We were in a recession. Soon the very rich would bounce back enough that the rest of us would no longer be able to call what remained a “recession,” but on September 22, 2011, we were all in a recession together. Colleges were increasingly courting students who would be able to pay for the entirety of their college tuition. “The fact that the wealthy get an advantage in college admissions is not, frankly, rather very new,” said Money magazine writer Kim Clark, who suggested we simply lived in a time when colleges were being more upfront about the policy.
Another great way to save was to stock up on adjunct instructors like myself, and because there was no industry standard, adjunct pay varied wildly. For each section I taught at Affluent Suburb College, I was paid about 2/5 of what the nearby University of Massachusetts paid its adjuncts—far less than a living wage—and most of my local friends were in similarly undesirable situations. We’d been warned that people who began their careers in an economic upswing forever benefited from their good timing and that people who began their careers in an economic downturn forever paid for it, and the weekend before September 22, 2011, when my stepdad generously offered to buy us a beautiful new chair for our living room, I said privately to my wife, “This is going to be great. What would be even greater would be if we had some health insurance.”
According to a new study, there were 900,000 fewer uninsured adults age 19-25 on September 22, 2011 than there had been a year before. Liz and I had ourselves contributed this uplifting statistic, not by getting insurance for ourselves but by aging. Technically, it was illegal in Massachusetts to live without health insurance, but none of the five part-time jobs we held between us offered benefits, and having just moved back to Massachusetts from Tennessee, we had yet to claim our state residency.
Still. We had jobs. Lots of them, actually—a menagerie of tiny jobs. So we were not counted among the nation’s unemployed, a rate that hovered at 9.1%, down from its peak of 10.1% in October of 2009. Also not counted in these numbers were people who had for some months or years been looking for work and had since become discouraged and given up.
On the morning of September 22, 2011, I tried not to dwell on these numbers, or on the light ritual gnawing my stomach often enacted in the minutes before teaching to let me know it was nearly game time, but instead reminded myself that on the boring-exciting continuum, teaching was one of the better-scoring jobs out there.
And when my stepmom, Nancy, got home from work, she found that her houseguest, a young woman a few months into life after college, was getting kind of depressed. The young woman needed an apartment. She needed a job, a good job, one she would love going to, one with flexible hours and good pay. Really? Nancy thought. All that? It seemed to Nancy that twentysomethings these days wanted (and tentatively expected) a whole lot out of life. Nancy didn’t think her younger self had expected so much from her work besides a paycheck and to be treated somewhat decently, unless maybe Nancy was forgetting what exactly she’d felt during those months out of college when she’d worked for minimum wage as an emergency room clerk on the graveyard shift at the county hospital.
Tonight, Nancy found her own comfort in a chapter of a spiritual book by Robert Webber called The Divine Embrace. She was drawn into his description of a welcoming God, and found herself relaxing, wishing the peace she felt now would have been with her throughout the long workday.
In high school, I used to find a lot of comfort in such books myself, though much of that comfort came from the impression I’d been given that I was reading the kind of book that the creator of the universe wanted me to be reading. Now I read different books, many of which had reputations for being the opposite of uplifting. One of the more useful things about the books I now read: They seemed to exist, in part, to help you make peace with everything you couldn’t know.
Other books, though, took this too far, sneering at even the possibility of knowing, and on September 22, 2011, my friend Matthew Wyatt read such a book in a Pennsylvania Starbucks that had a reputation for being the local counterculture hotspot. This book of poems was horribly boring, but the author was one of those guys who seemed to defend tedium against the middle class expectations for what art should do, so that if Matthew was to say, “I’m bored,” he’d be retrograde—an impossible position to counter! Matthew felt browbeaten by how he knew the author could—in ways Matthew agreed with, using ideas Matthew found interesting, citing theorists Matthew liked—justify the work by turning any critique on its head.
