Monday, May 25, 2009

Unlikely work

Foundation replacement job in progress.

Several people whose writings I respect pointed me to Matthew B. Crawford's New York Times Magazine article "The Case for Working With Your Hands."

I have to admit, I brought to it an edgy suspicion, hard acquired. For 15 years I worked construction, primarily small scale earthquake retrofitting. The work was difficult, dirty, often unpleasant, required brains and skill, and left tons of additional concrete under scores of San Francisco houses. Every once in a while, we got a break doing a kitchen remodel, a deck, or a fence. There was nothing wrong with this way of earning a living, but there was nothing romantic about it either. I stopped when my body got tired and I discovered that the skills involved in bringing construction projects in on budget and on time were useful in many other, cleaner, arenas of work.

Like me, Crawford is person with a fine education who found satisfaction and perhaps some unexpected insight by working at a manual trade -- his is classic motorcycle repair. His core message:

A good job requires a field of action where you can put your best capacities to work and see an effect in the world. Academic credentials do not guarantee this. ...

Yes -- that's true. But I wish he'd shown some recognition how gendered that perspective is. Women who opt out of the education path to employment have many less options -- they are a lot more likely to end up emptying bedpans than acquiring a skilled trade. Yes, I was an exception, but I know how lucky I was in a particular place at a particular moment.

Just recently a battered pickup truck stopped next to me as I walked down the street and out jumped a woman, her face lined and a hair turning gray. She'd recognized me as the woman who hired her 25 years ago and given her a start in the remodeling trade she still carries on. Yes, she told me, she is still one of the few at the lumberyard and in the supply stores. And it is still a world where she can't count on being accepted for the professional she is.

Yet Crawford is onto a truth: work we experience as having meaning is food for the soul. His essay is very much worth reading. He quoted Marge Piercy's poem "To Be of Use." I will too:

The work of the world is common as mud.
Botched, it smears the hands, crumbles to dust.
But the thing worth doing well done
has a shape that satisfies, clean and evident.

Not long after reading Crawford's essay, I came across another attempt to explain how an unlikely job can satisfy. The author is "Combat Queer" who writes "A metafictional journey though an enlisted transwomans' junk room of a mind." Here's her explanation of how she relates to her stint in the Army:

You know what fucking kills me? Some times I really like being in the Army. ...there's nothing like doing your job well, like winning the esteme [sic] of people who wouldn't otherwise be your friends because you're good at what you do. Out in the civilian world, I can do this job, and I can rock it out there (and one day I will), but right now, I just want to do my job here. I want to [g]o to the sandbox [Iraq], provide the support I'm trained to, come back, and then be done with the Army. If they kick me out before I do what I've been getting ready to do, well, that'll be damn lame. I can do my job, I need to do it, fuck, I love to do it.

And yeah, I'm a transsexual. It all fits together somehow.

There lurks in most of us, most of the time, a hope to know we are "of use," and to be recognized for our usefulness by some community. I'm less sure than Crawford that it is work itself that gives this satisfaction; perhaps the satisfaction is both more idiosyncratic and more social than we readily understand.

1 comment:

Darlene said...

I find great satisfaction when I am able to accomplish a task that I thought I wasn't qualified for. Meeting the challenge is rewarding in itself.

However, Jan, I think you have it right; recognition from others is the most rewarding of all.

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