So many of us are trying to manage the busy-ness of the four week sprint between Thanksgiving and Christmas with the aid of technology. Yet I’m beginning to wonder if electronic calendars really assure productivity, or if they simply create the illusion that we can do more with the twenty-four hours that make up a day than our ancestors, who marked the passing of time with pillars of stone or sundials, did.
We need to meet with a client, or attend a board meeting, or arrange an evening with our spouse, so we click to see if there is room in the little window that pops up. If there is, we book it.
What usually doesn’t happen in the few seconds it takes to add yet another commitment to our lives is any real thought given to the needs of our body, mind and spirit.
Nowadays Clancy's is open, but if you passed by any other time of year, you'd think it had gone out of business. And it has, except for the turnips.
When I moved here to Eastham a dozen years ago, Clancy's was a thriving farm stand. It was always manned by a member of the family with whom I enjoyed chatting, usually about the Red Sox. It was there whenever I wanted a sandwich made with tomato fresh from the vine. Trips to Clancy's were a highlight of my summer.
As the years passed, the amount of produce dwindled and the charm of interacting with the growers was replaced by a weigh-it-yourself scale and a metal box to put your money in. Yet I continued to delight in stopping by there and I treasured the connection to the past it represented.
The last few summers, the rough hewn tables, dilapidated umbrella, and faded OPEN banner have been in a pile and there hasn't seemed to be anything growing in the fields.
But right now, Clancy's has customers, lots of them. From Columbus Day through Thanksgiving they come for the turnips. They pull their cars off the highway onto the deeply rutted turnout, select the white-gold orbs from a bin, and stick their money in the slot. Gourmet magazine and the "buy local" movement have made the Eastham Turnip, long known for its light color and sweetness, famous nationwide, and Clancy's has a cash crop.
An editorial cartoon recently appeared in the local paper showing a massive traffic jam. In the picture, one driver is standing on the roof of his car, looking off into the distance at lines of cars that stretch as far as the eye can see. Heads are popping up through moon roofs. A sad-faced man leans against his car and looks at his watch. Another grimaces at the viewer. Plumes of steam rise from radiators. A sign with an arrow pointing down the gridlocked highway reads, JOB MARKET, and below the arrow is written, EXPECT DELAYS.
I saved the cartoon in my clip file because, for me, it makes the emotions that underlie today's unemployment statistics accessible.
As much as I would like to, I simply can't relate to a number like 236,000 jobs lost in September, resulting in a 9.8% unemployment rate with a total of at least 15.1 million Americans out of work. But I do know what it's like to sit in seemingly endless traffic.
Reading Robert Sullivan's, The Thoreau You Don't Know, recently inspired me to visit the Concord Museum in Concord, Massachusetts. The museum contains the furnishings from Thoreau's cabin on Walden Pond along with a replica of Emerson's study, and it is easy to imagine the two of them there engaged in lively conversation.
Thanks to the book and my visit I have been able to shape a much clearer mental picture of Thoreau than the one I had before, that of the naturalist loner, and I have come to appreciate how much time this "classically trained handyman" (Sullivan) spent looking for work in a tough economy.
Thoreau knew how to work with both his hands and his head. In the course of his relatively brief life, he taught school, farmed, mastered the craft of pencil making, fixed and built machines, surveyed land, and shoveled manure. In between he wrote A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, Walden, The Maine Woods, Cape Cod, poems, essays, and a journal that runs to 47 volumes.
Of necessity (and I believe choice as well), Thoreau also knew how to attend to the practical realties of life, while at the same time pursuing a greater purpose. He often earned his keep by taking care of the daily needs of others, e.g. serving as a secretary and au pair for Emerson.
It was Emerson, who in 1843 arranged for Thoreau to go to New York City to tutor his brother William's son. Thoreau saw this opportunity as a means to an end—breaking into the publishing industry. His heart wasn't in the task of tutoring, but it provided room and board and access to editors and publishers in the city who might hire him.
I usually look forward to business slowing down a bit in the summer, but this year, when my workload started to slacken, I caught myself starting to worry (probably because I wrote a column about it last month), thinking "What if—?" You know the rest! Right?
So I stepped into my husband's office and asked him for reassurance.
