Saturday, December 26, 2009

White snow, Blue Collar

I am back in the chilly climes of the United States still in the frosty embrace of last week’s winter storm that blitzed through the North Eastern corridor dropping more than a foot of snow in South Orange, New Jersey where I reside. However, it turns out that we did not get the brunt of this “Northeasterner.”
As I write this, comfortably draped across a soft yielding sofa in Virginia, I look out of the window and see the still substantial remains of close to two feet of snow that came down in the Washington DC area. I am at Chris,’ my dear friend and in-law doing that ritualistic Christmas family reunion thing; year-by-year, it is either your house or my house.
This year it is at “your house,” so here we are with a full complement of folks including my niece, visiting from Nigeria, as well as the three “mouseketeers,” Chris’ brace and my own dear daughter completing the two girls, one boy trio as well as mummies in tow. However, I digress, this is not supposed to be about yuletide family reunions, it is strangely enough about the dignity of labor. Let me explain.
Last week in the aftermath of the snowstorm, I learnt a very useful lesson about the nature of work. I woke up to see the world around me transformed into a white snowy dreamscape. With everything outside covered in this enchanted white drapery of snow, the world looked positively different; clean, pristine, and full of un-trodden possibilities.
Gazing through my window at this winter wonder-landscape, I could better appreciate why Inuits and Eskimos reputedly have hundreds of names to describe their white snowy habitats. For me that white blanket mercifully covered a multitude of sins, for a moment, I preferred to enjoy the untainted vista before me instead of reflexively trying to unearth what lies beneath.
However, at some point, I knew I had to lift selective edges of this frosty carpet to etch pathways out of our snowed in encampment. In these parts and at this time of the year, shoveling snow is a quotidian routine necessitated by the practical challenge of moving around as well as strict local ordinances that compel you to clear the pedestrian pathway that outlines the front of your property.
When done cooperatively with each household taking responsibility for clearing their frontage, the result is remarkably efficient; typically, an uneven path hacked through the snowy thickets running parallel to the main street, providing the brave pedestrian safe passage through the treacherous and slippery snow drifts.
Of course, there are patches along the trail where, negligent households have not bothered to provide this public service and the result is this jarring obstacle of mounted snow hindering the trek. I must confess that in the past, I was one of those negligent homeowners, refusing to go out and shovel snow, preferring to either pay those shovel toting, roving band of brothers, as in “brotha,” that magically appear after every snow storm, or wait patiently for the big thaw that happens after every ice age to take its course.
In truth, I was not always this recalcitrant, but I remember trying to shovel snow for the first time six years ago and nearly having a heart attack, or so goes the urban myth. Then I was left thoroughly breathless and aching all over, the result of a sedentary lifestyle sitting in front of a computer working or beached on the couch watching television and plenty of heavy meals in between, and now…
Well, glad to say I am in a much better physical shape. With this assurance, I woke up to a hearty breakfast; you need the energy you know, and a determination to dig my household out of the snow. It helped that my daughter offered to lend a hand. I was pleasantly surprised considering that last year I had to pay her for the same service offering.
This time she volunteered to help “daddy out,” and so at approximately 11 am, we both set out, shovels at the ready into the lush, fluffy, milky froth that was a foot of snow covering the entire yard and beyond. First, we had to shovel a path through the backyard to parking space where the family minivan was usually parked.
This time it was not in place because my wife had bravely driven it out through the snow on short errand, but had been forced to leave it marooned at the end of our longish drive way. My daughter’s offer to help was short lived, because a family friend soon pulled up on the main road in an SUV packed with kids with an offer to my daughter that was simply too good to refuse. “Help daddy out” in back breaking work, shoveling snow, or go tobogganing at the park with your friends. Well… what do you think?
Now left to my own devices, armed with two shovels, and totally immersed in the pulsating Afro jazz rhythms of the seminal Afro-Cuban super band Irakere thumping from my iPod, I set to work. At a later point, I had to move Irakere over and let Jimi take over… Jimi Hendricks that is.
I systematically began to shovel strategic tracks all around the yard, first clearing the walkway leading to the front door, next the full length of the public walkway across the frontage, and then the parking space before tackling the full length of the driveway to rescue the marooned minivan.
In all about three and a half hours of work, real work. As I proudly stood looking at and savoring the fruits of my labor, so to speak, I realized that I had actually gotten more done in those hours than I had done in a long time. I could see that with every deft heft of the snow-laden shovel, I was slowly but surely clawing a clearly discernable path to a clear objective.
None of that vague, open ended, subjective gobbledygook that often passes for white-collar intellectual output. This was real, tactile, tangible, quantifiable blue-collar work. You could see that in some places, where there was snow three hours before, now there was none, and you could see that it had been shoveled aside, revealing what lay beneath.
This was not some pointless flight of fancy or intellectual expose on what lay beneath the snow, in the deliberately exposed parts, you could actually see it and touch it if you wanted and not ponder what it was or wasn’t.
Put another way, this was the conversion of bio energy into the physical displacement of weighted loads that just happen to be snow. I have come away with renewed understanding and appreciation of physical labor and the dignity that lies therein. I know that to get things moving, there is a need for the cerebral exertions that I am more familiar with, but it should not be done at the expense of the its more earthy physical alter ego.
PS. Happy New Year to you. May this New Year bring you in wise measure all that you need and some of what you want.

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