, but it was worth it.

      1. Those who are able to do what they love and earn a good living at it are very lucky. Sadly, I’ve never been one of them! But that’s okay, I can have the work I do to earn money, and the “work” I do because I find it so very satisfying!

  29. Loved seeing your childhood photos, Linda, adorable. Work can be so satisfying, or hell, lol! I’ve always loved the feeling of accomplishment that comes with a job well done. I have trouble sitting around, and I’m happy at the end of the day when the ‘to-do’ list has lots of crossed out lines.

    1. I enjoy a front porch ‘sit’ as much as anyone, but there’s active sitting as well as passive sitting, and even sitting I like to be active in one way or another: even if my only activity is thinking. I suspect that all work is a mixture of satisfaction and grim determination to get through the nasty parts. I love varnishing, but I’m not so fond of stripping and sanding. I enjoy cooking, but peeling carrots drives me crazy for some reason. I enjoy feeding the birds, but washing the windows so I can see them better’s a different matter. Still, we do what’s needed in order to reach those goals — and satisfy ourselves, if no one else.

  30. Don’t know how it is in Texas, but in Maine, there are too many low-paying jobs where people can barely make ends meet. That kind of work is not noble. It is soul-crushing and exhausting. Hannaford, a grocery chain, is the state’s largest employer. Wal-Mart is second. Back in the day, we had the large factories, where it was possible to earn a decent living. Those factories are long gone, and the state struggles.

    1. Some of those low-paying jobs, particularly at fast food places and such, never were meant to support a family. They were considered entry-level, and the assumption was that with age and experience, the possibility for advancement (and better pay) would be there.

      It is true that around here there are businesses that haven’t waited for government mandates to provide decent salaries. One of our most beloved gas station chains (beloved at least in part for their utterly spotless restrooms!) recently was hiring for a nearby location, and the base rate was $15/hr, plus medical, plus two weeks’ paid vacation.They’re still short of workers, but aren’t in nearly the sad position of other businesses.

      On the other hand, well-paying work can be soul-crushing, too. When I quit my salaried position to begin my own business, I was making three times what I do now, and my work carried a good bit more status. Would I exchange my sandpaper and my slim bank balance for heels and an HR department? No, ma’am.

      1. Unfortunately, those low-paying jobs are now the norm. At least in Maine, nothing has come to replace them. Well-paying work can certainly be soul-crushing, too. But nothing can compare with working like crazy and barely being able to pay the rent and put food on the table. Nevertheless, very glad you were able to leave a job you clearly didn’t like to start your own business.

  31. We have some serious issues related to this topic of working (or in this case, not) with Oldest Kid Greg, the artist who will not work at a real job because it isn’t fun. (And yes, he does have some significant mental health issues that are a whole different batch of challenges) but the fact is, he won’t even try. (And he doesn’t have stimulus funds, although he does have an enabling mom.) He doesn’t want to work, he wants to play. He won’t even work at his work, art, which is his passion — at least not with enough regularity and follow-through that make him a good hire. It’s frustrating to a parent who grew up with (and lived) the “That’s why it’s called work” belief.

    It’s wonderful when you love your job and it can often happen. But not always and maybe even not forever. But one must work. I know a lot of people are talking about the government stimulus being a factor. It might be — but I don’t think it’s as big a factor as people thing. People just decided they don’t like what they do and don’t want to do it anymore. They don’t want to work in the fast food place — it’s not fun. Many have created their own jobs during the pandemic. Even more don’t want to return to the workplace after working at home and independently. Some of that will change next month when the stimulus unemployment funds stop and some will end when people are forced back into the office. But in the past year we learned a lot about ourselves, good and bad. It will be interesting to see how that evolves over the next year.

    Have you read Studs Turkel’s “Working”? It’s wonderful, as is the musical based on the book.

    1. I agree with you that it’s going to take some time for all of these changing circumstances to sort themselves out. And it’s also true that many of the problems which were exacerbated by the pandemic began developing well in the past. The substitution of feeling for rational thought and action is only one example. “If it feels good, do it” is a lovely notion, but it’s not much of a life plan.

      Beyond that, the whole work-ought-to-be-fun business has destroyed a few people I know. I enjoy my work, and take satisfaction in it, but it’s rarely ‘fun’ in any conventional sense. Your point about Greg not being all that enamored with working at his art is familiar, too. Every now and then I make myself sit down and re-read this passage from the artist Chuck Close:

      “The advice I like to give young artists, or really anybody who’ll listen to me, is not to wait around for inspiration. Inspiration is for amateurs; the rest of us just show up and get to work.

