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Pull Up a Chair

Making the day's catch. (photo: hartanto)

With Labor Day coming up I wonder if we all have celebrated our own, or others’, work with the respect it deserves. There were times in my career when I waited on tables, times I did work that took more time than brains, and times when I worked in the garden and got really dirty.  I recall that I was glad for the work, and often enjoyed that kind of work. I also realized from time to time that it was work others looked down on.

One of the ‘aha’ moments of seeing myself regarded as somewhat beneath societal norms was a day I was working in the garden, not at all spiffy clean, when a neighbor came over to chat. As we were talking, she said something about ‘oh, but you enjoy this sort of thing’, and it came home to me that I was being put in my place as inferior. It was funny to me, at the time, but if I’d been competing for a place in her bridge club, it could have been crushing.

The several years I worked with a tourist pony farm on Chincoteague, VA, involved mucking up and a lot of lifting and pushing wheelbarrows about.   I enjoyed it thoroughly, and got into terrific physical condition. It didn’t impress everyone in my family favorably, though, and I did hear one remark about ‘going from shirt sleeves to shirt sleeves in one generation’, meant to make me feel ashamed.  No, it didn’t at all.

There are simply attitudes toward manual labor that we can’t and shouldn’t accept, but encounter every day in subtle and not so subtle ways.  They go back to the royal traditions, that set the rulers up as being part of the gods’ social set, I believe. In ancient China, the rulers did not lift a hand, and grew fingernails to ghastly lengths to show that they literally never lifted a finger.    In ancient Rome, the gentry were carted about in litters by their slaves, while in India and surrounding nations, rulers’ howdahs were borne on elephants.

The work of laborers was not given any respect in barbaric, or feudal, societies. That they could demand it of others and escape it themselves was evidently a source of pride to the gentry, before the conception of democratic society was elevated in recent, and modern, times.

Toting that bale. (photo: alessandro silipo)

Some of that disdain for work still remains, it seems, and we find it interjected into ads that represent expensive goods as part of a regal lifestyle. Working in an attorneys’ office I once had a suit go through my hands that was brought because there was not actual room service by lackeys in a luxury resort, although it had been pictured in the ads the suit bringers had been enticed by.

Those of us here are pretty bright and functional, but I find that we respect particularly the kind of skill that can fix things. Last week, when eCAHNomics had a sump pump emergency, there were several commenters here who could give her real insight into electrical malfunction and fixing methods, and a bunch of us commented about being inspired with real pride in being people with working experience.  What healthy attitude that represents.

Have you been involved in real crafts and manual work? Did it help you that you have respect for working people?

Labor day wasn’t always observed in some of the more abusive working environments I was employed in. Sadly, there’s an element in society that feels demeaned by real work.  I think here we’re pretty free of those hang-ups. I do run into them still, sometimes, and hope that I can influence anyone around me to see them as silly and counterproductive.

Do you run into attitudes that remind you of feudal society, at work or in everyday life?

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Ruth Calvo

Ruth Calvo

I've blogged at The Seminal for about two years, was at cabdrollery for around three. I live in N.TX., worked for Sen.Yarborough of TX after graduation from Wellesley, went on to receive award in playwriting, served on MD Arts Council after award, then managed a few campaigns in MD and served as assistant to a member of the MD House for several years, have worked in legal offices and written for magazines, now am retired but addicted to politics, and join gladly in promoting liberals and liberal policies.