Jacob Grier on the Many Faces of "Intellectual" Work; Or, Living the Life You Love

Jacob Grier just posted a lovely essay (that I bet he wrote off the top of his head, damn it. Why can't I do that??) on the pleasures of the "working" life. "Working" as in what used to be called "manual labor."

His jumping off point is this essay in last Sunday's New York Times magazine. It hit home with me, as does Jacob's essay. I've had what can only be described as an, ahem, diverse work history. I endured a mercifully short-lived career doing clerical work. Quel nightmare: I can't stand the 8 to 5 bit; hated, and I mean HATED, the office politics crapola. (This was waaay back in early 1970s, when men ruled the office and women, working their menial jobs, clawed at each other and hoped the men would whisk them away.) (For more on this, see "Mad Men.")

But I spent far more years in "manual" work. Blue collar work. (Or, as the sociologists call it when said work is being performed by a woman, "pink collar" work. Ugh. What a phrase.) I waited tables for years (about fifteen total). Worked for a city street department, mostly running a jack hammer (at which I was quite good).

Worked as a union carpenter for four years. I was (and to a certain extent still am) fabulously strong. Need someone to haul two sheets of plywood up two flights of stairs? No problem! All that waitressing also came in handy: I had far better organizational skills than the men I worked with.

But, I discovered, I had zero spatial skills and was a lousy carpenter. What learned from all those years was this:  I was bored. I had nothing against the work, and absolutely nothing against the people I worked with. Indeed, to this day, I miss hanging out with busboys and dishwashers.

I had to face facts: I was slowly, but surely, dying. The work was not me. I don't function well in "groups." (And still don't.) I am bored by work that requires using my hands (unless it's cooking). Have no patience for fixing stuff, yard work, etc. I mean, if I have to do it, no problem. I can do it. Hand me a screwdriver and I'll figure out what needs to be done.) (The tool, I mean, not the drink, which is icky beyond words.

So I went off to college, thinking I'd find my true calling. And, after a few fits and starts, did. (See the bio and "My Life As A Loser")

The point, such as it is, is this: I admire and appreciate "work" in all its forms, but understand that many people indavertently end up doing work they hate. The most painful part of teaching at university was dealing with 19-year-olds who'd been shoved into college by well-meaing adults, when what those kids wanted to do was cook, or repair engines, or make things, or paint walls, or whatever.

What they wanted to do, in short, was the kind of work that modern American society too often scorns, but which is, for many people, satisfying and engaging and creative.

The good news is that some people figure it out. They strike their own path, regardless of what others expect. They figure out what makes their brains --- and their souls --- happy.

So to Jacob I say: Here's to you. If I were in Portland, I'd raise a well-made drink, preferabably one created by you, in your honor.