Escape From the Flatlands
Issue #32, April 1997
My formative years were spent in Indiana, where, like my peers, I assumed that after high school, I'd go to college, get a career, settle down and raise a nice, Christian, middle-class family. Perhaps I was stranger than most of my Christian peers because I took my devotion to Christ very seriously. The cultural assumptions about work and career given to me by my religious upbringing were deeply and firmly imbedded in my psyche. As a teen, I worked after school cleaning classrooms, dumping trash and erasing graffiti. When Summer came, I painted classrooms, cleaned lockers and bathrooms, and scraped gum off of chairs. This peek behind the scenes of the institution started me on a journey of critical thinking that hasn't stopped.
The most impressive personnel on the custodial staff at Saint Joseph's High School was an ancient Hungarian lady nicknamed "Buddha" because she came from Budapest. She had been working there for decades, content to smoke cigarettes and consume egg salad sandwiches while the youngsters grew up and moved on. All of the staff were old; Buddha was prehistoric. My middle-class family hadn't exposed me to working conditions like this. Dad designed computer systems for jet fighters while Mom ran the house. To see old people who had worked at my crappy high school for years and years broke my teen-aged heart. How could someone subject themselves to such boredom? Didn't they have any ambition? My mind reeled at the misery of Buddha's life. I had seen poor people, but not up close and personal. The fact that women like Buddha spent their time cleaning up after a pack of ungrateful, howling slobs was as baffling as it was sad. My curiosity in the lower classes grew and was pulled towards the supposed authenticity of the underprivileged.
During my summer vacations in college, I purposely sought out experiences which would lead me into the depths of poverty so that I might taste the flavor of sweat, dirt and water. I realized that my class identification hadn't protected me, but rather had isolated me from the sensual experience of lower class American life. I took long hitchhiking journeys where tried I reconnect with nature and the ostensibly simple struggle for physical survival in the wilderness. Jack Kerouac was my guide, and my well-thumbed copy of The Dharma Bums led me through the deserts of the Southwest and of my young, Christian soul. For me, to really feel life, to get dusty and have dirt under my fingernails was an accomplishment. I rejected my bourgeois upbringing by seeking the Tao of labor alongside sweating co-workers.
The rays of enlightenment didn't always strike me when and where I wanted them to. But sooner or later they eventually struck. I was reading tons of Buddhist literature at this time (my field of study at Reed), in a desperate attempt to crack my brain out of its Christian self imprisonment. Since I always had an answer in Jesus, the richness of Existentialism, of questioning itself, had eluded me. Work was my doorway to the absurd, and absurdity, my doorway to freedom. Nevertheless, the machine never stops. As much as I sought out answers in another religion, it was my summer jobs that really helped me out of my middle class, Christian conundrum. As I look back on some of these experiences, a number of moments stand out more strongly than others.
On one end, fellow kitchen worker Paul shovels huge racks of dirty dishes into a mechanical cleansing behemoth, while at the other end, I snatch the steaming cups and saucers off and place them on the drying racks. This exercise is so mindless and repetitive that it actually gives me time to ponder the great mysteries of life and becomes a steaming, growling metaphor for the mysteries themselves. The mind is the machine. The thoughts are the dishes, each unique yet similar to the others, all parading in a never-ending flow of gleaming, white porcelain. I enjoyed the crude, physical experience of dish washing, and the freedom it gave me. In retrospect, I see that physical labor helped liberate me from my middle class, religious upbringing, but as I learned later on in life, work itself is not always liberating. Work is also enslavement. In my longing for freedom, I turned labor into a mystical experience. The journey was as nourishing as bread for an unspoiled, virgin work horse like me; I got what I needed out of it anyway even if I did mythologize it a little too much at certain times.
