I have been thinking about work, particularly as it is changing for the current generation of young people, but also about the nature of work in general, its essence, its value, its cost. Construction of the deck off the Program Room at Stony Brook prompted my thoughts, its elegance, precision and beauty, combined with the utility of the space, the splendid work of two women and one man (plus the occasional help of a few volunteers).
My exposure to work took place early on in my youth. Either it was an obligation imposed upon me as a member of the family, a punishment for bad behavior, or a gift from my father for being interested in what he was doing, for wanting to know how I could help, for desiring to be just like him. I was allowed to work side by side with him, whether laying an oak floor upstairs in our house or constructing a porch with all my uncles at my grandmother’s cottage. Work was a privilege, an honor, a rite of passage for me. Even if a punishment or a chore, I quickly learned to convert it to my own by taking my time, developing a rhythm, seeking a kind of pride or perfection in the result.
Without going into too much detail, it seems clear to me that most people today don’t share my romantic ideal. More and more as a society we are moving away from jobs that require building something with our hands. We don’t manufacture things; we outsource them. We bring in people from other countries to tend our lawns, farm our fields, paint our houses, build our roads and skyscrapers, or service our hotels and fast-food restaurants. Hard work is menial, dirty, exhausting. We prefer sitting at a desk, in front of a computer screen, negotiating deals on the golf course or in the boardroom, at social gatherings or over the phone.
Work has become cerebral rather than physical, airy and insubstantial rather than something we can hold in our hands. It’s stored in the cloud rather than in a warehouse or an attic or a garage. It taxes our emotions rather than our muscles, makes us anxious at night rather than prepare us for a well-deserved sleep. It doesn’t satisfy so much as it frustrates. It doesn’t last so much as it breaks down for someone else to repair, or simply to be thrown away and replaced, which is more likely and less costly for the time and effort it takes.
We are disconnected from our work, not defined by it. We compete rather than cooperate. We maneuver and deal rather than build relationships or meaning. We steal ideas and take license rather than create and fulfill. We feel no attachment, no responsibility, no loyalty, no pride. We are not so much uplifted by our work’s execution and results as we are relieved to be done with them so that we can move on. Time is money. We can be replaced. Someone else is always looking to take what we have gained.
Then, in stark contrast to such negativity, appear these two women and one man who have an entirely different set of priorities. I found it exhilarating to talk to them and to see them create something so subtle and yet enduring. For Mary and Nina the goal is to build “something that lasts,” something “with purchase.” Nina gives voice to the aesthetic and hypnotic nature of the job when she says, “…it is a kind of meditation. The work transcends language and thought. Everything else disappears.” She describes the joy of seeing something real and enduring arise out of nothing. “It’s a feeling like you have some agency, Nina says, “like you know how to do stuff.” Both say it’s work that has meaning and makes them feel proud.
Nina cites the flexibility of schedule that the job allows: Mary to raise her daughter and pursue her cooking; Nina to publish a book (Hammerhead: the Making of a Carpenter) and to keep a blog (Carpentrix). Both like the physicality of the work, the sheer joy of sweating, of physical exhaustion, of knowing something with one’s whole body. As women, they revel in knowing when and how to use their muscles. “It’s more about finesse than brute strength… knowing where to apply pressure, how to find balance,” they say.
Roland, the owner of Ariano Development and principal overseeing the project, “likes to build things,” whether software packages for businesses (yes, that’s one of his skills), or additions for families and organizations looking to expand their living space. Negotiating “the duality between business and mission” is of great interest to him. He emphasizes the excitement that comes from “putting together a team that can produce a clear and satisfying result.” He looks for people with skill, of course, but more importantly, perhaps, people who “intrinsically get it.”
By this he means they must understand the ethic involved: the need for safety, for channeling emotions, for being willing to work hard, for extending simple courtesies to clients and respecting their space. Work for him is a source of outward rigor that facilitates an inner sifting and sorting, a “percolation” of ideas that establishes direction and pace.
“Do what you love,” my father taught me. Seeing this deck go up has reinforced my belief that he was right all along. These three craftsmen have given me hope that the next generation of workers will not easily settle. Whether for a job or a life, they will demand purpose and meaning.