Full Disclosure: My Labor History
Squirrels are better at their jobs than I’ve been at mine.
I was idly sipping my coffee early this morning, sitting out on my back deck and attempting to extend the time before reporting to work. When you work as a writer, there are all sorts of ways to delay actual labor: more “research,” more “brainstorming,” more “waiting for inspiration to strike,” another cuppa.
As if any of those things were as important as simply starting the work.
While I procrastinated, my backyard nemesis, a bird-feeder hawking, sunflower-eating, garden-spelunking squirrel appeared, and gave a quick sniff in my direction, to see how likely I was to kill him this morning (risk of death: low; I had my coffee in hand, not a shotgun). The beast resumed hopping through the grass; it had a large acorn clenched in his teeth. Every few feet it would stop, explore the turf with its busy front paws, reject that burial site, then hop to the next. After five lawn probes, it finally found an appropriate spot to secret away the precious nut. Autumn and winter are looming just over the horizon here in Colorado; the squirrel had work to do.
“It’s a shame that the only thing a man can do for eight hours a day is work,” William Faulkner wrote. “He can’t eat for eight hours; he can’t drink for eight hours; he can’t make love for eight hours. The only thing a man can do for eight hours is work. Which is the reason why man makes himself and everybody else so miserable and unhappy.”
Well, that’s a little dark.
But this is even darker: “Whatsoever thy hand findeth to do, do it with thy might; for there is no work, nor device, nor knowledge, nor wisdom, in the grave, whither thou goest.”
Happy Labor Day to you too, Book of Ecclesiastes 9:10!
Back to that squirrel, who had found yet another way to annoy me: It was accomplishing its tasks this morning, even if I wasn’t. So I drained my cup and trudged out to the renovated 1904 barn where I write this, contemplating all of the places I attempted to bury my nuts, before hopping along to the next opportunity.
Here’s the full log-book of my adult labor:
Camp counselor-in-training: My first job, age 13. I boarded a camp bus at 7am, immediately began singing “There Were Three Jolly Fishemen” with the campers, whom I chased around in the woods until 3pm. Then back on the bus, still singing “There Were Three Jolly Fishermen.” Sample lyric: “They All Went out From Amsterdam…Amster — , Amster — , Dam! Dam! Dam!”
Furnace-cleaning professional: The Town of Stratford, Connecticut, made note of how tiny I was at age 16, and hired me as part of the crew that was to squeeze into the 3'x2’ access door of a coal-burning furnace in city hall, to scrape the by-products of combustion off the firewalls. I did that for exactly one day, and quit the next morning.
Professional Lawn-mower: The Town of Stratford conceded the point that maybe I wasn’t a good choice as a furnace cleaner, and moved me to the lawn crew. My main gig was to mow the lawn at a city-run old-person’s home, where residents used to invite me in to watch baseball on TV and drink Schlitz with them while I was on the clock. Not a bad gig, really. I also learned that the drone of a lawnmower-engine had a musical pitch I could harmonize with, as I pushed.
Jack of All Trades, The Delinquent Supply company: I spent three summers organizing the warehouse of an industrial supply company, before I moved on to help them enter their entire inventory into a first-of-its-kind computer system. My log-in name on the computer was MOOPS (Moore, P.S.), which is what everyone called me. A saleswoman once took me aside and said, “Be careful MOOPS. I started here twenty-five years ago, and look at me. Still here.” She quit a month later. I left for Europe.
American History Writer: Here’s where White Privilege puts its heavy hand on the scale and tips me into an actual career. My father had a secretary who was married to an editor, and he gave me a start writing American History in 150 word bursts, for a kind of flash-card history project. Twenty years later I found a complete set of the cards in the trash at my son’s elementary school, on the last day of school. Ars longa my ass.
“Waiter!” One day I called my editor for more history-card assignments, and he told me the project was done, kaput, over. I was living in Bath, Maine, at the time, where there was a fancy restaurant called The Wife of Bath. What Chaucer had to do with fine food I still dunno. I showed up for a job interview with the restaurant’s owner, spouted the first ten lines of the Canterbury Tales in Olde English, and was hired on the spot. See? An English major is practical.
NEXT Magazine. I was off to Manhattan! My very first office had views of the Chrysler Building and the Empire State Building. One day I turned in fresh copy to the editor-in-chief, who had lately washed out of a career with the New York Times. He returned my manuscript page with a big blue X through it, and the word “Nah” engraved into the top. I was on my way!
Moviegoer Magazine. When NEXT folded, inevitably, I collected my unemployment checks at an office in Queens Plaza, where the clerk kept saying “next…next…next” to keep the line of indigents moving. I responded to a help-wanted ad in the New York Times, advertising for editor/writers to work on a movie magazine based in Knoxville, Tennessee, of all places. I got the job! When I piloted my Chevy Chevette south along the BQE, underneath the promenade of Brooklyn Heights, with my cat complaining in his cage, I was devastated. Knoxville? Twelve months later I used my corporate Amex card to pay for a party at the Russian Tea Room.
Playboy Magazine. See? Things can work out. I worked in soft-porn journalism for nine years, eventually gaining what was then one of the most coveted titles — and self-evident jokes — in the magazine industry: Articles Editor of Playboy. Hey, there was lots of great writing in there! (No foolin’: John Updike once wrote “girl copy” for me.) When I met Jenny McCarthy, her nakedness was covered only by a terrycloth bathrobe. My bad: I should have talked to her about the efficacy of vaccines.
Men’s Health Magazine. When I went into my Playboy boss’s office to inform him of my imminent move to Emmaus, Pennsylvania, home of Rodale and Men’s Health, his eyes widened. He said “You’re climbing onto a rocket!” And so it was: the hottest magazine in the business at the time. The stress of being managing editor of Men’s Health nearly killed me four years later, as I developed a 99% blockage of the left-anterior descending artery in my heart. I survived it, but did I quit the job? No. I worked there for twenty years, topping out as VP/Editor. Then they sent me packing. A couple of years later the company was sold to Hearst, and they converted my Emmaus office into an old-age home.
Ghostwriting. Now I write books for people, so they don’t have to. Why don’t I write books for myself? Good question. Maybe I should hire me.
Meanwhile, that damn squirrel is still in the backyard, looking up at the bird feeders. I’ve been battling squirrels for decades, with an extensive system of baffles and greased poles and cages to keep them off the birdseed and suet. And yet, if you look long enough at an obstacle, you’ll find a way. The squirrels always do.
Back to work, everybody.