Essays About

Work and Leisure

Planning layoffs feels akin to planning a murder. Managers call secret meetings to identify which employees to eliminate. They observe the targeted workers' morning arrival times to plan the best hour to strike, forming teams of hit men to deliver the news.

Being privy to the plans places you in the morally questionable position of knowing your co-worker's fate but concealing it from him, like concealing from a friend that a car is about to hit him. You exchange pleasantries with him the day before his doom, discussing upcoming projects that you know do not concern him.

As the unlucky employees are called one by one to the boss's office, a contagion of rumors spreads through the building. Every heart thumps in fear of being called next, as medieval villagers trembled that the plague would jump from their neighbor's house to theirs, or as a panicked crowd scatters beneath the unpredictable aim of a rooftop sniper.

After the layoffs, survivor guilt blends with relief in those left behind. The names of the departed are taboo and spoken only in whispers. We say the fired employees were "let go," as if the company merely allowed rather than forced them to leave.

Soon, the daily collegiality of the workplace lulls everyone back into a sense of familial belonging, and we forget that we are instruments of profit whose continued employment depends on earning the company more money than we are paid.

A regrettable paradox of human aspiration is that, because we desire and strive for excellence, we have no time to relish it. Broken things rather than working things demand our attention. Nothing is more pleasant in writing than an inspired sentence that drops full-formed onto the page, but such sentences, by their very effortlessness, only provide a moment's pleasure. A writer's hours are spent bending and hammering the tough, unmalleable sentences that will not take shape. A jeweler delights in a polished stone, but the instant he has chiseled it, he sets it aside and picks up another rough rock. Work is not accidentally unpleasant but essentially so, for we work on what we wish to change, that is, on what we do not like. A company calls long meetings not to discuss strategies that are succeeding but that are failing. Our love of solutions forces us to keep company with problems.

To know someone truly, look at what he does when no one is paying him. My wife makes jewelry, my father gardens, I write, my grandfather cleared brush from the woods by his house. Seeking the common core of varied hobbies, I notice in all a devotion of effort toward a self-imposed goal. To accomplish something is every hobby's purpose, but what is the purpose of the accomplishment? We are less interested in the accomplishment than the accomplishing. Hobbies express an entrenched urge to create, to add patches of order to the universe. In our hobbies as in our careers, we stack the world's raw scraps into meaningful shapes—arranging dirt into flower beds, stones into necklaces, words into paragraphs. We curse a Saturday that sees no progress on our projects, not because anyone needs what we produce, but because we need to produce. At work we long for leisure; in leisure we keep working.

The busier I get, the more barren my life seems of meaning, but the less time I have to worry about it. Galloping to keep up with my calendar, tripping over appointments, occasionally I glimpse the absurdity of the frantic life. The only purpose of today is to check off yesterday's to-do list, and create tomorrow's. My overscheduled mind scarcely stops to let me sleep, yet my thoughts add up to mindlessness, since I never pause to notice I am living. Am I only a machine for labor, a thinking version of an ox?

Luckily, my vision of existential futility is cut short by my next approaching deadline. Busyness is the cause, and cure, of a pointless life.

Most of every day is not spent living, but maintaining the machine of life. Merely to make our motors run, we must power them down eight hours every night. We lose another eight hours in cubicles, working to earn money to eat, eating to get energy to go back to work. In the evenings, we all keep second jobs as janitors, clipping and scrubbing the ever-emerging chaos of shabby beards, shabby lawns, browning teeth, and sprawling toenails. Finally, for one blessed hour before bed, we get a book or guitar and do what we want instead of what we must. One hour of the day is the raison d'être of the other twenty-three. Who would buy a car that needed twenty-three hours in the shop for each hour's drive?

I never work so hard as on vacation. For weeks before my departure, I cannot relax on weekends because I must research and plan. Hail to the free spirits and gypsies who can find their way as they go. I have learned that any decision I neglect to make in advance, I will have to make in the moment, when time is scarcer, stress higher, and strangers waiting for my answer. My task—from a starting point of zero knowledge, to determine what to do, how long, and in what order—appears conquerable from a distance, but the more I learn, the more complexities emerge. The restaurant and theater I have chosen for Wednesday night are not in walking distance. The museum for Saturday is closed weekends. Research, before it yields solutions, multiplies problems.

On arriving, I tighten into a state of poise and tension: heightened alertness must compensate for heightened ignorance. Hailing a taxi, ordering food, and talking with a hotel receptionist follow rules and conventions I am oblivious of. I am reborn into childhood, my decades of education and social instruction made irrelevant. I revert to feelings of self-consciousness not felt since adolescence.

Finally, my vacation is over, and I can go back to work and rest.

We live in slavery to our ambitions. We complain of doing what no one makes us do. In the workplace, companies strain to meet the stratospheric goals naively conceived in the zeal of a board meeting. Executives restructure divisions, employees work weekends, managers cut costs and strain nerves to meet deadlines, overlooking the simpler solution of swapping their original fantasy for realism. For the pride of being president, the successful politician endures public ridicule, early gray hair, and a daily bread of crisis. At home, we plan parties meant to be fun then wither and growl under the stress of baking dessert and cleaning the house. Many nights I hate to sit down and write, but long ago some former self decided to do it, and, like a child raised under strict religion, backsliding afflicts me with guilt.

We groan under the law and forget that our own hands carved the tablets. Why not smash them instead of obey them?

Poets exhort us to savor life by forgetting the past and future and living wholly in the present. Yet I find that living in the present is precisely what hinders appreciation. During the week, I live solely in the present. I eat, work, eat, sleep, repeat. My world is circumscribed by my commute; my mind's range is limited by my body's. Do not animals live wholly in the present?

In the weekend's pause, I read a Balzac novel and emigrate to history for an afternoon. I think of the great populace of the dead, see my life in the context of Life, gain depth of emotion through breadth of imagination.

As travelers in foreign countries think fondly of home, we must be conscious of other times to love our home, the moment. Living fully in the present requires living partly in the past.

My mornings begin with fifteen minutes of depression. Startled from slumber's nothingness by my alarm, I see what I must do today, but not why I must do it. My mind is as calm as a Buddha's, examining my planned activities with passionless clarity, surveying life without yet quite belonging to it. All my business has an air of empty busyness. Toasting breakfast, commuting to work, responding to emails—all normalcy seems a costume of the preposterous.

By the time I step from my shower, my philosophic why? has given way to what order should I run my morning errands? Practicality clouds my clairvoyance, curing my depression not with hope, but a to-do list. Small thoughts rescue me from large thoughts.