Brian McCurdy, 12/31/2018
Current Occupation: Technical Writer
Former Occupation: Verbal Identity Creator (i.e., product namer)
Contact Information: Brian McCurdy lives in Michigan with his wife and two children. He's been writing personal essays about anything and everything for more than twenty years. Two self-published collections of his, Anatomy of a House and Portrait of a Vegetarian, are available through Amazon.
Portrait of an Artist as a Middle-Aged Worker
Every week, Monday through Friday, my day starts like this. I wake up between five-thirty and six. I sit at the edge of the bed, plant my feet on the carpeted floor, rub my pajama-covered thighs once or twice, listen to my breathing. If it's summer, the burbling trill of a robin drifts through the screen of the open bedroom window. In winter, the vaporizer, set atop the dresser, hums a soporific white noise. Finally, committed to rising, I stand, exhale, and head for the kitchen. On the way there, I stop at the bathroom to remove, rinse, and deposit my plastic mouth-guard. I open my jaw wide, stiff joints cracking loudly in my ears. I continue toward the kitchen, where my wife, Mayu, is already sitting in her usual chair at the dining table, consuming information on the tablet, an empty cup of “milk coffee,” as she calls it, on the table beside her. “O-ha-yo,” we both say drowsily, mustering smiles to communicate our pleasure at seeing each other once again, another day, life continuing. She asks me if I slept well. Sometimes I have, sometimes I haven't. I rub her back a few times. Then I go to my backpack, get out my journal, join Mayu at the table, and begin writing, or thinking about writing, as I'm doing right now.
Casting my imagination forward, I can see the next few hours clearly. Mayu and I will go down into the basement to do our exercise routine, accompanied by the music and instruction of a DVD, one that Mayu found during her morning tablet researches. The kids, boy and girl, will pad down the carpeted stairs and join us there, fiddling with toys or simply watching their strange parents swinging arms and legs in unison. Then we'll all go up and settle into the kitchen for breakfast, usually toast from bread Mayu bakes herself, thick square slices slathered in salted butter and strawberry jam (the boy prefers chocolate hazelnut spread). I'll brush the crumbs from my plate into the waste basket, rinse everything in the sink and put it into the dishwasher. I'll shave, straighten my pillow-mussed hair with splashes of water and a hand towel. Finally, I'll get dressed, replacing pajamas with a white T-shirt, a plaid button-down (today's color theme red-and-blue), a pair of chinos, my brown work belt, and of course a fresh pair of socks (ankle-length, to encourage circulation). Hardly knowing where the time has gone, I'll find myself standing at the door (from kitchen to garage), kissing and hugging everyone goodbye, and then heading off to drive the five minutes separating my house from the office building where I work as a technical writer.
This job of mine, this work I'm accountable for each day, with its eight-thirty start time and five o'clock quitting time, is largely responsible for the structure of my morning activity. Without it, I might not leave my bed as early as I do; I might not shave as often; I might not inhabit these moments of essay-writing with the same appreciation for time. For that other work, the paying, source-of-livelihood kind, takes so much of my time, keeps me away from so many things—family, art, my thoughts, the natural world—that are more important to me than what I do for money those 7.5 hours a day.
What I do for money . . . why do those words, instead of giving me a sense of pride, make me feel let down, self-critical, and vaguely trapped? If someone—in this case, a company—is paying me well to do something they believe I'm good at, then I should be pleased, right? I should feel recognized and validated, rewarded for my skill and effort. But I don't feel any of that. I do occasionally feel good about something I've written, or a document I've designed. I invest a creative interest in anything I make, especially a written thing, so the final product, as a manifestation of my mind, my inspiration, always has some value in my eyes. But that value comes from me, not from my company. And the seriousness and effort I put into my work—that, too, is for my sake. I don't expect perfection from myself, but I do expect the best that I can do.
