The Secret Reality of Work

Every weekday, at 5:30, my father would walk in from another long day of work, pour himself a scotch, and retire to the living room with my mother. They would spend half an hour talking about the day’s work and discussing workplace politics. After seeing him suitably welcomed, my mother would finish dinner while my father read the paper until the meal was ready. We’d eat dinner as a family, then he’d watch an hour of gameshows before disappearing to do who knows what: polish his shoes, use the toilet, check sales quotas. What he was doing was eclipsed by primetime car chases and laugh tracks. At 10 o’clock, he would reappear to watch something boring with my mother, follow that with the news, and then retire for the night, only to get up and do it all again. As a family, we organized everything around him and he seemed to organize everything around work.

The story was the same for all the fathers I knew. They were up earlier than us, left before school, came home right before dinner, and everyone left them alone after a long, hard day at work. On weekends, one father might differentiate himself from the others by their chosen activities: sports, yardwork, cars, or church picnics. But during the week, our fathers and their routines were interchangeable. It was all about work.

This was just the way things were; fathers worked. We all knew that going to work was hard, tiring stuff. It was a Looney Tunes cartoon supervisor wielding a whip and an unending flood of angry customers. Probably, your boss yelled at you all day. And we heard enough to know, that nobody at work knew how to do their job. Worst of all was the knowledge that, one day, we would share their fate. We would have to get jobs and go to work to support our own families. Each of us would have to go to work and answer to the boss. This was something we had reservations about.

I would argue that, with those first few jobs, work was a lot like I imagined it would be. But it was far more defined than I expected as a child. You get hired to do a thing; that thing is what you do, and mostly you aren’t asked to do anything else. Which is not much like life and not at all like having a family. Both of which are far more stressful and unpredictable than work. As you advance in the workplace, you run into the idea that the more money you make, the less you work. Supervisors and managers never work as hard as you do. The real truth in this is more akin to, the more money you make, the less physical work you do. But if you’re not working hard, are you working? And if you’re not working, shouldn’t more be expected of you at home? Which I think is why we’ve created the mythology of work. A co-worker, Gary, summed it up nicely.

It was too early for lunch, which hadn’t stopped the other three guys in the group, but not too early for restlessness to settle in. The day’s tasks were all just meaningless busy-work that didn’t make any difference to anything or even help the time pass. It was quiet and dull, just like every day. I had spent the morning working on my website, distracted only by a mandatory meeting about memos and TPS reports, or some such.

“Do you ever wonder if our dads worked this hard?” I asked Gary, as I wandered into his cubical. Yahoo! news on his monitor, feet kicked up on a drawer, he gazed absently out the window.

“Don’t much know,” he said, focusing in on my presence in his area. “My dad went off to work, came home, ate dinner, and watched some TV. We didn’t much talk about what he did.”
I propped myself on the window ledge so that he wouldn’t have to reorient. “But what do you think? I find it hard to imagine they did this, or something like this, all day.”

“Well, if they did have jobs like this, they were smart enough not to let on,” Gary said, and after a few minutes of discussion he wandered off to have a cigarette.

Gary was on to something there. Work, an actual day at the office, can’t have changed that much in two decades. Too much is familiar for that to be the case. Our fathers may not have been sipping scotch at the club, but nor were they slaving away. Work can be stressful, boring, hard, and dirty. But it is also a refuge, a social outlet, and an escape. Those are the parts we never understood as kids, and I don’t think we were meant to.

Deception is key here. Long hours and a stressful work environment; this just might be the biggest lie in the middle class living room. It’s a universal condition that we all propagate and that we’re all complicit in. The truth is something else entirely. The only thing anyone knows about your job is what you tell them. Part of the mystique of being at work, is the belief that work is a struggle. The office is a place akin to the jungle, where one may be killed and eaten any day. It is a place full of demanding bosses, ridiculous deadlines, and herculean challenges. This is why a tough day at work can get you out of just about anything at home.

Make dinner. Tough day at work.

Help with homework. Tough day at work.

Clean the garage. Tough day at work.

My view of parenthood, work, and family dynamics has changed, but I think I understand it all better now. There is a certain fog that needs to surround the workplace in order to maintain the proper family balance. Our fathers knew this and it served them well. I believe that it is serving the rest of us equally well. We all acknowledge that work is hell, and then we wink at the camera.

As promised, here is that first essay from my English class. I was having problems getting this down to the 1000 word limit, so it is considerably shorter and has a different feel than the draft. I think it lost some of the flavor in the editing, but the writing is more tightly focused on my thesis. Let me know what you think and we’ll compare it to whatever mark-up and grade it comes back with next Wednesday.