Friday, June 17, 2011

Working outdoors

What struck me as I prepared for bed last night at ten o’clock wasn’t how physically exhausted I was but rather how for once, it seemed justified.

My life, especially my weekday life, especially my weekday life during the school year, tends to be very indoorsy. While it’s true that I go running outdoors 365 days a year –the U.S. Running Streak Association does allow running done on treadmills to qualify for its registry, but in my experience, most streak runners look on that option with contempt – on days the kids have school I’m done with my run by nine o’clock in the morning. And quite often I then sit indoors at my computer for most of the rest of the day. Often this spring Holly and I have gone for a little bike ride after school, and sometimes one or another of my family members will take a walk with me, but for the most part, I spent a lot of my time indoors.

And so sometimes when the typical middle-aged sense of physical fatigue sets in at around ten o’clock at night, I ask myself just what I’ve done to merit the sense of weariness. There were about six years in my life when I lugged children around for much of the day, and there were other phases of my life when I ran between six and thirteen miles some days. When I was in my twenties and living in Boston I walked a mile or so to and from work every day. In college I taught aerobics during the summer. All of those seem like good reasons to be tired at the end of the day in a way that going for a two-mile run and then sitting at my computer does not.

Yesterday, though, I once again had a good excuse, beyond being middle-aged. I’d spent three hours that afternoon helping my father bale and stack hay, which is challenging physical labor, and all of this on a sunny eighty-degree day. I deserve to feel tired, I told myself with a little bit of righteousness last night. I did actual manual labor all afternoon.

We spent the first hour transferring hay bales from the trailer to the barn. That’s a straightforward job that consists of little more than moderate lifting and carrying. The next step was a lot harder. I told my father I’d help him pick up bales from a field he’d already mowed and raked. This was something I’d never done before.

“Is there anything about this job I should know?” I asked him on the way over.

“Stack from the back of the trailer to the front,” he said. “And just do your best to keep up.”

I honestly had no idea what I was in for. Collecting bales involves my standing in the trailer while Dad pulls it with the tractor, which is equipped with a device that gathers the hay up and then catapults tied bales into the trailer. As I stood there holding onto the gate, the trailer rocking back and forth as we crossed the uneven terrain of the field, hay bales flew through the air. After about twenty minutes, I had such bad motion sickness that I had to get out of the trailer and walk. “I’ll pick up any bales that fall out,” I said, feeling fairly useless. Without me in the back, the hay bales still flew through the air and landed in the tractor; they just made a haphazard pattern, whereas previously I had been stacking them neatly.

As I walked through the field, sipped water, and tried to get my sense of equilibrium back, I reflected that I’d probably have either nightmares or a very mild case of post-traumatic stress syndrome from the experience of standing in the rocking tractor while hay bales catapulted toward me. It’s like an amusement park ride for the masochistic, I mused. Try to balance and not get sick while also being really scared by heavy objects flying through the air.

According to my father, my brother-in-law can do this same job while singing and dancing in the back of the trailer. That’s impressive, but we all have our strengths. I had to concede this wasn’t one of mine. Dad was understanding and said it didn’t really matter if the bales didn’t get stacked geometrically, though it didn’t help things any when I then backed the truck up to the trailer too fast and put a crease in the bumper.

All of that notwithstanding, it was good to be working outside for a change. As a writer, I spend far too much time sitting still peering at my screen. Trauma aside, getting outdoors on a hot sunny day to do something productive is a good idea. And I’m willing to try it again, this time knowing that balancing in the back of a rocking trailer while hay bales seem to hail down from the sky is just a normal part of the job.

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