My Pop-Pop just turned 85 the other day and do you know how he spent his day? Working, and I don’t mean weeding in the garden, although he did do that too, but only after he finished working. Rendered services. Contributed to America’s bottom line. And although he’s certainly entitled at his age, he spent his birthday — the day meant for celebrating the moment he joined the human race after being squeezed from his mother’s womb 85 years ago — earning a living. My Pop-Pop, to quote Tom Brokaw, is part of America’s greatest generation, the generation that built America as we know it. Back then, the only thing my Pop-Pop, and men like him, did was build — all the time: factories, dams, skyscrapers, fighter jets. He might even have built the place you’re sitting in right now. Are you sitting in a fighter jet parked on top of a skyscraper? If so, he probably did.
My Pop-Pop didn’t stop building until the last flicker of sunlight danced away over the horizon. Back then, a man wasn’t a man unless he was working with his own two hands building something. Something you could feel. Something that had weight and took space where there once was none. Me, I haven’t picked up a hammer in 16 years. I wouldn’t even know what one looked like if you flung one at me. Sure, I’d duck out of its way, but later, after the circumstances causing you to throw a hammer at my head were properly explained and justified, I’d still not fully understand what it was.
It used to be that the man was the job and the job was the man — and a man could take satisfaction in that. But that has changed. Many men just kind of work at some job, some place, somewhere, spending hours, weeks, years of their lives with nothing to show for it at the end except for a filing cabinet full of paper.
Today, we work in a service-based economy full of people doing things for other people: things people don’t want to do themselves. Landscapers. Maids. Nannies. Concierges. Services — you can’t see ’em; you can’t feel ’em. And at the end of the day, all you have is an intangible and some paperwork. When was the last time you met a carpenter? When was the last time you sat down and talked to a farmer? And who among you can honestly recommend a really good machinist in a pinch?
Wedding planners. House sitters. Interior decorators. Real-estate agents. Life coaches — now that’s a scary proposition. If you’ve got a life coach, then there’s a chance you could get benched. Cut from your own life.
Every human need and desire imaginable has a corresponding service for it. Prostitutes. Surrogate mothers. Mail-order brides. Fluffers.
Life too hard? Finding existence time consuming? Involuntary breathing a hassle? You just sit back and relax because you can simply hire somebody else to live your life for you. Personal trainers. Personal shoppers. Personal assistants. Publicists.
That’s what I am, a publicist. I must admit that it’s not exactly the most masculine job in the world. I don’t lift anything particularly heavy. There’s no hauling or riveting in my job description and I don’t tear any carpet or install drywall. Basically, I talk to people eight hours a day every day. I let everyone know about what’s going on at my company. If I do anything, it’s finessing people and putting positive spins on otherwise embarrassing situations for my company. Just the other day, it seems that my company coerced some recently downsized employees, who were let go because they were old, black, gay, or female, into dumping some chemical waste into a protected wetlands area that was home to a rare breed of malamute. Yeah, I know, oops. But like my press release said, “That’s not necessarily a bad thing.” But I digress.
My grandfather spent most of his life as an iron worker. He took cold steel into his bare hands and bent it, mashed it, bullied it into something useful like a supertanker, a fighter jet, or a dessert spoon.
He once told me about the time he was 47 stories above the earth, working on a new building, when he slipped. And as he was falling to his death, hurtling toward a most unsightly demise, he reached out and grabbed on to a girder. There he was, hanging on for dear life by a separated shoulder until help could come. And do you know what he did afterwards? He jammed his shoulder back into its socket, finished his shift, had a round with the boys at Dutch’s, and went home and gave it to my grandmother good — twice! — because he was and still is a man!
And me? I’m a publicist.
He’s got 14 pounds of undigested red meat sitting on his colon. I, on the other hand, had a grilled chicken salad for lunch — with the dressing on the side.
He sleeps on a sloped bed of sharp rocks in the backyard. I just bought a white-noise machine and a new stitched duvet.
I know I’ll never be an iron worker, but I’d settle for just being handy. By “handy,” I mean build-a-deck handy. I want to be one of those guys who wake up in the morning, walk into Home Depot and just indiscriminately buy twenty two-by-fours. I want to become a man who says things like “pop the hood,” or “catalytic converter,” or “bring me the needle-nosed pliers, Goddamnit.” I want to work with my hands and break good, musky sweat all over my sinewy muscles and then come home reeking of testosterone and take my wife right there in the foyer or the pantry or the sunroom.”
So I’m making changes.
I just placed a couple of two-by-fours underneath my computer monitor. I replaced my ergonomic desk chair with a painted wood chair I stole from a one-room-schoolhouse exhibit at the museum. I just traded in my sesame-seed-granola bars for trout heads. And I drove a big axe into the tree stump in my backyard and I ain’t moving it.
I’m making changes to become a working man.
I’m making changes so I can be more like my Pop-Pop.