Tag Archives: Work

Marginalia, no.329

I knew one man who was arrested as a runaway lunatic, because, although a full grown person with a red beard, he skipped as he went like a child.

~ Robert Louis Stevenson, ‘Walking Tours’

If only it were that easy. I own a large rubber crow mask which I bought with the vague idea that I might wear it at the office and so compel the company to lay me off. Then, finally, I could begin to live. But I tried it the other day and only narrowly escaped promotion.

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After several hours of concentrated work, my skull sometimes suggests to me, by a quick twinge or a sound like a cube of ice fracturing in water, that it might explode. That’s when I like to step out for a walk.

I try to notice things. As an activity, walking and noticing things makes me feel better – especially when there are things to be noticed, as in the city. I notice almost entirely with my eyes, rarely with nose or ears. To dredge up after the fact the smells and sounds of a city block is almost impossible. I’m tempted to invent them: the customary noise of automobiles and voices, the odors of bus exhaust, women’s perfume, and alleyway urine. But I forget these things as soon as I notice them. I remember what I see.

Walking the other day near my employer’s San Francisco offices, I noticed:

  • Fading signs painted on the sides of red brick warehouses advertising hundred-year-old fruits and vegetables
  • Overpriced furniture boutiques and salvage retailers without a single customer inside
  • Bearded and sockless hipster entrepreneurs talking on phones outside of tech start-ups with comical company names taped to their windows
  • A bronze squiggle sunk in the concrete of the sidewalk to commemorate the ancient shoreline before the tidal flats were filled in and built up
  • Small dogs on leashes, led by their owners from glass apartment lobbies, anxious to shit on the curb
  • Tourists posing for photos in front of the statue of Willie Mays at the ballpark across the street
  • People in general rushing to be casual and expose as much bare skin as possible to the surprising warmth of the afternoon

Regarding that last item above: I don’t generally endorse the notion that things fall apart inevitably, that each succeeding generation is morally lesser than that which preceded it. I prefer to imagine recurring cycles of growth and decay in the social organism. I do blush, however, at how we like to dress ourselves these days. I rather wish that men were less content to look like transients (unless they are transients), and that women were less content to look like prostitutes (unless they are prostitutes). Which is not to say anything against either transients or prostitutes as a class. I might be equally dismayed if everyone chose to dress themselves like soldiers or trapeze artists.

Completing my walk, I returned to the office. I only work here once each week. It’s a perfectly nondescript four-story converted warehouse when seen from the outside. On deciding against the elevator, however, I discovered that it’s in fact bewitched – or at least the stairwell is. For one thing, it’s incredibly hot. Then, somehow, in the space of those four floors, it manages to include 90 steps and eight landings, six of them with doors. Behind one of these, I can only assume, the devil keeps a satellite office.

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Night Work, Reading by Nose, The Master

In fact, I write for a living – or that’s mostly what I do. Of course, the sorts of things I get paid to write aren’t generally my idea of literature. They’re press releases, talking points, media pitches, byline articles, company reports, strategic messaging documents – that sort of stuff. I like to say that I’ve been quoted in most of America’s major newspapers but never under my own name. I generally keep a strict division between office life and home life. Work, however, has been bleeding into every corner these past few weeks. The size of our team has been reduced by two thirds, but our work load not at all. I hardly notice the robins and juncos out my office window anymore, or the fact that the magnolias are blooming. I barely find time to read, much less to write for pleasure. Most nights I dream about work, about drafting FAQs and bullet points and policy analyses. Years ago at the salmon cannery in Alaska, a Mexican coworker named Lenin told us that this sort of dream work has a name in Spanish: trabajo de la noche.


