Monday, June 8, 2009

Manual work as sucking very much
Tom Smith

With the publication of this book, I anticipate an outpouring of electrons on how wonderful manual work is.  That's all very good, but let's keep it in perspective.  In many ways, manual work can really suck.  I know lots of people grew up on farms and this allowed them to go on be CEOs of giant corporations.  Well, that's great.  But I think for most people, manual work is well, just really hard and unpleasant, something you do because you have to.  One recalls what the Irish laborer said to JFK during a campaign stop: "Jackie, they're saying you haven't worked a day in your life, but let me tell ya, ya haven't missed a ting."  

I grant the manual work can  be very dignified and lead you to Jesus or in the case of more upper class people, spiritual awareness.  But let's bear a few other things in mind.
1.  Manual work can be excruciatingly boring.  For two summers I worked as a groundskeeper at a large hospital.  One of my jobs was to pick up all the cigarette butts in the parking lots, which were really, really large.  This was a sort of regional medical center, in the days when everybody smoked.  There were thousands of butts, every morning.  I used a broom and a scoop, but you still had to stoop to get most of them.  It took hours every morning.  Mondays were worst.  It would get hot.  So there you are, in the middle of a black top parking lot, as the day is heating up fast, picking up butts.  It gets old fast.
2.  Manual work can be really physically punishing.  My example for this is bucking hay in August when the cheap-ass farmer does not even have an elevator.  It's hot, maybe 105, and the air is filled with dust and hay debris.  Every few minutes you blow the green dust encrusted snot out of your nose and hawk up all the crap in your throat.  You try not to rub your eyes.  You hoist eighty pound bails off the ground and onto the back of a flat bed truck.  It's like a bad summer football practice, only worse.  The farmer is a mean old Basque who keeps yelling at everybody.  He's determined to get his money's worth. The pace is murderous.  It will make you strong alright, but the only thing you are learning is how to suffer.  I admit the food is good.  Digging ditches is another thing that sucks on a comparable level.
3.  The pay sucks.  You work your butt off all week and you get paid . . . are you joking?  Barely enough for beer.  Something about the work makes you crave beer.  Maybe all the sweating.  And the pleasant numbness that allows you not to remember how tomorrow is starts all over again.
4.  If you are a manual worker you almost certainly have a boss and there's a significant chance your boss is an asshole.  Not always, but it happens, and when it does, it just really sucks.  Bosses who put you down for not wanting to dig holes for the rest of your life, bosses with mouths so foul it's just not funny, bosses who will try to cheat you.  It's not the movies.  I was just a kid, working for pocket money.  Imagine having a family to support.

Do not misunderstand me.  I respect greatly people who make a living doing hard physical work. Especially older guys.  I have a clue what it takes and I think a lot of people don't.  But the guy who wrote this book, I gather, repairs antique motorcycles.  That's beautiful, but with all due respect, it ain't working.  You'd be a fool to lift things or dig holes when you could be tinkering in a cool shed with a bunch of cool tools and metal parts.  But it's not the same as hard work in the hot sun.  My advice on that is, if it's your own land, and you're into trees or something, fine.  But otherwise, get away from there, get an education, and get a job where you'll have all your fingers and your back intact when you hit 45.  You may not write a book about it, but you'll get to read more of them.

| Permalink

TrackBack URL for this entry:

Listed below are links to weblogs that reference Manual work as sucking very much
Tom Smith


When I was a schoolboy I made money in the summer unloading cement from small freight boats. The bloody stuff gets into every pore, and the bags were a hundredweight (112 lb), and a bugger to maneouvre. I moved onto working on a trawler as it was easier and more varied. It's OK when you know it's not going to be your job for life.

Posted by: dearieme | Jun 8, 2009 1:35:52 PM

In high school I earned money over the summers teaching swim lessons to kids and lifeguarding. When I read *A River Runs Through It* I felt like the irresponsible younger brother, and thought I had wimped out by not volunteering to fight forest fires. But then again, my twin brother worked at the Better Business Bureau instead. Wimpy or not, I was definitely the brighter twin.

Posted by: Michael F. Martin | Jun 8, 2009 2:04:22 PM

Oh and let's be honest: fixing exotic motorcycles is about as white collar as it gets on the manual labor spectrum.

Posted by: Michael F. Martin | Jun 8, 2009 2:05:01 PM

Exactly right. My dad is 50+ with swollen knees and a broken body. A lifetime spent in factories and salvage yards.

I detassled corn for $5.35 an hour. Start at 4 a.m. when it's cold and the corn is wet. End at 3 p.m. when the hot is sun and the dry corn gives you corn rash. Never again.

Posted by: Mike | Jun 8, 2009 2:48:26 PM

On the other hand, with manual labor you get the chance to actually see what you've accomplished - the fields plowed, the drains, cleaned, the products produced and so on. No offense to academics, but how does a professor measure their work? How much satisfaction does a bureaucrat get from moving papers from one pile to another?

Posted by: steve sturm | Jun 8, 2009 3:08:44 PM

I don't think he's so much valorizing manual work as what we might call craft-work. There's a world of difference between the guy lugging cement or de-tassling corn and the guy doing masonry work or carpentry or what-not. It's not to say that even that sort of manual work is easy or whatever (I spent a summer framing houses in Florida), but it has value for human flourishing.

Posted by: Bryan | Jun 8, 2009 6:26:12 PM

Craft work is probably different - good point.

Posted by: Tom Smith | Jun 9, 2009 4:41:56 AM

Did you read the excerpt a while back from New Yorker? It's very psychologically revealing.

The guy wants truth and certainty. He couldn't find that in public policy, so he retreated to motorcycles - and all their Newtonian glory.

I view writing as craft.

I am also comfortable with ambiguity.

He works on motor cycles because he's weak minded.

Posted by: Mike | Jun 9, 2009 9:23:29 AM