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On the Impermanence of Work   (June 2005)

A recent jaunt across the Golden Gate Bridge yielded this snapshot, and some reflections on the impermanence of so much of our work. The guys who designed and built the bridge (it opened in 1937, in the midst of the Great Depression) are mostly gone, but their handiwork remains--a structure as close to permanent as we in the modern era understand that term. While the 9/11 attacks took down two great towers, the wrecking ball of "progress" has taken down many thousands of buildings--many worth keeping, many not.

The permit for the Empire State Building, after all, included plans for its demolition. Far thinking, those New York planners. In the glorious field of economics, it's called "creative destruction"--the clearing away of the old (including entire industries and all who toil in them) to make way for the new (fabric-covered cubicles and arguments over who took my cream soda from the staff fridge).

The craftsmen who labored on the Pyramids or Notre Dame or the Roman acqueducts had little doubt their work was permanent; now, virtually any structure other than a handful of icons like the Golden Gate Bridge may fall from public fancy and be torn down in a relative blink of an eye.

But how wondrous to have work which outlives you. I have been working for 35 years already, and am nowhere near "retirement," (what that means to the self-employed, I have no idea). Like most "knowledge workers" (it sounds so much better than "paper-pusher," doesn't it?), most of my life's work is utterly forgotten, recorded only by a scattering of yellowing papers and clippings.

Sometimes when I am in Honolulu or on the Big Island, I will drive by the houses I helped build (as either a carpenter or as a contractor), to reassure myself they still stand, perhaps, and to draw satisfaction from their maturity--the way they have settled into the landscape. Some have been in disrepair, and I am aghast at how quickly wood structures deteriorate in the tropics. No doubt many will be torn down in my lifetime, if I make it to three score and ten. But others, the well-cared for ones, will no doubt survive me. It's an odd thing, that the only visible remains of 35 years of work are the 100+ plus houses Mike Tanner and I built when I was in my late 20s/early 30s.

As a free-lance writer, I am part of a settlement from major publishers who sold our collective work to databases without compensation. As part of the claims process, I have been assembling a master list of all my published articles--well over 200 in all. It's sobering to realize how little remains of all that work, and how poorly I've managed my records. Does anyone remember even one of those stories? Probably not.

Which brings me to you, cherished reader. Every scrap of writing--it's all for you. I recall the first thrill of realizing a million people would be glancing at my work (how many read the last paragraph, I shudder to guess) back in 1989. Even though all of this is impermanent, purposefully so, I try to apply the same standards to this, which will find perhaps a dozen or two readers at most, as work destined for a million glances: to provide you with the best information I can find, and the most salient and interesting points of a subject. Reader--you are greatly appreciated. As they say in Japanese: Honto, ne?

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copyright © 2005 Charles Hugh Smith. All rights reserved in all media.

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