      “If you wait around for the clouds to part and a bolt of lightning to strike you in the brain, you are not going to make an awful lot of work. All the best ideas come out of the process; they come out of the work itself. If you’re sitting around trying to dream up a great art idea, you can sit there a long time before anything happens. But if you just get to work, something will occur to you, and something else will occur to you and something else that you reject will push you in another direction.

      “Inspiration is absolutely unnecessary and somehow deceptive. You feel like you need this great idea before you can get down to work, and I find that’s almost never the case.”

      That kind of talk is absolutely against the current cultural grain, but it’s true.

  32. It’s hard to express in words how much I enjoyed this post. Since I live in a rural area, work around here hasn’t changed that much – like the photos you showcased here from the photographer’s amazing project. But in our country, it seems work has been so devalued and way too many don’t want to work any more. Our work (or lack of it) impacts us significantly. And I strongly believe it gives us purpose (even when we are “retired,” we still have work to do and that must be done.)

    1. Every now and then, someone asks me when I’m going to retire. I usually give them my standard, humorous answer: that I’m determined to enter the Guiness Book of World Records as the oldest living varnisher. But if retirement is defined in my own somewhat idiosyncratic way — doing what I want on a limited income — I retired in 1990, when I left more traditional ’employment’ to begin my own business.

      I was thinking yesterday that part of the problem is that too many equate the value of work with the amount of money received in exchange. On the other hand, there are some today who insist that all work be valued equally, and that (for example) fast food workers should receive the same pay as a construction worker. The concept of an entry-level job seems to have disappeared, and the thought of having to ‘work one’s way up the ladder’ is absolutely distasteful to a couple of twenty-somethings I know.

  33. I’ve never seen this Freud quote: “love and work are the cornerstones of our humanness.” The theme of this traveling exhibit certainly encapsulates that idea. Like another commenter I’m reminded of Studs Turkel’s “Working” which I studied in college making me aware of the variety of jobs available and attitudes toward them. Your photos are delightful. I had to run the vacuum at that age, too. I felt grown-up doing it.

    1. I still remember being ‘just’ strong enough to push that vaccuum, but insisting that I should do it anyway. It did make me feel grown up, as well as helping me learn how much work it was to keep a place neat and attractive.

      While my farm kid friends learned important lessons about responsibility and and persistence through their chores involving animals and crops, for me it was household chores. Of course, along the way I had to learn certain other lessons: like, shoving everything under the bed didn’t equate to ‘cleaning my room.’

  34. I wonder if the old folks – used to hanging carpets outside, and giving them a good walloping with a rug beater, thought the folks with fancy electric vacuum cleaners were awful slackers?! And now some households have those little self-directed Roobas running around. Well, I like mechanical devices of all sorts, so robotic vacuums and lawnmowers seem fine ideas to me, but basically they’d just free me to look around for some other, more creative kinds of work to do

    1. Ahem. This ‘old folk’ remembers carpet beaters and clotheslines! I’m no Luddite, that’s for sure, and I’m not at all opposed to labor saving devices. I was very young, but I remember my grandmother doing laundry in aluminum tubs outdoors, and I remember her excitement when the first electric wringer washer showed up, thanks to her kids. She never moved on from that, but my mother gave up her wringer washer gladly, and accepted what we’d recognize as a washing machine into the basement. It took a while, but eventually a dryer came along. There always was laundry to be done; only the way of doing it changed.

      Somewhat ironically, I’m currently varnishing the wood trim around a newly installed washer/dryer combination — on a boat. The old practice of throwing the dirty clothes in a mesh bag and dragging them behind the boat isn’t always necessary, now. Onward!

      1. Yikes, no offense I’m sure, I meant, of course, the days before the electric vacuum cleaners were even invented. My folks still take runners outside sometimes, put them over a stepladder and whack it.
        I didn’t know about that laundry-at-sea thing, that’s pretty neat, although I’d feel bad for the fish if they ran into a bag of my sweaty socks and underwear, that might wipe out a coral reef or something!
        My grandmother always kept a bar of brown soap in her laundry room, Fels-Naptha, and would hand-scrub grimy collars with it. My father still uses it sometimes on poison ivy rashes, although it puckers up your skin like an old mummy.

        1. Ha! No offense taken at all. At this point, I’m rather proud of my age, and delighted by my memories of those early times: not to mention a little astonished from time to time!

    1. I loved that tricycle. It might as well have been a space rocket, given how much it enlarged the boundaries of my world! For a child who’s been yard-bound, getting to travel around the block was quite something!

    1. It’s too bad I don’t have any photos from my teen working years. When we’d get out of the fields after detasseling, we looked for all the world like something out of a Dorothea Lange photo. It was good money, though — you could earn a lot in four or five weeks at fifty cents an hour!

        1. I’d never heard of cotton scouting: didn’t have a clue what it could be. I knew a fishing guide named Cotton once; all I could think of was Cotton, out on the bay scouting for redfish or trout. Now, I’m all educated. It’s interesting that it’s one of those jobs that still is done the old-fashioned way. Even harvesting has been made easier by mechanization, but it sounds like scouting is still much like it was in your dad’s time.

  35. Dad was a carpenter. Both Mom and Dad grew up children of farmers. As a child, chores were simply part of life. A day at work with Dad was a joy. I can still smell fresh cut wood.

    Our own children were raised with a strong “work ethic” and are passing that to their own kids. There are, of course, challenges. Technology, peer pressure, media. It would be easy to despair about the state of our society in so many respects, especially when it comes to “working for a living”. There will always be those who search for the path of least resistance. The joke is on them. Even that quest requires “work”!

    As I observe the local cultural landscape, I see the extremes: those who are ambitious and see hard work as their means to what Maslow called “self-actualization” and those who have become accustomed to receiving something (e.g., from the government) for nothing. I don’t mean the needy who need help through no fault of their own, but those who choose to “work the system”. (There’s that “w” word again!)

    My local observations have also revealed what I see as “normal” folks going about their daily lives with the understanding that “work” is a requirement. Some like what they do, many do not. Doing “something” is what will make a difference in our society. Also, it’s a fairly amazing revelation when one discovers that a “job” which allows us to get stuff we want ain’t so bad after all.

    I am optimistic our human (dare I say, uniquely “American”?) spirit will prevail the seemingly pervasive “something for nothing” climate.

    Tom’s photographic project is nothing short of epic! Thank you for sharing his work.

    Excellent essay! Marvelous writing!

    Thunder, lightning, coffee! Summer is here.

    1. Your mention of the smell of wood brought back some other memories. I’ve heard people joke by saying, “That smells like work” — but there were many kinds of work that did have their own scent: fresh cut grass, smoke from burning leaves, bread baking, sun-and-wind dried sheets. Today, laundry companies sell ‘breeze in a bottle,’ to make laundry smell like it used to. They fail every time.

      I grinned at the phrase ‘working the system.’ It took me straight back to East Oakland in the mid-70s. I was working part time at a social service agency, and it was suggested that if we wanted to get a feel for local realities, we should read Tom Wolfe’s classic Mau-Mauing the Flak Catchers. There’s a short description of it here.. There’s also this poorly formatted version of it online where you can either get a flavor of it, or read the whole thing. I suppose it’s one of those you-had-to-have-been-there books, but on the other hand, when I pulled my copy out and re-read it recently, it still was precisely on target, and howlingly funny.

      I’m glad you enjoyed Tom’s work. He’s a fine photographer, and did a good bit to introduce me to the wonders of Kansas. A friend tells me the wheat harvest has begun there; the cycles of the seasons and the work they bring are rolling on.

  36. Thought-provoking and insightful post! I’ve never stayed with a job that I thought as “work.” To me, work (the word) means something distasteful. Something we’re made to do. While “helping in the house,” helping mom/dad/spouse/family, playing with co-workers to create a project and help others, writing my heart out – now that’s what I plan to do my entire life.

    1. That sense that work is distasteful always has seemed odd to me. Obviously, there are unpleasant jobs in this world, and every job has aspects that are less pleasing than others, but the opportunity to work at something is a gift: one that many people never seem to experience.Certainly, there are days when I have to make myself go to work, and I’ve always said that learning to run a business was harder than learning to varnish. I suspect that’s true for most entrepreneurs. The hardest discipline to learn is self-discipline, but once learned, it frees us up to enjoy whatever’s occupying our time more fully.

