Friday, December 26, 2014

In praise of work





     So over Christmas, when you were supposedly on vacation, did you miss work?
     Did you keep working anyway, even though you were allegedly off?
     Don't feel bad. You're not alone. I worked too.
     Force of habit.
     If you don't use your vacation days at the paper by the end of the calendar year, you lose them, and when I realized that four were about to evaporate, I figured I had better schedule them. Around Christmas seemed a good time—nothing much happening anyway. 
     So I took a few days off, and smiled at myself when, about 6 a.m. Wednesday morning, my first day of vacation, in theory, I found myself in my office at home, on the paper's DTI system, migrating obituaries onto my own computer, because we're shifting over computers in the next few months, and I didn't want them to vanish. 
     Now that is not exactly "fun," but it isn't quite "work," either, in that I wanted to do it. Had I stayed in bed, I'd be lying there, thinking, "I should migrate those obits." Rather, I was using the more relaxed day that not having to go to the office or produce anything for immediate publication to get done some things that needed to get done but I hadn't done yet. And to top off my sybaritic luxury and relation I ran an old column here. So it really was a true vacation...
     Or maybe I'm deceiving myself. Maybe I've become a slave and I don't know it. I should wake up and ... what? Go run around outside? Get on a plane and go somewhere I'm not interested in? I've got a lot of stuff to do, and I like getting it done.
     Is that bad? I don't know. I like working, writing stuff, doing the research for writing stuff. When I find myself feeling bad that I can't, oh, afford watch that shows phases of the moon, I remind myself that at least I get to spend my time doing work I find enjoyable and meaningful, which is just as good, if not better. 
     When I finished with the obits, I turned to my main vacation activity that day, one that I had been looking forward to for some time: transferring the copyright permission language for my next book from the various contracts they have resided on to the pages where they will appear at the back of the book. That wasn't quite "fun" either, in the relaxing on a beach in Maui sense, but then, if I were in Maui, on a beach, I would be squirming, trying to block the sun with my book, and feeling like I should really be getting those copyright permissions transcribed. I really don't like the beach. Never have. 
     You have to be who you are. When my column used to appear in the New York Daily News, I would take my vacation, fly to New York, and write columns there, and I remember realizing this, looking up from the keyboard in a windowless office in New York, and smiling quietly to myself, very pleased. Taking your vacation from one job to go work the same job somewhere else. It seemed hard core.
     I hope that doesn't make me a joyless grind. Can you be a joyful grind? Any person who finds himself in his mid-50s doing what he likes to do has to consider himself blessed. You can shuffle along a beach when you retire, not that I can ever afford to retire, which might be another reason I'm working all the time. 
     Nor could I let the blog slide. I thought about it. Maybe even wanted to, in the change of pace sense. Hanging up  an "On vacation" sign and letting you—those of you who aren't computerized web crawlers, mechanically trying to post "This is interesting content, visit my discount Viagra web site at" spam messages—just shrug and go try again another day. I'm sure you could cope with the absence for a day or four. As it is the web, Facebook and Twitter and such, seem more and more a whirling trash cyclone of dull garbage anyway. What's one blog more or less? 
     But the end of this blog's first full calendar year is five days away, and I might as well finish out 2014 without breaking my streak, provided that reprinting old columns from time to time doesn't count as a break and, since I'm in charge, here if nowhere else, I can determine that it doesn't.
     So I guess today's theme is in praise of work, even if you are on vacation. The standard media take on working while on vacation is undesirable, and if what you're doing is answering emails from angry suppliers, maybe that's warranted. When you are your own boss, well, I'm tempted to say that if you love something, it isn't work, but that isn't true. Anything you have to do is work, particularly if you have to do it to a certain level. 
     But work is good, like religion, it gives significance to life. A false significance, perhaps, but I'll take what I can get.  There's nothing wrong with being true to something, day in, day out, savoring it. Nothing wrong, even, with bragging a little, even if you aren't a genius, even if the world isn't clamoring its praise. There is a wonderful poem by Robert Browning called "Andrea del Sarto" about a skilled but not brilliant painter, who is no Michaelangelo, but hasn't done badly either. Some famous lines in the poem— "A man's reach should exceed his grasp/ Or what's a heaven for?"—and some fine lines that aren't famous. He's talking to his mistress about how he pushes forward, even though he's tired on some days, uninspired on others, trusting "this low-pulsed forthright craftsman's hand of mine" to see him through. At one point he brags a bit: 
                                       I do what many men dream of all their lives,
                                       —Dream? strive to do, and agonize to do,
                                      And fail in doing.
    That's true for most people with any kind of success. Any lawyer digging through a pile of briefs this Christmas should remember there are thousands who never got past the bar exam; every plumber should think of those poor shmoes who couldn't even get a foot in the door at the union hall; every doctor rushing away from Christmas dinner to see a patient should recall all those classmates who washed out of med school and would thrill at his dullest day, and savor his most annoying inconveniences. There's plenty of time to rest when you're dead.