Stuart and I are shoveling rocks and dirt from a construction site in Santa Fe, New Mexico. He tells me all about James Joyce as we heave the clods of dirt toward the embankment. The day before we unloaded many bags of horsefeed, rubbing shoulders with the drifters, ramblers and vagrants of the Southwest. I'm living in my own beatnik fantasyland. About three o'clock, a thunderstorm washes our hard earned sweat from our bodies, almost as though it were a baptism. I feel manly. I am proving to myself that I can work as hard as any man, and shovel and dig with the best of them. The soil gets into me; the labor is a validation of my own worth and a shining example of my highly impressive Protestant work ethic. I sweat and bleed and ache like Christ.
The "nirvana in every sweatbead" trip began to wear thin on me during a deeply dissatisfying year off from college. Through an embarrassing series of mistakes, I landed myself right back at home in Indiana searching the classifieds. With my usual flair for masochism, I signed on as a day-laborer, and found myself stationed at a condiment factory just outside of South Bend. The building itself was blunt and devastating. My task was to clean the machine that packaged "Creamy Dill" salad dressing for Wendy's. The whole thing had exploded in a slobbery mass of motor oil, gears and pickle chunks. I worked all morning, constrained in my hairnet and beardnet, washing and rewashing this ridiculous machine. All around me, pathetic drones drained away years off of their lives in service to the mayonnaise vats and ketchup squirters. Nobody looked happy.
At lunch, Creamy Dill employees filed out to the parking lot where they discussed the latest televised pablum and smoked themselves to death. I moped in the shrubbery, peering at the bleak sun shining through the clouds of ethanol. "What is the purpose of life?", I barked out to the Supreme Nucleus. The facade of satisfaction through a job well done started to crumble. I had been fooling myself all along; all those hours cleaning up toxic waste in the abandoned factories of the Midwest, the back-breaking loading and unloading for the boss, the endless hours in corporate kitchens. Had I really benefited from all this meandering? What did I have to show for all my hours laboring on the low end of the corporate pyramid? Suddenly I realized that I was capable of greater things.
Towards The Fun
I wanted a job working for something that I could believe in. I realized that labor was inevitable, but if I had to work, then I wanted my sweat and time to go towards something that would benefit the world and myself. These admirable thoughts led me down to my local health food store. I thought that if I worked for health, then I'd find deep satisfaction and know that my time wasn't wasted. I applied and was accepted at Nature's, Portland's up and coming tofu Mecca and number one pick-up spot. The good news is that everyone in the store, the customers and the workers, were totally attractive. The bad news is that I was placed in the frozen goods department. I enjoyed working there for a while. My duties included stacking milk, eggs, and ice cream, answering consumer questions, and closing down at night. I enjoyed the kids and my friends who would visit. I didn't enjoy wearing a coat and gloves in the summer, nor my seventeen year old boss. I started to get grumbly when I read about how some frozen pizza was supposed to "save the Earth". All the dreams and desires for a safe environment had been turned into a marketing scheme. Customers had their own best intentions twisted and sold back to them at a gourmet price. We didn't have to clean the water if we could buy bottled, purified water. The corruption grew as I worked; one day I went to an early morning, mandatory meeting which concerned the opening of a new store.
"Nature's is like the anti-war movement because it pulls mainstream people into the alternative lifestyle", our tanned, young CEO announced, "but we can't get them to keep coming back unless we offer them what they'd buy anyway, so we're going to offer Coca-Cola and cigarettes at our new store. It's like the Church, you have to get people in the door before you can start preaching to them." The other workers seemed to be swallowing this bullshit without hesitation, but I had already escaped one religion, and I wasn't about to give this lord my life. The gospel of progressive capitalism lost its luster. Months later, after I had quit, Nature's was sold to GNC, the national pill pusher. I had always thought that the ex-hippies on Nature's board of directors would have more class than that.
