Work | Opinion | Salt Lake City | Salt Lake City Weekly


"The best prize that life has to offer is the chance to work hard at work worth doing." —Theodore Roosevelt

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Matthew Cockrum, a minister at the First Unitarian Church of Salt Lake City, concludes his emails by writing, "Here's to the work, friends." It is such a nicely inflected phrase. I often pause to reflect on its nuances. It reminds me of the toasts I offered, glass raised, at formal Army dinners long ago. Not quite a rallying cry or call to action, "the work" maps the shared commitment of a cohort. It could be a commitment to social justice or to political activism or to religious doctrine. Regardless, the end state of "the work" is understood to have value and import. Weeding the gardens on the church grounds is not what the Rev. Cockrum has in mind.

In my life, work has been grounding and consequential. It has dictated where I lived and how I spent my days. In the years I worked in an office, the best part of the workday began at 5 p.m. when I traded typewriter for maul. Physical work has always been restorative for me. I preferred to take vacation days in my garden instead of at a beach.

In many cases, work determines what people wear, when they sleep, why they vote the way they do. The unavailability of work was a factor in many people's decision to support Donald Trump. There are also people whose work defines them. Artists fit in this category as do clergymen like Cockrum. So do Cliven Bundy and his gun-totin' followers. Soldiers, too.

Soldiering was men's work until recent times. Women were barred from such combat units as infantry platoons and artillery batteries. Gender bias has now been excised from Army regulations—women have choices—but it persists elsewhere like moss in the shade or hypocrisy in the Legislature. Even in the Beehive State! Two weeks ago, James Green, the co-chairman of the Wasatch County Republican Party, sparked a firestorm of outrage with his assertion that housework is the bailiwick of women. It brought to mind Bella Abzug's 1970 campaign slogan, "This woman's place is in the house ... the House of Representatives." I also thought of Brenda Barnes, the CEO of Pepsi-Cola in 1997, who quit to be a full-time mother. She eventually returned to the workforce to be CEO of the Sara Lee Corp. She died of a stroke two months ago at 63. New York Times columnist David Leonhardt wrote, "At a celebration of life, her daughter thanked people for coming and offered this parting shot: 'My mom would want me to tell you, "Don't work too hard."'"

Workaholics are a minority, but plenty of people avoid hard jobs. Others are lazy. An incredible number of employees—50 percent, according to Gallup polling—are disengaged: They "show up and kill time." I have worked in places where minor tasks were dragged out in such a way that it took an entire shift to finish them. Employees considered it "job security," but I thought the practice was corrosive. Maybe that judgment reflects a Utah bias. After all, we live in a state whose motto is "Industry." Mormon settlements were founded by faith and nourished by irrigation, Wallace Stegner wrote. Settlers tithed labor to such communal projects as digging canals and building roads. Hymn 252 in the LDS hymnal puts an edge on "Here's to the work" with a spirited chorus to rally the faithful: "We all have work; let no one shirk/ Put your shoulder to the wheel."

Like Roosevelt, I think most work is mostly worthwhile. Work is edifying. Even digging a deep hole—a job I detest—has animal appeal when the sidewalls are plumb and the bottom is clean and level. Work has its gradations, of course. Busy work, dirty work, homework, grunt work—all of which have a place on a résumé that documents my transition from digging holes to writing essays. At 12, I mowed neighbors' lawns for $1. At 15, I delivered the Deseret News every afternoon to 80 customers. At 17, I worked after school in the sprawling nursery Hank, "the Petunia King" built on 3900 South. Hank paid a miserly wage for hard labor. Half a century later, I am still working to cobble together the 900-plus words on this page. It isn't pick-and-shovel work, but it isn't as easy as it looks.

I made the drive to Ogden a few weeks ago to catch a traveling exhibit from the Smithsonian Institution. Called The Way We Worked, it examines "the strength and spirit of American workers through archival images, compelling videos and fascinating interviews." Among them I recognized parts of my own generational story, especially the effect of technology on a family who worked with words.

My mother was a stenographer in the early 1940s. She took dictation in Gregg Shorthand and transcribed it using a manual typewriter. By the time I came of age, Shorthand was passé and the IBM Selectric had upended the market (as the Apple Macintosh did in the mid-1980s.) The Selectric was the Rolls Royce of typewriters. (I do remember seeing an early Wang word-processor and not appreciating what it presaged.) My son now writes on a laptop. What he crafts for software companies is "optimized for search engines," a skill I am too old to learn.

The Way We Worked is free to the public in Ogden's Union Station through March 18. The exhibit will then travel around the state, arriving at the Park City Museum on Nov. 11. It's worth a look.

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