Why We Work
What would Siddhartha say?
By Rhonda Reeves

At every level, you have the ability to change what you're doing for the worse.

-Lyle Lovett

I love the fact that Lyle Lovett decided to take up football his junior year in high school. I like it because it's a little absurd, a little off-kilter, and not the kind of thing anybody would've expected of him (given his then-twin passions of guitar and motorcycles).

I love it because of the infinite possibilities it suggests for all of us.

But I'm equally inspired by the conclusions he drew from his failure - when the sheer physical limitations of it forced him to quit.

He said, "It really gave me an appreciation for those guys - how every time somebody ran into me there was actual physical pain. It's just nice to get a first-hand look at how complicated something that doesn't necessarily seem complex really is."

Most people know Lovett went on to get a degree in journalism, and that it didn't work out - as careers go - either.

The best part of his choice, he often says is, "As a songwriter, I'm not obligated to tell the truth. I'm not obligated to make as much sense as I would have to if I were a journalist."

He took a winding path, and we're all better for it.

He tells a wonderful story about how he came to write the song "Flyswatter Icewater Blues." He speaks in a halting, almost stammering cadence that's very much like poetry, frequently trailing off, and then resuming, just when you think he's finished the thought.

"I wrote this song last summer when it was really hot," he begins.

"A carpenter friend was going to help me with some things around the house

"things requiring light carpentry." (referring to his home, on pilings, in Klein, Texas).

"He called.

"And that got me to thinking about this song, because, man, it was early.

"And I thought: he gets up that early every morning and goes to work.

"I thought about how weird that would be.

"And I thought about what those last few moments before work would be like

"if I had a job

"and what those last few moments would be like with my wife

"if I had a wife."

He goes on to explain that his friend came over and got under the house, leaving Lyle at a loss as to how to help.

"He was crawling under the house.

"It's about three blocks high

"not so bad really

"but not something you'd want to do for fun.

"I was standing there trying to...

"lend support.

"It took so long though, I finally said, 'what are you doing?'

"And he looked at me as if to say 'what in hell do you think I'm doing?'

"And then he said," and here one side of Lovett's face twists just a little into a sardonic grin, before finishing his friend's response,

"'I'm writin' a song. I can't get the words flyswatter/ice water out of my head.'"

"I said 'fine,' if he was going to be such a smart aleck, I'd just go in the house and play my guitar."

Then he went inside and wrote "Flyswatter Icewater Blues."

It's been maybe ten years since I heard that story, but I've never forgotten it. Not a word of it really. If that isn't a verbatim rendering, it's pretty close.

I was just getting started as a music critic, and that night seemed one of infinite possibility.

Where my whole world could suddenly become about something bigger and better and at least more exciting than the life of a corporate communications hack I was living at the time.

I KNEW at least one thing, which was precisely one more than I'd known before that night.

I wanted to make a living telling stories.

I just had to figure out a way to get paid for it.

For what it's worth: Selected anecdotes

Thoreau's central; theme [in Walden] is that working conditions in a market economy can easily undermine liberty and erode autonomy... people from all socio-economic brackets who are in search for the ideal life cannot help but compromise some of their preferences. For instance, highly autonomous people would willingly choose poverty for the sake of the freedom to realize their visions. On the other hand, individuals who desire an adequate income prefer loss of freedom over unemployment.

-Prof. Brian Walker, "Thoreau's Alternative Economics: Work, liberty, democratic cultivation."

American Political Science Review

Linda Scott Derosier (author of Creeker) made a great observation over dinner a few weeks ago. She said, "I learned a long time ago you can have anything you want, you just can't have everything you want."

Derosier is a Harvard-educated academic, senior faculty in psychology (though she HATES the word senior), and is enjoying an entirely new and vibrant career as a critically-acclaimed author (at the age of 60).

Her book could almost be summarized by that one line over dinner.


Once you make A decision, it's amazing how quickly all the other choices start to fall into place.

For example, one of my childhood friends made up her mind she wanted to start a family before 40.

It was, for her, the most important goal in her life.

She got started about 35. She then reduced her dating pool to men she felt would make good fathers. She sought out a job with more flexible hours, less travel AND more money (because the guys who seemed like the best father-material were not NECESSARILY the guys who turned out to be the best breadwinners). Luckily, she was at a professional and economic level where those options were available to her.

By the age of 40, she was married to a devoted husband and father, with a three-year-old and another on the way.


One of my college roommates is in an incredibly high-powered, well-paid entertainment job in New York. She's smart, beautiful, and successful - and anybody would envy her. But most of her "contribution" to this major media entity is numbers-crunching, and at 36, she's decided there's more to life than that.

