Earning a Living
Photo: Oswego looking east from outside my old basement apartment next to the liquor store.
Made an around town trip in the car with the radio on yesterday afternoon, and heard an intro on NPR about a woman promoting naps to heal and protest the murder of George Floyd. I wrote about napping to save the world several years ago. I never got interviewed.
From Fish Are Very Capable of Destroying the World. Just Don't Tell Them, OK?
This one is going to be difficult. Thoreau wrote about it a hundred and fifty years ago in his essay, Life Without Principle. Sure it can stir you up and change your mind, and perhaps even get you to finish this life with some dignity, but you must be a poet to believe it, and the true poet is already clearing a dignified, happy existence path. That is, if he exists at all. No, Thoreau’s works are nearly forgotten. They breathe long-winded paragraphs to quote in your letter to the boss. Thoreau is read and used like the Bible. He and it are quoted when it is necessary for the quoter to get more money. Nobody believes the whole man or the whole Bible. Hypocrisy does not exist until someone else sees it to say so. I see it every minute of the day in myself. Yet I will take the entire Thoreau and Bible into my thoughts. That’s how I know I am a poet. Thoreau I understand, but the Bible is insane. Read the latter like you would People Magazine, that is, without a fake faith, but rather an interest in the teeth of Tom Cruise. Quick! Put it back on the rack. Abraham has a thick purple crust on his skin. Sara looks like an emaciated baboon.
The same goes for Walden or Life Without Principle—these works were written for people of another time, living and being on another planet. Not enough sex, violence and flatulence for today’s easy reader. I understand Thoreau only because, in truth, I am a reincarnated nineteenth century sensitive man, and consider myself to be one of his closest, most trusted friends. Yet, because I am here, near pavement, it is impossible for me to copy him, no matter how close I feel to his spirit. And that’s going back merely a hundred and fifty years! Whoa! Try reversing four thousand years to identify with the man slaughtering a lamb in the desert. All right, now imagine a pilgrim in Bethlehem today wearing plastic sandals and carrying a Bic lighter. The only thing in common he has with the ancient friends of Jesus is that they also stank to high heaven!
Anyway, Thoreau wrote a little essay—worthless today to anyone besides literature professors and very, very quiet men. But he wrote the truth and the truth must be sought after and discovered in order to be repeated. I intend to make his truth (which is my truth) readable and understandable to today’s layman. I don’t want to wake anyone up. It would be better if we never woke up. This foul city was not built by sleeping men. Nor was it constructed by innocence. I wish we could stay innocent and sleeping. What a difference a hundred and fifty years makes! Thoreau made an attempt to preserve the innocence of his
brethren. Most of his contemporaries knew a cow’s teats personally. Even the brainy ones. Thoreau wanted to remind his neighbors of a very recent past. He would have them eliminate their big illusion of improving comfort, a recent phenomena infecting the lower classes. The poor wanted to copy the wealth of the king, the president, and the shipping merchant, no matter how vulnerable each appeared sleeping in flannel pajamas.
Of course no one heeded Thoreau’s advice. That is why we have television. And why very few can pass a day alone by their own invention. That is why Thoreau is useless.
Well, I am a twenty-first century useless man. Yet I too want the truth. I want the bones, not the skin. I want what that tree has in my front yard. History, poetry, innocence! I’ll make friends with a dead book before I get through to my neighbor. I shall write my version of Thoreau’s essay for the 21st century un-man—you, the guy with hands in his pockets, the pot belly donning a baseball cap, the laborer working for money to exchange for a car, a house, and always the grand illusion of a supportive and loving family. You, who earns a living by the sweat of your brow and have more material possessions to show for it than all the dead pharaohs of Egypt. The only difference is your treasures are mass-produced plastic parts made in China and sold at Walmart. Your decorative candle-holder is plastic instead of gold. The cat’s dish is marked with mice silhouettes, not studded with fine, red rubies. And better for you, no bedside servants need carry your toilet water away, (modern plumbing is more sanitary and far less embarrassing). Meat stays edible longer. Every vegetable grown on the planet can visit your refrigerator within twenty-four hours.
