Saturday, May 30, 2009

Useful Work Revisited

As I near the end of my second month post-op, I've begun to exercise in earnest. I opted out of formal cardiac rehab at the Spa/Hospital where I had my surgery, because it would have meant something of a bureaucratic hassle with the disability insurance folks (I'd have had to extend my leave and work part time) and because it's just too far away--too many petrochemicals involved. I'd have had to let another portion of my yard go wild just to make up the difference.

So I'm back at work full time, though not teaching, and trying to establish some habits that will 1) make me healthier and 2) make it possible to better practice what I preach. Many times on this very blog I have waxed arrogant about how we should be living our lives, and yet I've undergone two surgeries that have, in part at least, been necessitated by bad choices about the way I live.

In an e-mail to a former student (and fellow snark) about my recovery, I happened to coin a new acronym: OffAss, short for Order of Former Fat American Slobs. Since I've already logged a full week's worth of increasingly strenuous exercise (in the last week and a half; I'm averaging about four days a week and need to work up to five or six minimum) on a stationary recumbent bike, I'm counting myself as an active member. I've kept off the ten pounds I lost after surgery, and need to drop another twenty or so more, but since I'm being fairly successful at watching my food intake, this should all happen anon.

One of the problems I've always had with exercise machines, though, is that they take the place of authentic activities we used to perform as a matter of course: plowing the fields, gathering the grapes, herding and milking the cows, cleaning the house (without "labor saving" devices like vacuum cleaners), mowing the lawn (with a push reel), chasing the kids around the yard. Even riding bikes and playing driveway basketball are perfectly authentic ways to use one's body, as are more formal sports (Beloved Spouse, after all, has his tennis). I actually love to swim, and when I was initially trying to postpone valve surgery, I started going down to the Senior center to do laps. But that only lasted three or four months before I got tired of smelling chlorine all the time (it doesn't seem to dissipate even after a shower, and it's really bad for the atmosphere).

Gardening is good work, too, but you have to get pretty energetic about it, and I only did so infrequently--usually paying for it with back pain and sore muscles as a result. I'm getting back into the garden now, but am hampered by the congregations of mozzies buzzing around thanks to all the rain, and it still takes effort to make pulling weeds a regular part of being well. I hope that during my all too brief summer break I'll be able to spend a couple of hours every morning re-establishing the habit, and get some meaningful work done out of doors. I'm certainly committed to not spending all of my garden time sitting in a chair reading about other people's gardens.

One of the advantages to keeping a tidy house (one not awash with dog fur and other artifacts of dog-ownership) is that it takes real energy to keep it ready for company. I was reminded of this last week, when I spent a couple of days cleaning areas that hadn't been touched for the last several months. I got a better workout scrubbing, hoovering, and polishing than I would have on the bike, so "house" went down on the exercise log to remind me of how much I'd put into it.

What I truly lament is the view that seems to have developed since I was a child: that necessary work for its own sake is less desirable than technologically enhanced "working out." People around here will drive to a gym to walk on a treadmill, rather than walking around the neighborhood, or lift weights rather than put some muscle into taking care of their own yards. Several of my neighbors have lawn services, even though these are perfectly healthy people living in houses that have perfectly manageable lawns. And since they don't have to go out and buy all the chemicals the services dump on the grass, they don't even have a chance to read the labels that might make them think twice about using the stuff in the first place.

I've also had more than one conversation lately about "cleaning ladies." Now, I know that folks have to make a living some way, and that housemaids have been part of Western culture forever, but I cannot ever see myself hiring someone else to take care of my house. This is the job of the people who live in it; it's part of basic home economics. It's my responsibility to care for my own space, to make it comfortable for its inhabitants, and to make it welcoming to guests. Perhaps the scorn heaped on "housewives" early in modern feminism is responsible. During my time as a stay-at-home mom, after all, I got used to the "you don't work" attitude--even though caring for my house and children was far more labor-intensive than anything I've done since.

