Back on the farm, Labor Day was both a significant calendar moment and just another work day if something needed to be done.
Family farming had a rhythm, even if the hours were sometimes long and the work demanding. The most intense times were between spring planting and calving (hopefully not in a March blizzard) through planting, haying in June to grain harvest in July and on to preparation of the fields for next season in August. After August there was still plenty to do, especially if the corn had gotten enough rain to make a crop. Even so, things on our farm lightened up considerably going into fall.
Labor Day unofficially divided the heavy lifting and the somewhat less intense farming of the colder months. That wasn’t always so, but often enough. I don’t remember picnics or parades, just a feeling that life was a little lighter after Labor Day.
In my day, farm work was a daylight operation, sunrise and sunset. Who had a tractor with working headlights? These days I sometimes see farmers in their fields in the dark, the glaringly bright lights of machines illuminating the prairie, extending the work day by several hours.
After college, as a news reporter, we had odd hours, although the day shift was roughly 8 or 9 a.m. to 5 or 6 p.m. Stories often had other ideas. I quickly grew accustomed to being informally on call, available if I happened to be near a telephone when an editor needed a warm body with a notebook and a cheap pen. Advances in technology over the years took the phone from the wall and put it in my pocket. That was convenient, sometimes necessary. But it stretched my informal on-call status to anytime, anywhere, which stretched the work day, kind of like modern farm machines and equipment stretched farming’s day.
Cell phones grew from novelty to convenience to necessity. In my post-reporting life as a state information officer, I was expected to be available whenever the bosses needed me. They gave me a second laptop. Nights, weekends and holidays at home I could access every program and file just as if I were in my cubicle at work. If I’m being honest, I let myself get into that situation. I started thinking I was indispensable, things couldn’t get done without me and I couldn’t take breaks.
I’m not complaining, although when you go to a Dark Star Orchestra show in Apple Valley and pause at the gate to check work emails, maybe the job is too much of your life. I know people in many professions worked harder than I did, had fewer holidays and faced more physically and mentally demanding duties. It’s just that at some point, a person should have real time away from work, you know? I know of people who seem to thrive on never pausing from the job. Most of us, though, need an honest-to-goodness break now and then.
The U.S. Department of Labor says the labor movement created Labor Day as “a yearly national tribute to the contributions workers have made in the strength, prosperity and well-being of our country,” Good deal.
A website called “The Conversation” says Labor Day is a confused holiday with no actual rituals or public programs. It’s just there. It started out as the labor movement’s way of drawing attention to their worth and to the problem of long working hours and no time off. Society made progress on those issues, but technology seems to have brought them back, with everyone incessantly connected to their jobs.
What if we had made Labor Day a time to unplug — from phones, computers, whatever devices keeps us hooked to the office. If there’s an emergency, sure, stay connected as needed. Otherwise, look at the sky or the river instead of the screen. Walk, bike or take a drive instead of surfing social media. Bosses should encourage it, because a valuable employee is worth much more refreshed than burned out from constant connection.
Easy for me to say. I’m retired. But I wish I’d said it 30 years ago, and I wish I’d had the courage and good sense to follow through.