2010: A Post Mortem
by Jeremy Browning
Jan. 06, 2011 20:37
"If you think about it, you only need three things," Bill said, leaning over the counter in the front office of my T-shirt shop. "A roof over your head. Food. And clothing. Everything else is a luxury."
Bill was explaining that he had just dropped the job as intramural soccer coach at the community college because they insisted he file some reports online. Bill doesn't do online. He's not going to waste any part of what he calls the "last quarter" of his life adding any more complications. The school insisted he log on to their network to file grades for his soccer students. So Bill quit.
On one hand, Bill is an anti-capitalist, anti-American, soccer-can-save-the-world Fruitloop. And I sparred with him briefly, wondering out loud if it would be simpler
for the school write all 250 report cards by hand, or simply print them out after the teachers spent a few minutes logging the grades online.
But I let Bill off really easy because I'll be damned if he doesn't have a point. "I'm looking to simplify my life, Bill," I said. "What do you recommend?"
He explained that most people have three full-time jobs: their Nine-to-five plus the job of parent, which is more than full-time, plus the job of spouse, which is full-time if you do it right.
It's too much for any human, he reasoned. Especially since we work way harder than we need to trying to fill our lives with luxury items instead of being content with the Big Three.
He had me hooked. It was a busy Tuesday morning. I was already behind schedule and stressed. Two of my employees were waiting in the wings just behind the production room door (I have an annoying sixth sense for that now: I can feel
when my employees have run out of all the decent work and come asking what's next before they tackle the "Fun Items" list that is pinned up in the shop and contains tasks such as "Clean lint on dryers and dryer belts").
But I left the crew hanging, kissed my morning deadlines goodbye and engaged Bill for 30 minutes. I permitted him the diatribes that normally have me flashing the secret hand signal for someone in the back to call my desk on their cell phone pretending to be an angry, urgent customer.
Bill told me how to simplify. He's not married. He has no kids. He survived for decades on the equivalent of $7,000/year catching odd jobs and doing dishes. I'm not kidding you. The dude's pushing 70 and I've seen him in the back of some of my favorite restaurants, elbow-deep in suds. His land, house and Subaru Outback are paid for. He works a few days a week for the hell of it. He's been a ski bum since the Sixties. He takes disabled kids skiing every other Saturday and trades the Mountain for a thousand dollars in free lift tickets. He rides his bike everywhere.
Bill had me hanging on his every word like a bunch of Doak Walker footballers listening to John Elway explain how to throw a spiral.
Here's why: Two Thousand Ten kicked my butt.
I just got rocked and don't quite know how I'm still trudging forth.
On the one hand, I'm a complete pussy, because I didn't experience any of the potentially earth-shattering horribleness that no doubt was served up to many others.
On paper it was a fine, fine year. It was the highest-grossing year in my company's history, despite a deep downturn in the local economy. My children and wife are happy and healthy.
But throughout the year, my gut felt like it was stuck half-way down the first free fall on a roller coaster. And I remember thinking, "Dude, this stress isn't good for you." And I remember that I agonized over bids for big jobs, then rejoiced when I got them, then wondered how in the hell I'd fit them into my already packed schedule, then found a way, which usually entailed printing until 10, 11, 12, 1, 2 or 3. I even pulled an all-nighter. I literally printed T-shirts all night long.
I solved seemingly impossible technical feats, cranked out full-color reproductions of paintings, printed impossible fabrics in impossible locations, dealt with equipment failures, supplier failures, employee failures and plenty of my own failures. I arrived at the UPS depot numerous times to hand off my T-shirt boxes to the guys in brown literally minutes before the truck left the dock.
I told customers sorry. I told them thanks. I told them, you're welcome. I told a couple of them to screw off.
And I created a lot of artwork. I knocked out some crappy art that people really loved. I knocked out some amazing art that people insisted I change. And I knocked out tons and tons and tons of good, solid, workaday artwork that just plain did the job in various mediums, including screen-printed T-shirts and embroidered Hats, Business Cards, Brochures, Posters, Playbills, Web Ads, Newspaper Ads, Signs, Bumper Stickers, Menus etc.
I hunted for deals on supplies, I agonized over my advertising budget, and I answered the phone several thousand times, saying, "Chaos Ink, this is Jeremy."
I'd usually arrive home a little (OK, a lot) late and apologize to my wife. While gauging her response and thus, her day, I'd hug my boys, load one on my hip and try to listen to the other one who always wants to share a detailed Lego build or invite me to see how his Transformer gets into Robot Mode. Many times I made dinner and many times I did dishes. I gave a few baths and a few foot rubs. I cleaned the wood stove and stacked a couple tons of wood pellets. I shoveled the walk, the patio and the roof. I mowed the lawn and raked the leaves.
