Skip to content

Chop Wood, Carry Water

January 27, 2012

Each January, we stick a label on it, and that label says THE ONE. As in, this year is going to be ______. And then we begin to assemble its parts, like a Lego village, like a bed frame, like building a bowl of tonkotsu ramen.

It starts off as an untouched virgin of a year, one that isn’t going to deliver shit by the cubic yard like the dirt-guy who comes to my parents’ house each spring and dumps mulch for my mother’s garden in a mound on the boulevard. To further that metaphor: I know. The mulch looks like bad news but is precisely what the garden needs. And sure, sure, sometimes a year that dawns like a heap of driveway shit is likewise what we need to get someplace good. And yet, no one likes to shovel that mulch; no one likes to smell that mulch; no one likes to contemplate that mulch too deeply. We like looking at the flowers that bloom in August better than gazing at that daunting mountain of shit in April, and the same goes for a year that shows signs of teaching a lesson, building character, or being cobbled together from nothing but work.

When I was six, I worked through each meal to reach dessert, not because I liked anything on my plate. Peas? Gah. Carrots? Fine, but fine is not the same as good. Chicken? A thing I would chew till my mother grew tired of watching me grind my teeth through protein, then I would ask permission to spit into my napkin. Being six was all about the payoff — one that either swiftly followed an ordeal (like cookies after chicken) or which was immediate and unconditional (cookies themselves).

After essentially behaving like a six year old throughout the December holiday season, albeit one who can legally purchase and consume liquor, and knows how to hail a taxi home at the end of playtime, it’s tough to shake the desire for instant gratification. Therefore, I think we tend to perceive a new year that dawns with an attitude as a bad sign of what’s to come.

And so, each January, we snap on our optimist goggles and decide that the brand new year is going to be The Shit, rather that shitty. It’s going to be the one that sees a friend get out of debt, another make a baby, that one dump a loser, maybe someone else find a mate, earn a credential, make a big and good decision. This year will be the year that pays a reward. Cookies after chicken, or maybe even cookies on a plate with nothing first.

By 2011, I pretty much had a standard January refrain, which sounded like this:

THIS year is going to be MY year; I’m going to get a job I at least don’t break out in a rash contemplating each Sunday night; also, I will meet someone who isn’t a complete fucking fucktard and barring that, someone I can spend 90 minutes with, a meal and good conversation between us. Preferably someone who, once we remove our pants in tandem and press parts of ourselves up against each other, isn’t additionally removing his pants and pressing his parts against the rest of Toronto. The Bullshit Floodplain is going to recede while sunshine comes my way instead.

I felt pretty confident smacking an ambitiously hopeful label on 2011 because throughout 2010, I had worked like mad: toward a career; toward getting published; toward completing a book about kids who spend a night island-bound at an amusement park. So, looking back on the writing and publishing bit? Well, it remained a bundle of works in progress, but they at least seemed to be progressing…at a glacial pace, but hey, we all know what wonders the glaciers ultimately wrought.

It was, however, major news that in 2010, I worked hard at my career for the first time since accepting that The Office Job was no longer paying my way through school, nor was it killing time till I get my real career off the ground. The Office Job was here to stay, and I was working it on purpose. In 2010, I “applied” myself to my office CAREER, and it wasn’t horrible. In fact, it was rather great.

I also applied myself to trimming the dead weight. So! Much! Dead! Weight! Ugh.

2011? Mmmm hmmm, I thought. Bring it on. My cookies on a plate after all that applying of self would surely be an even better job, and I felt confident 2011 would be The One, the year that was All Mine. The one that was going to elevate things from ” chop wood, carry water”.

During my first of several ultimately unsuccessful attempts to earn a degree, I studied contemporary American literature, which included a handful of Horatio Alger texts to establish the American Dream trope followed by a reading list of increasingly disgruntled, disaffected and down-trodden protagonists who came face to face with the truth:

Hard work does not necessarily pay. And sometimes, really damn lazy people get the stuff some hardworking person should’ve received instead, if only the world were a fair place.

The works we studied also covered some lesser (but no less jarring) truths, like “bad things do happen to good people” and “good people can quickly become crummy people if they surrender to base desires”. Sister Carrie cautioned that kept women have nice gloves and sweet chapeaux, but they also have seamy reputations and one day (worse still) they will grow old and fall out of favour with their patrons. The Invisible Man is narrated by someone who grows to understand that all his hard work has failed to spring him from the constraints of twentieth century racism. The abject ex-pats favoured by Hemingway, Stein, Ford and others plainly begged to contract diseases — from one another and from their own corrupt behaviour — as they drank, ate, and screwed  their way through a world war. And so on, right up to the 1980s when protagonists shuffled off the burden of trying, failing, and wallowing in disappointment in favour of not giving a fuck in the first place.

In short, I should have known better than to believe that applying myself would pay off in the short-term. Admittedly, that first degree-attempt took place in 1993, and my memory holds water like a tin can perforated by a screwdriver dozens and dozens of times. But still…if there is one thing I have a good memory for, it is stories, so I should have remembered all those books.

