Saturday, January 8, 2011

Can I call this work?

I moved in with Dave about a month ago. This new domestic situation – I have spent the last seven years living platonically in share houses – has caused me to confront again the issue of work.

I’ll be frank. Compared to many of my friends, and possibly the majority of the world’s population, I live a pretty cruisy existence. When others complain about being run ragged working late at the office or getting up five times throughout the night to tend to a screaming child, I can sympathise, but not really relate.

My week is set out thus. I am engaged in paid employment three days a week, as a researcher at a most esteemed academic institution. I could work more if I wanted, but I don’t, because I would rather spend my time doing other things. I volunteer at Credo one day a week, where I chop veggies in the morning and run a creative writing group in the afternoon. This leaves one weekday left, which I call my ‘free’ day, and utilize it for my own creative pursuits, whether it be writing or researching (I’m currently working on a book), or, as has been the case more recently, attend wedding dress fittings and look at flower posies on the internet.

And then I have a weekend – because everybody needs a rest, don’t they?

The fact that I’m not chained to a desk five days a week or doing something similarly painful with my time is a common source of guilt for me. I can’t remember which philosopher said, “I think, therefore I am”, but I think a more true motto for our society would be, “I do, therefore I am”. Hence we all ask the question, “What do you do?” at awkward social events, because its answer is defining.

But here’s the catch – the ‘do’ bit is only really defining when it has some kind of economic value.

Which gets me thinking – have you ever found it extra awkward asking a woman that question? Not when she’s in a business suit and heels, because then it’s obvious that she spends her days in some kind of paid employment – but when she’s the wife of someone and is wearing something different or has some kind of demeanor that makes you think that she might be a homemaker?

The awkwardness, for me, arises if and when she chooses an answer involving the word ‘just’ – as in, “I just look after the kids”. You have a choice, then, of either being a bit sad about her choice of the word ‘just’ and move on her ask her about her kids, or tell her, righteously, “There is no just when it comes to looking after kids!”

The fact is that I’m a bit awkward about unpaid employment. And I’ll take a stab and suggest that other people might be a bit awkward as well.

It’s ok to be studying, because it’s the lead up to paid work, and it’s ok to be retired because it means you’ve spent a fair chunk of your life doing paid work – but unpaid work on its own is embarrassing and awkward probably because society doesn’t value it very much.

So, I feel guilty about my two days of unpaid work. The volunteer work isn’t so bad – I suppose because I feel like it has an economic value. I see it as a donation. My ‘free’ day, on the other hand, doesn’t really have an economic value, it’s mainly for me and my creative headspace, working towards a nebulous goal that I feel is nonetheless important.

Things have changed upon my recent co-habitation. There is now a question hovering in the background that we only occasionally ask outright: What are we both contributing to this partnership? David works full time in a paid job and so his question is easy to answer. My non-paid work requires more effort to rationalize.

We decided that as a couple we were happy to give a certain amount of time to the community, which my volunteer day feeds into. My ‘free’ day, however, raises the question of ‘What is work’? Is writing and thinking and researching ‘work’, when I don’t get paid for it, or payment might not amount to much and could be a long way away and – to make matters worse – I enjoy it? What about spending time with my sister and her baby – this is very important but is it work? Hanging out with my bridesmaid to make sure she’s down with the flowers and hairstyles? Baking biscuits for the new neighbours that moved in? Tending to my vegetable garden that doesn’t produce many vegetables but does produce lots of interactions with other community members? Are these things work? Sometimes I feel like I work really hard doing some of these things, but I struggle to call them work, and then I feel guilty for investing so much in them, when I could be using that time to earn money.

And then I have this feeling that I should do extra housework to make up for it, which is also awkward and embarrassing because it seems really backward and sexist, and David is a Sensitive New Age Guy.

But many of these activities that I love are what forms the social glue in our society, so they are immensely important. Apart from being unpaid they are also so…well, female! ...which is also why they are undervalued. And this forms the basis of another source of my guilt, because staying home a day a week partly to do traditionally female activities, while my husband-to-be brings home the bacon (or tofu), is SO not the go-getter feminist I was brought up to be.

Oh, if only I was a man, and then I could do as much housework and baking for the neighbours as I wanted and it would be cool!

Sunday, January 2, 2011

Lessons from Sydney

I’m currently on a week’s holiday in Sydney, and so far I have learnt two lessons.

The first is this: People don’t need all the details. I must credit this lesson to David, who has pointed out on numerous occasions that I often tell people way too much. I don’t mean necessarily sordid details about what I did last night (although I’m occasionally guilty of that crime too), but rather more mundane example like, “I’m going to be 15 minutes late.” You see, people don’t need to know that, “the traffic is terrible,” or “my sister took forever to get ready,” or “I couldn’t find a fresh pair of undies”. Generally, they don’t really give a damn – the point is that you’re going to be late.