You even possess more ease and comfort than pharaoh. Sure the couch is just a cheap box of staples and glue, but at least you have one. There’s a bed with a bed spread, several tables, too many chairs, maybe a soft carpet, pillows, pillows everywhere, electricity for light, and oodles of cheap, sometimes smutty entertainment—the kind of stuff to make the envious god Ra irate over the measly human flesh sacrifices offered to him throughout the centuries.
You have everything and more than the wealthiest ancient king. You’re a janitor, mechanic, teacher, programmer, lawn mower, film maker, waitress, student, salesman, nurse, doctor, teller, policeman—I could name the millions of occupations we occupy each day. For we truly are just fillers of space. If the world’s movements came to an immediate halt, and we were left with what we have earned up to this point in time, most certainly we could survive several more generations wealthier than any person inhabiting this globe from the birth of man to the brighter day some genius decided to separate his shit from the water supply. With a crash course to teach us how to extract seeds from the rot in our refrigerator crispers, some sun, rainwater, and dirt, we could live quite large just recycling the immense piles of crap we have accumulated thus far.
We occupy space. We accomplish nothing of note. Our drive is boredom. Boredom clones sheep. The sheep eat and sleep without the wealth of pharaoh. They were born, and therefore earned their living.
We occupy space, turn in circles, get involved in delivery from one end or the other, and collect some money on Friday.
We occupy space, call it progress, fill more positions, and slap each other on the back. “Good job! You’ve earned it Frank!” “Thanks Tom, you’ve earned it too!” Frank maintains dish washing machines for a restaurant chain. Tom works the hot press in a manhole factory.
One day, back in the mid-1800’s, Thoreau laughed to himself while observing a man and his ox trudge through town pulling a gigantic rock. The rock was to adorn the estate road of a wealthy merchant. A full day would go by until the rock was safely set and ready to admire. The rich man got his rock—the poor man his wages and an aching back. Thanks to the generosity of vanity, the laborer walked home with his head held high, believing he earned the right to eat. No. He made a a fool of himself. He reduced himself. From man to rock-puller. He earned the right to eat the moment he was born. He performed unnecessary labor. He spent a day playing foreman to an ox, wiping sweat off his forehead, and thinking about money.
In my town, Bridge Street is the main thoroughfare. From one end to the other, on any given day, you will find over a thousand people employed, and not one who possesses less in material treasure than an Egyptian pharaoh, a French king, or ancient Japanese emperor. Couch is in the parlor. Milk in the refrigerator. Shelves littered with unnecessary toiletries.
Kitchens cluttered. Bedrooms smothered. Attics of memorabilia that no one wants to remember. We will begin west, at the university. Now a veritable city of activity. Professors, students, and the five hundred or so day laborers who take care of them. Janitors in the dorms so close to a pension unclog vomit from a toilet bowl. Secretaries in administration dole out thousands of dollars to kids, most of them the intellectual equivalent of horses who can spell “college.” There are leaf-rakers, lawn-mowers, ambulance drivers, nurses and police, cafeteria cooks, retail workers, and a slew of managers to oversee the lower positions in each department—that means someone to watch the cook overcook the beef. The college is built and maintained for a hundred years, rebuilt during a surplus—millions of dollars spent to teach the children, among other things, that it takes millions of dollars for tiny bits and pieces of useless knowledge to penetrate their thick skulls. Who gets knowledge? Most graduate with the opportunity to pull their own rocks to the rich man.
I am not qualified to teach in this state, even though I have a lot to say about certain subjects. To be a teacher in my community I need a chair, secretary, union, paycheck, curriculum, subject, attendance sheet, car, clean criminal record, house, fireplace, and several insurance policies. I have none of these things. Yet a class of ten students would not be a burden. I would teach them ways to avoid earning a living, refusing to ready them for the real world. To instill in their souls a love of truth and poetry. Four years with me and a degree in “Four More Years of Living” from The University of Ron Gave Us Book Lists and Taught us How To Cook Beans and Wash Our Underwear.
