What does work mean?

This question - what does work mean? - is a sort of corollary to yesterday's post on accidentally-on-purpose getting work done. To answer it, I am at first tempted to list a series of menial tasks. "Work," I want to say, "means photocopying, copying, pasting, meeting, greeting, emailing, voicemailing." But then I realize that work doesn't mean these things at all. I have instead listed words that I associate with a "job".

A job is different. People in crime dramas set in New York City or political thrillers set in Washington, D.C. are always leaning across tables in dimly lit rooms, saying to each other in husky voices, "just let me do my job," or, "I'm just doing my job". They are always just wanting to do the thing they're paid to do, but somehow the way they say it - with fists clenched or mouth set in a serious expression of serious intent - implies that the payment is incidental. What they are just wanting to do is something far greater, far more noble, than exchanging time for a paycheck.

For this reason I sometimes worry about all of the workplace-based television programs out there. I worry that the portrayal of an obsessively conscientious workforce will lead, or has led, to a sense that in real life, too, we must be more devoted to our jobs than our selves. When you see people working on TV, you see office romances, office politics. You see the single mother berating herself for forgetting her daughter's softball game, the husband whose wife sits alone at a table set for two, the boss in his office late at night, spilling sweet n' sour chicken on his files and his fly. A job, these glimpses seem to say, is not work: it's a calling.

But the other thing about a job is its banality. Most of a job is really just the structure of having a job: the commute (if only to your own living room), the routine, the benefits (or lack thereof), the overtime, the time off. In the end, however you look at it, whatever you would or wouldn't do for the sake of it, a job is really just the answer you give to the question you're asked at dinner parties and in pubs: "what do you do?"

"I'm a doctor," you say. I'm a cop, an architect, an admin assistant, a writer, an astronaut. What you're really saying is, "I do my job."


As soon as I stop talking about a job and start talking about work, my mind leaves the office and strays into the realm of tools, blisters, stains. I often, almost obsessively, wish I worked with my hands. I haven't yet read that book about working with your hands, partly because I worry that if I do read it I'll want to give up everything to become a gardener, and I can't become a gardener, because I've never successfully grown anything in my life, except some mold in a forgotten tupperware in the fridge. But I can make my own case for working with your hands, based what it sometimes feels like to work only with your fingers, based on the emptiness of typing, of writing emails, of finishing the day with all kinds of pent-up energy, which mostly manifests as undeserved exhaustion.

I don't believe that work is toil, that it should be unpleasant. I believe that there should be some satisfaction in the end - not satisfaction with work having been done, with the work day having "finished", but with the act itself as well as the product. I have done a lot of admin work in my time, and the thing about it that makes it really bleak is that the payoff doesn't equal the input of effort. A big part of me wants to literally sweat when I work. I envy farmers, sometimes. My best friend growing up was a farmer's daughter. We used to go for long walks and horseback rides through the fields. One day we went for a long ride near some fields that had been recently fertilized. Everything smelled of chicken shit; we covered our noses with hands or bandanas, and my friend's sister, only a few years older than us, said how when she grew up she wanted to be a farmer.

We laughed. I had delusions of grandeur; I wanted to live in a city, I wanted to be (or assumed I would be) rich or famous or important. But I'm not laughing now, when I don't want to be rich or famous necessarily, but I do want to feel closer to things. I like dirt, I like the smell of the earth, but more than that I like proximity between action and reward. I like when you dig up a potato and you know exactly what the time you spent planting and then later digging up the potato represents: it represents the cooked potato but also the whole meal, the experience of eating, the pleasure of eating with someone else, the sound of wine being poured into an empty glass.


So I find it hard to think of sitting as working.

But on the other hand, sitting is working. A lot of the work I do involves sitting, or a variation of sitting. Work means being absolutely still, staying calm, listening to the neighbor practice piano in the early afternoon as I hang the white laundry out to dry. It means reading things I didn't think I would want to read; re-reading things I read so hungrily the first time I forgot to pay attention to. It means not writing as much as it means writing.


I think of Alain de Botton's The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work. Flipping through it again today, finding old train tickets and subway cards marking places where I - in that moment, between Oxford and Charlbury, or rolling along beneath the grid of Manhattan - thought something to be significant, I come across this, from John Ruskin's The Crown of Wild Olive:

Of all wastes, the greatest waste that you can commit is the waste of labour.

My conflict over work - my sense that sitting at a desk is both a waste of time and the best way I could spend my time - comes from a fear of wasting labor. The more I think about it, the more I understand that when I say "work", there's a discrepancy between what I think it means to other people and what I think I want to mean to me. That discrepancy is a cultural hangup. It's related to how much I still think "work" and "job" are interchangeable, even when I know they're not. It's related, too, to the relationship between the act of work and the fulfillment of desire. Traditionally the act of work is a job and the fulfillment of desire is achieved via income. But the act of work can be anything (making a cup of tea, pulling up a weed, reading a book, going for a walk, sitting at your desk and writing a sentence followed by another sentence followed by another). Similarly, desire can be fulfilled by work in an infinite number of ways: via income, yes, but also via the joy of learning, the satisfaction of creating, the pleasure of setting up a certain kind of life for yourself.


So I guess when I say "work', in fact what I want to mean is "making things" - or, rather, since I wonder if "making' implies a sort of divine inspiration (going from nothing to something by waving a hand), what I mean is "building things." Building implies a process of construction (gathering materials, layering them on top of each other), as well as a certain fragility, a sense that the end product is, even if meaningful, not infallible, not impervious to the elements, to time.

And I think ultimately I want to look at it this way because there is a sense in which I am always working. I have to imagine that I am not alone in this. I'm not a "workaholic". I'm not "glued to my BlackBerry", I don't "bring work home". But when I go for a walk in the evening with music in my ears, completely disconnected from everything else, I am, in a sense, also working. Thought is work. And so is the space between thoughts: every moment is an important construction material, even if that moment contains only silence, or the grey August sky pulling tight over an empty park.