My father lost his leg in World War II. No one in our family ever talked about his missing limb, though I grew up surrounded by heavy wooden prostheses. (He insisted on keeping the old ones for some reason.) Wooden legs stood behind every door in our house, and they were always falling down unexpectedly. We would be eating dinner, perhaps, and one would crash like a giant redwood.
I didn’t like crossing the street with my father. He would hold on to me for balance and limp across, never fast enough for my taste. I would watch in a panic as the cars came toward us. We are going to die, I’d think. From the safety of the far curb, my mother would chide him: “Leo, come on. You can walk faster than that.”
My father was a salesman at a men’s clothing store and stood all day long at his job. Occasionally, I would glimpse him getting dressed for work, hopping across the bedroom to grab one of the legs leaning against the wall. He would start by putting a special sock over his stump, to make the leg fit better. Those thick, funnel-shaped socks were always drying in the bathroom, hanging in a neat row over the shower rod. I would see them every day as I got ready for school: a row of hand-washed socks with faded brown stains. I saw them so often I barely noticed them.
Years after my father died, I remembered those socks and the brown stains. How could I have been so oblivious? The brown stains were blood, so much that even my mother’s constant hand-washing could never fully remove it.
Great Barrington, Massachusetts
I am reading Sigmund Freud’s The Ego and the Id. This is not easy. I read perhaps half a paragraph a day. Here’s a sentence chosen at random: “When it happens that a person has to give up a sexual object, there quite often ensues an alteration of his ego which can only be described as a setting up of the object inside the ego, as it occurs in melancholia; the exact nature of this substitution is as yet unknown to us.”
I read this sentence three times. I go back and review the sentences leading up to it. I read the sentence again.
I press on.
Phoenicia, New York
When I discovered that the oldest of my three teenagers was drinking and habitually smoking pot — by himself — I sought professional help for him and quit my teaching job of twenty-five years. I couldn’t continue to be a mentor to other kids when my own child’s life was in a shambles.
To pay the bills, I got a job selling seafood at a local market, but I didn’t want to interact with customers, so I asked to work at the lobster pound instead. The owner of the market understood my situation. She put me on the phone with her brother. His first question was “Can you lift fifty pounds?”
“Sure,” I said, thinking I could lift that much once in a while.
On my first day, I put on my orange waterproof coveralls and boots and was shown into the pound. My job was to haul crates of live lobsters out of the pools and unload the “bugs,” as they were called, into boxes, which were then sealed and put onto a pallet. We packed upward of three hundred boxes a day.
I was the only woman loading crates in the lobster pound. I was also the only Democrat. The men were gruff and strong, and their jokes were hilarious. Later I found out that they watched their language in front of me.
I worked hard, kept up, and learned how to drive a forklift and cook the lobsters in a huge metal vat. I also learned how to take a ribbing, and how to give one, too.
It was the most physically demanding job I’ve ever had. Every afternoon, I would come home exhausted, strip off my clothes, and step into the shower. But I got into shape; in fact, I trained for and ran the Maine Marathon while working there.
That job helped me to see clearly that when our lives fall apart, everyday contact with other people is what saves us from isolation. It keeps us sane.
Portsmouth, New Hampshire
We harvest the salad mix and other leafy greens in the early-morning mist. Tomatoes, beans, and beets can be harvested later in the day, as long as they’re kept in the shade. The 150-foot rows of beans stretch out before me like miniature hedges. I bend over and brush back their leaves in search of the pods they conceal from view. (I’d do the same if someone were after my offspring.) Once we’ve harvested several hundred pounds of produce, we wash, bunch, weigh, bag, and box it, then load the boxes into the van and drive to the city.
After delivering to our forty regular customers, we set up our stall at the farmer’s market — a tent, two tables, wicker baskets for displaying the produce, price signs — and begin to banter and haggle, hoping to make five hundred dollars for the day. At 7 p.m., it’s time to tear down our little tent, pack up our leftover produce, and head over to a restaurant where the chef buys from us at a discount. Then it’s back to the farm in the twilight to unpack the truck. Tomorrow we’ll be going to a bigger market, so the harvesting will be even heavier.
