When my father returned from his tour in Vietnam, he didn’t know what to do with himself.
He came from an upper-middle class family, and his parents likely would have pushed him into college had he not been drafted. He tried attending classes under the GI Bill, but the transition from stomping through the jungle – clothes soaked from the humidity, eyes constantly watching for booby traps and some of the most venomous snakes in the world, bracing for enemy fire at any moment – to listening to a professor, not much older than himself, drone on and on about how to write an essay was impossible. I’m sure he did not want to listen to anyone who spent the war on campus talk about Vietnam either. “Please, hippie, explain how the world works to me.”
He worked for his favorite relative – his uncle, a contractor – for a while. He developed many practical skills and apparently learned a lot about how to get along with people and run a business. Then he discovered an occupation that he truly loved: drilling municipal water wells.
I think part of the appeal of the water infrastructure industry was the danger. Not unlike working on an oil rig – in fact, oil and water rigs share some equipment – water wells run deep into the Earth. You have to be both strong and fearless to work on them, much like surviving in a war zone. People did die occasionally by falling into the pit, which happened one terrible day to one of my father’s friends.
But I think the greatest appeal the job had was that it was hard work being done entirely outside. The activity and the sunshine had a restorative effect on a man who had been all but destroyed by the experience of war.
He worked his way up through the company, through various acquisitions, into management. In addition to the physical labor out under the hot California sun, my father loved the construction and maintenance of infrastructure as an intellectual project. When I eventually went into public finance, many people would ask me how I knew so much about civil engineering. This was our dinner table conversation when I was a child. I could diagram a desalination plant when I was seven. We were geeks, but a special kind of geek – the sort who wanted to be out in the world and learn how things fit together.
My father would eventually give this gig up when he grew older and returned to working as a contractor, as his uncle had taught him originally.
I bring this all up, because it has become somewhat fascinating to me how people talk and think about hard labor and the perceived value of blue collar workers in our society.
I’ve spent a lot of time this weekend working out in my gardens, which is fairly typical for me. And I usually talk to everyone who passes by while I am doing it.
Yesterday afternoon, I was kneeling on the ground planting dozens of deep purple petunias and French marigolds in a flowerbed. An Amazon truck pulled up, and the delivery man walked up the path toward our front door with a pile of packages. I waved at him and he asked me how I was doing.
“It’s a beautiful day to be outside,” I said, and I meant it. I was enjoying watching butterflies dancing around my garden in early January. It was marvelous. And I loved the contrast of yellow and purple I was putting together.
“You know you could pay someone to do that for you,” he shouted, and then climbed back into his van.
Why would I want to pay someone to plant flowers? Actually getting down on your hands and knees and digging in the dirt is sort of the point of gardening as a hobby. So is feeling the warm sun on your skin. People who don’t physically tend to their gardens are not gardeners. They are just people who happen to own gardens. Their relationship to their garden is not any different than their relationship to their television or their grandfather clock. It’s a possession, not a pastime.
(Somehow this reminds me of a most painful biography of the socialite Bunny Mellon I read years ago. She tried to make herself famous as a “gardener,” but she had legions of staff to maintain her gardens. Her idea of gardening was waltzing around in her Givenchy gowns and clipping a rose here and there. Even that lady’s own children loathed her. Her biographer made a point of discussing how she left only some stupid ceramic cabbage to her estranged son in her will, which he smashed on the rocks along the shore as an act of catharsis. That woman was miserable to her very core. And she kept a picture of disgraced politician John Edwards on her nightstand, which was totally creepy, but I digress.)
Then today, I spent a couple hours working on Fern Dell. If you recall, we cleared out a massive tangle of vines (massive by the standards of a Florida transplant) to build a primeval-looking garden that we’ve nicknamed Fern Dell. It was no small feat to clear all that vegetation out and free up the trees to live their best lives (and as I mentioned before, I had help). But it has also been a feat to prepare the soil and plant the ferns and whatnot because there are so many established roots. And we hauled in a lot of stone to build a path through the new garden.
My old neighbor came walking down the trail behind our house and saw me working out there. “How did you get all that planted? Was it difficult cutting through all that?”
I explained that I had to use a mattock in places, and it eventually got the job done.
“What is a mattock?”
“It’s a tool, sort of like a pick-ax, but with a different shape.”
She was dumbfounded that I would get out in the backyard and swing an ax for the sake of building a garden. She was looking at me like I was some sort of alien with strange customs like drinking milk through my finger.
Only an hour before that conversation, we were loading the stones for the path into the back of my SUV at Lowe’s. The gentleman we have to mow and edge our lawn (we do hire someone for that, my plants are a part-time job in themselves) happened to be walking through the parking lot back to his truck and saw us. He ran over to our car and started helping load the heavy stones in. He didn’t even ask if we wanted help. He just started doing it.
We are really good friends with him and I took the occasion to invite his daughter to our daughter’s birthday party. But it made me think how he’s probably treated as some sort of untouchable in our town because of what he does for a living. I mean, even the Amazon delivery guy looks down on yard work, and it’s not like he’s jetting off to Davos to talk about trends in macroeconomics to corporate elites anytime soon.
I started this post off with the Rule of St. Benedict, who insisted that “to pray is to work and to work is to pray.” To be autonomous, to exert great effort, were for St. Benedict cornerstones of a contemplative life. You don’t just work because you have to. You work because there’s ultimately some form of wisdom in it.
I can certainly say this was true for my father coming back from Vietnam. For him, he had glimpsed some life-altering truth in the jungle and it was the suburban rat race that required not thinking too hard about anything. I mean, that’s the essence of a mid-life crisis, isn’t it? You look around at all the crap you’ve bought and the meaninglessness of the “work” you performed to obtain it all, and you ask yourself “For what?” People who engage in hard physical labor tend not to have that sort of restless energy. There’s also something about physically creating things that makes you not question your dignity or purpose.
St Benedict’s ideal used to be omnipresent in American society, but here it was described as the “Protestant work ethic.” There’s no Protestant work ethic anymore. In modern western societies, labor is not regarded as a contemplative or essential character-building activity. It’s the occupation of people who didn’t have the upbringing or financial resources to jump through the necessary hoops to have a “better” life. No one chooses to do it. They do it because they have no better options.
I listen to “liberal” politicians nowadays who used to invest a lot of time sucking up to blue collar workers speaking with open contempt about hard work. Hillary ran an entire campaign on such elitism – to be blue collar meant you had bad values. Biden recently advised coal miners to “learn to code.” Of course, “learn to code” has become a euphemism for this specific sort of disdain. If you have to work hard to get by in this world, it’s your fault. Nevermind the fact that this phrase is being used by aging politicians who probably unplug their computer every time they have a problem. “Learn to code,” they say, as if it were something they could do themselves.
Is this supposed to be progress? Can you imagine the people who settled New England listening to the people who live in New England now? They’d be like, “WTF, you sound like the vapid, self-absorbed, antisocial aristocrats we came over here to get away from.” (I’m sure many of them do think these things, right before they move to Florida.)
But what’s funny is how little material wealth people have to have in order to start talking like a spoiled heiress. You see this even in children who do not come from wealthy families but are accustomed to getting everything they want. How do you reverse this sort of behavior once it sets in? Do people have to be humbled by some great economic disaster? It’s a profoundly strange phenomenon to me.