So for the past year, she's started exploring all the things she's always loved - like languages and theater (both of which she has incredible talent for) - and pursuing those interests vigorously. She takes classes. She volunteers.

And by this time next year, she'll have left the entertainment rat race and turned her passions into a way to make a living. She also expects she'll be able to spend at least part of every year traveling and working in a foreign country.


Once I made up my mind I wanted to write, and what kind of writer I wanted to be, it became a very logical choice for me to buy a newspaper. (Though that looks a little absurd in print.)

I would never have made it as a fulltime freelancer, because I crave having a community around me. I like the structure of working within a team. I'm not the loner I was (professionally) in my 20s.

And it would've been difficult for me to take a job in another market, because it's always been important for me to have a local voice - one that's very steeped (or mired, depending on your point of view) in this region.

My biggest priority as a writer is to be able to say things to my community, about my community, and FOR my community.

Or as Lyle has said of choosing his life as a performer, "It was just a way for me to be myself really...

"and to have a microphone...

"To be myself

"and be louder than anybody else in the room."


The current president of my alma mater, John Roush, defines leadership as an "act of service." This spring's alumni magazine, Centrepiece, includes the biographies of the people who were selected as the recipients of last year's Distinguished Alumnus Awards.

The first woman profiled has a completely humbling biography.

Frances Cundiff Johnson (class of 1946) founded a school in Africa that exists today, 30 years later.

She and her late husband were teachers, who decided to be missionaries.

They left Ohio and went to live in the bush in then-Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe). There was no running water. Oxen carried their bathing water from a nearby river; a well for drinking water was three miles away.

They built their school brick by brick. Literally.

Reflecting on her time in Africa, she told the alumni magazine, "We never looked back. It was a good decision."

Asked what she missed about Africa, she says, "The slow pace of life. If you don't get it done today, you get it done tomorrow. When dark comes, your day is over..."

Night Falls

To demonstrate your spiritual superiority [to the 80s], you'll import craftsmen from Umbria to create the look of crumbling frescoed plaster in your foyer... You'll want sideboards with peeling layers of paint, lichenous stone walls, and weathered tiles... It's crass to spend $60,000 on a Porsche, but it's a sign of elevated consciousness to spend $65,000 on a boxy and practical Range Rover... Remember, if your furniture is distressed your conscience needn't be.

-David Brooks, the New Yorker.

Most of us don't have work schedules that are dictated by sunup and sundown.

Instead, we have bosses.

We have a workaholic culture.

And we have a societal expectation of excess and conspicuous consumerism.

I suspect if most of us could get an SUV that came with its very own Sherpa, we WOULD.

Living simply - as a nation - is not chief among our virtues (where people are dropping like flies from obesity).

Most of my exposure to other cultures comes from my students, but this weekend, I attended a beautiful wedding where several of the guests seated at my table were not from this country.

The first thing we did was introduce ourselves.

The second thing we all did was ask one another what we did for a living.

Almost everyone was involved in academia in some form or fashion, and we devoted a considerable amount of time to discussing our students, and what they respond to at 18, and what they don't, and of course, how that enables us to break their spirits.

The Serb seated to my right told me that the best job she ever had was working at a radio station in (I'm sorry, I forget what country, but I think it was Eastern Europe).

I asked her what defined it as so great, and she said she made no money, but they drank a lot on the job. And danced, I think. And got a lot of free music.

One newlywed at the table, from Spain (maybe), then marveled at our national obsession with weddings - how big and lavish they are - and how much time and money and thought goes into them.

We all discussed how many weddings we had attended this summer alone.

Fully sated and glutted by a three or four course meal, limitless reserves of wine and an open bar, we were quite naturally in a mood for enlightened discourse.

I speculated that it all goes back to Maslow's hierarchy of needs, and everyone pretty much agreed.

"Yes. Just so." And "splendid idea," I think they said.

(Maybe, maybe not. I was on my second glass of red wine and I'm a lightweight.)

My point was simply that sometimes we take Maslow's ideas to their absurdist extremes, and that with too much time on our hands (now that we're freed up from getting the crops in), we're content to stop at societal approval, without striving for that next level.

Maslow didn't think we learned much by studying mental patients (i.e., Freud), because that only teaches us about crazy people.

And he didn't think we learned much by studying lab rats (per Skinner), because he had the idea that all we really learned there was what a lab rat would do, given a certain set of circumstances.

His theory was that humans are different from animals. What he suspected was that given the chance, we could all be our best selves once our basic needs were met: physiological, safety, love and esteem.

With those out of the way, we would all be free to respond to our calling. According to Maslow, it's society's "job" to remove those obstacles (i.e., hunger, violence, etc.) that keep us from pursuing our callings. Or our "self-actualization."

He thought it was vital that an artist be freed to paint, that a musician must make music, and a poet must be allowed to write.

