In Praise of Work

“If it falls your lot to be a street sweeper, go out and sweep streets like Michelangelo painted pictures. Sweep streets like Handel and Beethoven composed music. Sweep streets like Shakespeare wrote poetry. Sweep streets so well that all the hosts of heaven and earth will have to pause and say, here lived a great street sweeper who swept his job well.”

Martin Luther King, Jr.

Hey, folks. Listen up. We need to do something about the bad rap that work seems to be getting!

Witness what happened to work in 2021: The Great Resignation. The Big Quit. The Great American Walkout.

But even before the Pandemic, job satisfaction wasn’t the greatest.  A comprehensive study conducted jointly by the Lumina Foundation, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Omidyar Network, and Gallup found that more than half of U. S. workers are unhappy in their jobs.

That’s unacceptable. That’s downright dreadful, especially since we spend about a third of our life working. It seems to me that what we do for a third of our life ought to make us happy.

As for me, I must be blessed. No, I must be super blessed because I have always loved my work, whatever it happened to be at the time that I happened to be doing the work that I was doing. And believe me: I’ve worked far more than one third of my life.

I’ve worked my entire life. In fact, just the other day, I said to a friend, with no hint of whining, with no intent of complaining, and with no lament of exhaustion: “I was born working.”

Exaggerated? Perhaps. All right. Of course. It is.

Nonetheless, I’m betting that I did something to help my mother speed up my birth so that I could get into the world and begin my world of work. Since she’s no longer alive, she can neither verify nor dispute my claim, so I’m safe with my exaggeration.

Nonetheless, I’m here to give work a better rap. I’m here to sing work’s praises.

Lots of songs focus on work. Who doesn’t know “Heigh Ho” in Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs? Or Dolly Parton’s “9 to 5“? Or how about “Workin’ for a Livin’” by Huey Lewis and the News? Or “She Works Hard for the Money” by Donna Summer? Or “Five O’Clock World” by the Vogues. Or, finally, “Hard Hat and a Hammer” by Alan Jackson.

If those folks can sing about work, why can’t I blog about it? Besides, work is what I’ve always done, and work has always worked for me.

Read on, work with me, and you’ll see for yourself.

I have vivid pre-school memories of scrabbling up and down and all around the slate dump behind our West Virginia home, looking for scrap iron. The “Iron Man” paid a good price for our finds. I say “our” because my brothers and sisters joined in as did most, if not all, of the kids in our coal camp.

After my family moved away to another West Virginia town when I was seven, I discovered that the citizenry there could not only afford bottled soft drinks–Coke, Dr. Pepper, Pepsi–but also could afford to toss the empty bottles thoughtlessly out of their vehicles onto the side of the road. That’s when I discovered that one man’s trash is another man’s treasure. I collected those bottles, washed them up to their original sparkle, returned them proudly to the local general store, and walked away with three cents per bottle, fully believing that I was fast becoming the richest kid in town.

Around the same time, one of my older brothers found out that folks in our new town loved to fish, especially with night crawlers–large, slimy, segmented worms, with a wide reddish purple band just behind a large head and a body tapering back sometimes as far as 10 inches to a flat tail. Luckily, our yard seemed to be a breeding ground for the anglers’ preferred bait. Weekend nights would find me and my older brother and my older sisters out in the yard with flashlights, searching for nightcrawlers. We became experts in pulling them ever so gently from the ground, ever mindful of increasing our collective earnings by a nickel for each live worm. Before long, we had a nightcrawler monopoly with our local bait shop. We had hit pay dirt, and we knew it.

I branched out to another work endeavor: mowing neighbors’ yards. It didn’t pay much–a quarter a lawn. But it wasn’t as much about growing rich as it was the rich satisfaction that I derived from seeing my beautifully landscaped yards. I remember one in particular. I would spend the entire day cutting the grass, edging around the garden beds and walkways, refreshing the mulch, deadheading and pruning. Sometimes when day was done, I would sprawl out in the grass and play out in my mind the answers that I would give the interviewer who would one day seek me out before featuring my client’s yard in Better Homes and Gardens.

Those work stints joyed me all the up to, through, and out of high school. The summer after graduation, I worked at an explosives company, high up on a mountain, a mile or so from the nearest town. All by myself, I managed an office of one–me. I did it all. Bookkeeping. Typing. Answering the phones. Monitoring the scales and recording weights as trucks went out with explosives and came back empty. In my starched shirt and full Windsor-knot tie, I was the master of all that I surveyed all alone on a mountain top, a mile from nowhere.

When I went to college in the fall, I continued working for the next four years. Work Study. Dorm Counselor. Summer Discovery English tutor. Mail carrier–United States Senate. Intern– former Department of Health, Education and Welfare (Division of the Two-Year College). In all those positions, I enjoyed the work, I enjoyed my colleagues, and I enjoyed the networking.

Work continued through graduate school. Research Assistant for one of the world’s most respected textual bibliographers. Teaching Assistant in one of the country’s best university English departments. Again, the work, those with whom I worked, my students, and my research on Mary E. Wilkins Freeman all brought joy beyond measure. Somes days I pinched myself because it all seemed too good to be true.

We’re nearing the end of my working man’s chronicles, so keep working with me.

After graduate school, I kept right on working. First at the Library of Congress (LOC), where I had a rich, twenty-five-year career. Editor, MARC Project. Editor, National Union Catalog, Pre-1956 Imprints. Training Coordinator, United States Copyright Office. Director, Internship Program. Special Assistant, Human Resources. Little wonder that I still consider the LOC to be the best agency in the entire federal sector.

After retiring from the LOC, I became a professor of English at Lord Fairfax Community College (becoming Laurel Ridge Community College). For twenty-three years (teaching twelve months a year, every year), “Professor” has been music to my mountain ears, the completion of a melody that I first started hearing as a coal camp kid. Little wonder that I consider Lord Fairfax/Laurel Ridge Community College and the thousands of students I’ve taught to be the best community college and the best students in the Commonwealth of Virginia.

At the end of this fall semester, I will retire. But guess what? I will keep right on working at something.

Teaching: visiting professor doors may open and I may enter. Research: visiting scholar doors may open and I may enter–my work on Mary E. Wilkins Freeman is ongoing. And how about my love of gardening (see my The Joy of Weeding) and my love of baking (see my Oh, No! Sourdough! and Baking Up My Past) and my love of company (see my My Imaginary Guests).

But here’s the bottom line. Whatever work comes my way, I will work to make sure that I’m enjoying the work that I’m doing!

OMG! Do you mean to tell me that you had to work with me all the way through this post just to hear me blurt out that we have to work at enjoying the work that we do. It’s so true that it’s worth repeating. We have to work at enjoying the work that we do.

Maybe–just maybe–the attitude that we bring to our work determines, as much as anything else, the praises that we are able to offer up.

4 thoughts on “In Praise of Work

  1. You’re retiring? OMG! I know the students and facility will miss you. I also know you won’t stay “retired” for long. Maybe it’s time you audition for the bake-off!


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