  37. I am a strong advocate of young people working outside the house and getting paid for it, Linda. And for young people being expected to pay for some of their needs. A solid work ethic is a valuable thing to have.
    I also believe that people should be paid a living wage, not being exploited so someone else can enjoy all the benefits. Or that billionaires can increase their billions. It’s close to criminal that someone has to work two or three jobs to pay for basics and then be thrown out in the street because rents have shot up.
    If someone makes a choice to work for less, as I have often done, that’s a different issue. I chose to work for nonprofits because I believed that what they were doing. I also chose to take a year off on occasion because I loved doing it.
    By the time I was 14, I was working in fruit orchards, doing adult work often for 10 hours a day and enjoying it. But I didn’t have to do it so I could eat. My dollar and hour wouldn’t have gone far. :) –Curt

    1. My first pay-for-work came from inside the house. I never received an allowance, per se, but began by being paid for tasks that were outside my usual, everyday chores like setting the table. Raking leaves, for example, could earn a whole dollar if I did a good job! On the other hand, my experience didn’t end with earning the money. Every Saturday, Dad would take me to the bank, where I’d put twenty-five cents into my Christmas savings account. It came with its own passbook, and nothing was better than watching the teller stamp my book and write in the current balance — unless it was withdrawing the money at the beginning of December, and shopping with my own earnings.

      As for your point about billionaires and living wages, I’m almost at the point of ending my relationship with Amazon. The convenience it offers no longer offsets the terrible stories about the warehouse workers and drivers’ working conditions. For that matter, I’m not that fond of Google at this point, but pondering how to disentangle from these corporations makes clear how deeply their tentacles reach.

      You and I both know what it’s like to disentangle from the usual working world, though. Every time I hear a new story about someone’s HR department, I sigh, and smile.

      1. Laughing about the last comment, Linda. Ain’t it true!

        It’s so easy to get sucked into the convenience of the Amazon quagmire. Even more so when the nearest shopping alternatives involve a 60-mile roundtrip and finding what you want/need is never a given. Have you read Nomadland? I haven’t yet but Peggy has. It talks extensively about how Amazon, exploits the folks who have been made homeless and wander the country looking for work while living out of their cars and RVs.

        I don’t think I was ever paid by my parents for chores. Neither did I get an allowance. But I do remember El Dorado Savings and Loans where I had my first bank account. I don’t think I opened that until I started working in the pear orchards however and received a weekly check. That money took care of my clothes, books and dates and eventually college. :)

  38. GREAT POST as always. I have a lot of memories as a kid, and even now making new memories. To be able to work and enjoy what you are doing is a great thing. People working together, visiting, and enjoying what you are doing is even a greater thing. I think growing up in a small rural community gave me respect for my elders, especially those who were very skilled at their profession. When I started working at the hatchery at 15, the other men were retired and worked part-time. They were great storytellers and I learned a lot from them. I used to visit elderly people in the neighborhood and listen to their stories as well. To learn what they went through in their lives was quite an inspiration. It takes a lot of hands to make this world go round. I hope you are well. Thanks for sharing!

    1. When I was growing up, ‘together’ was a key word, especially when it came to harvesting, putting up the fruits of the harvest, building a new barn, or quilting. Those traditions endure, but they’re mostly hidden. The New York Times or Washington Post pays little attention to the neighbors who bring in the harvest for a farmer who’s been felled by accident or disease, or the women who bring covered dishes to families in need.

      Respect for elders seems to be in serious decline, too. The phrase “OK, Boomer” is a younger generation’s way of expressing disdain for you and I. They don’t want to hear about our accomplishments or our beliefs, and they certainly don’t want to acknowledge our parents as the ‘greatest’ generation. Full of utopian visions and glued to their screens, many (most?) have little time for using their hands or getting dirty: at least, with real dirt. My own dad used to say the best way to get a mule to change direction was first to get its attention, and that the best way to get its attention was to hit it upside the head with a 2×4. One of these days, life’s going to get some of the young ones’ attention. The only question is the nature of the 2×4.

  39. Wonderful to see the photos of you, Linda, and Tom Parker’s photos are truly stunning. Interesting and broad topic to be interpreted in many ways, but the photos say it all.

    1. Tom is a wonderful photographer. He’s been kind enough to allow me to use a few of his other photos in different posts, and he certainly did a lot to help me become friends with my camera.

      There are so many ways of understanding work, but it’s a part of life. I don’t know why it took me until just now to even think of this, but the work that I do on boats traditionally has been known as ‘brightwork.’ Of course, there’s ropework, and housework, and homework; they all require effort, but they all provide rewards.

  40. One of my sons, a young adult, is switching from working with his hands (woodwork or metalwork) to doing IT work. He felt he couldn’t make a living working with his hands. It’s still work, but there’s something special about making things I think he’ll want to return to. And it’s unfortunate he feels it has no future.
    I was also struck by Parker’s decision to tell a story, and avoid copying styles of others.
    How wonderful that you’ve been able to keep working at what you do in the past year. I’m looking forward to getting back to working side by side with people, instead of faces in rectangles on a display.

