A different gesture for the road crew
Jobs not held in high esteem are often the ones that keep the country running.
Portland, Ore. — There's road repair activity going on around my neighborhood right now, and one of my personal rules is this: Never yell or make rude gestures toward the workers who are digging trenches, spreading gravel, and directing the flow of traffic with their "Slow/Stop" signs.
Those people are easy targets for insults from passing drivers. I see it happen with unpleasant frequency.
When you're stuck in a line of cars waiting for the signal to proceed, do you feel any sympathy for the road crew? Or is it now customary to just assume they're a bunch of no-talent boneheads who can barely line up the orange cones?
Every year at this time, as high schools and colleges send more graduates into the arena of daily employment, we hear lots of discussion from pundits and politicians trumpeting the importance of seeking and finding "good, high-paying jobs."
In a utopian world, all diplomas would come with a contract printed on the back, guaranteeing the recipient a successful career in high-tech, law, finance, or some other lucrative, prestigious field.
But the real marketplace of jobs is vast and diverse. Unfortunately, many Americans these days choose a worldview that divides society into winners and losers. Winners are celebrated and admired. Some of them end up getting their own TV shows. We all love winners.
The problem with this viewpoint is that huge numbers of bright, motivated adults aren't trying to become rich celebrities, and many of them are doing work that keeps Main Street, USA, in daily operation. The ones helping me navigate each day are certainly not losers.
Whenever I'm invited to speak to a classroom, I always tell students this: Look at your fellow citizens everywhere. Consider how many of them are holding jobs that affect your own life. And don't act superior to someone just because he or she happens to be earning money as a clerk, letter carrier, house painter, or other unglamorous occupation. Make these people your allies.
I'm always building alliances. David is a great example. He's my "go-to" guy at the bank. When a problem requires paperwork or other official action, his desk is where everything gets straightened out.
The same alliance exists with Bruce, my electrician, and Terry, my contractor, who, just by chance, noticed the garage roof was about to cave in a few years back and quickly scheduled time to install a corrective beam.
Whenever I used to visit my daughter's elementary school, I looked at all the children on the playground and thought, "Who among this crowd will grow up to be the person climbing a utility pole to make repairs during a frigid rainstorm?" Does that question ever come up on career day?
No one can be sure what lies ahead on the road into the future. But a lot of people are doing a great job helping me avoid potholes along the way. I wish I could give all of them a big raise.
• Jeffrey Shaffer writes about media, American culture, and personal history.