Kill my boss? Do I dare live out the American dream? THIS IS NOT A TEST #44 (transcript)

Published October 24, 2015 [Podcast link]

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Hello friends, Romans, countrymen – and women. It is I, me, myself, Mr. Phillips, Michael Phillips to the government and mjp to my friends. You and I, we’re friends, so you can call me mjp. Or Mack or Molly or whatever you want, really. None of it will matter when the alien invasion comes down on us, will it. Do you listen to this on the way to or from work? I know a lot of people do that with podcasts. My commute isn’t long enough to really do that, and I don’t listen to a lot of podcasts anyway, so I never know what’s going on. With you, with me, with anything. I’m not bragging about my short commute, trust me, it used to be a lot longer. People here in Los Angeles put up with those hellish commutes. I don’t know how they do it. I suppose they do it because THE RENT’S TOO DAMN HIGH here in the city of angels.

Well, let’s talk about work. That place you commute to. And from. I started working when I was 17 years old, how about you? I did half a year part time while I finished high school, then I moved to an apartment across the street from the building where I worked and stayed there for seven years. Talk about a short commute, I guess I had it made there. Walk across the street and you’re in. St. Paul had a great skyway system too, so in the winter, once I got in to the building I worked in I could get just about anywhere downtown without going outside. Which comes in handy when it’s 300 degrees below zero with 40 mile an hour winds. Which it often was, in downtown St. Paul back in the late 70s and early 80s.

I want to talk about work because so many of us hate it. Yet almost all of us do it. We have to do it, and we don’t like it, so we complain about it. And there are a lot of things to complain about. Bob Marley had a song called “Work”, and you might not expect a reggae band to be able to expertly capsulize the drudgery of some work – or maybe you do, I don’t know how you feel about reggae – but they did it with that song. “Five days to go, working for the next day. Four days to go, working for the next day…” and it just goes on like that, counting down, the same way you count down the days where you work.

Counting songs go back to slavery days, when people would sing songs to keep from going crazy while they worked, and if they had a different language than their owners in common, they could sing songs about what a bunch of assholes the plantation owners were, and how one day they were going to burn up the plantation, kill everyone who lived in the big house and march around with their heads on sticks. And sometimes they did that, but usually they didn’t. They couldn’t. But you can’t really blame ’em for thinking about it, and the counting songs continued on through prisons and chain gangs, and eventually wound up here with us now.

“Every day is work,” Marley sings in his counting song, but he throws in a bit about coming together to make things work, which is a little different, a little sidetrack from the drudgery part, and I suppose exactly what you’d expect of Marley, but the drudgery vibe is there, for sure. You’re going to work every day, man. “Work in the midday sun, work ’til the evening come.” And I know that’s the way a lot of us feel about work. Maybe you do work out in the sun, maybe you work in a florescent cubicle in a government office, most of it is the same, regardless of whether you’re busting your ass or spending all day sitting on it.

I said there is a lot to complain about, but if we think about the history of work down through the years, it might seem a little petty for us to complain. Things could be a lot worse. The Greek philosophers tried to warn everyone that the people on top are just going to get everyone on the bottom to work so that the one percenters can take it easy. Which is interesting since the Greeks as a culture weren’t particularly fond of working or toiling, you know, unless one was a slave. Someone had to work, right? Democracy and civilization are all well and good, but someone has to move the boulders and shovel the shit. But to the Greeks, the more time you had to lounge around, the better person you were.

In the 16th century the Protestant Reformation came along and changed all that – Martin Luther and Calvin and those assholes. Singing the praises of physical labor, preaching that work was the most important thing in someone’s life, and that fun could come later, or better yet, maybe never. Now a cynical person could look at that and think it’s very convenient, a religious movement sprouting up that tells people how wonderful it is to work and how bad it is to just lay around and enjoy yourself. That’s kind of a system tailor-made for raising generations of easily exploitable and disposable workers, isn’t it. I mean to someone who is cynical about things like that. Not me. Mm mm.

So that’s what was happening in Europe, and Europe was a pretty shitty place to live for most people in the 1500s, and you know, for all the time before that. The first people who came to America were really looking for a place they could relax and take it easy, and not work themselves to death at the age of 35 or 40. And they found someplace where they could have done that, but they couldn’t help but bring that European sense of shame and obligation along with them. Or maybe they just couldn’t keep Europeans who wanted them to feel those things from coming over too and scowling at the idea that some sort of party should be going on.

