Tag Archives: Jobs

The Mysteries of Occupation

I started as a busboy and dishwasher at a greasy downtown bar and grill in California’s flat, hot Central Valley. I was “paid” (if you want to call it that) under the table. My duties included killing roaches in the kitchen, carting cases of beer out of the walk-in, and mopping up vomit in the restrooms.

At college in Seattle, I worked briefly for the records department. All student transcripts in the school’s hundred year history were stored in a single windowless room where, according to rumor, the doors would automatically shut and all the oxygen get sucked out at the merest whiff of smoke. When a grade change was authorized, we employed the medieval technique of “white-out and typewriter” to make the correction.

Through most of my school years I worked for the university library. The byzantine scheming of competing management factions made for gory blood sport, but it was pleasant to read Shakespeare while manning the circulation desk at night, and pleasant to roll through the aisles with an hour’s shelving to do.

Out of school, I worked short stints for an industrial printing company, a specialty grocery store, and at a salmon cannery in Alaska. Back in Seattle, I worked three years for a late-night bookstore where, on special days, homeless people promised to murder me, crazy people defecated in the children’s section, and animals wandered in from the streets to die.

I joined the party of the devil in 1998 and took a job with Amazon, answering customer emails and telephone calls. At the summer picnic one year, I dunked the company’s billionaire founder in the dunk tank. When the WTO met in Seattle in November of ’99, tear gas seeped into the office and some of my coworkers, fleeing the building, were herded onto buses and arrested en masse as anarchists. After a failed attempt to unionize, three hundred of us were laid off in the spring of 2001, our jobs outsourced to India.

From 2001 to 2003, I worked for a health insurance company. I started in customer service but ended by drafting and editing medical correspondence. Policyholders would write to request authorization of procedures to enhance their disappointing sexual features (photos included) or for coverage of bariatric surgery or growth hormone shots for their children. I would translate the decisions of our medical review panel into plain English explaining why these things could not be paid for.

Since 2004 I have worked in marketing and public relations functions for a dotcom in Silicon Valley. I manage a bit, but mostly I write. I write to create a felt need in consumers that leads them to use our services. I write to convince reporters that they should mention us in their stories. I write to make the company and our executives look good, to make investors feel sanguine and to make government agencies happy to award us fat contracts.

I don’t feel particularly good about this. In fact, though I’ve occasionally tried to feel otherwise, I hate business. I admit, there is a satisfaction in hearing my own bullshit talking points recited word for word by photogenic persons on national television news programs. But this is not a virtuous satisfaction.

John Jay Chapman, remembering his recently-deceased friend the philosopher William James, said that “the mysteries of temperament are deeper than the mysteries of occupation.” He meant, perhaps, that it’s easier to retrace the path bringing a person to his current occupation than to measure the influence of temperament on the route taken, or its ultimate destination.

I’ve rediscovered that I’m temperamentally unsuited to my work. At least, I prefer to think it a series of accidents that brought me here rather than an inevitable expression of my nature. This doesn’t mean that I’m ready to leave my job for something else. I’ve learned to be grateful, and I can’t afford idealism at the moment.

There are three options, as I see it. The first two are described in Swann’s Way when the narrator says that people unfitted to their work may “bring to their regular occupations either an indifference tinged with fantasy, or a sustained and haughty application, scornful, bitter, and conscientious.” A third option, the one I want most but can’t afford, is to run away and live, like Thoreau, a life according to nature and my own temperament.

Living according to my temperament, every day would begin at 9am. I would read and drink tea until 11am. Then, after a nice brunch and cleaning up, I’d run errands or do more reading until 2 or 3pm. After that, I’d go for a long walk (hills or shore), returning home about 6pm. I would drink wine or gin-and-tonic while cooking dinner, which I would eat at 7pm. I would listen – depending on my mood – to Bach or Benny Goodman or Tom Waits while scrubbing dishes. At 9pm I would drink a cup of coffee and start work on my writing projects. Between 1 and 2am I would go to bed.

In other words, I would be a self-centered bastard and no real use to anyone at all. Thankfully, I’ve got my wife and children and mortgage to prevent me from living in full accord with my temperament. I used to have a little homemade sign posted in my office that read: “STOP. Your heart will not guide you.” Of course it’s your bookshelf and your sense of comic irony that should guide you.

I confront myself in the bathroom mirror, the aging vomit mopper, the cannery slave, the midnight bookslinger, a little gray now at the temples and chin: “You may find a way out some day, pal, but let’s not forgot who you are. You used to believe that to look for identity in your “job” was to impoverish your soul. Remember, you might be at this baloney for another thirty years. Go, therefore, and cultivate an attitude of indifference tinged with fantasy.”

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The Working Life

One of the great consolations of work must be its abbreviation of the world’s area.

~ That’s a speculation of the narrator from Joseph O’Neill’s worthy novel, Netherland.  The idea is that we devote ourselves to work when our personal lives unravel because minimizing our area of concern gives an illusion of control easily projected onto the greater canvas of our life.  But, of course, it doesn’t always happen this way.  For instance, personal life and work may both roll in simultaneous upheaval.  Or else the office environment may decay to such violent, primal chaos that we retreat to our personal lives for order and security.  And barring trouble in either arena, the delimited scope of the workplace is for many not so much a consolation as the chance to exercise a long-desired tyranny over others.

