Friday, April 5, 2013

Work As If You Lived In The Early Days Of A Better Nation

Work: it consumes vast amounts of our time, and each one of us must come to some kind of accommodation with it early on in life. If we have too much work we complain, if we don’t have enough, then we starve, or rot from the inside out. It’s a tricky thing.  

For a long time, I was against work. When I graduated at the age of 22 I had successfully managed to avoid doing very much of it since my degree was in English Literature, a subject any half-intelligent person can succeed in with a gift for improvisation and blather. The downside was that I was unqualified for anything profitable. Still, that wasn’t a problem as my goal remained work avoidance.

And so I moved to Russia where I learned that there was tolerable money to be had conversing in English with wealthy people. I did that, and enjoyed most of the conversations. Better yet, I didn’t even need to do too much talking to survive- I am a man of ascetic habits and can get by on very little. I regularly turned down work if it was going to interfere with time spent roaming the streets, sitting in cafes or writing avant-garde texts for fun.

But I suppose I had some ambition because I published a book, accidentally acquiring a career as a writer in the process. I hadn’t really gambled on that- my goal was just to get the book out. Meanwhile as everybody knows it’s very difficult to make a living via the pen. But for a while I could coast along, turning down fancy commissions if I felt like it.

Then America intervened. In Texas, everybody works all the time. And here’s the weird thing: after resisting the call of work for many years I suddenly found myself sucked into this vortex of labor. Sure, life in the states is more expensive than in Russia, but it wasn’t just that. I sort of… wanted to work. There was no space in which to be idle except at home. It was too hot to roam the streets, and if I went to a cafĂ©, even the Bohemians were furiously working away on some project or other on their laptops.

You may have heard of the legendary Scots work ethic. We were famous for it once, a long time ago. Now life in Scotland proceeds at a very slow pace. One of the things I love about going home is crawling down to my local shopping center where I drink tea in company with the aged and long-term unemployed, all of them silently waiting for oblivion’s warm embrace. This is very relaxing.

In Texas however it just isn’t possible. The environment demands work. For the last couple of years I have worked more than ever before, and certainly make more money than I used to, though I am not rich or even very secure. But as I have became more “successful” in worldly terms I have noticed dissatisfaction in other areas. There is no time to waste on the leisurely creative projects that I enjoyed so much while living in Moscow.  

Indeed, after a few years these all stopped migrating to the page and remained exclusively in my head. Like the great Russian author Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky I composed fantastical texts in my imagination, occasionally sharing details with friends. It was fun, but not quite as satisfying as putting them on paper. I needed more time. Perhaps I thought, I’m not doing enough work.

Then one day I read that the Japanese author Haruki Murakami gets up at 4am every day to write his novels. Simultaneously I discovered the work of the Manga artist Osamu Tezuka, who created over 150,000 pages of comics in his lifetime. Takashi Miike, a very amusing film director, knocks out six or seven movies a year.
The Japanese are famous for this, of course. They work all the time, and create many wonderful things. Maybe that’s what I need to do I, thought. And so I conducted an experiment, seeking to push back the time I rose at to 4am. I had reached 5am when one day I slept in. Project: Turn Japanese never recovered.

Maybe you need to be born into Japanese culture to work like that. Or, you can take amphetamines. As for me, I am back in the middle. I definitely work a lot harder than I did in Russia, and sometimes wonder if doing so much nothing for so long was a good idea after all. It helps that I enjoy most of what I do today, of course. Perhaps that’s the key. My younger self couldn’t conceive of anything he wanted to do; my older self can see lots of things and gets frustrated when everyday nonsense gets in the way. And that’s progress- I think.