A thousand dollars a semester from each student and I can acquire the wealth of pharaoh and feel good knowing that I prepped ten kids to walk the road of future prosperity, without the repetitive embarrassment of earning a living. I receive some purchasing power and educate ten more outcasts. I take the first ten interested. Absolutely no testing to see how well a young person can memorize that he is not an individual. I don’t provide housing, weight rooms, racquetball courts, or macaroni and cheese dinners. In fact the first class meets outside my door. “How will you earn a living?” will be the only topic of discussion. I’ll ask each student the same question. Harry wants to build rocket ships. Fine Harry. Here’s a book on rocket ship construction. I want you to walk four miles in that direction. Sit somewhere. Read the book. Take notes if you wish. Then walk back here following a different route.
When Harry returns I ask him to tell me about his walk. If he begins talking about the sunset, or the color of the lake, then he is expelled from school on the spot, for his own good. Yet if his walk was all rocket ships, then Harry wants to be a rocket ship engineer. After the initial walk the next four years are a breeze. One day of walking and reading followed by a day building a rocket ship. Each evening he will return to my door step to talk about rockets, until the day he doesn’t feel like talking about them. Then Harry graduates. Now it is time for him to earn a living. He will occupy most of his awake time providing rocket ships to himself and the rest of humankind. This is Harry’s occupation. Once it was a desire—now get to work! No more play.
To continue our walk down Bridge Street then...
There’s a diner, where several people earn their living by cooking and serving three hundred eggs a day. Mondays off to enjoy the fruits of labor. To buy things. To guarantee a lifetime of cooking and serving eggs.
At the bottom of this hill, in that abandoned building, a Dunkin’ Donuts is coming soon. The exaggerated importance of constructing a waterproof box to sell coffee and fritters. Presently it has the employ of masons, electricians, plumbers, carpenters, roofers, sheet-rockers, and painters. They get paid a handsome wage to build a square, electrify, plumb and paint it. Next month the doughnut company will employ ten high school kids, two housewives, and a rehabilitated repeat offender to stand next to donuts and earn their livings. It is a scam and a farce, but more than that, the building and maintaining of a Dunkin’ Donuts is insane.
Jesus, I don’t know if I can break that down without sending myself to cuckoo land.
But I will try.
What touches the Dunkin’ Donuts? What goes in to the coming out of you getting your cup of hot, black coffee? Wait. It’s too difficult for my poor brain. Suppose you do it for me, hmm? Begin at the pavement you drive onto—no, wait! First you’d have to deconstruct and identify the car that brought you to the Dunkin’ Donuts drive thru. Without it, there is no drive thru, and for 99% of the American freak show, that means no Dunkin’ Donuts. Count all the pieces that make up your car, even the cassette tapes and dirty tissues on the dash. Return each piece to the human hands that formed it—and no stopping at Detroit! If that door handle is plastic, find out how the plastic was made, where it was made, who made it, and how much money he made making it. It matters because a steaming cup of black coffee does not just appear in your hands, especially on a frozen morning with snow under your seat.
You step out of the car onto the pavement after counting the thousand or so hands that went into its making. Thank you. I could not have got this far myself without going crazy. To your left, newspapers stacked in a metal box. Here we go again! Not just the paper, but the reporter, the janitor mopping the reporter’s bathroom floor, the janitor’s break room, including his glass ashtray and fifty key-key chain. Break it down while I go upstairs and wake up my wife. We could use an alarm clock, but I prefer to wake her with my voice and a little nudge. That seems to make the morning less complicated. Don’t forget the metal box that the newspapers are stacked in. Nor the quarters and their original home before the smelting. Be back in a few minutes.
Okay, touch the Dunkin’ Donut’s door. You know what to do. Now the tile floor, the booths, the old men sitting in the booths. What are they wearing? My God, this is going to take a long time! To your left is the coffee shelf (I almost forgot where we were). Break it down to coffee forests, coffee pickers, sorters, loaders, drivers, flyers. Those paper bags were a tree. Where? Who gets his living printing bags for Dunkin’ Donuts? Finally something that is Dunkin’ Donuts. The Dunkin’ Donuts printer. A human being earns a living printing twelve letters and an apostrophe on a bag. Thank god we have him! Yes, he has earned the right to live, raise himself and a family, and grow old printing millions of Dunkin’ Donuts
logos. I wonder though, is it really Dunkin’ Donuts, or is he in the employ of a printing shop that contracts with Dunkin’ Donuts to print their bags? Oh no, he probably is. Break it down!
