Thursday, January 07, 2010

It's a dirty job

...but somebody's got to do it.

It's 3:30am, and I'm awake thanks to another coughing fit, a problem I'll be seeing the doctor about (again) in roughly 12 hours. While I wait for the most recent dose of cough medicine to kick in, I thought I'd knock out this post that's been kicking around my brain.

My son has recently become obsessed with the Discovery Channel show Dirty Jobs. This really started even before he'd ever seen the show, because he thought it was hilarious when the host, Mike Rowe, would say "I can smell it now" on the commercials. Dirty Jobs hasn't transplanted Mythbusters as his favorite show, but he has insisted that I record it on the DVR and that he get to watch it as much as possible. I have to say, it's grown on me too.

I've done my fair share of dirty jobs. I worked fast food (my first job, cooking at KFC, was particularly nasty), worked in the "clean and paint" shop of an airplane repair station, been a janitor at a kid's play gym, and plenty more.

When I watch Dirty Jobs, I inevitably ask myself, "How do they stand to do that?"
Really, I know the answer. They slap on some gloves and tell themselves, "There's work to be done." It's that simple. When you do a job that's physical and dirty, day in and day out, it's just life. You just do it, and you earn a few bucks cleaning up messes that would make more gentrified folks sick.

With my current gig, the dirtiest thing I have to do is maybe clean out my keyboard (although I really ought to have a hazmat team for that, too). When I watch that show, I have to think back to days when I had to clean stagnant chicken blood out of a 15 foot trough, slog through a muddy construction site in the rain toting heavy steel doors, or cram myself into the underfloor of a 727 with a bucket of cancer-causing methyl-ethyl keytone to clean up the grime. (An aside for the ladies: ever go to buy nail polisher remover and grab the "non-acetone" stuff thinking it's healthier? It's not. It just substitutes MEK for the acetone, and MEK will give you liver cancer. You're better off to skip painting your nails. And trust me, modern men really don't care whether you paint your nails or not.)

There are some benefits to doing physical labor, as long as you do it right and don't have a job that will outright break or kill you. Before the Evil Empire gave me a desk job, I was a delivery driver for a meat company. My job involved slinging around 80 pound boxes of meat all day and jumping in and out of the back of my truck. I got myself down to 200 pounds then. While no means svelte, it was the best condition I've been in since high school. Once I turned into a keyboard cowboy, I put on 50 pounds in 6 months. It's gotten worse since.

Sometimes I think I'd like to go back to doing an honest, physical job. I'd like to have something tangible to point to at the end of the day to say "I accomplished something today." I'd like to be able to explain my job in a simple sentence ("I'm a welder") instead of the verbal dance I have to do now ("So, when you call in for tech support, before you talk to the guy who will actually help you, you have to talk to a CSR who gets all your information and charges you money and then transfers you somewhere - I write the stuff that tells that CSR how to do his job"). But then I realize that if I had "real" work to do, I'd have to actually get dressed every day, and wouldn't be able to play Halo or sit in my hottub on my lunch break. And I wouldn't get paid as well as I do for being a Corporate Whore (tm). So for some reason, I just keep doing what I'm doing.

A couple of times while watching Dirty Jobs, I've caught myself telling my son something like, "That's what you end up doing if you don't get an education." I try not to, and I feel guilty when I do. I remember my parents (who didn't go to college) telling me similar things, and I remember what little impact it had on me. And those people don't deserve to be put down for what they do. Their jobs make life easier for everyone else, and there's nothing wrong with a day's honest labor. If you know how to live within your means, how much you earn isn't nearly as critical. I worried less about money when I was a delivery driver for a bakery and earning less than one-third what I do now, than I do now with all my debts and bills and such.

I want to strike a balance between instilling in my son the need for a good education (which I do think is important) and teaching him a good work ethic, which has to include room for physical - even dirty - labor. It's a balance that's hard to strike, and became even more complicated for me recently after seeing this great TED talk given by Mike Rowe, which I suggest you watch now: