‘Noble Work’ an essay by Mike Perry

An essay by Mike Perry,
written for the Wisconsin Humanities Council in 2014

Viewed from a distance of twenty-five yards, my brother Jed and I are obviously sprung from the same womb. Same balding round crania, same nose, same gapped teeth, same general frame. Zoom into our hands, however, and singular distinctions emerge. At base, they are the same size. Similar smallish bone structure. But Jed’s fingers are thickened to half again the circumference of mine. The heels of his hands (what the anatomy books call the thenar and hypothenar eminences) are meatier (more eminent) than mine. His palms are scored and rough.

Mine? Well, let’s just say they look more suited to cradling kittens than cranking a cant hook.

In the course of general social exchange, the questions “What do you do?” or “What are you?” are nearly always answered in terms of work:

“I farm.”

“I paint.”

“I am a carpenter.”

“I am a social worker.”

Answers from another angle (“I breathe deeply,” “I am a satisfied man”) will be received with skepticism and discomfort.

Where I come from, it is always tricky when a person with soft hands delivers a discourse on hard work. When I say “where I come from,” I’m talking not so much about the map as the society. Never mind that decades have passed since I last worked on a sawmill, or branded a calf, or milked a cow—those physical labors remain the standard against which I weigh all work, even as I gratefully support myself by rearranging electrons by fingertip.

I have just returned from a visit to the Wyoming ranch where I worked for five summers from the age of sixteen. It was good to visit and catch up, and resurrect old memories, but I felt more comfortable helping dig postholes than I did sitting in the visitor’s chair. When I visit a farm, nothing relieves me more than to be asked to pitch in. To throw some haybales or move some sod, or maybe rake hay. This desire is rooted in my memories of city people who would show up at our farm in light clothing and look at a pitchfork as if it was radioactive. Their apparent lack of embarrassment at being seen to just sit around made me jumpy and self-conscious on their behalf.

And that’s a problem, too.

My problem.

We value work inconsistently, choosing to ignore—or overlook, or leave unremarked—the fact that vast swathes of the nation’s earning power are underpinned by unpaid and underpaid work. We hail the grand captain of industry while overlooking the person who empties his paper shredder, we nod reverently at the successful farmer down at the café while back home his wife is tending fires fueling the entire operation.

When I shake hands with someone and feel the thick scuff of calluses, I think of the people who raised me and adopt a reflexive humility and admiration. But even this can swerve quickly into self-serving condescension, as if by applying the “noble” tag to physical labor—perhaps, say, by writing a brief essay on the subject—we excuse ourselves to let anyone but us do it.

Where I come from, you admire hard physical labor. I like that I am imbued with that. It is essentially grounding. But there is also the danger of developing a reverse snobbery against anyone with soft hands. There is the tendency to conflate admiration for hard physical labor with disdain for intellectual and artistic pursuits. To sneer at book-learnin’, no matter that some PhD genius designed the turbo on your pickup truck. It is out of this consciousness that I tend to refer to myself not as a writer or an author but as a self-employed typist, which is fine and self-deprecating to a point, but when extrapolated without limits undermines those who work hard with their hearts and minds—and I’m not just talking about your received artists: I mean to include people who show up and do the figurative heavy lifting required to spackle the gaps between labor and capital, up to and including—dare I say it—dedicated and much-maligned government workers.

And city people.

No matter how I struggle over the form and content of the essay at hand, I will be hard-pressed to elicit an empathetic nod from my brother the logger—his skull x-rays still featuring the hairline split laid there by the butt end of a widowmaker, his throat scarred by the sapling that ran him through like a spear in a freak logging accident (as if there weren’t enough standard logging accidents), and of course the clicks, lumps and strains bound to infiltrate any body employed for decades in the most elemental sort of hard work. And yet it is interesting how the ultimate manifestation of the respective physical damage work has exacted from the two of us—his a kinetic toll of fractures, falls, lacerations, and general knockabout; mine the creaks, kinks and impingements accumulated from decades of slumping in place—is that we both walk like aging loggers.

Both of us shaped by our work.

The soft hands. It always comes back to that.  Sometimes if I spend a few days straight running a shovel, or splitting wood, or helping the neighbor hay, at night I will feel my hands swelling with the work. And when the blisters shift to callus, it feels good. When I sit down to type with those hands, I don’t pretend to be a laborer, but I can hope that whatever words I generate will be inflected by the experience.

And maybe that’s it: perhaps the best reason to study the concept of “work” is to expand our understanding of its many manifestations and permutations. In my case, to pry the term away from the pitchfork handle. To focus less on the position and the paycheck and more on the drive and the need.

To understand why someone works at what they do for the reasons they do is to develop empathy.

And what more noble work can there be than the manufacture of empathy.

— Mike Perry is a self-employed writer who lives in rural Wisconsin and can be found online at www.sneezingcow.com