James Duval Phelan, who had a glorious moustache, was mayor of San Francisco from 1897 to 1902. He later served as a U.S. Senator for California. Between these two assignments, in 1912, Phelan built a country manse on the slopes of the Santa Cruz Mountains above Saratoga. Though born to an Irish immigrant who had made his fortune in the Gold Rush, Phelan named his county residence Villa Montalvo and laid out an “Italianate garden” on its grounds. When he died in 1930, Phelan gave the property to Santa Clara County. Today it’s a public park and an arts center with an artists’ residency program. Not long ago I was hiking with the wife and kids through a grove of second-growth redwoods above Phelan’s Villa when I caught a familiar, very specific odor. It took a moment to place it, but I finally did. Beneath the trees, the orange blanket of rotting needles gave off a musty aroma that precisely reproduced the smell of my 1946 Viking Press edition of Saki’s Complete Stories, the one with the brittle, yellowing pages.


I never had much use for the Henry James titles (Daily Miller, The Portrait of a Lady) that we read in college. In fact, I never had much use for James until I was in my late thirties and read The Aspern Papers and The Beast in the Jungle and attempted (twice) to read The Ambassadors. I’m presently making a continental tour of his novellas and shorter stories. From the handsome Library of America edition covering the period from 1884 to 1891 I’ve especially enjoyed The Pupil, The Liar, The Patagonia, and The Lesson of the Master. Why is it that James suddenly works for me? His “supercivilised” world of upper-crust Victorian socialites and moneyed ex-patriots might as well be the Japanese Middle Ages for all the likeness it bears to my own life and milieu. But his language is surely a factor, a potent mingling of cool precision and warm ambiguity. It works on me like a drug. James’s main appeal, however, may be his capacity to see into the complexities of his own characters, to make them so perfectly transparent to us while preserving a core of personal mystery. After an hour reading Henry James, I find that I look at others around me with refreshed curiosity.

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My True Majority

I often daydream about losing my job. I arrive at the office one morning to find that my keycard no longer works. Or else I’m met by an HR representative and given ten minutes to clean out my desk. “What a relief,” I say and smile as I exit the building. In the good old days I was laid off every two or three years. My last period of unemployment (from September 2003 to March 2004) was a golden era. We were poor as dirt but had time for things. I walked alone in the hills. I read and wrote. I was thirty, a new father. My son had a bad case of roseola but a good attitude. There he is in a photograph, rashy and smiling, in a sunny courtyard of an old Spanish mission that we visited one day.

I turned forty last month. If any part of me was still waiting for real adulthood to arrive, I suppose this is it. Paul Giamatti once said in an interview that he never felt right until he turned forty. Some people have young souls and others have old ones, he said, “but I have a middle-aged soul.” I don’t know the age of my soul, but I feel all right. The young narrator of Nicholson Baker’s The Mezzanine expects that age forty will mark “the end of the rule of nostalgia, the beginning of my true majority.” Only then, he calculates, will the weight of childhood ideas and associations be fully counter-balanced by ideas and associations acquired in adulthood. Instead I think: being seven, that was something! Being twenty-seven or thirty-seven? Not so much.

I marked my fortieth birthday by running away with the wife and kids to a cabin near Mendocino, about 150 miles north of San Francisco. At the cabin there is no mobile phone signal, no Internet access (it’s a luxury to be inconvenienced these days). There is, however, the sound of the ocean, there are birds, and there are lots and lots of trees. This is the California I like best, a half-wild bucolic territory of slow Victorian-era towns, valley vineyards framed in oaks, redwood canyons, roaring headlands, and salt fog. Let go from work, it’s just the place to run off to, a place to live on wild berries and sea urchins, or to slowly turn Sasquatch. Retirement is only twenty-five years away.


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Marginalia, no.267

Improve alignment, accountability, and resources against key priorities.

~ Bullet point from an executive presentation

The head nodders nod their heads. There is a general grunt of affirmation. The fact that his words mean next to nothing is precisely what makes them so appropriate. An oracle that made sense would be no oracle at all.

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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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Marginalia, no.259

As befit a conqueror, 8-Deer was wearing elaborate cotton armor, a ceremonial beard wig, and a cowl made from the head of a jaguar.

~ Charles Mann, 1491

As befit a conqueror, I wore to the office a pair of gray slacks and a navy-blue gingham shirt with sleeves rolled up. If I laid waste nothing more substantial than nine hours of sunshine, that’s probably because I imagined the beard wig superfluous and left my jaguar-head hoodie in the closet.

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