“Body Set to Music”: Musings on Labor Day

“Labour is blossoming or dancing where
The body is not bruised to pleasure soul,
Nor beauty born out of its own despair,
Nor blear-eyed wisdom out of midnight oil.”

–William Butler Yeats
“Among School Children”

We Yanks are celebrating Labor Day. I would laud it over my international friends, but most of them have a significantly larger spate of holidays than we do. Not to mention mandatory paid vacation. “Living wages” and “work/life balance” are two things I don’t hear my European friends talk about because they take them for granted.

They make enough money to live well, and, once that metaphorical whistle blows, they go home to their families and recreation without worrying about what’s left to do at the office.

When I was in Europe, one of the questions most frequently posed to me was, “Why are Americans so obsessed with their jobs?”

Simple answer: “We have to be.”

When I was a wide-eyed dreamer, I toiled away doing menial labor for much longer than expected. I thought getting letters after my name would deliver me from the yoke of high-pressure sales and ensuring all shelved products were “laser-lined” before we were allowed to call it a night.

I saw first-hand how employees are treated. “Cogs in a corporate wheel” may be cliché, but for good reason. When a corporation decides it’s time to do a little fiscal housekeeping, the first cuts come to labor. It’s bad enough being told you won’t be getting more than twenty hours the next few weeks. Worse are the unspoken assumptions: due to understaffing, you’ll be doing the work of three or four employees when you are there and stewing about how to juggle your bills and keep food in your belly when you aren’t.

Being called in and told you make too much money, which has happened to me, is the ultimate punch in the teeth. Yeah, I was really living high on the hog with that exorbitant $9.81 an hour.

I try to avoid politics in my essays, but it’s worth noting that, since 1973, worker productivity has skyrocketed while–adjusted for inflation–wages have remained stagnant. Don’t take my word for it; take the Economic Policy Institute’s.

I get that times are tough for retailers, restaurants, even fast food chains. I get that to remain in business, corners must be cut. I also get that since 1973, CEO wages have jumped 941%.

Where else could we pare back the budget?

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This one is a real head-scratcher.

I’ll leave the political posturing there, as I’m not keen on having drawn-out discussions online. Respectful, thoughtful discourse makes a democracy tick, but it’s virtually impossible on the web. Take me for a comp and rhetoric class if you want a good, scholarly debate.

Suffice to say I just want to send some love to the American worker on this holy day. I don’t mean that sarcastically. I honestly think that it’s important somewhere amid the charcoal-kissed provender and near-beer to pause and reflect on just how hard we grind away at our 9 to 5s.

Getting an extended weekend isn’t fair compensation, but, as little as we’re offered, we ought to take advantage. That is, of course, if you get the day off. If not, enjoy the time-and-a-half. That is, of course, if your company hasn’t phased out holiday pay.

Me, on the other hand, I’m working. Churning out this essay is technically work. I’m also editing my next short story and composing another. I’m not being hypocritical. Just feels more like revels.

Instead of relaxing next weekend, I’ll be traveling south to record interviews as we grow ever closer to wrapping the documentary I’m co-producing.  Work but not work.

Tomorrow, I’ll be back on campus: lecturing, updating assignments, grading, consoling despondent students after grades are handed back. On a week without a holiday, spending 60 hours doing that is leisurely. That’s the one that pays the bills. That’s the one that feels like work, right?

Wrong.

At the end of his great poem “Among School Children,” Yeats emphatically states that when we are at our most productive, when we are truly doing what we love–be that working, learning, writing, dancing–it should come organically. We shouldn’t even realize we’re doing it, just being swept away by the current.

He compares it to dancing, a skill nonexistent in my genes. Still, I get what he means. When you’re self-conscious about those around you, when you’re trying to count the beat and make sure you step in time, you’re a herky-jerky, awkward debacle, like a malfunctioning automaton. When you just let it wash over you, become the music, “How can we know the dancer from the dance?”

I wish everyone had that with his/her job. I wish we all loved our paychecks, which are more than enough to cover our necessities and indulge in a few frivolities as well, but I also wish we loved what we were doing so much we’d keep going, even if it didn’t pay.

I’m fortunate enough to have that. Sure, I have no work/life balance because everything I do feels like play. (OK, sometimes the grading gets a little tedious.)

People ask if I believe in karma. I have to answer “no” because I’ve never done anything good enough to deserve the positions I hold.

Having been on the other side of things, however, I vowed never to forget where I came from. I realize many, if not most, Americans dread punching the old time clock. So, to those, I offer this unsolicited advice:

Enjoy the hell out of this day. Drink too much. Eat too much. Don’t mow the yard or catch up on household chores. Just plop on the couch and binge watch The Defenders or go to the theater or maybe pick up a good story or two to read. (I might have have a couple of suggestions.)

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Self-promotion, another part of the job I’m not too fond of.

Tomorrow we’ll all be back in the salt mines. The tedium you face contrasting with the memories of yesterday’s merrymaking should reinforce my prior points.

Maybe it’ll inspire you to write your Senators and Representatives. Maybe you’ll get involved locally, air your grievances at a city council meeting. Maybe you’ll seek out non-profits and volunteer. Maybe that’s the kind of work that will meld your dancer into the dance.


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