It has taken me fifty some odd years and almost three years living in Mexico to finally come to grips with work. And it’s been a long and contentious road my friend.

Growing up, work was viewed as an obligation. Work was something that you did because you had to. Work was mandated by parents. Work wasn’t viewed as something to be enjoyed. Work was drudgery. In the summer as a little kid I worked in the garden. In the fall I raked leaves. In the winter I shoveled snow. The gardens were big. So were the yards and there were lots of trees. And six months of winter meant there was lots of snow.

At eleven I was told by my old man that I was old enough to get an outside job. I somehow managed to get a much coveted paper route. So Monday through Saturday I delivered 65 papers a day. If everyone paid I was awarded the princely sum of $7.00 a week, which worked out to be $0.50 per hour. I still had all of my home chores to do in addition to all the seasonal work. And of course there was school.

At thirteen I spent a summer caddying. At fourteen I was washing dishes in restaurants. Then busing tables at fifteen. Worked as a bellhop at sixteen. Waited tables at seventeen. Bartending at eighteen.

Then life had me pounding nails and pouring concrete at nineteen which financially speaking was a huge step up in the menial skills department. I was making a whopping $3.50 an hour as a junior carpenter flunky where before I was earning $1.60 in the restaurant trade.

Oh, did I mention that I was on my own trying to support myself? That I got kicked out of the house 2 days after I turned seventeen? While I was still in high school? With that in consideration, have another look at those poverty level wages.

In my little town in Northern Michigan there were few opportunities. It was a resort town where rich people from mostly Chicago and Detroit had huge summer cottages on Lake Michigan. We were 250 miles to the nearest big city so the job spectrum was very narrow. There was the local hospital, the courthouse, retail stores and gift shops, restaurants, and construction jobs. That was about it. Being a gangster wasn’t even a career possibility as petty crime was limited to shoplifting, breaking and entering, or holding up the occasional gas station.

By 1973 it became readily apparent that my future wasn’t going to play out well regardless of my charm, wit, or pleasing smile. I had no family. No connections. No skills. And most important, I had no education.

My future was scarily starting to shape forevermore as to be just another member of the working poor. That meant subsisting on unreliable construction jobs in the warmer months, the occasional side job, and drinking away the winter like everyone else on the allotted six months of unemployment insurance.

Now granted my life wasn’t exactly garbage picker poor as in New Delhi dirt poor kind of poor, but socio-economically speaking, in the United States I was living at the lowest rung on the ladder. For example, I was so poor in the summer of ’74 that I lived in a place with drunks and some of those others that had hit the bottom so hard that the best we could afford was a $25/week room in a flophouse. And I lived there for 4 months.

Needless to say I had a huge hard-on for authority, rich people, and working menial jobs for starvation wages. But then one cold fall afternoon on a day long after the leaves had fallen from the trees I received a check in the mail – my first student loan – so by January of 1975 I was attending classes at NMU.

As I’ve mentioned before, university was a deal changer for me. It was there that I was able to get a exposure to a wider range of philosophical protocols. My image of the world – and my future in it – expanded greatly. I spent 5 semesters trying on different aspects of the liberal arts which proved to be useful in the short-term but I couldn’t see that kind of education as offered up at NMU as the place for gathering the necessary tools for the long-term.So I needed a better plan.

By 1978 I convinced myself and more importantly my girlfriend that the future lay far away to the south in the Great State of Texas. So in the fall of ’78 we moved to Corpus Christi. After the move my girlfriend promptly re-enrolled in the local university while I floundered around working at this and that before finally landing a job working as an apprentice pen and ink draftsman for a mechanical engineering company. And it was love at first sight.

I worked my ass off and got promoted to a different position with more money. Then I changed companies a year later and got even more money. Then a year and a half later I got an offer from another company and doubled my salary. I loved engineering and industrial construction so much that I was taking classes at the local junior college to get my math skills up to par.

After about another year I quit my job and enrolled full-time at the closest university that had an engineering school. I decided on electrical engineering and I loved every minute of it so I studied my ass off and graduated in the top 20 of my class three years later.

In ’88 California called and I accepted a job with Intel. And so it was that my girlfriend (then wife), baby daughter and I moved. Sadly, it wasn’t long before I began to hate Intel.

In Texas I had always worked for engineers. Whereas at Intel I ended up working for business majors and consequently hated just about every single minute of it. I could never reconcile their business processes – or their business objectives – with the actual true work of getting systems designed, built, tested and implemented. I stuck with them for ten years mostly because I got to do a lot of interesting work in a bunch of different countries.

But still it wasn’t meant to be. And just like with my subsequent divorce, it has taken the past 15 years to finally understand that it wasn’t their fault. It was mine. I could sum it up by saying it was all about seriously mismatched expectations. That said, I should have never left Texas. Never left oil and gas. And made sure that my career involved only reporting to other engineers.

But the siren song of electronics had called. And like a fool I answered.

So from 1989 on (or thereabouts) my career was always an unhappy struggle. I always wanted to please the product or the project where instead I should have paid more attention to management and their political realities. As I recited in an earlier post, “It’s not what (or how well) you do that matters. It’s the perception of what you do that counts;” or so said a very senior Intel manager during one of my performance reviews.

It wasn’t until I bailed out of the workforce in ’99 to take an extended 5 year sabbatical did I begin to earnestly question the nature of work and what it meant to me. And so I learned, that while yes, I needed to earn a living (however modest), but more importantly I discovered that I needed to work. Which for me – money and work, even while related – turned out to be two entirely different things.

Anyway, I did a lot of reading and studying and thinking those 5 years of sabbatical that I spent in the mountains of western North Carolina partly spent building a house. And at some point I stumbled upon, “Ho, everyone that thirsts, come ye to the waters, and he that hath no money, come ye, buy and eat; yea, come buy wine and milk without money and without price. Wherefore do you spend your money for that which is not bread? And your labor for that which satisfies not?”

Those words got me thinking in an entirely different direction. Like maybe work was something that should be sought after inasmuch as it was originally created to be an activity from which men could find satisfaction. And maybe a more meaningful existence could be found through this satisfaction of labor.

Yeah, yeah, yeah. We all still need to earn a living don’t we? So we work. And we get paid for our work. That is all conventional wisdom and as such is what we accept as being economically speaking – unimpeachable.

But just what if the whole idea of work for pay was never the intention that the Creator had for his creation? What if at the advent of creation that man could buy wine and milk without money and without price? What if fruit just fell from the trees and could be picked from the ground without labor or charge?

So just what if labor in this once perfect world was something entirely removed from the economics of day to day life? Such as what if that labor done by man were instead intrinsically linked to acts of creation? I find the thought of that appealing.

For my atheist friends, I’ll ask you to take the creation aspect out of the equation and instead ask you to envision some same type of world. Like think Borges meets Utopia mishmash.

Respective of what I just said, I still believe that labor which isn’t satisfying is just a job. The same kind of work that I grew to hate as a child. And after all these many years of hating work I have recently discovered that I need to labor. I need to make things. Build things. Test things. I want my life to be such that every morning when I get out of bed to know deep inside that today is a brand new day with new opportunities to do new things.

Dylan said it best for me “That he not busy being born is busy dying…”

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