It was our dog’s house, a great bush heavy with white flowers and the droning of big old bumblebees. Its branches cascaded over, forming a dog-sized cave with a floor of finely powdered dirt. It was also my retreat when the pressures of being ten years old drove me from the house, slamming the screen door and declaring to the world, “All I want to be is a dirty, old, nice, stinking dog.” Life was too complex to endure. So I’d crawl under the bush, curl into the fetal position, venturing one lone hand out to stroke the silky dirt into piles.
That was twenty years ago. In between is growing up. Learn, go out and see the world. No more hiding in the bushes by Mom’s kitchen window. Go east and further east.
The night was late, the tradition Vedic, as my teacher quietly gave parting instructions. “Now great men will come and sit with you to learn. And don’t think ‘I’m just a little girl.’ You have the knowledge that can end all suffering.”
I’d learned to teach transcending, how to find the Self within, in meditation deep and clean.
“We can only play the part intended us and whisper it to others.”
It was easy to dismiss his words. There were others in the room. Surely he spoke to them. I was just a kid from the cornfields. And besides, I didn’t seek responsibility so much as simple knowledge. But knowledge is responsible and a master’s words will prove themselves. Life did not go as planned.
There were ambassadors and presidents, Nobel laureates, rock and movie stars. There were also children, little old ladies and men burned out at fifty. The years went by quickly. The knowledge flowed out seemingly on its own. There came a strength and pride, but finally I shook my head. The distance between worlds on this one planet made me reel in disbelief. So I settled down in Georgia. I like its feel beneath me. There is a sanity in soil, the softness of the clay.
It’s here I met the mutt. I saw him trotting down the street one morning in the sunshine. I think he heard banjo picking in his head. And the simple-minded self-satisfaction made me burst out laughing. Just where did he think he was going? He had no appointments to keep, no deals to firm up, no millions to make, nor lives to save.
Only later did I realize the rarity of his radiance. Investigate the fire hydrant, then on to the Dempsey dumpster. If you act with Nature flowing through you, you can bless all Creation. Suddenly few men seemed as enlightened as that dog.
Astronomers explain that space is curved, finite yet unbounded. If you travel long enough, always going out ahead, you’ll eventually return to where you started. My life has done the same. But now my eyes are open.
A smile comes. Childish wish or prophecy, I’ve become a mutt. In fact that is my job. Be a mutt with time to read, to study in the shade, or write into the night. The teaching’s passed no longer in the flash, but in a gathered silence. This is the part intended me.
The highest salary paid in the U.S. in 1978, according to a Business Week survey, was $2,037,000, to David Mahony, Chairman of Norton Simon, Inc. That’s $39,173 a week — or, for a forty-hour week, nearly $1,000 an hour.
I am not a workaholic. I don’t go out seeking work. And I’m as inclined to dodge piddly work as anyone else. But give me something I can do well and a sense of urgency about doing it and I go mad. The assignment is the kick-off. Perhaps workomania is my disease. I work and work and pull things off for impossible deadlines with some grace and a minimum of blunders. I gobble the project up and juggle ten things at once without ever turning bitch on my co-workers. I come in early, work through lunch, and stay late when I have a hot project. Afterwards I fizzle.
Why do I do it? I have no real desire to hold down a job, let alone pursue a career. I wouldn’t do it if I didn’t have to. That wouldn’t make sense. Time is too valuable. But since I need the cash anyway, I can’t see doing coolie work if I can do something more rewarding. (Years of coolie work have taught me this.) But why this obsession with getting projects done promptly and well against all odds? Why do I risk everything else for it? For acclaim? No. I rely less and less on the values of others. The extent of my reliance on external judgments is that when people think well of your work, they leave you alone and allow you to function. Period. I never was a dutiful schoolgirl. I always was a doer, a producer.
It has something to do with self-respect. And that strange mixture of blue-collar values with degrees. And it has a whole lot to do with my perception of mediocrity in the institutional world. Let everyone else schlep along — not me. I feel compelled to make my own little improvement even if it goes unnoticed, and even if massive effort was made necessary by some corporate schmuck’s foolish promise of too-soon delivery time to a client. It is a matter of ethics. And civilization.
