Friday, April 18, 2014

Work, Careers, and my Father

Back in January, a Facebook friend of mine posted a Salon article on why "doing what you love" is a bad career choice.  I finally got around to finding and reading the article, and it's even better than I thought; take a look at it (linked above).  The author's argument is that defining "real" work as "what you love to do" makes the people doing "unlovable" work (cleaning toilets; making beds; assembling circuit cards) invisible, and without worth.  It also encourages people to take unpaid internships, because they "love" the job.  She's very sharp about Steve Jobs, who was a great advocate of "do what you love" - without ever acknowledging all the people at Apple who were just toiling away, doing the dirty work.

I'd like to write a bit about a man who never had the luxury of doing what he loved - my father, Lestle Warren Ivy.  Born in Missouri in 1907; in 1910 his mother left his father and took the five children with her.  Because he had to work to help support the family, it took him until 1928 to get his high school diploma; he was 21, and that was as far as he got.  (He made sure both his daughters went to college.)  Here are the jobs I know he had at some point:  He worked in an ice cream factory.  He tried doing field work in Texas, but he couldn't stand the heat and he couldn't make it work.  He drove trucks for bootleggers.  (I only just learned this!)  He sold shoes.  (He never let either me or my sister buy shoes without him along.  He didn't trust the salesmen to fit us right.)  He may have sold furniture; his older brother worked in a furniture store. 

In the 1940s he moved out to California to work at Mare Island Naval Shipyard, the only job I (as a child) ever knew him to have; he worked there over 30 years, retiring in the early 1970s.  Because he wasn't a veteran, as a civilian employee he was a second class citizen - the better jobs went to veterans.  Every time the Navy got a budget cut, they had a "rif" - a reduction in force - and the non-veteran civilian employees either got laid off or were reassigned to lower paying jobs.  Before I learned what it meant, I knew that a "rif" was a bad thing.  Dad did everything blue-collar at Mare Island; he chipped paint on ships (which cost him his hearing, but the Navy never admitted it); he drove forklifts; he carried and stacked boxes.  After the war, he moved up to stockman; at one point he made quarterman, with a team under him.  I have his awards for years without a team accident.  He moved officers in and out of quarters for awhile; to the end of his life he could get more stuff in a U-Haul trailer than anyone else I knew.

Did he love any of that?  He appreciated the paycheck.  He didn't like the rifs, but he just kept going; it was a good job.  And while he was doing that work, 5 days a week, driving 30 miles back and forth to work from Napa (with 5 riders, to help him pay for the gas), in his spare time he was rebuilding our house from the inside out.  He painted the house himself, every time.  He sheetrocked the walls and ceilings.  He put in oak floors - after the war, the Navy tore down some enlisted housing in Benicia.  Underneath the linoleum, the floors were 1" x 4" solid oak.  Dad got a truckload of that oak for $150 and he relaid the entire floor except for the kitchen, the back hall, and the bathroom.  It took him three days to lay the first plank.  He hired a man to finish the floor in the first room; he followed him around and watched what he did.  Then he rented the equipment and finished the rest of it himself.  I remember being down on my knees on that floor with a handful of steel wool and a can of paste wax.  Last time I was in Napa, I saw that, finally, somebody is remodeling that house; I hope they can salvage those floors.

Everything he did, was done as well as he could possibly do it. He never paid anyone to do anything he could possibly do himself.  He fixed his own cars, he mowed his own lawn; if he had friends who needed it, he fixed cars and mowed lawns for them.  Work was what you did; what you loved was your family and friends.  When he retired, he had his civil service pension, but no Social Security; so in  his 60s, he got a job as a roustabout at a local body shop, washing cars and sweeping the place up, to get in his Social Security quarters.  When he finally quit that, they begged him to stay; they said he worked harder and better than anybody else they had.  It wasn't the work; it was him.  His self-respect was in doing the work, any work, as well as he could.  When he couldn't work any more, like many men of his generation, he lost his self-respect, along with his hearing and his eyesight; and so he eventually died, in 1994, aged 87, a few weeks short of his 50th wedding anniversary.

Whatsoever thy hand findeth to do, do it with thy might; for there is no work, nor device, nor knowledge, nor wisdom, in the grave, whither thou goest. - Ecclesiastes 9:10 (King James Version)

1 comment:

  1. I think I always imagined, growing up, that I'd eventually become some kind of academic.

    I was particularly drawn to literature, and writing, since that was something my parents were involved with, in one way or another. I thought: If I couldn't write something, something creative, then I could teach it.

    When I washed out of graduate school in the mid-1970's, the humanities were overflowing with new young graduates, and I fell willy-nilly into a government bureaucracy, performing the kind of drudgery that I suppose my parents had feared I might end up doing. Somehow, against considerable odds, and my better nature, I stuck with it, for 27 years, hating it, despising myself, nearly the whole time, because I thought I was meant for better things. Certainly I was more intelligent, better educated, and more imaginative than 98% of those I worked with.

    But staying with it taught me something about people, and myself. You could say I grew up in that job, relinquishing both my dreams and my fantasies over time. I supported my family, and qualified for a pension and a real health plan--things which I value now almost beyond measure.

    Work is a noble thing. It sounds really very silly to say it, simply, out loud, or in print. But it is. It's been 13 years since I "retired" but I have no intention of ever really retiring. I've been working full time as a rare book dealer for 15 years, and have no intention of "retiring". What, or where, would I retire to? A rest home?