Well, it was never a party, was it. Life was just pretty tough in general back in those days, what with the farming and the disease or the death from the flu or a tooth infection. It was a different life, but if those people who came over first would have taken a harder look at how the natives lived rather than just starting straight off on the path to their annihilation, they might have learned how to chill the fuck and enjoy themselves. But history tells us that they didn’t do that, and here we are. So instead of getting hip to the Indian trip, they started farming, just like most of them had done in Europe. They just farmed and waited patiently for the industrial revolution to come and crush them.

Well, okay, they couldn’t have seen that coming, but it sounds more dramatic that way, doesn’t it? So yeah, it was a tough life, but people had always farmed, in fact that’s what most people did before the industrial revolution. And farming was hard work, for sure, but it was seasonal work. You can’t farm during the winter, so there’s a guaranteed vacation right there. Like being a school teacher or a professional baseball player. But that industrial revolution, boy, it couldn’t be stopped. It couldn’t be denied. By the early 1800s we had dozens of textile mills in America and it was the beginning of 150 plus years of factory work. And the beginning of what most of us think of as work these days.

Before the industrial revolution, if you weren’t a farmer you were probably a craftsman, someone who made things to sell to people. The factories put the crimp on the craftsmen, replaced them with machines and un-craftsmen-like people running them. because just like you buy 40 cases of toilet paper at Walmart or Costco because it’s cheap, people back in the 1800s also wanted to spend as little as possible on things, so the factory made things replaced most of the traditionally made things, the things made by people. Hey, that sounds just like today, doesn’t it? Not exactly a new problem, the rise of the machines. We’ve seen it before.

One thing we don’t have now that we had then – and forgive me, but when I say “we” I’m talking about North America and most of Europe – the places that grew economically and thrived over the past couple centuries – I know things are drastically different in other parts of the world – but one thing we don’t have anymore is 8 year olds working 16 hour days in dangerous, crazy jobs that you couldn’t bribe a particularly dimwitted monkey to do now. There aren’t enough bananas in the world. Yeah, the industrial revolution created a whole new demand for child labor, and also for female labor. Two kinds of people that it’s been historically easy to exploit. Children had always worked at home with their parents or on the family’s land. But again, the farming work was seasonal so they had some time to themselves. But when they started working in the factories, it was all 12 to 16 hour days.

So that’s how working a job got started here. In the factories. It was exactly what Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle were telling us it would be a couple thousand years earlier. The many being worked like dogs so the few could be rich and lay around eating figs and dreaming up new ways to screw you. And really, it just stayed that way until pretty recently. In the 20th century a few things happened to throw a monkey wrench into the factory system. First was the ability for average people to go to college and get themselves educated. That really started to happen in the early 1960s. Then about a decade later the factory system stared to fall apart here, with production moving to other countries where they didn’t have to pay the workers as much as they had to pay them here.

Now I’m no historian, but I suspect that the rise of the labor unions is one of the things that caused the eventual loss of manufacturing jobs. The unions elevated the jobs into something a person could actually make a living doing, raise a family, buy a house and all that. Which naturally made the factories more expensive to run. Until eventually it made business sense to move them away from America. And by “business sense,” of course I mean a way to maximize profit, which is always the goal of any business. So it was kind of a self-defeating thing. Of course the goal of any worker or worker’s union is to increase wages, but to the company your wages are just another line item in the budget. “We’re spending too much on wages, make some cuts.” That’s the unfortunate reality of the kind of capitalism we’ve built.

The third thing that changed everything was – come on, you know what it was – yeah, computers, baby. Computers changed everything, and if you weren’t paying attention you may not have even seen them coming. But they started to move in and do the few remaining factory jobs, and they changed a thousand industries and jobs that you would never think of. Like printing, for example, which was what I did for a job. “Hold on mjp, computers can’t run printing presses, can they?” I bet that’s what you’re wondering. Well they can, kind of, but that’s not how they ate the industry I worked in for 15 years. No, they did that by making the small printing shop, the one that used to be on the corner in your town, unnecessary.