But here’s the rub. I earn my living as a writer of technical manuscripts. I like what I do. But I write snide, itchy poems as well, and stories, too — but too few of either. And the rough draft of an audacious novel sits in my desk drawer whimpering for attention. And here I am, taking my grand/silly stand, spewing out prose, good prose, about the relationship of the operations variable to price and how to achieve system recovery after a CPU failure: words, words upon words, with few left for anything else but elaborate nonsense such as this. I cling to the belief that my own work comes first, but the sensation of urgency just isn’t there. Perhaps a health scare would help.
Jean Kearns Brown
I make my living in advertising.
Mostly I write advertising copy. Which means I write a lot of short, choppy sentences. Like this.
That’s basic copywriting style, by the way. Like peanut brittle, ad copy works best when broken into fragments.
One-line paragraphs are nice too.
At one time, advertising was a much more wordy business. And a lot less sophisticated.
Take the George Washington Hill school of advertising.
Hill was a Durham native, the head of the American Tobacco Company. One day he was dissatisfied with a bunch of advertising ideas that were submitted to him. So he hocked up a wad of phlegm and spat an oyster, right on the shiny corporate conference table.
“See that?” he said. “You may not like it, but you won’t forget it. That’s how I want my advertising to work.”
So to George Washington Hill, and others like him, we owe our nation’s hatred of advertising you just wish you could forget.
Advertising matured as an art in the early Sixties, when those wonderful Volkswagen ads came along. Like the product, the ads were simple and straightforward. They made an impression without leaving bruises.
This was the “creative” school of advertising. After its style became fashionable, some healthy fundamentalist caution developed, best expressed by the new slogan of Benton & Bowles, the Brooks Brothers of advertising agencies: “It’s not creative unless it sells.”
This may sound like a harsh way to judge an art, but I’d rather motivate a customer than please a critic. Just how do you motivate a customer?
The first impulse in advertising, as in all human life, is to argue. But think: how often, even when you make a perfect case, do you win an argument? To argue is to take sides, and it is human nature not to yield a side once taken. If you want a customer to side with your product, don’t start an argument. Some people think advertising motivates by brainwashing. But advertising is not in the business of changing people’s minds. It is in the business of opening people’s minds. That’s what makes advertising an art.
An art, I submit, speaks to the heart as well as the head. A mind that says “ouch” to bombast and “no”to argument will say “aha” to art.
“Aha” is the response advertising looks for. Basically, products sell themselves. Advertising just opens people’s hearts to a product.
The heart is the key. While reason and logic have seats on the mental board of directors, it is feelings that usually cast the deciding votes.
In fact, a lot of what we call thinking is just the noise our minds make while adjusting thoughts to suit feelings.
This doesn’t mean that good advertising makes a purely emotional case, but that advertising appreciates the way the mind operates.
It can be very hard to exercise that appreciation, however, when you’ve got payroll and salesmen and product development to worry about.
That’s why ad agencies exist, so the clients can work on other things, like making the products worth buying.
The interpersonal chemistry, both creative and procedural, inside an ad agency, is fascinating. Good ideas are amplified by other good ideas, refined by other viewpoints, and focused by collective purpose.
The result is usually better advertising, and therefore better results, than a company can get on its own.
It’s this “team art” that I like best about being part of an ad agency. It’s like playing one of your better team sports, or playing in a good jazz band.
My major work is my writing. It took me 20 years, until I was 30, to be sure of that. And of my writing, I take my diary most seriously.
But I don’t earn my living by my writing. I give it prime time — two to three hours a day — but I may never receive money for it. Nevertheless, to preserve this kind ot time, I am staying with flexible, part-time jobs that permit me to do them when and where I like — at home, afternoons, evenings, weekends.
I live very simply as a result. I’m not spending on clothes much beyond the Thrift Store. No cigarette money needed; very little drinking or entertainment.
Communion with friends over lunch or a potluck gathering, where we share costs, keeps social spending simple. The children fret a little at the limits of the budget, but can save their allowances and/or earnings for movies, clothes, junk food — and try alternatives to my priorities.
I don’t have economic security beyond each year’s grant/job. What I do right now is to serve as coordinator for a syndicated small press review column (Home Grown Books), a job which, incidentally, grew out of many years of volunteer work. The column goes out free to 120 small town newspapers and I enjoy it, because I use my writing and editing skills, and work with writers and editors — another “work” I’m committed to doing anyway.
