Thursday, August 11, 2011

On proletarianization

I'm finally making some use of myself. My parents - who are being extraordinarily generous by housing, feeding and catering to my every need in a way only parents can do without it getting awkward - will occasionally ask me to do small favours in return for the hospitality they are showing me. Naturally, I do these things. Clean the bathroom, make dinner, go grocery shopping; it's the least I can do considering how kind they've been and are to me. Yet, I never feel that it's adequate - the favours they do me easily add up to much more than I can ever hope to repay them. So when they asked me to do a large-ish favour - help paint the house and garage - I was (if not thrilled...) happy to oblige.

Since I've been writing job applications lately, I've focused on stuff I'm good at. Like writing reports, or being a loyal employee and colleague, or being able to work both in teams and independently. I've been focusing very little on stuff I'm not good at. Like painting houses.

I felt terribly, terribly out of place. Like the stereotypical city girl, with her high heels and pink nails, trying to do good, old-fashioned manual labour. (I did not have high heels. I did, however, have pink nails...) I couldn't figure out how to secure the ladder. I didn't know how much soap to use for the water (like any good painter should do, I cleaned the wall first, of course). I showered myself in cold water in an attempt of getting the water pressure on the hose up to proper levels (I eventually managed. Okay. My dad eventually managed).

And yet, it felt pretty good. I was outdoors, working, being useful. Then it struck me, how interesting the experience actually was, from a historian's point of view.

The garage was originally built by my grandfather - who has been dead for eighteen years - some fifty, sixty years ago. He was a conductor in the national railway company, but he grew up on a small farm deep in the Norwegian forests. As the son of a farmer, he doubtlessly had to learn all sorts of manual labour - including building houses. So when he had gathered the means, he built one for himself, his wife, and two sons. My grandmother still lives in that house. We live next doors, on a lot bought by my grandfather with his eldest son - my father - in mind.

The garage was built a few years after the house. After all, they had to have a car first. And not just any car. I still remember the smell of my grandparent's Volvo Amazon. The shine of its bright red hue. The lack of nonsensical things such as seat-belts in the back seat. The ash tray, which was always filled with candy since neither of my grandparents smoked.

By the time I was old enough to pay attention, the Amazon lived in a new garage that had replaced the old one, and our house was built on the aforementioned neighbouring lot. The original garage, which now was closer to our house than our grandparents', was turned into a shed. My father - handy in many ways, but not build-your-own-house-handy - did lots of work on our house. But so did a team of 15 carpenters, plus my two grandfathers.

With time the old garage is not as impressive as it once was. Still. It impresses me to think that my grandfather actually did build it. He had those kind of skills. Half a century later, his granddaughter, pink nails and all, struggled to wash and paint the walls he once put up. I doubtlessly have skills he did not - I'm sure he'd be rubbish at writing reports, for instance - but it's a two-way street. It's humbling, really, to think of everything people used to take for granted, that now have become huge tasks because we've let go of the knowledge previously transmitted from generation to generation.

In the end I suspect it's fortunate for me that the times have changed. If I ever build a house, I probably will not even touch a hammer. I won't take much part in the construction process post-planning at all, and I wouldn't have the skills to do so even if I wanted to. On the other hand, I might be able to pay for that house because I got a good education and (hopefully) a job.

At least I've learned a thing or two about painting houses today, should I ever have one of my own. All thanks to my grandfather.


Michael Offutt said...

I think that when I worked outdoors with my father, I never had a moment of "how interesting the experience is from a historian's point of view."

I think I just thought the work sucked and how much I wanted to hang out with friends.


Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

Sometimes a little physical labor is good. Pretty amazing your gradnfather built the garage. I couldn't even build a birdhouse.

Jan Morrison said...

my sweet patootie is a builder and he built our house. Sometimes that is awesome and sometimes frightening.
good for you - being a pioneer - like you do so well!

Arlee Bird said...

Doing stuff around the house is good experience. I used to have a job as an assistant helping to build houses, but I couldn't build anything on my own that would remain standing.

Tossing It Out

Christine Murray said...

So true. My grandfather's were good at building, painting and other manual jobs. My father and I fail miserably at these tasks. We do other things that previous generations could not, but still. It's a evolutionary shift in many countries, jobs that would be usually handled by the household (making butter, bread etc) are outsourced.

Kelley said...

I love your perspective! I am always thinking about stuff like that. I am sure your grandfather would love to know you are giving it a fresh coat of paint. Something else I love? That I am readng a blog that was written in Norway! I'm all the way over here in Texas. I love the Internet. :)

Cold As Heaven said...

Teamworkers are good workers.

I'm quite good at painting houses, but our house is 10m high, I hate climbing high on the ladder.

Cold As Heaven

Kelly said...

I think I've mentioned to you before that my daughter is also a historian. Funny how y'all look at things from a different perspective than so many other folks. She's always educating me on stuff. You do, too. :)

Pat Tillett said...

Back in the day...
People had to be much more self sufficient. The pro's don't want us to know the tricks and shortcuts to home maintenance. If we knew them, we would ever need to hire anyone. I try to do most things myself at home. It's taken a lifetime of learning and/or failing!

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