Today is my last day of work, and I am feeling really guilty.
I have an easy job that pays well. I don't stand on the highway in the hot sun with a jackhammer tucked under my gut all day. I don't work with my hands plunged into the disarray of dead fish guts. I don't even sit in a cubicle forced to listen to my co-workers discussing the latest additions to their pez dispenser displays on top of their monitors. I have my own office. With a view of San Francisco Bay. And a door. That closes. I once worked with a guy whose previous job had been to walk up and down a line of cows that had entered a slaughterhouse, holding a captive bolt gun up to the head of each, and then pulling the trigger to drive a metal rod into their brains, killing them instantly, one after another, all day long. This, he said, was way better than what they used before: a sledgehammer. Sometimes, with a sledgehammer, the cows didn't die right away, but collapsed to the ground, twitching. Ah, beef. Now there's a job I wouldn't have any guilt walking away from.
As a lawyer, my job was to look for cases that have been already decided that bear some relevance to the predicament your company has gotten itself into. With the internetization of legal research, this is nothing more than fancy googling. What a privileged motherfucker I am to walk away from this job, there's no doubt about it. How many millions of people would trade places with me, to get paid what I paid, to dick around on the internet all day? I just punched myself on my right cheekbone on your behalf. Goddamnit, that hurt.
I remember how, when I was washing dishes at Russ', there was one of those big industrial clocks above the sink, and I would sit there at watch the minute hand on the clock drag itself around to all the numbers. I would figure out how much I was earning per second, before and after taxes. I would sit there and see how long it would take me to earn a penny. A nickel. Sometimes I used to go and hide in the bathroom or the walk-in refrigerator for fifteen minutes, only to emerge triumphant fifteen minutes later thinking, "Ha ha, bitches. I just earned $1.28 (before taxes) to take a shit or eat raw cold colds." Near the end of my tenure, I was so rabidly bitter I was ready and willing to perform both tasks in either hiding spot. Time had, as Poor Richard once warned, become money. Just not very much of it.
In my four years as a lawyer I have felt a brief kinship with that former self, in that lawyers are accountable for their time in "billable hours." That means that over the course of a year, a lawyer is required to "bill" a certain number of hours, in my case slightly less than two thousand. A billable hour is divided into tenths, so if you open up a letter from opposing counsel, that is a tenth of an hour even if it only takes 4 seconds. Spending all day in a warehouse in Santa Rosa looking through boxes of documents, however, is only 8.0 hours, though it feels like 12. Usually tasks fall somewhere in between. Writing an e-mail is 0.3 hours. Researching an issue 1.2. In their evenings, mornings, and afternoons, lawyers measure out their lives with coffee spoons. Time, again, means money. Just a hell of a lot more of it.
One hour of my time was charged to the client as $355.00. Remember, that's for fancy googling. I saw only a small fraction of that, but it was still way more than I deserved.
I have joked on our about page of my new career as a "Gentleman of Elegant Leisure." One of the earliest and most successful lawyers in Gold Rush San Francisco was a man named Ben Moors, who knew absolutely nothing about the law. He had memorized three speeches by the orator John Randolph and one by Daniel Webster, and delivered one of those three speeches in court with "magnificent gestures and impressive oratorical effects" no matter what the subject matter of the case was. He once slapped Senator David Broderick in public, and while on trial for that offense he described himself to the court not as a lawyer but as "a gentleman of elegant leisure." I knew the second I read those words exactly what I wanted to be when I grew up.
Unfortunately, my Calvinist Dutch ancestors bequeathed to me more than just a core-rotting frugality, but also the Protestant work ethic in its most concentrated form and a liberal dose of Protestant guilt (and that's the only liberal thing they gifted me). So here I sit, wondering why I feel so guilty because I have but a few more hours to sit well-paid in this chair, abandoning a job others would kill for because the most precious time in my life is that I spend with my kid, and that's how I want to spend all my time.
When I graduated from college, no one was willing to pay me to translate the Annales of Tacitus, nor was I willing to stick my entire head up my own ass and scream until someone gave me a PhD. So I went to law school. My Calvinist ancestors, looking down in their sensible black smocks from their preordained spot in heaven, approved. I worked hard to get to where I am. I'm not afraid to admit that. But today, those ancestors shake their heads in shame. And despite all my anger at those long-dead envious windfuckers, they have succeeded in making me feel guilty.
You might suggest that my guilt is really fear of the unknown that lies ahead. Or, if you are an academic (and being nice to me), you might suggest that it is shame, really: shame that results from the societal anger felt by all those "condemned to wage slavery," the cogs in a laboring society. They feel anger towards those who choose a different path because they themselves once "knew better" about what they wanted from life and dreamed about doing it before they accepted their place in what Max Weber called the "iron cage" of labor that no longer merely enables human activity, but traps and envelops it entirely. If you are a real Marxist, you might suggest that my guilt is showing an inclination to be an unwitting agent of ideology, the guilt an embodiment of mainstream cultural values.
Yeah, yeah, yeah. All I know for sure is that this guilt is real, and I'm pretty sure I'm not the only one who feels some form of it.
I am interested in a theory of elegant leisure. I know it may initially seem ludicrous or insulting to insinuate that taking care of my kid will be "leisure," but I hope you'll hear me out. I had plenty of traditional "leisure" in my lawyer job (passive web surfing, blogging, drinking) but it still wasn't fun. I expect a lot of hard work as a stay-at-home dad, but I'm hoping it will also be fun. I want to reexamine what the word "leisure" means, more along the lines of what Cicero called otium cum dignitate ("leisure with dignity"). I am eager to start living a life that I don't have to measure out in coffee spoons, a new life that is deeply meaningful and satisfying in ways that this old life was not.
Today is my last day of work, and I am feeling really guilty.