I caught him with his hands in the still…

(the reason the moonshiner gave for firing his assistant)

I was reading HEART COUNTRY, Kerry McGinnis’s second autobiographical book about droving and building a station (a ranch) in Northern Queensland. Now, it’s hard country, hard people… and oddly a high level of tolerance for differences and incompetence. Because you had to. That’s it. There is no-one else, so you have to live with what there is.

It also had fascinating glimpses into the life of Old Mac, Kerry’s father – who did his growing in the depression. I wanted to quote this bit verbatim because… well, you’ll see.

‘The war’s over, the depression finished. Why can’t you forget about it? I’m sick to death of hearing about it.’

‘You should have tried living it, girl.’ His voice was flinty. ‘And you’d have some reason to complain. You’ve got absolutely no idea what the soul-destroying futility of being unable to get work does to a man. You ought to be grateful to have a job and money coming in.’

The world has changed somewhat, hasn’t it?

Work is a kinda dirty word these days. The idea that it could be a privilege to be able to do so even more bizarre. To be able to be idle, and wealthy, naturally is the utopian ideal. Utopia, we’re told, is the ‘next big thing’ in sf.

Yet for people like my parents – who became young adults in the Depression – this dialogue rings true for me. It colored their lives and attitudes for the rest of their lives, and a fair bit rubbed off on me. My father could never have sat still and done nothing. He was always making, building, fiddling with, if he wasn’t actually at a paying job.

It took me years to get over the guilt of writing, not ‘working’. And, yes, I have ‘worked’ at manual labor, intellectual labor (a lot of it is like manual labor, very routine, and less exciting than you may imagine), and the ‘orrible jobs in between, which don’t need any real brain (but you can’t not concentrate, or you will mess up as a cashier) and don’t need any real skill with your hands, or strength.

Writing is work, if you do it properly. Mostly intellectual work, indoor, no heavy lifting, but yes, that can leave you tired too.

The world has become very much more about ‘rights’ and entitlements rather than viewing being able to work, to earn, as something you’re lucky to do, about ‘self-love’ rather than men owing a duty to their families to provide. About enjoyment for the sake of it, rather than as a reward for having done.

I fit pretty much 110% in the old camp. I don’t expect you to, or have any desire to dictate that as a way of life. I can no more give up doing, building, making, than I can give up breathing, without dying. As I don’t believe in the ‘directionality’ history, I suspect that the depression or a similar social disaster will come around again. It always has in the past, and no I don’t see that humans have changed, regardless of how technology has. Even if it has, and we move toward the socialist utopia where everyone can be idle… I think that being a builder, creator, worker, is not just in our society, it’s in our genes, at least for some of us. I’m not sure that we’re designed to be idle without blundering into self-destruction. I always wonder, when I read about utopias, how long before we tore them apart.

Which is why books about new frontiers, about building up from disaster, about colonizing new worlds are a favorite of mine, both to read and write. Solving problems, striving in itself, is a large part of the appeal for me.

I realize, though, that there is an opposite, just as there probably is middle ground. I blundered into a site the other day which was totally alien to me and my world-view – narcissist and self-absorbed in modern urban trivia and the flavor-du-jour of social (largely sexual) issues – All fashions, gay and bi sexuality, the joys of legal drugs to get stoned on in Canada, celebrities and their vapid lives, bits about trannies, raves, bizarre sexual fetishes, etc… I read some of it out of a kind of morbid and defensive curiosity. The more I read the more I became convinced the writers were targeting an audience who were urban, had never actually made or built anything in their lives, had no interest in doing so, and — if they were employed — worked reluctantly at those ‘orrible jobs, which required neither brain, nor brawn, nor problems solving. Indoor, no heavy lifting, urban, and that I am deeply grateful I don’t have to do.

I did find myself wondering if these Ark Fleet Ship B folk all suddenly were transported to a better place how long we humans could survive until terrible disaster (perhaps a plague contracted from a dirty telephone) overtook us?

