There are times when I look back at my childhood and wish I’d watched much less television. I mean, I’m pretty sure I could have found something more enriching to do than watch reruns of Rerun visiting “Roge” on What’s Happinin’? or, sadly enough, on the spinoffed sequel, What’s Happinin’ Now? N’ertheless, I did spend those long hours, chin in folded hands, lying flat on my stomach, watching Who’s The Boss and Small Wonder and Diff’rent Strokes, and Mr. Belv…you get the picture. In any case, I sit around sometimes and wish I’d used some of that time for other, more worthwhile pursuits. Yet today I remember something I doubt I would have recalled had I not watched as many hours of the telly:
There was this commercial for Tootsie Rolls, those lollipops with unchewably hardened chocolate chews at the center. Remember those? In any case, there was this owl and a child. The owl, of course, was assumed to be wise while the boy, young and innocent as children are often believed to be, was naive. The boy, not surprisingly, had a Tootsie Pop in his hand and wondered how many licks does it take to get to the center of a Tootsie Pop, a very valid question, though presumably a conundrum one cannot answer conclusively. That’s the cuteness of it, I suppose. No child, or very few children, will look at the piece of confectionery and consider how tongue length, saliva acidity and volume, or lick pressure might effect the outcome, nor, presumably, would many folks ponder the possibility that not every Tootsie Roll has the same amount of hard candy encasing the (ideally) gooey center. Yet viewers would have a vague sense that the child’s question was lacking in some more advanced consideration which could only result from years of exercising deductive reasoning and abstract thought. So, the child approached the wise, bespectacled owl with his question. The owl decides that he will uncover the answer using the empirical method: he begins lapping away at the candy, counting each lick aloud.
One, he counts,
The the unthinkable occurs: the owl’s beak slams down upon the barely-licked Tootsie Roll and c-r-r-r-r-un-n-nch! the bird’s vice-like jaws crush the candy. Thr-r-r-r-r-e-e-e-e, he proclaims calmly, much to the boy’s chagrin and presumably appealing to our sense of humor. Then a stuffy man’s voiceover concludes that we may never know the answer, presumably because Tootsie Rolls are so good that we can never wait the time it takes for a lollipop shell to dissolve before we go for that delicious, corn syrup and God knows what else marrow.
And this was a pretty memorable commercial for me. I actually remember trying to figure out (like many other children, I imagine) just how many licks it would take. If I recall it correctly, it was something live forty-seven eight-year-old Erik licks. Then again, I may well have constructed that memory. No matter, though, as my point isn’t really about the commercial (since all I could say about it should be glaringly obvious to any reader). Rather, it occurred to me as I lay sprawled out atop my futon, that I have a similar question for the world as I contemplate working at a pointlessly draining job this evening:
How many shifts does it take before an individual begins trying to find ways to evade his or her work?
Because, man, I do not want to work. I hate anything with hourly pay rates. I mean, when we sign up to do something for X dollars an hour, we’re tacitly engaging in some Sartrean mauvais foi. Think about it for a moment. Should an individual sign on to work in, say, a corporate chain bookstore for $6.75 an hour, he or she is, in a very real sense, saying that his or her life can be sold, like shares in a company, for a certain price, in this case, a quarter less than what I once paid for Boomer Esiason’s Topps rookie card. See, unlike salary, hourly wage positions literally commodify one’s existence. A given portion of one’s pitifully limited time atop the soil he or she will one day dissolve into, as per the wage agreement, is given a set value. Whereas a salary implies that the task you do, no matter how much of your life it takes to complete (though retail management jobs do still carry a sizable minimum hourly commitment, for instance), is worth X amount of dollars, wage positions make no such claim. Mowing a lawn is worth twenty dollars no matter how long it takes. You could slave over an acre of grass for many, many hours with a rusting hulk of an aging push-reel mower or you can speed over it with a riding mower. Nevertheless, the job is worth twenty dollars. Now, on an hourly scale, say $7.00/hour, the push-reel mower may yield a seventy dollar profit while the riding mower (after the cost of gas is deducted from the pay) will barely earn the worker ten dollars, if that. I imagine a lot of people would balk at paying seventy or one hundred dollars for as small a task as mowing a relatively averaged-sized rural-suburban lawn. The job simply isn’t worth the money. Not to me it isn’t, at least.
Now applying this logic to our lives, does it not imply that if I agree to perform a task for a set amount of dollars that I agree, tacitly, on the value of the task? Generally speaking, of course. Now, does it not also imply that agreeing to work at a bookstore for $6.75 an hour, regardless of the day’s task load, that I agree my time, and by extension, my very existence, is worth the pitiful sum aforementioned? If I do something twice the speed of a coworker and half the speed of another (say, shelving Sociology books or self-help manuals) for the same amount of time, we each receive the same recompense. And something about it does not seem right. For, as I’ve already said, we are quantifying that most precious, invaluable of human assets as we would a length or rope or means of conveyance. And most people, I hope, don’t like that idea.
The fact that we disagree with that which we agree to do amounts to Orwellian doublethink or, as I’ve already asserted, mauvais foi, bad faith. We know on a very real, very fundamental level that our lives are not, cannot be worth so little, yet we agree to prostitute ourselves for the alleged promise of benefits derived from services rendered. Yet we all know full well that if someone gets paid $8.00 for every hour he or she spends reading a book or watching a movie or chatting with a friend while manning the front desk of an unpopular hotel and someone else gets paid $6.00 to stand up all day over a hot, greasy fast-food griddle, slaving and sweating over food he or she will not taste, something is amiss.
