Saturday, January 28, 2012

What is work?

I've been thinking about what it is to be lazy lately. The Republican nominees keep it in the news (laziness). People that don't have jobs MUST be lazy. What other possible explanation could there be? I saw a clip of Rick Santorum claiming his grandfather taught him that the key to a good life was hard work. "He worked in a coal mine until he was 70," Santorum said, standing relaxed on a stage in slick- soled shoes. I bet he shakes hands with hundreds of people a day. Has anybody felt a callous on any of his finger joints? I don't think standing around talking was what his coal-mining relations meant when they said that about working hard.

Now I can't speak for other unemployed people, but I'm pretty sure I'm not lazy. I wore through the finger of a pair of goat skin gloves last week. In the first four weeks of The Small Year I have shoveled a couple tons of silty sand, arranged a ton of large granite rip-rap, sawed down and hauled around multiple trees, dug roots, and pulled briars. I supervised a backhoe for three days. I've had fun with a sledge hammer breaking chunks of bricks and moving them in a wheel barrow. I moved 600 board feet of lumber, 30 sheets of corrugated steel, a big pile of fiber cement shingles and porcelain tile. I replaced the skylight in a roof and pressure washed 1500 square feet of concrete. And I bought and arranged the delivery of two 60 year old aircraft aluminum mobile homes to reuse and restore. (More about those another day.)

I also read all the job openings that are emailed to me from the automated searches I have set up. I'm not correctly qualified for any of them. I apply for the ones that I'm overqualified for, but I never hear back.

There's a trend now to romanticize the kind of life I'm living. I make all my own bread and jelly and I built my own tiny house. I'm ahead of the hipster curve. But I have to bake my bread on the front porch in a $45 toaster oven that I have to keep in a plastic bin under my front steps because there is no room for it in my house. I don't have a $2000 Thermador convection oven like I had in my house in Atlanta. I'm not avoiding store bought bread to mitigate my successful life that has removed me from the roots of survival. I'm doing it because I failed and now I'm reduced to this -- dividing the recipes on King Arthur Flour's website by 2/3 because if the loaf rises above the sides of the pan it will hit the electric elements in the top of my tiny oven.

I calculated how much it costs me to make my own bread. It's almost $2 a loaf. My dad makes money off investments and then uses it to buy bread direct at the Flowers Bakery that he drives by every day and gets it for $1.60 a loaf. I can't argue that my way is better. If I went to town to buy a loaf of bread it would cost me more like $5 a loaf because of the transportation cost, so it's still a good deal for me to make it, but if I had any kind of job making at least $10 an hour it would no longer be a cost savings to do stuff like bake and make jelly. A batch of mayhaw jelly represents over 20 hours of work. And you only get about 8 jars of jelly. And the jars and sugar come to $1.60 per jar. You have to do it because your time is really worthless and you have no other source of condiments or because it's your hobby. Both fine options. But let's be honest about which is which. I've done both the six-figure a year high tech job and the scraping by with my own muscles and sweat. Both are legitimate activities. But when somebody all educated and rich decides they want to do what the poor and uneducated have been doing forever because they think it's charming? Well, it's a bit insulting isn't it? You assume you can do their job? It's as bad as my old boss thinking I could do a secretary's job because, "It's not rocket science!" What an insult to secretaries! I AM a rocket scientist! It's not just because I'm GREAT at rocket science. (I'm not) It's because I'm NO GOOD at repetitive tasks with no big goals. You wouldn't ask a secretary to go out in the field to inspect sea walls and make a big spreadsheet to analyze them, why would you think I can keep track of other people's calendars and make their travel reservations? It's a completely different skill set!

I've actually seen people with a shovel that didn't know how to use it. "You know you can jump on it with both feet, right?" I've said. They're just poking at the dirt like they're serving ice cream or something. You gotta really put some force into it! Pine tree roots aren't going to move aside like the pralines in the ice cream. I approve of people learning these skills, I'm just not sure they know what they don't know. If I'm wrong about this then I'm just a giant baby, which is entirely possible. Maybe I thought building a house was really hard work because I'm a princess. Maybe to other people who also aren't conditioned to it it's not a daily struggle with dehydration, exhaustion, pain, and the nagging feeling that you aren't exactly sure how to do the next step.

