Spice of Life is in the Salt Mines

Russell Frank
By Russell Frank June 15, 2009 13:12

Maybe you’ve heard: 85 is the new 65.

In other words, forget retirement. We’re gonna bop on down to the salt mines until we drop.

Which is fine by me, actually.  It’s not that I’m a workaholic. Far from it. I’m as lazy as the next guy. Maybe lazier.

A week off is lovely. I’m enjoying one as I write this, in fact. A month off is bliss. After that, though, I get antsy. I suspect most of us do. I don’t care how much you love to fish, golf, scrapbook or stage Crimean War battles on your dining room table. Do it every day for long enough and you’ll be bored silly.

I’ve known this since childhood. School would let out. For the first happy month of summer vacation we would play all day: baseball in the backyard before lunch, board games in the basement after lunch, with the occasional game of dodgeball in Arthur’s pool or stickball in the street. At night we’d entomb fireflies in mayonnaise jars and slurp Fudgsicles from the ice cream truck that came around the neighborhood after dinner. Good times.

Then, toward the end of July, we’d start to pick fights with each other, cheat at our games, provoke vicious splash fights in the pool – sure signs that we were sick of each other, weary of our games, fed up with our moms’ peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches. We’d never admit it, but going back to school had begun to look pretty appealing.

We humans have always had an ambivalent attitude toward work: On one hand, we believe in it. We distrust idleness and disapprove of laziness. We see work as ennobling, virtuous, character-building. We respect those who earn their wealth more than those who inherit it.

On the other hand, we resent work. In Judeo-Christian culture’s foundational story, work is punishment. Adam and Eve nibble the forbidden fruit and God pretty much says, No more living off the fat of the land for you two – get busy!

Work is the opposite of both play and leisure. Work is drudgery, labor, toil. The rat race. The daily grind. TGIF.

The result of this ambivalence about work is a culture where people both complain and boast about how hard their noses are pressed to the grindstone. Where, ironically, a massive industry is devoted to entertaining us when we aren’t at work (and sometimes even when we are). Where the new president mentions work eight times in his inaugural address and then attends 10 inaugural balls.

We seek balance, of course. All work and no play, etc. Or, if we’re lucky, we do work that feels like play. I fear, though, that more and more of us are subscribing to the anti-work ethic than to the work ethic. Our goal: earn maximum money (or leisure) for minimum exertion.

President Obama invoked this mindset during his inaugural address when he railed against greed, irresponsibility, shortcuts and “those who prefer leisure over work, or seek only the pleasures of riches and fame.” Later in the same speech, he said, “…   there is nothing so satisfying to the spirit, so defining of our character than giving our all to a difficult task.”

That was the keeper quote, in my book, yet it got very little play, probably because it sounded so boringly puritanical. (While playing a clip from President Obama’s inaugural address, a glum-looking Jon Stewart let a party blower droop from his lips. When he finally exhaled, the blower unfurled forlornly: The call for “a new era of responsibility” just didn’t fit the party mood.)

So many of us, myself included, have been given such cushy lives that work feels like an imposition. We want to devote our energies to having fun, not busting our humps.

But it has slowly dawned on me over the years that as much as I like hard crossword puzzles and easy bike rides, as much as I like live theatre and dead poets, as much as I like wandering among strangers and socializing with friends, I feel best about myself when I kick myself in the butt and get something done.

That doesn’t have to entail clocking in somewhere, of course. There are plenty of useful things to do around the house, to say nothing of painting that masterpiece you always knew you had in you.

But a job does some other underappreciated things for us: It gives us someplace to go, something to do and someone to talk to.

I may not want to put in a 40-hour week when I’m 85 – and we as a society need to become more flexible about taking advantage of the wisdom and expertise of those who only want to semi-retire – but if my health holds out, I predict that I am going to want to keep working, no matter how much money I’ve been able to sock away.

That way I’ll still have vacations to look forward to.

Russell Frank, 54, worked at The Union Democrat from 1985 to 1988. He earned a doctorate in folklore and in 1998 began working at Penn State University, where he is an associate professor of journalism. Email him at rbf5@psu.edu.

© 2009, Friends and Neighbors Magazine

Russell Frank
By Russell Frank June 15, 2009 13:12
Write a comment

No Comments

No Comments Yet

Let me tell you a sad story. There are no comments yet, but yours can be the first!

Write a comment
View comments

Write a comment

Your e-mail address will not be published.
Required fields are marked*