Sunday, March 1, 2009

Will work for fun

[dishtowels from Anthropologie]
One of the benefits of being disabled is not having to work - and not having to look for work. It helps to be 66, and of a generation that felt entitled to retire (and actually got to accumulate pensions). Now we keep hearing that many people will have to work all their lives even as there aren't enough jobs for the young.

There are a lot of people popping up to help people look for work these days. They don't seem to know anything more than people knew 25 years ago, when I found myself out of a job I didn't like, and took a career change workshop. It was a small-group format packed with good advice and useful exercises. The only trouble was, nobody did the assignments. So in that way it was much like school of any kind. And the assignments were the hardest ones you ever had, starting with refining an objective: What do you want to do?

The teachers - most of whom were self-appointed, which is not uncommon among career counselors and life coaches - were idealistic. Their ideal: you have a chance now to change your life, to set out to get the job you'll love. The fact is, none of us could actually think that way. All we could think of was a paycheck. All we wanted to know was how to get someone to pay us for something. Our secret job objective was "Anything," we joked, but you weren't allowed to put that on your resume. I imagine that's why many in the small class still hadn't come up with an objective or a resume by the end of the six weeks.

I remember getting hung up in one session that included a presentation of your dreams and talents, and group brainstorming on ideas for work you could do. People thought I should write children's books, and I knew they were right. It was what I had been doing in my free time for years. How could I explain to them that it's almost unheard of to make a living at that, hard to break in even then, and if you did get a contract, it fell through; or it took two leisurely years before the book was published and you got any money. This is why artists who don't live at home have "day jobs" - something that pays the rent.

It's actually very hard to make a living doing something fun; after all, a whole lot of people want to do that. In fact, there is probably a shortage of people who actually do want to work rather than play.

Moreover, if you're paid to do something, I fear it would not be so much fun anymore; it would turn into work. I experienced this after I got paid for having fun, that is, got a no-string arts grant to encourage my writing. Applying for a grant is tedious and maddeningly bureaucratic anyway, not suited to the artistic temperament. And once you have seen you can actually get money that way, you become anxious to do it again. Artists live with the particular danger that we might commodify our work, twist it in order to make it marketable and forget why we started doing it in the first place. Many somewhat successful people end up teaching their art form; but by and large teaching drains a huge amount of creative energy and eats your time. And it is definitely not the same kind of work as strolling in the woods, maybe writing a haiku.

What is the question, anyway? How about, How can I earn enough to survive and be content with my life? This goes in many directions, and might include noticing what is enjoyable about the work you do now, or have done. I can't help thinking of my neighbor Cindy telling me the other day that she loved the sun so much, she was enjoying scooping up the dog poop in the yard. I did understand, though I don't think I'm that spiritually advanced.

But I do enjoy some common, ordinary tasks, like ironing linen and cotton dishtowels. The clean smell of the steam, the beautiful way towels turn out, how pretty they look stacked. Women of an older generation often agree with me; some of us remember how tedious it was to iron five or six white shirts a week, trying to beat your best time (15 minutes), so that dishtowels were a sort of break.

When the lymphedema in my right arm got bad two years ago due to an unlucky accident, I decided I should give up ironing, except sometimes a collar and placket. No more dishtowels. The arm is problem enough if I behave. This is the kind of little relinquishment you do on a daily basis as you age. If I had a positive attitude I'd say it keeps life interesting.

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