I also work at regular editing and publishing (Hyperion Poetry Journal and The Carolina Wren Press). The last ten years have been an exciting time to be involved with new writers, as the big New York houses were swallowed by conglomerates, and the new work was left to small, grassroots publishers like me (and THE SUN, and many others). I’m part of a movement of people dedicated to doing this work on practically no money, but mostly on the basis of pure spirit and determination. No monetary compensation there either, except indirectly, by being able to do the job I do for Home Grown Books.
My work life and my job life are satisfying because I’ve chosen them, am clear about my priorities, and am at peace with my problems (I chose them, too, like economic uncertainty). I’m doing what’s important for me to be doing. There’s never quite enough time. But also, there’s plenty of time for what you can do well, and must do, out of an inner necessity.
Chapel Hill, N.C.
The longest recorded working career in one job was that of Miss Polly Gadsby who started at the age of nine and worked 86 years wrapping elastic for the same company until she died at 95 in 1932.
Work is the expression of My Lord when he moves inside me. He says: “Love is the heart of life, go and shower My Blessings on every form that I make in my image. Be still, and from silence move the mountains, spill the rivers into the sea, touch the earth and make it blossom.”
He says: “Go out in the morning with the ships, for if they do not sail, who can cross the seas, and who will come home again to me?”
He says: “If you see the plow, bend to it, straight away, for whatever today comes your way, I long ago laid out for you to fulfill. And those who run away are but born to their fulfillment day by day until the task is done.”
When He comes on like the wind scattering the leaves before Him, I lie down and He moves me along His Road, the Highway to His Heart. And it’s such a joy, such a joy, the way He walks like a forest marching. Nothing is too vast, nor too small. He is watching over everything like a giant, and He says: “Make for me a banquet, so I can be both the Eater and the Eaten. The eyes will see it, and the ears will hear it, and when the mind is steeped in it, then the work is done, and we call it the Seventh Day — rest in motion.”
“When someone calls you, you should answer. And if someone knocks, you should open. Do this, eh? In my secret name. Yes, it’s good. When the child cries, the mother cannot rest. And even more, I cannot be still until the last one of these whom I have left here is come to me. In the dawn I will come to lift you up into the morning. See how the herbs spread into the sun, and the deer how they walk in the meadow. So you then go and perform your duty like they, for I have already cherished every step you take along the way.
“Every man is the Ruler of His Universe and every woman the Empress who stands beside Him. And every impulse of my heart is the great responsibility of their domain. Incessant are the seasons and the toil and the harvests, incessant with the impulses of my love, unending like the tides of the sea. Were I to give up working, what would become of all this? So do you go and walk into the fields every day, leaving nothing undone and nothing unattended to, and no flower unwatered there, for such is the Infinite nature of My Love, that I will come and seek you out if I cannot perceive you there. And such is the vast plain of my heart, that even if one of you is missing, I will send all the others to find you until you join this Dance. . . .”
Chapel Hill, N.C.
Work is sacred.
Not the 9 to 5 dollars and cents nonsense, but the incessant labors of love we do unmindful of remuneration. Not the tasks authority tells us to do, but the tasks our spirits move us to do. Not a thing done for profit or power or prestige, but a sacred thing done to affirm our deepest values. Not separate from play, but an appreciation and affirmation of the myriad possibilities of joy and love and playfulness. Not separate from study, but a commitment to attain knowledge. Not separate from life, but the essence of life.
Work is not jobs and positions, but callings and vocations. Work is not a right, work is a responsibility. We are responsible for using our divinely inspired talents, for protecting the earth as stewards, for respecting all life, for seeking the inner light in each other.
Work is an expression of love.
Astronomers explain that space is curved, finite yet unbounded. If you travel long enough, always going out ahead, you’ll eventually return to where you started. My life has done the same. But now my eyes are open.
I work as a nurse in a hospital clinic with people who are usually somewhat frightened and always ill or in pain. I try very hard to imagine how they conceive of what they are about to undergo. My job is to help them understand the experience and be as comfortable as possible.
We use flexible fiberoptic instruments to observe and treat problems in the digestive tract. People express fear in different ways, but fear is a normal response to the thought of such instruments entering one’s body. If the person calmly accepts what is being done, the physician can be more thorough, and the patient more comfortable.
