Wednesday, June 15, 2005

Ants, Grasshoppers and the Art of Doing Nothing


“We’ll call you if or when we know anything,” the girl at Dick’s Sporting Goods said, pertly.

“But that’s what you told me last week,” I said, trying not to whine.

There was a slight pause. Static on the phone line. Funny, but with all of today’s whoop-de-do technology, why haven’t they been able to eliminate static on phone lines?

“We’ll call you if or when we know anything,” she repeated, with every bit of youthful sugar and spice as before, totally ignoring my last statement. She was, obviously, a Stepford Wife.

I thanked her and hung up.

I was getting a bit antsy, I tell you. It was mid-June. I had continued bombarding every viable employer within twenty miles of my parents’ house with resumes and applications. The phone was not ringing. I went back over my list of places I had applied to, and phoned them all, asking for updates on my applications. From all, I got responses similar to the one above. I continued to haunt malls and shopping centers, searching for “HELP WANTED” signs. These, which had been so plentiful in May, had disappeared. The malls and shopping centers, however, had broken out in teenybopper employees, much like these employees’ faces had broken out in zits. Yes, I know I shouldn’t resent them. I know they, too, need jobs. I came to a conclusion I’d been fighting since Memorial Day.

I will (most likely) spend this summer, my first since 1986, sitting on my ass.

Right now, I can hear you. You’re wiping away imaginary tears while bawling “Boo-hoo-HOO!” sarcastically, like Kevin Arnold’s big brother on “The Wonder Years”. No, you are, and I don’t blame you. I’m the one who put me here. I won’t deny it.

When I was in high school and college, I always seemed to have friends who, when June rolled around, decided to take a pass on the job thing that summer. My God, did I resent them. One example: circa 1994, I was toiling in the Toys & Sporting Goods department of Long-Gone Department Store. There was this one kid named Chuck, maybe 17 years old, who worked part-time in Hardlines. Chuck, who had the IQ of a tree sloth and long blond hair that he constantly fiddled with, was about as helpless as a 6-week old baby. You could ask him to do something as simple as filling an empty shelf with merchandise, and unless someone stood next to him and kept him focused on task, the bastard would either stand there sucking air, or wander aimlessly around the store until his shift ended. This earned him the nickname of “Shmuck”.

Anyway, summer came and most of the part-timers in the store, school kids all, were looking to pick up more payroll hours. I could’ve used some extra help, because summer time meant swing-set time. I was getting tired of loading Power Ranger Jungle Gyms into customers’ cars by myself. I knew Shmuck would be off school soon. One day, I approached Shmuck in the Pool Accessories aisle. The store sold thick tubes of Day-Glo-colored plastic, about three feet long, as children’s’ pool toys. In full view of passing customers, Shmuck stood holding a bright orange tube between his legs, stroking it furiously with one hand and grinning lasciviously.

“Yo, Johnny! Get me!” Shmuck guffawed. “Get it? Get it?”

“Chuck,” I said, overlooking his subtle comedy, “you out of school now?”

“Yeah.”

“Boss says there’s more hours if you want ‘em.”

Shmuck stopped fondling the plastic tube and gingerly brushed his hair out of his eyes. “Well…naw.”

“What do you mean? It’s a chance to make more money. You said you wanted to buy a car soon. I could use an extra hand.”

Much like a horse, Shmuck snapped his head back and to the side, once again adjusting his ‘do. “Um, naw.”

I was getting a bit annoyed. “Chuck, you only work 12 hours a week now. You won’t be in school. What are you going to do this summer?”

Shmuck leaned the tube against a shelf and used both hands to gather his long blond locks behind his head into a temporary ponytail. “Uh, chill.”

Now he’d done it. He’d pushed me across the border from perturbed to pissed off. “How old are you, Chuck? Can you tell me that?”

Shmuck released the hair and it cascaded to his shoulders. “Sure enough. 17, last March.”

“17 years old?” I asked. “17? You’re not in school, and you work just two days a week?”

“Yup.”

“And you’re going to spend the next three months ‘chilling’?”

“Chillin’,” Shmuck corrected me. “Yup.”

I was so mad, I wanted to strangle him. “So, while we’re here at the store, working short-handed, you’re going to just sit at home pissing away the summer, instead of seizing the opportunity to make money and gain experience?”

Shmuck thought deeply for a minute. “Yup,” he said, with an expression as straight as an arrow.

