labor day

a few weeks ago i went into a 'staples' to buy manila envelopes (for mailing out my spiral moon calendars) and possibly an expanding file folder. the black plastic one i'd used since high school was bursting with overuse, and i hoped i could buy a larger, sturdier (preferably Not plastic) one for a reasonable price.

as i was browsing the filing section, a manager interviewed a young woman in the office chairs section nearby. i heard him asking her situational questions - "what would you do if a customer..." and "give me an example of when you..." - all typical interview stuff. but it struck me at that moment as it hadn't struck me in the midst of the situation before, that anyone could do her job. i finally realized in the moment that he wasn't asking her "can you help customers find office supplies?", he was asking her in the lingo of our culture whether she could feed him back the specific type of bullshit that he wanted to hear.

in other words, he was testing how prepared and capable she was of stifling her free will so that she could be his corporate bitch and do the job exactly as he/the company wants it done.

i believe this challenge is at the core of many of the jobs in our culture. it's certainly at the core of my job. this is what makes people hate and resent and stress over their work. it's not that we can't do the physical work - even if we as a culture were instead a tribal people with a system of subsistence hunting and gathering we would still have to Work - at making tools, gathering food, climbing, building, preparing, lifting - all the same basic tasks we do every day already. the problem is the facade of the work. the facade that we Want to do what we're doing, that we aren't just doing it because we're trapped in a system that locks up our food and makes us pay just to exist in a place.

and so, when occasions like labor day roll around, i get to thinking again about the implications behind the day. labor day is a hypothetical day of rest for the worker, a day of honor for laborers. personally, i think it's a joke. one day of honor and rest is a joke when i consider the amount of time, sweat, stress, and ultimately, the amount of lifeblood the american people have put into this corporate, industrialized system. are we really benefiting from it? the gadgets we buy and the rent payments and the gas to drive to work - are those things really rewarding to us, do they sustain our lives? or do they just sustain our ability to keep feeding the machine?

last night i watched a documentary on activist and historian howard zinn. he mentioned that as a high schooler he confronted in his mind the notion of the 'american dream' - that if you work hard, you'll get rich. and he realized that the underlying message is if you aren't rich, you aren't working hard enough. this places the blame on the worker rather than the system, and we are taught to accept it with full guilt. he looked at that message and knew that it was a lie. it was a lie about his father, his mother, his relatives and many people in his day to day life who lived in tenements, often with no heating or hot water, and worked long hours at grueling jobs making just enough to get to the next day and work some more.

all this brings me to a great song that i've been listening to lately, that sums up very nicely the feelings that i have about my situation right now. it's a song by utah phillips (collaborating with ani difranco) about his friend frying pan jack...

"Frying-Pan Jack and I were in that camp, that's where he said to me, he'd been tramping since 1927, 'I told myself in '27, if I cannot dictate the conditions of my labor, I will henceforth cease to work.' You don't have to go to college to figure these things out, no sir. He said, 'I learned when I was young that the only true life I had was the life of my brain. But if it's true that the only real life I had was the life of my brain, what sense does it make to hand that brain to someone for eight hours a day, for their particular use, on the presumption that at the end of the day they will give it back in an unmutilated condition? Fat chance!"

this is what i'm working toward - not handing my brain, my healthy body, and my free will over to a corporation for any number of hours a day with the expectation that they will treat it fairly. my brain and body are undeniably harmed by the work that i do, and my spirit suffers. this isn't to say that i'm 'special' or somehow different - i believe that most folks (maybe except for those happy few who have jobs they love, good for them!) are harmed by their job and that the great deception of our culture is that we ought to silently put up with this treatment! that we ought to keep wanting big houses, smelly cars, and time wasting gadgets so that we have to keep working and selling the hours of our lives to keep the economy running rather than just physically and emotionally caring for ourselves and our loved ones.

this is why i am saving up money for a small bit of land where i can build my own home from earth, straw, sand, and water. where i can grow my own food without the inconvenience of all those hours of each day diverted to the uses of a corporation. where i can build my own furniture rather than buy it, sit and look at the sky rather than spend money on fancy artwork to hang on squared off, air-conditioned walls. where i can walk and bike to see my friends and buy a few things here and there rather than pay for the bone-juice of long dead dinosaurs to fuel the noisy, destructive monster we call a car. to pee in the grass and poop in a bucket (that turns into compost) rather than Pay to fill a ceramic bowl with Drinking water, then Pay to have that 'waste' taken away and deposited into our tidal ecosystems! no thank you!

the thing is, most folks hear all this and think it sounds terrible, or hard, or completely undesirable. the thing is, for me, there is joy in the way i want to live. there is joy in tending a garden without thinking "i have to get to work soon". there is joy in creating useful fertilizer from my human waste (yes, parts of the process are stinky, but you have to smell yours sometimes, too!), joy in getting where i want to go with the power of my own legs, joy in making things that i will use out of materials that are found in the land. joy in feeling the change of the seasons and knowing that my body is perceptive and adaptable and alive. it feels good!

and so, though i was off on labor day, i did not accept it as a bribe from our corporate culture, and it will not keep me silent. every single day i think of the life i deserve as a creature on this planet, and i work toward that life with every bit of motivation i can muster. some days that means doing laundry by hand, tending the garden, making a new batch of deodorant, bathing in the garage under two gallons of water in a solar shower, and then going to work and setting aside as much of that money as i possibly can. some days, all i can manage is to write a letter to a friend or relative, or avoid fast food or one more pint of ben and jerry's. every day has its individual challenge - and every day it is worth the fight.


sinoth said…
insightful and beautifully worded post :)

i worked in the trenches of a corporate retailer as a programmer with the standard 9-5 cubicle lifestyle. you develop the mindset of not being able to wait till 5:00 rolls around and wishing time would speed up so you can go home. this is an awful mindset to have, as it basically treats 8 hours of your day as waste. sadly this seems to be the norm in our culture. time is something we should guard ferociously because we can never get it back.

i'm sure you know this but your plan for an ideal life sounds great! even if most people scoff and think it is silly, there are plenty who would applaud the idea and are living that way already. keep up the hope!