I’m a college professor of arts and creative writing, so the truth is I work less than thirty hours per week, teach what I want, hand out cool assignments like going to museums or watching movies or drinking beer at café readings; I haven’t worked a Friday since the first Clinton administration, have a month off at Christmas, a week at spring break, three weeks in May, three weeks in August, and a scattering of conferences paid for every year. So my dad laughed when I stopped by one day last November and said, “I really need a break.”
“Dad, I’m going home and I’m not leaving my property for the next twenty-eight days, four flipping weeks, until I have to return to classes.” My home is on some wooded acreage along a river twenty miles from the nearest stoplight, five miles from any store, and has been compared to the Unabomber’s place. “I’m not checking my email. I’m not checking any text messages. I’m going to be unplugged. I’m heading home.”
He just laughed. “Good luck with that,” he said.
When I was a child, my dad came home from work and stayed home. We watched television, played baseball or cards, worked outside or visited family. I don’t remember knowing what he did for a living until I was much older. I knew he worked on Wall Street; I knew he was a “broker.” I couldn’t tell anyone, however, what that meant. He didn’t open his briefcase or talk on the phone. He came home and stayed home. On Monday morning he went back to work, and, I am sure, left behind his life at home while he wrestled his way from nine to five.
It was a life of realism. No painterly lines bled from one existence to the other; no impressionistic tones of his work-life spilled onto the dinner table; no free-flowing swirls of “play with the kids” blended with equity trading. Blackberries were fruit. iPods were leaves protecting vegetables. An apple kept the doctor away.
Then I grew up, went to college, got a job, and tenured my way into the work world; and it is one my father never knew. Much like the invention of the camera slammed into the careers of realist artists and pushed their work toward impressionism, inventions have nudged the office into my playtime; slowly at first, but then, almost without warning, with comet-speed collision. Work and play are no longer divorced. Escape from either is nearly impossible today, but “nearly impossible” is one of those challenges that I love.
Dad put down his Scotch and asked again what I said.
“I said I need a break!”
“From what?” Compared to his, my life is a break. The post-World War II work force worked hard then went home and played hard, relaxed, had a few beers and barbequed some steaks. They went to ball games and talked to neighbors in the backyard. They had block parties. Then they went back to work.
No more. Now we bury iPhones in our back pockets and pull them out at three a.m. when we can’t sleep so we can send off a few early morning, late night semi-sober emails to clients, sometimes catching them still up or just up and the work continues while spouses sleep nearby or upstairs. We hear the ping and jump like dogs just in case Pavlov needs another file read, another paper graded, or another stock traded. We glance at it during dinner, we open the laptops watching American Idol, we no longer punch in and out, and if we divided the salary into the hours worked—I mean really worked, checking in and signing on and forwarding and filing—the pay scale shrinks rapidly.
Some say the additional time and convenience increases revenue, makes life easier and reduces stress. No. It doesn’t. It simply allows us to accommodate ourselves to the new level of stress, get used to it, and keep climbing. Almost two centuries ago Thoreau left civilization, kind of, and lived deliberately in the woods for a few years, away from society, so that he could better face it. Today, we don’t even turn off the iPad during a date.
My father, in fact, couldn’t survive if he went back to work. The work and play world have so blended he would not know how to operate without taking a handful of courses in computer technology and cordless phone operations. And who has time for time-management courses unless taken online after dinner while the kids are emailing their peer evaluations for school?
Dad told me to enjoy my vacation. “I bet you can’t do it,” he said, “I bet you can’t stay out of touch for that long.”
“A good single malt,” he said. We drank Scotch together two nights a week and I knew he was going to miss those nights.
“You’re on. See you in four weeks.” I drove out of the city.
“What are you doing, Dad?” Michael asked when he came outside and found me sitting in a chair in a clearing.
“Counting birds. Well, just the little grey ones with the stripped bottoms.”
“Eight hundred and sixty-two so far, though a few might be the same one going back and forth for more safflower seed.”
“Could be one bird hundreds of times,” Michael said. I looked away from the feeder.