Speaking on a theological, rather than philosophical plane, author Frederick Buechner writes, "There are all different kinds of voices calling you to all different kinds of work, and the problem is to find out which is the voice of God, rather than Society, the Superego, or Self-Interest... The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world's deep hunger meet."

He doesn't say anything about a Range Rover.

Workin' to Live

You can't let all the power and fame make you lose sight of that naive, innocent kid who was in it just for the money.

-Bruce Eric Kaplan

I couldn't write this story if I had a boss. That's the first thing that occurred to me when I tried to assign an article on "work" to somebody else.

That's because most people (myself included) censor themselves in some way, shape or form when they know their boss is watching (or reading).

Around this time last year, we ran a cover story with the provocative (to my then-superiors) headline, "Work Sucks." The title was no reflection on them, of course, and they knew that. It was a straightforward story about labor. Their only objection was to the relative crudeness of the title - about which I disagreed with them, then and now.

I don't happen to agree that Work Sucks, but I maintain that it was the right headline for that story (and for the people profiled; many of their jobs DID suck).

I love my job. But I have always loved work - both abstractly, and concretely. I think it has value. I crave the structure and fulfillment it brings me emotionally. Maybe it satisfies some age-old Puritan longing.

Because I feel that way now - with a great job - but I also felt that way when I was 16 years old and making minimum wage at J.C. Penney.

I don't know what intrinsic "value" there was to schlepping double-knit slacks to middle-aged housewives - but I know I worked hard, and I always came home tired and proud that I'd put in an honest day's work.

Working, for me, also takes less energy than avoiding it (which is exhausting).

But for every Tom Sawyer, there's a Huck Finn who'll find somebody to paint the fence for him.

Labor Pains

Life's just a game of inches. The margin for error is so small - one half a step too late or too early and you don't quite make it. One half second too slow or too fast and you don't quite catch it. The inches we need are everywhere around us. Every minute. Every second. On this team, we fight for that inch. On this team, we tear ourselves, and everyone else around us to pieces, for that inch. We claw with our fingernails for that inch. Because we know when we add up all those inches, that's gonna make the difference between winning and losing. Between living and dying. In any fight, it's the guy who's willing to die who's gonna win that inch. And I know if I'm gonna have any life any more, it's because I'm still willing to fight and die for that inch. Because that's what livin' is. The six inches in front of your face.

- Al Pacino, Any Given Sunday

I once had a boss who told me "What this country needs is a good recession."

I quickly scanned his head for horns.

He explained: Recessions are GREAT NEWS for Management, because you can pay your employees almost nothing and they can't just walk down the street and get another job. They HAVE to stay.

That was the gist anyway.

Now, was there a tail protruding from his impeccable Brooks Brothers suit?


He was pretty much just like you and me.

Except. Well. He was the devil.

Was I working my way up to joining his Army, I thought, only half in jest.

Arguably, according to one of my mentors, I went from Worker Bee to Queen B (and he uses the initial because he means it as an abbreviation), this year. And that brings with it the responsibility not to become the Devil.

Of course, I know that there are those who thought I already was. And I know there are others who think that the responsibilities of this place (the difficult decisions that go with hiring and firing and making the trains run on time and the balance sheet add up) turned me into something and someone bad.

What I also know is that I always make the best, most moral decisions I can, given the circumstances in front of me at any given time. I can't do any better than that.

As an employee, I was always vulnuerable to any exploitative boss who came along (luckily they were few) - because I always wanted to work harder and longer than anyone would've asked me to.

As a boss, I make an effort to surround myself with employees who are similarly internally motivated - and then I have to pay careful attention lest I slide down that slippery slope where I become the Exploiter, as opposed to the Exploited.

I don't FEEL like the Man, but the reality of it is that I am. Till this year, I'd always been "A" boss, but that's a lot different from being "the" boss.

I'm putting this story together at 9 o'clock on a Monday evening, and our building is still half full.

Jimmie Dale Gilmore is Spinning Around the Sun in here. I can sort of hear a really old tune from the Cure coming from the Edit office, and the art department is throbbing with "classic" rap.

I haven't cracked any whips. I didn't even know they were here till I walked out around 8 to rifle their desks for food. (I always replace the provisions by the next morning.)

We took a break to look up some muscle cars online. Then we all went back to work.

One staff member asked me the other day, "do you know what I like best about my job?"

"Why, no," I responded. I was all ears, eagerly anticipating some aggrandizing analysis of how I'd created a fulfilling, fair, and satisfying workplace.

Her assessment was, "because I don't have to wear hose."


Of all the things I've done, in management, not requiring hosiery of the female employees isn't exactly an accomplishment I would've put at the top of the List.

