I have come to loathe August in the Mississippi I love. It saps my strength. It strains my soul. The hot torpor, the burning sun, the rising afternoon humidity makes every move an effort worthy of Atlas, as it seems the weight of the world rests upon my shoulders, and I cannot breathe. Every shallow, fought for breath brings no relief, at least not to my hemoglobin-depleted blood. For every breath in, there is a cup of sweat out, or so it seems, in August. Every year, the malaise that is August overtakes me and clouds my vision, obscuring my path. It prevents me from seeing promise. August, in Mississippi, lingers like February in the high elevations of the Rockies, as March is no respite against winters there; and here, September is merely August’s extension, claimed by August, nay, captured and held hostage by August in effect, yet holding the promise of fall that August never contemplated. September’s promise of autumn is the only thing about September that August fails to conquer: that, and the nights, which already show more than the promise of fall’s coming coolness.
August is over now. Another one is behind me. I started my first chemotherapy on August 10, 2009, hence these seven years, five in remission and the two of late, not, though the chemo served me well, as I am still here to remember it and write about it. Others have fallen, their battles over, their struggles ended, their labors ceased. They now know neither the heat of August, nor the promise of September, as we only know the memory that replaces their presence. It is a poor substitute, the memory, but all the more precious for its poorness.
Today is Labor Day. We celebrate those who labor for their living, and that would be all of us who are not idle. While we have organized labor to thank for this holiday, we all labor, whether we are part of an organization or not. We are all selling something though we may not call ourselves salesmen. We build organizations to manufacture products or deliver services which we hope others will buy and continue to buy, or we work for those organizations that do those things and hope that others buy and continue to buy so we can continue to sell our time through which we furnish the labor that actually touches the product or performs the service.
I am management, not labor, by labor’s definition of itself. I am capital, not labor, by labor’s definition of itself. Yet, my labor never seems the less by not fitting another’s definition. On this Labor day in 2016, I will barbecue some ribs, and with the greatest hope watch pre-season #11 ranked Ole Miss play #3 ranked Florida State, in Tallahassee, of all places. We will see, today, what Ole Miss is made of. We will see if their labors will pay a dividend. We will see if Florida State’s labors pay them a dividend. They both have labored. They both have labored in August heat, and August is not a bit kinder in Tallahassee, Florida, than it is in East Central Mississippi.
I will take that time for respite, for ribs and football, yet I will still labor, as there is yet some paperwork which must be completed in readiness for a series of meetings tomorrow. If I do not labor with paper and pen, and spreadsheet and keyboard, others will not be able to labor with their hands for their wages and neither they, nor I, nor those we serve, will profit. Labor never stops, it only rests for a while.
There is nothing more noble than honest work. We are hired to do a task for our wages, and we must perform the task if we expect to continue to get our wages, for no one, not the laborer, nor his employer, wants to pay for something they didn’t receive. But contracting for the work and delivering the work, which satisfies some need those paying have is the basis for any exchange of something of value, whether it is currency as we know it, or gold, or seashells strung together on twine.
We all earn our living by the sweat of our brows.
In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread, till thou return unto the ground; for out of it wast thou taken: for dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return.
No less of an authority than God Himself declared that mankind would have to wrestle a living from sweat and toil until his toils were over. It seems such a lop-sided deal to me, but it was mankind in the guise of Adam that made the bad bargain in the Genesis narrative, willfully trading an Eden by expropriating something that was not rightfully his, something he had no right to, and earning in the bargain toil in August heat and rocky soil. No man who ever planted a seed and harvested the increase was ever happy when it was expropriated by someone else, someone who neither toiled, nor sweated, nor labored for it, but took it from the toil and sweat of others, expropriating it for his own purposes without having earned it, without having paid for it, without the exchange of like value, whether in kind or in currency. The history of the world seems mostly the history of the expropriation of the labor of others, interspersed occasionally with periods of peace and plenty, where men could expect to keep that which they had labored for, and then, only in certain places.
There are places in the world today where men are forced to labor against their will and against their own interests, whether that be in places where governments sanction a modern-day slavery that fits our idea of slavery, or in places where the modern-day slavery resembles debt, which is capable of enslaving anyone. Modern-day medicine and the insurance it requires also enslaves us, forcing us to labor against our will.
God never declared equity in the Genesis narrative. He only declared that by the sweat of our face would we have the opportunity to eat, and only then until the dust reclaims us, which is actually the only certain promise in Genesis 3:19….that we would labor until the dust claims us. Until then, we will sweat, though experience has taught me that we will sweat less in January than in August, at least in the Northern hemisphere. And if we do not sweat enough in August, we might not make it through January to sweat yet again.
No matter at what job someone labors, there is honor and dignity in it: for there is no dishonor in an honest day’s work for an honest day’s pay, though I daresay the man with the lawnmower is a more honest laborer than those larcenous folks at the VA who watch pornography on government computers while in government offices on government time, serving nothing but their own lusts. And it’s not just the pornography-minded, but all of those who get paid for more than they actually deliver, such as those who collect checks but don’t report to work, and those who play shenanigans with moving expenses, and managers whose primary management goal is to serve themselves, first and foremost, with the greatest of lip service to duties they are paid to fulfill. Do they harbor some resentment that they are paid less than their real worth? Let them explain why they should be allowed to keep their job rather than give them bonuses, since the idea that the private sector pays less than government is long obsolete: but they would like to keep that idea alive. It’s not working.