Behavioral Training tells us that it takes three weeks to get something in or out of one’s system, meaning I’d just get used to not working before I had to go back. Still, I adjusted quickly. I had a long list of repairs, improvements, and upkeep about the property, not the least of which was painting the bathroom and cutting up a tree for firewood. But these chores gave me pause almost right away. Damn, I thought. This is feeling like work, it just isn’t my career work. Is there a difference? I thought I had broken my resolve by choosing to do something that was not “play.” I worked through it, however, by noting that I did, in fact, “choose” to do that work. I looked forward to the effort and the results, and I didn’t have to do it, and no one would mind or care if I didn’t. Hence, I needed to redefine “play” and “work” to keep from breaking the rules. Work, I determined, was something for which I felt responsible to others and received compensation, and that could not be ignored without facing some sort of penalty. Play was everything else, whether it was difficult or not. Dad sat in a chair for the weekend and called it “play.” Other weekends he worked outside and called it “play.” He defined it as such because it was not related to his employer’s list of job duties. In any case, I painted and chopped and had a few beers. I can’t do most of that at work.
“What was that, Dad?” Michael asked with a somewhat snooty tone. We were splitting wood from the second tree, it was the end of the first week, and I carried the phone in my pocket, much to his criticism.
“Who is it from?”
My parents don’t know how to text; my colleagues know not to. It was Tom, my office mate. Now I faced a new challenge: he is someone from work but also a friend and probably not writing about work at all. I checked. “It’s Tom.”
“What does it say?”
Damn, I thought. We can get bored at home and have fun at work. Does that mean sometimes being home can be work and being at work can be fun? Of course. In fact, it’s increasingly normal. Dad never got texts. No emails. No wireless or cells. No intrusion from anyone. If the rotary phone rang and someone from the office called, it was a dire emergency, and even then filled with apologies for bothering him at home.
Later that week Michael got up late and came looking for me. I don’t sleep in on vacation, which seems to contradict the whole vacation thing. I was in the garden turning over soil for planting, mixing in compost.
“What are you doing? It’s weird having you home all the time. I keep thinking it is Friday or Saturday or Sunday, or Wednesday. So what are you doing?”
“Getting the garden ready for planting.”
He was quiet for a few seconds and watched me spade the dark dirt. “Dad. It’s December.”
“Please go online or something?”
We’ve played Risk, backgammon, chess, foosball, read books, made bread, and rearranged the furniture. I thought I’d “work” on a new piece I’m writing for a conference. Damn, I thought. It’s work, but it’s my work. Still, I get paid for it, it is expected of me, and the results affect my career. That all falls within my definition of work. But I enjoy it, so it isn’t really “work,” I thought. James Michener said, “The master in the art of living makes little distinction between work and play.” It isn’t work because it is fun; like it isn’t work just because I get paid. It might require what we call “work” to get it done, but so does playing golf or even chess. There is study involved, practice, losing, frustration. Yet we “play” golf, we don’t “work” golf. Even Tiger Woods doesn’t “work” golf.
The truth is, everything can be defined as “work.” Parents feed the children, throw the ball, teach them to ride a bike, and read to them all because it is part of the parents’ job to do those things; to not do so is negligent, careless, heartless, and stupid. We don’t think of it as work, but it is part of the job and requires some knowledge and ambition. It seems we don’t get paid, but we do. The dividends come when they say the word or catch the ball or ride away; they get the job, graduate from college, teach college, all because of the nice work the parents did. Work or play? Absolutely. The line between work and play disappears not solely because of playing at work or working while playing, but because sometimes, in ideal situations, as Michener says, they really are the same thing. Why on earth someone decided to relegate them into separate categories is beyond me.
Work shouldn’t occupy our lives, glued to our palms in case someone wants us; we shouldn’t have to apologize for waiting until we get to the office to answer an email, text message or phone call.