“Damn it, Chuck,” I said, pointing at him. “How can you waste your life that way? You’re a young man. You’re just too damn old to be spending so much time sitting on your ass! Tell me, what will you do while you’re ‘chillin’’?”

Shmuck ran a hand through his hair. “Thinkin’.”

“About what?”

“Stuff.”

I was too upset to continue. “See you later, Chuck,” I said, walking away.

Shmuck picked up the orange tube and resumed stroking. “Cool.”

I’m a living fossil. When I was young, my parents taught me a work ethic and it’s brought me nothing but aggravation ever since. My whole working life, it seems, has been plagued by Shmucks of some kind or another. I have always loathed lazy people, especially young lazy people, because it is they who are most physically able to tackle the tough, physical jobs. It is they, I felt,who needed to be out making their bones, learning the standards and practices that will serve them well later in life. The qualities of a good worker are the same, whether you’re standing behind a counter at Wal-Mart or sitting behind a desk at a Fortune 500 company. It’s like that old story about the ant and the grasshopper. I’ve always prided myself on being an ant and I’ve always hated grasshoppers.

But this summer, it seems, I’m a grasshopper. I was despising this fact, hating the fact that I’ll be wasting three months of my life. Until I picked up a book called Zen In the Martial Arts (Bantam, 1979) by Joe Hyams. The book chronicles Hyams’ 25 years experience studying various martial disciplines, such as karate and aikido, and his efforts to apply the “Zen principles” he learned through these disciplines to his everyday life.

There is one chapter in the book called “Active Inactivity”. Here, Hyams recounts how he learned the “art of doing nothing” from a European “saber” champion, Bronislaw Kaper. Kaper, wrote Hyams, advocated doing nothing as “ an activity and an exercise”, similar to a brief break in a piece of music. This “meaningful pause”, claimed Kaper, “allowed one to take stock of where one was.” Hyams goes on to write that he mentioned this to none other than Bruce Lee, who readily agreed. Lee, claims Hyams, said he “include[d] pause and silence along with activity, thus allowing [him]self time to sense [his] own internal processes as well as [his] opponent’s.” Wow. And here, I thought of it as sitting on your ass.

I never would’ve put Shmuck in the same class with Bruce Lee, but I guess the dunce was onto something. So I guess I’ll be spending the summer studying the art of active inactivity, plotting my next career move.

But I still hate grasshoppers.

6 Comments:

Blogger the Witch said...

Hi John!

You've got to be kidding... overeducated and not in a sucessful career? What's up with that?

5:09 PM  
Blogger Mona said...

I found you on the Witch's site...you are so right about the striving to do something only to find that the search is to do nothing sometimes...isn't it odd??? And we all make choices. Or get stuck with our choices...depending on how you look at it. Hope you enjoy being in the grasshopper's skin this summer :)

2:15 PM  
Blogger Le chameau insatiable said...

i've mastered the art of inactivity. i'm like your 17 year old hero, i hate work. i work for the sole purpose of being able to do nothing for a while. for instance i'm planning my 3 months vacation and beleive me, i find it short already. up till now, i've always managed to alternate work with 6 months to 1 year off work periods, best time of my life. although it does seem to work anymore...
oh by the way, i'm glad you're back ! didn't see any update for a while, got worried you found a job...

6:47 PM  
Blogger Le chameau insatiable said...

euh, forget my last comment about not updating for a while, i'm the one to blame for not visiting for a while !!!
oh, and a very useful advice for job interviews that always work for me : i always go with the attitude that i couldn't care less about getting the job or not (i actually never care) it is interprated as having great self-confidence somehow... dunno, worth a try anyway...

7:09 PM  
Blogger Mona said...

John, thanks for the visit and the comment :)

12:16 PM  
Anonymous Bloggeries said...

God! I wish I could have been a Shmuck!!

When I was growing up, we lived in a farm community. At the age of 13, all kids in the area took off for summer work. Corn detasseling was the job of most of us. Not that we liked it, but it paid well, and it is pretty dang hard to look your parents in the eye and tell them you are not going to work, while dad goes out and works 12 hours a day to buy you Nike shoes.

Like I said, it was a farm community. That meant that every adult in the area would claim they had to walk 10 miles in the snow to get to school when they grew up. The bad thing is, they probably did!! Being a Shmuck was not an option!

7:26 AM  

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