The Nature of Work

“That’s the real work: to make the world as real as it is, and to find ourselves as real as we are within it.” Gary Snyder, interview summer of 1977

Recently on finishing their third year of publication, the Fernie Fix threw a tremendous “Three Years of the Fix” Party. Writers, photographers, advertisers and a host of others packed the Underground at the Brickhouse. Standing in a corner watching, perhaps the most interesting aspect of the party was the diversity of the crowd. Ages and professions mixed without measure. The commonality of moving (or staying) in Fernie for the town, the people and the lifestyle broke a multitude of barriers. A mining engineer now a developer. A mechanical engineer hanging and finishing drywall. Aussies on their gap year walkabout, settling down in Fernie, extending that gap ‘year’ to several.

A friend currently is torn about staying in Fernie. He’s here for the winter, a second, but his profession is architecture. There are no openings and none likely in the near future. Calgary holds the closest opportunity. Meanwhile, he’s cooking for eight bucks an hour and boarding every chance.

I grew up in academia. The short-hand term, both self-referencing and by others, was faculty brat. As most of my peers, I attended a fine college and on graduation, with a choice of graduate schools, I went skiing. I dabbled in grad school, building up half a masters in credits from three different schools. For years I defended my lifestyle choice to my parents and colleagues.

My resume says “Ski Bum”. Really. Chronologically Aspen, Vail, Jackson Hole, Breckenridge, a sabbatical on the east coast, Breckenridge, the Hood River area and now Fernie. My winter jobs over the decades include dishwashing, ski packing, bar tending, shoveling snow off of roofs, working in or managing ski shops, ski instruction, and so on. My summer jobs fall essentially into guiding climbing and carpentry. My summers provided the freedom to ski.

Every winter my father joined me for a week or two of skiing. One night in Breckenridge, we went out with a bunch of friends for pizza and beer. With the pizza gone, we sat around the table, maybe eight or nine of us, talking about working in ski towns, life with passions and what we’d given up to move to the mountains. Everyone at the table held at least a BA. One had a Masters. My father held graduate degrees from Harvard, MIT, Stanford and finally a PhD from Stanford in Clinical Psychology. After we’d tossed the subject round, I turned to my dad and asked, “Are you disappointed I didn’t finish my masters?”

He paused, took a sip of his beer. “You know, as long as I have a couch to sleep on and keep getting free lift tickets, I’m okay with it.”

Am I a writer? Last month, and the month before, the bulk of my income, maybe 90% came from carpentry. This month my income will be evenly derived from teaching skiing and carpentry with writing contributing little. In February, income from writing will outpace all others as projects wrap and payments drop into my pocket. When the area closes, carpentry will be primary for two, maybe three months with work I have lined up.

At the same time, I write several hours a day on two long-term projects. Are they my work? Or is the designing, trimming and installing of wood to ‘mountain up’ a customer’s home?

And then there is the societal perception of work and “good work”. In Europe serving in a restaurant is a profession. A skill appreciated and respected. My time as a climbing guide, owning a climbing school and teaching skiing is the equivalent of a mountain guide in Europe, a highly respected position. Here it’s “When are you getting a real job?”

Balance. It lies in balance.

Part of balance is finding the value in the intangibles and the tangibles. Two weeks from handing this essay to Krista and Vanessa, it appears in the Fernie Fix. Island Lake Lodge: the cookbook took two years and three month to the day from the time I contacted Whitecap Books to the actual printed book placed in my hand by the publisher.

The balance lies in my work in the Fix and a host of other publications where there was no tangible result from the bulk of the work I struggled through. In the same way, when I leave the re-model at the end of the day, I look back and say “This I finished. Tomorrow I will be able to finish . . .” Tangible.

Last winter one of the Freshies baristas was a thesis short of masters in English Literature. Another had a BA in English Lit. We traded titles over coffee and the occasional loaner. One’s moved to waitressing and the other to running a gas station. Both have passes and rip on the hill. Both still read a ton.

They are living.

There is a value beyond the actual “job”. There is a life lived on separate terms to the expectations of the world at large. In Fernie, many step off the merry-go-round and take a second look at their values. And then hit the Timber at 8:45 on a 30cm powder day.

Balance. Values.

More reading on work:
The Real Work: Interviews and talks 1964-1979, Gary Snyder (New directions, 1980)
Shop Class as Soulcraft: An inquiry in to the value of work, Matthew B. Crawford (Penguin, 2009)