My first job was a job that I now think I’d rather not have had. I mowed lawns. Lots of them. Every week I mowed. Twenty weeks, sometimes more. If an August drought persisted, maybe less. I had an orange lawn tractor and a matching trailer and I’d drive around town and mow. I never really wanted to mow, of course. My dad made me. I remember dreading his heavy morning footsteps on the stairs. I’d hear them, and I’d know it was time to work. It was always time to work. They were coming to wake me up, to tell me it was going to rain, and the lawns had to be mowed. I was just a kid, and while my friends rode their bikes around town and flirted with the red-suited beach girls, I drove my little tractor across the road, stopping only for a few quarters worth of gas from Herb’s and an egg roll and Sprite from Doc’s.
I guess I used to be proud of that work ethic. I used to remind myself of an old saying, “in order to make a success of old age you have to start young”. What a terrible thing that is to say. I look back at my childhood now, thinking about all the time I spent working, and I wonder why. Do I get to retire early because I mowed lawns when I was 13? Do I have some inordinate amount of money because I mowed 31 lawns a week at age 16? The obvious answer to both questions is a resounding no. Did I learn to work? Sure. I learned to work, but some days that doesn’t feel like such a feat. Everyone works. Some work harder and some work less. But we all work, we all work, and when we’re done working we die. Why speed it all up and make a kid burn his lungs while washing out buckets of bleach for the guy who sold the contents of those buckets to restaurants? Did I really need that job, too? Why work at Doc’s on Saturday mornings in the winter, when that’s when the best cartoons were on? Why place such a burden on a kid when he’s just that, a kid?
My son started his first real job last week. It’s at a restaurant, bussing tables and washing dishes. It’s doing the things I did for Charley O. My son wanted the job because he felt like he needed some money. His friends buy shoes for hundreds of dollars. They have iPhones and iPads and iMacs. They have everything that he doesn’t. And they have these luxuries because they work. And so it went, a desire for money and the just requirement of work to obtain it. He was beaming after his first day. He made $55. Or was it $70? I don’t know. I don’t really care. He opened a new bank account, this one near the restaurant, so he could walk from work to the bank. Depositing his money, like a real grown up. Saving for this and saving for that, and spending on this and spending on that. He has to work four days this week. After his last shift his feet hurt and his back ached, but he’s happy about it.
I want to be happy for him. I want to be proud of him. But why should I be? Why does work have to define us? Why does he need to hurry to work when he just turned 14? The answer, we tell ourselves, is that he needs to learn a work ethic. He needs to learn how to take instruction. To be berated for failure. To be praised for success. I understand these things. I used to work so hard for the same results. I wanted the money. I wanted the responsibility. I wanted the acknowledgement. I wanted to be told I was doing a great job, and at such a young age. Looking back, I just wish I had spent more time at the beach with my friends. I wish just once I went to a summer matinee at the downtown theater. I wish I hadn’t grown up fearing the sound of my dad’s footsteps on the stairs.
But so it goes, my son, the worker. I’m proud of him. But I’m sad at the same time. The cycle of work only ends when we’ve won the game or the game beats us. There is no other way out. The working life is always there, always waiting for us, always expecting us to join in, always making us feel like someone else is working harder, achieving what we want. Must we do this at age 14? I’ve done okay, I don’t need his help buying groceries. He’s starting his work life, and sadly, unless he can break a couple generations of an unhealthy emphasis on work and a narrow fixation on money that only seems to intensify as we age, it just might ruin him. I hope that it doesn’t. I don’t want him to fear the sound of my footsteps outside his door. I don’t want him to always think it’s going to rain. I’d rather he just live, and enjoy his young life before the time for work is unavoidable.
Maybe Jackson Browne was right. Maybe we just should say a prayer for the Pretender. Who started out so young and strong. Only to surrender.
This post generated quite a bit of commentary. I should probably clear up a few things. This was not an “anti-work” post. It was simply a post about the attitude towards work when we’re young. Work is good and necessary, but an attitude that values work over everything else is not good. The post was also written with some sadness as I watch my little boy grow up lightening speed.