Recently the department I work in started a “Rewards and Recognition” program, where each team nominates a member to be voted on by the entire department. The winner of this process receives the title “Department Standout,” along with some money and a trophy. My first thought, when I heard about this program, was, “Please don't pick me.” Now, I always have to be suspicious of such reflexive responses, especially when they concern personal recognition. I know I'd be embarrassed to be hailed as a Department Standout, especially if a trophy is involved, which I'm sure I would be obligated to display at my desk. I don't mind standing out now and then, but I'd rather do it for a room of ten to twenty people, not a department of five hundred. At the same time, I know I would feel gratified, despite myself, to be nominated by my team for my work. Maybe there are some people at the office who are already, if only subconsciously, engineering their effort, plotting their initiative, to poise themselves for this kind of standout recognition. I don't believe I'm one of them, even if those around me suspect I am. It's almost impossible, actually, to tell the genuine work ethic from the political, opportunistic kind. Ostensibly a Rewards and Recognition program is meant to encourage the former.
It's always been important for me to feel satisfied by the work itself, not by the prize or compensation. Even on those cynical, weary days when I say to someone, not my manager, that I'm here for the money, I return to my desk and immerse myself, free of worry and complaint, in some problem requiring a solution. Even as far back as my very first job, at age sixteen, as a busboy at a shopping mall steakhouse, my attention was engrossed by the nuances of plate stacking, the efficiencies of booth wiping, the finesse of working a mop. If I had to wash dishes, I figured I should at least get them very, very clean. Every work, especially physical work, has a technique behind it, an optimal method, a performance to be perfected. I still remember the disappointment and frustration I felt, later at that same steakhouse, when I failed to excel as a grill chef, donning a stiff white hat in place of a flimsy blue bonnet. I just wasn't cut out for the fast, high-pressure work of cooking food to order. Every steak of mine came out more or less well done, marred by the scissors I used clumsily to check the meat's progress on the grill. When it became clear my “promotion” wasn't working out, I had already moved too far away mentally from the grunt work of busing tables. I had to move on.
I suppose it's possible I could have become a first-rate grill chef, if I had stuck with it. My heart wasn't in it, though, and moreover I was too young to care about the challenge and travail of apprenticeship. In fact, I didn't realize it at the time, but that first restaurant job was also my first step on a long journey to discover “meaningful” work for myself.
It's hard to find meaning when you're focused on survival. The pressure to make a living, to support oneself (or someone else), is easily antithetical to luxuries like meaningfulness and fulfillment. All through my high-school and college years, I was under no illusions. I needed money. I found my way naturally into the usual service jobs—selling clothes, serving food, pouring drinks, working cash registers. I've been a clean-cut, well-spoken guy most of my life, so these people-facing jobs were never hard for me to get, and each time I got one, the next job seemed to come all the more easily. It was hard work, though—physical, dusty, greasy, with either too much movement or too much standing, and always too much social interaction. Even clothing retail work, which to passersby must seem the easiest, most boring job around (the boring part is true), left me feeling drained to the last drop of life. It helped always to know that these jobs were temporary, that eventually I would leave each one for something else. And the prospect of having to do such work for the rest of my life was so horrible to contemplate, I felt compelled to finish college and join the “skilled workforce,” as I've heard it called. The problem was, even that realm of work held no allure for me, no promise. I'm certain, after finishing my Bachelor's in English, that I applied for graduate school largely to stay out of that increasingly hazy and menacing workforce. What would I do there? What company would I work for? Would I have to wear a suit?
The closest model I had of this sort of work life was my father, who died when I was nineteen. The oldest of three boys, he was the only one in his family to attend college and pursue a profession. He chose optometry and eventually formed his own practice in the town where I grew up. Driving past his office building on our way somewhere in the family car, I enjoyed seeing the words “McCurdy Optometric” on the lit sign. It felt important, like seeing one's name in the newspaper or on TV. My father was in fact known by a lot of people, it seemed to me. He was an active member of the Lion's Club, selling candy canes on street corners at Christmas, and he sponsored and played on his own softball team. People recognized him when our family was out and about, usually at a restaurant or the local shopping mall. “Hello, Dr. McCurdy,” they would say, or “Hey, Doc,” if the relationship was more collegial. My father could rarely be found walking the aisles of a supermarket; my mother, a “stay-at-home mom,” handled that duty on weekdays, while he was at the office.