This week there was an article on Slate titled Farmer Groupies and Chicken Coddlers The author uses the term "unsettled DIYers" to describe people who try to live like me yet hold onto their modern views of animals as pets. You'll notice in my description of all my work there was no livestock involved. You know why? Because I'm not a naive romantic. I know how hard it is to kill a chicken. I'm not into it. My aunt raises chickens to eat. One year the day after Thanksgiving it was my job to keep my young niece in the house while my mama and aunt when out in the garden before dawn and slaughtered all the chickens. (It's easier to catch them when they're asleep) I felt like I had wasted my time trying to protect my niece by occupying her with pancakes when her beloved relatives came sauntering into the kitchen with their flannel nightgowns splattered in blood.

If I want to eat a rabbit I'll shoot a wild one. I haven't done it yet, but I also haven't bought any meat since that 12 pound turkey I got for $0.69/lb in December. (I still have some of it in my freezer) Unlike these modern-day farmer wannabes I'm not just playing at it. I'm poor. There is no way in hell I'm taking a sick chicken to the veterinarian. I can't even afford to go to the doctor myself. I don't have a garden either because the return on investment on a fence is so great. I did the math. It's cheaper to watch the sale ads online and buy groceries when they're marked down than to have a garden. Better to shoot animals that eat wild produce than fight with them over domesticated stuff.

One of the problems with working hard by yourself and trying to convey to others what it's like is that it's inconvenient to take your own picture. It breaks the flow of the job. I end up with a ton of pictures whenever I have to hire somebody to come do something and none of me doing the stuff I'm the most proud of. I have started editing video of the backhoe work done in January because I love watching heavy equipment work and maybe other people would like to see that too. I'll finish it if we ever get some bad weather to give me a break from working outside. Meanwhile here's something I did entirely on my phone while I was out in the yard, including upload. You'd think the iPhone would work with YouTube to deal with vertical videos better. I was just trying the automated options to put it on YouTube. Vimeo is still better, but it's a lot more steps to get the videos on there.


  1. Ummm, yeah, you are most definitely NOT lazy. Not by a long stretch. Santorum, of course, is a boob, but that's neither here nor there.

    Before I forget, I love this line: "Pine tree roots aren't going to move aside like the pralines in the ice cream."

    Fascinating thoughts on how you are living, and the romanticizing of it. Can't say I would be one who romanticizes your life, but in some ways, I envy it, and you for it. Don't get me wrong. I'd much prefer you in a job where your abilities, education, skills, passions, brains, etc. were put to the best use for you and this old world of ours. I think that of everyone.

    But you are, by circumstance and (fate? not sure what that is or if I buy into "fate"), living a life that forces you to make the most of your resources. Time, materials, money, self. People who do not make the most of their resources (like me), are wasters. Inefficient. Possibly lazy. Slow to appreciate things and life itself.

    That would be why I envy part of your life. When I was living in a wooden hut with an aluminum roof in Honduras in the 1980s, I appreciated everything so much more, which made me a much more happy, adjusted person, and a contributing member of society.

    Don't know if it makes sense or not.

    All said, you are someone I respect and admire, regardless of how or where you live, for what it's worth.

  2. Why thank you, Glenn! That's really nice of you to say. I don't feel like I'm contributing anything to society exactly, but I'm not asking anything of it either, so it works out. I do appreciate things so very much. The beauty of nature around me, fuzzy logic rice cookers, sledge hammers. There's nothing like utter exhaustion to make me grateful to lie down at the end of the day and watch TV shows on the internet. I can't imagine anything I'd rather do to relax. The idea that people do anything else for fun bewilders me.

    I do like to use available resources. And I like to use them honestly, logically, and elegantly. I saw this on Twitter the other day and it kind of annoyed me. "Best def of entrepreneurship 'the pursuit of opportunity w/out regard to resources currently controlled' via @Inc @HBS" I would feel a lot better if people pursuing opportunities knew what was actually involved in getting the work done. But clearly this is just something funny about me and not the norm. It is why I will never be wealthy. I only use what I've got.