Hospitals are formidable places, appearing on the one hand to demand that one relinquish control of one’s being, while offering hope and health on the other. We sacrifice many things in order to be recipients of all that medicine can now provide, but each patient must know that choice is not one of them. If, after hearing a thorough explanation of what we plan to do, one still feels uncertain, unclear about the need, or not up to it for any reason, one has only to say so. Where I work such a decision is not a stigma of any kind and requires no apology.
The matter of choice extends further, of course, into the realm of health philosophy and personal accountability. As a nurse, I am very much in favor of the demand for accountability at work, and as a person I believe I am accountable for my own health in areas over which I have some control: nutrition, exercise, sleep, relaxation, the deliberate ingestion or inhalation of toxins, and the ability to recognize signs of illness where possible. Each person is responsible for his own well-being, but once a person has arrived in the hospital, there is no room for “judging” in a negative sense. We are all paying, in one way or another, for our medical care, and that care is a service extended upon request or to meet a need — nothing more.
Chapel Hill, N.C.
As a psychologist I sometimes wonder if my life hasn’t gone a bit askew. Here I am employed part time as a security guard, living with a leafy tribe of vegetarians, a highly seductive striped cat, and a six-year-old female child whose chief passion in life appears to be the esoteric art of door slamming.
It wasn’t always this way. I used to wear a suit! That was in 1964 while I was an intern at a large state hospital outside of Chicago.
It was a huge place with 120 buildings housing between 6,800 and 8,400 patients. The new arrivals were kept up front, the “screamers” and the “zombies” tucked off to the side somewhere. It was truly a warehouse for human souls.
I remember when a hospital accreditation team concerned with the overcrowding on one unit ordered the removal of twenty beds. The hospital promptly complied and the beds were transferred to other units. Not the patients, just the beds.
I’m tempted to rattle off a few horror stories. Some of my experiences were bizarre enough to border upon the macabre. But in fairness the place, built in the 1800’s, was remarkably clean and well kept up. It was a hospital in transition from a strictly custodial institution, responsible only for the food, shelter, and health of the patient, to that of a psychiatric facility. This change was viewed with dark suspicion among the nursing and attending staff who felt that the professional staff came on the ward only to rile things up and then walk away, leaving the attendants to deal with the mess. In fact one of the “pranks” played upon new professionals was to ask if the psychologist or social worker would talk to a particular patient to help the aides understand him better, then introduce him to the most explosive personality on the unit to see if the “pro” could duck fast enough.
Conversely, when the ward did blow up, the professional who could jump in and help out was in a much better position to affect a change in attitude than the person who felt this to be “outside of the job description.” The biggest insight I gained was that I had two options: I could operate out of my role or out of my personality. When I operated out of my personality, I tended to seek out the humanity rather than the pathology in an individual, and could thus communicate at a deeper level. Of course the role was helpful too. When it was time to don a cloak and perform some magic, the stronger the role the better.
I remember trying to bridge the generation gap between a father and his son. The father, an erect, stern little man of ninety, felt that in his day a son had a responsibility to honor his father. The son (seventy-three) felt that he had a right to his own independence. They both had compelling arguments. Wrapped tightly in my role as “wise advice giver,” I was senior to both of them. Yet I was staggered by the fabulous wealth of oral history, a veritable time machine that could be turned on with just a conversation.
I remember a schizophrenic girl so frightened that she hid out while two voices argued incessantly in her mind, condemning her very existence. I watched her climb out step by step over a long and hard six-year journey, to become one of the most loving and gifted teachers I’ve ever known. Talking about her class of five- and six-year-olds, she mentioned that everything she and every other adult had to go through, the children were going through now for the first time. “Maybe I can help,” she said.
I talked to a billionaire once. To give you an idea of how much money that is: if you spent $1,000 a day, every day of your life, and were born when Christ was born, you still would not have spent your billion (to say nothing of 2,000 years worth of interest). I asked him if wealth affected personality. He felt that it didn’t change it, it reinforced it. If you were frightened of people you spent your millions on walls. If you enjoyed people you spent your millions on parties. “Nothing really changes. You can only wear one pair of pants at a time, drive one car at a time.” He added, “It does make you more distrustful of people, though.”
One of the earliest workhouses — the forerunner of the modern penitentiary — was the London House of Correction, established in 1557. Created to cope with the increasing numbers of beggars and “wanton” females, the workhouse philosophy was that hard work and simple living would turn people from a life of crime toward industry and rectitude.