How did they do that? Well what kept most small printing shops going was doing small jobs for a large number of people. Things that the average person needed to have printed: business cards, letterhead, invitations…you see where I’m going, don’t you. You’re thinking, well, I can print all of those things right on my desk. Yeah, you can, and that’s what made all of us small press operators obsolete. And it happened pretty quickly. I started in 1977, and 10 years later I was working at a shop that had been busy but my hours were continually being cut, because the business was drying up. Just like that. We were always in the shop looking at each other wondering what the hell, but that’s just because we were dumb printers and bindery workers. We didn’t have computers.

But everyone else was getting computers and printers, especially businesses, and when those business card and letterhead orders dried up, that was it. I guess it was a fragile ecosystem, because it didn’t take much to tip it over into extinction. And printing is just one example. Imagine the impact something like spreadsheets had on the number of accountants who were able to get work? Suddenly a big insurance company could get by with half a dozen accountants rather than a hundred. Computers really screwed a lot of us workers. Really ate up a lot of good jobs. But on the other hand, you could argue that computers, or what they like to call “the information age” has made it easier for a large number of workers to get a fair shake, to make better wages and advance up that ladder to heaven or wherever the ladder at your job leads.

I know a lot of people got left by the wayside, and I don’t know what they do with themselves now. When I remember some of the men and women I worked with – and yes, there were women in the print shops, they were overwhelmingly outnumbered by men, but they were there – but man, when I think of some of them, printing was all they knew how to do. It was all some of them wanted to know how to do. You know how there are always people who don’t want to fill their heads with too much learnin’ or knowin’ of things. I knew some of them. What the hell are they doing now? Flipping burgers? Maintenance? Saying “Good afternoon” to people as the walk into Walmart? I really wonder sometimes. And that’s just my small world, but really we’re talking about millions and millions of people.

Anyway, we’re here now, somehow most of us made it and we have jobs to complain about. Maybe there’s a lot of complaining because everyone is still dealing with the after effects of the hit we took in the last part of the 20th century there. That wound is still fresh for many of us. But I do know people who complain about what a lot of other people might consider a “good” job. A job behind a desk – no danger, no long hours, no ink rollers to eat your fingers. Just a desk and usually a computer, doing something for some company somewhere. I understand the minor impulse to complain, I do, but if we think about that not so distant history and what we probably would have been doing 100 years ago, all of this has to seem pretty cushy, doesn’t it?

I’m there at that desk, so I get it. It doesn’t matter if it’s an office or a mail room or a pig farm, we’re always going to complain about the people we’re forced to spend part of our day with. That’s probably just natural. But for me anyway, the job itself, I can’t complain about. I was extremely lucky, I know that, and my timing was good, so just as I got into computers the web came along, and I was all over that shit. And being proficient in web stuff in those early days made it really easy to find a job with one of the new web site hosting companies. The first Internet job I had, the interview went kind of like this: “Do you know what FTP stand for?” I said, yeah, I have two web sites I use FTP every day. “You’re hired!” Seriously, that sums up the interview.

So I can’t complain about being in the right place at the right time. And eventually I worked my way up into a job I more or less created for myself, and now I just write all day. My specialty is explaining complicated things in a simple way, and that’s apparently a rare skill, since I don’t see a lot of that kind of writing in my industry. If you can call rooms full of geeks and computers an industry. I’ve been in the work force for 38 years – with a year off here and there…okay five of them – but of the money I’ve made in those 33 years of working, 75% of it has been made in the past ten years. I know that’s probably natural, the older you get the more money you make, but trust me, if computers never came along and I was still working at a printing press or in a bindery somewhere, I wouldn’t be the Internet millionaire that I am now.

Right? Isn’t that what we all are? Do you get those reports every year of your lifetime earnings from the social security administration? I think that’s where they come from. Well, those things tell me that I’ve made one and a quarter million dollars in my lifetime. One and a quarter million. That sounds pretty good. But if you asked me to borrow a thousand dollars tomorrow I’d have to think twice about handing it over. Not only because I don’t know you and I’d probably never get it back, but also because I just don’t have very much money. It would be kind of funny if it wasn’t so tragic, how much it costs just to live in this city. I mean, I suppose we could live a little less…comfortably. But life is short, man, I don’t want a meteor to fall on me and I die with a hundred grand sitting in a checking account. I know, people don’t leave a hundred grand in a checking account. I’m just saying.