Hmm. Nice counter. Stainless steel. Break it down!
Uniforms for employees. Break them down!
Is that a head set? For coffee? Break it down.
Two hundred colorful donuts, muffins, bagels, croissants? Break them down. Look at your server. Look beside you at the old woman with the big purse. Behind her a construction man with boots and a tool belt. Is it just me and you who are breaking things down today? Are we the only ones fixing Thoreau’s true gaze before getting our coffee? Coffee! All of this for coffee! Can we truly assume that we are useful at all? Jesus, does the sun itself have anything to do with a Dunkin’ Donuts? Will it continue it’s shine for the infinite count of human hands involved in the construction of a donut and coffee house, if this donut and coffee house burns to the ground? The way things look, it’s like half the human world would starve to death if Dunkin’ Donuts ceased to exist. Half the world would be out of work and unable to earn a living.
Now a moment please to write about the useless.
Last night Marie and I sat down on our thousand dollar couch to watch The Simpsons on TV. By the way, The Simpsons accomplishes in a one half hour TV slot what the greatest writer could not complete in a lifetime. It is the only TV for me because it has a very advanced understanding of the useless. Of course, one need only break it down to see the million hands helping in its construction, and the writer’s life doesn’t necessarily become useful, but at least it saved a handful of people from realizing their uselessness and attempting suicide.
So there we are resting our bones on a semi-comfortable, thousand dollar couch watching The Simpsons. Break for fifteen commercials. I grab the remote control and switch over to the PBS station. The BBC news hour starring anchorman Hugh S. Less. Correspondent Tim Fatstomach is in Ethiopia with his stuffed TV crew filming a mother and child sitting under a tree. The child is naked, bony, and almost dead. The child is naked, bony, and almost dead. One more time. The child is naked, bony and almost dead, crying, hopeless, helpless, baby of God; more useful than the Church of Christ, the shrine to Buddha, the priest, rabbi, and all their families, friends, and neighbors. Break it down with our dirty cup of coffee. Break it down to nothing and you get a useless dead boy under a tree. We are kicking it in the head. We are rubbing his tears into dry dirt, raping his mother, burying his father. The latter got his wrists chewed in a coffee grinder and bled to death. Gourmet Ethiopian coffee of course!
Switch back to The Simpsons. Yes fools! Marie and I wear our individual useless badges too. We are no better than the American child pouring pure maple syrup on pancakes while the flies lap the last traces of salt from the eyes of a naked, bony dead boy lying under a tree limb in Africa. I see Marie. I see her face. She knows what I am thinking. Now she knows why I am angry. It is not 1840. Thoreau might have known they were starving in Ethiopia. Sure, so he went for a walk to the pond to read. He ate potatoes for dinner. Perhaps some butter and a glass of cream. He was useless. He knew he was useless, before and even after earning his living. He did not wake up to the radio alarm, roll out of bed and trudge twelve feet to a toilet. He never stood in a shower rubbing three different brands of soap onto his skin. No blow dryer, Q-tips, nose-hair clippers, or aftershave. He stunk in the winter. He bathed in the lake in summer, and dried off while reading a book in the sun.
Yes, Marie and I are useless. But damn it, we are affected! We are sensitive, caring creatures. Now what are we going to do about it? I will tell you what I am not going to do. I will not leave my mind open anymore. It is closed and securely locked. No nation, no people, no god can woo me with lies any longer. I would rather starve to death. I am not useful, do you hear? I have no illusions of the useful. I am a consumer, a mass producer of waste, and nothing more. Do not even try to make me useful. I am already affected. I am nothing. I don’t vote, hold a job, wash my hair, nor give a pickle if a city is bombed and gasoline prices soar through the roof. Until the human world if fed and warm, it’s all cuckoo like The Simpsons, like $1.06 for a cup of black coffee, like the little nameless boy whose dried up brain is starved of oxygen because I’m coveting the latest Lou Reed CD, and lunch for me and you is always more than just a fire-ash potato.
Break it down. I know we can feed them. You know we can feed them. A K-mart commercial starring an obese country singer telling women in song, to spend. Feed them her.
Now back to The Simpsons.