Matthew’s wife, Shirley, had written a book review for a website the other day saying she’d wished the novel had taken its experimentalism farther beyond the demonstration of a single artistic point, to have instead really experimented. And then the verdict the internet spat back out was that she was an MFA insider who had wanted realist fiction and didn’t get that the book’s lack of depth was a critique of those who privilege depth. Not only had commenters come to the book’s defense, but the author herself had “showed up,” very upset and ready to fight. Shirley said something to Matthew about how difficult it was to review the work of people who were active online—there was no distance between the writer and the work, and so a review became personal, or a sort of social performance, instead of simply one review among many, part of the larger and older tradition in which works receive critical responses and of course not all of them are wholly “positive.” Their unsatisfying conclusion was: You can’t review certain people. They can’t take it.
You were better off reviewing the world itself, like when Alexis D. of Chula Vista, CA, awarded his local 7-Eleven four out of five stars in a September 22 Yelp post, explaining, “I’ve been coming to this 7-Eleven for over ten years now and its one of the nearest, if not, the nearest one to me. I do have one bad thing to say, every time I come here, which is at night mostly, their taquitos (Jalapeño Cream Cheese) are always stone cold hard. Anytime after nine PM., there’s a 99% chance one of the employees will throw them away in front of your face after asking him or her if their still good. Other than that, I always enjoy grabbing random stuff from here. And, the service is always good here. Especially, at night with the older white lady. Shes really nice and friendly.” He or she added, “It’s a 7-Eleven, what else is there to say.”
A problem Matthew had with this book of poetry was that it seemed to just demonstrate the boredom-as-point idea in a way that could be conveyed in a single sentence. But where was the rest? The performance of it? There was a Mad Lib quality throughout in which even the “shocking” parts seemed mostly the pose of one saying, Look out: I am shocking you. Oh, but that was intentional pageantry and kitsch, which again played against Matthew’s middle class (middlebrow) expectations. Meaning if this was a tennis match, the book would be kicking his ass.
But wait—he hadn’t wanted to beat this book.
He’d been looking forward to it. He’d wanted to be shocked, especially these days when it felt as if the grotesque was the only fair way to render reality: a cock in every cup of coffee, in every countercultural eye. Matthew needed look no farther than this Starbucks for confirmation: Here was real terror and ugliness and tedium, on sharper display than in the book of poems. Here were young people joking, “You know there’s a camera in the bathroom, don’t you? Don’t use it—your lady-parts will be all over the internet!” And who could say for certain they were wrong?
Meanwhile in his own car on the way to work in Los Angeles, my best friend Brent set up his phone to play KZNE 1150: The Zone, an east Texas radio station, amping himself up for the Texas A&M vs. Oklahoma State game coming up on Saturday, but found himself instead fantasizing about the prospect of quitting his job at the industrial supply company where he’d worked the last two months. What would quitting look like? How long could he and his wife live on just her salary before he had to find something else?
Brent headed upstairs to his desk, and was jealous to learn that the computers had not been working until a minute ago: Had he arrived earlier, he’d have been able to hang out and wait with everyone. Brent liked his coworkers, all of whom were older than him except for management. The place had a weirdly inverted hiring structure in which those in charge were a year or two out of business school and knew little, and the worker bees who’d been there for decades knew everything.
At his desk, Brent set out to prepare for a meeting with his boss; however, every fucking minute the new girl behind him had another question about some mundane shit. Which is not to say she wasn’t smart, this new girl: graduated from Columbia, did Teach for America—in fact, nine of the 20 new management hires were ex-TFA, including Brent, and all 20 of them had graduated from good schools—and now here she was, here they all were, phoning machine shops who needed to pay their bills, and grading emails the workers wrote, copy-and-pasting the same notes, “Did you remember to use active voice?” over and over. It baffled him.
Sure, maybe a couple of his coworkers had sucked at teaching, but Brent hadn’t. He’d thrived at it, he’d liked it, and it was how he’d met his wife. If only the pay hadn’t insulted his ambition.
Brent guessed the others were in his same boat: They had a pile of debt, no job prospects, and this job came through at the 11th hour. They were overpaid for what the work required and underutilized for their skill set. The bone-deep question never far from Brent’s brain was simply, What the fuck? And the more specific question he asked on behalf of himself and his sad stable cohort was: How the fuck did we end up here?