8 comments:

  1. Interesting point of view, as opposed to a blog item posted by Eric Zorn yesterday concerning the availability of teachers during vacation time to parents that make e-mail inquiries regarding student make-up assignments. Are teachers at fault for refusing to answer parent e-mails during their break? He seems to believe so. Cannot people in certain professions be passionate about their chosen field, yet expect an undisturbed break from that field, their duties? He responds my insistence on unavailability as an educator "unworthy of respect and probably should find another profession." I'll leave a link to the relevant post.

    http://www.chicagotribune.com/news/opinion/zorn/chi-do-you-respond-to-workrelated-email-when-youre-on-vacation-20141223-story.html

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  2. Anthony Trollope who worked the early morning hours of "every Goddamn day" turning out his 56 best selling novels before reporting to his day job as a high official in the Royal Post, once wrote in a letter to a friend. "In the fall of a leaf that is a man's life, nothing can make him happy but congenial work to do or the reflection that congenial work has been done."

    Calling Andrea del Sarto a "skilled but not brilliant painters" is probably not quite accurate. His contemporaries called him "a painter without error" and Michelangelo admired his work. If hadn't died young he might have equaled his more famous contemporaries. He evidently got on the wrong side of Vasari, who chronicled the lives of the Florentine painters and called him lazy and unambitious. There might have been a bit of class bias too, as he was the son of a tailor, a lowly occupation.

    Tom Evans

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  3. Nothing at all wrong with "bragging a little" and also putting a lie to the feel-gooders who insist that "you can do anything/be anything you want." Some of us are skilled, a very few geniuses, but most are plodders, a few not much good at anything. The reward of excellence is not money or fame, though appreciated I'm sure, but just the joy of doing something well. And the reward for just being adequate at what one does is not to be sniffed at either: the baggers in Jewel, many with mental handicaps, seem just as pleased as Andrea in doing their jobs as well as they can.

    john

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  4. Like your attitude. My father, workaholic or dedicated (?) didn't take us kids on vacation like you have admirably reported you did. He died at age 49. My 1st day of retirement, I rejoiced "Free at last!" & sat down to read the newspaper at leisure. Recently I completed some tasks, overdue from having frittered away time w/ enjoyments such as reading your blog EgD & keeping pace w/ FB, & I felt enormous pleasure at "work" due, done, & now over. Like your obits & copyright permissions, finishing tasks can have as much satisfaction as what others strive for on vacation.

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  5. In these times, being in your mid-fifties and still having a job is reason to celebrate.

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  6. Our newspaper bags for delivery are orange. The Trib people get blue.

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  7. Work these days in some fields entails that one always has to keep checking work emails, even in evenings and days off.

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  8. As a former teacher, I'll say that Zorn is out of line with that comment Wendy reports of above.

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