nine to five

I was reading The Catholic Worker newspaper on the C train home from work tonight (those unfamiliar with The Catholic Worker movement have probably never met me; all revolutionary-minded people should subscribe to their newspaper -- it costs one penny a year!). I wondered if the other people on the train thought I was a religious fundamentalist or something (I guess I am one, sort of, just with a different understanding of the fudament...)

Anyway, I was reading an article by my friend and old Haley House-mate Amanda which included this quotation, attibuted to a book called Sacred and Secular in Art and Industry by Eric Gill (further investigation reveals it to be from a lecture delivered in 1939):

Work is the means to living. The two things are inseparable. Recreation is a means to working and not the object for which we work. The object of recreation is to enable us to return to work refreshed, renewed, revived... But, in order to take such a view of work, the work must be good, it must be worth doing. Moreover, it must exercise our personality. It must be the work of persons.

I'd been on the C train about a couple of weeks before reading a copy of The Prophet by Kahlil Gibran (it was one of those books that people are always pressing me to read, kind of like Atlas Shrugged or Jonathan Lvingston Seagull; I turned out to like it -- it's essentially a flowery self-help poem). This is one of the passages that jumped out at me:

But I say to you that when you work you fulfil a part of earth's furthest dream, assigned to you when that dream was born,
And in keeping yourself with labour you are in truth loving life,
And to love life through labour is to be intimate with life's inmost secret...
Work is love made visible.

I'm thinking of leaving my job. More than that, I know that I can't last in this position much longer. Once Christmas is past, I am going to very seriously begin working to advance to another, more desirable position in the agency where I work or start looking for something else altogether.

When I say that it is time to leave my job, though, I don't say it in quite the same way that a lot of people do. I love my job, or at least the essence of it, its core. I still can't believe that my position really exists or that I was able to find it. Despite the fact that I am ready to leave it, my job was and, in a sense, remains the perfect job for me.

I work for an affordable housing agency that develops and manages residences for low-income New Yorkers, primarily people with histories of homelessness, mental illness or other disabilities. To be working for such a good cause is, in itself, great. In every one of their residences, social services are provided for the tenants on-site. Brilliant model: it promotes independence but also provides a much-needed safety net for the vulnerable. What is my position, though? What's my role in all of this?

I build community. Those words are from my department's mission statement (which I basically wrote; my department consists of me). Through a variety of different methods (anything I can think of, really), I am supposed to connect the tenants in the building to one another and to the world outside. This could be anything from a big party (like the one I threw tonight) to exercise classes, a drama group, karaoke, a short story discussion society, a trip to a museum or a baseball game. I'm a social director with a slightly more high-minded mission; I facilitate healthy and growthful interaction and development among many different people.

I'm going through all of this at length because I need to remind myself how remarkable it all is. When I came to New York just over two years ago, I had no idea how I would be earning my salary. I knew that I wanted to do just work, honest work, work that I could be proud of. What I was more clear on was my "life's work": which was to create a space and a venue for community creativity. I wanted to find work that would contribute to my life's work. And I did.

The other night, my friend (and another former housemate, though from a different house) Kate, who works as a designer for a socially-conscious fashion firm told me she'd had an epiphany when someone said to her, "Wow, it sounds like you're doing exactly what you said you wanted to be doing." My friend Ben said something not dissimilar to me a year ago August, upon visiting me in New York and seeing my workplace, my living situation, etc. He said that, given the goals I'd set for myself while I was in grad school, it was hard to imagine me doing anything else that would come so close to achieving them.

It's important, I think, for me to step back sometimes from the day to day frustrations I have with my job, with non-profit bureaucracy, and with my unsupportive supervisor to say how rare and wonderful it is to be doing something that so clearly falls in line with my stated objective in finding work. Every day at work, at least three things (and usually several dozen) occur that reaffirm my certainty that I am makign a difference with what I do.

When I look on online dating profiles, the most telling category for me is always "occupation." (It amazes me that the new Friendster format places this field further down the page so you have to scroll before you see it.) I think this field tells you at least 65% of what you ought to know about a person, which is why I get frustrated by people who put down evasive answers like "bon vivant" or "pot-smoker." The challenge for me is to find a term that encompasses btoh my paid and my unpaid work. For a while, I was going with "theatrical activist," but that came off as too self-righteous; now I use "playmaking" (which is probably an oversimplification).

