Friday, April 8, 2016

The Masochist Says "Beat Me" and the Sadist Complies

Welcome to the land of the punished, of original sin, of the Calvinist work ethic and supreme self-denial. My father used to tell a joke, that Puritanism was the sad, haunting fear that someone, somewhere, was having a good time. He sourced it back to Oscar Wilde, but as I recently found out, it's a quote from the great journalist and all-around fount of sarcasm, H. L. Mencken. My father used this to illustrate how important it was to enjoy oneself whenever the opportunity was presented. My father, of course, being the strict Calvinist, having been brought up in a Southern Baptist community, where the preacher looked down on dancing, but had no problem with close rollerskating (to the point of dancing on skates with underage girls - yeeuch), my father became an atheist at the ripe old age of thirteen. This did not, however, divorce him from the ideas of sin, of the virtue of very hard labor for its' own sake, and regular conversations about only getting a buck knife and an orange for Christmas. When he did enjoy himself it was generally tainted with guilt. When we couldn't work in the yard because the weather didn't permit, whatever we watched on TV better be either some highfalutin' foreign film or something educational. Vacations were all about backpacking into difficult environments.

I didn't mind the foreign films, as it happens - lots of Japanese sword fights made them all the more palatable, and they imbued in me a taste for better-made films.

But I always wondered about my father's attitude toward any kind of pleasure. He liked good food, he appreciated many cuisines of the world, he really loved music (mostly classical, but he was also a big fan of the Beatles, Janis Joplin, Canned Heat, Tom Lehrer and Spike Jones). And then, when it came time to work, labor-saving devices were, apparently, sinful. Nothing was better than doing the job with a pick & shovel, where renting a roto-tiller would have gotten the job done in a tenth of the time, for ten bucks.

When my father passed in 2005, he still had an O-Cedar broom that I remember using in the eighties. It had lost three inches off the bristles. There's "frugal", and then there's "sorta nuts". I digress...

There is a weird strain running through the American psyche that tells us that unnecessary or very difficult labor is somehow good for us. That it "builds character". This is the lie we've been fed since Plymouth Rock, and I'm hoping that we're figuring it out, finally. I'm hoping that we've finally realized that, while hard work can be fufilling, tedious labor crushes the spirit, and pointless labor kills it completely. Not to sound like a curmudgeon of my father's variety, but I am reminded of the days I'd spend, mowing a half-acre of grass with a very old lawnmower (that I think came with the house), and then edging the lawn with a pair of grass clippers that were not much evolved from a pair of scissors. I understand economizing, but, even as an eight-year-old,  I knew better. I knew there were inexpensive tools designed to do this sort of work with less labor, but, as my Dad put it, "it made you soft". That, right there, is  America writ large.

Think about what other countries provide for their citizens. And no, I don't mean, "for free". which is a bullshit argument against useful societal improvements, paid for by taxes. Childcare, healthcare, family leave, college - all low cost or no cost, paid for by everyone's taxes. We are told, have kids! families are the cornerstone of American life. Then, "whaddya mean you want time off to have a kid? I can't afford for you to do THAT!" Childcare costs are often the equivalent of a second mortgage. Affordable housing near where you work is usually a non-sequiturr - just look at San Francisco. And once your kid goes off to college, be prepared for that child to come back home, to pay off one of the biggest debts they'll ever incur next to a mortgage - student loans.

It's as if we've decided that a life of self-flagellation is a major building block of society. Of course, the advice we get is "if your job really sucks, well, go find a better one". Once you reach a certain age, going out and changing jobs is about as easy as changing a tire without a jack or tire-iron.

Perhaps a revolution is what we really need. Stay tuned...

1 comment:

Wmelvin said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.