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How Many Licks Does It Take To Get To the Center of a Human?

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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,

…Two…

…Three…

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.

Postscript:
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)

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About Sobriquet

  • http://www.magicjunk.com Mark Sahm

    Sadly, I recognize what you’re saying. How can a CEO earn $600 an hour, while a fast food cook earns $6, while both exert the same amount of energy?

    I think at the root of what you’re talking about is that the freedoms we enjoy as Americans are also the ones that bind us to the system of wages. There is no escaping it unless you decide to be homeless, pull a Walden, or strike it rich somehow.

    However, there are ways to use the system to your advantage. This was a well thought out blog… maybe you should think about building something bigger from it.

  • http://www.elitistpig.com Dave Nalle

    >>Sadly, I recognize what you’re saying. How can a CEO earn $600 an hour, while a fast food cook earns $6, while both exert the same amount of energy?<<

    Because the fast food cook has a GED, spends his off time hanging with his high school junkie friends, and has no higher goals or ambition, while the CEO has worked for 40 years, neglected his family, barely seen his children grow up, worked 14 hour days and taken work home on the weekends, went to college, took graduate courses, took special executive training, went on godawful corporate retreats, moved accross the country for a better job 3-5 times and suffered a couple of divorces in the process, and was willing to cut throats and kiss ass to get to the point where he’s rewarded with $600 an hour in the last 10 years before he dies early from a heart attack or stroke because of the tension from the enormous responsibilites which come with a job like that.

    In short, it’s because they DON’T exert the same amount of energy. The corporate exec has exerted more mental energy for a longer time and done it more efficiently and the cook exerts the minimum amount of physical energy needed to get his job done and puts his brain on hold. You might be surprised at how many corporate executives wouldn’t mind spending a week as a cook in a burger joint.

    Dave

  • http://www.magicjunk.com Mark Sahm

    Okay, point taken. So I was focusing more on the present, instead of what got them there… I know that nothing good is achieved without sacrifice.

    But really, most CEO’s basically spend all their time (if they’re even in the office) on the phone, in meetings with associates, or sending e-mails— kind of like how a teenage girl spends her free time!

    My original point was second guessing how salary is determined more by what you’ve done, instead of what you’re doing.

    Hard work is irrelevant unless you have the opportunity to go with it.

  • http://www.markiscranky.org Mark Saleski

    let’s change the lower-end job to schoolteacher.

    …who has:

    1. a bachelor’s degree
    2. a master’s degree
    3. 20 years teaching experience

    and still takes home crap for pay.

    i have no idea how to fix the situation, but it never fails to disgust me.

  • JR

    You might be surprised at how many corporate executives wouldn’t mind spending a week as a cook in a burger joint.

    A week, huh? Wow, that’s quite a rejection of the executive lifestyle.

  • SFC SKI

    They’d probably still draw CEO pay for that week, too.

  • Tom French

    Sadly, I recognize what you’re saying. How can a CEO earn $600 an hour, while a fast food cook earns $6, while both exert the same amount of energy?

    The reality is that if the fast food cook wouldn’t work for 6 dollars an hour, the CEO couldn’t make 600. Who brings in the profits for mcdonald’s ceo?

    Another sad point. The fry cook I’m sure has a car which costs him above his means, the best cell phone, the most stylish clothes, 50 million CDs, etc… If he stepped out of our consumer society (constantly buying the next crap item or fad) he wouldn’t have to take shit labor to keep on the treadmill.

    Down with consumerism!

  • http://www.elitistpig.com Dave Nalle

    Yes, down with consumerism. Let’s make sure that cook doesn’t have a job at all, and that there isn’t even a McDonalds for thim to go spend his unemployment at when he needs a chea[ meal.

    Dave

  • Tom French

    Oooooh, God Forbid a world without McDonald’s! The horror!

  • http://www.diablog.us Dave Nalle

    Hateful though it is, McDonalds and places like it do serve a function in society. If every one of them went away what would the underclass do for jobs and where would harried parents eat in peace while their tykes play on the playscape?

    Dave

  • Richard

    I never understood why we value someone pretending to be someone (actors) over someone who saves lives or attempt to protect the weak.