I'm not gonna lie to you -- the person's picture is the first thing I look at in an online profile. Sometimes, I don't even get past the picture. And I've certainly bookmarked a lot of hot people with jobs like "finance" or "public relations," but mostly because I'd like to have access to their pictures in case I want to masturbate. Moreso even than their taste in movies (a big one) I think a person's work reveals my potential compatability with them.

And I don't just mean paid work. I mean "life's work," which (as we've been exploring) is not always precisely the same thing. One prerequisite for me, I guess, is that someone have a life's work or at least be able to articulate what one might be. When I look back on my recent failed relationships, my partners would rather clearly have failed this test...

Marx's primary gift to human history was the concept of "alienation," particularly as it applies to one's labor. By this, I don't just mean that the modern worker doesn't have ownership of the product he manufactures, but also that he has no sense of ownership over his relation to work, his choice of vocation. The need to earn, to achieve a certain standard of living, drives most of us into employment situations that we would otherwise find tedious and uninteresting. In a world where complete and perpetual leisure was possible for everyone, how many of us would continue doing the work that we currently do?

In such a world, I would certainly re-balance my schedule to be able to do more of my "life's work" -- that is, to write and direct plays, to develop collaborative theater projects, to build a space for collective community performance and development. The amazing thing, however, is that I do all of those things now! Not from 9 to 5 (or on days like today, 9 to 9), but in my evenings and my weekends. I work a lot. I don't know about the latest reality shows on TLC because when I'm not working, I tend to be working. (Which is also part of the reason why I don't always find time to write on this blog.)

If I want to leave my current job, it's not because the fundamental things I love about it have changed at all; they haven't. It's rather that ingrained institutional structures have increasingly created obstacles that prevent me from regularly and most effectively carrying out the aspects of my job that I'm most committed to. I don't feel a lot of support from my immediate co-workers which can become exhuasting after a while. It's hard to be paddling your own boat when you're expeced to a certain degree to do everyone else's work for them, too.

If I leave my job, it will be to find the same job I am doing now, just a more purely realized form of it. There is a part of me that aches already as I contemplate leaving the tenants whom I've come to know and love and whose lives, it is impossible to deny, I have impacted hugely. For a significant number of them, I am the only person in the building that they feel they can have a human interaction with. The position bears a lot of weight. That feeling of connection is what keeps me there and it would be what I would have to find in anything else that I would do.

I think through things so much. I deliberate about most choices, at least the big ones. And yet, for as long as I can remember, I've eventually been happy with most of the major developments in my life, from where I've lived to what I've decided to do. I don't know if that satisfaction is a direct result of the degree to which I've thought through each situation or whether it has to do with some personality trait that inclines me more often than not towards acceptance. When things change in my life, it tends not to be because I need to do something new, but because the thing I'm doing has developed. What I've been doing has been just right for me, it's been perfect. And then it becomes time to do something more perfect.


is this blog annoying?

It's amazing how the whole nature of experience can change so rapidly. Was it really last week that I was still worried about moving into the apartment? Our housewarming party finally happened last Saturday and it was a success. The culmination of over a month's worth of deliberating and fretting and shopping. We received uniform raves about the layout and the furnishing, the decorations, the hors d'ouerves. Whatever it was that I was trying to prove to everyone, I guess I did it.

I recognize that my obsession with this apartment has been equal parts a legitimate anxiety about putting roots down someplace and a competitive, self-promotional need to have everyone recognize the superiority of my setup in life. Things were in flux for me and I needed some kind of validation to verify that I'd made all the right choices.

Well, it's over and done with. So, hopefully, you all will never have to read another word about my sofa (which still has not been fully repaired, by the way!). What annoys me in retrospect about the blog entries I wrote last month is their pseudo-philosophical tone. It doesn't really matter to me that I was obsessed for a month with my furnishings (especially since I am so contented with the fruits of that obsession). What's disappointing is that instead of just saying, "Yeah, I'm being a little bit silly, a bit superficial, a bit materialistc -- who cares?" I went through an elaborate process of self-justification, written in self-righteous, all-knowing prose. I have a tendency to sermonize. One astute reader of this blog has described how when reading it her response is always, "Oh, look, Brian had another epiphany!" And that must get annoying after a while right? After all, how many epiphanies can one person have?