Sometimes, as I pick in the morning mist, I’ll hear the thick hum of traffic from the encroaching suburbs, and I’ll think about all the people who commute to jobs they may not like, looking forward to their two days off each week and retirement on the horizon. That seems to me the hardest work of all.
An oxygen mask presses against Anita’s bluish lips, its long tube like an elephant’s trunk. Despite all our efforts, Anita’s lungs are failing. We need to intubate — insert a breathing tube directly into her windpipe — but Anita and her daughter are adamant: no heroics. So we, her nurses, fiddle futilely with the machine and watch the bright blue numbers indicating her oxygen level drop lower and lower.
At 11 a.m. Anita begins slipping in and out of consciousness. Her numbers dip lower, and I consider calling her daughter. Anita isn’t my only patient, though, and there is still much I have to do before noon.
After lunch I peek behind the curtain at Anita. She’s breathing hard, and her oxygen level is sixty-seven, barely enough to sustain life. Miraculously, she smiles at me and asks for a sip of water. I debate whether to summon her daughter to the hospital while they can still interact. I decide not to call yet. It can take so long to say these things, and I just don’t have the time.
I manage to get all my meds administered — at least, the ones that matter — but I’m way behind on baths, and 23-A is ringing for a bedpan.
A bath or two later, I check on Anita again. Her breathing isn’t any better. It’s time to call her daughter. The man in 23-B can wait for his suppository. I hold the phone gently, as though I could transmit concern through the wires, and say, “Your mom’s not doing so well. It could be a false alarm, but I thought you’d want to know.”
Five o’clock meds are due. Afterward I pass out the supper trays and check to see if Anita’s daughter needs anything — coffee, a shoulder to cry on. A man I haven’t seen before is sitting in a straight-backed chair by Anita’s bed, rocking back and forth with his hands on his knees. The tension in the room is thick. I guess that he is Anita’s son. I have brought some morphine to ease Anita’s pain, and I place it gently in her cheek.
“What’s that?” asks the son.
I tell him.
Morphine means different things to different people. To this man, it signifies the end of hope. His mouth contorts as he tries not to cry. Then his face crumbles, and his sobs are deep and ugly. I sit on the chair next to him and smell the alcohol fumes rolling off his body. His sister looks away. I stroke his hand and offer solace, but my real goal is to quiet him down so my patient can have some peace. In the back of my mind, I’m thinking that I have only half an hour left on my shift. I don’t want this wild card to make me late getting home to my children.
After I’ve calmed the man down, I take his sister aside. “If he’s a problem, you call us. You don’t have to deal with this. We’ll be the heavies.” I have no idea what we’ll do, but we’re nurses; we’ll figure it out.
I am grateful the next day, my day off, when all I have to do is dig a ditch for a new sprinkler system.
I got my first real job one summer between semesters in Catholic seminary, where I was training to become a priest. I hadn’t taken a vow of poverty yet and still had bills to pay.
When I heard about a job at a paint factory, I applied and was hired. I would be joining the laboring masses, working and sweating by their side, like the radical French worker-priests I’d read about. I thanked God for granting me this opportunity.
The next day I reported to the factory and started work. The job entailed lifting four-gallon boxes of paint off a conveyor belt and onto pallets, eight hours a day, with a one-hour break. I was exhausted in no time, and my prayers of gratitude quickly turned into prayers for deliverance.
Deliverance came in the form of a tough-talking foreman who saw me struggling on the line and assigned me to help out the factory janitor instead. My new job was to ride the sweeper around the factory floor between towering stacks of paint cans. The hardest part was staying awake; something about the noise and the heat generated by the sweeper made my eyelids droop. I almost crashed into those towering stacks a number of times.
I’d take my lunch breaks with the janitor and a guy named Steve. Steve was in his early twenties, had never been to college, and seemed content to work in the factory the rest of his life. He and I got along well.
When I mentioned I would be going back to school at the end of the summer, Steve asked me what I wanted to become. I told him I wanted to help people and serve God.
