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Dispatches from the present


Shovel Ready


After the hellish dry heat of the California drought last year, any favorable shift in weather might have seemed mere wishful thinking. Then this winter arrived. California has had more snow this year than any previous year on record. Not even halfway through the wet season, the reservoirs and aquifers were brimming with snowmelt that was flowing down the tributaries of the Sierra Nevada at historic levels. I consider it a strange coincidence of fate that I find myself in these environs with a similarly unprecedented change of disposition: having spent ten years in university (and three degrees later), I am now performing manual labor for a living. A few days a week, in temperatures well below freezing, I shovel snow on the shores of Lake Tahoe to cobble together what I need for basic provisions. I had no plans of ending up here, but an offer to stay at a relative’s cabin in a distant state was simply too good to refuse.

It turns out that familiarity with the works of Franz Kafka and having once read Heidegger in the original German are not skills that are in particularly high demand here, but being able to man a snow shovel for eight hours a day is. I have been thinking a lot lately about the nature of work and remuneration, but the focus has been less on optimizing earnings and more on what kind of work is even worth doing in the first place. I am in no position to recommend what sort of careers others should pursue. Nor can I say with much confidence which path I should best seek out myself. All I can really offer is a view that has been sobered by some decisive failures and hardened by many days spent out in the cold, contemplating the words of the thinkers who dominated my incomplete graduate studies.

One of those thinkers is not especially known for his comments on work—the Anglo-Austrian philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein. Still, a few pithy remarks of his keep recirculating in my mind as I cycle between spades and hand shovels. Maybe it is because one of Wittgenstein’s famous language games involves two builders calling out for various supplies—“block,” “pillar,” “slab,” “beam.” However, his thoughts on work stem not from his philosophical writings but from advice he purportedly gave to his Cambridge students who entertained dreams of becoming philosophers themselves. To be sure, Wittgenstein held a notoriously disparaging view of academic philosophy, publishing little and avoiding scholarly conferences. What he said, though, lingers in my thoughts more for the positive glimmer it gave to life outside of academia. Ray Monk reports in his biography that Wittgenstein encouraged even his more promising students to “do a real job, and work with ordinary people.”

I take this remark in the spirit of dropping pretenses to perform the sorts of tasks that were once the predominant form of “work” for human beings and which remain the sole occupation for many millions of people outside of the developed world. It is not the sort of work that anyone aspires to do. It is simply work that has to be done. It is not any more virtuous than clerical or intellectual work, nor even more “necessary” to maintain civilization (one might recall how many of the “essential workers” who could not stay home during the pandemic carried out sedentary and administrative assignments). It is just work at its most basic, its most stripped down.

I suppose ordinary work like this spurs my thinking about the value of work because it removes the panoply of abstractions and justifications that surround so much of what we do. There aren’t many considerations of how your efforts will be seen by others or how your work contributes to the greater trajectory of your life when you are wielding a snow shovel. There is just you and the mound of snow that needs moving. Tasks like that return a sense of immediacy to work, disentangling actions from the future concerns that normally direct our thinking. No wonder so many people find solace in doing the dishes by hand or “stress cleaning.”

Perhaps this is what Wittgenstein was getting at when he encouraged his students to do a “real job.” In his later work, the philosopher eschewed technical language and systematic thinking in favor of the kinds of everyday awareness that we naturally acquire. In offering this advice, it was as if he was trying to preserve his students from a confusion that might overcome them otherwise. Doing “real” work enables us to trim back some of the artifice that occludes our sight rather than enhancing it. It brings us, in Wittgenstein’s words, “back to the rough ground” where ordinary understanding occurs.

The irony is not lost on me that my present form of life as a day laborer has occasioned more direct engagement with the question of why I spent much of my twenties preparing for an academic career that is now beyond my reach. I have probably spent more time rationalizing my life decisions while clearing sidewalks than I did when drafting my dissertation proposal. Such presence of mind is one of the benefits of not having to think about one’s work. Perhaps it is a misfortune that the moments of clarity I probably needed to succeed in grad school were encumbered by my intellectual pursuits themselves, or at least the high-strung atmosphere in which they were undertaken. For now, I am just thankful for the clarity. As one of the site managers said while peering off into the turquoise waters of Lake Tahoe: “There are certainly worse places you could be shoveling snow.”

Image credit: Kalani Gregoire, “Shoveling Snow” (CC / BY Flickr)