But then I thought it over, and I realized that, all other things being equal at a job (fair pay, benefits, general fulfillment), a lot of decisions are made based on the little things. Like flex-time, like smoke breaks, like free lunches. Or like wearing what you want, when appropriate. (My main professional goal in my 20s was not to wear a bra.) The only time I've ever actually ASKED anyone to change clothes was when they wore an "Outta the way Pigfuckers" t-shirt. (I wasn't offended, but I thought others who were greeted by that at the front desk might be.)

I thought about this, and a lot more, as I re-read Walden in honor of Independence Day (the anniversary of Thoreau moving to his cabin), as I do every year.

And I think, every day, of his famous equation that "the cost of a thing is the amount of what I call 'life' which is required to be exchanged for it."

The rest of it, I'm figuring out as I go.

l Enlightenment Ain't Easy

A selected (if obvious) bibliography that might be interesting to anyone who's struggling, or seeking. Some texts are religious in nature, some philosophical, some psychological.

The Human Condition, by Hannah Arendt (1958).

Bhagavad-Gita. Sanskrit poem incorporated into the Mahabharata, one of the greatest religious classics of Hinduism (and the longest poem in world literature). Thoroughly explores path of spiritualism and the path of knowledge. Translations available by Annie Besant, Sir Edwin Arnold, Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan, and Mohandas Gandhi.

Frederick Buechner has written volumes like, The Sacred Journey, Now and Then, and Telling Secrets. In Wishful Thinking, he observes, "Vocation comes from Latin 'vocare' - to call - and means the work a person is called to by God...There are all different kinds of voices calling you to all different kinds of work, and the problem is to find out which is the voice of God, rather than Society, the Superego, or Self-Interest...The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world's deep hunger meet."

New Dimensions Of Confucian and Neo-Confucian Philosophy by Chung-ying Cheng. Explores Confucian and Neo-Confucian metaphysics and ethics, building upon the creativity and temporal nature of human existence as well as human culture. Collected essays deal with themes such as modern communication theories, perceptions of individuals, religious themes, and scientific worldviews in Confucian and neo-Confucian context. (1991)

Siddhartha by Nobel-prize winner, Herman Hesse. A seeker's story.

Abraham H. Maslow, Toward a Psychology of Being and The Farther Reaches of Human Nature. Maslow departed from the determinism of Freud and B. F. Skinner. He posited that human needs are met according to a hierarchy: physiological, safety, love, esteem, and self-actualization - that once are lower needs are met, we can move on to solve larger problems, i.e., we can (societally) focus on art when our (collective) bellies are full. Critical to any study of western economic development. According to George Norwood, Maslow also describes "self-actualization as a person's need to be and do that which the person was born to do. It is his 'calling.' A musician must make music, an artist must paint, and a poet must write." If these needs are not met, the person feels restlessness, on edge, tense, and lacking something. Lower needs may also produce a restless feeling, but here is it much easier to find the cause. If a person is hungry, unsafe, not loved or accepted, or lacking self-esteem the cause is apparent." (See also and

Walden, by Henry David Thoreau.

Boo Hoo

The sorrows behind corporate pink slips

By Jim Hightower

Here's a sorrow-filled story from the New York Times about the personal side of downsizing.

It's about the emotional trauma suffered by those who get caught-up in the blizzard of pink slips in today's harsh, corporate climate. Only, the Times story is not about the people getting pink slips... but about the sad plight of bosses who hand them out.

Need a hankie?

Of course, the big bosses, the CEOs who mandate the mass firings, never soil their soft hands with actually handing out termination notices. This is done by line bosses, and these days many of them are 20-something, junior executives just a few years out of college. Well-paid, upwardly-mobile, and awash in stock options, they're products of the boom-boom good times, and it never occurred to them that there were any dark clouds in the corporate sky. Having to punt a bunch of geezers in their 40s and 50s has like, you know, totally freaked out some of them.

But the happy news is that some of these young punters are getting the personal counseling and help they need so they can do the dirty work of corporate America. The Times reports that these bosses are being schooled in how-to-fire someone, taking corporate courses that include simulated firings, that engage them in role playing, and that teach them politically correct downsizing-speak. Among the tips for these beginning downsizers are "never fire on a Friday" (because the firee will stew all weekend and sue the company on Monday); "Keep the termination exercise to less than 10 minutes" (after all, this is a firing, not a happy hour); and "let the fired employee keep his e-mail address" for awhile (this will make you seem generous).

This is Jim Hightower saying . . . The Times happily informs us that, with this training, the 20-somethings are quickly able to get over their trauma and get with the downsizing program.

As one of them says: "At the end of the day it's a business, and you have to make hardbusiness decisions." Atta boy - that's the corporate attitude!