On manual labor

Until the weather turned “normal” late last week, I’ve been obsessively building something outside.  It’s something that will bring a lot of my efforts together, not necessarily effortlessly, but certainly enjoyably.  We should all aim to get a lot of enjoyment out of life.

But I wanted to talk about the process of building.  I have mostly LOVED getting extremely sore:  I enjoy this about gardening, too.  Certainly, I haven’t strained myself into a hospital visit, but solid hours of lifting anything is not part of my normal day:  at most, I lift my laptop and piles of drawings, sometimes a book…my normal work is not exactly physically demanding.  But construction!

I am trying to puzzle out what it is about manual labor that is so immediately appealing to me.  We discussed something similar to this over the Thanksgiving table.  My father in law seriously believes I should go into pie-baking as a sideline.  “But once you do it for a living, you probably wouldn’t enjoy it,” he said, taking another bite.  So:  is it the novelty of construction?  I build things all the time for a living, and though the same kind of thought process goes into it, doing architecture on the computer isn’t the same as constructing architecture with my hands.  But I think I have figured it out, why I enjoy it so much:  it’s the time required.

I believe I get more accomplished in 3 hours of laying bricks than I do in 3 hours of computer time.  It’s actually productive time, well-spent, with progress observed and felt.

Don’t get me wrong:  if it wasn’t for computers, I wouldn’t be able to work from home.  I wouldn’t have all of you in my life, and life would be a lot less easy in so many respects.  But computers are A HUGE TIME-SUCK.  Really!  This is not a unique observation, nor certainly is it new to me, but this contrast between outdoor work and computer work has been very jarring.  Computers steal time from our lives, minute by uploading minute, autosave by refresh by page load.  Somehow, we’ve acquiesced to this, we’ve agreed to spend a large portion of our lives allowing our asses to grow ever larger, sitting in front of a screen, all because we think these tools are indispensable, and helpful.  And so muscles atrophy, brain synapses misfire.  I’ve always thought the television was bad but now I am reconsidering this damned internet connection, seeing it as the black hole of time that it is.

All the more reason to pick up a hammer.

15 responses to “On manual labor

  1. I quite agree about BUILDING things. I don’t know what it is like for an architect, but I’m a research scientist and so most of my creative output is entirely cerebral. I find when I spend a day putting something tactile together it’s enormously rewarding. I can point at the soldered contacts and connected detectors and say “I did THAT today”.

  2. Well, I think you ‘hit the nail on the head’! Ha! Seriously, even for us who build for a living, it’s extremely gratifying to look back at a wall we formed or poured and stripped that day and see the physical evidence of our labor. I guess that’s why I love concrete. You can rub your hands over it and feel it’s shape and watch it grow; not entirely unlike a garden! I think it simply appeals to our ego more, to hold what we have created in our hands and say, I MADE this.

  3. Couldn’t agree more. My hands are so sore from carrying 10′ lengths of black locust beams over the weekend that I can barely type.

    What are you building?

  4. Obviously. We have so few opportunities to see concrete (ha! sorry. . . ) evidence of our labors, that creating something tangible is a jolt to the lizard-brain.

    I remember telling a professor all I wanted to do was garden, and he said all his students went through that. It was a way to escape the relentless cerebralization of our lives. Of course, since I ended up dropping out and now garden, maybe it was worse. Who knows?

  5. To me it is the whole process that I find most rewarding. The initial thoughts, the plan, and then the actual implementation. It makes me feel as if I have followed through on every aspect of whatever the venture was.

    I agree with your thoughts on computer time and have also been thinking about that a lot of late. I’m very curious to hear more about what you are building.:)

    I’m off to partake in some manual labor, good luck with the project.

  6. I find that my most productive time over the years has been gardening, or cooking, with frequent trips to the computer to write the thoughts generated by gardening or cooking. The activities are complementary.
    Leo, the architect, has a full-time side avocation of rebuilding ancient canoes.

    This rainy summer has made me lazy and my garden a wrack, and my computer time increased with nothing really to show for it except for atrophy — of both mind and muscle, not even to mention zucchini.

  7. Wait. I *know* you’re not going to leave us with nothing but the tease of that picture, El. WHAT are you building? It looks suspiciously like a foundation for a hoop house or something of that ilk. Spill it, please, with lots of details.

    • Ah, but if I don’t get it finished in a reasonable time, I will feel as if I have disappointed all of you, Kate, and not just my selfish self!!! So if I keep you in the dark, maybe I will feel better.

      I’ve got to get this winter monkey off my back. Freezing temps don’t mesh well with curing mortar…nor does heating something with my tightwad self…

  8. Hmmm. Root cellar?

    I do agree with every word, but to leave us dangling in such a way, El. Really, now….

  9. I’m guessing outdoor kitchen.

    building something leaves physical evidence of hours spent at it. it gives you a sense of accomplishment. I can also get a sense of accomplishment when I clean the garage, but I know that it won’t stay that way (clean) whereas the wall-long bookcase I built in the living room will stay there until we move into the old folks home or the house burns down.

