Labor: work is making. Work is making something that was never there before and having an investment in its production. That is, work is the business of making the world. Think what you have made. My mother made me, pushed my fat head from her stretched lips with a cry of doped pain and relief. Joy too. When they held me up to her she laughed that she’d made a son, after five consecutive daughters.
They made me together, my parents, in fun, in the chemic pile driver that slams things into each other again and again. And the languid coupling, the time taking fornication of animals who like to lock, who slowly dream into each other and formulate mutual meaning in the body’s slow building toward a scarring reward.
And so I came to the world of conscious work, as if it weren’t always all one: that our life’s activity is an encoded message of who we are, a making of meaning in the world, the intersection of the deer and the arrow, the moment that is within our power to choreograph. Work is the expenditure of energy. Body and mind are the repositories. We don’ have to use it wisely so long as we use it well. As we use it, it leaves us. The only question is the work we choose to do in the world. Definition of self: I have done this.
Created fictions. Built poems. Dared to love. Picked apples in El Greco’s wild ambient silver light from the sky and from the sparkling cold Hudson. Changed diapers and hefted those girls till my muscles grew. Swept the sea lanes for Russian subs, rode typhoons, harassed Iranians with harnessed death and wondered if I could kill, ghosted radiowaves to sexy-throated operators a thousand wet miles away, “Batterup Batterup this is Overwork Overwork, over” (talk to me, baby). Taught fiction and poetry and imagination to drop-outs and college students and prisoners. Squandered chances. Made bad decision. Pursued pleasure. Broke hearts and was broken. Smoked. Drank. Planted gardens.
“What does your father do?”” Well, he takes us on long rides and always manages to find the way home. He likes to argue with his friends. He works for human rights, taking us to barbecues where we’re the only white people and he talks seriously with the other men. He reads two newspapers a day and listens to jazz music and drinks martinis and nuzzles my mom and plays king of the raft and teaches me baseball and watches the police riot in Chicago on TV with his mouth open and tells my sister’s drug dealing boyfriend to get out of the house with that gun and then searches for her in Greenwich Village and then in Canada and…
“No, what is his job?” He gets on the train and goes to the huge city where he works in a huge building doing terribly important things to the world in order to hold together this huge house and huge family, a big man. I can’t imagine ever knowing what it takes to assume such a place in the world, to carry that much. Mom says he’s a business man. Then we pick him up every night on the “six o eight” and her hearts leaps. I don’t want to be a business man. I don’t like the suits. It doesn’t seem glorious. I don’t want to be a writer like him or my mom. I want to be a soldier. He says I can fight in the Cold War, whatever that is.
The thing was coming. Eight hours on, eight hours off. One long harassed moment until the next port. There is no sense of time underway; night and day are arbitrary phenomena that catch you off guard. When you think a week has gone by it’s been only two days. It’s best not to count. Perhaps it would be different working topside under the sky, but in radio there are only the florescent lights and syncopated flickers from the crypto gear and the chatter of teletypes and ghostly moans emanating from the radio speakers and orders barking from the bridge and paper flowing, unfolding, and transmitter breakdowns and frequency shifts and fast reaction tests and circuit changes and orders to give, responsibility and unceasing pressure and your legs hurt from the constant rolling and your mouth is foul with coffee and cigarettes and that would all be okay if you could only get enough sleep.
Contingencies. Looking ahead, beyond pirates in the Philippine Sea to Indian Ocean contingencies (Iranians, Russians). That was a mistake. Heavy weather. Considering the state of my trepidation, there was sure to be heavy weather in this hunt. That was a contingency. Hell, my whole life was – I certainly didn’t belong here doing these things. The Chief had said that if I were in charge the division would run on autopilot, and he was probably right. If I were in charge this frigate might just not sail at all. A regular say-at-home, minimize the contingencies. Getting underway makes me sweat.
And it’s been so ever since, though a person only accumulates responsibilities as he moves through the storms and lulls. The Chief becomes a voice in the head, a composite of voices – father, teacher, boss, priest, and finally, death: “if it were up to you this ship might not sail at all!” Even an inherently lazy man winds up busy almost every moment of his life, and his idle moments are tinged with guilt. Life becomes work, and he accepts its joys and rewards as he spreads his energies thin and depletes the calories of self until he lives off his bones.
Making love becomes procreative, and with that a sea of contingencies and jobs to do, for money, for comfort, for the future (we understand our parents, their sex, their sacrifice). Christ, there’s a baby coming, a pregnancy to fret, a massive event looming that will herald untold change. Loving children means denial of sleep, sheer physical exertion of the arms and legs and back, constant tests to your patience and imagination. But it’s a new adventure, something that you made with your marrow and continue making with any skill and wisdom that life has afforded and that imagination can discover, and it pays and pays.
Still, each day to me is a getting underway, a certain dread oppressing the blood and tightening the stomach with my morning coffee, something large to be faced, an exposure of the ribs to the scopes and sights of strangers, different environments and realities to negotiate. Prepare yourself to step into the world of high school dropouts for eight hours; and give and give. Walk into a classroom of expectant college students, swallow the butterflies – each and every time – and discover what it is you have to say to them. What do I know? What can I say? What challenges will be thrown at me? Will I be able to meet them? Often, what it is I have to give and what it is I have to discuss is my own life, as the distinctions between “work” and “life” bleed together into “experience.” I can’t help but internalize everything.
Returning home is the same process, not toward some escape or happily oblivious relaxation, but to a real family with its own set of problems and processes, to a house that needs fixing and rooms that need cleaning and a yard that needs work, to financial problems, children’s crises, perhaps devastating news, perhaps nothing but the revelation of a beautiful mate and the genius of extraordinary children (is it a dream? Did I do this?) laughing and performing an impromptu ballet. And I bring my work home with me, filling the house with my mood, brooding with the minds and lives I’d encountered that day, the literature I taught, the confessions I read, the people of the world, here and now and forever.
And at last, when all are asleep, I return to the legacy of my parents; having come full circle and given up resisting the call of blood and memory, I go down to my office in the basement to write. Again the old fear and dread and trepidation of undertaking what it might not be within me to do. Again the exposure, leaping and momentarily a frozen target, hunting and hunted, memory and death. I stall. I shuffle papers, drink more coffee, smoke more butts. I take notes and peruse old works. I contemplate the end: “This ship might not sail if it’s up to you.” My parents, who met on their high school paper, believed that writing was the highest and most noble calling. They always knew that I would write. I dive in knowing that I have only them and their parents and my children and wife and my students and their children and spouses to answer to. What do I write about? My work, into which all things integrate and pour.
I wonder about the work that others do, how their lives seem compartmentalized, organized for the sake of comprehension like a college course of study, as if all subjects weren’t integrally related and part of a larger whole. When, on the job, people say, “Oh man, TGIF,” I always wonder what they’re doing tomorrow (or if they really only dread five days, when I dread and devour them all). When coworkers announce that Wednesday is “hump day” I wonder what they expect next but another hump. Have they never seen the sea? Though the vocation that I’ve found isn’t valued remuneratively, the satisfaction of work that is inseparable from the self cannot be underestimated. For me there are only days. Each is a struggle. Each is a new light. Life and work are one.