Whatever: It’s an audience. A market segment, one which I suspect many of the Puppy Kickers who actually get around to writing service (as their social and political agendas and outlook seem the same). They’re welcome to it and them.

I’m writing for the kind of people who build, who strive, who contrive, who don’t wait for others – the Government or Acme Corporation’s Board of Directors — to decide to do for them (in both cases, at a fee), and whose pleasure comes from that doing. No wonder that they find little entertainment or to identify with in the books that please their antithesis.

And if there are none of them, I – and those like me, won’t sell any books.

I’m happy to leave it to that. One has to wonder why they feel only extermination will do for us.

I also wonder what the ‘next big thing’ in sf will actually be?

Utopia?

No thanks. You can have mine.

39 Comments

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39 responses to “I caught him with his hands in the still…

  1. Draven

    there’s definitely a segment off people who have to work or do or… create. especially create. especially if they have a mind-numbingly boring desk job.

  2. If history does have any directionality, it’d have to be a spiral or something very like. Because it ain’t quite a circle, but the places we’re going, sometimes, they look awful and familiar at the same time. The lessons of history are there to be learned again.

    That dialogue rings true for me as well, though I’m probably a generation off. It was my grandparents that grew up in the Depression, but they were a powerful influence on me and my generation still yet. I’ll not say I *wanted* to work like I did most of the time I was learning those values, but I see the value in what I learned, and what kind of man it made me to be. I hope to pass that along to my godson, and those I train and work with though we share no ties of blood.

    It does seem as though not working has become a badge of honor to some, as you say. There’s something of a sneering, down-the-nose attitude to it, that it’s smarter to do little-to-nothing and get paid than work your tail off to earn it. I’ve an English friend who tells me that is exactly how it is there. If you go to work, they cut your “benefits” in an equal amount, so until your work pay exceeds what you got for staying home, you are getting less money… when you account for things like bus fare, meals on the go, and whatnot, or the same, at best, while *not* sitting at home.

    But the wheel cannot remain unbalanced for too long- somebody has to work. Fish need catching, steel needs bending, code needs coding, trucks need driving, and so the great turbine of the economy spins right along. There’s even a need for folks in office buildings, I suppose, though I wouldn’t mind a few thousand less (or tens of thousands, or…) in bureaucracy of all sorts.

    Speaking of bureaucracy, that seems to be where we’re headed with all this outrage this and that. Bureaucracies thrive on rules and rule making, and desks with forms to fill out and boxes to check. So orderly, those boxes. Four corners, straight lines, no ambiguity- there’s probably even a box for ambiguity, as long as you put the check mark right inside it, you’re fine. That’s why they see us so woodenly- white, male, Mormon, right-wing-to-neo-nazi, racist, sexist, a few other -ists… though how the men on the other side miss the boobs on about half of the folks on this side, I can’t figure, unless it’s the transgender thing.

    Keep writing those books about solving problems and fixing what’s broken, sir, and I’ll keep forking over the money for them. Reading’s another one of those habits I can’t quite seem to lose- not that I try very hard, anyway. *grin*

    • The thing about the Buddhist conception of time that is correct is that time is a wheel.
      The thing about the Buddhist conception of time that is not correct is that time is not a spinning wheel–it’s a wagon wheel.

    • “I see the value in what I learned, and what kind of man it made me to be”
      This. It shaped a better man than I would have been.

  3. Bob

    Weird that aside from a few favorite authors, I haven’t bothered reading a traditionally published book from later than the early 2000s.

    Any hint about what that crazy site is?

