Thursday, June 16, 2011

Damn Hard Work (If You Can Get It)

I sometimes get obsessed with the definitions of words and all of the connotations and denotations possible when you say a word and how what a persons says gets misconstrued, turned around and generally confabulated from one's lips to the ears of another.  You've got to deal with text, context, signifier, signified, subject, object, verb and those slithering adverbs that sneak in on reptile bellies no matter how many times you try to kill them.  It's a wonder we communicate effectively with each other and that we somehow get our point across.  Thank goodness for body language.  Well, normally.  I'm teaching an online course this summer.  We have no body language at all- one of the stresses and joys of internet access.  And I've been thinking of the word "success" for about a week.

In the context of general life goals, students in secondary school will probably say that success is equal to money.  If you are rich, you must be successful.  I've been looking for another full-time gig, preferably teaching college but I'm also dogging the high schools around here for something to do with myself come fall.  I would count myself successful if I had oh, say, health and dental insurance in October.  To compound this, teachers don't make actual money, so we cannot be successful by the definition of a high school kid.  This means that I want to be successful at not being..successful.

Ok, forget that. I don't like kids anyway.  If you ask my friend Valerie, she might define success as getting all four of her kids to be creative, free-spirited artists, musicians, sculptors or art historians who live within the boundaries that they set themselves rather than the ones society has decided are acceptable.  Maybe she would think of success if her children push on those boundaries some, the same way that she does in her oh-so-mirthful way.

I am damn sure that there is another word involved with success: hard work.  Ok, that is two words.  I used to do a good deal of hard work when I was a kid.  I mucked stalls, fed lambs every four hours in the dead of winter, moved hay, and dug ditches.  I didn't get paid for any of that.  When I got older, I worked at Ski Bluewood, I was in the ski rental shop. That was work too, checking out all of those skis and boots and checking them all back in again too.  And it was sort of cold and by the end of the day, I'd have metal blisters on my hands from handling skis and bruises from boots and skis since sometimes things got a little crazy in the rental shop. Sometimes it was really damn cold.  I had it easy though- we worked inside and only froze our tookas' off going to and from the mountain.  The guys who worked in the parking lot, the lift operators and the maintenance crew- they had it rough.  They did some *real* hard work.  They were outside most of the day.  One time I had to work at the top of the lift for an afternoon.  I was under-dressed too and almost got frostbite on my left hand.  I was successful at making friends there but not so much with the monetary gain.  Minimum wage was only $5.50 back then.

This last year my hard work included commuting 150 miles a day, teaching 5 classes of freshman composition in a row- back to back on the same day, taking two classes myself and taking my general exams with only a few weeks to do them.  This Spring it was in teaching four classes of composition, writing my prospectus and dissertation and renting out my house to move to Ada temporarily. None of those things are physically taxing- I'm not waiting tables and walking a concrete floor for 8 hours a day, nor am I getting up in the middle of the night to fix downed power lines.  I also do not work in the hot sun or freezing cold, keeping neighborhoods safe.

Since entering the teaching profession, I have felt a little guilty that my work isn't "hard work".  In our sweet little church in Dayton, Washington, my Sunday School teacher and the pastor impressed upon me the importance of doing some hard work every day.  Except for Sunday, of course. I respected my Sunday School teacher.  He was a giant man with a permanent sunburn, giant ham-sized hands and squinty eyes, like it was too bright in whatever room he was in.  It's not so much that anyone pointed out that if you want to get to heaven, you have to work.  It was demonstrated in the overalls that the men wore, the ladies in their paisley and gingham tops and the thick smell of Avon Skin So Soft in the summertime.   Most are farmers, city or electric workers and yes, even teachers.  My Agriculture teacher worked himself to death sometimes.  Yeah, I'm pretty sure I don't do hard work and sometimes it's not like work at all.  I just go until I fall asleep.

Except for right now.  Now I'm having a season of rest and regrouping.  It's good for me, figuring out the next best thing to do.  To stay still long enough to find my own rhythm again.  It's hard though, to not force some solution, to be patient and concentrate on the things in front of me.  I'm always busy running from one thing to the next. These days, I'm running a little more for exercise and a lot less from one thing to another.  It's been nice to catch up with people and to sleep in some days.  And to do some reading.  I'm not going to starve to death. I still have my last semester of school and probably enough adjunct work to stay afloat and keep Eleanor in canned kitty food until the new year.

I guess that means I have to redefine success.  I have a roof over my head today and I ate some awesome baba ghanoush from my favorite deli.  I met with a good friend at the library and we worked on research stuff, books we are reading and books we want to read.  I washed some dishes and walked five miles out at Lake Hefner and now I am sitting here, writing a blog.  My favorite thing.  Success.


  1. Ah, the myth of "hard" work. This is something that I have seen so many struggle with & I myself had to deal with in the form of my Father's disapproval of being an artist. To him, being an artist wasn't "hard" work. For some reason, if you aren't getting blisters or harming your body in some way, you aren't working hard enough. This is a myth & a lie & something everyone needs to let go of. Writing, painting, composing, teaching, sculpting, etc. are all incredibly hard work. They are a different kind of hard work. Being creative takes a huge amount of energy. Mental energy. We need to break free from the concept that physical energy is superior to mental energy. Teaching takes both. Well, actually, everything takes both, it's just where the slide lands on the scale. We just need to change the scale labels from hard work & easy work to mental work & physical work. Both hard. Both different, but equal. For me, success is happiness. If I am doing what I love & covering what I need to live by doing it, then I am happy, which means I am successful.

  2. I will never measure success in monetary terms.