If one truly doesn't want to be bothered with the "drudgery" of keeping one's home, then surely it should be worth decent money to turn the job over to the person who does do the work. But maids or cleaning ladies or charwomen or whatever you want to call them (and they almost always are women) get little recompense. According to PayScale, a maid with twenty years of experience can expect an average hourly wage of under $15 an hour, but I doubt seriously if many of the immigrant workers in this town make anywhere near that. It would seem that these folks, who are saving people from "wasting" their valuable time should be worth a substantial wage, but like much of the work done by "unskilled" workers in this country, it's not considered anywhere near as valuable as what "skilled" workers "earn" sitting behind a desk and messing about with a computer.

I know I'm probably overstating my case, and perhaps I'm being unfair to many degreed job-holders who actually do necessary and important work. But I'm back to William Morris's notion about "useful work vs. useless toil." As long as housework and real, natural exercise are considered beneath us, we'll continue having to manufacture ways to keep from getting fat and sick and burdening the country's health care system. And the people who do the work for us will keep earning painfully low wages with few benefits of any kind.

In the "Exercise and Fitness" section of his website, Dr. Andrew Weil (who combines the best of conventional and alternative ideas about medicine) points out that our bodies are "meant for movement. A wide variety of modern epidemics, from heart disease to diabetes to osteoporosis, are rooted in our sedentary lifestyles. Lifelong physical activity is crucial to optimum health, but running marathons is not required." Even though I owe my shiny new valve to a surgeon who does run marathons (good training, I think, for spending eight ours on one's feet saving two peoples' lives in one day), I have already found that it doesn't take a huge amount of effort to become a great deal more fit.

I wonder if the economic downturn will drive more people to do their own housework, rather than hiring it out, or get out in the yard instead of paying a gym for the privilege of using its latest fancy gadgets. I know this might mean fewer jobs for people with a restricted number of skills, but it just might begin to make us into a healthier population.

Image credit: Since I'm riffing on Morris again, I thought it appropriate to use the Pre-raphaelite painter (and chum of Morris himself) Ford Madox Brown's Work, one of my favorites. Brown painted it during the period from 1852-63, and it now hangs in the Manchester City Art Galleries. The link is to Wikimedia Commons, which seems to have pinched it from Mark Harden's Artchive.


jabblog said...

Oh how I do agree! My mother, at 97, would take three or four bites at mowing the lawn - and vacuuming the house - and laundering, mostly by hand, the linens and her clothes. She was independent to the end, ate little but sufficient, didn't drink enough water, but she was tough, self-sufficient and determined. I hope - I know - some of her genes have been passed on to me and through me to my children and grandchildren.
(Take care - don't overdo things!)

Arija said...

I've got a couple of man-made valves as well, not because of anything I did or did not do except for overworking in the garden for years and being physically too extended. Rheumatic fever caused the problem. I have foud that a few miles of rhythmic walking doea more good tham most any other exercise, it also keeps you away fron the fridge! I do have to be careful not to overwork since I pay for it in the next few days. Gardening is great but does need to be kept in moderation. Age does have its limitations....

Martha Z said...

My mom passed on to me the attitude "don't pay some one to do what you can do yourself." Unfortunately she also passed to me a propensity for procrastination so alot stays undone.

Owlfarmer said...

Our mothers/grandmothers had to be a resourceful lot, given the times into which they were born. I'm actually glad that there's enough overlap between the generations to have allowed some of what my own grandmother knew to rub off on me. She also lived to a ripe old age (she was 99 before she had to give up living independently), and even had her driving license renewed when she was well into her nineties.

I do understand the procrastination problem. Even the Museum of Unfinished Projects (which was sorted out last year) is in need of help once again, and I've got things left from the room-switch we accomplished last fall still to deal with. But I will, eventually, do it all myself.

The sheer satisfaction my husband and I both feel when we've got everything spiffed up for company lasts for days after the company leaves--and I'm sure I wouldn't enjoy it nearly as much if someone else had done all the work.