That daily workaday rhythm, the ancient rhythm of the farm, structured my family's life then just it does my own family's life now. Even we children felt the force of it; grade school was simply a lighter version of working 9-to-5. Sometimes, with homework and extracurricular activities, the rigor of being a kid could surpass that of an office job. At least my father, after dinner was finished, could settle into the sofa, choose his favorite TV show, and let his mind rest for a bit. More often than not, though, he worked longer hours than all of us (except for my mother, who seemed to be perpetually working), leaving the house around the time I left for school, and returning just in time for a six o'clock dinner, but often later, his plate, covered in shiny foil, waiting for him on the empty table. In the early days of his practice, my father, outside of a couple part-time receptionists, was his company's main employee. He performed the exams, cut the eyeglass lenses, and was even involved in the fitting, using heated sand to soften the frames for final adjustments. Eventually it was too much for one person, so he hired an optician to take the glasses off his hands, freeing him up to focus on being an optometrist. The person he hired, in fact, was my Uncle Tom, my mother's little brother, who at the time was in need of skilled, reliable work that could bring order to his youthful, disordered life. He turned out to be a disciplined apprentice, and a natural optician. Years later, perhaps following my father's example, he started his own business, which has kept him busy ever since.
To have a skill, to work hard, to support one's family—these are the traditional ideas I picked up from watching my father. It's taken me many years (I'm 48 now) to realize them, or even desire them at all. For so long, as if in a constant state of rebellion, I resisted following in any of my father's footsteps. I didn't want to “go to work” every day, especially not the same little box of an office week after week. At every regular job I've had, I've spent occasional moments noticing the routine path my feet travel from bus, train, bike, or car to the building entrance, down this and that corridor, up these stairs (or elevator, if it's a really tall building), past that painting, around that corner, until at last there it is, the place (hopefully it has a chair) where I work. No matter how fondly I might feel about the work itself, the daily sameness of the setting, and the worn grooves of my movements within it, have always brought me waves of discontent. The sameness of it all—this is what I've always disliked, sometimes hated, about work. At my current job as a technical writer, for example, the first thing I do every morning, after hanging my jacket (not a suit coat, thankfully) on the hook at the entrance of my workstation, is take a blank sheet of paper and write the time, 8:30, at the top, and beside that the word Admin, indicating the category of work I will perform for the next fifteen to thirty minutes. The company requires us all to categorize and count our work in this way, for reasons that are still not clear to me. I've seen “pie charts” showing how our team's work divides into this and that category, but I've never seen a managerial decision or action stemming from such data. Companies like to collect and analyze numbers, I suppose. Happily, outside of these moments jotting times and minutes on paper, I spend the rest of my day focusing on words. And this ability to focus on an activity I like, if not also a subject I like, helps pass the time, and distracts me from the existential malaise hovering about me, all day, like the white noise broadcast by the company throughout every work area.
Too much silence, or too much stillness, can be a problem for me at the office. In such slack moments, when the busy-ness recedes like a wave, I can see the debris of my inner thoughts, my suppressed day dreams, scattered across the sand of my exposed consciousness. One of these thoughts, one I'll call The Dilemma, has been with me ever since I started working and supporting myself. It enters my head as a question, a kind of accusation: “What are you doing?” Presumably this inner voice is mine, but I have the strange sense it's also not “me” as I understand me to be. It's as if I'm being visited, not by my real-life boss, but by The Boss, the Grand Supervisor, come to check on my progress. He doesn't articulate himself fully like we mortals tend to, but the overall feeling he gives me could be expressed like this: “I thought I expressly asked you to do something with this existence. And here I find you entering numbers into a 'spreadsheet,' writing 'procedures,' drawing 'flowcharts.' (He makes those quotation gestures with his fingers.) Where is the art? Where the literature? There are plenty of people who would kill—not that I support that kind of thing—to have an existence like yours. You don't have forever, you know. I gave you a deadline—actually, no I didn't. Anyway, you get my drift. The next time I check on you, I better see some progress. Don't disappoint me.”