I didn't ask for a review of our financial status, or go into a soliloquy on all the reasons I thought the sky was falling as a way of circuitously trying to get him to convince me I was wrong (a technique I learned from my grandmother).
I simply asked him to tell me we were going to be OK. He did, and I went back into my office and had a productive afternoon.
This incident prompted me to think about how important it is to give and receive reassurance, especially right now when so many of us are under the stress of change and economic pressures.
Months ago, in the early stages of the economic downturn we're in now, I read a report in the New York Times that over half of working adults were worried about losing their job. My instincts tell me that this proportion has significantly risen since then. Let's face it—it's hard to rest easy when giants like GM are tumbling.
Since there is so much anxiety these days, I decided to take a closer look at it by reading Edward Hallowell's book, Worry.
According to Hallowell, worry actually has a valuable purpose. It's there to alert us to danger and prompt us to take protective action. Unfortunately, being human, we have a tendency to let our imagination run away with us and create perceptions of danger that are not real.
Which is why Samuel Johnson, a consummate worrier himself, said back in the 18th century, “Worry is the disease of the imagination.”
Have you ever watched a movie you really liked for the third or fourth time and all of a sudden seen something there you never saw before? It happened to me the other night watching The Insider.
On previous viewings, I'd been so caught up in the drama I didn't realize that The Insider is really about a man in a career transition—abrupt and brutal, to be sure, but also transformational.
The Insider is based on true incidents in the life of a Ph.D. chemist named Jeffrey Wigand who worked as vice-president of R&D for Brown & Williamson tobacco company and was fired by them because he knew that the company was adding carcinogenic substances to the nicotine in their cigarettes. The action of the film is driven by Wigand's decision to go public with first-hand knowledge of how the tobacco industry uses chemical compounds to promote addiction.
How far will Big Tobacco go to shut him up? Will this bright, responsible, somewhat confused, man be able to hold up under intimidation by his former employer, on the one hand, and, on the other, pressure from a 60 Minutes producer to blow the whistle by doing an interview on national television?
When unemployment figures are announced, the media takes up the challenge of trying to show what x% of joblessness looks like in human terms, and the images they choose are predictable—long lines of applicants trying to get into job fairs, rows of jobseekers at computers in job centers busily scanning listings.
These pictures reinforce the message that the right, indeed the only, way to find work is to apply for a job, wait for a response, and hope you get lucky.
Rarely does an alternative approach get noticed, and when it does it is treated as something new and foreign. Take for example a recent story I heard on NPR about a laid-off architect.
Instead of wasting his time standing in line somewhere, John Morefield is making his expertise visible at a booth he has set up at a farmer's market in Seattle. Sandwiched between a fish market and a store that offers locally grown honey, he sells advice to homeowners who are thinking about remodeling—for 5 cents!
He got the idea from Lucy's "5¢ Psychiatric Help" stand in Peanuts, and he is using it to do the best possible thing he can do with potential customers—engage them in conversation about problems they want to solve.
When you tell people you live on Cape Cod, they often tell you you're lucky, and for three-fourths of the year, they're right.
What they don't know—and you do, after you've lived here long enough to experience a few Aprils when the daffodils seem to shiver in the cold rain and the forsythia refuses to bloom—that there is no spring. Or, to be more precise, what little of it there is comes so late that it imperceptibly merges with summer!
I'm more dismayed by the sunless days and lack of color this year than I have been in the past, and I think it's because of the bleakness of the economic landscape.
The truth is, both here on the outer Cape where I live and in the business world we all occupy, things look pretty brown right now. You have to be very attentive to notice that the willow branches have a slight yellow tinge against the gray, gloomy sky, just as you have to look carefully to see any glimmer of hope in these dark economic times.
As we were leaving, one of the guests turned to me and said, " hope I don't have to use your services!" I felt as if someone had just thrown a bucket of ice water on me. It was the first time I had ever had anyone talk about dreading the prospect of coming to see me as a client. I have always viewed what I do as helping people to enrich their lives, and it had never occurred to me that someone would see it as inseparable from the painful possibility of losing their job.
But these are not ordinary times, and the woman who made the remark works in an industry which is shrinking. She is dealing not only with anxiety over a lost livelihood, but also a life's work she had dreamed of following ever since she was a child. Who could blame her for thinking of me a bit like the undertaker?