“You’re going to be a minister?” he said. “That’s great!” He went to an Evangelical church and had been saved. He asked me to tell him more about my ministry. As I described for him the life of a priest as I imagined it, he seemed more and more impressed.
“What does your girlfriend say about all of this?” he asked.
“Girlfriend?” I said. “I don’t have a girlfriend. I’m going to be a Catholic priest. I have to be celibate.”
A look of pity and horror appeared on Steve’s face, and he said he had to get back to work.
Steve avoided me after that. He seemed to view celibacy as a kind of perversion, rather than the way I saw it, as the hardest work of all: to work all day in the vineyards of the Lord and have nothing but a cold, empty bed to fall into at night.
That was twenty years ago. I am not a priest today. I left the seminary after five years. I’m now doing web and graphic design while working toward a doctorate in English. Sometimes I sit at my computer for ten hours straight. I wonder if I work too hard and, if so, why. Maybe it’s because I live alone and fall into a cold, empty bed at night. Maybe it’s because I’m afraid of making a relationship succeed, of having a family, of creating a home — although, in my case, it would be the home of two men. Maybe I’d rather chain myself to my computer than do the hard work of figuring out how to become happy.
I went for a run today. Almost immediately I remembered how much I hate to run. I walked the second half of the distance.
I have trouble following through on just about anything. As a student, I never did all my work, only what I had to in order to get by. My report cards always bore the same comment: “Bright girl. Should apply herself more.” I graduated from high school with a B-plus average and got into a good college. I even earned a master’s degree in nursing.
Today I have an excellent job and appear to be a hard worker. People ask me to serve on the boards of their organizations, although I am sure they regret it after they discover that all I do at meetings is knit and occasionally say something.
All this was fine until I had children. I worried they were being shortchanged by my lack of hard work and discipline. B-plus was not good enough for them; they needed an A-plus mother! I resolved to read to them, do art projects, take them outside, bathe them, and make them healthy, hearty meals every day. Needless to say, my mothering did not improve after I took this vow. I just became slightly unhinged.
By the time my youngest child was born, I realized that my children would have a C-minus mother, if that. I gave up and just let them have me, complete with withering houseplants and afternoon naps.
Aside from their unkempt hair and mismatched clothing, they seem to be turning out OK. They lose their library books regularly, but every night the older ones read to the youngest. Perhaps they are on their way to becoming B-plus adults, but at least they’re happy.
Although I have lived with depression for many years, when an attack hits, I can never remember what to do. Despite seventeen years of therapy, twelve years of medication, and a thousand pages of prayers and affirmations, there is always a period of confusion and denial.
Sometimes I go for months or a year without an episode, and I imagine that I am no longer depressive, that it was just a phase, that I’m fine now, strong and invulnerable. Then a switch gets flipped. Crucial neurotransmitters seem to drain out of me like water from a bathtub. My brain cannot manufacture confidence. My good life tastes like chalk. I perceive everything through the eyes of the disease. A friend glances at her watch: she hates me. A service person doesn’t smile: I am repellent.
I’ve been in a depression for a couple of weeks now. My boyfriend does not know it yet. He does not know about the heaviness, the nothing that demands everything. I don’t like to tell anyone. Why reveal myself as weak and helpless? I fake a smile and hold my breath. Maybe it will just go away.
Tonight I am supposed to make dinner for my boyfriend. I smile with effort when he knocks on my door. I tell him I’m fine. I might end up feeling fine, so why worry him? He says he had a great day and begins to talk fast, mentioning lots of names. I lock my eyes on his face and concentrate. I want to hear him, but the depression doesn’t leave much room.
I make us a feast; I will not have this meal look depressed. We have couscous with fresh herbs, curried lentils, steaming garlic spinach with chunks of feta, and a vaguely Indian chicken-and-tomato dish. My boyfriend uncovers the plates and takes huge, steamy breaths. I put on a smile.
By the time we’re cleaning up, my smiling muscle is exhausted, but he wants to talk more about theater and his writing. He catches my expression and stops talking: “What is it? I’m boring you.”