Then, after this paternal taskmaster leaves me to contemplate my condition, a more forgiving, motherly presence, my internal Mentor, arrives to help me find equilibrium. “You shouldn't take everything he says to heart. He has his own issues, I can tell you. Deliver, deliver, that's all he really cares about. He doesn't have your best interests in mind. Besides, what does he know about existence? You've got a family to support, your health to maintain. Balance, my dear, balance, that's what matters. Lose your balance, and everything falls. Then what good is existence? You know I'm right.”
I'm not sure who to believe, to tell the truth, but I usually end up siding with the Mentor, who seems to see existence as a personal possession, not a loan under contract. Also, she makes me feel better.
The Mentor is especially right about one thing—having a family changes everything. Before I had kids, before I had people to “support,” I saw employment as something that should serve me, not the other way around. If one job didn't make me happy, I replaced it with another. I've been with my current company for five years now. Before this, I never stuck with a job for more than three. Year one is always interesting. There are many new tasks to learn, facts to absorb, skills to acquire, people to meet. In year two, shaky ground is solidifying, confidence and power are mounting. By the end of year three, routines are ingrained, relationships deepened, initial challenges surmounted, and the job, like a romantic partner, starts expecting a more long-term commitment, a broader, deeper vision of the future. It's usually at that point that I break up with my job (for good or ill, my jobs have never broken up with me).
But having children forces one to see the broad, deep future, instead of the shallow, disposable present. I realize it may sound like I'm describing the condition of being trapped. It's true, I don't have the luxury, as I used to, of leaving on a whim. I could probably manage it, but the risks are too high now, and more than that, I would have to give up a situation—five minutes from the office, good salary, nice coworkers, word-focused work—that frankly I don't dislike. In fact, everything seems perfectly in balance and in place these days. I would hate to disturb it all just to avoid boredom.
The boredom, though, if that's really what it is, has always been lurking at my side, no matter what job I've had. That recurring feeling of emptiness, of purposelessness, that every job has produced in me eventually. I would be foolish to try escaping it now, since it appears to have as much to do with me as the place I'm escaping. “You have something,” Mayu diagnoses, when I go on like this at the table in the morning, a still, quiet time that often makes me philosophic. “You have some spirit that likes this kind of thing.”
Mayu enjoys the notion, one she brought from Korea, that every person is followed about by a coterie of spirits, each of which, in addition to being attached to a particular human, has a specific, one-track interest. In my case, for example, there would be a spirit who likes language, one who likes to make things, one who likes to clean, a movie critic spirit, a thespian spirit, and an especially nagging spirit who feels everything is broken and it's his job to fix it. Each spirit, depending on its strength, and the environment in which its host human carries it, exerts more or less influence, finds more or less fulfillment. Some feel satisfied most of the time; others collect years of pent-up frustration and finally push their leader, coup-like, into an abyss of obsession. These frustrated homunculi, I imagine, are behind many a midlife crisis.
In my case, all the spirits have a roughly equal hold on me, tugging me this way and that, one after the other, like attention-hungry children. The result is that I never feel I'm doing the right thing. That thing I'm supposed to be doing, am meant to do, is just over there, always out of reach. Even now, as I write these words, I wonder if I should instead be studying Japanese, or reading a novel, or practicing my mandolin, or sewing a dress for my two-year-old daughter. This chattering of dispersed desires is even more intense when I'm at work, sitting alone in my little three-walled “cubicle,” a kind of administrative cockpit, where none of my spirits has the least interest in being. So it's perhaps not just one voice—The Boss, as I called him—ordering me to examine my existence. It's probably my spirit groupies, insisting I get back on the road and do another show.
I have little tricks for keeping everyone happy. A bag of tricks, as it happens. In my backpack, which I carry with me nearly everywhere, I keep totems of what I feel is my central vocation—language. A pen case, a journal, a novel, a Japanese manga, a Korean children's story book. The weight of these objects, as I hump my bag around, reminds me that I have a real work that is not the work I do for money, that is more enduring, more profound, and finally more important than those procedures, flow charts, emails, and mass communications taking up so much, too much, of my time and energy.