A friend of mine died today. The news of it came early this morning as I sat at my desk gazing into swirls of milk in coffee. Telephones are amazing carriers of mystery. Their ring hangs in the air, suspending time with a sort of quiet apprehension. Word of George’s death startled me. I remembered the course of his disease, our latest conversation, the expression in his eyes the last time I saw him. That was two weeks ago. A nasty cold kept me from visiting him and his wife Gisel, and George’s decline was very sudden. I never saw that turning point and maybe that explains my reaction now. It is different every time for me. I’m surprised at my surprise.
I work in a hospice in San Diego. Hospice is a philosophy of care for the terminally ill and their families. I am a social worker and a member of an interdisciplinary team which tries to meet people’s physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual needs. Although in recent years much has been written about death and dying and the hospice movement, death is not easy for most people to contemplate. Awareness of terminal illness invades the day-to-day routine and reminds us that we, too, are mortal.
How can one help make another person’s life more meaningful in a time of such acute crisis? Sometimes it is easier to see physical needs. Our team includes a medical director whose expertise is pain control. Our nurse teaches people how best to care for themselves, and their families how to use techniques for turning, changing sheets or getting someone into a wheelchair with the least discomtort. Hospital beds and other equipment can be provided and our home health aides give massages, fix people’s hair, shave them and help with baths as often as is needed or desired.
What does it mean to someone to be so sick? What will enrich their lives at a time when they may have to give up functions or activities so precious to them when well? Perhaps it is reading aloud to a once avid reader who can no longer focus on printed words, or being someone with whom to debate politics. It could mean sharing a televised sports event or bringing an ice cream. For George, it was being able to continue giving his wife an anniversary card on the fifteenth of each month as he had throughout forty-two years of marriage. After he was no longer able to leave his bed, the knowledge that someone would pick out cards for him so that he could surprise Gisel meant a lot.
Staying home until the time of death is important to many. Our particular hospice program helps people die at home. Spiritual questions arise, beliefs are examined, and fears are expressed. If someone has a special priest, minister or rabbi it is helpful to contact them but mostly people just need someone to listen openly, to help them sort out new thoughts with new power or meaning.
A large part of my job is training volunteers. A pre-med student does housework for a family he’s involved with because that is what they need at the time. A busy housewife with six children provides transportation to a doctor’s appointment. A psychologist might stop by and end up having dinner with the family of a patient just to spend time with them and to offer some emotional support.
One of the most valuable services volunteers provide is respite care. Many times the person who is most responsible for a terminally ill person’s care will become emotionally and physically exhausted. Volunteers look for any way to alleviate some of that stress. Hospice volunteers give their hearts to people they know are going to die. It is not uncommon for volunteers to create such close relationships with families that they are considered adopted members themselves.
Everyone handles the process of letting go differently. There are as many ways to die as there are to live and at least as many ways to grieve. Some people busy themselves with errands in order to hold at bay a lingering sadness. Some people shut themselves away with a picture or an article of clothing and cry until the tears are gone for a while. Others talk animatedly and openly and bring new people into their lives, filling the gaps with a multitude of possibilities. Addressing individual feelings and needs is at the core of hospice care. Support groups for volunteers and grieving survivors help in this.
Work is not jobs and positions, but callings and vocations. Work is not a right, work is a responsibility.
I love what I do. It makes my life very full. And sometimes it makes me weary. It becomes easy to get caught up, and to tune out the deeper levels of my experience. Then, all at once, a particular person or happening will open me, and the fear spreads through me. I hurt for these people. Sometimes a dying person’s eyes become my eyes and my limbs feel thin and frail. Other times the grief of a family member becomes my own as I think about the people in my family. Sometimes I’m infuriated by the helplessness I feel. These are the times I’ve had quite enough — when an entire day alone at the beach or walking through the zoo, speaking to no one, is the only thing that will balance me.
I’m often asked how I ended up in this field, why I have chosen this particular direction for myself. The idea of working with terminal illness had intrigued me since reading On Death and Dying by Elisabeth Kubler-Ross. Her profound respect for people’s dignity and individuality, particularly in a medical setting where people have been traditionally reduced to “patients,” deeply moved and inspired me. Something just felt right about it. I went with my hunch and it carried me through graduate school where I was able to volunteer at the newly formed hospice as part of an internship. It seemed I had found my niche. I was hired three months after graduation.