    That one took so long I also felt a sense of relief, in addition to accomplishment.

  10. I spent 30+ years teaching college courses. I never saw a “finished product”, though there were one or two students I’ve tracked after graduation and I’m glad to say I had some small hand in their success.

    But building a garden, or a hoop house, or a cold frame: there you have to plan the structure (cerebration) and then go do it and you can see your final product, for better or worse. And I feel it in the soreness of my muscles. It’s a good feeling.

  11. I completely agree, as I’ve had the same sentiments re manual labor *and* baking. I love to do both, but its crossed my mind that if I did it for a living, maybe some of the joy would be lost? I don’t know.
    Hoophouse or root cellar sound like good projects, because although they are a lot of work, they are a “one time thing” and after they are completed, they would be extremely practical with that sense of accomplishment from you building it from the “ground up”.

  12. Yes, being able to look at concrete manifestations of our efforts is satisfying. Add the every changing nature of gardens and I’m hooked.
    What about internet free days (one a week, every other day?). It would be hard, but come spring I would certainly be willing to cut way down!

  13. COMPLETELY unrelated to this post…BUT, I was reading your blog, trying to catch up a bit and noticed the print go all funny. I *just* had an eye exam yesterday and definitely answered “no” to the Q: Do you ever see stars, experience blurred vision or see “floaters” in your line of sight?
    Granted, I slept about 3 interrupted hours last night due to attending a birth… but I got all panicky for a good minute or two until I realized you’ve got snowflakes falling on a white background here!
    Phew! Thought I was going crazy! Time for bed already!

  14. Okay all: I apologize about the damned snow! I did it last year and I guess WordPress thinks I always want it, and I have no clue how to stop it, how ironic, just like the real white stuff. It’s a December thing only. And it’s entirely appropriate because Dec. 1st was the first day the actual snow started falling here.

    Hi Roby. There is something so satisfying about working directly with your hands and not just our brains, isn’t there? And like Sharon says there’s something complementary about building something, that hand’s-on, brain-engaged, touchable result to it all.

    Annie, I often wonder if you guys in the field get more enjoyment than we do in the office. Sure I get to go out and stomp around in boots and take notes, but it’s not every day. But every day is progress! Some days more than others certainly. And gardening. Same thing.

    Angie, you guys sure have bitten off a lot of building/rebuilding. We didn’t “have” to unless you count the coop, greenhouses and now the outdoor oven. It’s all rather satisfying, though…and it gets us through the week until we get out there again!

    Stefani, you think you had it worse, you mean, that you’d drop out and garden? Hah. Maybe… Though when I was in school gardening was the furthest thing from my mind. That was my problem, frankly.

    Mike, I am telling you I think computers completely suck our lives out, one keystroke at a time…at least, I think this most of the time. I learn from them too so it’s a bit of a conundrum. But indeed having the power to plan and carry through something is so immensely personally satisfying. One must remember to stop and look back and note one’s accomplishments, though.

    Ah Sharon that everpresent quest for balance! You’re quite fortunate to be able to use your computer as a tool that complements the other activities of your life. I get into this pattern where I resent the computer (the blog, really) for things like my cooking: cooking, gardening, living, etc. is so much deeper than a damned blog post. But as an organizational tool, indeed, blogs/computers can help a person out a lot. And: I completely get what the attraction is for Leo in working with those old canoes. People definitely need outlets like that or we’d all be a bit crazy.

    Kate! I have now spilled. Nah, a hoop house wouldn’t have taken me this long to build: they go up in a weekend, easily.

    Ali, weren’t you helping some friends build one, too?

    Paula, you win the gold star! I am hoping this project rounds out a lot of things to our lives, even simplifying a lot of it…that might be a lot to ask but it’ll be fun seeing if it can. And yes, that bookcase. Indeed a relief, but wow, what a great improvement to your environment! (I’ll have you know that we had to reinforce parts of our first floor to actually carry the weight of all our books.)

    Dennis, don’t forget it’s a good feeling you can EAT. Wow, how handy is that!! We should all have avocations as unselfishly fulfilling as a garden. I am of the opinion that individual teachers (any kind) are mostly the nudge, not necessarily the producers of well-educated students. Motivation, clarity, and enthusiasm: if a teacher can get this out of a student, it’ll help that student get it out of him/herself. (You see I come from a long line of teachers, both secondary and college-level.)

    Baking AND gardening, MC, exactly. Edible payoff too! Can’t eat my oven, but…it’ll help what I grow and eat. But I agree, it would be a downer if one’s living were counting on what we grow and cook.

    EJ, I do a computer-free Sunday, have been for years, and it helps: I get out of my inbox, which truly helps my peace of mind. Mondays then become complete hell. Sigh. Sisyphus!

    Ah Amanda I am so sorry: here you were, trying to come off the high of a birth, and I am messing with your poor eyes! And I am quite sure that one of the things you tell every one of your moms-to-be is watch out for floating text and seeing stars. My apologies 🙂

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