“No, no. Go on.” I move around the kitchen, wiping counters, snapping the lids on Tupperware, pushing down the sadness in my belly. He continues, his eyebrows furrowed. But he can sense it. He stops again.
“Are you sure nothing’s wrong?”
I think: We’ve only been together seven months. This will spoil it. He doesn’t know that I will get better.
Tears wet my face. I tell him about the relentless negativity, the weight in my head and hands, the skipped meds. He doesn’t have that terrified look I expect to see on people’s faces. He stays. He holds me. He listens. And the despair begins to shrink. I remember what to do.
In the morning, I will make an appointment to see my psychiatrist. I will take the pills he prescribes. The hardest part of all of this is accepting my depression and finally deciding to do something about it.
Los Angeles, California
I work hard every day. It doesn’t count as hard work, though. It’s all bits and pieces, here and there. I am running and running and feel as if I never stop.
I am the rememberer of doctor’s appointments, of birthday parties, of socks and vitamin pills. I make phone calls, answer e-mails, and cook dinner. When I hear the washing machine shudder as the agitator switches on, I think: I am the agitator.
But this is not true hard work. Hard work is something else: The cafeteria lady with the hairnet scooping up goo with her gloved palm. The men in heavy boots and yellow hard hats digging up asphalt with a backhoe.
So why am I so tired if the work I do isn’t hard? Is it just the exhaustion of spending my life like pennies, one moment after another? Or am I just not up to the task?
But my work is also stroking a cheek, giving a kiss, and standing at the kitchen counter chopping onions while the sun shines in the window. My work is knowing where things go, and also knowing the sound of laughter and the smell of supper cooking. This work is harder than backhoe driving and food services. And it is mine.
Durham, North Carolina
When I was thirteen, I got my first job, at a car wash. I washed the insides of windows as the cars emerged from the dryer, which roared like a jet engine. On my first day, I learned that the “carnauba wax” was just a tub of bubbling yellow water. Customers who paid extra for it got ripped off.
Most of the other employees were Mexican, and they didn’t like me. They told me I was making twice as much as they were because I was white. Two of their friends had been fired when the boss had hired me.
Saturdays were the busiest. The cars baked in the sun while they waited in line. Black interiors could give you real burns. The soapy water I sprayed on windows turned to steam. One Saturday, it was over a hundred degrees. Our boss told us that if we cleaned a thousand cars that day, we would get a bonus. At the end of the day, we had cleaned the thousand cars. He gave us each a warm Coke.
There was an A&W root-beer stand across the street. My co-workers and I liked to stare at the girl who worked there. She was older than we were and always had fresh hickeys. We called her the “Hickey Lady.” We wanted to give her a few hickeys ourselves.
One day, halfway through my shift, I walked across the street, bought a float, and flirted with the Hickey Lady. She took a break and sat with me at a table outside. My root-beer float was delicious. My co-workers hooted at me from across the street. My boss yelled for me to come back. I just drank from my frosty mug and kept flirting.
From 1973 to 1988, I worked with Cesar Chavez and the United Farm Workers Union. As full-time volunteers, all of us — including Cesar — worked for room and board, plus five dollars in spending money per week. (We eventually got a raise to ten dollars per week.)
A normal workweek averaged six nine-hour days, though if you were on the grape boycott or organizing in the fields, you’d find yourself running from 7 A.M. until 11 P.M., with almost no time even to eat.
In the spring of 1976, most of us were sent to the cities to work on California State Proposition 14, a UFW-sponsored initiative to protect the state’s farm-labor law from being weakened by big agribusiness. During the campaign, I worked thirty days straight with no time off and only a couple of hours’ sleep per night — in a sleeping bag on a hard wooden floor. Somehow we managed to collect more than four hundred thousand signatures and get Proposition 14 on the ballot.
Late one night, toward the end of the campaign, five or six of us found ourselves with a single bottle of wine and no corkscrew in sight. Determined to get that bottle open, somebody called a friend and woke him from a sound sleep. We huddled around the speakerphone to hear the friend’s instructions for opening the wine: turn the bottle upside down at a forty-five-degree angle and gently tap the base of the bottle with the heel of a man’s leather dress shoe. The cork would gradually work its way out.
