Dead 18 Years

Cool Air - Bernie WrightsonI don’t know if are aware of the H P Lovecraft short story “Cool Air.” In it, the narrator explains why it is he has an aversion to cold. He tells the story of meeting a doctor who lived upstairs from him. Through the use of a refrigeration system he has built and continues to build, he keeps his entire apartment extremely cold for unknown reasons. Eventually, the system breaks down and the narrator is forced to help the doctor stay cold with buckets of ice. But in the morning, after getting back with the replacement parts for the air conditioner, he finds the doctor in a hideous state of decomposition because he had actually been dead for 18 years, just keeping himself “alive” with his various chemical concoctions and the cool air.

I find the doctor’s plight very compelling. This constant effort to stave off death. It has a certain similarity to what a junkie does each day to stave off withdrawal. But it is also the way I feel right now with my work. I am producing stuff at an alarming rate. Although I complained recently that I felt like my work was becoming hackish, it is also undeniably true that it is becoming longer and deeper. And to some extent, I see it as an effort to avoid thinking about my life.

The only reason I’m even aware of this is that when I exercise, I am left to my own thoughts. I’ve noticed that the speed that I run is determined by exactly how disturbed I am about whatever it is I am thinking about at a given moment. Much of it is quite trivial. In fact, in the grand scheme of things, it is all trivial. I’ve even begun to wonder if all the conservatives are right when they talk about the poor — but not about the poor generally. When John Boehner says the poor don’t want to work, he’s kind of right about me. The truth is that I am not interested in doing yet more work that gets destroyed by the money men. And that is the more pleasant and high paying work. I am also not interested in getting a soul crushing job at the local gas station. All of it makes me think that we have a pretty screwed up society when the vast majority of people do actually pointless work. Really, we should all be working on farms an hour a day and spending the rest of our time writing stories and trying to understand Galois theory.

So I suppress this kind of reflection on the practical matters of my life with mental strip mining. I read and write and read and write. It is an extremely selfish thing. I often think that since others are so interested in practical matters, it isn’t really necessary for me to do so. Isn’t it the case that everyone is expected to have a soul crushing job simply because everyone is expected to have a soul crushing job? Most people think the 40 hour work week was on those clay tablets Moses brought down off the mountain. Tenth commandment: “You shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or his manservant or maidservant, his ox or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor. And you shall not work more than 40 hours per week unless your employer payeth unto you one and a half time.” The truth is the 40 hour work week is relatively new. So why not a 30 hour work week? Or 20? Or 10? You’ve got to ask yourself why you work so much and why so many people now work on Christmas. We do it because we lack freedom — we lack the freedom that hunter-gathers had twenty thousand years ago.

At the same time, I fear all the excessive “unproductive” work that I do is the only thing that is keeping me from having a nervous break down. Or at least a break down of some kind. And maybe that’s what everyone is doing. The clerk at the gas station goes to work not just because he needs the money (I do understand the practical side of life) but because he’s afraid that if he doesn’t keep working, he may find himself dead. Actually: more than dead. He may find that he died 18 years ago.

4 thoughts on “Dead 18 Years

  1. And less freedom than medieval European serfs. They had every damn Catholic Holy Day Of Obligation off work, which meant about a third of the calendar. (That’s how the Church kept the serfs on its side, until Luther messed it all up.)

    In a way you could trace “progress” as an increasing sophistication in getting people to work more and more for their masters. Hunter-gatherers had a lot of free time, serfs a third of the year, European and American farmers had a few months off during winter, industrial workers won weekends and small paid vacations. Now we have weekends if we’re lucky, and paid vacations have been replaced by “flex time” or “paid time off” that gets chewed into by sick days, and many people are responsible for finding their own replacements if they want a vacation, meaning they don’t get one, so “flex time” becomes a empty job perk you can’t use. (I’ve been pretty lucky getting vacation time, but only because I threaten to quit over and over again, which is unbelievably stressful, and even so I give my employer back a week’s worth of unused flex time every year. Christ On A Crutch, I want a new job.)

    Also our work days are so long (with commutes, for the sad souls who don’t get relaxing reading time on the bus) that most if the weekend is spent dealing with household matters people didn’t get to during the week. For anyone with kids and the slightest inclination to actually nurturing them, forget it; you have no time off. None. (Of course, in Scandinavia, the work day begins and ends earlier with a longer lunch break, blahblahblah good for families and social cohesion blahblahblah, they’ll lose that eventually.)

    As you point out, it’s not just that we’ve lost free time; we’ve lost the freedom of mind to know what to do with free time. Keith Richards once said that the hardest thing in the world was doing nothing, and he should know.

    At least you read. I know so many people who don’t read, or when they do, read nothing but garbage (which can be fun, if it’s not all you read.) They are so hyper-tweaked about maximizing their few free hours that they carve out Reading Time, which must be Relaxing, which means avoiding stressful or challenging material. To me that sounds as appealing as having the “sex hour” from “1984.”

    As to the bigger issue of making one’s life meaningful, not wasting one’s brief time on the planet, having a positive impact on others, etc. All one can do is try. To the best of one’s abilities. It seems like you’re trying harder than most of us do. Any consolation in that? Probably not. Because, dammit, compared to Noam Chomsky, you’re lazy!,17404/

    • I’m not really criticizing myself. This is more an apologia. I know what I’m doing has value. Most of what I do has value. But I am very bad at monetizing what I do. That is true of the work here and the high tech work. And it bugs me, because on a number of occasions, people who are good at monetizing work that I have done have just destroyed it.

      I find myself in that grey world between the Baby Boomers and the Gen-Xers. So there is always this feeling that if I’m not making money, I’m not working. That’s the Baby Boomer side of things. But also, I think all this work stuff is ridiculous. And I know that is closer to the truth. We work the amount we do on the things we do because it benefits the rich. That’s it. Someone like you who does necessary work is a bit different. But you shouldn’t have to work more than ten hours per week.

      For as long as I can remember, I have always had a book with me at all times. The thought of being stuck somewhere without having something to read is terrifying.

      • It is infuriating. There are people who have no ideas and do no work except monetizing their non-ideas into pure cash. Not just in financial services; it’s endemic in the entertainment field as well, probably many other subsectors of the economy. I guess you have to respect them in a way; they lie like bandits and are good at it. It’s a skill.

        Which wouldn’t matter as much if we were all guaranteed a decent retirement. It would still matter, because those of us trying to get a dialogue going with others about how to make the human world less nasty are drowned out by those who want to get a dialogue going about how to convince other humans to let them steal money. A semi-sane economic system would alleviate this but not fix it. Then again, under a semi-sane economic system, these people would be regarded as kooks, charmingly loopy, not wizards who figured out the magic formula for not being poor.

        Not having at least one book to read on hand at all times is a terrifying notion. It’s like pooping before you check to see if you have enough toilet paper. I’d rather go without an umbrella than a book. There’s always a building overhang or somewhat leafy tree to sit under. But then what do you do while you’re sitting there, waiting for the rain to subside? Perhaps the worst monsters in history were those who didn’t have books on hand, and just pondered their unending greivances. (Well, the old worst monsters in history. The newer ones have a book on hand, and it’s “The Fountainhead.”)

        • I understand the need for business people. And I haven’t given up on the idea that there are some good ones. But most business people really do think that everything is business and don’t value the actual product.

          I will try to forget your analogy. ;-)

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