Lay a Hand on Something

Learning to work.

The old black man told me, “Lay a hand on something when the Boss Man comes around.” I was spending my summer between seventh and eighth grade stripping and waxing floors at the church my family attended, and it was my first real job. The old man, the boss who was supervising me, had come around a corner and found me idly staring into space. What may have seemed like cynical advice to offer a 12-year-old boy was actually meant as a well-intended reminder that we should stay focused on our work.

Throughout my high school years, summers were spent working construction jobs in the Louisiana swelter. I can’t say I was a towering example of the ideal worker, but both early jobs helped me build the muscle memory of an ethic that prepared me to enter into and navigate through adulthood.

It is an ethic that seems sadly out of fashion these days. As a culture, we seem to have slid into a pattern of expecting less and less from our children, both physically and intellectually, and allowing them to remain children for longer and longer. Likewise, if my observations from years in the bookstore business are any indicator, the dominant genre of books read by adults now is the category of Young Adult.

In my career and on the farm, I have worked with many young people embarking on their first job, and it is increasingly hard to find new workers (and I’ll extend that range up into their late 20s) who have ever done any type of work. Most have zero muscle memory for what is required to be responsible and productive either in the workplace or as citizens.

That undeveloped set of skills carries over into what are supposed to be the “responsible years”: how does a person learn, without having experienced work, to make independent decisions, take orders, discern truth from fiction, stay focused and busy, develop the stamina to play a constructive part in a culture over many decades? Disciplined work habits established early on affect all aspects of our culture, from school and the workplace to the arts and civic sphere. That there is a drift backwards into adolescence that pervades our culture — whether it’s reading cartoonish literature designed for an underdeveloped mind or a political sphere that is dominated by…well, let’s not go there — is extremely alarming.

Now, all this fretting may be the special preserve of a man who just this week will reach his mid-fifties, but I do worry what this downward spiral means for our culture, for our species. I continue to be haunted by a work I read recently, “Ends of the World,” a science history of deep time and the cycles of extinctions on our planet. For me, the book serves to highlight both our insignificance and the childish hubris of our species that imperils our brief reign here.

While it may not allow us to avert a crisis, it just may be time to return to the practice of “laying a hand on something.” Because the Boss Man is right around the corner and coming on fast, and he sounds pissed.


Reading this week: Confessions of a Recovering Environmentalist, by Paul Kingsnorth. This man can write. And, he can write well on topics of crucial interest.

23 thoughts on “Lay a Hand on Something

  1. What a thrill to see someone recommending what is surely one of the most thought- provoking, important essays of recent years. I spent a bunch of years battling on just that front in Maine (dumping ground, shall we say, for Massachussett’s earnest passion for greenwashing), and it meant a lot to me- still does.

  2. “…expecting less and less from our children…”

    And our “elderly”. We expect them to be replaced wholesale (because they’re spent) and expect people from other countries to be imported should our women not produce adequate numbers of offspring.

    My country has been living with this lie for several decades now, and it hasn’t done us any good.
    But you can’t speak up against it unless you have the, yes, muscle memory of knowing what people are capable of, both early in life and late.

    • There’s a corollary to being a civilization ill-mannered (from manus) in both their old and their young:
      You end up agreeing to see yourself first and foremost as a consumer; basically an orifice on top, and one lower down.

      Dealing with consumers as a peasant, I just got a little lesson in what their aim in life means for me – a fight on my hands not to loose my ability to set a price.

  3. Ruben also mentioned Paul Kingsnorth’s newest book (or an essay from it) at SFF last week. I have had a look at We Got To Big For the World and will agree Paul can patch words together well.

    On the matter of working with young workers and the ethic that seems to be missing… wholeheartedly agree. And this is bothersome. A few that I work with right now had taken a run at post-secondary education on the notion their lives would be better for it. Each ran afoul of the ‘system’ in some manner (too lazy to study, or not prepared to study, or some other issue)… but each and every ALSO ran up some debt in the process of failing. A double castration (if that were biologically possible). Now these same are very likely looking at a life of work that will probably be less rewarding, less fulfilling, and not one to be embraced and met with vigor, ambition, and happiness. If I were D. T. I might end there and say “Sad”.

    But quitting at the point of just illustrating the problem is a coward’s way out. Coaching those who come to work with us may seem a small gesture – but I think it’s a very significant effort. Would that more could step forward and give us a hand. Sort of like the star fish trope.

  4. The most “successful” children moved off the farm and into the suburbs where they could lead a “normal” life like everyone else on TV. Their kids, in a single generation, have lost the ability to acquire grownup skills through doing anything through physical labor. We have saved them from demeaning labor and possibly getting their little hands dirty. Oh the humanity! Is there much of anything our society hasn’t screwed up?

  5. I’d be curious to hear your take on “cartoonish literature designed for an underdeveloped mind.” It’s not that I disagree necessarily, but a fair amount of the time when I see someone mention something like that, it boils down to: “Books that I don’t like.”

    I enjoy reading horror, for example–old and new. Some of it’s good, some is trash, but you’d be surprised at how many people think I’m a soft-headed boob because I like genre fiction. Not for any particular reason, really. Often it’s just because they don’t like it, so naturally I must be a moron.