It took about ten minutes of tapping, but I can’t remember a glass of wine ever tasting better.
Hermosa Beach, California
As a zealous member of the Unification Church (aka the “Moonies”), I was recruited to participate in the church’s first foray into the fishing business. Determined to set a heavenly standard for all the “civilians” with whom we worked, I intended to work harder, and with more enthusiasm, than anyone else — and to maintain my prayer life.
On my first trip to the offshore fishing grounds, our trawler steamed headlong into a violent storm. To avoid fouling the sleeping quarters with the meal I’d consumed upon leaving port, I crawled up on deck and had to be saved from tumbling overboard.
For the next five days, I strove in vain to keep pace with my gnarled shipmates, who had been fishing all their lives. It was dangerous, strenuous, smelly work. Fish spines punctured my hands, causing them to swell painfully. My feet ached from the cold and wet. We got only sporadic sleep between hauls of the net. My brain was numb. I mostly forgot to pray.
When we finally returned to port, the captain, a huge, profane Italian with a barrel chest and a voice like a foghorn, walked over and clapped me on the back. “You done pretty good for your first time out, boy,” he said. Through the haze of smoke from the ever-present cigarette between his lips, I saw the unmistakable glimmer of sincerity in his eyes. Though I was as weary as I had ever been in my life, my spirits soared.
I came to think of work as a form of prayer and never again set out to teach the unchurched around me.
When I had my first child in my early thirties, I had no experience with babies. My mother wasn’t much help. She already had eight grandchildren and didn’t even come to visit after my daughter was born.
Mom and I talked on the phone, however, and I asked her what it was like to raise four children, two of them twins, in the 1940s and ’50s. All she’d ever say was what wonderful babies my twin brother and I had been: how we slept through the night as soon as we came home from the hospital, how we never cried, how easy it all was.
My new baby was wonderful too, but caring for her was still hard work. How easy could it have been for my mother, especially during World War II, when my father was on a tanker in the Pacific? She went months without hearing from him. Money was tight, commodities were rationed, and even staple items were hard to come by.
When my daughter was six months old, my mother finally came to visit, and we found ourselves alone in the kitchen after dinner. I was making formula, and Mom was putting away the dishes. I asked her again: “What was it really like to have twins back then? I can’t imagine. How’d you ever do it all by yourself?”
“You were wonderful babies,” she began. Then she paused, put down a stack of plates, and looked at me.
“It was hell,” she whispered.
“Hard work never killed anybody,” my father used to say. Then he dropped dead of a massive coronary at the age of fifty-nine.
My father was a farmer, and on any given day he spent ten to twelve hours milking cows, housing tobacco, baling hay, and fixing fences. He was black Irish, and his fair skin was permanently burned a brick red.
He came by his work ethic honestly. One of his earliest memories, he told me, was of looking out his upstairs window after midnight and seeing his father plowing a field behind a horse, the light from the kerosene lantern casting rhythmic arcs across the dark rows. Rain was coming, my father explained, and if the fields weren’t plowed before it hit, they would lose at least two days of planting.
At the age of five my father went to work in the milk parlor, letting the cows in and out by operating the big sliding doors at either end. By thirteen, my father was one of the best cutters in the tobacco patch, or so his sister tells me. After his funeral, men who had known him in his youth — some of whom seemed perplexed at having outlived him — talked of his constant grin, his practical jokes, and, above all, his strength and endurance. “Bob would grab a bale in each hand, squeezing them twines together, and just toss them up on the wagon like they was potatoes,” one man recalled. He shook his head and leaned over our porch railing to spit tobacco juice into the yard.
There was a tacit belief in our family that only lazy people or city folk took vacations. When I started my first job outside the farm, a co-worker described the benefits package to me. “The pay isn’t great,” she said, “but we get two vacation days a month.”
I shrugged. “Yeah, but who can afford to take them?”
