As I See It: What I Did on My Summer Vacation
July 19, 2004 Victor Rozek
We are, therefore we gripe. Griping is the universal human pastime, and IT professionals are not immune from it. Like members of other occupations, people who shepherd computers have their own set of work-related complaints. Slow systems, inadequate software, glacial connectivity speeds, dizzily changing technology, unstable operating systems, spotty technical support, spam, viruses, downsizing, outsourcing, sliding wages, economic uncertainty, and restrictive budgets are among the usual grievances. And that doesn’t include all of the interpersonal and management gripes discussed with kindred complainers over Friday night beers.
But no matter how bad it seems, we have it made, and proof of that can be found in what other people do for a living.
There have been a number of experiences in my life that underscored the value of a college education and the desirability of a career that exerts the mind rather than the body. My first job, at age 15, was working for a ship chandler on the San Francisco docks for the princely sum of $1.50 an hour. It was hard work performed by hard men, with little joy or job satisfaction. One summer of it taught me more about what I wanted from life than years of schooling.
During my college years, I did a brief stint as a janitor in a grammar school. It was brief, because I couldn’t get used to what several hundred little kids could do to a bathroom.
But after college, I got a job in what was then known as Data Processing. Over the years, I did everything from data entry and programming to systems engineering and management. Most of it was done in air conditioned comfort and required nothing more than a little thought and a lot of typing. How did I get so lucky?
Luck, however, is both relative and contextual. As my career prospered, my expectations of luck increased. I no longer felt lucky just to have a job; it had to be a specific job. Landing a generous salary wasn’t good fortune; it was a baseline for those of us riding the crest of the technology wave breaking over Silicon Valley. It was easy to forget other realities. The San Francisco docks were far behind me. Now I was driving a convertible and drinking three-dollar cups of coffee, which can severely limit one’s perspective. But every once in a while life offers a little reminder of the path not taken.
The most recent reminder of my delirious good fortune came courtesy of my father-in-law. Dennis lives on the East Coast but owns a rental house near Bellingham, Washington, just below the Canadian border. It’s a two-story house nicely situated on one of the many lakes in the area. Unfortunately, when the renters moved out, Dennis discovered they had trashed the place, leaving assorted junk, mountains of beer cans, and carpets stained with, among other things, vomit and cat urine. All floor coverings had to be removed, all surfaces had to be painted, appliances had to be replaced, new carpets and linoleum installed, the house needed a new roof, and the landscaping was a jungle requiring urgent attention. My wife and I volunteered to help with the remodeling, and we had just a little over two weeks to do it.
The first day after I arrived, we tore off the roof, with the temperature in the 80s. Tearing shingles off a roof is not pleasant. The shingles come off in bits and pieces. Shovels are used to pry them up. Sometimes the roofing nails pop up and sometimes they don’t. But every nail and every staple, every shingle and all the roofing felt must be removed until the roof is stripped to the original plywood. It took about 10 hours of stooped, sweaty, back-breaking labor.
I was hot, tired, and sore. If I had been home, I would have spent the morning writing in the comfort of my office, with a cup of coffee on my desk. The most strenuous thing I would have done is go downstairs to refill my cup.
As the shingles were pried up, they were dumped into a large flatbed truck parked in the driveway. The next morning, Dennis and I drove to the dump to unload the shingles. It was about 85 degrees that day. The dump was located in a large building, and the stench was overwhelming. It was harder to unload the shingles than it was to tear them off. They lay in a mountainous pile, brittle and unwieldy, too heavy to be muscled. Layer by layer we pulled them off the truck, the sweat pouring from our bodies. The fully loaded truck had been weighed on the way in and was weighed again on the way out to determine the dumping fee. When the sweat dried, we had unloaded just under 6,000 pounds of shingles. My brain was numb, and my body felt like it had been pummeled by Mike Tyson.
Back home, I would have been unloading groceries from my car.
