Nothing’s too good for the working class

My friend Brad Zellar wrote a terrific Labor Day piece for the Star-Tribune about (among other things) growing up to become the white-collar son of a blue-collar dad, and it got me thinking about my own vexed relationship with labor and family even more than I usually do on Labor Day.

My dad installed siding and remodeled kitchens until he died ten years ago. Scholarships and sacrifices allowed me to be educated among wealthier kids, though the end result of that education was never clear, and so I moved away from one kind of life and work toward some other unspecified destination.

I’m mostly happy with where I wound up, which is far from where I started. For nearly two decades, I haven’t been paid to move any part of my body above the wrist (unless you count standing at concerts). And yet, I’ve never quite shaken the working-class misconception that conscientious effort will be recognized and rewarded (partly because I’ve received just enough recognition and reward to keep me afloat financially and emotionally) and I’ve never developed a careerist’s knack for working with a purpose beyond the immediate task at hand.

A life of labor both strengthened and wrecked my father’s body. He struggled to balance a commitment to craftsmanship with the drudgery of a daily routine, to achieve an economic independence that was a source of pride and of isolation. I wonder if he taught me so little of his trade because he wanted a less exhausting life for me or if I learned so little of it because I lacked interest in practical matters.

After my brother and I were too old to play baseball with, my father’s life outside work seemed to shrink. On weekends he took up projects around the house, because that’s what he knew how to do well. This Labor Day morning, as I’m compelled to arrange and rephrase my thoughts, just like I do most other days, I wonder if I’m just following a family tradition of confusing unpaid labor for leisure, and whether that would be such a bad thing anyway.

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Comments

  • Craig Bickle  On September 14, 2015 at 6:20 am

    Funny how I went the opposite direction, son of a handy-less civil servant to amateur builder, but recognize because I feel so viscerally the same angst and ambivalence about work and its meaning in modern America, not to mention its compensation or lack thereof. (one sentence!)

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