  4. My father, born in 1922, had that same psychology: Work was what you were here for, not only because you had a wife and kids to support (though that was a big part of it) but because work made you what you are. He thought writers were beatniks (a wonderful word that almost no one uses anymore, nor even remembers) and was terrified as I grew into my teens, hammering out stories on my grandmother’s ancient Underwood Standard #5, that it would make me a beatnik too. I think he understood that writing took effort, given how he could hear me typing all the way upstairs from the kitchen, but to him it wasn’t work. As it happened, I never became a beatnik and made quite a bit of money writing technical books and articles, but he died long before I succeeded enough to rub his nose in it.

    The lesson he taught me, one that we’re increasingly reluctant to teach our children, is that you have to be something. This means we have to allow them to discover what talents they might have, and then push them to develop those talents. That’s a tricky sort of balance to strike, and I don’t hold my father’s failure to do so against him. What he taught me was that laying around and whining was off the table. I got a job the moment it was legal to do so, and even though they were crappy jobs (mostly washing dishes) I actually enjoyed them, often to the annoyance of my co-workers.

    Our challenge is to make sure that there are enough jobs out there to allow our kids to try things and not feel like one false move or bad choice will doom them to stuffing pantyhose onto racks at Wal-Mart for the rest of their lives. That challenge involves removing barriers to job creation, nearly all of which are erected and maintained by government. Creating a successful publishing company back in the ’90s made me a libertarian forever, because virtually all of the problems we faced were government problems–most of them completely unnecessary.

    I don’t really know how to fix that. I do know that if we don’t fix it, many bad things will happen, and are happening already. I don’t think that’s news to anyone who reads this site.

    • Crap. Formatting booboo. I didn’t close the tag, and don’t know how to edit the comment. Any guidance here?

    • A rather profound comment, Jeff. Yes, I think to my parents generation work defined you. Gave you status, gave you pride, even if the job itself gave you no pleasure. Now… well it seems money and social signalling have taken that role.

      Difficult question (and not one that really applies to my kids) What about people who really have no particular talent? They exist.

      • Maybe I live too much in geek circles, but I haven’t met a lot of people who didn’t have some skill at one thing or another. I agree, they probably exist, but the question remains as to whether they ever had an opportunity to discover what they were good at. I wouldn’t have written as much as early as I did if my grandmother hadn’t given me her typewriter when I was 9. I flamed out of engineering school, but there were still enough jobs in 1974 that I could try a thing or two before I ended up in publishing.

        Indie content creation will help; kids who try to draw, or record music, or write can now get feedback on whether they have talent, and can even make a little money in the process. We do need to go back to aptitude testing, and broaden the legal framework under which kids can do internships. I don’t know how it is in Australia, but it’s messy here; we turned down many requests from promising college kids for unpaid internships at my publishing company because our counsel told us it was a legal morass. Hence what I said about all our problems being government problems, and most of those associated with employment.

  5. BobtheRegisterredFool

    You’ve got absolutely no idea what the soul-destroying futility of being unable to get work does to a man.

    Yes.

    Harf is wrong about it creating terrorism.

    • Bob – How many Saudis actually work?

      • BobtheRegisterredFool

        I hear very few, and that the employment situation in the Islamic Middle East sucks in general.

        A lot of the big international terrorist groups have middle managers with western training in engineering.

        If Harf were entirely correct, then we would also see it in the US with the folks with engineering degrees, and no job and no prospects. There is some other factor involved.

        Maybe the US numbers are screwy from small sample size. Maybe Harf is essentially correct. If so, then pushing STEM education at the same time government regulation restricts STEM jobs, and hiring in general, will create domestic terrorism.

        • BobtheRegisterredFool

          Combined, ‘poverty causes terrorism’ and ‘gun control remedies spree killing’ imply that we should not be permitting poor people to get an engineering education. Which would entail getting rid of scholarships and loans at the tertiary level, and eliminating free schooling at the primary and secondary level. Or at least, making sure that free schooling did not include STEM content.

  6. You’ve got absolutely no idea what the soul-destroying futility of being unable to get work does to a man.

    I’m going to agree and disagree with you on this.