    1. Well, there’s no doubt that my work on boats is work without much of a future. Fiberglass, Kevlar, and steel are replacing planking and brass, and little by little wood trim is disappearing, too. People want low or no maintenance, so it seems that the end of my personal time on this planet and the end of anyone’s need for my services may arrive simultaneously, or nearly so. Still, it pleases me to be an 18th century relic in a 21st century world.

      Tom has told some wonderful stories over the years. He’s done documentary-style spreads not only on local events, but also on subjects as diverse as steam engines, the creep of technology, and the glorious/wonderful/nearly unbelievable reality of William Least Heat-Moon’s return to Chase County, Kansas. I’d forgotten how much I enjoy his writing. Have a read of this piece, and it will make you want to browse his archives. There are real gems there.

      1. That’s a fine piece of writing. He’s open about his photographic agenda and prejudices. Judging photographs is just like that, as someone who’s been on both sides of it. Off to read more…

  41. I’ve worked at various things over my life, from picking strawberries for a local farmer as a kid to electron microscopy, engineering and I.T. Now it is part-time supplementary retirement work in the agricultural sector. It all helps gain perspective and understand how the world works. And it is all good and worthwhile.

    1. Our fields were different (even beginning with strawberry and corn!) but the dynamic’s recognizable. I don’t know how it was for your parents, but for mine, the expectation was that decades would be spent with the same company, or in the same profession. It caused my mom no end of worry as I moved from one arena to another. My dad, who’d spent almost his whole work life with the same company, was more sanguine. I wish from time to time I could talk with him again; I suspect that he sometimes envied my approach to things.

      You’re certainly right that such varied work experience does lead to a different way of seeing the world — and a deeper respect for all the ways that people work.

  42. What an interesting article. It sounds like you discovered a healthy attitude toward work early on. I took my bicycle into the shop for maintenance this morning, and noticed that two of the mechanics looked to be high school age. And I thought, what a great job for a kid! It’s hands-on, useful, practical, something you can take pride in. It also teaches you self confidence, I think.

    1. I love my computer and my phone, and all the advantages they offer, but ‘hands-on’ experience in the real world is so important. Your bicycle shop mechanics not only provide a service to the customers, they’re learning attention to detail, patience, and so on — the same qualities needed for those crunchy/chewy cookies you just shared. (They came out wonderfully, by the way.)

      The photos here show me working with my dad, but I worked with my mother, too. One of my favorite memories is baking day. If we were making pies, she’d be at work at the kitchen counter while I rolled out crusts for my tiny pie tins on the seat of a chair — with my six-inch rolling pin!

  43. Without going into all the back and forth over the state of work these days, I’ll just add that there have always been live-to-work people and work-to-live people. As with many polarities, I find myself coming down pretty much in the middle. Work adds more than one kind of value to a life, but things have changed in both the outlook of some workers and the environment in which they are working. Both need to change in order for work to become a noble, fruitful pursuit for more of us.

    1. Your comment about work-to-live or live-to-work brought a smile. A friend who used to live aboard his boat in Gibraltar would say he’d become a Spanish fisherman: one who goes out in the morning, fishes until he has enough catch to pay for the afternoon’s drinks, and then comes home. A little of that can go a long way, but none of that leads to a very boring life!

      You’re certainly right about the work environment being an issue, too. A friend and I were talking over dinner tonight about Amazon, and our ambivalence about using the service. We both know people who’ve left the company over working conditions, and some of the stories aren’t especially pleasant.

  44. Work is a blessing if you are able to do what you love to do. But when work becomes a necessary mean to survive, it might not be as pleasurable any more. However, I do think we have lost, at least to some degree, what Sigmund Freud wrote about. Somewhere along the advancement of our society we lost this healthy attitude to work. I could not not think of working myself.

    1. I’m the same way. Occasionally someone will ask me when I intend to retire. My response always is the same: if being retired means doing as I please on a limited income, I retired a few decades ago.

      Of course, sometimes having the discipline to engage in distasteful or boring work in the service of some greater goal — putting food on the table, getting through college, and so on — is called for. Those who want all work to be easy and ‘fun’ might have a lesson or two still to learn.

  45. I really appreciated your descriptions of work and how the concept began in your young mind. We were made for activity whether that’s helping or working.