My work brings death continuously into my line of vision and makes it very real. Its closeness influences the way I perceive my life, the people around me, and my world. In this I feel quite fortunate.
George will enter my thoughts often and I will feel the loss of his presence from my life. I will help his wife move through her grief in whatever way I can. And the cycle will repeat itself again.
San Diego, California
The world’s longest recorded strike — by barbers’ assistants in Copenhagen, Denmark — ended on January 4, 1961, after 33 years.
I don’t remember how I first learned of Adam and Eve (the mail order firm for which I work, which specializes in condoms, erotic books, men’s and women’s underwear, negligees, vibrators, sexy clothing; and love-making aids). It was probably through a blurb in the Whole Earth Catalog or from a friend. At the time, I was living in a small conservative town in rural Pennsylvania. It was too embarrassing for me to go to the drugstore to buy any method of birth control. I was afraid the clerk at the drug store might know me or notice I wasn’t married. Also, I found it difficult to go to either of the town’s two gynecologists. One of them knew my family and delivered me and all my siblings. I wasn’t acquainted with the other but knew his wife, who happened to be his nurse. My home town and my upbringing were conservative enough that I felt a little sinful about having sex without being married and awkward about telling this to an older person. Thus, ordering contraceptives by mail from Adam and Eve was a welcome alternative. I had no idea when I left home to move South that I’d eventually end up working at Adam and Eve.
My immediate family and many of my aunts and uncles know what I do and seem to be handling it. But my grandfather (who knows I work in a mail-order business) keeps trying to find out exactly what I’m doing. I haven’t told him because I don’t think he’d approve. When I saw him last he asked me what I packaged. I told him “whatever people order.” My mother rapidly changed the subject.
I work in the “Fulfillment Department.” I began my career there as a prepacker; I packed condoms into plastic wallets or round, lidded, plastic containers; I folded clothes (swimsuits, men’s and women’s underwear, women’s V-necked T shirts, negligees, garter belts, etc.) and packed them in plastic bags; I tested vibrators (plugged them in or put in batteries to see if they worked); or I packed up specific number of various condom brands in plastic bags for one of our samplers. My current job is to package merchandise. I get ten orders at a time (which have come through our computer) and the merchandise for all ten. I tear the address label off the customer’s side of these packing sheets and place it face down on clear tape, pack the merchandise along with the packing slip and a catalog into a brown, padded envelope, staple the envelope shut, tear the tape with the label off the tape dispenser and place it on the package. I make sure the package is being shipped correctly (First Class or Parcel Post, USPS or UPS), then I either throw the package on a conveyor belt or into a laundry cart if it’s a back order.
How I feel about working there varies. I found it difficult to work after attending a Holly Near concert because the ads in the catalog definitely use women as sex objects (there is much more nudity or partial nudity of women than of men). Also, at times I’ve felt my job not only didn’t do much to enhance my self-confidence, but even destroyed it a little. This was partly because I started out at the bottom of the company and haven’t worked my way up very far and partly because I don’t completely agree with the politics of all that I’m doing.
Occasionally, I feel as if I’ve entered another dimension. Recently it all seemed to come crashing down on me when I was nearly crushed in an avalanche of pornographic books and collapsing grey metal shelves. After more than two years of working there, I might be developing something akin to black lung disease, which I call “smut on the brain” disease. Such disease manifests itself in the form of my seeing sexual ambiguities and innuendoes in many things (for example, I thought my friend’s Kodak “Ready-Mount” slide mounts had a very sexual name). At times I feel almost deluged with an inner flood of ribald, bathroom humor.
But, increasingly, the erotic material doesn’t seem to be inundating my senses so much as the product names. I’m starting to write poetry and the words at work are inspirational: gossamer, sensuous, sensual, lust, love, erotic, exotic, joy, rapture, rush, delicate, demure, fantasy, Adonis, and azure (I recently used the words Adonis and azure — two product names — in the title of a poem I wrote for handsome men past thirty who haven’t been in love).
Chapel Hill, N.C.
With a total work force of 2,031,200 in 1976, the U.S.S.R. National Railway handles the greatest payroll of any single civilian organization in the world.