How can anyone feel good about themselves when they take what is not rightfully theirs? This is not honest work. This has another name: theft. Yet they mostly seem to go unpunished, allowed to retire with large pensions, which should be an affront to every man who puts his hands to the metaphorical plow and has a significant portion of his labor taken from him to pay those who should be serving him, those who regulate his life and livelihood, those who would be his betters, his masters.
We must have governments and rules to help ensure that the markets we engage in are operated fairly, but those same governments take what is not theirs by spending money they do not have, which devalues the medium of exchange we work for, since we are not paid in bread, but paid in a currency devalued for every non-value-added dollar inserted into the economy. Those same governments serve their cronies with favors, grants, subsidies, and regulations harming their cronies’ competitors in exchange for continued political power. Government does not create wealth; it only moves it from one pocket to another, whether the pocket be that of its ally, or its own.
Honest work? I admire it. There is great honor in it. Like Mike Rowe, from the Dirty Jobs TV series, I admire the whole world of people who earn their livings by doing things others find distasteful, even beneath them, though I daresay if they are hungry enough they’d also climb down into a sewer lift station were someone willing to pay for its repair and they knew how to do so. We must have them, these people who labor at jobs we shudder at, those in the meat packing plants, the feed lots, the rendering plants, the grave diggers, the crawl-space crawlers, the deep-earth coal miners. I will treat them all with the respect they deserve: for by the sweat of their faces are they eating. They exchange their labor for something they value more than their time (eating, I suppose, since if we don’t eat we don’t have too much time!).
I am one of them. I labor. I work with my back and I work with my brain. I must have them both, and I would have them both. Never have the words “I’m not paying you to think” ever come out of my mouth, for if I can’t have the benefits of a man’s brain to go along with his labor, he’s not the man I want to keep. Those brainless enough to need re-training every morning to do the same job they were doing yesterday are never going to advance very far for all their labors, only those who soon learn to need no instruction when they see what they are about, those who know their job, those who simply do it.
Labor? I am tired of labor, but I don’t know what to do about it other than return to the dust from which I was taken. Since I’m not quite ready for that, I’ll continue with my labor, and be glad for honest work.
My close friend and occasional music collaborator, Sara Winge, sent me a link to the YouTube video embedded below, which is a segment from a show by her former Northern California band, HiJinks. Sara’s late husband, Chip Dunbar, is singing lead. Sara sings the tenor, and band-mate Ted Dutcher chimes in with the baritone on this unlikely, or at least unlikely to me, Todd Rundgren song. After watching the video, I saw that there are lots of covers of this song which I had never heard before. Todd Rundgren has many fans. I was only familiar with his We Gotta Get You A Woman and Hello It’s Me which earned him a lot of radio airplay in my high school days. Apparently, Todd runs much deeper than that, for his song Honest Work reverberates with a traditional Anglo/Celtic ancient-ness, as if it traveled over the Atlantic from East to West in the forecastle of a square-rigged sailing ship rather than West to East by shortwave radio ionospheric skip.
Both Chip and Sara let fly with their big voices in this song. I admire big voices. I especially admire big voices blended in harmonious union: mysteriously soft, dynamic and coaxing for all their bigness and in the midst of their power: each voice simultaneously reduced and expanded in a way that only our ears could fully explain, if our ears could talk. But without saying a word, our ears grab the sound and translate it into our brain, where it claims a spot that will not easily be relinquished, where it clings to our psyche with the tenacity a Jack Russell terrier might cling to a fried pork-chop bone. It is an honest song. It is here honestly delivered with big, honest voices. It is honest work.
Wasn’t that marvelous?
Rundgren’s lyrics to Honest Work stand on their own as poetry. It’s the poetic coupling with music and beautiful, heartfelt delivery that yields the song’s persuasive power. The lyrics are below.
I’m not afraid to bend my back I’m not afraid of dirt
But how I fear the things I do For lack of honest work
My family is lost to me They could not bear the hurt
To see the state their boy is in For lack of honest work
I hold no blame for anyone ‘Twas I who did arrange
To pay my union dues so I’d Not have to learn or change
And when I was replaced, ’twas I Who started down the hill
And drank away my savings ’til I couldn’t stop myself
The prophets of a brave new world Captains of industry
Have visions grand and great designs But none have room for me
They see a world where everyone Is rich and smart and young
But if I live to see such things Too late for me they come
I know I’m not the only one To fall beneath the wheel
Such company can not assuage The loneliness I feel
So many are resigned to be Society’s debris
But I will be remembered for The life life took from me
For I’m not afraid to bend my back I’m not afraid of dirt
But how I fear the things I do For lack of honest work
Have an honest Labor Day. Give thanks for your labors, for the sweat from your brow, that August is over, and for those who labor for you, or with you, and for the millions among you, going quietly about their honest work.
May we all enjoy this day of respite from our labor. May we all have honest work.
Thank you, Sara Winge, for your inspiration and for sharing your voice with me.
©2016 Mississippi Chris Sharp
CORRECTION 9:50AM CDT: Tonight’s match up between Ole Miss and Florida State takes place in Orlando, not Tallahassee. Kickoff is at 8:00PM EDT. The game will be carried on ESPN.