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Visible Effort As A Failure
Women's work is expected to remain under the surface
Last week, we talked about creating an illusion of effortlessness, a job that often falls to professional magicians… and anyone engaged in women’s work. Next week, I’ll share excerpts from our discussion of when children and women are treated as “defective adults.”
I liked this comment from Kerri, on discovering all the effort lurking under the surface when you take on a task yourself:
My grandmother's home was always a restful, nourishing haven, the kind of place you step into and sigh and all your worries melt away because Grandma is there and she's taken care to have your favorite treats and will always listen. Part of the effect was that it was spotlessly clean and designed with her artistic eye for interior decorating. I never realized how much hard work and skill went into that effortless-feeling space until I made a home for my own family.
And speaking of invisible effort, these emails always go out with fairly clean copy because my husband, Alexi, proofs them before I hit send. (Errors are usually the result of me ignoring a note because I have strong aesthetic feelings about when punctuation goes inside or outside of parentheses).
When he read last week’s installment, he sent me typos to fix, and this thoughtful note:
Effort and pain are different, though both can be part of what underlies seeming magic. There can be a dignity to effort, but injustice can come when pain is the hidden driver of the magic. A lot of industries (Hollywood, theater, video games…) spill over from demanding effort to exploiting pain in producing their magic. How can we be on guard for this?
I so appreciated this question, since I do often assume hidden work is exploited work. It’s hard to give the benefit of the doubt, when that’s so often the case.
I see something of a counter-example in the reality shows and cooking videos that put the spotlight on process and technique. I like watching The Great British Bake Off and seeing the careful work people put into food that will ultimately vanish into stomachs.
For another positive example, I loved this observation by Mark on where he encounters titanic effort, presented as though it were easy.
It reminded me of high school musicals, when we spent half a year preparing to entertain people eight times over two weekends. And then we still needed a week or so to strike the sets.
Katie passed on a fascinating book recommendation and a way of seeing the world. I’m telescoping her comment a little—please consider clicking through to read it in full.
When I think about working to see the effort (of others) that underlies a convenience for me, my mind goes to the essays in Movement Matters by Katy Bowman. As a biomechanist, she often focuses on the ways that we in our sedentary U.S. culture choose to outsource *physical movement* to others—and then become so dependent on that outsourcing that the very way we move our bodies becomes optional; or artificial; or insufficient to wellness and physical function. Particularly, the movements it takes to sustain our accustomed way of living start to seem magical to those of us who never perform them.
She has challenged me to consider: what movements have we forfeited or pushed off to others? She gives the examples of vehicle key remotes and tea bags. We trade the extra effort involved—walking around the car to open the door, turning our wrist to unlock; scooping loose tea and washing the infuser—for an increase in garbage (the tea bag wrapper in a landfill, the tiny staple into the compost and into the soil) and extraction (mining materials for a computer-chip fob, the menial labor of those halfway around the globe who subsist within that extractive cycle).
So in KB's framework, we're called to realize that literally moving our bodies is not merely elective (as in exercise or recreation or certain jobs and hobbies), but it's also the source of the "magic"—nothing gets made or found or shared or manufactured or disposed of without the physical movements of humans, somewhere along the line.
Finally, I want to recommend this extraordinary piece from the NYT on magician David Berglas. It’s hard for a newspaper article to give you the breath-stopping feeling of seeing close-up magic performed, but reporter David Segal pulls it off.