A little sad, I suppose, that I feel the need to console myself (who am I fooling? those spirits are all me) with physical things, with burdensome trinkets. How I wish I could be free of them. But we all carry some burden of identity, it seems to me. And the lightness of its absence can be the hardest weight to bear.
We don't go long without some identity wrapped about us, like a protective skin. If we shed one, it is soon replaced by another. This molting happens for most of us every day, as we slide from our home skin (T-shirt and pajama bottoms, no socks), into our work skin (aforementioned button-down shirt and chino ensemble), and back into our home skin once more (unless, as there is for some, an intermediary workout skin is involved). I've never enjoyed the personal aesthetics of going to work. I'm talking about uniforms. Every company culture has one (or several), even if it professes not to. From a customer's point of view, I understand the utility of uniforms. We've all felt that relief, searching a cavernous warehouse store for assistance, when suddenly a blue/green/red/etc. logo-emblazoned shirt emerges from around a corner. “Excuse me,” we say, “Do you know where the tall kitchen garbage bags are?” They always do, thankfully.
There's nothing worse, of course, than mistaking someone for a store employee. “I'm sorry,” they say, with a souring expression and slightly combative tone, “I don't work here.” Then why are you wearing those khaki trousers and that royal blue polo shirt? I want to ask. But I can see they already feel bad enough, questioning who they are and wondering how long they've been living an illusion.
I experience such moments whenever I visit the office bathroom and have occasion to inspect myself in the mirror. I try my best to give my look a “personal touch.” Slightly tousled (though still short and orderly) hair, collar unbuttoned to clearly reveal the white T-shirt underneath, sleeves rolled up to the elbows, soft leather belt, canvas loafers, striped ankle-length socks. It almost looks like me, especially if I squint my eyes. But I'm forced to acknowledge, with a sinking in my stomach, that I basically look like all the other guys shuffling around the office, cradling their laptops, smartphones, notepads, all the precious accouterments of their livelihoods.
I should be thankful. At least my company's “dress code” allows a semblance of personal style, the forgiving, gentle imperative of “business casual.” I don't have to wear a suit, thank God. Nor do I have to wear a hat, don a strange color designed to stand out amid the pedestrian population, or feel the eerie texture of thick polyester blend against my skin.
When I lived in Tokyo with Mayu the first few years of our relationship, I was struck by the number of uniformed people I saw. The impression was very strong in Japan that what you do is what you wear. Barbers, train station attendants, bakery clerks, massage therapists, ramen cooks, grocers, grade-school students, “salary men” (as male white-collar workers are called there), sumo wrestlers, pop singers, TV comedians—uniforms and work-based attire seemed to be all around me. For college graduates in Japan, both men and women, a simple black suit and white dress shirt are necessary investments. I saw armies of these uniformed youngsters walking the streets and riding the trains to their mass interviews and eventually to their first days on the job. I too had to participate in this culture of uniformity in my work as an English teacher, which required a formality of dress like any other service role. I had three cheap suits, in black and gray, that I rotated throughout the week, hating every minute I spent wearing them. Eventually I got a better job at a branding company, working on a small team of “verbal identity creators” (name makers, that is). Most of the time, I wore jeans, casual shirts, and sandals in the office, suiting up only on days when our team had to present ideas to a client in person. Creative work seemed to lend itself to this more lax style. The “visual identity” team, the logo creators, they also wore what they wanted to the office.
I don't know how Japanese people feel about the uniforms they wear to work; I never asked anyone about it. They do seem to feel more comfortable overall, compared to Americans, with being in groups and working as one, unified body. For me, it was always a bit oppressive to watch those thronging uniformed masses, or, when I had no choice, to join them.
Of course, working in groups is nothing foreign to Americans, and most of us work in teams of some kind, serving organizations comprising hundreds, sometimes thousands of people. And I have to admit that, between working at home alone and working among many at an office, I prefer the latter, or at least a portion of the latter. Eight hours a day at an office are obviously too many, interfering with too many things I'd rather be doing. But all day doing those many things at home might also not be the best situation for me. I would feel obligated to structure my day into focused, goal-oriented segments, spanning the clock from morning till suppertime. In other words, I would need work.