“We still get paid,” she replied slowly, probably wondering if she would have to explain the intricacies of indoor plumbing to me next.
I was dumbfounded. Paid vacation. The idea was an oxymoron to me.
My brother’s sons now run the family farm. They’ve expanded the herd and recently built a new milk parlor that runs sixteen cows through at a time. Like their father and their grandfather and their great-grandfather, they work ten to twelve hours a day.
I’m a psychologist. I work hard, but I don’t tell anyone in my family about the vacations I take. My palms aren’t calloused; my back doesn’t ache. I wonder if they think I’m city folk. I wonder if they think I’m lazy.
Mary K. McClanahan
State College, Pennsylvania
I incurred tremendous debt to get my BA in English but could find only secretarial jobs after college, so I went back to school to become a carpenter. I was tired of being paid based on how fast I could type and longed to see tangible evidence of my work at the end of the day — evidence that couldn’t easily be crumpled up and thrown away.
I like being a carpenter. I like the view from the roof of a house. I like the sounds of tools running and the feel of the wood in my hand. I can detect the bends and curves in a board and determine where to cut it, how much pressure to use, and which parts to nail first. I like working up a sweat, getting into a rhythm: Whip out the measuring tape, measure down to a thirty-second of an inch, and snap it back in, slowly at the end so as not to bend the clip. Lift and turn the board, find its center of gravity, and move to the saw without knocking into anything. Use the tape again — measure, mark, check, retract — then power up the saw and cut.
Sometimes the tradesmen I work with will ask me, “Why does a girl like you want to get your hands dirty?” As a rule, my answer is: “For the same reasons you do.”
Though it is still uncommon to see women working on a construction site, many bosses and clients have told me they like to hire women. Some think women are cleaner and more responsible. Others hire women because they get a tax break, or because they can pay women less for more work. Some hire women because they know women will show up on time, perhaps even early, sans hangover and sporting a bright and cheerful attitude. Others hire women because they like to watch them bend over. The best employers don’t care whether a carpenter is a woman or man. What matters to them is whether the person is not afraid of hard work.
My father writes out the alphabet in block capitals, over and over, filling a page in a composition book. Then he fills another page with lowercase letters. Each line of letters starts out bold and straight, but before the halfway point, the figures start to shrink and waver; they wander above and below the blue line. By the end, they are just unreadable squiggles.
Last week we went to see Pauline, the occupational therapist. “Back in high school,” my father told her, “they taught me I shouldn’t print. I should always use cursive.”
“Well, you’re not in high school now, are you?” said Pauline. “I think it’s OK for you to print.” She told him he should draw, too. It might help him regain control of his hand.
“I don’t draw,” he said.
“You used to,” I said. “In board meetings, you drew boats.” A board member had once told me that she could tell how a meeting was going by what kind of boat my father drew: sailboats meant things were good; motorboats meant it was getting ugly; tugboats meant rough going. Sometimes he sketched shipwrecks.
“That was doodling,” he said.
“Then doodle,” said Pauline. “That is your job now.”
Each evening, my father writes in his journal. He writes the date, what he had for dinner, what the weather is like, bits of poems he remembers from years ago. He breathes hard through his teeth, like a boy learning long division. He writes a list of reasons why his writing is so bad:
- Too much of a hurry.
- Switching between capitals and lowercase.
- Not sitting square to the desk.
- Spend too much time thinking about what I’m going to write instead of what I’m writing now.
He continues until he has fourteen reasons. Numbers 9, 10, and 11 all say: “Concentrate.”
He draws boats. He sketches a tugboat with a towline behind it. He adds a giant black barge to the end. The little tug strains to pull the barge’s weight along the blue line.
When I was a boy, my mother ironed my father’s work shirts so that the sleeves had neat creases and the back spread smoothly between his shoulders. He was a welder at a tractor plant, and everything about his job involved heat: the boilers and the furnace, the layers of heavy clothing, the hissing flames of the welding torches. When he came home at night, his shirts were dusted with black specks and had constellations of tiny holes from the welding sparks. The back of his shirt had a sweat stain like a continent stretching from shoulder to shoulder and down to his waist. When he tried to hug me, I turned my head from the sour smell of his body and wriggled in his grip.