    But then again, if I AM a soft-headed boob I wouldn’t think I was one, would I? So maybe those people are right. If so, I sure wish I could figure out how to be as self-assured as some of the other boobs I see.

    • Gary,
      I read plenty of genre fiction, typically mysteries. And, genre fiction, at its best, is simply good old fashioned storytelling, something our species has been doing for millennia. It is a great way to pass the time. And, more so than mysteries, horror dovetails nicely with that tradition. Sitting around a campfire scaring the crap out of each other is what we do best.

      When I mentioned cartoonish literature, I specifically had young adult literature in mind. And, it is true that the number one selling fiction category for adults is the young adult genre. And, yes, there is some pretty terrific young adult literature. But, most is sophomoric. That is to say, it is written for an audience that is emotionally immature. That a segment of the adult population, that still reads, is not challenging themselves with anything other than material written for a kid audience…yep, I call that alarming.

      I had my nephew out for two week working on the farm. And, he reads the most awful young adult fantasy stuff. I hesitated to say too much to him, because I read so much science fiction drivel at his age, like the Lensman series. But, I did encourage him to develop the habit of alternating his reading habits between escapism and something that would expand his understanding of the world. That is a habit that I think would serve him well.

      But, as someone who has worked in the book business for over 37 years, I am pessimistic about the future of a literate society. In fact, I’m fast maturing into a grumpy old man of 55.


      • Thank you for clarifying. For what it’s worth, I totally agree.

        In my own reading, I try to bounce between fiction and non, old and new, and across several genres. How can you not? Writing is probably one of the best things humans have created, and as you point out, it’s one of our oldest traditions. It’d be crazy to not drink deep while we’re here. It’s the closest thing we have to time-traveling, mind-melding, or whatever you want to call it.

        Thanks again for responding!

        And as a Grumpy Old Man of 38, please allow me to present you with your very own ceremonial fez. Welcome to the order.

  6. Lots of curious commentary. My own experience in boyhood was laborious of the character-building type. Never been lazy like my peers then or now. The idea of escaping and/or avoiding physical discomfort to be a mindless drone never occurred to me. I can’t assess young folks’ work ethic today since I have such limited exposure to them, but I fear something else (perhaps worse) at work: the colonization of their minds by 7/24/365 connectivity via handheld devices. They can scarcely bear to look away, and they’re missing the world around them (paradoxically for fear of missing something fed to them on a tiny screen).

    This fits, too, with the shift toward video and attendant decline in literacy. When information is spoon-fed in small, corporatized, hyperpalatable, predigested bits, the desire to tackle chapters and entire tomes of any quality erodes to nearly nothing. We as a people are now rabid consumers of memes (in the popular, comedic sense) and so are unable to sustain an appetite for true culture, highbrow and elitist though it may be.

    • “When information is spoon-fed in small, corporatized, hyperpalatable, predigested bits, the desire to tackle chapters and entire tomes of any quality erodes to nearly nothing.”

      Nicely said. The screen staring worries me, as well. Nothing says evolution is always an arc upwards.

      To use my poor nephew as an example, again: I observed him reading one of his books for a couple of hours. Every two or three minutes he paused and either sent or responded to a text. Again, during a visit with my 97 year-old aunt, while she was describing a fascinating arc of her awareness of racial injustice in the South, he started to respond to a text. She stopped talking, and we both waited for him to finish. To his credit, he blushed when he looked up and put away his phone. But, the inability to concentrate either on reading or a conversation concerns.

      The Singularity is near.

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  8. I encouraged both of my nephews – now in their 20’s – to do trades rather than go to University. IMO tertiary education is fine if you have a vocational leaning or a strong interest in the arts but there’s very little point in going to university just because you can’t think of anything else to do or because you think it’s what society expects. Both my nephews are very bright with excellent handson skills. One of them was forging swords when he was 10 and the other was puling things to pieces and rebuilding them again from a very early age. Lacking interest in doing vocational courses like science, engineering, medicine, law etc or any great interest in the arts I think primary attractions of University for my nephews included drinking and meeting more women. Thoroughly understandable ambitions in a young man but arguably not the best way to spend 3-4 years while racking up a large debt.

    One of them is now a qualified boiler maker with a bunch of specialised welding tickets. He’s very well paid with loads of work and the opportunity to travel. As well as industrial stuff here and overseas he’s been doing some fascinating work in the UK where he’s welded feature metal fittings for various bars and restaurants and expensive houses in London and surrounds. And he’s worked with several artists to build objets d’art that have been exhibited in well-known galleries in the US and UK.

    The other is still exploring his options but has picked up a load of good skills and again seems to find work OK.

    As Brian says, ability to do stuff is key but almost deprecated by Anglophone late capitalism. Not a sign of a healthy culture.

    • Sounds like sound advice by an uncle. And, who knows having a specialist sword maker in the family might just come in handy someday.

      I think we may have discussed this in the past. But, in 1980 90% of US high schools offered vo-tech training. Today, less than 10% have those classes, everyone is supposed to go to college. As you say, not a sign of a healthy culture.

Any thoughts or questions?