The reality, these days, is that more time at home would mean more time caring for my kids, who are still quite young, instead of working for myself. I would embrace that parental work, as Mayu does so well (better than I could) as a stay-at-home mother, but I can't deny it would be hard for me, giving so much of my time to my kids, just as it's hard to give so much time to a company. Neither scenario would protect me from those same existential questions: What am I supposed to be doing? Where am I supposed to be? Who am I?
Again I think of my father, the business owner working more hours a week than I ever have as an adult. Did he ask himself these kinds of questions? Or did he feel that he, and everything around him, was in the right place? What kind of spirits followed him around? He's not here anymore, so I can't ask him such things. But I think about him a lot these days, now that I'm just a little older than he was when he died. Once, he invited me to help out at one of his practices (he had opened a second, in a neighboring town). I got to watch him in action, being the “Doc” I'd heard people call him so many times. He was lively and polished, all smiles and gentle expressions, turning machine dials, handling delicate instruments, all his movements precise and “practiced.” I felt he was a good optometrist, and one who enjoyed his work.
I have two kids of my own, who watch me, as I watched my father, going to work in the morning and returning home for supper (actually, I live close enough to come home for lunch, which I do every day). They're both used to the routine (“Go to work?” my daughter says), and I have to say, so am I. I'm thankful, in fact, for the regularity and dependability of this routine, of the balance it helps me maintain in myself, despite my habitual self-examination. One aspect of Japanese culture that infuriated me were the ridiculously long hours people spent working for their employers. For most workers, leaving the office at nine or later in the evening was normal, especially for those without spouses and children at home. I always felt uncomfortable, the strange non-conforming American, leaving my coworkers behind to sit at their desks for a couple more hours, while I turned myself and my thoughts in my family's direction. Now, back in America, it's the opposite. People are suspicious if you stay too late at the office. Either they resent you for being an over-achiever, or wonder why you can't finish your work on time. Even when I can't get my work done in those 7.5 hours at the office, I leave at the same time every day, taking my laptop home to finish up later. The conditions of my job permit this flexibility, and I exploit it for its intended purpose—to keep me, the worker, happy.
Am I a happy worker? I'm not disgruntled, I can say that much. My employer pays me enough (for what I do, I mean; there's never “enough,” is there?), and I seem to be adequately captivated by the work itself. Just this morning, in fact (a Monday morning), lying in bed waiting for the robins to trill, I found myself thinking about—yes, my job. Some problem I hadn't been able to solve completely on Friday, which I was able to forget about Saturday and Sunday, has resurfaced in my mind, though not in an unpleasant way. There is even a part of me that wants to get back to the office so I can find the conclusion my brain needs, that closure we seek when some task is unfinished. I don't like to admit it, but there may be several aspects of my job that give me this problem-solving satisfaction. Why do I not like to admit it? Because “it” would mean that, all in all, I like my job. And that would mean I have no reason to leave it, which in turn may imply I am “building a career” there, or something long-term like that. I'm almost fifty, so I suppose I'm long overdue for this sort of thing. But I'm nonetheless disappointed. There is a kind of letting go, a relinquishing of oneself to the work that I still resist deep down. The one conclusion I have never wanted to reach is the one about myself.
When my son Leo asks me at dinner, “How was work today, Daddy?” (not bad, he's only seven), I'm torn about what to tell him. The details, though engaging for me when they were happening, feel flat and lifeless in retrospect. Outside of their context, they seem to have no meaning, no importance at all. “It was OK,” I tell him. “I wrote some things. I edited someone's writing. I went to some meetings.” I even feel a bit irritated having to answer this question. “Oh, okay,” Leo says, perhaps sensing my undertone, “That sounds interesting.” He's a good kid; I should try harder. But it's complicated. How do I tell him what I really feel about my workday? That it was interesting, I got some work done, but all the same I feel I lost eight hours of my life? Should I invite him to my office? To see what, though? Me sitting at a computer, scratching my head and sipping tea? No, I should just give him the simple, more affirming account of my day. Maybe, if I say it enough, I'll begin to believe it myself.