Each weekday morning when Judy’s getting her 96-straight hours of EPOCH at Roper, I pull into the Doughty Street Parking Lot around 7, just when the hospital staff switches from day to night shift. As I cross Doughty on foot, Judy’s morning paper in hand, I work against the oncoming pedestrian traffic of off-duty nurses, technicians, engineers, many in their uniforms. Nurses in their navy blue combinations and high-priced athletic shoes seem especially happy. I see them walking in groups of three, smiling, chatting, heading to their cars. They work 3 day-12 hour shifts in a fulfilling profession; nevertheless they’re delighted at the moment to be free.
(Now, what do they do? Devour a delicious breakfast and slurp down a bloody mary before drifting off in front of the Today Show?)
Going with my flow, the on-coming staff marches in, but, even though they seem relatively eager to start work, their affect isn’t nearly as upbeat as their departing colleagues. Then again, we aint talking all doctors and nurses here. Some of these people’s jobs don’t seem fulfilling at all, like those men awkwardly manipulating box-stacked carts into narrow elevators, like those cafeteria workers breathing for hours the odor of hospital food, like the crew out front dealing with valet parking.
Their minutes probably crawl by.
Of course, I’m on the way to work myself to shift through dozens of emails before advisory, and if I’m brave enough, to peek at the day’s school calendar, an absurd, way-too-busy color-coded chart of lines and rectangles that look as if they could be the work of MC Escher. We ride a rotating schedule – either Week A or Week B — and when I arrive at work on a Friday morning, people often greet me with the salutation “Happy Friday” or comment sunnily “it’s Friday.” Some time during the day I’ll receive an email inviting me to a “happy hour” in some conveniently located spirit-stocked decompression chamber.
Mythically speaking, labor is one of Adam’s curses, punishment for his uxoriousness, his casting his lot with Eve instead of Yahweh, which brought death into the world and all our woe, e.g. work — in Adam’s case tilling “cursed ground” that produces “thorns and thistles” — in my case dealing with an educational agenda that might be likened to a jewel box of tangled necklaces — academics, sports, service, chapels, assemblies, advisories, peer reviews, study halls. Or think of circus clowns, not leaving a car one after another after another, but entering a car one after another after another.
Actually, I interpret the Eden myth as a story about the shift from hunting/gathering to agriculture, the shift from running around half naked to the natural pulse of the earth’s heartbeat to our settling down to the soul-crushing repetitiveness of the punch clock. Thus, the knowledge of good and evil becomes the knowledge of how to cultivate plants from seeds, which many scholars believe was a discovery made by women, the gatherers of edible plants. And, of course, settled communities brought us the establishment of property and its evil twin poverty. I maintain that Amazonian tribespeople untouched by Western civilization live more meaningful lives than the average American who watches five hours of TV a day.
There’s a cool Philip Larkin poem about what a bitch work is called “Toads.” It goes like this:
Why should I let the toad work
Squat on my life?
Can’t I use my wit as a pitchfork
and drive the brute off?
Six days of the week it soils
With its sickening poison-
Just for paying a few bills!
That’s out of proportion.
Lots of folk live on their wits:
Losels, loblolly-men, louts-
They don’t end as paupers;
Lots of folk live up lanes
With fires in a bucket,
Eat windfalls and tinned sardines-
They seem to like it.
Their nippers have got bare feet,
Their unspeakable wives
Are skinny as whippets-and yet
No one actually starves.
Ah, were I courageous enough
To shout Stuff your pension!
But I know, all too well, that’s the stuff
That dreams are made on:
For something sufficiently toad-like
Squats in me, too;
Its hunkers are heavy as hard luck,
And cold as snow,
And will never allow me to blarney
My way to getting
The fame and the girl and the money
All at one sitting.
I don’t say, one bodies the other
One’s spiritual truth;
But I do say it’s hard to lose either,
When you have both.
I’m with you, Philip. After listening to my litany yesterday about how frustrating teaching has become in the age of technology, a colleague asked me why didn’t I retire. A reasonable question given the frustrations I had just catalogued – parents having access to the grades I post on the website, shooting me emails that proliferate like mushrooms while I’m bouncing from meetings to covering detentions or contacting the help desk because the projection wire in one of the rooms where I teach doesn’t work.
Why don’t I retire? Because I don’t want to. I eventually get bored in the summers if I’m not traveling or working on a project. I like interacting with students, instructing them about the bane of unnecessary linking verbs and the sloppiness of the “naked this” — not to mention the fun introducing them to the Wife of Bath or riding with them up the Congo with Marlow as we steam towards Mistah Kurtz.
It’s like what Camus says in “The Myth of Sisyphus.” –
I leave Sisyphus at the foot of the mountain! One always finds one’s burden again. But Sisyphus teaches the higher fidelity that negates the gods and raises rocks. He too concludes that all is well. This universe henceforth without a master seems to him neither sterile nor futile. Each atom of that stone, each mineral flake of that night filled mountain, in itself forms a world. The struggle itself toward the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy.