Stick the Landing

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You can check out anytime you like,
but you can never leave…

– The Eagles

Have you ever noticed that the people who talk about chasing dreams are always the ones who have already caught them?

I find this sort of hindsight optimism annoying and beyond unhelpful. It seems to suggest that, if we have a job we don’t love, every minute of every day, that we have somehow sold out. We “gave up on the Dream.” We have failed ourselves, the men and women who gave us life, and everyone else besides. Thank you, and goodnight!

Bullshit.

Life ain’t like that. You know it; I know it. All us real people know it. Sometimes life gives you lemons; more often, it shoves them down your throat. You try making lemonade when you’re choking on citrus.

It’s easy to spout pontifical when you don’t have to con yourself into believing in what you do. Any fool can appreciate the rewarding aspects of his work when it actually is rewarding.

Anyone can work hard when she feels like she’s “hardly working.” (Such a clever phrase…)

The true hero is the one who thrives in a job he hates. This is the definition of work ethic: getting up every day, going to a job that clogs the pores, melts the brain, and kills the soul, and still giving that occupational bit of cowpie everything you’ve got. The miserable worker who does good work anyway. The one who decides to be all she can be even though no one seems to care who she is.

That’s the real world: the one where you don’t have time for chasing dreams because the reality is too busy chasing you.

Don’t get me wrong: on my best days, I’m thrilled for the lucky few who find that “perfect job.” But most of us…?

Most of us are lucky if we stick the landing.

 

The Myth of “Unskilled Labor”

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If we look at reality for more than an instant, if we look at the human beings passing us on the street, it’s not bearable. It’s not bearable to watch while the talents and the abilities of infants and children are crushed and destroyed. These happen to be things that I just can’t think about. And most of the time, the factory workers and domestic workers and cashiers and truck drivers can’t think about them either. Their performances as these characters are consistent and convincing, because they actually believe about themselves just what I believe about them — that what they are now is all that they could ever have been, they could never have been anything other than what they are. Of course, that’s what we all have to believe, so that we can bear our lives and live in peace together. But it’s the peace of death.

– Wallace Shawn

For those of you who know Wallace Shawn simply as Vizzini in The Princess Bride, or as the Grand Nagus in Deep Space Nine, it might be surprising to discover the thinker behind the actor. If you haven’t read his essay “Why I Call Myself a Socialist,” I encourage you to follow the link above and do it, now.

In the meantime, a thought:

A post I wrote last week touched on the topic of “unskilled labor.” In an election cycle defined, at least partly, by the question of the minimum wage, and the level to which it should or should not be raised, I think this is a rabbit trail worth following.

You’ll notice that I place the words “unskilled labor” in quotes. That is because, simply, I do not believe such a thing exists. In reality, this is a distinction we make in order to justify valuing the work of certain individuals at lower levels of pay than that of others.

A professional is someone who does their job well, regardless of the line of work they are in. A barista or a waitress possesses a different skill set than my job demands, but it’s a skill set nonetheless. And their expertise is worthy of our respect.

Sadly, though, what they usually get is our scorn and impatience. They get to not only serve us; they get to put up with us in all our vainglory, as well. If the waiter, say, takes just a little too long to refill our water glass. Or if the gas station attendant is cleaning the restroom right when we need a pit stop. (Of course, had we arrived and found dirty facilities, we would have complained about that, too.)

There is a Spanish word that springs to mind: menospreciar. Literally, it means “to assign a lower price.” To value less, a habit born out of a false sense of superiority: after all, they are “unskilled,” right?

And yet, our day is built on the backs of these “unskilled laborers.” The woman who rings us up at the gas station or the fast food joint; the man who cleans the lint traps at our laundromats; the people who stock the shelves at our grocery stores, so that we don’t have to visit the warehouse each time we want a can of tomatoes or a stick of butter; or the folks who pick the apples that we so conveniently find, laid out and ready, in the produce section–in short, our lives as we live them would be impossible without these amazing and ubiquitous people.

Furthermore, if added value is the criterion by which cost is determined, then these lovely people deserve more than most “skilled” workers receive. Think about it: how important is what you do, really? None of us bats an eyelid when our favorite actors or sports figures threaten to walk out because their paycheck is too low on zeros. But perish the thought that the people who serve us our food or keep our workplaces clean get any more money than they should.

I catalog books, which requires a certain level of skill. But at my most skillful, I’m not nearly as indispensable as the guys who collect my trash or make sure the milk on the shelves hasn’t gone bad. These people are in disease prevention, just like the doctor who charges you $100 an hour to take your temperature. They are, in their own way, healthcare professionals.

