Thursday, September 27, 2012

30th Year Reflections/17: Weight Limits

“It’s not the years, honey, it’s the mileage.” — Indiana Jones

I went to bed sore and I woke up sore. It has been one of those weeks. And it got me to thinking about all the material I’ve moved over my career: whole libraries and archives (starting with an architecture library when I was in graduate school) and collections by the truck load. After a while all that physical activity takes a toll, no matter how hard you try to use your legs and “lift carefully.” I’m sure many of us have seen the following in job postings/descriptions: “Must be able to regularly lift up to 40 pounds.” I’m fairly certain that every once in a while I’ve seen a fifty pound requirement for an archival or library position, but that is about as high as it goes; that is our professional outer limit. (I’ve lifted heavier bags of cement or sand, but that’s another story for a different time.)

Of course some of us don’t want to lift anything, or don’t have to. Here I’ll admit to a bit of professional prejudice: I’m not particularly fond of folks who don’t have to lift anything for a living. In my mind these folks are wimps. They need to have some skin in the game to truly qualify as a professional. Now some of these people might counter that they’re just smarter than the rest of us, that they’re on a higher plain of existence, that in the world of higher education or the profession they were born to be administrators and not worker bees. They are queen of the hive. There is no need to worry about the heavy lifting. They have people to do that for them.

Which was exactly the response I received a long time ago…at a conference far, far away…from a colleague of mine. I was attending a meeting on the East coast, on the campus of one of our earliest and most elite institutions of higher learning. In the middle of the afternoon we were at a transition point; the tables and chairs in the room needed to be reconfigured for the next event. I dove right in, in my Midwestern way, and started moving some furniture about when I was halted in my tracks by a member of the host staff. She looked down her nose at me and said “you don’t need to worry about doing anything. We have people for that.” And, indeed, they did. Before too long a squadron of laborers entered the room, dressed in coveralls and work clothes, and finished the work that I and others had started. It was at that moment I realized that some of my colleagues lived in a different world than I did. I could never enjoy their world, being waited on hand and foot by underlings. It was not the world I grew up in or one I enjoyed.

There is a value to getting your hands dirty and I rejoice every time I see one of my colleagues laboring away at another pile of boxes; it has been one of the best ways for me to engage with a collection and to start to know it intimately. I’m not content to wait until some minion has done all the dirty work. I want to dive in right away.

Granted, this egalitarian eagerness has come at a cost. I have four compressed discs, occasional lower back spasms, and what has been diagnosed as degenerative disc disease. I have bad mornings and stressed evenings. But I wouldn’t give it up for the world. It is my badge of honor, a sign that I’ve been in the trenches hustling for that next collection or teaching three sessions straight without a rest and eager for more.

One of my doctors once told me that I could throw my back into spasm by coughing or sneezing (I have) or picking up a tissue from the floor (I haven’t). It is all in the movement. I’d like to think that most of mine have been both careful and graceful.

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