I can see by the look on Marie’s face that this guilt will wear on us for a couple hours at least. We will laugh about it after The Simpsons because we both know that it is wiser to laugh. Laugh as though there is not a dying boy or girl anywhere in the world. Laugh for five more minutes and then talk about it. I must attempt to explain it away. We are not guilty Marie. Lazy, yes, but not guilty. Jesus, it wasn’t our fault we were spit out of our mother’s womb into a room full of electronic equipment. Who would have thought at that moment to break it down? No, we cannot be guilty for a world we did not create. You know dear as well as me that money spent on a day of bombing Iraq would feed every Ethiopian child for life and give them a college education to boot. We know this. We even pay for this. We pay taxes so we don’t go to jail or lose our house, couch, TV, automobile, our arborio rice. We pay because we enjoy the freedom of acquisition and gluttony. Oh shoot! We are guilty. Back to our old plan of sending an anonymous gift of rice to Ethiopia. It’s the only way to quell the screaming agony of our guilty consciences.
Or is it? No. We could become outlaws. If Robin Hood was not a hand of God, then God is a crippled, starving, useless little black boy of Africa. We could put much effort into starving ourselves of civilization. We can redefine what it means to be civilized. Come inside and not let anyone else in until we have practiced human loving-kindness often enough to start over with the proper strength. For without it we are worthless, not useless, and believe me there is a difference. Come inside and do not be guilty for owning a pillow, a kitchen sink, electrical outlets and food. Don’t be guilty for washing your hair, even though you broke down the shampoo inside the bottle and figured yourself entirely useless. Guilt for the starving boy? No, it’s better to have compassion for him and a burning hatred for things like airplane fuel and the 6 o’clock news. The Congress of United Fatstomachs can spend all the money it desires paving roads for the umpteenth time. They must keep people working in a constipated economy, or else they are out of a cushion job. A flagman is necessary. He can earn his living holding a flag. Don’t hate him because he doesn’t question like you. Still, there is no reason to love him either, unless he and his orange flag are wasting away under a tree in Africa.
If you come inside and stay inside, and learn to love the things you touch, then naps happen more often, and naps are inversely proportional to world suffering and starvation. That means for every nap achieved, a hungry boy is fed. I swear to God it’s true. Each nap takes a bite out of the illusion of earning a living, which is solely responsible for your bloody hands and guilty conscience. Seven naps a week feeds seven children. Let us stop by Mr. Jeeper’s liquor store to illustrate my point.
“Oh damn!” says Benny American. “The sign on the door says, ‘Nap time. Please come back.’ Shoot, it’s my day off, and the bars don’t open for an hour. I was gonna get a buzz on at the river and then scoot over to Gary’s Bar to watch TV. Damn Jeepers, what’s he doing taking a nap? Well I guess I’ll just go stand outside Gary’s, smoke some cigarettes, and play a bunch of scratch-offs until he unlocks the door.”
Do you see? If Mr. Jeepers is sleeping, then Benny can’t get any liquor. Break it down. See for yourself how the little boy gets fed.
Hurts, doesn’t it? Here, I’ll try this one for you.
It’s nap time at the liquor store. Benny American is thirsty for booze and is prepared to spend an hour’s wage on Juicy Whiskey. He’s got a crisp ten dollar bill. The bottle is on the shelf, but Benny can’t get to the shelf because Mr. Jeepers is taking a nap. The bottle is not sold. It sits on the shelf and gets counted in the next inventory. The order is sent, one less bottle of Juicy Whiskey. A ten dollar bill not spent, waving in limbo (actually, getting scratched off with a penny on colorful cardboard).
The man at the wholesale liquor warehouse takes inventory and places his many orders. One goes to the Juicy Whiskey distribution center in New Jersey. There a man calls in an order to Kentucky for 299 bottles of Juicy Whiskey. It would have been three hundred but remember, Mr. Jeepers was taking a life-saving snooze.
Now the man at the distilling plant calls a grain mill in Iowa and places his order for five hundred and ninety-eight pound of cracked corn. Why not six hundred? Because Benny American stayed sober until noon.
The grain mill man in Iowa makes a call to the farmer. The bundles are arranged less so many pounds of corn. It will rot at the silo while waiting for the next order.