    Yes, it absolutely is soul-crushing if you can’t find work, if you want to work. As I am currently finding out firsthand. But if, like some of my old college acquantances, you don’t want to work and are perfectly content to live off the government dole and/or mooch off your parents… not so much.

    On the other hand, work itself can sometimes be soul-destroying. Again, I found this out firsthand. Spent nearly four years working in a supermarket with increasingly incompetent store- and department-level management, and in an area where the populace suffers from a massive over-entitlement complex. I guess that was one of those “‘orible jobs.” you talked about. But it was something: it put food on my table and a roof over my head. It made me miserable… but it was something.

    On the other (third?) hand… finding another “normal” job is an increasingly unpleasant prospect. Because I want to create. I want to be an author. Of books, of stories, not of reports and memos and instruction manuals. I don’t want to spend the rest of my life trapped behind a desk or a counter doing another thankless, energy-sapping, mind-numbing, soul-crushing job that will barely let me scrape by. God, that sounds so naive and selfish. But its true. I can’t deny it. The thought of spending the rest of my life doing… doing that, is absolutely terrifying.

    • ‘Round here, we call that third hand the gripping hand.

    • Joe in PNG

      I’ve never liked the juxtaposition of “soul destroying” with ‘bad jobs’. I’ve worked a few pretty terrible jobs for awful bosses, so I do know what I’m talking about.
      Really bad, horrible, terrible jobs are the opposite of soul destroying- they are teachers- harsh and unforgiving teachers, yes, but they can teach and help one expand. However, the lessons are often hard, especially to the fragile ego of the typical unskilled teenager. Lesson #1 is often “if you had useful skills, you wouldn’t be stuck doing this nonsense, would you?” Lesson #2 is “Your special snowflake self esteem doesn’t matter- you’re the new guy, you get the crappy task.”
      The hard thing to learn is that success pretty much always involves hard work, and hard work won’t always guarantee success.

    • I’d hold you wrong. I think it is soul-destroying if ‘ like some of my old college acquantances, you don’t want to work and are perfectly content to live off the government dole and/or mooch off your parents’. The content ones may not be aware of it, they may WANT (or think they want) to go down that path, but in the long run I think they’re going to erode themselves. We are what we are in our own and in society’s mirror. And nothing builds your self esteem — and degrades the relative value to the individual of society’s mirror, than the satisfaction of knowing, you did it, you made it, you fulfilled a role men have been genetically selected for (because until very recently, unless you ‘worked’ — be that hunting, gathering, building shelters, or latterly, work at anything from factory to field hand — you died). Drones surviving are fairly new.

      • Joe in PNG

        And that’s one of the difference between us and them. We use the bad experiences as a learning opportunity, and do our best to grow. The drones bitch and moan and hope someone will come along to make it all better (Help us Bernie!).

  7. If I am not able to work – be it writing, manual labor, a desk job, anything – I go nuts. It is ingrained in me that work is what you do, period end, probably a legacy of cultural Calvinists on both sides of the family tree (along with pretty much everything else but Far East religions.) I get anxious and start looking for leaves to rake, snow to shovel, ANYTHING rather than sit around twiddling my thumbs. I’ve been blessed to have had plenty of work to do, even when it wasn’t the kind I prefer (like the kind that pays you twice a month).

    The urban (metropolitan?) younger generations seem to feel that work not connected to government, the proper “worthy causes,” or wealth management is demeaning. And then they wonder why they have to pay $100 for an after-hours or weekend plumber visit when the toilet fails to do its duty.

    • ‘demeaning’ – got it in one. This is going to have to change somewhere because the world has an oversupply of bureaucrats and bureaucrat wannabes, and a grave shortage of plumbers. And life without a toilet is…

      • Joe in PNG

        Funny how plumbing and a good sewage system are considered the basic foundation of a civilized society.

