Some Recent Observations on Work

I’ve been noting a trend in recent weeks, and it’s time to start talking about it.

Back in law school, in college, before then even, there was a rhythm and flow to life. Finals came around every four months with a break in between. With each semester ending, I had another page of pointy letters proclaiming my achievements. I walked to classes or at least had time during the day to take in the seasons. I felt like I was a part of the world. I was happy then. 

Nowadays there’s nothing to punctuate the days. I work in an office building on the fifth floor. The windows don’t open, the air conditioning is always a little too cold, and the lights are always too bright. The days are starting to blur together, and I’m no longer happy.

All that remains is the weekly cycle. My weekends are exciting. I embrace adventure. There’s fun to be had in the world, and when given a few days’ freedom I usually find it. Then Monday comes around. Monday isn’t so bad. I’m sad to be back in my cubicle, but sometimes the routine of the workweek is a welcome reprieve after pushing too hard on the weekend. But today is Tuesday, and tonight I have nothing left in the tank. I didn’t work particularly hard today. I’m not tired, but I’m not here either. Tomorrow will be worse. Come Thursday I’ll be angry by mid-afternoon. And by Friday I’ll need a couple of hours after work just to start feeling like myself again.

It wasn’t always this way. When I first started this job I was just thankful to have a steady paycheck after years of life as a broke student. Every couple months, right before I’d get completely fed up with whatever menial task I was assigned, something slight would change and that would be enough to keep me in my seat a little longer. Sometimes weeks would go by quickly. I’d occasionally even have fun at work. Not nearly so much fun as when I was a bartender or a treasure hunter, but a modicum nonetheless. 

But I’ve been doing the same task since the beginning of the year, and the distances between shifts are shortening while the weekends feel farther apart. Time is at a premium during the weeks. I leave work at 4:30; I’m home by 5. If I go to bed at a reasonable hour I have six hours to do what I must. That sounds like an eternity, but it’s closer to a blink. Feed Roscoe, make dinner, pay my bills, do my laundry, pack a lunch. But those are only the necessities. I have a girlfriend who wants to see me, a waistline that demands exercise, and a mind that needs stimulating; all of these things take more time. What time remains to improve my life, to establish my law practice and create a future that doesn’t require me to go back to that hermetically sealed office the next day?

I’ve been trying to streamline my life. To pay my bills as quickly and as fearlessly as possible. To squeeze the ends of each day to make room for a bike ride or a few minutes doing crossword puzzles with Red. To write.

I’m losing the battle. Those precious seconds I’ve managed to save are being stolen by that horrible malaise that follows me home from work every day. It’s not just Fridays anymore. Even tonight, on a Tuesday, the only inspiration I can muster is to write a blog post complaining about work. And when Friday night finally comes, more of it is lost each week to recovering. One day soon enough that’ll extend into Saturday. Eventually a week will come when I won’t be able to get back to square one for Monday. I’m wearing down. 

Maybe this is growing up. College doesn’t last forever, kid. Red tells me about her mom sometimes when I fall into a mood. She’s been working her own soul-sucking accounting job for more than a decade to provide for Red. Maybe I’m one of the lucky ones, without kids and with enough freedom to have a little fun once or twice a week. Maybe I just need to suck it up and learn to deal. After all, back when I worked as an expo at Don Pablo’s I spent my nights catching flaming fajita skillets with a dish towel. No one throws flaming skillets at me anymore, so I have to call my current position an improvement. 

If this is growing up, it can’t be good for me. I once spent a few months working the fifteen percent struggle at Olive Garden. That was a shitty job. It wasn’t just the overheated server nooks or the constant demands for lemonade, salad, and breadsticks. It was the performing, putting on a pleasant, accommodating face for every table when all I wanted was a modest tip that would never come. To get a $1.15 tip on a $30 check, to stifle the outrage, and to hope for better on the next table.

You can’t take poor tips personally. There’s rarely any malice in bad tippers, only ignorance of a customary practice. So there’s no sense in getting butthurt about them. All you can do is turn off that part of you that takes pride in your work. Flip the switch off, even though you know you deserve better than hustling pasta for pennies, and cram it down into the darkest recesses of your soul until the shift is over. Forget pride; it only gets in the way when you desperately need to be a happy worker bee. Hope is even worse. Resign yourself to your fate. The tips will be bad, so enjoy it when a good one comes along. It’s the only way to preserve your sanity.

There’s a price to be paid though. It was a bartender at Olive Garden, Justin, that pointed it out: It’s a little harder to retrieve the tucked-away part each time.

I don’t know what this means for me tomorrow. I’ll go to work. I’ll do good work. I won’t be paid enough for it to pay off my debts. I won’t be recognized for what I do. Every day is the same, so there’s no reason to expect tomorrow will be different. Hope only leads to disappointment. 

Do I swallow my pride, shut up, and click my buttons, knowing every time I do it will be harder to find my pride afterwards?

Or do I hold onto my pride, guarding it jealously, even though doing so makes me rage against the constant indignity of working for a company that treats the rank-and-file with contempt?

What proud beasts we once were!

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