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Landscape in Provence, Paul Cézanne, 1900

The Wisdom in Swiss Roadwork

Years ago, as I was cycling through the Swiss Alps, I had time to observe the local goings-on while riding uphill for what could be a dozen kilometers in one go. Because I was hauling 20 kilos of pack, I had to grind slowly up these stretches in a tiny granny gear.

On more than one occasion, I passed through public works: the road, bridge, and tunnel repairs necessary at all times in a region of moving tectonic plates and constant water drainage from glaciers, fast rivers, and weather. One day, on my way toward a pass to Italy in the far south of the country, I passed a roadwork, initially unassuming, the tableau of which etched itself more and more deeply into my mind over the years. The project was being done right. Across time, my understanding of that tableau evolved into a sort of guiding philosophy.

What I found there along the way was a partially completed project, a piece of road fallen off during a winter storm being put back together in the fair months. I was struck by how tidy the worksite was. It was late afternoon, and the crew had gone home for the day. But their tools were stacked neatly to one side, the working area, carefully fenced, the rest of the road near the project, swept off. I could even see the broom, leaning with the other tools. Not a speck was out of place.

If the crew never came back, that site would still be a work of art. It was humanity’s finest engineering, coupled with good materials, and workmanship and care that would produce a magnificent repair. But the site was also beautiful in its own right. Just as it was. Partially done.

If archeologists found it 20,000 years from now, buried like Pompeii, they would know just what was going on. It was a perfect fingerprint of human intelligence in the 1980s: what is and what will be both contained in the very same spot, the conception and the execution, frozen midway.

Meditating on these thoughts over the years, I have considered aspects of craftsmanship, owner’s pride, art, and legacy illustrated by this tableau. In Switzerland at the time, most public works jobs were filled by locals. The Swiss were wary of “guest-worker” populations and preferred to do as much as they could themselves. Thus, the crews took a kind of ownership of their projects and applied as much craftsmanship as possible to the work. The process of doing and redoing something until it’s right is like art: there is the concept and the execution. The concept is noble and perfect, but human hands and media are not, and there is a continuous struggle to bring the work as close as possible to the conception. The way this all relates to legacy is that if the crew never came back, another crew could come out and see exactly what had been and what yet needed to be done. It would also observe the care with which the work was being managed and might take on a reverence for the project similar to that of the original crew.

These thoughts expanded in time to encompass other domains, leaving me with a kind of adage: if you can’t finish a project in one sitting, leave it in a state that bespeaks your respect for the enterprise, tidied up and ready for the next step. That way, even if it is never completed, it’s still art. Think of sketches by van Gogh, Monet, or Cézanne. Some of them fetch huge prices at auction today.

Even more broadly, this adage can apply to life decisions. For example, I’m on the cusp of retirement now and looking at up to another two decades of life. I’d like to plan for that period, but can’t entirely because the grim reaper has not revealed his hand. But I need to make financial decisions anyway. The observant among you might have noticed that the stock market has become somewhat unreliable. The banks don’t yield interest. Even Social Security’s future is in doubt.

Facing this degree of uncertainty, I decided to buy an investment property. It was occupied for the past five years by an old woman who for the most part stopped maintaining it. I have been spending time bringing the exterior back up to snuff. If I never do anything with the house itself, I could sell it for more than I paid for it. If I invest in updating it, I can get even more for it. If I begin to invest and need to sell it before the project is done, it will still be worth more than if I’d done nothing at all, the work being partially completed and the plans pointing a clear direction for completion.

Thus, I can aim for an end goal, but unwind my position at any point along the way and still be okay. All taken, this web of interrelated knowledge seems like a big win for simply pedaling by a Swiss worksite late one afternoon.

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Technology Analyst

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