And in the shower in San Bernardino Country, CA, Eric Cumberland fought off his own work dread. “The only day I need to worry about is today,” he told himself, and even that seemed like a lot.
Eric knew he was fortunate. Many Americans needed jobs—particularly in the state of California, with its mountain of debt and an unemployment rate 3% higher than then national average—and Eric had a job, an okay (but also soul-crushing) office job handling paperwork and logistics for a small company that installed solar panels on homes.
And on September 22, 2011, a House committee hearing was held entitled, “How Obama’s Green Energy Agenda is Killing Jobs.” Central to the hearing: What counted as a green job? Rep. Connie Mack (R-FL) thought the term was thrown around too loosely. “I’m sitting in a chair that was made out of green material,” he said. “Does that make my job green?”
“Driving a bus”—he made a quick steering-the-steering-wheel motion. “Just because it’s hybrid doesn’t make it a green job.”
“Yes it is,” said Labor Secretary Hilda Solis, explaining that what made it a green job was not the tasks the bus driver performed, but that the job itself was part of a fuel-efficient industry. As the hearing went on, it was clarified that all bus drivers were considered green because public transportation benefited the environment.
“We don’t want you to pull the wool over the eyes of the American people and tell them it’s a green job when it’s a job,” Mack said, getting worked up and pointing his finger at Solis, and before she could get another word in, concluding, “It’s only a green job if it fits into your sales pitch.”
This was in the wake of the bankruptcy of Solyndra, a solar equipment manufacturer that accepted $528 million in loan guarantees from the government before going bankrupt. A lot of what did the company in was the increasing cost of silicon, making solar panels more expensive to manufacture, but it was also true that Solyndra knew it was in trouble even as it applied for loan. The situation was bad for Obama, who thought that in loaning to Solyndra he’d hit on one of the happy intersections of environment and economy, only to have the deal collapse.
Republicans were quick to call it an insider loan, with enough evidence that it seemed they might be right. George B. Kaiser, Solynda’s biggest backer, was a major fundraiser for Obama, and Solyndra had paid almost $1.8 million on lobbyists while the loan guarantee was under review whereas none of the other three manufacturers that got (smaller) loans did any lobbying, having been made to understand that lobbying was, according to the head of Solopower, “clearly verboten.”
None of this controversy made Eric’s green job any more interesting. And when he arrived at the office, the numbing nature of his work allowed his day to pass in a sort of blur. Eric had a way of stepping outside himself, allowing his mind to roam while his hands got the work done, so that when each workday ended, he could barely remember how he’d spent it. He filled out forms and spreadsheets for the state-funded rebates the company received for every solar system they installed, and then tracked the submitted forms on another spreadsheet. It seemed a shame to Eric that the dullness of the work spilled over into what had turned into an inability or unwillingness to put in the effort of getting to know his coworkers.
On the September 22 episode of “The Office,” a workplace comedy that recently lost its lead to a thriving film career, the employees at the Dunder-Mifflin Paper Company deal with their own boredom by planking. In the opening scene, Oscar the Accountant explains via voiceover that “planking is a very stupid and dangerous trend. Basically, you lie like a plank in weird places,” while onscreen Jim enters the men’s room, sees Meredith planking under the urinals, delivers to the camera what regular viewers of the show recognize as a Jim Look, and exits the men’s room. “That’s it,” Oscar says. “Sometimes you get run over… Welcome to the Internet.” Cut to a very pleased Erin the Receptionist. “Planking is one of those things where… Hey. You either got it or you don’t,” she says, and giggles. “And I don’t. But I am so excited to be a part of it!” The entire sequence takes place in only a few seconds, weaving sight gags, in-scene lines, and voiceover at a furious pace, all before the theme song. Had Eric attempted to plank in the restroom of the opposite sex, however, he would likely have found that the act’s repercussions outweighed its levity.
