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In praise of those who sweat and strain

by Evan | Sep 05, 2016

A local man I know recently retired from an executive job and then started a new job as a 60-something stock boy. I mean, really laboring. Carrying 50-pound bags.

What's with that?

Why do people want to labor? I don't mean sitting around all day in an office reading, writing and talking. Yes, such jobs are labor by definition, and they can be very difficult, but I'm talking about the kind of labor that makes you hurt, or at least makes you sweat.

Many people labor for no money at all. They tend their flower gardens for hours every week or volunteer at food banks or -- the epitome of labor for the sake of labor -- they lift weights and run on exercise machines that are literally going nowhere.

So, health is part of it, both physical health and emotional health -- as long as you don't bust a gut or dive deep into obsessive compulsive behavior. And then there's a sense of accomplishment, as when you and your partner repaint all the rooms of your home in the hottest month of the year. You can add love, too, as when you erect a big swing set  for your children. 

As you may suspect by now, my backdoor topic is Labor Day. Traditionally, it honors organized labor, to which I tip my hat, but it has broadened over the years to recognize all "working people," most of whom do not belong to unions and most of whom do not break a sweat.

I'd like to focus today on demanding physical labor, the kind I've frankly tried to avoid for lo these many years. (Although shifting shelf loads of heavy library books is definitely not desk work!) I hope when people think of the holiday this time, they will think respectfully of the highway worker shoveling gravel in the heat, of the city truck driver waking at 3 a.m. to clear a big snow for you, of the factory worker or  hospital nurse standing with an aching back hour after hour to make your car or keep you alive. And especially, those who labor against their will -- from the slaves who picked cotton for so many decades to make our country rich to the slaves mining rare metals in Africa today to make us even richer.

The lyric from the Hollywood version of "Ol' Man River" in Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II's Show Boat -- "You an' me, we sweat an' strain, body all achin' and wracked wid pain" -- still impresses, even in the machine age. People who sweat and strain, people who do heavy labor, whether for money or love or having no choice, deserve a day of recognition.

EvanEvan - Married, three children, two grandchildren, formerly a newspaper journalist, now a public librarian, at all times a board game nut.
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