But I gave in. It was the end of week two and I realized I had not been online to check emails in fourteen days. What if someone had a complaint about a grade? What if I forgot to enter something correctly? What if another problem needs addressing? Well, in the “old” days, the phone would ring, someone would apologize and ask for me, and I’d tell them I’d address the issue when I returned to work in two weeks. But we live in a world of immediacy. We lose patience if a website takes too long to reload; we call back if someone hasn’t answered our messages fast enough. Unanswered emails are seen as borderline negligence. We now exist with concepts such as, “There is no reason for something not to be taken care of right away—it’ll only take a few minutes while dinner’s cooking, while the commercial is on, while you undress.” Still, two weeks into this rehab and I’ve let everything go without guilt or remorse, and just a few weak moments caused me to turn on the laptop to check my mail.
Nothing. I’m not needed. Partly because in my profession no one else is at work, either, and partly because we’re all so much less significant that we’d like to believe.
The average work week in the United States used to be thirty-five hours long, and in Greece it was forty-one hours. Some of the most hours worked per week on average is South Korea at forty-four hours whereas Norway and the Netherlands work about twenty-seven hours per week. And it isn’t easy to determine how long a work day lasts. First of all, sometimes we don’t actually work at work. It’s true. For instance, I am “at work” between classes or other times of day when I truly don’t need to be but going home is not practical. Am I really working because I am at work? Further, what constitutes work? I played guitar in college, made some money on Friday nights, along with drinks and a meal. I probably would have done the same thing without the pay or food; can I call that work because I was paid to play?
For some, being home is also being at work. Dairy farmers work early and often must work late; agricultural workers traditionally always had extensive hours; in fact, the lower the income the more work hours put forth, which seems ironic, of course, but somehow makes the “play hard” aspect of it all understandable. Still, something is changing. Everyone at work has our cell phone number, knows when we are online. We sit on the beach and check our mail and do “work” in Jamaica. The kids are swimming and he’s checking more files, billing hours for the firm with a martini to his left. Sounds like an excellent situation, doesn’t it? Okay, now picture the same thing without the work. Hey look! Kids! Wow, when did they get here?
The work day never ends.
Dad called. “How’s your vacation going? Getting a lot done working around the house? Playing with Michael?”
Damn, I thought. To answer would have meant detailing my investigation into semantics and etymology, and it would have meant asking him exactly what it was he did when he went to work, so I hung up.
When we are home, I must admit, the mental exhaustion of work when we return is often eased by checking things off the to-do list while not doing anything else anyway. We might as well do some work, pull out the computer and knock down some piles so the work week is easier. Sure. Otherwise we might have just wasted that time playing around with the Wii or hanging with the kids or counting birds. God forbid. Do that too much and you might end up texting a colleague how bored you are.
I’d made it through twenty-one days of not working at issues relating to my career as a professor and instead focused on the benefits of that career—my house, time shared with my son, the ability to separate myself from society in some Thoreuvian way so that my inevitable return hopefully can be handled with grace. I’m working on that, anyway. We went outside and watched some clouds, watched the leaves fall at their own pace, and we played soccer. Plato said, “You can discover more about a person in an hour of play than in a year of conversation.”
The perception of “play” is different. With “play” comes the immediate insinuation there is also laughter and fun. We like to laugh. Just as much for survival, to blanket our fears, to extinguish our anxiety, to take away the hurt, as much as we like it as a part of playtime. Things hurt or stress us, like work, so we laugh and hope Buddha’s Vinaya was wrong when it called for ancient monks in India to go to confession for such an offense as laughing and spending time at play. But here, in America, laugh and play is what we do. We understand Nietzsche’s need to call every truth false which was not accompanied by at least one laugh. When we laugh we must stop eating, talking, drinking, even working because it is time to laugh and no one worries when someone laughs. No one is plotting damage or pouring hemlock; we enjoy the moment or the joke or the simple break from the cold reality when we let ourselves rejoice and be glad.
Shouldn’t work be like that? Is that the point of bringing home the laptops and checking the messages? Is that why when we wake we find ten messages on the cell phone because the work day never starts or ends, we just haven’t had our coffee and caught up to it yet?
During the last days of the third week, after sneaking a few more peeks at my email, heading to town to pick up some food, and walking more miles than I ever could while working, I realized even Thoreau dined at Ralph Emerson’s place several times. So I called Tom again, and we talked about many things, but not about work. I grew up with parents who came home and played or rested. They knew that John Muir was right, that “all God’s people, however serious or savage, great or small, like to play.”
