she slices, she dices...she is finally blue-collar

On my last day off, which was Thursday, I went up to my old college to try and get the last bits of paperwork done which were keeping me from my degree. Mom stepped in like a champion, got leave from her work to go visit their plant up in the area so she could give me a ride there, and even paid the last couple little fees I had on my account at college, though she could ill afford to do so. I am greatly in her debt!

Tomorrow, however, is my second off day in this week, so I can afford to spend a little time blogging. Ah, the comfort of the written word. Even generating 3000 words in five hours did not sate me. I must write more, for the peace of my mind. So I write.

These days I am reminded of Idle Theory, a concept delineated by a fellow named Chris Davis as one of the factors in determining evolutionary fitness. I wish I could find his original page, which had some nice diagrams and such, but I will explain briefly. Idleness is the amount of time and energy which an organism has left over after it has satisfied the basic requirements of immediate survival--food, sleep, etc. Think of it as the profit margin of effort. Organisms with a very small amount of idleness are vulnerable to environmental changes. A small change in the requirements for immediate survival can mean the difference between life and death for something living on the edge. In contrast, living things with high levels of idleness can afford to spend their extra time and effort seeking out interesting mates, scouting out new territories, playing internet games, et cetera. Societies, which are themselves organisms in a sense, also change their behaviors based on idleness. Societies with low idleness tend to emphasize virtues such as hard work, thrift and rule-following--because if those virtues are not practiced by most individuals most of the time, that society will burn through its "profit margin" of available effort and collapse.

For me, personally, this is the lowest level of idleness I've ever attempted on an ongoing basis. Oh, I had some worse period at Aigre Doux (now defunct, Clarissa tells me, so I suppose I can use its name!), but those were periodic, not continuous. Let me show you some deli-counter-worker math:

8 hours per day at work
3 hours per day in transit (1.5hr train + walk time)
8 hours per day sleeping
6 hours per workday for other activity.

See, at the office-type jobs I've had in the past, internet access was part of worktime, to a limited extent. I could play my KoL turns, make the occasional blog post (in bits and pieces, by keeping the window open behind other work), and read random stuff to keep my imagination sizzling. I sat on my butt and typed and talked on the phone and spoke a lot of doublespeak.

Now my day is spent on my feet. I lift meats and cheeses out of the counter, on and off the slicers, work the slicers with hitherto-unused arm, shoulder and back muscles. I often lean my entire torso into the cold salad case to carefully scoop out, say, potato salad, without smearing tuna salad or curry on my apron or elbows in the process. It is like a combination of contortionism, spelunking, constructing a stone wall out of smallish rocks, and playing an endless game of tug-of-war with a gaggle of children. And I haven't even been on the café side and learned to make sandwiches or fry chicken in super-hot grease yet!

The thing is, though--I am happy. I feel like the guy at the end of Office Space. I'm doing something constructive and real. So what if my back feels like it has a knife stuck in it between the hours of seven and nine pm most nights? So what if the customers ask me to thin-shave a full pound of our messiest, juiciest meat at 8:45pm when I'm supposed to be disassembling and cleaning the slicers and sweeping the floor, when the auto-slicer is done for the night and I must do it by hand? I can hack that. That is no frickin problem. I sing while I slice, I banter with customers, I try to convince the nice ladies from the café side of the counter to teach me Bosnian. I've only been here a couple weeks, but I can weigh by the quarter-pound with either hand now and I know half the item codes by heart. And apparently all my coworkers like me, because I like them and think they're cool, and I'm sunny and polite and work like a fiend and sing.

For some reason, my day-to-day sense of identity is tied up in my work to a fairly large extent. Maybe it's because so much of how I remain socialized is a conscious process; the personas I use in daily life are assembled "by hand" rather than by instinct. And much of my consciousness is swept up in the self-check routines by which I create and assure my continued sanity, functionality. So there's not a whole lot of tolerance in me for identity concepts not directly supported by incoming data.

Oh, there is a residue. Life events and decisions leave a mark, little permanent records which say "you rose to X challenge to Y extent. you reacted to A crisis with B level of competence." Each little possible area of life I am able to approach with what I deem to be honor and nobility, by that increment is my heart eased and my childhood certainty weakened--the certainty that I am useless and without value. Not sure where it came from. Perhaps that knowledge is down in my spaghetti memory somewhere, safe to recall only when its poison is nullified.

Nobility is being equally comfortable, confident, competent, equally able to belong, in all places and all circumstances. Heinlein has a quote about it, a quote which I don't recall verbatim that ends "specialization is for insects." Honor is integrity in action: that you behave at all times and in all ways so that the world you wish to experience is the world which your actions make more possible.

In previous jobs, then, I have demonstrated to myself that I can be white-collar, that I can be an egghead amongst eggheads. That I can type numbers into a screen all day and night and still have the wherewithal to go to altavista's babelfish and crib enough Spanish to tell the dishwasher that his money was direct-deposited to his bank account and he should have it within three business days. That I can research the doings of a city which I have never visited, through news clippings and random statistical journals, well enough that my supervisor can go to that city's government and ask the right pointed questions about how they handle their finances. That I can shout down an aged building owner, whose concept of how business is done was cemented in the fifties, in a vain attempt convince him to pay for renovations required by fire safety regulations passed into law in the nineties. All these things I know about myself.

But now, now if I can keep this job for enough months to satisfy myself, I will have proved to myself that I can put in eight hours of real work, like a real person. Oh, the mad mad lengths to which we go for self-respect. It is worth it.

Besides, my unemployment was about to run out. There is some irony, as this back-aching job pays only $8.20 an hour, and thus nets me per week exactly the same amount as I used to get from unemployment, for doing nothing.

Still. I am happier, because even in a time of extremely low idleness, I am happier doing something than nothing.


Lorena said...

Glad you're happy. And not shocked at all. After all, physical activity increases the production of serotonin, as I'm sure you know better than me.

It makes me think that that's what I need: a job that requires a little physical activity, so I can get some "happy" chemicals naturally.