Besides health food, I figured I could get behind an organization working for the welfare of kids. Through a series of coincidences that are too amazing and intricate to detail, I ended up at Camp Winnnarainbow, a circus and performing arts camp in Northern California. Camp Winnarainbow is another do-gooder business, started by progressives of the Sixties, but it had a much freakier tone than Nature's. I was hired by Wavy Gravy (the camp director and world famous freak, best known for being the emcee at the first Woodstock festival) to assist on the stilt-walking field and to teach kids clowning and New Games. I also ended up being a lifeguard, a juggler, a stage manager, a helper in sweat lodge ceremonies, an emcee, and hundreds of other roles. The camp brought together children of many backgrounds, pulling them from reservations and homeless shelters, and psychedelic buses and fancy mansions. It remains committed to helping kids have fun in a safe and stimulating environment, and was an absolute blast to be a part of there for three summers, and I've met every stripe of person possible. We had visiting bands from Africa, Vietnam vets, native sundancers, deadheads, punks, kids from gay families, bikers, Earth-Firsters, techno/ravers, Merry Pranksters, and Vegan Goths. The fact that I really had no responsibilities except for my duties as teacher and funologist really made it a relaxed time. Everyday I got to go swimming and eat great food and talk with amazing people of all ages. Every night we got to perform, stargaze, tell stories and be creative. Camp Winnarainbow continues to reach for its egalitarian Utopia. By far, this was the best working environment I'd experienced, and it only whetted my appetite for a better situation once the summer ended.
I Saw The Fence Bleeding
Currently I try to strike the balance of job satisfaction by working at two places, Portland's Community College and my local neighborhood Tantric preschool. At the college I receive a decent wage (finally), and I help adults with math problems. The center where I work has an "office" tone which sometimes feels stifling to me, but there are many benefits: my boss is fair and friendly; he lets me off on days when I need a break, and I get access to the computers. I work with many refugees and find the variety of cultures on the campus to be stimulating. Sometimes I wonder just what the end result of all this time will be. Obviously, if successful, I am able to help others graduate and learn, and that's personally rewarding, but I'm using this job to do the real work that I want to be doing. This is the balance that most of us strive to maintain I suppose: we work at a job we don't mind, so we can support the things we love. To me, the things I get inspired from are my lover, friends, the New Day School and the various musical projects I'm involved with.
Before I took this job as a math tutor, I worked for many years as a preschool teacher at an amazing little kindergarten down the street. Now I go in on Fridays to do repairs, maintenance, and the gardening. I get a chance to check up on the kids, and get my fingernails back in the soil. All my skills as a day laborer come into play: I paint, fix, nail, dig, remove, replace, clean and construct. I need the physical work to compensate for the hours of mental mathematical gymnastics I do. The kids are like living sunflowers, which refresh me every time I visit. Their memories, their imaginations, and their play keep me inspired and grounded: this is what is happening right now -- these kids will grow up to replace us. I bask in the presence of their uncluttered, innocent perspective.
Meaningful work has been difficult for me to achieve. I've had to untangle my own mind from yards of useless myth and bias, and then move towards those things which I can find some hope in. This crazy zig-zag of mine isn't over yet. I've just entered my thirties, and I still don't feel like I know, for sure, what I'm supposed to be doing with my life. Old notions of lifelong careers, ambition and work ethics have been discarded for a more honest and visceral approach. I reach out blindly, stumbling toward the things which I can live with, fleeing those I cannot. For me, the goal is this: to surround myself with inspirational people and events, and to fuel the good things in life while freeing myself from the garbage. Just recently I've been able to see how we're all entangled in this mess. The economic system keeps us all working as slaves to some degree. Whether we're enslaved by poverty or by the fear of poverty, we're all motivated by the forces of Kapital. Is it too much to ask that a well-meaning person could find work which will both support an individual and benefit a community? This is the question I ask everyday. At least I can finally do that.
Noodle McDoodle, AKA, Seigfried Happyhour, is a math teacher at Portland Community College. In real life he masquerades along with Brock Craft and Joel Schalit as a member of the leftist montage band The Christal Methodists, who recently signed to the almighty Candy Ass Records. You can reach him at email@example.com.