From the Whistler

Vocation and Avocation


In his poem “Two Tramps in Mud Time”, Robert Frost describes being accosted by two tramps while splitting wood. They are “men of the woods and lumberjacks” and so naturally expect Frost to pay them to take up his work, because:


... I had no right to play

With what was another man's work for gain.

My right might be love but theirs was need.

And where the two exist in twain

Theirs was the better right—agreed.


But yield who will to their separation,

My object in living is to unite

My avocation and my vocation

As my two eyes make one in sight.


Uniting our vocation and avocation is often a dream instilled in us from an early age by teachers and parents. “Shoot for the stars! You can be whatever you want!” For many that means becoming a great writer, a famous actor, a rock star. And for most that dream doesn’t happen (at least the great, famous star part) and our labor of love becomes a hobby as we learn a trade to earn a living.

My first job was as a paper boy, getting up at 5am every weekday and delivering my route in the dark before going to school. Then came Arby’s, Target, dishwashing jobs at the uni­versity, and summers spent pollinating corn for a seed com­pany in Iowa. And let’s not forget working behind the gun counter at the Lake Street K-Mart. Even after I snagged a sala­ried position as a technical writer, the disconnect between  my vocation and avocation was starkly apparent.

For recent college graduates, even unglamorous jobs have been hard to come by. To enter many of the better paying pro­fessions (nursing, for example) young people have to be will­ing to take on a mountain of debt. And as the distribution of wealth in the United States has grown more unequal in the last decade, wages have stagnated. Still, I find  today’s workplace rich and varied, ranging from explosive engineers and veteri­narians to yoga instructors and cab drivers. Perhaps the secret lies in learning to make your vocation your avocation—to find the worth and beauty in what you do.

This issue of Whistling Shade gives us a glimpse of the work life around us. Daniel Gabriel describes his tenure as a roadie, while poems by Margaret Hasse, Julian Bernick and Rob Plath depict waitresses, office workers, and snowplow drivers. Chuck Holmes’ Life Frieze, beginning on the opposite page, contrasts painting and modeling, showing how an occu­pation can come to define a person. And Pamela Hammond’s “Pelican Tale” reminds us that even animals have their work.

What will tomorrow’s jobs look like? In the 1980s, flying cars and robot butlers were prophesied. Instead, technology has suffered a backlash from global warming, tainted water, and other environmental and cultural pressures. The eggs I buy come from Amish farms, not some mechanized plant out of Brave New World. Meanwhile record stores where CDs once dominated are filled with LPs once again, and a variation of the telegraph, known as “texting”, is quickly replacing the more modern telephone as a means of communication. In short, tra­ditionalism appears to be in ascendency. If the trend continues, the future may well resemble the past more than the present. This means that our work might become more pastoral, more service-oriented, and generally more varied and “blue collar”, as in the 19th century. Which might not be such a bad thing. Chopping wood does have a satisfying rhythm to it.

- Joel Van Valin