Later, after he’d bathed and shaved and doused his face with Aqua Velva, I would go to him. But by then it was too late. He’d be bent over the Chicago Sun-Times, his lips moving as his eyes scanned the columns of print, his mind on the news of the world.
I’d go into the basement and play underneath the khaki work shirts that hung from the gas pipe on their wire hangers. I pretended they were the canvas flaps of tents in the Arabian desert. I’d push through them slowly, letting their tails pet my head, catching the sharp, sweet odor of the heavy-duty detergent Mom used.
I didn’t understand then that my father worked hard, that he earned those clean shirts, that when he came home at the end of the day, he hoped for a hug from his son. I could have held my breath long enough to give it to him.
When I met my husband, he was an avid hiker who had helped build trails in the wilderness. I had never been backpacking, had never done anything requiring physical endurance. I spent my vacations at the beach or at Disney World. So it surprised people who knew me when, for the first ten years of our relationship, we spent all our vacations backpacking. I joined my husband’s trail crew for a weekend and hauled rocks to help build a “turnpike” in the woods. I went on a month-long Outward Bound trip in arctic Alaska. I even trained for and ran in a marathon.
About two years ago, while climbing at ten thousand feet in Rocky Mountain National Park, I said between panting breaths, “This trip is more work than being at work!”
The following year, we stayed for a week on a tropical island. We drank rum punch, swam, snorkeled, took naked naps in our treehouse tent, and hiked short distances to historic sites. It was the best time either of us had ever had.
I work in an air-conditioned office building, at a desk equipped with a computer, a phone, and an ergonomically correct chair. The most physically demanding part of my job is putting legal documents into three-ring binders. Yet this is the hardest job I’ve ever had.
I recently received an e-mail from the human-resources administrator asking me not to eat “fragrant foods” at my desk. The smell of my blackened-chicken pasta was apparently too much for some co-worker to handle. According to the employee handbook, no microwave popcorn is allowed, either. The smell permeates the office and is “unprofessional.”
A couple of months ago, I was implicated in the crime of talking and laughing too loudly with co-workers. It appears several people who work in cubicles need absolute silence in order to be productive.
One woman can’t tolerate any kind of perfume or cologne, so we all must refrain from spritzing or dabbing. I tried applying perfume in unobtrusive places, such as my armpits, but eventually I gave up.
When someone complained about a secretary’s attire of fishnet stockings and low-cut blouses, a memo went out reminding everyone to please abide by the dress code. Note to self: Save the halter tops and fuck-me heels for the weekend.
In April, when my project is finished, I’m going to be laid off . Then I’m going to sit at home, perfumed and naked, collect unemployment checks, and eat microwave popcorn and fermented soybeans while watching South Park and laughing, loud and hard.
Cindy Y. Ogasawara
My sister had been married for a little more than a year, and each time we spoke on the phone, she would try to tell me that her marriage wasn’t working out. Time and again, I would tell her: “Marriage is hard work.” After I got off the phone, I would feel good about my advice.
I never asked whether she was happy. I never asked her if she thought her marriage was worth saving. Instead I kept insisting that marriage was supposed to be hard.
When she got a divorce some months later, she seemed truly happy for the first time in a long while. And eventually I realized that even I didn’t believe what I had been telling her. Marriage is difficult sometimes, but a solid marriage is much more than hard work. It’s two people working together to build a family, caring for one another, sharing a life.
I wish I had listened to my sister more, instead of making her feel as if she were failing.
It had long been my dream to go to law school, but the first semester was horrible. The classes were humiliating; the professors tried to embarrass you, no matter your level of preparedness. While waiting for my grades, I contemplated quitting. After all my hours of effort and sacrifice, my cumulative GPA was 2.5. I felt defeated.
Favoritism became blatant during our second year. Some students regularly came to class unprepared and were let off the hook. They were allowed to bullshit their way through Socratic questioning while the rest of us were grilled mercilessly.