I tried so hard to be attentive to the boys and to my wife and I failed on both accounts. I was exhausted. I tuned them out. I got angry at their insistence for a piece of my time. Can't you see I'm taking care of you,
I thought, while not making eye contact with them and not really hearing about their cool lego or her day with the children.
I scurried to Christmas and didn't even have time to take a decent stab at wrapping my wife's presents.
And I know, know, know that makes me an asshole. But tried so hard and there was just none of the fun, engaging, curious, interested me
left for them.
And I cursed the paradox that I'm lame mainly because I'm stretched so thin from being successful and bringing home the bacon and the rest of the luxuries.
So you know I almost cried when Bill volunteered the most intimate details of his childhood. He explained how the three full time jobs (employee, father, spouse) take their toll on a person. He explained how his dad worked himself to the bone to provide a living, but was too stressed and overwhelmed to enjoy it. Bill said it kills a person's soul from the inside out. "See, my dad worked at GM," he said. "He had one day off, on Sunday. And if you had something to say to him on Sunday, you better be ready to duck."
And Bill flung his right arm back and away in a gesture so authentic and so violent that I jolted. His movement was completely "not Bill," and I immediately came to terms with the fact that it boiled up from his remembrance of a backhand delivered from the seat of his dad's living room recliner.
"On Sunday," Bill continued, "Dad wanted to read the newspaper and drink a six-pack and not be bothered. He was stressed and worn-thin from his week and he needed to unwind."
In that moment, Bill's casual and compassionate understanding of his father's plight just floored me.
My father has never been violent, but I saw the stress written on him as well. I remember one Sunday at grandma's house when I was a kid, my father was dozing while the rest of us were enjoying the afternoon. I was teasing my dad that he would win a Gold at the Olympics for sleeping. And he just got so angry at me that I never forgot it. He was just so mad. And now I know he was thinking, Can't you see I'm taking care of you.
Now naturally I have to intellectualize all of this and hunt for an answer. Philosophically, I think it's just silly to hate what we have to do and to be compelled to do what we hate. This isn't Auschwitz. So one of my ideas is to stipulate less stress, even if it means a smaller paycheck. I'm talking about turning the equation around so that it's not like, "OK, we gotta have all this stuff, now let's do whatever it takes to make sure we can keep up this lifestyle." Why not start with, "OK, here's how much stress one person can handle, now let's carve out the best life we can within
that level of affluence."
I promise you that I've considered the possibility that this whole thing comes down to me imagining the grass is greener when in reality I'd be a whole lot worse off with less "stress" (read: money) since I'd also have less health insurance, less yummy beer, less convenient automobiles, less good clothes, etc.
But I'm talking about my fantasy that there is some sort of middle ground, where there are a few luxuries and definitely a hard day's work, but not unnecessary luxury nor an unendurable workload.
Part of the problem has been that I need to ruminate. I really require some time to mull things over and turn things about in my brain. It's how I compost all the odds and ends of my personal life and stay sane.
And it seems this year has been so incredibly packed that there's just no time to ruminate. I find myself standing in the shower in the morning strategizing how to put out yesterday's fires and the next thing I know it's midnight and I'm brushing my teeth realizing that the intervening 16 hours didn't permit me more than 5 minutes of uninterrupted time to mull things over. Actually, there was exactly five minutes in the shitter during which I read the Drudge Report on my iPod Touch. But I emerged from the restroom and one of my employees was handing me a phone message saying so-and-so is wondering about the status of their order.
But tonight I got some precious time to think things over. And you can see that we're far from a solution. But I'm still clawing at the answer, which means that I haven't given up. I don't mean any offense to Bill's dad when I say that I won't settle for a lifetime of Sundays in a barcalounger with a six-pack. I realize I stand on the shoulders of many like Bill's dad, who toiled their lives away for the prosperity we take for granted today. But I don't go in for the Myth of Straight Line Progress either. What I mean is that we've had wonderful progress at the expense of all those stressed-out folks. But we don't have to follow this trajectory forever. We decide where to draw the line in the give-and-take between the material and the spiritual. We can decide to measure our
happiness in terms of touch-screen gadgets, walks by the lake or a reasonable mixture of the two. We can choose to have time
instead of stuff
. And that's not anti-capitalist. Capitalism is free trade. That's it. And if I choose not to trade with you today because I'm in the garden with my sons, hunting for ripe tomatoes, then maybe I miss out on the big score. And maybe my son will be in your son's shop 50 years from now and he'll be describing the taste of a sun-warmed Brandywine and how his father taught him to tell when they are ready to pick.
And your son's mouth will water and he will crave the warm, red flesh, the smell of moist garden soil and the glory of an idle afternoon on Earth.
Edited Jan. 06, 2011 23:13