Dad called again. “You must be looking forward to coming back to work soon.” I smiled, because as much as I loved being home, even Thoreau moved back to Concord and got a job, and I thought of Picasso, who said, “It is your work in life that is the ultimate seduction.” And I wanted to say, Dad, you’re so right, and Gibran wrote, “If you cannot work with love, it is better that you should leave your work and sit at the gate of the temple and take alms of those who work with joy,” and I wanted to say, “But Dad I’m a hypocrite. I should be at work on a corner as a beggar with a cup and a coat!” But I knew it would offend him, so I hung up. I went outside and stared at the wood I still wanted to cut and the soccer ball by itself on a far corner of the yard
This is it. I made it with just seven days left. I did the proverbial three weeks of breaking a habit and am cured. I’m not really thinking about work anymore, nor texts or emails or large manila envelopes from the division office. Even my own work has taken a back seat to late night movies, stargazing, and catching up on “reading for fun.”
Then the office called and left a message. “Hey,” my boss said. “I’m sure you saw this already in the emails I’ve been sending but we need to overload some classes. Check out the enrollment and give me a call tonight.” Damn, I thought. I have to start climbing down from this wagon in the next seven days. And his request is loaded with such entitlement to my time. While I still had six days to go, he assumed I “saw the emails,” would “check the enrollment,” and would “call him” that very night, never apologizing or asking what my plans were. The assumption is I am on the clock around the clock. That of course I’ve been online, on the phone, on the ball when it comes to work. The stress was returning and I still had more time off than the average worker gets in a year. E.B White said, “I awake in the morning torn between a desire to improve the world and a desire to enjoy the world. This makes it hard to plan the day.”
The enrollments would have to wait until I got to work.
Play revitalizes us.
But work should rebuild us. We start with enthusiasm, but it erodes so we play to get it back. Simple. But today, we are running out of time to do only one or the other. So our “work” has and must continue to evolve. We’re plugged in, and we need to play around with how we think about work.
I put my laptop and my books in my car and got ready to head back to civilization and “reality.” I stood staring toward the front yard and the soccer ball by itself. That is just one sample of the passing of time. The love of the new bike, ridden like the wind, now rusty behind the barn; the basketball net someone allows weather to waste; the ball by itself, drawings taken down from the fridge and filed away, the box filled with photos. That’s life. I thought of the moments a few weeks earlier sitting on the porch and talking about life and dreams and the slow erosion of time. I thought of how fast his life has been so far, and how I forget sometimes that when I was his age it was time to think about what I wanted to work at for my life. But I wanted to. I wanted to head out on my own and get a career and make a contribution, and so does he. Play time as his primary time has nearly passed. He’s now filled with the youthful energy of participation. When did he get to this point? When did he grow up so fast? What was I doing?
Working, no doubt. I recalled the previous four weeks and felt that empty, acid-like pang in my stomach when we must leave what we love to do what we must, even if we love doing it. Some say that is why they don’t mind doing “work” at home.
But what have we learned? My father taught me we were more important to him than anything from the office. He worked hard to teach us that lesson. Today, we’re all victims of a desperate attempt to balance work and play. Still, we don’t play with the kids enough. We don’t walk on the grass enough. We don’t throw the ball enough, hike through the woods, climb the low trees, go out on a limb, eat fruit off the vine. We’ve lost the art of solitude, of quiet walks and being unplugged because the truth is, we must work. But work is not life. Life is the way we sit around and laugh till two. Life is the feet on the coffee table, the tie undone, the kids asleep in their beds. Life is the sound of water in a pool, the sound of tea poured into china cups, the sound of distant thunder at dusk. Life is the smell of soil in spring. It’s the smell of bacon on Sunday morning; drinking beer with friends on Friday night, the early grass showing beneath the melting snow.
Bob Kunzinger is the author of eight collections of essays, including A Third Place: Notes in Nature from Madville Publishing. His work has appeared before in The Ilanot Review, as well as the Washington Post, the Chronicle of Higher Education, and more. He lives in Virginia where he is currently at work on a manuscript about crossing Siberia with his son.