And we’re told, the world’s not fair and stop complaining, be grateful for what you have and the like, which are, in their way, very valid approaches towards this life we call home, temporary as it may be. Ultimately, though, we dislike the idea that are life is only worth X dollars an hour. We know, to ourselves at least, we are worth so, so much more than that. We would pay many times what we earn for additional hours on earth, I imagine.
What hourly wage forces the individual to understand is the vast indifference of the world to the individual. Most anyone can shelve books or flip burgers, so if you wont do it for six dollars, someone else will. Otherwise the pay wouldn’t be as low. People do not particularly enjoy the understanding that they aren’t worth anything extraordinary because the individual knows, positively and completely knows and feels that he or she is too precious to be quantified, divided, appraised, and packaged. We are not, to borrow John Lydon’s lyric, “a crap in a cling-wrap,” or, at the very least, we don’t want to admit it.
If we agree to place a price on our time, we are essentially assenting to allow others to objectify us as they would a piece of tile or an automobile headlight. Allowing ourselves to become objects while still alive is a flat denial, though rarely identified as such, of our tenuous humanity. I do realize that I am simplifying certain things and hyperbolizing others to make a point, but I do so with the hope of making a point I feel passionate about. We aren’t as worthless as we are. Not to ourselves. And this is why retail jobs and similarly-structured fiscal situations often wound our self-esteem and result in bitterness. We know we’re worth more than these people say we are, but we agree to be treated as if we are only so much, only a few dollars an hour. And the indignation that arises is not the anger we feel towards annoying customers or mundane tasks, but a subtle form of self-loathing, an anger tinged with the unneameable shame we feel at what we know we allow ourselves to become. It is, all too frequently, a recognition of our own weakness, our own failures and shortcomings, often things we know we coula, shoulda changed. We know we’ve accepted something we’ve rejected and, in so doing, we realize we’ve rejected a fundamental piece of our selves in the process. We can come up with thousands of excuses, only a handful of which are truly acceptable. And for those lucky few whose reasons are valid and noble (I accept this wage-job because I am building something, etc.), these critiques are irrelevant. I speak to those of us who settle for too little and know it, those of us who fail in achieving what we know we can and want to do. I speak to those of us who drop the frightening responsibility we have for our own existences to hand control over our lives to someone or something else. And we know it if our excuses are excuses and not reasons. If it is a valid reason, we’re not dissatisfied with ourselves. If it is an excuse, no amount of disguise will hide the truth from ourselves. We’ll feel it every time we get annoyed by “dumb” circumstance, each instant of ennui, each recognition of a second lopped off irrevocably from our ever-shortening breath on this earth.
And this is also the problem of adjunct professors, on salary as it may be. You know you are worth as much, are as qualified as much as full tenured professors, but agree to a system of exploitation in order to not deal with naked reality.
No one really wants to admit we really wasted something as precious as ourselves, but we do, are doing it, will likely continue to do it, because we are afraid of the consequences of unfamiliarity and the lack of security, illusory as that can be. We must, to borrow from Dylan Thomas’s homage to his dying father, rage, rage against the dying of the light of Reason. We need to acclimate our eyes to the painfully bright truth of our existence and realize that we have allowed ourselves to fall into the same mechanized patterns as the gadgets pumping away at night, making sheepskin condoms and novelty pens for tourists. If after all the reflection neccesary for that sort of self-evaluation, one can honestly agree with all the little social contracts he or she has signed in lifeblood, the individual can still, truthfully say to oneself, I do not regret this, a measure of contentment should not be too elusive.
Because, really, an hour of one’s life should not be worth a Big Mac meal and bus fare to another part of a city. We know it and our feelings will tell us all our minds refuse to do.
I do realize, as I glance back over this thing, that I should emphasize that I am aware of my rather privledged position as an American. Certainly, the conditions in other regions of the world are unthinkably, unspeakably horrific in terms of living wages. I mean, even in economically-depressed areas where items we pay exorbant prices to obtain cost a fraction of what we would shell out, people earn pennies and live in hovels, unable to afford basic necessities. And this, too, is a byproduct of the heinous attitudes I allude to. And we all have heard this tune before, but it bears repeating. If Nike exploits child labor and pays workers a couple of cents to assemble insipidly aerodynamic Air Jordans, it only testifies to the same problem as I’ve sought to approach with this blog entry. The fact that our beloved companies can so brazenly say “the lives of generic Indonesians are worth 42 cents/hour” and the fact that so many of us accept it, joke about it, forget it is all too poignant a measure of our own complicity in such a system and our unwillingness to recognize the problem as it effects us, daily, in our homes, relationships, and minds. It’s a nice way of ignoring what we’re doing to and allowing to be done to ourselves.
Furthermore, I want to say that this entry is little more than a gesture towards something. I am not, as any reader can clearly see, a professional philosopher or sociologist, political scientist or serious essayist, but I nevertheless wish to say these things. Please forgive the obvious shortcomings, lapses in reason, unfulfilled lines of thought, and the incomplete nature of this writing. There is much more to be said, but I must be off to slave at my retail job, hypocritically…
(Originally posted at sobriquetmagazine.com)