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Essayist Julia Kellar Reflects on Labor Day

Guest essayist Julia Keller of the Chicago Tribune reflects on the changing definition of labor in the modern age.

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  • JULIA KELLER, The Chicago Tribune:

    Labor Day is here again, the day originally set aside in 1882 to honor America's trade unions.

    The nature of work has changed drastically since that very first Labor Day. Just ask the next blacksmith you come across. But the place work occupies in our lives hasn't changed at all. Labor is more than just what we do. It's who we are.

    Most of us don't work on farms anymore, as we did in the 19th century, or in factories, as we did in the 20th. An increasing number of us work in what's called the information economy. We sit amid quietly humming computers in air-conditioned offices.

    On Labor Day, we ought to pause over the word itself: labor. In these times, it sounds quaint, almost old-fashioned. It sounds like muscles and grunts, like rolled-up sleeves and paint-spattered pants, like difficult, enervating physical toil.

    Your basic 21st century city wants to be known for its sleek technological sophistication, for cool, hip economies that don't raise a sweat or make a stink, for wi-fi, for hands-free.

    But, here in Chicago, one of the slogans is "The City That Works." It's a curious motto to carry around in the year 2006, but maybe it's in our geographical genes. This is the place, after all, that Illinois native Carl Sandburg rapturously called "the city of the big shoulders."

    "Hog butcher for the world," he went on, "toolmaker, stacker of wheat, stormy, husky, brawling." In the same 1914 poem, Carl Sandburg celebrated a city fond of shoveling and wrecking and planning and building — nothing hands-free about that.

    Those of us who don't get dirty in the course of a workday tend to carry an image of labor — real labor — as something requiring vigorous and sustained exertion. We admire the roofer, the mason, the mechanic, the carpenter, the coal miner, the electrician, people who create things, who mend things, who make things go, things you can touch, things you can use.

    My father was a college mathematics professor. His father worked in an ice cream factory. And I know there lingered deep in my father's soul a sense that his own work, teaching and writing, was not actually work at all — not real work, that is, not the kind of work that leaves you spent, but satisfied, exhausted, but exhilarated, not the kind of work that leaves you bent and bruised, but aglow.

    The way lots of us now make our living — perched in front of computers — feels a little bit like cheating. It doesn't offer the promise of gritty redemption that you can find in real labor.

    Playwright Arthur Miller was born in the East, but educated in the Midwest. This is where he started writing. And it shows.

  • ACTOR:

    I'm tired to death, Linda. Couldn't make it.

  • JULIA KELLER:

    In "Death of a Salesman," he has somebody say of Willy Loman, "He was a happy man with a batch of cement" — happy, that is, with something more real than smiles and likability.

    As the world changes, work changes. We can do so many things faster now, faster and smoother and smarter. And, yet, there's something lost, too, when we no longer feel, at the end of the work week, that delicious ache of a body pressed to its very limit, a body that hums with the good/bad feeling of fatigue.

    Labor — real labor — tethers us to the world. Through that kind of labor, we can actually see what we have made and what we're made of.

    I'm Julia Keller.

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