  • http://gratefuldread.net Natalie Davis

    Very thought-provoking piece (and thanks to the person who gave us the teacher example; I know too many hardworking, educated people having a hard time in the horrid workforce). This piece comes at an interesting time for me: I just quit my shitjob because I couldn’t put up with the hell anymore. I can’t survive a life swamped in bad faith. I either saved myself or… I don’t even want to think about it. There was no other choice, no way I could stay in that awful situation working for such an awful corporation.

    Of course this leaves me unemployed and forced to find something, anything. Hopefully it will be better. Hopefully it will be something. Hopefully it will be fast. I am in a mess, but at least my brain is clear, and on my final day, I felt a wee bit of happiness — let’s call it good faith — something I haven’t felt since before my dad died 20 months ago. Anyone know of any good-faith, worthwhile telecommuting gigs?

  • http://www.magicjunk.com Mark Sahm

    Are there any CEO’s or fast food chefs out there reading this blog who want to chime in for themselves?


    *crickets chirping*

  • http://gratefuldread.net Natalie Davis

    A guess: The CEOs are swilling martinis at a late lunch or doing business on the links. The fast-fooders are probably too busy working so that they don’t get evicted or lose their lights or phones at month’s end.

  • Tom French

    Hateful though it is, McDonalds and places like it do serve a function in society. If every one of them went away what would the underclass do for jobs and where would harried parents eat in peace while their tykes play on the playscape?

    Dave

    They serve a function in THIS consumerist society that only serves to expand the gap between rich and poor. In a society where people grow their own food, they don;t have to be slaves to fat cat CEO’s.

    PS and while your hard working example of a CEO may be a small reality, my guess would be that most of them are benefits of nepotism.

  • http://dumpsterbust.blogspot.com/ Eric Berlin

    Erik – This is a brilliant piece — one of the best I’ve read here on BlogCritics: a great combination of soul and indignation and intellect and wry humor.

    I think the process of writing and of reading this statement does a small part in throwing off the shackles of society’s agreed upon system of rewarding and degrading and getting by.

    Finally – There’s an awful lot of awful stereotyping of minimum wage earners (brain-dead consumption-mad junkies) and CEOs both.

    Is it possible to have a real discussion around here every now and again?

  • http://gratefuldread.net Natalie Davis

    What horrid CEO stereotypes? A lot of their business IS done over cocktails and/or meals and on the golf course. Now, the fast-food worker stereotypes offered here… THEY are disgusting.

    Oh, and if someone is on unemployment, going to McDonald’s is a totally irresponsble use of limited funds. Most times (and we do not and will not get unemployment bennies), we live on ramen noodles — seven packs (the equivalent of fourteen servings) for a buck at the Safeway. And if baby carrots are on sale, woo hoo: Sorta healthy vegetable-noodle soup!

  • http://dumpsterbust.blogspot.com/ Eric Berlin

    Well, yeah, more streotypes on the worker end… but it’s silly to talk about the “typical” work-’till-you-drop head-stomping CEO dynamo. Real life isn’t that easy to categorize.

    By the way: I’ve spent many a month in my day getting by on Mac ‘n Cheese, frozen veg, and chopped up ham. Serve with water, coffee, or cheap supermarket wine (Note: we’re talking California here, so it’s not bad at all), and you’re ready to spend the day browsing Craig’s List and waiting for Hotmail to pop with a job offer.

  • http://gratefuldread.net Natalie Davis

    Supermarket wine? Ham? You were living large.

  • http://dumpsterbust.blogspot.com/ Eric Berlin

    Yes, I never said I was on poverty’s doorstep! Just unemployed and underemployed for a number of years. I’m still paying off the credit card debt for some of that “high living” (ha ha)…

    That said, you can’t beat “Two Buck Chuck” at Trader Joe’s… $2 for a bottle of wine is not the worst way to spend an evening if you’re looking to conserve the funds.

  • http://gratefuldread.net Natalie Davis

    I dunno. Seems to me $2 is worth saving. Can’t waste it on frivolous shit like booze. I can grab a book off of the shelf and entertain myself for free — if I can afford the leisure time. And, no, many people can’t.

  • http://dumpsterbust.blogspot.com/ Eric Berlin

    Well, my hat’s off to you, Natalie, and your Spartan ways. I’d think you’d get on rather well with Henry Rollins, particularly if you were into punk and hardcore music.