    1. That’s right. I suspect that’s why Sisyphus and his rock-rolling resonates so strongly with us. We recognize that there’s a difference between work — even hard work — that makes a difference, and work-for-the-sake-of-work. Sometimes, of course, we bump up against work-for-the-sake-of better work. After all, T.S. Eliot was a bank clerk for a time, and William Faulkner was a postmaster, although only for two years. Who knew that he of the wordy novels could pen such a succinct resignation letter?

  46. I love this post. I love the story of Tom Parker’s project – would have loved to see it. I love the comments here.

    Interesting that the labour shortage is the same in my part of Canada. Where I live, a touristy, now wine producing region, vineyards and cafes all have Help Wanted signs. Problem here is, while they pay about as much as your local places, housing costs have skyrocketed…it’s literally impossible to even rent a place if your family has one income, and one job, in the service industry.

    1. This month, Tom’s been involved in another project: more local, but just as impressive. He’s been documenting his town’s 150th anniversary. He’s as good as anyone I know at capturing small town life, and elevating it in such a way that everyone wishes they could live in that town.

      It’s becoming clear that the labor shortages here are complex. Yes, some have been willing to live on the extra money provided during the pandemic, but that’s not the only issue. Many people who got used to working from home wouldn’t mind staying there. Some found relief in not having to do what they had been doing; now, they’re looking for different employment. Complaints about low pay are less relevant, because even absent legislation, many businesses have upped their pay scale. It’s complex, but it needs to be solved somehow. Many of the shortages we’re experiencing are due to one broken link in the supply chain: no one to do the work necessary to transport goods from point A to Point B.
      A small personal example: the varnish I use isn’t available anywhere in the country. The importer can’t get it, and even once they have it, it will take time to get it to distributors. The reason? A lack of dock workers and long-haul truckers. Also: companies went to just-in-time inventories, and now they’re finding that to be a bit of a problem.

  47. Tom Parker sure did an ambitious project and what a success –
    enjoyed this post about it and the fun childhood photos –

    and just FYI – there is a really good book about the value of “work” called Skillful means by Tarhang Tulku (so good)

    1. Tom’s a great photographer, with wide-ranging interests. One of my favorites of his projects was a photo essay on William Least Heat-Moon, whose chronicle of Chase County Kansas was a tour de force. As for those childhood photos, I wish I had a few more to share; most of the ones with my mother and grandparents exist only in my head. I think my mother must have been the photographer in the family, as I’ve found very few photos of the two of us together, even though we worked together in a multitude of ways.

      1. I know what you mean about wishing to have have more of the old photos – I wish I had them too –
        and my mother-n-law lives in Kansas City Kansas and because it is rather close to MO – I sorta know the area of Kansas City MO – but not the Chase county that much –
        anyhow, thanks for the reply

  48. Love the photo of you on your tricycle!
    One of the luck I had in my life is that I always enjoyed my work. Of course there have been difficult moments, difficult people to deal with. But generally speaking I never thought on sunday night it was bad because next morning I had to go to work!

    1. I loved that tricycle! Once I had memorized our phone number, I was allowed to ride it all around the block: such a taste of freedom!

      There’s no perfect job, and no work that’s always pleasant. But that’s life, when you get down to it. I don’t enjoy working in the heat of summer or our cold winter weather, but like you I’ve never dreaded Monday morning, no matter my work. Of course, I grew up with a Swedish grandmother who was fond of reminding us children that “Who does not want to work in the heat, will have to starve in the cold.” Got it, Grandma!

  49. I thoroughly enjoyed becoming immersed in your post. The value of a strong “work ethic” needs to be nurtured in our children from an early age. Your words testify to this important value.

  50. I don’t recall having a trike but I did have a little red wagon and I had a bike with training wheels. I also had a little stove that I placed next to the one in our kitchen (drove my mother nuts) that had a real working hot plate in it!

    1. Inquiring minds want to know: did your bike with training wheels have those plastic streamers that fit on the handlebars? I loved those! I didn’t have a wagon, but I had a scooter. In those days, they were foot powered, and used up a good bit of energy to make it around the block. I didn’t have a stove, but I had a little “kitchen” that came with tiny cake, pie, and muffin tins, and boxed mixes that produced just enough batter to fill them. They were great fun, and it was so grown-up to be “baking with Mother”!

      1. I don’t recall if my bike had steamers or not just that I was thrilled when I learned how to ride without the training wheels (I was a big girl now!) I had an easy bake oven which I made one cake in and then it broke and a little snowman machine (hand turned grinder) that turned ice cubes into snow cones.

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