Friday, June 7, 2013

Work Ethic

There were times in your life when a day's work meant a specific number of newspapers delivered to their subscribers on your assigned route or, as a variation on a theme, the number of newspapers sold when you worked your appointed corner.  The expression "all in a day's work" had yet to become a metric for you although you heard it from time to time from your father and your maternal grandfather, and took it to mean a word you'd become fond of more from the sound of it than the implications its meaning had for you.  The word was vicissitude, which you first took to mean the more neutral circumstances.


As your experience with selling things or delivering things or performing specific functions increased, vicissitudes became less a matter of mere circumstances and more the circumstances you produced when you neglected something or things got out of your control, or things were manipulated by persons who had more authority than you and whom you did not particularly like.  All in a day's work meant as much the circumstances beyond your control as it did the degree of your productivity. 

 In one case, where you were a library page, all in a day's work meant the number of trolleys filled with books you were able to return to the shelves in strict observation of the Dewey Decimal System and the number of books of some substantive interest to you that you were able to read.  

With the possible exception of your days in charge of a parking lot, this library page day's work was notable for its satisfaction, and was a job you for some time liked to compare with being a bag boy at McDaniels' Shop 'n Save in Beverly Hills, where company policy forbade you accepting gratuities from customers for taking their groceries to their car and where, nevertheless, you were seen on several occasions accepting twenty-five-cent pieces from Lauren Bacall with the defense that a twenty-five-cent tip from Lauren Bacall was of significant value and the number of bags you'd fill with groceries during the day was not something that would make you a valuable employee.

Working at jobs you knew were not going to be your eventual career became a valuable metric to associate with another term you'd heard bandied about since your newspaper and magazine days:  work ethic.  You valued the summer job as a cabinet maker's apprentice because he once, with no trace of scolding you, sent you to redo a varnishing job because you'd failed to varnish the undersides of the drawers in a bureau, your observation that no one would see the underside of the drawers to the contrary.  "Maybe no one will see it,"  he said, "but I'll know it.  Does that make sense to you?"  

The explanation did make sense, and although your woodworking skills left much to be desired, you were from that point on alert to things of that nature, work that might not be seen or call attention to itself but which you felt was essential to the overall effect.  You were in fact quite fond of wood as an abstraction, enjoying the smell of it in its various forms, excited by interesting grains.  But you hated woodworking.  Nevertheless, you earned two raises that summer, which seemed more than satisfying at the time, although there was nothing to match the unspoken pride at knowing you'd looked for, found, and where ever appropriate, performed the work no one could see.

Most of the television-related jobs you had were far from satisfying; you found yourself in a continuous frame of mind wherein you were thinking about television work you hoped to merit in the future.  Your equivalent of the raises in pay from the woodworking job came with your writing a sign-off for the host of a show you wrote for.  "And now, ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls, a sincere good night."  

You were probably in a sarcastic mood when you wrote that, and the bonus you got for it was spent in large measure on Pimms Cups and Moscow Mules, but somehow you achieved active membership in the Writer's Guild and were able to finance a Sahara tan Volkswagen Sunroof Sedan, which in its wonderful way became a force that moved you out of television. 

One producer saw you getting out of that car in the studio parking lot on Washington Boulevard in Culver City.  "Kid,"  he said, "you're never going to get good jobs, driving a car like that.  Why do you think most writers drive Mercedes-Benzes or BMW's?  A car like that, you're only going to get WV writing jobs, understand?"  You understood that he was not the first nor the last to call you kid.  One of the last was an editor who told you, "You've got to realize, you're not a kid any more."  You did in fact get a few WV writing jobs before moving away from that life and into a kind of no-writer's-land of non-writing jobs where you found difficulty maintaining any tangible measure of interest long enough to get you home, where you might get a few interested pages before the tides of dullness came racing in.

Sometimes, all in a day's work is almost ephemeral, say the considerable effort of finding the right name for a character.  Other times, it is thousands of words written, or dozens of pages edited.  Sometimes the all in a day's work of being an editor or a teacher--both activities you enjoy with a sense of glee--involve meetings, at which you are not motivated to be at your best.  This is because of your impatience which, when prodded, likes to pair up with suspicion.  Too often for the matter to be a coincidence, you have been promoted to editor in chief because of your persistence in keeping the necessary editorial meetings to a simple, direct agenda.  You were nearly made the director of a graduate-level program because you were able to demonstrate that two other candidates for the position were unduly long in their presentations.

A good day's work is still a day when you've discovered something few will actually see but nevertheless will feel the absence of, should it go missing or neglected,  A good day's work is the sense of having engaged language to produce a paragraph or two where meaning and process merge in a pellucid pond into which you have dropped a large, irregular rock of an idea.

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