Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Meditation on Work

I grew up hating work. My father placed a very high value on work, but I grew up absolutely despising it. This had nothing to do with rebelling against my father because that’s what children, adolescents especially, are somehow required to do. My loathing of work had nothing to do with rebellion. I simply hated it. But here’s the other peculiar side to the equation: I’m not lazy. Quite the contrary. Given an activity I enjoy, I will immerse myself in it utterly and go until I drop from fatigue. Then get up and look forward to more immersion. For me, this activity is writing. But is writing work, or a form of play?
Writing is work, and play. There is no reason why it can’t be both.
I’ve long suspected myself of being a spoiled, sybaritic aesthete with a contrary set of aristocratic tastes and attitudes. I don’t deny this. How such a mindset developed in a middle class household is a mystery to me. I sometimes wonder if we aren’t invested with the personas of former people rather than a genetic expression of our ancestry.
Work I tend to despise is usually of the dreary, monotonous variety. Mainly the kind of work I had to do in order to make a living, pay rent and buy food and clothing. It was entirely menial, janitorial, bussing tables, mowing lawns, and finally sorting and running mail for a university mailing service. The reason I got stuck with this menial grind is due to the fact I never rose academically beyond a bachelor’s degree in English. A friend tells me the employees for the Boeing employment service used to laugh whenever they received applications from English majors. I was advised by more than one friend to omit my degree from job applications.
Had I continued academically and achieved a master’s degree I may well have been able to secure a position teaching at a community college, at least, if not at the fully fledged university level. This has been a lifelong regret.
But I also need to remind myself of the dangers to a writer in securing a higher academic degree. A certain language must be learned, a certain framework and terminology, a brittleness, a mindset deleterious to creativity is very much to be feared. I’ve seen the best minds of my generation destroyed by dullness, by academic pomposity and stuffiness. The jargon they had to learn, the social posturing that had to be maintained, sucked the blood right out of their creative noggins and left a bone-dry skull with two hungry eyeballs staring out as if in a stupor.
For many years I entertained the ambition of becoming a writer whose books sold sufficiently to provide an income, if not outright wealth. I saw it happen to writers whose work was eccentric and wild and full of life and humor. Jack Kerouac, William Burroughs, Tom Robbins, Richard Brautigan all wrote wildly original material and their books sold robustly, into the millions. It was a credible ambition. That is, until the early 80s, when the book publishing industry in the United States became obsessed with profit at the expense of quality. The old style editors who took the time and made the risks to put vital, original writing into the public sphere no matter the cost, disappeared. The newer editors merely wanted to publish celebrities and teenage romance novels. Anything for a buck. Quality writing was for the small presses.
There is also the social aspect of work, the humiliation, submission, bullying and injuries to one’s self-esteem that occur in a competitive workplace. Thrust a number of individuals together in a confined area and make them work as a team is a recipe for a high degree of toxicity. Some people are better equipped to adapt to social environments than others. Levels of competency differ. Levels of work intensity differ. Efficiency, motivation and amiability are subjective, and consequently cannot be manufactured or quantified. Some personalities are very easy to be around, others are thorny and problematical, thin-skinned, adversarial, combative.
You can get a boss who’s a total sadist, a bully who likes exerting his or her power. We often don’t have a choice over these things. Psychotherapists glibly tell us that while we can’t control our environment, we can choose how to adapt to it. Problem solved.
Work is not pleasant. Genesis in the Old Testament tells us it was Adam’s fault. It’s thanks to his transgression and eating the apple he was told not to eat that got us all into trouble.
Because you have listened to your wife
and have eaten from the tree which I forbade you,
accursed shall be the ground on your account.
With labour you shall win your food from it
all the days of your life.
It will grow thorns and thistles for you,
none but wild plants for you to eat.
You shall gain your bread by the sweat of your brow
until you return to the ground;
for from it you were taken.
Dust you are, to dust you shall return. 

No more free lunches. As soon as God booted Adam and Eve out of the garden, they should have got busy and formed a union. 
There is a marvelous stoicism that is fully evident among the Lutherans and Presbyterians of the Midwestern plains, and it is there that my father learned his attitude toward work, an attitude that was partly resignation and partly celebration. My father’s parents, my grandmother, grandfather (who died when I was only seven and really didn’t get to know) and my granduncle worked a farm in North Dakota. You can’t take a vacation from cows. They had to get up at four in the morning seven days a week to milk the cows in often subzero temperatures in an old wooden barn full of drafts and straw. I respect this. But I do not share it.  

I can’t say exactly when the fever of poetry struck, but whenever or however it happened, my relationship to the Protestant Work Ethic changed radically. I devoted myself to the more hedonistic work ethic of the French symbolists, which insisted on liberal amounts of leisure in an endeavor to coax inspiration into the room, to awaken the muse from her slumber and ingratiate her charms with the wine of idleness. Pulling on a quadruped’s teats in subzero temperatures do not necessarily induce supernatural agencies to make one’s fingers nimble with genius. Although it does help considerably to put food on the table.

I mock my frivolous impulses, but it’s true when I say that I am not lazy. I enjoy losing myself in work. But it must be work I enjoy, and the work I enjoy does not, alas, result in products that the public wants. The public does not want poetry. Even poets do not want poetry. Poets want the poetry of dead poets. This is poetry that they can learn from. It is not poetry that they have to compete with. The dead do not require  -  nor receive  -  awards and grants. Their reward is in the heavens. Their fellowship is in the afterlife. Poets are not hungry for the work of their living friends and colleagues. This is competition. There is little offered at the Table of Poetry. Everyone has to grub aggressively for their meal at that table. If a colleague gets shoved from the bench and tumbles to the floor, so much the better: that potato’s mine!  

There are other forms of work aside from employment, chores at home, laundry, cooking, dishes to wash, cat litter box that needs cleaning, repairs made, walls painted, molding caulked in the windows. This is tedious work, but pleasures can be found in it. It can become a form of meditation. It can be an occasion to let your mind drift, or an occasion to make discoveries about everyday objects, their symmetries and shapes, powers and functions. The texture of a towel, the polish of a plate, the tines of a fork, the curvature of a spoon, can all be objects of fascination while performing a mundane task. It’s possible to fall in love with a hammer. It’s possible to have a romance with a feather duster. It’s possible to enjoy a conversation with a mop, or tango with a broom. We see how water works to dissolve goop, how a sander can make a piece of wood smooth as glass, how a pair of pliers can sheath and crimp wires or extract a bent nail.  

I’ve installed sinks and built fences and once even changed the starter on a car. But I never worked at anything long enough to develop what you could call a skill, a marketable skill. I’ve always envied people who had skills to bring to the marketplace. That’s where it’s at. Office work is deadening. I would hate to sit in a cubicle all day à la Dilbert. That’s hellish. But to be a lawyer, to argue a case in a courtroom, or be a doctor and heal someone of a crippling disease must be one of the greatest feelings there is to be had in life. I’d be glad just to be able to get somebody’s car up and running. As it is, I have to be content with the one skill I have, which (apart from avoiding work I don’t like), is to invent devices with words that do nothing but spit fire, throw sparks, and dazzle the intellect with clouds of reverie.


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