May Day

Early May has a number of associations, some being the end of winter in the northern latitudes, some being celebrations of a new season of growth (the dance around the May Pole with each persons ribbon winding around it to brighten and renew it), some being an anonymous expression of affection (the May Basket) and an end to the twelve hour working day.

History records that in Chicago, a labor strike to support the formation of the 8 hour work day would erupt into a chaotic scene with a small explosion in Haymarket Square that would forever be associated with the emancipation of working class Americans (to work only 8 hours a day) from the expectations of the privileged class who lived off the 12 to 16 hours of daily labor of others. The start of May is thus associated with workers in many countries.

A worker labors to live I think (and it could be a professional lives to labor.) In agricultural America, work had been seen as its own reward, a source of pride, something to be accomplished with skill and discipline, and when one is observing the work of a dedicated person, the hallmarks of pride in a job well done might still be observed. Accuracy, on-time completion, a visible ingenuity, and follow-through connect a task well done with thousands of similarly proud workers around the world.

All this comes to mind in early May for me, partly because it was the run-up to my few weeks of work with Dad at the lake. I was remembering tonight that the highest compliment Dad ever paid me was to call me a good mechanic, a worker knowledgeable of the tools, materials, and methods of their trade, and willing to bring this knowledge to bear in the interests of doing good work as part of a life ethic. Garrison Keilor still signs off his radio show by saying “do good work.”

Oftentimes today it’s hard to become knowledgeable about ones work. The software we use changes twice a year it seems, the time allotted to assigned tasks shrinks a bit more each year, and the people we need to coordinate with seem busier and busier each year making it harder and harder to do a job well. The stresses of less time, less support, and less familiarity mount on all of us and seriously challenge this nation-building ethic of doing good work.

A person could rightly ask, “Does something have to be done perfectly?” I remember seeing a tee shirt on a construction site in Fargo once that read “It may not be perfect, but its good enough for you.” I thought it was funny at the time, but today as I read the strain on the faces of the people I work with, work for, work under, I realize that the compression of time-on-task doesn’t just mean jobs don’t get done as well, it more importantly means that the fiber of good people, trying to do good work, because that’s who they are, is being challenged at best, and at worst, undermined, eating away at who they are, making it harder for them to show their children pride in good work. Its a scary thing to nibble away at the fiber of a persons being, one never knows when that fiber will yield under the stress, separating that persons pride in work, pride in self from their daily life.

This is pretty rambling, I know, but that’s what happens when I write late at night. Snippets of the day seem to merge. A conversation with a good fellow who proposes making something look like it’s fixed instead of fixing it, a normally patient student getting testy at the thought of reworking a problem discovered in these closing hours of the studio project, an excellent student expressing the willingness to misrepresent their own thoughts instead of quickly reworking and presenting a more handmade explanation over an incorrect polished-looking computer rendering. This same day revealed snippets of great work, follow through on questions, jumping in to cover (my) calendar misunderstanding (Thanks Mark!), a table filled with people working over the smallest nuances of language to help a struggling apprentice learn from an assessment and proceed to future success.

I really work with good people, which inspires me to do good work, and it reassures me that the privileged haven’t bent the fibers of these people too far, that they will go home with a bit of pride in having done well today (Thanks Ginger, Mallory and Hala) and as a faculty member, I felt good going home knowing I cajoled, lent confidence (and my best pen!), and respected the work of the students I worked with today.

The weekend is on us now. Typically a time when most of us think we don’t work, but really, we’re just working at other things. Working at building families, futures, relationships, and even ourselves. If you get a chance, thank those you work with during the celebrations of workers that is May Day around the world. I’ll slip some donuts into the studio to support the student’s efforts to not just appear to, but to actually do the work to do it right.

“Be well, do good work, keep in touch” says Garrison Keilor each week. To that I’ll add, “thank those who do” (especially remember your Mother’s work next weekend!)

Take Care, be good to each other.

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