I walked into the Somethyme Restaurant in Durham the other night to wait tables. Mary Bacon, the owner, was there and I told her how special Somethyme was. I’d been there the day before and the benches in front needed painting. I volunteered and got paid to do the work. It struck me how much of the work at Somethyme is done by employees: the tables and the stained glass door were done by people who worked there, as are most painting, cleaning, and fix-it jobs.
When I commented on Somethyme’s uniqueness I was also thinking of an agreement I overheard between Mary and an employee. The person had just changed jobs and needed some financial help. It was given. Earlier this summer I was faced with $500 worth of dental bills and Somethyme gave me a loan.
We even share with the bears at the Museum of Life and Science. In the Winter the leftover food was picked up and fed to the bears. This Spring staffers used the leftovers for compost. A circle of life. l have a garden that’s overflowing with cucumbers and I said, “Hey, Mary, you want to buy some cucumbers from me?” I assured her they were organically grown. “Sure,” she said.
We have an in-house food co-op and a tape committee which allows us to record our favorites on cassettes provided by the restaurant. The personality of the restaurant is always changing with the new art exhibited and the music played on stage. These are the important things to me about the restaurant — beyond the personalities involved and the piddly problems we have.
The bakers really exemplify Somethyme’s spirit in their quest for the perfect loaf of bread or the perfect pie. Early in the morning they start that yeast-flour interaction which by 11 a.m. becomes the “Best Bread in The World.” I know, because I just got back from my own tour. Bread eater that I am, I sought out fresh bread — from Amsterdam’s finest bakeries to Crete’s subterranean ovens. If ever I do find bread better than Somethyme’s I’m sure we’d change our recipe (or at least discuss it at a staff meeting!).
It’s the dichotomy that makes it so disturbing for me. For eight hours a day I belong to someone else, cooking their food, typing their letters, making their fortunes through my labor — and then I return home, to my real self, to the things I love, to activity that absorbs and excites me but carries no financial reward.
Work has always loomed large in my life, maybe ever since I watched its effect on my father. (I still blame his career for causing his death.) His words echo: “Don’t expect to like your work. You do it because you have to, and you live for the end of each work day.”
But I knew that Dad was a frustrated cowboy, and for all I know, a closet artist as well.
I don’t want to follow in his footsteps. Yet the search for “my brilliant career” has gone on for seven years, with no end in sight.
I’ve had opportunities to step into the corporate world — open-armed invitations to sign up as a 9-to-5-er, complete with Pendleton suit. I keep on thinking I’m meant for something more creative, more individualized.
I’ve just completed a six-month stretch of voluntary unemployment, a great gift to myself. I shelved the alarm clock and the rigid schedules. Time became as precious as it was irrelevant. I lived for myself. I noticed how I was letting go, gradually and permanently, of rules that had dominated my existence since childhood. After several months of explaining (to the curious and well-meaning) why I wasn’t legitimizing my existence through “work” I stopped explaining why. At last, no excuses.
I was reading again, voracious for information about my world. I attended lectures, seminars, workshops and plays. And I traveled. I noticed how much my world is shaped by what I am brave enough, and willing, to see.
And most curious of all: I was working harder than ever before. Every day was brimming with people, ideas and projects. I was studying hungrily until all hours, and waking with excitement to begin again.
I need to find a way to integrate this newly discovered joy-in-living with my working life. At the moment I’m a waitress. (Ah, the wealth of talent that flocks to the waiting profession!) I am saddened by the huge disparity — in terms of genuine respect and monetary rewards — between so-called women’s work (daycare, nursing and teaching) and the high-technology jobs. This country’s job scene runs on misplaced priorities: industrial advances are prized while humanistic and spiritual endeavors limp along unnoticed.
Personally I don’t care to sign up for a career in electronics. I don’t want a computer to be a symbol of my liberation. So what’s left? I am looking to The 3 Boxes of Life by Richard Bolles and Where Do I Go From Here With My Life? by John Crystal. I search out agencies that foster alternatives to the traditional working world. New Ways To Work, in San Francisco, facilitates job-sharing. I’d like to see more options like flex-time and paid maternity and paternity leave.
My fantasy is of a world where each of us develops our natural talent, in an atmosphere of support and encouragement, and suddenly the world has enough workers in every field. And a skilled and loving child-care worker comes home with a living wage, and a doctor can afford only two cars.