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Many TV commercials tell us to tolerate our jobs and live for weekends. Nineteenth-century Boston pastor Phillips Brooks, though, wrote about the importance of enjoying work, “the actual doing of it, and not only in its idea. No man to whom the details of his task are repulsive can do his task well constantly, however full he may be of its spirit. He may make one bold dash at it and carry it over all his disgusts, but he cannot work on at it year after year.”
How do people find work they enjoy? Sometimes they have a breakthrough. Sometimes they have to endure years of frustration before they see the way to go. As we move toward Sept. 2, Labor Day, here are (in ascending order of age) five stories of people in one small city—Asheville, N.C.—who like what they do.
Artist Daniel McClendon, 28, lay in bed agonizing over his future. At 4 a.m. on March 21, 2011, something clicked: That night, in the face of personal failure and a belief that we live in a chaotic world, McClendon decided to express himself through abstract art.
McClendon grew up in Michigan, gained an arts education, but produced realist paintings he came to believe were “fraudulent,” without personal meaning. Two years after moving to Asheville, N.C., two months after getting married, he quit painting. He felt he was failing, “and no one likes to fail. I felt a little lost when I decided to quit.”
He searched for five months for a creative process that was his own, not someone else’s. He always came back to painting, and after his long night two years ago, started splattering, drizzling, and globbing black paint on prepared, white planks. When the black paint dried, he visualized an animal and, with a pallet knife and rubber-tipped brush, scraped on oil paint.
He’s continued to do that, finishing each painting in a session ranging from 45 minutes to 12 hours. He says the process “parallels who I am. … The mistakes, the little flaws, or however you want to look at them … those things make us different, make us unique.”
He didn’t know if his new paintings would sell, but more than 50 of them have. To remember the night he found his spark again, McClendon framed the paper on which he wrote down his idea to go abstract and convey a feeling of looseness but intensity.
In 2008 Beth Schaible, 28, moved to North Carolina to take classes at Penland Crafts School, all the while looking to buy a letterpress she could afford. Letterpress printing is a tedious process that infuses ink into tiny hand-carved plates and blocks that are then rolled onto a traditional printing press to create unique stationery and artwork. Schaible had grown to love seeing the print press into the paper. She loved the smell of ink.
It took four years of searching—but Schaible finally found a rusty press that was falling apart in the back of a building. Schaible took the two-ton press apart, refurbished it, and put it all back together. In that way, she taught herself how the press worked and how to fix it. She opened her shop, Quill and Arrow, in Asheville last year.
She quickly learned that being a small-business owner required a difficult set of skills: “In art school, they pretend like they teach you about business things,” she said, but managing a business in the real world was more difficult than she expected. Paperwork, taxes, and licensing stressed Schaible out. She finally hired an accountant to take over some tasks: “I could have tried to learn about [business] things for forever and the timing would have never been right. At some point, you just have to do it and learn as you go.”
Her ideal dream is to have an assistant who handles business details. For now, she tries to stay organized with paperwork so that she can tackle it when she has time: “On the press, I pull prints and think, ‘Oh yeah, this is what I love.’”
Hungarian immigrant Melinda Vetro, 42, with a son to support and no money, looked forward to her first paycheck in 16 years—until she opened the envelope. With 20 years of baking experience, she had made only $600 in two weeks serving seniors at a retirement home.
It was a hard time for Vetro, who grew up in Hungary baking on a child-sized wooden table next to her grandmother. She wanted a better life, and when Zortan Vetro offered her a free ticket to America, she emigrated and married him in 1992. Her new husband told her his idea of opening a small bakery and coffee shop: She would bake and he would manage everything else. The two moved to Asheville and eventually found a good location downtown.
Every day for the next 12 years, Vetro woke up at 6 a.m. and didn’t fall into bed until 11 p.m. Money rolled in. They expanded and purchased a house on a golf course with a pool—but the economy tanked soon after. The couple tried to refinance their loans, but in 2009 they lost their business, and their marriage fell apart. Depressed, Vetro stayed at home for a year living off money from her ex-husband, then took the poor-paying retirement home job.
But then she examined her paycheck and decided, whatever it took, to reopen her own bakery. She would be her own boss again. She sold her luxury car and jewelry, and begged loans from friends and banks. She started up her new business two years ago, now has a manager and a full-time pastry chef, and loves to bake: “Isn’t it a good thing that a customer could come in and have a warm cookie?”
While Lori Woods, 45, was volunteering at the school her two sons attended, someone told her she should volunteer at New City Christian School, formed to help minority children falling through the large cracks in the public school system.
That suggestion changed her life. She loved New City and eventually became principal. Now, with her black hair tightly pulled back into a bun, she exudes an air of authority. Her sharp, amber eyes seemed to see everything. Woods talks about the school’s primary mission: reaching the “under-resourced” kids in the city: “I want them to get a sense of God’s purpose in their lives. If we can do that and help them academically, then we’ve done a lot.”
With two sons, 21 and 18, Woods applies her mothering skills to a new—and much larger—set of children with more needs. Some students struggle academically, others come from rough backgrounds. Between requests to pass the crayons a little girl mentioned, “I was on TV once—that was when my daddy died.” Woods combines academic learning with spiritual lessons to help the students grow: “I say I have 58 little babies,” she said. “I can hopefully influence them for Christ, that’s the bottom line.”
The school meets in a small Baptist church. Backpacks hang underneath colorful handprints in the corridor, waiting for students who should have left already. Students tell stories of how Woods prays with them about family and academic problems. Others talked about kindness when they were in trouble. One girl who had skinned her knee shrugged and said, “She said that everything was going to be okay … I feel safe around her.”
Tyrone Phillips, 54, uses his wildlife knowledge to protect people and animals. For the past 10 years the state-certified Animal Damage Control agent has gone from property to property removing, trapping, or killing damage-causing wildlife: “I evaluate the property to see if there is a way for them to coexist without me having to use trapping or killing.” He says people and animals can coexist if the people remove birdfeeders and trash that attract mice, bats, woodchucks, coyotes, and snakes.
Wearing jean shorts, utility belt, and full beard, Phillips slaps on a pair of gloves, hefts a ladder over his shoulder, climbs 20 feet to the ceiling, and seals off any cracks and holes that provide entry to defecating bats. Bat removal is a frequent job for Phillips, but not a job he does every day. At other times he throws open the covering of a customer’s grill and removes a possum with his bare hands. Or, he might snatch a snake off a hot water heater before it realizes he’s there. On one job Phillips had to trap and kill two parasite-ridden foxes to end their incurable misery.
Phillips also catches skunks. He clearly announces his presence to the skunk by loudly entering the room. Next, he places a cage three feet from the skunk and chats with the skunk as if it were a puppy. He scrunches his finger to attract the interest of the naturally dim-eyed skunk, using its poor sight to his advantage. Seconds later, he walks out with a full cage as onlookers stare with dropped jaws. He also keeps a fake one in his black, equipment-packed Chevy truck to pull a squeal out of his passengers and give himself a laugh or two.
—Rachel Aldrich, Andrew Branch, Graham Gettel, Alissa Robertson, and Aimee Stauf wrote these vignettes as World Journalism Institute students