Tuesday, March 4, 2008

NOLA: First Workday

Today was my initiation to construction. I am known for being useful with my hands, but I have never actually built anything with a hammer and nails and certainly not a house that someone will eventually live in. But then, if there is anything that I am willing to do it is to learn and to make. And so there I was on a scaffolding at 10 a.m. nailing particle board to the side of a house, using a rotary saw, measuring plywood, wearing hardcore work gloves.

This sort of work is rewarding on several levels. First of all, I am able to release some of the tension and frustration I have experienced since I arrived here and saw the neglect of our government. Knowing that I am working to help and alleviate the problem is so rewarding. There is nothing so soothing as action. Then, there is the fact that I am a woman and growing up I was never encouraged to do things like this. I think that if I had been a boy, my father probably would have built birdhouses with me and encouraged me to do manual labor to an extent. Being a girl he assumed that Barbie dolls and a play kitchen were enough. I think that's a little silly. Finally, I am an American who is unable to relate to a large part of my society because there is this shocking laziness and overconsumption that goes on all around me.

I started thinking about this. Working on building a house made me realize that it really isn't that difficult. There a few things that should probably be contracted out if you don't know what you're doing--electricity, plumbing, foundation work. But then there are so many things that even I, a teenager, can do. So why don't people do these things for themselves? Why don't people plant a small organic garden in their backyards or on their fire escapes? Why would you buy organic squash at exorbitant prices that has been shipped from the ends of the earth when one squash vine is so productive that it could easily serve two people and then some? Why don't people cook instead of buying processed foods? Why don't people do manual labor instead of buying gym memberships? But then, the answer to that question is so obvious that I have to answer it here, if for nothing other than my own pleasure:

Because Americans (and I suppose most everyone in any industrialized nation) are so busy working jobs they hate so they can pay for the house they bought with a huge loan that they couldn't really afford because they wanted to appear as affluent as their neighbors who also could not afford their house. We have replaced the definition of success as what you are skilled enough to make with what you are wealthy enough to buy. This is why we have to hire people at a deplorable wage to haul the trash we throw away. This is why we have created an entire portion of our society that is considered permanently unemployed--because we have such a voracious appetite for things that we need machines which can run without (or with a fraction of) people, and so an entire class of skilled workers was lost, replaced by these machines and by executives that don't really do anything except oversee the people that oversee the people that run the machines (and the hierarchy is, of course, much more complex than this, but for the sake of reduced redundancy I chose to keep it simple). So now we have execs as the successful class while the workers are meaningless because a person can be trained in about a day.

But, goddammit, I, a puny little 19-year old girl, am capable of constructing the frame of a house. So why are we so freaking impotent as a nation? Why are we so wimpy and squeamish? I'll leave that for you to answer (even though I'm probably just preaching to the choir).

1 comment:

green with a gun said...

We in the West live in this way because, as I said over here, it's our culture. "Culture" isn't just ethnic dancing.

Just as it's a Jew's culture to wear a yarmulke and cut challah on the Shabbat, a Buddhist monk's culture to not eat meat, a librarian's culture to put books in order - so too is it our Western culture to live as you describe.

Cultures are quite hard to change. It just doesn't occur to people, often. For example, I saw one guy describing Home Economics class as involving

"cooking (for some reason mostly breakfast and baking, perhaps the school district budget didn't run to meats?)"

and the guy just assumes as given, without thinking, that "lunch" or "dinner" means "meat".

Assumptions which will be understood by all without your explaining them, and which people hardly ever question, those are all part of "culture".