Sunday, May 12, 2019

Lean in until your face hits the ground

In the early 1980s, I worked for a sail loft. Every winter, at the beginning of January, we went on overtime, six days a week, ten hours a day. As a sailor, I thought of the sailing season as the busy season. It hadn't occurred to me that people would get more work done on vital equipment like the sails themselves when the boat was laid up for the winter. As soon as it was dumped on me, it seemed obvious. For many weeks during winter service, the loft crew worked like zombies, wending our way through towering piles of Dacron. The ceiling in our building was low, which made the mountains of varying whiteness seem even more immense. New cloth was dazzling under the glare of fluorescent lights. Old sails looked like old snow, in varying shades of gray.

In the short daylight of winter, with years of life ahead of me, I could burrow into the tunnel of work without too many distractions. The glaciers of sailcloth ground slowly across the landscape until the meltdown in early spring. As the days lengthened and outdoor life beckoned, work receded to grant more time.

This spring at the shop, the repair load has been a little heavier than in recent years, and we're down to one and a half mechanics. El Queso Grande has recovered enough from surgery to be able to wrench carefully, but he also still has to run the business. And with only two of us on duty on any given day, any influx of customers brings service work to a halt. It has created a mini version of the winter service overload. The difference is that it is hitting during the rise of daylight, when life outside the building calls strongly. I'm also decades older. "Life gets mighty precious when there's less of it to waste," as the song goes. Life outside that particular building always calls strongly. It was different when we were the bartenders at the months-long party that was bike season. Now we're just aging servants for competing aristocracies.

I got talked into giving up one of my days off last week, to try to get ahead a little on the repair load. Not only did it barely make a dent in the waiting pile, it completely screwed me up for the rest of the week. I slid into quitting time on the last day basically face down. As much as I sense that I am supposed to be ashamed for taking time off, we're talking about irreplaceable life here.

El Queso Grande refers to my days off as "vacation." A good servant of the cult of the workaholic, he has absorbed the philosophy that if work is good, overwork is better. If he'd lucked into something more lucrative than the cross-country ski and bike industries he might actually take time off himself, and delegate more of the mucking out to the flunkies. But the country as a whole suffers from the perception that we should all be working harder and longer, rather than figuring out how we can all be helping each other to work less. Many hands make light work, says the proverb, but in the world we have created, many hands make depressed wages and high unemployment.

I look out the shop window at drivers coming and going from the deli out back, or poaching our parking lot to go to other businesses nearby. The trucks are big and loud, with large-bore exhaust pipes belching fumes as the vehicles are left idling. I get to read the stickers on people's vehicles, waving fists of defiance against any calls for restraint. I watch us lose the long, slow-motion war into which my generation was born, to which most of my peers surrendered. Their children and their children's children show increasing conflict, not increasing convergence, but they all drive. Drive, drive, drive. Does it matter whether the driver that runs you into the ditch was distracted or hostile? Just going to work, by any mode, is stressful and depressing. And then I'm at work, solving problems that are sometimes interesting, but that add up to a big fat zero -- as far as I can tell -- in the conflict of values playing out nationally and globally.

Based on the entirety of human history, this can't end well, and will probably end soon. Wealth has always been concentrated, so any attempt to spread it around always has to assure the holders of it that it will always technically be theirs. And any attempt to improve the quality of life in general has to be framed around profitability. Forget that profit has no basis in nature, where breaking even is the ideal. Humans can imagine times of shortage and compete for things that haven't happened yet. Humans can create shortage to manipulate markets, and exploit misfortunes both accidental and manufactured.

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