Saturday, February 23, 2013

Wait, so when's recess?

Guess what I did today?  I made two double-sided stapled copies of a 29 page document by pressing a few buttons on my computer at work.  Not bad.  I've always been very tentative around technology, and tend to approach it with much consternation.  I am exactly the sort of person who has used a computer my entire life and still doesn't know what an 'operating system' is, or moreover what operating system I use.  I discovered recently that I have to constantly 'update' my computer to keep it operating, to the dismay of Tom.  Although I grew up grasping the concept of why television and movies are generally pleasing to me, I can still not operate a television to this day.  I am the worst kind of consumer possible.  I consume, I use, I take for granted, but I don't know what I am using.  Or why, really.

So, I was really proud today when I made some pretty legit copies all by myself.  I've also been impressed with my general ability to adapt to a workplace that has working computers, fancy desktop phones that hold calls, and online email/calender systems.  I haven't even mentioned the functioning refrigerators, microwaves, and coffee machines.  Well, now it's mentioned.  I mean, I've been working with dust, goats, and schools that don't have walls for the past two years.  My "workplace" was falling apart village schools with stray farm animals that you have to literally avoid as you walk around (as in--oops, I'll take a sharper left here to avoid stepping on this chicken), with Africa-bake oven classrooms with cow-shit mud floors and a tin roofs to create oven-like conditions when inside during the middle of the day.  I've worked with no water on the site, or sketchy water that the principals send small children to fetch from the local creek, I've dealt with sexism, repression, absent teachers, drunk teachers, pregnant students, corruption, curious students, collapsing latrines, lightning strikes, land disputes, distrust of education, tribalism, wet season, white ant season, grass hopper season, an extraordinary LACK of work and productivity and on the other hand, a joyous abundance of human contact and face to face time.  I've been lucky. 

Now cut forward to today.  This week was probably the first solid week I've ever spent in an American office setting.  It's like the twilight zone, but with cubicles.  All of these reasonable adult humans tucked neatly into a small space by means of strategically placed half-walls and desks.  And it's like a parallel-universe with all sorts of spooky unspoken rules going on.  Not the same rules as in regular life.  It's weird.  I keep on looking around, during specific periods of the day when my energy is both boundless and fragile from spending several hours staring at my computer and fidgeting in my too-comfortable bouncy chair, to see if anyone else is also clearly struggling.  When is recess?  When is the time when we all sigh, push back our chairs, turn our eyes away from the screen, shake out our stiff limbs, and run to line up at the door for recess?  No one's eyes ever meet mine.  I guess the -it's-recess-time-right?- vibes aren't universal.  And, I'm not talking about getting up to get coffee or pee or go home for the day or take a half-hour unpaid lunch break, because those things aren't really fun.  They are just another responsible working adult thing to do.

I think my problem is, is that I've gotten too used to an eternal recess.  For the last few years, I've mostly played.  I worked a little, too.  But it was never a separate thing that I went to do every day for 8 hours.  It was something that I would trip upon, while shooting the breeze with teachers, or when playing with students.  Work was something that happened, suddenly and miraculously, when I was doing something else.  When something productive clicked or just happened.  When a decision or idea was formed between two people.  When stories were shared, opinions voiced, smiles exchanged.  Work was being with people. Work was just a part of life, interwoven within the daily interactions and patterns of life.  It was farming, it was teaching, it was talking, it was learning, it was playing.  It's not as if there is anything fundamentally right or correct about this way of life.  It was just a radically different concept of 'work' and productivity.

I'm glad I'm working here now.  It's a wonderful job with a lot of creativity, self-motivation, and collaboration involved.  It's a job where I'll be able to work with international teens and teach them real-life important things like how to use condoms and how to make friends across gang-lines.  It's my dream place to work.  And, I'm glad I've started now rather than later, because it's only going to get harder to reenter the American workplace.  But, it still ain't easy.  Not just my specific situation.  More broadly, I've been musing over how unrealistic and silly American work culture is.

Silliness?  Besides not having recess every few hours, or just not being like recess in general, we live in a culture we have to sit in an office for 8-9 hours to get about 2-3 hours of work done.  It sucks because it's just a standard now.  It's not like you can say, "oh, hey boss.  I know I'm paid by the hour, but I just finished everything I needed to today within 14 minutes of arriving, and I'd rather not spend the next 8 hours pretending to do work while I read my friend's blogs and refresh my email."  Such silliness.  Do we really need to comb our hair and leave our homes every day just to go check our email for 8 hours somewhere else?  We all sit at desks in front of our computers, because it's what we do, and we sit there until it's 5 pm and then we leave and probably go sit on our computers at home.

