America's Loss of Toughness Enabled Coronamania

In the late 1980s-early 1990s, I spent many Saturdays rehabbing an apartment building above an old, fire-gutted bank at 292-98 South Orange Avenue, Newark, New Jersey with Habitat for Humanity. The red brick structure was three stories tall and a half-block wide, with boarded-up windows. Working on the upper floors, we walked across tattered sheets of plywood lightly fastened to the remaining floor joists that spanned the inner shell of the building. Watch your step.

The project manager was a sturdy, brusque, coarse-blonde-haired, construction-experienced recovering alcoholic named Dave who, on cold mornings, wore a khaki-shelled Carhartt work suit. Dave had replaced a slim urban fellow named Johnny, who was a recovering heroin addict suspected of stealing power tools from the site and selling these to buy drugs. We kept the tools in the basement vault that withstood the fire and only Johnny had the keys. So they fired him. And changed the locks.

Dave was a blue-collar philosopher. The Twelve-Step process seems to make those who go through it reflect deeply on their own, and others,’ lives. Or maybe Twelve-Step just makes them more likely to share with others their impressions of the human condition. As we worked alongside each other, Dave would sometimes tell a short story about something that had happened and then add, with conviction, a larger life lesson like “Everybody’s suffering is real to them.”

We often made batches of concrete for footings. Because we lacked a cement mixer, we mixed the concrete on top of old plywood, using shovels. On the first day we did this, Dave began the process by declaring, “You’ve got to have some hate in you to mix concrete by hand.”

I’ve done harder work—for example, I’ve been a garbageman and roofed during the summer—but mixing concrete by hand is kind of unpleasant. You have to haul multiple bags of sand and cement mix and five-gallon buckets of cold water, which splashes on your pants in chilly weather. When you tear open and pour out the bags, cement dust gets in your eyes and hair and on your clothes. The dust would wreck your lungs if you mixed concrete often. I tied a bandanna over my mouth and nose; it seemed more effective than a Covid mask later seemed.

After you blend the dry sand and cement, you shape the pile into a wide volcano and pour water into the depression on top. Then, shovelful-by-shovelful, you scrape the dry mix from the plywood at the volcanic base into the ponded water in the crater, circling the crater on foot to preserve the pile’s symmetry. You work quickly so that the weighty gray sludge doesn’t harden before you sling it into its final resting place. Multiple batches are typically required.

Mixing concrete is grunt work. It doesn’t create something that looks good, or finished, as does hanging drywall, painting, refinishing floors or building bookshelves. But you have to do this task. If you don’t, there’s no foundation for the more satisfying, visible building elements that follow.

Before I heard it from Dave, I had known and seen that anger could be channeled into a constructive response. But Dave’s concrete-mixing metaphor and his use of the word “hate” stuck with me. In life, as when mixing concrete, people need to show some grit and push through unpleasant tasks or life phases.

Americans used to better understand this link between hate, perseverance and getting stuff done. Over the centuries, countless people in the US and abroad have done plenty of very hard work to sustain themselves and their families. In order to do so, they needed to internalize some risk and bring some toughness to bear.

For example, my grandfather and countless others of his generation deep-mined coal. Many were killed in mine accidents. Many more, like my grandfather, at 47, died from black lung disease. Other men worked in steel mills. In the first half of the 1900s, 9% of steelworkers died on the job from, e.g., having heavy beams land, or molten steel poured, on them. Similarly, millions have planted, cultivated or harvested crops all day in scorching hot fields. Before those fields were used to grow crops, they needed to be cleared. Imagine cutting thick, massive trees with two-man handsaws all day in very hot summers. Many humans did such work for years, for little or no pay.

Despite being subjected to much greater threats than people were from Coronavirus exposure, coal, steel and agricultural laborers pressed on because they needed income and because everyone needed coal, steel, lumber and food and fiber to build and heat houses, schools and businesses, to eat and wear clothes and to travel. Those who provided these commodities were the original “essential workers.” On balance, far more lives were lengthened and improved—not shortened and worsened—because laborers tolerated serious risk and did exhausting and dangerous work.

In the latter half of the Twentieth Century, workplaces were made safer and hard work was increasingly done by machines and/or outsourced abroad. But as this occurred, many Americans lost their mental toughness and sense of history. As a society, we overshot the safety mark. This was never clearer than during the past three years of Coronamania, during which bizarre, ineffective public safety measures were substituted for sane risk/reward analysis and the general welfare.

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