The Political Will

Someone commented to me yesterday that they didn’t know how I did so many things. I get that a lot, and sometimes it worries me, because I don’t want to be setting up unreasonable expectations for others.

I can do so much because I have a flexible job with a lot of autonomy, because my partner has the same kind of job, because he takes on half the childcare, because our kids are older and mostly self-sufficient now (and even sometimes helpful with my work), because I happen to read really fast (super-helpful in various ways), because I’ve been cooking for thirty years and gardening for twenty-five years and have a lot of accumulated knowledge, because I have ADD and that has led to me becoming a jack-of-all-trades over the decades, because we get paid enough that we can hire help when we need it – etc. and so on.

Having a little extra money really makes a huge difference in simple ways. When I’m buying tools for one of the things I do (cooking, gardening, etc.), I may not buy the fanciest version out there, but I definitely often spend a little more than a mid-range item would cost. I look hard at reviews. Having good tools makes everything easier. I bought a really good pair of scissors at the start of mask-making, and I misplaced them recently, and had to try using three other pairs I’d had previously, and they were so much less effective, and when I had my good ones again, cutting fabric got faster and easier and even more pleasurable. (Good tools usually last longer too; they may cost less in the end than cheap tools, but you need to have the money up front to make the investment.)

I do work most of the time; I probably work something like 12-14 hours most days, including the weekend. But the work I do is tremendously varied, much of it is innately rewarding, and when I do get tired, I generally have the option to take a break. All of that makes so much difference.

I went into the school board orientation meeting yesterday (it’s going to be lots of time and lots of work, but it’s work I volunteered to do; I had the option of *not* running for office, and that feels so different from meetings you’re required to attend), and chatted briefly with a security guard as she directed me to the board room.

It had been unseasonably warm all day, and I asked if she’d had a chance to get outside yet, and she sadly said no; she worked night shift, so she’d only been outside on her way in to work. Which is not to say night shift is inherently worse. But it reminded me that it’s a privilege, in the world as it is, to be able to choose most of the hours I work, and to be able to arrange them to suit my own natural sleep schedule.

I woke up early today (around 4:30), and couldn’t get back to sleep, but that was fine; I lay in bed for an hour reading the newest Murderbot novel. Then I came downstairs, got coffee, curled up under a blanket and finished the novel. I have enough flex in my schedule that I can spend time in the morning reading for pleasure; I’m also lucky enough that reading novels is part of my job.

At 6-ish, I put on Gardener’s World on the TV, and was soothed by the dulcet tones of Monty Don as I cut up cashew milk toffee and packaged it for the sale on Sunday. I got through half a container, felt a little tired of standing, took a break to sit down and talk to y’all for a little. I might play a phone game for twenty minutes while half-watching the show, and then I’ll go back and finish packing up the milk toffee.

After that, I’ll probably go down to the basement and pot up the dahlias, which I’ve been meaning to do for days. The back deck pots also need tending in various ways. If I get tired of doing physical things, though, I can always come back to computer work for a while — there’s e-mail to answer, checks to deposit and bills to pay, student writing to read and think about, preparatory to class. And if I get tired of staring at the computer, I can go pack up the coconut rock, or sew some masks…

I teach at 10 and again at 12, so there’s a little hard structure to my day, but it’s so relaxed compared to some of my earlier jobs.

The second-worst job was the summer during college when I was living in Evanston, but the only job I could find was a temp. gig out at O’Hare. I was staffing a machine that was making ID badges for workers, part of a big push to redo their system, working in a trailer out on the hot tarmac for eight long hours a day. I didn’t have a car (or know how to drive), so that meant a 90-minute commute each way on public transit, either taking two trains or a train-bus-train combo. I could read on transit, which was something, but often I was too drained, and when I got home, I usually had just enough energy left to make myself dinner, watching something dumb on TV, and go to sleep. I felt sort of half-alive, that summer.

The worst job was a filing gig in the Bay Area. The work was monotonous — I was temping, redoing office files that had gotten badly misaligned over the years, and so day after day, I spent eight hours alphabetizing paper files. That wouldn’t have necessarily been awful in itself — sometimes you can get in the zone and think about your novel or whatever — but the people were weirdly contemptuous, and the overall office environment just seemed kind of miserable and toxic. I found myself waking up in the morning and crying, day after day, trying to force myself to get up and get dressed and go in to work.

I was much more exhausted after working those eight-hour days than I am now, working 12-14 hour days, even though I’m twenty years older. Which is weird, and counterintuitive, but being able to take little rests whenever I need to makes a huge difference, I suspect. Being able to shift from one kind of work to another helps too.

I don’t know what my conclusion is here. I want a better world, I guess, one where everyone can have this kind of flexibility in their work. That’s probably unrealistic on multiple fronts — some jobs require long stretches of work by their very nature. (And some people are perfectly happy doing the same work for long stretches of time, and more power to them if so!)

Still, I hope that one consequence of the pandemic is that we all take a long, hard look at our workplace habits. I hope that employers learn to trust their employees a little more, give them the option to work remotely more often, if the job allows. (You’re going to save a lot on office space, businesses! Keep that in mind.)

The unions fought for the weekend, fought for an eight hour workday. As automation increases, can we work towards a world with a 4-6 hr workday, or a 4-day work week? What would that look like?

Can we do that while still paying people a decent wage, enough to live on and support their families? Can we provide educational opportunities for all, and healthcare too?

I think we can. In America, we certainly have the resources collectively. We just need the political will.

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