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RANT FROM SEPTEMBER 2001
"What about Work"
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     The hired preacher at the funeral home asked the offspring
of the deceased what they had learned from her.  Several of the
twelve replied at once, "How to work."  She had taught them all
the dignity of work, and the habit of productive activity.
     That occasion made me think of May Day in Havana some years
ago.  We were part of a huge parade of workers.  Billboards all
over town and along the parade route reminded us:  "El Mejor
Homenaje Es el Trabajo" [the best homage is one's work].  The
people of Cuba were proud of what they did with their lives; they
rendered their homage to the Revolution gladly, as agricultural
workers, cobblers, fishermen, medical staff, teachers.  They
didn't have to explain their activities as pimps, gambling
dealers, spies, death squad personnel, bankers, con men -- most
of that group had already fled to Miami a generation ago.  As to
any who were still inclined to engage in those activities -- "que
se vayan..." the marchers sang in the May Day parade [let them
go].
     The marching laborers were comparing themselves and their
situation to that of their parents, or even themselves thirty
years before.  They recalled it as a form of slavery, in which
they had nothing, received nothing for their hard labor -- no
house, not even shoes, to say nothing of universal education and
universal health care.  Because of the changes they had
experienced, they were ready to offer their best homage, and they
were doing so.
     Some years earlier, I had attended a Labor Day parade in
Manhattan.  Right down 5th Avenue a few marchers marched with a
presidential candidate, while almost no one watched.  It was sad.  
Labor Day had become an excuse for a holiday, a beer-drinking, 
car- and boat-crashing last week-end of summer, an excuse not to 
work, and in no way a celebration of the dignity of work.
     In our country, labor is thought of as an expense, which is
what it is to those who own and run things.  And even in the
cases of those who have to do the work, for the most part labor
is thought of as onerous and unpleasant, even shameful, a waste
of time and life.  The media deliver this message constantly --
how wonderful week-ends are, how miserable Monday is because one
has to go to work, how important Wednesday is because we've made
it halfway through the miserable work week.  All too often,
sadly, the work which people do to hold the jobs they have does
indeed constitute a waste of time and life.  When a person
becomes serious and asks, "What do I really want to do with my
time, my energy, my ingenuity, my know-how and my very life?" the
work one does may not satisfy.
     "She taught us how to work," that lucky family said in
chorus.  It was a far cry from the jobs-jobs-jobs craze of this
age, with all the emphasis on pay and benefits.
     What is work anyway?  In old-time physics classes, the
definition was essentially "moving things."  Lifting, carrying --
recall the old high school definition of "horsepower" as the unit
of work:  the force required to raise 33,000 pounds at the rate
of one foot per minute.  The definition is still irrelevant to an
ordinary person's experience of work.
     I think of work as productivity.  It can be a little
abstract, if one counts these essays, for example, and I do. 
Painting the fence, or painting a painting, counts also.  I do
not accept as the final word Mark Twain's use of the concept of
work, when Tom Sawyer was painting the fence.  "Work is something
I have to do, even though I don't want to do it," Tom thinks. 
"I'll talk these bozos into thinking they want to do it; they'll
even pay me for the privilege of doing it, and I can leave off
doing it, and enjoy not doing it, and enjoy watching them do it."
     I simply disagree.  Work is fun; productivity is fun.  Even
clean-up work is fun.  Sweeping the house reminds me somehow of
defecation, which has a pleasant aspect to it, when all goes
well.  It was, in fact, a pleasure which Twain was well aware of
and thought we as a culture undervalued.
     An old hymn comes to mind.  "Work for the night is coming,
when man's work is done."  It makes a body wonder about a modern
phenomenon -- retirement.  "When are you going to retire?" people
ask.  Retire from what? I think to myself.  I like doing things. 
I like doing what I do.  I changed things some while ago, so that
I didn't have to do things I knew I didn't like doing, and what I
do now, I intend to keep on doing until I'm interrupted.
     Gardening, caning chairs, writing -- those are the things I
still do and have no desire to retire from doing.  If I had to
put on a necktie and go to an air-conditioned office five days a
week, I would have retired long ago.  In one basic sense, I did
exactly that decades ago.  So the retirement question is moot for
me, and I still like work.  I married one of those offspring of
the lady who taught her kids to work, and we do seem to deserve
each other.
                            *   *   *
Copyright © 2001 Harry Willson

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