Work as consolation and work as power: both ideas seem equally absurd, though perhaps I might feel differently if I had any respect whatever for the kind of work I do or for the world of business in general.  But the circumstances of my employment have always been, finally, an indifferent issue to me, even an embarrassment – or at best a nine- or ten-hour daily distraction from life which I only grudgingly concede is necessary. 

My first job, aged sixteen, was bus-boy and dishwasher at an old bar and grill in the downtown of a small city in the blazing, agricultural San Joaquin Valley.  I was paid under the table.  My duties included mopping vomit off the floor of the men’s room and dollying around cases of beer in stacks that weighed more than I did.  One of our regular bar customers, an older Chinese man, once came in with a bloody nose and black eye – he’d been mugged in the alley outside; his assailant had made off with his wallet and two McDonald’s hamburgers wrapped in a paper bag.  Another customer once stopped me to ask about something he saw dangling from my sleeve. “Looks like a loose string or something.”  I glanced down and he chuckled, “Sorry, I guess it’s just your arm, kid.”

At university in the Pacific Northwest I worked a summer in our Records department – a job that sounds almost medieval now, since nothing was digitized and we spent all our time in a secured, windowless room where the paper transcripts of every student in the school’s hundred year history were kept, and official changes were made by white-out and typewriter.  After that I worked three years in the library where the highlights of my career included thumbing through old copies of the TLS and NYRB and refusing one evening to make photocopies for the bilious president of the university, since (as I told him) being his personal secretary didn’t fall within the scope of my duties.  He was in a rush, red-faced, irate – but I pointed him in the direction of the copy machines and then made him sign the charges (a dollar and change) so that we could bill his office appropriately.

After graduation I worked briefly for an industrial printing company where I off-loaded a cutter machine and drove monstrous stacks of paper around a warehouse.  Then came my years at the bookshop, which I’ve written of elsewhere.  And then a summer spent working the salmon season at a cannery in Ketchikan, Alaska – a rough job where I watched several others lose digits and limbs but happily managed to keep my own, and where every night I dreamt up mountains of fish flesh and empty cans (trabajo de la noche, one of my Mexican coworkers called it).

My entree into the corporate world occurred in ‘98 when I landed a job with Amazon.com.  I worked from home in Capitol Hill as well as downtown – in customer service, and for a while as a special order book buyer.  The bright spots of my time there, which ended when three hundred of us were laid off in the early stages of the dotcom crash, included the company’s Dionysian summer parties where I once managed to sink Jeff Bezos in a dunk tank, and the WTO riots in ‘99 which landed several of my coworkers (bystanders, mostly innocent) in jail without charges, and sent clouds of tear gas into the building – which then had to be evacuated.

After several months of unemployment following the lay off at Amazon, I took a job with Blue Shield in another tower in downtown Seattle.  There I worked most notably as a writer and editor of medical correspondence – funneling requests for coverage of unusual or expensive procedures to our medical review team and in turn translating their decisions (usually ‘No’) into English as comprehensible and sympathetic as possible.  Following 9/11, one of my coworkers, an Army Ranger and veteran of the Persian Gulf War who had just transitioned to the reserves and wanted out, was forced back into active duty to lead Special Forces missions in Afghanistan.  He once met Hamid Karzai in person and received governmental commendations, but his wife was sick of his absences and so took the kids and left him when the invasion of Iraq looked certain.  He was devastated: wed to the Army against his will when he would rather have been married to his wife.

Since moving back to California, I’ve worked for a medium-sized dotcom in Silicon Valley – in marketing communications.  I’m not sure how I got this job.  It’s not a bad job, really, and I’m thankful for the fact that it allows me to feed my children and put a roof over their heads.  Since I work in close contact with our executive team it also allows me a post from which to observe the world of those for whom business really is serious business.  I get to watch the petty political machinations, the ego-stroking, the back-stabbing and the personal victories of all the type-As and MBAs as they claw their way up the ladder toward affluence and a brand of prestige I never really thought to desire for myself. 

I know that I am not, at bottom, any better than they are – but I feel a different sort of species sometimes.  Where the circumscription of the workplace allows them scope in which to battle it out and establish petty kingdoms for themselves, seats from which to reach toward total empire and the demi-apotheosis of an executive title, for me it’s something tinted with melancholy and regret.  It’s not that I’m unconscious of the temptations in that direction – money chief among them.  But like my Ranger friend (lacking, I’m sure, his fortitude and courage), I just want out.  I fantasize daily about taking justified offense at some minor slight and quitting, or else of being laid off or fired: anything to get me out again into the imagined larger world of open possibility – a world I vaguely sense during the lunch hour or over the weekend, and which vanishes with the alarm every Monday morning.

My sense of these things is ill-defined, uncertain.  Most of the time I move numbly through my work week without questioning the necessity of it all in anything more than a dreamy, juvenile sort of way: the late adolescent discontentment of someone who should have outgrown it by now.  But I can’t shake the feeling that somehow this “abbreviation of the world’s area” which we find in the workplace is not so much a consolation as a curse.

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