I have some ironic distance on all of this right now because of how hard I've been working myself for the past week. Life has been a relentless cycle of job-rehearsal-coming home-working on the script for the play. (I'm directing an original theater piece that's being created out of group improvistations; if I don't work on the script constantly, then there will be nothing to perform.) I was up to 3 am working at the computer for a few nights in a row. It's a good thing I got all of that furniture stuff out of my system when I did. Imagine if I was trying to do it now?

This blog is a bit like an online version of my journal. If anyone ever reads my journal (because it's published someday or because we get really close and you ask to look at it), you'll discover that it's not all that different from what you can read here. I subject my brain and my behavior to elaborate self-scrutiny, but always with the presupposition that my choices have been fundamentally right and that I just need to become comfortable with that, to see just how right they really are.

The times I write most in my blog or in my journal are when I'm sad or when I have nothing to do. When I have a lot to do, I'm almost never sad. Like now, for example. Work is heating up because the holidays are around the corner. I've got this play to create, which takes up all my time. If I weren't doing that I'd be working on some other scripts that have long been stewing in my brain. The free time, the time for anxiety, is completely occupied by other things. I don't really care in any deep sense, for example, that I haven't seen Sammy in person since the last time I wrote about him. (He's got me hooked on AOL Instant Messenger, though, so we "talk" a lot.) It's not as if I've been sitting around agonizing over him or anything. I haven't had the time. When you're active, you have less self-consciousness, which is why athletes are generally perceived to lead unexamined lives and why Plato insisted on the importance of leisure in his utopia to allow the philopher-kings time to do their contemplative work.

This blog is self-consciousness personified. It's not a rambling account of my daily activities, but a series of studied, worked over prose pieces that tread and re-tread over the same terriotry time and again. I'm always needing to teach myself the same lessons, convince myself that the same things are O.K.

I guess I write this blog for me, then, to get things off my mind. And doing it in a public forum has the added benefit of letting you into my mind. Total strangers, some of you. And that's as good as sex. Sharing the innerworkings of my brain, letting you inside of me. I like doing that, of course, but in blog format it's necessarily one-sided. I can be a slut and share my thoughts with all of you, but I don't really get penetrated. I expose only what I want to. And, in the comfort of my vaccuum, I can keep convincing myself of things that I know will continue to trouble me. The questions recur and recur, but in every blog entry, I pretend to have all the answers...


can't escape me

It happened sometime last week, I'm not exactly sure when, but I looked around my room and I thought, "This is my room." Somehow the steady force of time has finally leant my new bedroom a "lived-in" quality. It's not complete yet (there are still too many bare walls and I need a couple of lamps) but it's finally a place where I feel comfortable. It's gone from being a random assortment of boxes and junk to being a reflection of... me. And that's the really weird part.

You see, this room has been set up in a way that no place I've ever lived in has been set up. As chronicled on the pages of this blog, I have spared no expense to outfit this place with attractive, quality furnishings. I've shopped at stores the likes of which I would never even have gone into two years ago and have spent more on certain items than I ever would have considered appropriate. In general, I've put a lot more thought into this room of mine: I've strategized and planned over the course of weeks, I've shopped in countless stores in search of the perfect bedspread, the perfect desk. I've paid extra to have my pictures framed (no more thumbtacks for me!). Walking around on my way to work or during my lunchbreak has become an endless quest for housewares and I haven't settled for the first or cheapest things that I've happened upon. Everything has been done in a highly deliberate, highly self-conscious fashion.

So how come it turned out the same?

Anyone who's seen a room I've lived in over the past several years will not be surprised upon walking into my new bedroom. Like my rooms at Menno House or at Oxford or at 337 Crown Street in New Haven it is spare, it is compact. There's nothing gaudy or particularly "funky" about the decorating scheme. Everything looks pretty functional, unostentatious. I've got my shelves full of journals and playscripts. As with many of the other places I've lived, it looks quite a bit like a monk's cell. It's an insulated enviornment, a space that cries out for solitude. If my life were a play, you would fault the production designer for making the set look so similar from one act to another.

How did this happen? How can I have set out to do something with a totally different mandate and ended up with the same result? It's enough to make you believe in a kind of ineluctable "me-ness" guiding each individual choice I make and ultimately ensuring that all of these distinct individual choices (to buy a bedspread from an Indian import store, to assemble an attractive wooden file cabinet), uncharacteristic as they may have seemed, add up in aggregate to more of the same. I'm not upset at all -- I love my room. I ought to since it clearly emerged out of some deeply held, subconscious predisposition of mine.