The friend most stressed about her job on September 22, 2011, was Sandy Peterson of Buffalo, NY, and she had lately been waking at 3:00 a.m. having what she thought might be panic attacks. Actually, she’d read that in a true panic attack, you think you’re having a heart attack, so if you have to ask if you’re having one, it’s not a panic attack—sort of like how if you have to ask whether it’s an orgasm, it’s not an orgasm.
The dread attacks had been going on for two months, ever since people began getting laid off at the corporation where Sandy worked. It wasn’t simply the fear of losing her job that got to Sandy, though that fear was in there. More, it was that Sandy was now doing the work of three people, and could only sanely do the work of two people, so that on any given day, someone’s work went neglected. She either took the extra work home with her and did it that night, or didn’t and fell behind.
Underpaid in her second year as a corporate librarian, Sandy was three weeks from the deadline on an enormous project on which she was the sole worker. The project required her to look up the particulars of Cambodian laws, though few Cambodian ministries published their laws in anything other than Khmer, and Sandy could not read Khmer. Google Translate, Babelfish, and the other auto-translator websites did not offer translations from Khmer into English, and even the specialized Khmer-English websites that translated one word at a time were only able to translate from English into Khmer and not Khmer into English.
Sandy got up at 5:45 and shushed the cat, Phyllis, who was meowing loudly for her breakfast of deli turkey meat. Sandy used to feed Phyllis a brand of wet cat food Phyllis was very particular about, but then Sandy heard a man tell of how he’d worked in a dog food factory. Allegedly, the dog food was made from not just the parts of animals that people didn’t want, but also entire pallets of Twinkies, Twinkie wrappers, Twinkie boxes, the pallets themselves, nails included, and a tiny portion of the blood of Twinkie assembly workers. This proved one of those unverifiable, undenouncible habit-changing stories, because if it was true, surely cat food was no better.
Sandy briefly considered ironing one of her skirts before dressing, but ironing in the early morning sounded like the worst kind of chore, so Sandy chose from her plain and slightly wrinkled wardrobe. She used to have some beautiful clothes, but in June, a bedbug catastrophe had resulted in the move to a new apartment and the loss of many pieces of clothing and furniture, and Sandy’s new clothes were simpler, more utilitarian.
Bedbugs had recently made a resurgence, particularly in New York, and on September 22, 2011, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released a study saying that at least 111 people had made themselves sick from the pesticide spray they used to try to kill bedbugs. “People lose their minds,” a professor of urban pest management said, “and yeah, they’ll do a lot of things to get rid of them.” One woman in North Carolina died of respiratory failure after wiping a napkin soaked with Hot Shot right onto her chest then soaking her hair in pesticide.
In the car, after picking up at a frozen bean burrito and a frozen rice and vegetable bowl, Sandy prayed that she’d make it through the day, prayed for calm, prayed for help enjoying the life she had, prayed that she and her boyfriend Brian would keep their love, prayed for her mom’s upcoming brain surgery, and prayed for a new job.
When I asked my friend Ari Feld in what ways he was intellectually stimulated on September 22, 2011, he said, “Look, we’re always intellectually stimulated, especially when we’re bored or intellectually stuck. When a person is stuck in the cubby and feeling the bottom dropping out of professional misery and saying to him/herself, Fuck, this job is not intellectually stimulating, that person is also saying, I am aware of my capacity to be intellectually stimulated which is in and of itself is a kind of intellectual stimulation.”
Last week I had my Affluent Suburb College students read David Foster Wallace’s famous commencement speech to the graduates of Kenyon College about readying themselves for the negative feedback loop of adulthood, the oppressive day-in day-out sameness of the workday. Get your minds right, Wallace warned the grads in several elaborate ways, and yet after each of his admonitions came the acknowledgement that controlling your thoughts during a boring workday was painfully challenging. For instance, on September 22, 2011, Edward Mullany tutored three women who spoke English with strong accents. He felt happy, became aware that he felt happy, thought about what it meant to feel happy, and began to feel less happy. To himself as he waited for an elevator, Edward said, “I drank too much coffee.”