Place, transportation, Work

Be Careful What You Wish For

Norway’s SlowTV film of the Bergen to Oslo railway is beautiful and deeply moving: nostalgic. Though I’ve never been to Norway, I’ve ridden trains. While I can count long train rides on my hands, my time commuting on MetroNorth Rail-Road, the New York City subway, and the London Underground are some of my favorite memories. I looked forward to riding the train. One year my commute passed through Penn Station. A ticket on the next train out of New York beckoned me to buy one and go.

I’ve started working with the movie in the background. The rhythmic rumble, the occasional announcements, are soothing. I tricked myself into thinking I’m working in the cafe car. Now and again I look up and out at the fjords.

One of the wonderful aspects of system administration, or DevOps as the kids call it these days, was that much of the work can be done anywhere there’s an Internet connection. This begins to pale as a wonderful aspect when anywhere is restricted to just another grey cubicle in a sea of grey cubicles, and pales to insignificance when anywhere becomes only your bedroom, and the few minutes you see other people is at the school bus stop. All of your friendships and conversations become virtual — which is just the thing you once desired so much. What offered the promise of working anywhere became working nowhere. Meanwhile, the world of IT operations long ago realized that if the work could be done from anywhere, then it could just as easily be done from India or Slovenia as from New Jersey, so while BigCo real estate operations were trying to lower costs by reducing the office footprint and exploring telecommuting, other folks at BigCo were looking at ways to get rid of people entirely, not by replacing by replacing them with machines (automating or optimizing processes), but with cheaper labor from elsewhere. Costs were reduced, one assumes, not through efficiency and gains in productivity, but through the illusion of arbitraging regional differences in the cost of labor.

Cleaning my library, I ran across an N-scale model railroad that I’ve carried with me from house to house. If memory serves, it last ran in Loveland, Ohio. I may have been 12. Our youngest, 8, put it together last year, but couldn’t resolve an electrical problem, so it went back in the box. He likes to build with Legos, so this Christmas I gave him a Lego train. We need more track.

I stopped working in New York for moments with my children. Our first child would be asleep by the time I got home, and not yet awake when I left. Taking employment nearby meant I could see my family for breakfast and dinner, and sometimes lunch. There was a trade-off, of course: no more trains, for one.

Each place I’ve worked has had its own atmosphere, its own odor. A new cat came to live with us last year and the adjustment has been, shall we say, complex. So I am in the process of ripping out all the wall-to-wall carpeting and replacing it with something urine-proof. In the meantime, I’m sleeping in the library. There is something so cozy to be surrounded by one’s books. Sometimes I lie awake just staring at all the friends I’ve made and places I’ve been.

Each place I’ve worked has had its own character, its own people. This place here has cats and on occasion small children. One of my first employments was as a clerk at a Standard Drug in Richmond, Virginia. There were just a handful of us on staff: the pharmacist and his assistant, the store manager, another clerk, and me. I did not deal much with the pharmacists other than to pass prescriptions to them, so I only have a faint impression of them. The manager was in his 40s, perhaps older, with glasses, a scraggly beard, and bad teeth: probably a lot like how I look now, except for the teeth. The other clerk spent his days stoned. That summer my brother and I lived with Grandmother; we were expected home for dinner by 5:30. Dinner was always at 5:30. I would walk down the road to the Henrico Public Library branch, if books were needed, then make it back to Grandmother’s for dinner. Late nights I spent with Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, Dorothy L. Sayers, and Turner Classic Movies. It wasn’t until after I graduated from college that I made real friends at work, or was even interested in doing so. And then I found peculiar characters, colleagues, kindred spirits, and friends.

Working from a coffee shop is a great way to observe a bunch of characters while you work, if you pick the right shop. But you can get trapped just watching everything transient. Much better is the cafe car on a long-distance train or the counter at an all-night diner. People seeking people come and sit there, often drinking, sometimes working, sometimes holding forth, sometimes playing cards.

It is easier to build team spirit on a virtual team than to address alienation. We coalesce around our shared goals, tasks, and complaints quite easily. Interpersonal problems do arise, if not everyone is working at their best, which can require a chat, perhaps the resetting of expectations, but my experience has been that the team wants to work as a team: no one wants to let another down, and quite willingly picks up work that another has dropped. They almost have a common enemy in their employer — not in the competition as one might expect — which is not for the best, but suffices.

Where did we get this idea of work-life balance, that work and life were separate? Did we not realize that by putting work in opposition to life that we’ve aligned it with death? Or was that an intentional recognition that in some respects our way of working is not living, but a kind of zombie existence?

We forget sometimes that a lot of life is constructed around us by society, and when we’re cut off we do not know how to build it back. One of my great failures as a manager was [name redacted], who was a very talented employee, supremely dedicated to his work — until one day it all went to hell. No one else worked near him, or talked to him on a regular basis, so no one knew what was happening until he just stopped. He gave up fighting. As Peter Gibbons puts it in Office Space, “I’m just not gonna go.” The bullshit defeated him. Like the rest of us, he’d been working essentially by himself from home for some time.

I haven’t figured out how to fix this, yet. But it seems to me that the key might be have meaningful work in the first place; nip this problem in the bud.