So, the other day I went up to the motel reception and said, in simple elegance, “Can I please have a bowl, a spoon and a little bit of milk?” The man in the paint-speckled trousers, who had come down from a ladder to serve me (I add this detail to indicate that this was by no means the finest of establishments) replied, in equally simple elegance, “No worries love. I’ll bring it right round.” I didn’t mention anything of my special muesli mix that I lugged all the way up from Melbourne, or even the fact that I required it to keep my digestive tract chugging along nicely (“Don’t you find that travelling has a rather binding effect on your system?” I might have added). But I said exactly none of these things, and the man behind the counter obviously didn’t give a damn because he knocked on my motel room door a few moments later with a bowl, a spoon and a small pitcher of milk. No questions asked; I had learnt my first lesson.

I decided to test out my newly found insight a second time at yet another delightful northern Sydney suburban place of lodging. This time I took it to a whole new level: I called room service. Now let me impress on the reader that this is not an activity of which I am accustomed: every fibre of my being tells me that there is something very wrong with sitting up in bed dialling numbers and expecting things to be brought to you that you yourself cannot be bothered to get up and fetch yourself. But, the brown vinyl motel room folder told me otherwise, so I resolved to try it out.

I politely requested a bowl, a spoon and a small pitcher of milk, with not even a mention of my digestive system. The restaurant had closed, I knew in advance, and this institution only generally provided room service when the restaurant was open, but I figured that if I sounded satisfactorily self-assured, they would make an exception – and anyway milk on demand is surely within the usual offerings of any decent suburban motel.

I was wrong. The woman at the end of the line informed me (as I already knew) that the restaurant had closed, and there was simply no way they could produce my requested items. As first I felt deflated, because my new technique was clearly not fool-proof. Then I found myself feeling a bit shitty – surely a request as humble as my own was within the breadth of an institution set up solely to cater for the needs of travellers?? I mean, it wasn’t as though I had just asked for a banana split with extra caramel sauce, thanks very much. What kind of motel was this, that couldn’t even give me some milk and some wholly common eating utensils?

I trudged to the local service station – which by the way was a good kilometre away – in a bit of a huff. As the sun beat down and the cars and trucks of the Pacific Highway hurdled by, I did have a chance to reflect. This brings me to the second lesson learnt on this trip: If you want somebody to do something for you that they don’t have to do, you have to be extra nice.

If you are thinking that I should have learnt this lesson a good while ago, you are probably right. The tendency to be a little demanding and obnoxious is unfortunately one of the weaker points of my character (note to David). In my defence, however, in the modern, highly bureaucratic society of our own, it takes a particularly high level of perception to realise that though something may seem to fall within the responsibilities of one’s job, it may in fact not. They may do that thing for you, but if they do, it will be a favour.

It was true. The restaurant had closed for the morning. I may think that motels should provide milk on request but what I was asking, in fact, was that the managers of this Golden Chain motel would do a little bit extra for me. What I should have done, then, was start by acknowledging that the restaurant was closed, and request that they do me a big favour by producing my desired items. I probably didn’t need to tell them anything about the health-benefits of my particular mix of muesli. But what I should have realised is that people don’t like it when you demand – or even request – that they do something they don’t have to do. On the other hand, if you make people feel like they are doing something nice for you – which they are – my theory is that they are more likely to want to do it.

By way of another example (if this point isn’t obvious to you already): I have an expectation, which I think is fairly reasonable, that I will get paid by the certain university that I work for. In addition, I have an expectation that I will be paid on time – and that I won’t be left begging off parents and scabbing drinks off friends when they miss my pay for three fortnights in a row.
No reasonable person would disagree with this assumption. On the other hand, the lovely and ever-helpful people at HR cannot be expected to chase down the hours that they did not receive from the person whose job it was to pass them on, but has now disappeared into another dimension and does not respond either to phone calls or desperate emails. There is no point leaving angry voice messages and sending sarcastic emails to the people at HR, though you are entitled to feel angry. From their perspective, they would be doing me a big favour by chasing up my hours – not merely doing their job. Thus, I need to treat them as though they are helping me out, and make them feel like they want to prioritise me over and above others in their busy schedule on account of my sweet disposition and pitiful situation. I must shower them with thanks and gratitude in anticipation for their life-saving service of which they have no obligation whatsoever to fulfil, but they will do only because they are a nice girl/guy.

But just don’t give them any unnecessarily details, because the probably won’t give a damn.