  • http://www.sobriquetmagazine.com Sobriquet Magazine

    I share Mark Saleski’s disgust with the low wages given to our nation’s schoolteachers. In fact, a sizable chunk of the people engaged in low-paying wage-work are schoolteachers trying to supplement their salaries. I mean, unless they choose to abandon a noble profession they truly enjoy, the only “extra” jobs available to teachers after school or during the summer are the low-skill wage positions you find at fast-food joints or retail stores.

  • http://www.sobriquetmagazine.com Sobriquet Magazine

    Sorry to double-post, but I neglected to thank everyone for the kind things you’ve said about my writing. I feel wonderful right now. Thanks so much!

  • http://www.gnomestories.com parker

    I just wanted to say thanks for the thought provoking article. I have always wondered why the actual labor decreases with an increase in pay.

  • Eric Olsen

    EG, super job “objectifying” such subjective thoughts. Thanks! And I am a CEO, though not one that is well paid.

  • Antfreeze

    I hate to say this but someone has to: From the title I thought this would be a Michael Jackson story.

  • Steve

    Michael Jackson? I doubt many people would have thought that.

  • http://dumpsterbust.blogspot.com Eric Berlin

    EO – Next thing you’re gonna tell is that you don’t know anything about any kind of hatch out in the jungle…

    (Did I just watch Lost? Yep, sure did…)

  • http://www.elitistpig.com Dave Nalle

    Tom French: “They serve a function in THIS consumerist society that only serves to expand the gap between rich and poor. In a society where people grow their own food, they don;t have to be slaves to fat cat CEO’s. ”

    And what society would that be? Some small polynesian island as yet undiscovered by civilization? An Amish enclave in Pennsylvania? Most of the world isn’t self-contained and self-sufficient agrarian communities. Do you propose tearing down civilization, making all the urbanites serfs on new plantations, and turning the world over entirely to agriculture? Or maybe we could use the excess manpower to build pyramids.

    Tom French: “PS and while your hard working example of a CEO may be a small reality, my guess would be that most of them are benefits of nepotism.”

    Absolutely not. Nepotism can get you a job in a company or a spot on a board, but it can’t get you a position actually running a company unless you’ve proven to also be competent. You can’t have the Ted Kennedy’s of the world running major corporations if you want them to keep turning a profit.

    Natalie Davis: “Oh, and if someone is on unemployment, going to McDonald’s is a totally irresponsble use of limited funds.”

    One of the common characteristis of people on unemployment is that as a group they’re not known for their financial management skills.

    Parker: “I just wanted to say thanks for the thought provoking article. I have always wondered why the actual labor decreases with an increase in pay.”

    The level of labor as a whole does not decrease, the physicality of the labor decreases while the intellectual element increases, as do the working hours in most cases. You don’t see a lot of MacDonalds workers pulling 16 hour days and taking paperwork home on the weekends.

    Dave

  • Michael B.

    “The level of labor as a whole does not decrease, the physicality of the labor decreases while the intellectual element increases, as do the working hours in most cases. You don’t see a lot of MacDonalds workers pulling 16 hour days and taking paperwork home on the weekends.”

    This may be true, but I don’t always agree with the increase in “working hours” assertion. In many industries the top is a nice place to watch other people do your work for you.

    Furthermore, those people working “physical” jobs are often so tired at the end of the day that their work DOES, in its way, come home with them.

    Just a thought.

  • http://www.elitistpig.com Dave Nalle

    Every job is different and the pay doesn’t always seem fair, but in America we have the freedom to look for a new job or seek training or promotion, and all it usually takes is a little effort and ambition.

    As for CEOs who slack off. How long do you think they keep their jobs if they don’t throw the parties and make the deals and play golf with the right people. It may look like they’re not working, but just by existing and interracting with their peergroup they are doing work which is essential to the company by providing it with a public face and access to the world high finance and investment which businesses must interface with to survive.

    Dave

  • SFC SKI

    Or they get fired with generous severance packages.

    I am not advocating that ditch-diggers and CEO’s get paid the same amount, but don’t try to tell me that CEO’s don’t receive compensation above and beyond what is reasonable. I understand “what the market will bear” but I still think they get over and above what they actually earn. Not that I want any legislation to enforce a salary cap, I think the priorities are just skewed, and that is a reflection on all of us.

  • Thompson

    Very thought-provoking writing. Thanks!

  • http://w6daily.winn.com/ Phillip Winn

    And of course, CEOs are faking it.

  • Jsmooth

    ORLY?!