        • The Other Sean

          Infrastructure, particularly in the form of fresh water supply and sewage disposal, are practically prerequisites for civilization. You must can’t have large settlements without enough water to drink and cook (and hopefully, clean) with, and without the ability to dispose of waste without contaminating your fresh water supply. These go back at least as far as the Harappan civilization. Other infrastructure may be important, too, but fresh water supply and sewage disposal are more-or-less the bedrock.

        • Yes, live without it for a few days – especially in a crowded urban environment…

  8. Synova

    I cringe whenever someone talks about a post-work society as if they’ve said something profound and inevitable. No society on earth with an idle class does well in the long run.

  9. Chris Nelson

    Grew up on the farm, so I’ve always been working.

    I was wondering one day why the folks at Vile 770 don’t relate to us working class folks. Until one mentioned that he had a “concierge” that kept riff-raff like us Puppy types out of the building where his vacation condo was located.

    I too have a “concierge” that keeps riff-raff out of my very small old house. She’s an 85 lb mixed breed with a bark that matches her protection instinct. It’s her one of her jobs, just like everyone else in the house has one or more jobs.

    • I have two elderly ones whose principle job seems to be to fart and sleep at my feet :-). Q: How many Vile 770 denizens does it take to change a light-bulb? A: Sniff. Manual labor is for the lower orders, like the rules which are for us to ignore. We will sit here in darkness and blame the puppies.

    • Christopher M. Chupik

      Oh man, they really are “of the People”, aren’t they?

      • Joe in PNG

        Well, yes, but in that “we’re the Elite and should be the ones telling the brainless proles what’s best for them” kind of way.

  10. Joe in PNG

    I wonder if the ideal of the non-working utopia trickled down from the wealthy leisure classes of more than a century ago?
    Back then, the landed gentry living off the income of ancestral estates could have as much or little of work as they wanted. Typically, they found other ways to keep busy- most often by way of an exhaustive round of house parties, hunting, social events. and the rest. Others would indulge a scientific hobby- much of the early scientific pioneers were wealthy tinkerers.

  11. This relates to one of the things that irritates me as a reader: Reading a book by an author who has clearly never done the things that the author is describing.

    Never been in a fight but want to write about it? You have to do a metric crap ton of research to get it approximately right, and the research doesn’t involve watching James Bond movies. Not because James Bond movies aren’t awesome (many are. If comes with Connery), but because you don’t get the feeling of the combatant in the fight. Not weepy-moaning feelings, but what is actually going through their minds at the time. It’s very difficult to know that feeling of uncertainty that is also mixed with a kind of knife-edge exaltation as the punches fly. It’s awful, you wish you hadn’t gotten into it, but you’re also there in life in a way you’re not often there. Fully. Plus you probably want to puke.

    And the satisfaction of building something. If you’ve never built something, it’s hard to describe how that feels. When we moved into our home I needed to give a gift to the house (I don’t know why but I felt the need), so I built a couple of end tables and bookshelves. Satisfaction when done? Not exactly. More completeness, like the job had to be done (even though it really didn’t), and it got done, and that’s good, now let’s move on.

    Often I can read a novel these days and just from the way they describe things, and what they choose to describe I can flesh out their background and know what they have and haven’t done. Worst of all (from my perspective as a reader) is that their characters are hollow, they don’t have the base of knowledge to do the things they need to be able to do in order to achieve the things they end of achieving.

    Much more than I care to admit I’ve come to the end of a book and after reading the hero do the saving the day thing I’ve yelled in the comfort of own head: “HOW? How did you convince people to follow you into battle, you whiny buffoon?! You know nothing, you are nothing, but everyone loves you! Why! Why! Why, for the love of God, why?!”

    The writing is usually good enough to pull me along to the end but the lack of understanding of the characters the authors are attempting to write means that I won’t be reading another book by those authors.

    Depressingly, I’m not sure it’s a problem for those authors though. Their audience (who are much like them) can’t feel the fake on the page.

    Writers who’ve never done anything writing for an audience who’ve never done anything.

    Steve