For the past month, I've trawled through dozens of Chelsea furniture galleries like a zombie, ogling sleek modernist furnishings with with their geometric lines and decorative patterns. The experience has actually given me a real appreciation for the beauty of interior design. I feel as if I've become a character out of Proust, embarking on a flea market hunt as if it offered the possiblity of communing with aesthetic perfection, having an orgasm over an elegant teacup. And I've said to myself more than once, "Gosh, if I had the money I would get that one" or that one or that one. But experience seems to prove otherwise.

I've spent a considerable amount of money on this place (more than I've ever spent before) and I've ended up with basically the same aesthetic, just a little more "put together." A slightly more modernist monk. It leads me to believe that, even if I had unlimited funds, I wouldn't ever choose to outfit my environment in furniture from West Elm or ABC Carpet & Home. I can't imagine myself actually living in a place that was so ravishingly stylish and coordinated.

There's something frighteningly conservative about this realization. Not very post-modern. It seems to indicate that I have an intrinsic "self" that I can't escape. That even in trying to transform my self-expression, the "real me" will always rise to the surface. This experience seems to contradict everything I preach about the doctrine of self-recreation and the limitless transformative powers of performance.

Obviously, if I really wanted to, I could be living in Bauhaus splendor right now. I can choose to furnish my habitat in any kind of aesthetic that I want to. When it comes down to it, my long and drawn-out furnishing ordeal may have proved that I like being me; while I appreciate the way that other people have set up their lives and their homes, and while I might fantasize about being them for a while, I wouldn't really want to be them forever. In the same way that I might enjoy reading a Bret Easton Ellis book, but I don't end up writing like him. Or the way that I might enjoy watching a movie by Brian de Palma but don't really share his same artistic concerns. I can flirt with different lifestyles as much as I flirt with different people -- I can sample them and gain some insight -- but there are reasons why I always come back to me.

Those reasons have to do with culture and upbringing (it's no coincidence that a boy raised by a nun would end up living like a monk) but at this point in my life I have enough self-awareness to assess the values I inherited and to choose which of them I still value. Superficially, I've broken faith with a lot of my past recently -- a process that was in many ways initiated by the catalyst of my more open sexuality -- but that only seems to have made what's leftover, what's stuck, more firmly rooted. I've been left with the core, the essential.

There's an image that I will always remember from Thoreau, of a man walking around burdened by his house and all his belongings, dragging it with him on the journey of life:

I see young men, my townsmen, whose misfortune it is to haveinherited farms, houses, barns, cattle, and farming tools; for theseare more easily acquired than got rid of... They have got to live a man's life, pushing all these things before them, and get on as well as they can. How many a poor immortal soul have I met well-nigh crushed and smothered under its load, creeping down the road of life, pushing before it a barn seventy-five feet by forty, its Augean stables never cleansed, and one hundred acres of land,tillage, mowing, pasture, and woodlot! The portionless, whostruggle with no such unnecessary inherited encumbrances, find it labor enough to subdue and cultivate a few cubic feet of flesh.

That passage stuck with me more than anything else in Walden and it had a huge impact on me when I was starting out my new life in New York City. I wanted to divest myself of all those unnecessary burdens of property in order to walk unencumbered. I must admit that over the past month, in buying so much furniture and so many housewares, I'd felt a bit like I was betraying those values, as though I'd regressed a bit or was succumbing to the inevitable bourgeoisification that comes with approaching middle age (and to a certain degree there's a lot of truth in that). Who but a true saint, a holy fool, can walk unencumbered, truly naked, through this world? That's an extreme I can admire, can truly stand in awe of, while at the same time admitting that that path is (at least for now) too extreme for me. And that acknowledgement is another aspect of true freedom.

Every one of us carries a satchel along life's journey and we keep in it the things that mean the most to us. All that we can't leave behind (my apologies to Bono). If you were stranded on a desert island and you could only bring three items... They ask questions like that on internet dating profiles and on celebrity interview shows; the answers are supposed to offer a window into someone's real self. But the real answers to those sorts of questions are arrived at through experience, after the fact. They're not stated, they're lived.