Friday, June 11, 2010

Older Work Ethic 

He was the man that cannot steer, that cannot splice, that dodges the work on dark nights; that, aloft, holds on frantically with both arms and legs, and swears at the wind, the sleet, the darkness; the man who curses the sea while others work.
-Joseph Conrad, The Nigger and the Narcissus

A colleague and I were talking about how we both used to feel badly, many years ago, at how older grown men were such better workers than us. I don’t just mean seeing old farmers laboring better than us healthy kids; I mean how older folks in general had a tougher work ethic.

I might compare my work observations to seeing younger kids playing ball: it was natural for boys to step back when receiving a hard pass. At some time this changes for them. As young adults it was natural for my peers to step back from work. They’d rather work than be bored, but still, it was natural to step back. I didn’t notice when this changed. Come to think of it—ha!—I remember a guy who used to hate me for always smiling on Monday morning!

There was a scene in one of my childhood young adult novels, Citizen of the Galaxy by Robert Heinlein. The colonel of the regimental spaceship is in the office having a relaxed very late afternoon conversation with his executive officer. They are talking about Life and departed comrades. The exec jokes about “I’m no hero” and being “lazy.” Next day the colonel comes to work quite early and is not surprised to find his professedly “lazy” exec already at his desk working. The two work silently in the early hours.

I recall once finding my platoon sergeant at his desk very early. I was up working too, but only because I’d worked out a deal with him: In return for time off for an important afternoon errand, I said I’d have the decks swabbed and totally dry before any one else was up.

Today, at last, I’m older than my sergeant was.
At work I joke about having to “go find a place to hide,” a place where people who need me will find me not slacking off but scribbling hard at my paper work. Come to think of it, just the other day the chief executive officer came in to chat with me while I was “hiding” in meeting room C, and it was a while before I reflected on how I hadn’t felt guilty or awkward at all.

I’m still chuckling over the time at university, over the Christmas break, when an entire university tower was darkened, hushed and deserted, except for the bright office of my department head. I burst in cheerfully, “Well HELLO THERE! I bet you thought you could get some work done with all the professors gone…” I still recall some of our conversation on that winter day…

As a teenager I found one or two older characters who were truly committed to avoiding work, preferring to work “the angles”—to me they were anti-models, like the guys downtown who prefer to be roofless beggars rather than accept the demands of going on welfare and the responsibility of sharing a roof. As a youth I never wanted to be like an anti-model, while wondering if I would ever become like my role models. It’s queer how things turned out.

I suppose that although most people, like my co-worker and I, will age gracefully, not everyone will. Some people at some point in their life will require a kick in the pants. Recently I was having a Thanksgiving supper at the sprawling home of a company president, Bill Langdon. At one point Bill said something like, “ ‘Our biggest nightmare’ is the (long-term mediocre) fellow who finally gets fired- who then finally realizes he needs to turn his life around… who then goes to work “very hard” for the competition!”

Things have turned out fine for me. Perhaps in my own life, being much older now, with so much time stretching out behind me, I can more easily justify devoting a portion of that time to work, feeling less concern for the “waste” of “flat lining” my brain. Somehow, as I age, as focus becomes so effortless, then work becomes a form of devotion. (I’m still coming to understand what that means.)

My colleague and I, in our work ethic discussion, agreed on something: If at our age we work harder now, like other grownups, even though we still buy comics and graphic novels and, in his case, video games, then it is because of a surprising reason: We don’t enjoy “playing” as much. Idleness is no fun, not like when we were kids. I’ve been known to do paperwork for my firm—creative, not routine—while on holidays, while a fellow toastmaster my age once composed an award-winning speech while on her golfing vacation.

Let’s face it: Even if I win a lottery I won’t become a playboy. I’m a man.

Sean Crawford
Merrily middle aged,
November 2009

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