Ode to the Laborer

Workamper Jim Builds New Vickers Ranch DeckHere’s to the roofers, framers, and ditch diggers who think they have it harder than those who sit in front of a computer for a living.

They may be right. I know because I now have experience working in both worlds.

Having toiled at a desk, driving a mouse for most of my working life, I’ve had a chance this summer to live the life of a laborer, driving everything from nails to a backhoe.

For years, as a busy desk-bound graphic designer, I often wished I was outside just digging a ditch or something. Now, workamping on a busy guest ranch has taught me to be careful what you wish for. And given me cause to reflect on the intricacies of my life on the job, whether it be behind a desk or under a truck.

Ironically, my favorite manual labor is demolition, while I most enjoyed graphic production as a designer. Physically producing realistic packaging mock-ups with a printer and X-acto blade once gave me the gratification I now get from watching a structure fall under my sledgehammer and wrecking bar.

Jim Splitting Logs with Tractor Mounted SplitterThere is a certain satisfaction a man gets from the sound of splitting wood. And watching the crack creep down a dry log is much more fun than watching a progress bar crawl across the screen while applying a Gaussian blur to a 90 megabyte Photoshop image.

Though my tools of trade were a keyboard and mouse for over twenty years, I escaped any serious carpal tunnel injury. But within just a week of working outdoors, I may now have permanent nerve damage in my hand after gripping a screw gun and drilling hundreds of deck and roof screws.

The frequent fly fishing a ranch hand can get in makes for great therapy, however, while the desk jockey must resort to squeezing the spongy little stress ball in his top drawer.

Workamper Jim Paints New Vickers Ranch DeckStruggling to make a thousand words fit in a tri-fold brochure can present similar challenges to fitting a replacement storm window that is larger than the original one removed. Where to cut? How to make sure the content and structure still functions?

Both crafts take careful contemplation, and time. With a reciprocating saw, however, there is no “undo” function.

Every job comes with its share of frustration. The designer may fret over some cryptic error message indicating the loss of precious data. But the woodworker wracks his brain trying to figure out the correct angles to cut for stair runners.

Repetition can be tedious. Whether it is from painting four dozen picnic tables, or duplicating the same business card with a hundred different names. Repetition can be tedious.

My chiropractor could attest to the damage done in my shoulder, neck and lower back from sitting improperly in front of a computer for so many years. And I can affirm that one day behind a shovel can do the same amount of harm. In either case, thank goodness for Ibuprofen.

working your fingers to the boneAt the end of either work day, eyes are red and sore. Either from the incessant glare of a monitor’s glow, or the endless sawdust from a circular saw and router.

Physically fatigued, or mentally exhausted, the work will get to you. So the question becomes, would you rather work your ass off in an office chair? Or work your fingers to the bone out in the fresh air?

6 thoughts on “Ode to the Laborer”

  1. I did hard body breaking work for ten years before I started working from home and I don’t miss one minute of it. Although I do enjoy construction once in a while, creating something out of nothing with your hands is OK in my books.

  2. I am very happy working my fingers to the bone in the fresh air, thank you very much! Keep up the good (and hard) work Jim. You always were one of the hardest working guys I know! I wish I could be there to help! You are the MAN!! Love you Bro!

  3. Five years in the sign trade in the late 1970s and I was in the best shape of my life. 65 lb. sacks of concrete? No problem. Dig post holes? Unload 15 sheets of cresform? Ditto. Now I have to work at getting exercise because I sit at my easel all day. Walking and gardening, gardening and walking. And I do use up a few calories brushing Niki out 🙂

    Jim- get some new gloves. Jeez.


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