Hawking Up Hairballs

Tuesday, December 05, 2006


At the age of 58, John Steinbeck drove across the United States alone, and subsequently wrote about the trip in Travels With Charley. In explaining why he embarked on such a journey at his age, Steinbeck wrote the following. "I have seen so many begin to pack their lives in cotton wool, smother their impulses, hood their passions, and gradually retire from their manhood into a kind of spiritual and physical semi-invalidism. In this they are encouraged by wives and relatives, and it's such a sweet trap. I knew that ten or twelve thousand miles driving a truck, alone and unattended, over every kind of road, would be hard work, but to me it represented the antidote for the professional sick man. And in my own life I am not willing to trade quality for quantity. If this projected journey should prove too much then it was time to go anyway."

I couldn't agree more. I haven't worked in several years and I occasionally have people ask me if I'm retired. It makes me want to smack them upside the head. The way I see it, for the first extended period of my life, I've escaped servitude and can now spend my time pursuing those activities that are most meaningful to me. I no longer have to pretend to be a team player, to care about the fortunes of the company that employs me, or to give a good goddamn whether or not I'm "making progress in my profession". That's not retirement to me, it's liberation.

I'll never forget the movie A Thousand Clowns. I haven't seen it since it first came out in the mid 1960's, but there's one scene that's etched into my memory. Jason Robards plays this guy who's living an unconventional, and unemployed life. He's living in this ratty old tenement with his 12-year-old nephew. One morning, he takes the kid up onto the roof, or someplace like that, at the morning rush hour. He puts a pair of binoculars to his eyes and watches all the people hustling back and forth on the sidewalk. He tells the kid that it's one of the saddest sights he'll ever see, people going to work. Over the years, I've mentioned that scene to a number of people, and the usual response is a chuckle. What the fuck were they laughing at? The fact is that it is sad seeing all of these people going to work each morning. They're just throwing their lives away.

Now some will say that these jobs need doing. There are certain tasks that have to get done if we're going to hold society together. Someone has to grow the food, build the homes, etc. I couldn't agree more, but the world of work isn't set up to accomplish the tasks that need doing. Rather, it's organized to make money for the employers. In the nineteeth century they called it wage slavery. That was a more honest term. These days employees are encouraged to see themselves as "professionals". What nonsense. It's just part of the con. Neither a computer programmer, nor a nurse, nor a teacher is a professional. They're employees, but their bosses want them to think of themselves as professionals because, when they do, they police themselves and there's less labor trouble.

So, no, I'm not retired, and I do believe that I just might actually smack the next person who asks me upside the head.


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