A huge bit of silliness?  Email culture.  And, this coming from a serious lover of emails.  I love receiving electronic mail, almost as much as I love receiving real mail.  It's that someone invested several minutes into crafting something personal for you.  Or for everyone in the office.  It's exciting.  But, really, do we need to email each other about something when we are within talking distance?  Or walking distance?  It seems like nothing is truly official until it has been emailed.  And, I get that that's just the world now.  But it seems really silly.  Especially when I walk by the person who I have just emailed on my way to the coffee machine.

One of the biggest drags about Uganda was the amount of time and consideration that went into meeting someone.  Emailing is a bi-annual occasion for lucky villagers, phones often were out of network, out of batteries, or out of airtime, and more often than not I just had to make the trip to find the person I was seeking.  I would ride or walk many kilometers just to confirm something with a teacher or ask someone a question.  Sometimes I would find that even after all of my sweating, walking, and riding, that the person wasn't there.  It was so tenuous.  But, all the same, nearly every day I walked in journey of a person.  It was never a quick visit.  It usually would include sitting down, drinking tea with the host, greeting all of the family, talking about America, etc etc.  But it made those long journeys worth it.

I think I'll still take the ease of emailing over the exhaustion of work in Uganda, but sometimes it seems like sitting at a computer and emailing is equally as exhausting as biking in a rain storm over muddy roads to tell a headteacher something vaguely important. 

There's also the fact that on Friday night, I'm already slightly nervous at how little time I have before Monday morning.  Are two paltry days truly enough time for us to forget all the hours we spent restless at our desks?  Is it enough time to remember how beautiful the world is right before dusk, how content you can feel on a lazy Sunday, how right it feels to drink tea and read a book, and how essential being with the people you love is?  I don't know.  I'm leaning towards Friday- the entire day- being part of the weekend.  I'm also leaning towards doing your job but not overdoing it.  To free time---which should really not be called 'free' because it makes all the rest of your time sound like serving a sentence---and plenty of it.  All of our time should be ours.  It's the only real currency we have as humans.  And I say this while at the same time fully realizing that in two short days I'll be back at my desk, refreshing my email and making lists of things-to-do-when-there-really-isn't-anything-to-do. 

I think part of the problem with us is that need to have a recess, as a special event separate from the rest of life.  A better mindset is that all of life should be a recess, with a bit of work mixed in.  But, that's where we come in.  Even if we are strapped like untrustable patients to the chairs in our cubicles for those 8 hours, we can still make our life a recess.  My friend Kristin wrote a blog recently about DIY, not just as a hipster fad at craftiness, but as a more personal motto.  .  Make things happen, instead of waiting for them to happen.  Instead of bemoaning your fate, spring to action and create the opportunity.  Same with everything, right?  There's no reason why we can't make our lives more playful and bearable, even if none of us can really escape our cultural standards and norms.  There's no reason why our work, why our profession, needs to come to define us and close us in as people.  We aren't pictures to be colored in.  We don't have to live, breathe, and obsess over what we have to do 30-40 hours a week.  It's a conscious choice, like anything is.  The choice being whether to let those hours of sitting and waiting come to define and limit you.  At the best, those hours of work, besides testing your patience and imagination, could seriously work in the opposite direction.  There are flashes of brilliance, moments of connection, when you feel as though you are there for a reason.  And the end of the day, you gotta make your own recess. 

No one can ever be 'above' culture.  I can't expect to waltz back into America, accept all of the endearing "welcome back's" and then spend the rest of my days resting on my laurels of alternative living.  What did I expect?  Exceptions to be made for 25 years olds who march to a different beat, who jive with a different life style?  That's also silly, because all of us march to our own beats and all of us probably feel like we don't fit into all the norms of our culture.  I don't know one person who enjoys paying bills or filling out paperwork.  And there are plenty of people in America who have lived elsewhere or who have different views on how to live life.  You can't rise above the culture, simply because you ARE a product of the culture.  And, you are living in it.  Whether you like it or not.  Work culture here does seem batshit ridiculous to me, but I can rest assured that I'm not the only one who thinks so.  After a talk with my roommates, I realized that what I experienced with bewilderment at my work are actually par for the course.  And probably not many people get off on sitting at desks for hours on end.  It's just something you might have to do for a while, and put up with. Life is an insane seesaw ride, and sometimes you'll be sitting at desks, and other times you'll be riding donkeys.  Or something. 

I sense that I am still taking a very defensive stance towards America.  Like, "back off, old Abe*, I'm going to keep on doing things my way." or "screw off, Ben Franklin.  Early to bed and late to rise and a penny lost is a penny not to worry about."  And what?  Become a streetwalker in South Saint Paul?  Just so that I don't have to work 9-5 and be in an office and generally have a more flexible recess-like existence? Well, news flash, Ilse-- you don't need to be a prostitute to be on the playground.

...and since I always elect to end on a particularly wise note...

*I'm not really sure if 'Old Abe' refers to Abraham Lincoln or a famous eagle.  Either way, I have no problem with him. 

Love and Ludicrosity,

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