Put Your Head Down and Work

One of my first jobs out of college was at a busy, local bike shop. It was 2009, so my humanities degrees were useless in the already bankrupt Chicago labor market. But the bike shop was a happy medium. It paid well, the customers were (mostly) cool, and the discounts were steep. Outside of the university, sandwich shop, and non-profit jobs I held during college, my years with the bike shop were my first real introduction to “work” in Chicago. That particular psychology of labor—a byproduct of capitalist economics—constituting the careerist spirit of ‘The City That Works.’ I didn’t realize it at the time, but we had a running joke in the shop that I think served as dictum for this psychology: “Put your head down and work.” Which is what we would say—jokingly-but-not-jokingly—when things got hectic. Us shop hands would complain under our breath at the weekend busyness, or the stupidity of that new money yuppie couple in the corner. Then someone would say, “put your head down and work.” We’d laugh, but then we’d actually put our heads down, and we’d work. And stop complaining, and stop joking around.

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Natural Theater, or, the Very Large Array

Yesterday I took a few-hour jaunt out of T or C to the Very Large Array, the, uh, very large radio telescope/observatory roughly fifty miles west of Socoro, New Mexico—notable only because once you’re past Socoro, there’s nothing but mountains, fields, and a gradual elevation climb to 7,000 feet above sea level. Every five or ten minutes I’d see another car on the road, but otherwise, the only signs of life are endless acres of shrubby trees tended by sleepy herds of roaming cattle. But even in its seeming remoteness, the landscape is far from bleak. Instead, it emanates an unfamiliar, palatial sentience. Not merely a backdrop, but a conscious presence. Waterlogged storm clouds combed the sky, washing the roads with fat raindrops. Lightning flashed, occasionally scorching the ground just a few car lengths away. But in the distance, the hot, white light of the desert sun pierced through the gray dimness of the squall, as a broad performance of natural theater. And no better stage than the vast plains that once were the floor Lake San Agustin, an ancient, Pleistocene expanse.

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