An extremely wise woman once told me that sometimes, Monday to Friday will feel like nothing but a job of work, and during those weeks, I ought to plod toward that fortnightly pay cheque, grateful that I walk in at 9 and out again at 5 and get money for simply showing up. And, she was right. Mine are, as they say, First World Problems and if the crappiest thing that happens to me one day is feeling unfulfilled at work, that is a mighty fine day for most citizens of the world.

That said, it makes my spleen ache to contemplate disliking the way  I spend my days but choosing to do nothing to improve it. I worked a job I loved for a long time, surrounded by a perplexing combination of the most interesting people I’d ever met plus three of the most soul-destroying, back-stabbing, politically screwed-up individuals I’d ever met. And so, part of the 2010 policy of self-application was to find another job, one that wasn’t perhaps as esoteric, but where my days would not be punctuated by a colleague reciting her list of reasons why First Nations people in Canada deserved the cultural eradication they experienced through the mid-twentieth century. A job where people did their jobs without complaining about the unfairness of having to perform to standards. A job that made me think, and made me try really hard, and where sometimes work would land back in my lap marked “not good enough” and would force me to learn new things all the time.

I lined up several interviews, but of them all, one was especially sweet-sounding and I crossed fingers it (like all those new Januaries) would be The One. Travelling to the interview by public transit, dressed in a suit and heels on a 40 degree day, I fainted midway there and had to sit on the curb awhile after disembarking the streetcar at my stop. Confident I could shake it off and breeze through the screening (which included A TEN-MINUTE POWERPOINT PRESENTATION, FOUR-PERSON PANEL INTERVIEW AND HALF-HOUR WRITTEN TEST), I carefully placed my hands to shield the scuff mark on my blouse from where I hit the streetcar floor on my way down, and got on with things. It is now office legend that I cruised along in a complete brain fog, and in response to the panel’s question about how I deal with high-pressure situations, competing deadlines, and the simple fact that some days I will not be able to complete everything that is required, I said, “I just remind myself that work is just a place I go every day.”

What I meant by this was, if you get stressed about workload, deadline pressures, demanding clients and the constraint of having only 24 hours in a day, you will fall even farther behind, mess things up, make poor decisions and get nothing done. Instead, I basically informed the hiring committee that hey, work is just this thing I do, so when things get tough, I remind myself it’s not that important. And? I got the job. Apparently, on the basis of that answer.

And so, job landed, I applied myself, riding the high that came from deciding to leave an unfavourable situation and snickering from time to time about how I stepped into that business suit, fainted, said crazy shit, landed the job and was now clearly on my way. Cue the lessons of Alger et al.

2011? Imperfect, but littered with some very, very good things.

2012? More like building a good soup. Rather than affixing an annual label, I am quietly layering components, thinking it all through without over-thinking.

One of my favourite and least-favourite things last year was the debut of Lucky Peach, a magazine devoted to grungily reporting on high-end culinary pursuits. It’s a magazine that showcases thousand-dollar knives, international reknown, the F-word, highly engineered denim, and guys putting incredible effort into a meal then eating it like total animals. Its tone bugged the crap out of me, but was strangely comfortable and familiar. By issue #2, a girlfriend and I had figured it out — we were repulsed by the dude-centric kitchen thuggery, but compelled to keep reading because it reminded us of the boys we grew up with and remain close with now.

Our guy-friends have a joke about which animal would win in hand-to-hand combat: gorilla or bear?

This conversation has been raging since approximately 1995, and after many weeks of discussion via our pre-Facebook Yahoo chat group, no conclusions were reached. By that point, the debate had expanded to the various advantages each creature would hold over the other, as well as grave analyses of their weak spots. It’s a debate that continues to surface even now. “If he was allowed to use hammers, the gorilla would win for sure.” I feel like victory in such a fight, were it to actually take place, would be predicated on a similar principle as my theory of work: chop wood, carry water. Whichever animal can set to the task and plod through it without overthinking, this is the animal that will triumph.

In issue #2, the Lucky Peach boys brought forward the identical question: gorilla versus bear. Which would be the victor? This alone has potentially secured my loyalty as a reader, regardless of the alienating tone and content of the articles. I feel like that question demonstrates the magazine’s potential in a way not accomplished through all its pieces about small-batch bourbon, injecting foam into cracklin’, cooking eggs at high altitudes, and locating the king of all noodles in a remote alley inaccessible to pretty much everyone.

I love that fight question in a way that’s tough to articulate. It’s not as simple as “I like it because it reminds me of the boys I’ve loved for 20 years” or “I like it because it’s silly and familiar.”  I like it because it encouraged me to look at a magazine that was immediately off-putting (despite its excellent feature on ramen varieties and assembly), and to not be put off after all, much like the year that starts off looking like shit can turn out mighty fine. And, whether I appreciate their posturing hipsterism or not, those Lucky Peach guys? They work fucking hard. They apply themselves, whether there’s a cookie now or a cookie not till later. And, as I set my mind to another year of applying myself to something that might get me no place fast, this is a work ethic I could really write on a label and slap on 2012.

One Comment leave one →
  1. February 16, 2012 12:41 pm

    I loved this essay.
    I am trying to get comfortable under the burden of my wood and water, then maybe I can focus on carrying it. I plan on doing what’s necessary for my body (medical and otherwise) and then seeing how far I can go. I am strangely excited about this.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: