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Appreciating other people's work

Mary Schmich

September 2, 2012

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I was once at a party where someone asked what kind of work I do. When I said I write for a newspaper and explained a little more, my interrogator smiled and asked how often my work appeared. I said three times a week.

"That sounds fun!" she said. "Do you get paid for that?"

Please — hold the snarky emails.

My job is fun — except when it isn't — and I tell this story only because this is Labor Day weekend, our annual occasion for musing on work while we take time off it. And one thing I've learned about work through the years is that most of us don't understand other people's jobs.

It's easy to underestimate what other people do and to take the fruit of their work for granted, even in your own workplace. It's as easy as kidding yourself that no one works as hard as you do.

By many standards, my job is easy, and sometimes I'm dazzled by how difficult, in comparison, other people's jobs are, jobs that take mind or muscle far beyond what I possess. I'm dazzled, at any rate, if I see the work in action.

On Friday, for example, I walked past the endless road construction along Fullerton Avenue at Lake Shore Drive.

It was 90 degrees, the air so hot it pulsed.

While beach-goers in bikini tops and short-shorts sashayed past the big, clanging machines, the construction workers went about their jobs wrapped in clothing from their wrists to their necks to their ankles.

How do you tolerate that heat? How do you operate those machines? How do you learn to build a road?

It was too hot to stand there and ponder those mysteries for very long, but I took a moment to appreciate.

I occasionally have similar thoughts when I look at Chicago's skyline. How do you dream those buildings up? Then conjure them out of the prairie soil? Then make sure they don't fall down?

How do you lay the pipes and install the wiring and perform all the miracles that keep human beings cool in summer and warm in winter? How do you keep the elevators gliding up and down? And make sure the toilets flush?

When I'm paying attention, these seem like feats more spectacular than anything at the Olympics. Or at least more vital to the rest of us.

Mostly, though, I don't think about the work behind the roads and buildings and all the other miracles that keep life humming. Unless you witness work done or you've done it yourself, it's easy to ignore the effort in someone else's job.

Most labor feuds boil down to the fact that the workers feel that what they do isn't sufficiently understood or respected. Labor Day is a good time to pause and think about the work that goes into every job, and how any job, done well, deserves a little awe.

How do you write a good legal brief?

How do you memorize your lines in a play?

How do you stay polite when the customer is yelling at you for something that's not your fault?

How do you keep the food orders straight?

How do you make excellent cappuccino foam with that perfect flower design?

How do you teach someone to read or multiply or play the flute?

How do you plant a field and harvest it?

As someone who has never done those jobs, I marvel at people who can. Or, rather, I marvel when I remember not to take other people's work for granted.

mschmich@tribune.com