Me? I just make sure books line up in alphabetical order. Helpful? Sure. But not exactly “Save the cheerleader, save the world” material.

“Unskilled labor” is the backbone and foundation of our existence. How dare we then begrudge these people, these professionals, an actual living wage? The $15/hr demand carries a moral weight that far outstrips the statistical considerations with which we counter it. What does it matter that more jobs are created if the ones that already exist cannot support the people who fill them?

What it comes down to is this:

These “unskilled laborers,” professionals all, take care of us day in and day out. So is it really too much to ask that we take care of them, too?

Book Review: Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance

Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry Into ValuesZen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry Into Values by Robert M. Pirsig

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is the best book I have ever read.

Every once in a while a book comes along that takes all the thoughts you’ve had milling around in your brain for years but have been unable to express, and puts them into words. Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance is one of those books for me. I find myself connecting with Pirsig’s thought processes on an almost visceral level: the neverending, almost obsessive search for the Quality that underlies daily experience; dismay at the extent to which the world has abandoned the Good in the interests of pursuing the Reasonable; frustration with the orthodoxy outside of which one risks being labeled a fool or a lunatic. Pirsig’s words resonate in me with surprising clarity, they strike a chord deep inside my soul (as they have done with countless others since their first publication in 1974). They help me to understand who I am and where I’m trying to go. Which is…right here…

At the heart of his book lies the quest to overcome the duality that has become so entrenched in the Western mind that we no longer accept any other angle of perception. Unless we overcome the cognitive divide that separates us as individuals one from another, we will never truly understand this world, this reality, that we inhabit.

“What guarantees the objectivity of the world in which we live is that this world is common to us with other thinking beings. Through the communications that we have with other men we receive from them ready-made harmonious reasonings. We know that these reasonings do not come from us and at the same time we recognize in them, because of their harmony, the work of reasonable beings like ourselves. And as these reasonings appear to fit the world of our sensations, we think we may infer that these reasonable beings have seen the same thing as we; thus it is that we know we haven’t been dreaming. It is this harmony, this quality if you will, that is the sole basis for the only reality we can ever know” (p. 343).

The only real objectivity, then, is reached by way of multiple subjectivities. We need each other to be able to fathom this world we live in. What is more, we need each other in order truly to understand ourselves. Quality, the centerpiece of Pirsig’s book, is the source of both subject and object, located in the intersection between the two, without which neither can truly, substantively exist. We learn ourselves through interaction with the other. We become who we are because of who others are. We define one another, and Quality is the touchstone for that process.

Quality resides in any “objective” encounter: between the individual and nature, between the individual and occupation, between the individual and the smallest of ideas. Until I pick up the hammer, it is not a hammer at all; it becomes a hammer only when I come to appreciate its uses and its purpose through using it to drive home a nail. I am not a carpenter, until that hammer allows me to complete the carpenter’s task through driving home the nail. In other words, until both object and subject allow the other to tap into the Quality that resides in each, neither is complete. They need each other to be who and what they truly are.

As a library cataloger, this is a particular stumbling block for me. It is very easy to fall into the trap of seeing “just one more book,” of forgetting the Quality that lies within both the object and myself, and that is activated and realized through my interaction with it. A piece of myself is taken by the object. I am, in a very real sense, IN the record I produce and the book on the shelf; without me, it could not be as it is. I, at the same time, take a piece of the object. Each volume that passes through my hands, each new cataloging challenge (and they are many) increases my knowledge and expertise, adds to the Quality of “library cataloger” that resides in me. This awareness of underlying Quality, of the true nature of the interaction between myself and the work that I do, brings to the task at hand a refreshing sense of intention and joy. There are no meaningless tasks. Everything is meaningful.

This is a book everyone should read. Given this emphasis on work (especially, as Pirsig notes, the dull kind) and the Quality inherent in it, this book is one which lends itself to use as a training tool for supervisors in all lines of work. It holds the key to change, and opens the eyes to the potential for creativity and meaning in every aspect of daily living, however mundane it may seem.

It really doesn’t matter whether you ride or not: “the real cycle you’re working on is a cycle called yourself” (p. 417).

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Nothing, Really

I think
I need some workahol.

Lick the salt; dress the wounded keys
And note the memo.
Random thoughts and dreamy stares
Float in clouds of minutes taken and not
Returned, as meetings ebb and quotas flow.
Arrows fire in secret,
Airy paths of insubordination. Hostage
To a frozen face unbending, half-past nowhere.
Never-ending. Mind

Lending me your stapler?