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Come Labor On

September 7, 2015

The fact that FDR chose to raise the spirits of working Americans with a completely arbitrary date and holiday is, for me, a conundrum.

“Work” is another uniquely human invention. 200 years ago everyone just did what was needed to survive. “Hours”, “benefits” and “unemployment” were not defined: it was tasks and survival. The luxury of efficiency and longevity born of technology create a disassociation between “work” and “real life” for most Americans.

Many do fuse what they do to earn money to live and with what they do outside that activity, but most do not. I would be doing what I do for no money – help make buildings, write about stuff I perceive and be a dad and husband, but I get money for 2 out of 3 of those (sort of) – so work is not an imposed burden.

But work, for me, has a very hard edged downside: it is never enough: perfected enough, enough hours, efficient enough and is often simply not what it could be in process or results.

So there is no punched-out clock, no relief of obligation, no switching from one world that starts at 8 or 9 in the morning to another, completely distinct one at 5pm. Weekends just mean fewer people in my office, but more meetings with clients.

I saw every game, performance and important event in my pre-college kids lives because those were more important than building things or writing. There was balance not binary.

“Off work” – does not register to me, but neither does “office hours” or “job description”. So Labor Day, a day for celebrating what we do to earn money, or for most, have to do to earn money, seems weirdly alienating.

Even though its often an obligation, I never feel what I do is a burden. Work is just what I do, so I am never “off” and almost never want to find the island, alternative universe or rose-colored weekend of absence from a resented reality imposed on my by others to use me for ends I have no say in.

So I try to run my office in a way that none of those who work for me feel that way, either. Of course I need hours from them, but I do not care what days, but my employees have to tell me when they are in/not in, or just be there at 9 if you do not have other plans. Paid by the hour, no one is screwed by longer hours without pay.

What we do is just one part of the 9 others lives in the office other than mine. Working for me can be central or peripheral to my employees as long as the work gets done so there is money to be had.

Pretty simple: and due to the gift of positive regard that the work we do seems to have for those willing to pay for it, there is money for us. Being paid is an expectation, but having the work is a gift, an unexpected, deeply humbling reality of not thinking strategically, but reactively, to get the job done.

So work is not a distinct detached necessary unpleasantness: its not a pill to be swallowed: its just one more way to get something done, or fall short. Mostly things get done but inevitably I, and those who work for me, fall short.

There is little Zen in building architecture. It gets built or does not. Its either a gift to the landscape or its abusive. Buildings either weather well or need attention. They are, (first to their users, and then to the world, and last to other architects), gifts of enrichment to the culture, writ small or large.

So that kind of labor operates within many wheels of fulfillment or inadequacy: things are never perfect – or evil – work for me lives in the human world where life involves effort and rest, joy and sadness, anger and forgiveness: but not Labor and Life as distinct oppositional alternative realities.

The metrics of meeting a production quota, making a sale, saving a life, passing a test are not in this place: success or its absence is based more on long term, subjective outcomes that are judged by values, not scores or measureables.

Of course the Depression needed relief. Of course no one below the elite was getting paid enough to have hope in the 1930’s. But pandering noblesse oblige from a Roosevelt – a scion of monied ancestors – feels to me like the boss saying “take the day off, you earned it”.

That assumes our President is our boss. I am not-so-good with bosses: I have over 50 of them at any given time in the patrons of my architecture practice, plus a few more in my editors, but we choose to be with each other. Of course I am the “boss” for those who work for me: but I have no holidays (including Labor Day) at my office, because any day any employee wants to have a holiday is up to them.

If Christmas is just another day of work for you, feel free to work. I your kid’s birthday is a holiday for you then its a holiday. I treat my employees as if they were their own bosses in terms of when they work, or don’t. The calendar says I will be alone today in the office: but that’s by choice, not obligation.

This would not work at places of greater consequence than my office – like my job construction sites that need crews there for specific weeks and months, or hospitals or schools: So this is the flaw in my perception: I surf upon a greater world where most have fewer choices about when to work, or how.

The 40 hour/50 week modality creates a work infrastructure upon which everything I do rests. So Labor Day lives, for me, in a place made possible by many, many other places.

The only downside for me is that I can never clock out.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. September 7, 2015 8:21 am

    Dear Dude,

    Substitute “pipe organs” for “buildings,” and you’ve written about my life as well. But I’m not as flexible as you in terms of allowing employees to make their own schedule, though they do have three paid weeks off and five “personal” days to run their own lives.

    Of course Labor Day implies that labor is more important than management, otherwise we’d have a Management Day as well. But there is this odd notion that unless our hands are moving, there is no labor. Balderdash.

    I hope you spend your day productively. I know your day is all mortgaged up, but I do have some nice single malts that I’d love to share with you off campus. Just say the word.


  2. September 7, 2015 8:24 am

    i’m a member of your club
    i loose what i do and don’t snicker…. i do believe its a calling


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