Now’s the time to act. Benny American’s failure to obtain a bottle of Juicy Whiskey has resulted in a surplus of corn in the farmer’s field. Remember that Benny’s failure is owed to Mr. Jeeper’s insistence on having a nap. For our story to become a success, however, one of two outcomes needs to happen. Either the farmer must be a benevolent, compassionate soul, and take this opportunity to feed an unknown dying boy (which is unlikely), or the critical vote needed in the Congress of United Fatstomachs to kill the bill that if passed would make it a law to feed mankind, must take a nap that afternoon, (quite possible with a sufficient bribe).
If neither happens, then Robin Hood wakes up from his long nap to do what he does best.
You can see how the nap can feed mankind, yes? And when I say Robin Hood, I mean that Marie and I become outlaws, and take whatever we can, however we can. Because we need to feed the starving boy, and murdering another for what he’s got in order to give to a little naked boy without food or a toy, is not a happy way to get our living—we have decided to go upstairs and take a nap.
Naps. Oh grown men of America, you must know by now that we are all such guilty failures. Take of the workman’s clothes, slip into your cozy pajamas, and hop into bed. There is nothing doing today besides more neglect of needy humanity. A long nap will do you some good. And I promise it will feed starving children, indirectly—that’s the best way to keep your hypocrisy out of Ethiopia. The loud, content snores of comfortable and secure Americans. A sweet song to the human hordes of fly food suffering in the sand. Earning your living. Pooh! You sell cellular phones. You guide Grandma’s twigs through a grinding machine. You clean tropical fish tanks. You paint houses. You park cars. You scrub bedpans. You make bedpans in a bedpan making factory. You are insured with sick time, vacation time, personal days, and a fattening pension, after six thousand days spent casting bedpans from hot steel. Don’t you see the eternal embarrassment of this life exchange? How do you go to a high school reunion and tell the old bully that you’re in the business of bed pans? I know. Because the bully installs security systems. You’re one up on him. You have a bigger house and a prettier wife. (Vice-versa wives. You’re just as guilty if not napping.) Bully asks, “Hey Tom, how do you earn your living?” Tom says, “Hey Joe, I repeat a silent, agonizing boredom day after day. But it pays well, wink-wink; how about another drink?”
From now on when I get trapped in the illusion of earning a living, I will ask a starving toddler to justify my work. If he cannot find a smidgen of good in the work I do, and suggests a nap to save his life, I’ll probably quit my job again, mask my quilt, and fall asleep rather than kick him to death with my nifty steel-toed boots of hypocrisy.
Solutions. First of all, no one on our planet earth earns a living. That is illusion’s greatest symptom. Easy to diagnose. A thousand years from a cure. I can offer preventative action to those interested in spending life, and not earning it. We all have the disease. It is killing us. Time now to take some pride in our dying.
For those of you who cannot take naps to save your life, visit your public library and take out Training of a Zen Buddhist Monk, by D.T. Suzuki. Read it. Then gather all the human strength you feel and copy that life for a day minus the meditation. For if you can’t take a nap, then you are a universe away from meditating with any semblance of composure. Fill that gaping time slot with a manicure or a climb up a tree. I don’t know. But you must do something by yourself, without mechanical aids. One day of living. You’ll want to pick up a broom or smooth the dirt out with your hands in the backyard. For after reading this book, you will notice that Zen will not tolerate laze-abouts. It wants you to work to eat. It just does not give a crap what you do for work, because it’s all wacky anyway. In fact, if you really want to help the world, spend the work part of your day doing something you think is useless. Comb your dog’s fur for an hour. Collect tiny stones into a bucket. Search for rare truffles beneath the cellar steps.
Spend the day the Zen Buddhist monk way. Maybe even take a hot bath before bed. Can’t turn on the water though. Remember, no mechanical aids. Lake water heated on an open fire. You get the picture? One day of living life like Bubba the Buddha or Henry Thoreau, and a twilight of a calm you won’t recognize envelopes you. With effort, we can shun the illusion of earning a living. One day a month. Even one day in the rest of your life would feed the almost dead child in Ethiopia. One empty day is medicine to kill the illusion of being a doctor, corn farmer, or financial planner. We are never what we think we are until we become complete, useless living human beings. Then it’s all cream and sugar.