The roofers came the next day to replace what had been removed. The head of the crew was a single father in his 30s. Working at a keyboard was not an option for him, nor was purchasing a three-dollar cup of coffee. He had three kids and little education, and an uninterrupted future of hammering on other people’s roofs lay before him.
The carpet and linoleum crews were Hispanic. Most spoke little or no English. They were subcontractors to large home improvement centers, like Home Depot, which could avoid employing them directly and thereby save the cost of paying benefits.
By contrast, every IT job I’ve ever held included a benefits package, and none required working all day on my knees.
I spent five days painting the interior of the house. My neck and back were permanently stiff, and my hands so sore it was hard to make a fist in the morning. I thought I was done painting, but the carpet installers dinged up the walls, which would necessitate another day of touch-up. I stood wearily next to one of the crew, who appeared to speak no English, and pointed to a particularly scarred wall, expecting I don’t know what. The young man shrugged then brightened as he spoke one of the few words of English he knew: “Baseboard,” he said, the carpet installer’s equivalent of patching the system.
In middle age, especially for a person unaccustomed to it, sustained physical labor is tough enough. But my mere physical discomfort paled next to the problems of the Caucasian, Islamic, polygamist appliance installer. The man came to the house exhausted and sat and chatted for a while before beginning his work. During the course of casual conversation, the installer mentioned that he had converted to Islam, which, particularly in these times, seemed odd, especially for a Caucasian. So I asked him what had drawn him to that particular religion. He said he had come upon Islam when he was researching polygamy on the Internet.
And why, pray tell, were you researching polygamy? Because, he said, he had three wives and was looking for some system of rules and guidelines for managing the unions. And I thought I had problems. I must have looked a little stunned, because he assured me polygamy was more common than most people thought and was practiced well beyond fringe Mormon communities. Well, he piqued my interest. “Bring the wives by,” I said. “I’d love to meet them.” And so he did.
They were physically and numerically a large family. Everyone topped 200 pounds, and some weighed considerably more. Wife number two was the daughter of a woman who had been the “fat lady” in a circus, weighing in at 660 pounds. The daughter was heading in that direction herself, and she was dwarfed by wife number three. For his part, the husband (no Tiny Tim himself), seemed like a man who’d caught too big a fish on too small a line and was now wondering what to do with it. He had two appliances to install, and had to rest again after the first one.
Thankfully, I have only one wife, and the heaviest appliance I’ve recently installed is a printer.
On July 4, we took a break. Power boats and gasoline engines are not allowed on the lake, but the residents have a novel way of getting around. Many have detachable docks, to which they bolt a small electric motor powered by a marine battery. They float around with their lounge chairs and barbeques, coolers full of wine and beer, enjoying one of the most charming and delightful renditions of the good life I’ve ever seen.
The night of the 4th, we floated out to the middle of the lake and watched an extraordinary 360 degree fireworks show, put on by some of the more affluent lakeside residents, who set off 90 minutes of professional-quality fireworks, each outdoing the next, in a detonative celebration of our nation and the quality of life that is available here.
I sat back in a comfortable patio chair, sipping red wine, looking at the endless explosions of color, my body beyond tired, feeling immensely grateful that I did not have to do hard physical labor every day of my life, nor answer to three women, nor do remodeling for three sets of in-laws. I was feeling gratitude for the life that a career in IT has afforded me, seeing my personal laments through fresh eyes, and appreciating anew the labor of countless millions of others.
As I rediscovered, making a living with the assistance of computer technology is equal parts privilege and blessing; privilege, because not everyone has that option, and blessing, because we do. My hat is off to the roofers and carpet installers, the dock workers and the farmers, the polygamist appliance installers, and all of the others who do hard manual labor, day in and day out. They make it possible for the rest of us not to have to.
For me, the remodel was an exhausting and rewarding experience. There’s nothing like a couple of weeks of real work to, once again, put things in perspective.