Tuesday, April 26, 2016


It has been a Very Medical couple of weeks. My father-in-law experienced a pair of strokes, and my father is currently doing the hospital shuffle as a quick-and-simple pacemaker lead replacement turns into a bit more complex. Oh, and somewhere in there my wife's aged grandmother doing a swan dive on a nature hike and lacerating her head and smooshing some vertebrae and walking herself out of the wilderness to go find help from some poor ranger who must have thought he was meeting some cast of the Walking Dead. She's in the hospital, too. And my colleague next door is trying to get his missing-day ducks in a row in anticipation of the arrival of his second child next week. Lot of medical.

What I keep noticing through all of these family adventures is the degree to which work rules our world. Yes, if there's a family emergency you should definitely get there to help. You should rush to your family's side.

Just make sure you have your employer's permission first.

We celebrate the human connections, push all the feels buttons to sell everything from mouthwash to Presidents, but still, always remember-- before you act on any of your human feelings, make sure you have your employer's permission first.

We love our national holidays, and in particular share traditional warm images of families gathered around dinner tables, sharing special gathering time. And yet, family holidays have become a mark of socio-economic class, because if you are still stuck in the minimum-wage economy, you probably don't have the whole day off for Memorial Day or Thanksgiving or Christmas. Your employer needs you, so that beats any of the rest of it.

I am not a fuzzy-headed anarchist. I believe in hard work, a good job, the value of exchanging your sweat, blood, skill and work for the money you need to make a life. I'm just old enough to remember the folks who said we should drop out and stick it to the man were often in no danger of actually running out of food, clothing or shelter. I totally get that an employer deserves to get what they pay for, and that it makes no sense nor serves any sense of justice for me to receive a full paycheck if I'm running home every other day to make sure my kitten's pillow is properly fluffed. I'm not saying that I should get a full day's wage even if I had to go home because I was feeling a little verklempt.

But it does say something about us as a culture and country that of the following statements, only one is automatically considered an excuse, an obligation that can only be broken with someone else's permission (unless you are highly enough placed to be a permission-giver).

       1) My family needs me right now.
       2) My aging mother just called.
       3) I have to go be with my spouse today.
       4) I have work.

And we're just talking crises and semi-crises here. I couldn't even seriously include "it's my birthday" or "it's our wedding anniversary" on the list. "I have a family thing" is open to negotiation, or a sign that you're Not Serious about your work. "I have work" is the stopper, the conversation-ender, the immovable non-negotiable reason for the choices you make.

We've let this Work Uber Alles philosophy infect school. School is these children's job, and so is homework, and any whining about how you couldn't get your homework done because of family stuff is just a sign that you are Not Serious about your education.

That's nothing new. What's new is the installation of College and Career Ready as the be-all and end-all of education. We have transferred the work imperative to school, replacing all other reasons for getting an education (good citizen, better human being, more fulfilled individual, fully realized self, etc) with just the one-- you need to do this so that you can work. You need to get ready to work. You need to have useful skills that make you an asset to work.

I know that I'm making an old point, an oft-made point. I also know that I'm not exactly the prime person to make it, because I've been a borderline workaholic my whole life. And I know this borders on cliche-- but when you're watching part of a family scramble around trying to take care of the rest of family-- well. You know. Is work important? Sure. Is it everything? No.

Have we constructed a society in which the rights of people who pay other people to do work have been given primacy over the rights of those workers to have an actual human life? I suspect we have. And I also suspect that the college-and-career-ready crowd is trying to extend that primacy, to say that the right of the people who might some day hire those students to do work-- those future bosses' rights have been given primacy over the rights of our children to have a full and rich education that serves their own needs. "It's on the test" is a bad enough reason to cover certain material in school, but it's even worse when that is just a smokescreen to hide "one of your future employers might want you to be able to do this."

Talking about the work-life balance has many implications. It implies that your work and your life should carry equal weight, that your work is at least as important as the rest of who you are and what you do. It implies that you should not get so wrapped up in having a life that you forget work. And most of all, it implies that life and work are two different things.

Work is eternal. It will always go on, and when you finally step away from the wheel, someone will step in to take your place. Your family is just for right now. Take care of each other. Just sayin'.


  1. As always, you write with great wisdom. I am sorry to hear about the many emergencies in your family.

  2. I am a member of a worker cooperative in Tacoma, WA, and the way we handle this sort of thing is as follows. We pay as much as we can to our members on an hourly basis, and share profits as well. Each member works whatever hours they want. Fishing season opens? Take a day off. Family? Take a day or week off. When my son was born I took a month to be with and care for my wife and daughter. I didn't get paid for that time, but we had money set aside because (as a member of the Cooperative), we weren't living paycheck to paycheck. I understand that an employer doesn't want to pay for hours that an employee isn't working, but if you pay fairly for the hours worked, you won't have to.

  3. Peter, my best to your extended family through their various medical adventures. I hope all turns out ok.

    Probably the wisest advice I ever had about teaching were these: "Remember that teaching is your job, not your life." I made sure to teach that to my own kids, too.

    Christine Langhoff