Somehow I managed to land a coveted law-clerk position for the summer at a real blue-blood, old-money law firm. I hid my working-class background from the partners. Whenever someone asked, “Who’s your daddy?” I’d say he was in oil. (He was a shift worker at a refinery.)
I was taken to lunch at exclusive clubs where African American waiters in tuxedos filled our water glasses. I was also taken on expensive outings to places my family had never visited. The whole time, we clerks were constantly being judged to see if we were firm material. It was like a beauty pageant without the swimsuit competition. I prayed they couldn’t tell that my fashionable outfits were from the Salvation Army.
As a clerk, I was paid a first-year associate’s salary for the summer — more than I’d ever made in my life. I worked round the clock to prove myself, hoping to win one of the two first-year-associate positions. I must have played the game well, because I was one of the chosen.
I knew I had a lucrative job upon graduation, but I still had to pay the rent during my third year of school, so I asked the partners if I could stay on part time. They were amused that I had to work but eventually agreed to the arrangement — with a significant pay cut. They also made it abundantly clear that I should try out for editor of the law review, mainly because it looked good on the firm’s résumé. I did and was accepted. Every hour I wasn’t asleep or studying I spent preparing articles or making minimum wage working for the firm.
I ended up graduating from law school with honors and, after taking the summer off to study for the bar exam, officially started work at the firm. I thought the worst was over, but as a full-time associate I routinely clocked up to eighty hours per week. If you didn’t, you weren’t “committed to the firm,” which meant you wouldn’t be considered for partnership in seven to ten years.
I later calculated that I made around eight dollars an hour that year. And I realized that my eighty-hour weeks were lining the partners’ pockets, helping corporate America walk all over people like my parents, and giving me an ulcer. The low point came when my boss berated me for attending my grandfather’s funeral during a workday.
I’d had enough. Like so many before me, I quit. My only regret is that I didn’t do it earlier, and in a dramatic fashion. One of the happiest moments of my life was watching the elevator doors close for the last time.
It was 9:30 in the morning when Susan, one of my co-workers at the social-services agency, walked into my office. “Martha is downstairs,” she said, “and she won’t talk with me unless you’re there.” By the look on Susan’s face, I could tell we were in for more than a pleasant chat.
We went down to see Martha, who didn’t waste time coming to the point: “I brought Kathy in, and I want you to take her.” Kathy was Martha’s little girl. Martha had a long history of mental illness. She was handing her eight-year-old daughter over to us as if returning merchandise that didn’t fit.
Kathy was upstairs in what we call the “children’s room.” It’s where children spend time while their caseworkers find them homes or make other living arrangements for them.
“Martha,” I said, “what did you tell Kathy when you left the house to come to our office? Does she know why you’re here today?”
Martha said she had told Kathy they were going to the Department of Human Services, nothing else. They came here for their food stamps and occasionally to see their social worker. They’d stopped at CVS along the way, and Martha had bought Kathy a heart-shaped box of chocolates. (Valentine’s Day was a few days off.)
Martha told me that Kathy’s father had been trying to find her, and she was “done with him.” The stress had gotten to be too much, she said. As Martha figured it, the only thing to do was to lighten her load. Kathy was one of the few responsibilities she had that could be disposed of at will.
“So what shall we tell Kathy?” I asked. “Would you like to visit the home where she’ll be staying? Are there any relatives or friends Kathy could stay with?”
Martha had tears in her eyes now; the bravado was gone. “I can’t,” she said. “I just can’t anymore.” Then she got up and left.
Kathy was playing a video game when I went upstairs. I introduced myself and asked if I could take her away from her game for a minute, then immediately regretted my choice of words: “take you away.” I felt my face getting hot and fought to regain my composure.
I started again: “Kathy, your mom brought you here today for us to take care of you for a while. . . .”
As a young man, I worked on a farm. I shoveled potatoes into barrels. I cut, split, and stacked wood. I carried bundles of shingles up a ladder onto a barn roof. But I’ve never done a harder day’s work in my life than I did that day.