A little respect for the ho-hum
With the help of Madison Avenue, we've almost convinced ourselves that the prosaic, the ho-hum is obsolete, driven from our lives, all except for those hours we spend drawing a pay check. But even there relief is on the way: the latest surge of career publications provides a technique by which we can design the ideal job, convince management that they do in fact need such a position, and then assure them that we are, amazingly enough, the ideal person to fill that spot. This isn't as preposterous as it sounds, nor is it impossible. The technique involves a thorough analysis of our work history, right down to those days we spent whipping tableclothes out from underneath dirty dishes. In the process we discover a host of skills we never realized were ours, and by questioning employers we try to determine how those skills might help to solve theirm problems. If this gambit fails, at least we have thought about our career instead of rushing blindly into the nearest job. The only problem I sense in all of this is the implication, by no means a new one, that with a little maneuvering the mundane can be avoided. Well, it can't always be, and to some extent I'm not sure that it should be avoided.
Don't get me wrong, I have no great affection for the humble task -- domestic , professional, or otherwise. Running a vacuum cleaner around the house is tolerable, but seems highly insignificant. Weeding is less tolerable, and I'm afraid there is an alarming ratio between the number of weeds I've been asked to pull and those I've actually uprooted. Waiting tables becomes old rather quickly; it also becomes sadly habitual for those of us trying to resist the temptation of large salaries with their accompanying lack of freedom. And when inventory starts up, I suddenly forget the multiplication tables. While I can't even feign a love for such jobs, I do admit a growing regard, a recognition of their necessity, not simply as chores that must be accomplished, but as something essential to the fabric of our lives.
My initial dislike for rolling up the sleeves of my blue-collar shirt was a fear that I was rapidly being separated from my ideal -- a creative life, laced with an interplay of ideas and somehow close to the core of things. So a few moments of the matter-of-fact, the pedestrian, would stretch forever, sealing me off from all my hopes.
Then it happened, the appearance of a hairline crack in the oppression of mundane labor. It was a warm California evening, mid-spring. I was selling Mexican food: fying up beans, folding burritos, stuffing taco shells. A man approached. He was bearded, wore shoulder length hair, a cowboy hat, and a worn leather jacket. "Call me Brand X," he said, followed by a long pause. "If you'd be so kind, I'd like to work for a meal. Been noticing you've got quite a bit of trash around the front yard . . . " And so began our arrangement with the gentleman-transient who would never ask for his pay but wait politely for us to offer. He'd drawl a "thank-you," tell a story or two, and then walk off with a gait as worn as his jacket, yet it spoke of more dignity and self-respect than you find in most people. This was like the conclusion of a good short story: there was no obvious lesson, simply a haunting defiance of the expected, which made me a little wiser, a little sharper in the reading of experience.
Other wastelands began to open up and reveal hidden moments, not necessarily truths howling to be heard but incidents which heightened the perceptions. There was something particularly fertile about the repetitive, everyday work, where the emotions ran close to the surface and there was little energy left for disguises -- something which allowed for the sort of honesty that you try to achieve in writing or on stage.
"You ought to go to Saturday handtruck school, or work a Mexican freighter with one of them dollies," spat a driver as I fumbled a carton while unloading his truck.
"We're not paying you to think; we're paying you to do it," snapped a foreman who had no use for questions of any sort.
Here were the lives of not-so-quiet desperation, what Thornton Wilder called, "the slow attrition of the soul by the conduct of life," something we have a hard time understanding at a younger age, except perhaps through literature. That same foreman once hit me with a streak of language and apologetically put his arm around me all in the same motion, and I couldn't help but think, "What an incredible stage action, exposing so much of his inner world." Here on the cement floor of a union warehouse, art and life had blended, interwined, explained each other.
I was willing to admit something of a symbiotic relationship between literature and life, between my ideal and slugging away at a time-card job, but I never recognized the importance of the mundane until I saw a friend try to sever himself from it. Swept up by his ideals, certain they would earn him a living, he adamantly refused to take a job. While he grew thin, his ideals became turgid. There was nothing to temper them, nothing to anchor them to the daily necessities of life which serve as a common bond between humans, an unspoken communication. Even the impassioned Words worth saw the danger of excessive ideals -- "Many times while I was going to school have I grasped at a wall or tree to recall myself from the abyss of idealism to the reality."
I still have no particular fondness for the mundane, but I've been sobered. I'm willing to use it as Wordsworth used a wall or a tree, as long as I don't have to regard it as more than a moment in time. Emerson warned us of the man who "sees his bushel and his cart, and nothing beyond, and sinks into the farmer , instead of Man on the farm." If we have to hold on to the bushel, the cart, the mundane, there's no reason why we can't see beyond them.