Anyway, so maybe this new economy has created better opportunities for some of us. But it has also robbed us of our time again. Just like a 16 hour day at the turn of the 20th century. Do you work when you’re not at your job? Do you answer emails or do something else to “catch up,” or get yourself ahead for the next day? That’s a side effect of these great computer jobs we have. Now you’re expected to work every minute of every day. Or at least be available every minute of every day. You know, unless you mow lawns or work on power poles or digging up the streets I’m trying to drive on something like that. With most manual labor jobs you can forget all about them at 5 o’clock. Just forget about them completely. You know how to do it, you don’t have to think about it. If there was one good thing about working in the printing plants, that was it. End of the day, you’re done.

But now I get calls at 2, 3, 4 o’clock in the morning. If something breaks or a bored teenager in Belarus decides to attack our network at three in the morning, I get a call and I have to get up out of my warm bed and get on the computer to handle shit. I’m the point man for a global outage of our services, so if we go dark in the middle of the night, I’m on the phone with the system administrators and coordinating with the poor bastards who are doing the overnight tech support shift, and responding to 50,000 complaining maniacs on nine different social media channels and three different forums. A one hour outage usually costs me six hours of work, and another 8 hours of damage control the next day.

Imagine that, what we’ve allowed ourselves to be suckered in to. Someone calling me at three in the morning is normal and expected. It’s like if when I was a printer, the boss called at three in the morning and said, “You’ve got to come in right now and run this job…the customer is standing here and they need it now.” That wouldn’t happen, would it. You’d just say, “What the hell are you talking about, I’ll run it in the morning,” and hang up the phone. But now we don’t even blink if a text comes in during dinner, or a phone call interrupts our dreams of an alien invasion. It’s all part of the job. So these computers and phones have really effectively enslaved us all over again. Just like Aristotle said they would.

Not only that, this new economy is fickle and fragile. I go in every day knowing that the company could be sold out from under me at any time, and I could be in a bread line in a month or two. I know that because it’s already happened to me twice. That’s right, the FTP job interview guy, he sold his company at the end of 1999, right before the first Internet crash. It was funny times in those days, pre-crash, because I wasn’t even looking for a job after that place was sold. Mainly because the owner handed me a check for $35,000 and said, “Thanks for helping build the company,” and I said, no, thank you my beloved brother. I know everyone thinks they should get a million dollar check when that happens, but the truth is you usually get nothing, so that money was pretty nice. It gave me time to relax and plan a move.

But like I said, it was funny, because about a week after I left that place, after the sale, I started getting calls from other Internet companies in Los Angeles trying to recruit me. I don’t know how they got my number, I assume my old boss had given it out. But in that time before the crash there was a lot of money just being pissed away on idiocy, so I’d get calls like, “Come and work for our medical billing startup in Santa Monica, we have a ten thousand square foot office overlooking the ocean and our own brand new running track,” or “We’d like you to get on board with our new dog biscuit startup, you’ll get a company car, sixteen weeks of vacation and stock options,” that kind of shit. None of those companies survived the crash a month later, but that was the vibe around town.

Instead I eventually went to work for another web site hosting company in a shithole office, but I got to run things, so it was cool. Until a few years later when that guy sold out to a big hosting conglomerate. That was a painful experience that I don’t want to bore you with. But I will tell you that I had to fire 25 people one day, and that isn’t something I’d wish on my worst enemy. If I had enemies. So that kind of insecurity is a pretty new thing. Back in the day you went to work for a company, and if you wanted to stay there forever and you were halfway good at pretending to work, you could work your whole life at one place. That doesn’t happen anymore, anywhere. No more gold watches. Ask your grandpa what that means.

So I do understand the tendency to complain about work. But I have to tell you, I really like my job. Insecure as it may be. I like solving problems, and every day is different. And here’s something weird – I like being the old guy, the experienced veteran. It happened about five years ago, suddenly I noticed that people were deferring to me and, like, hanging on my every word, waiting for their marching orders. That was very strange and it took me a minute to really get a hold of what was going on. I’d managed departments at my previous Internet jobs, but something happened at this one – well, something happened, yeah, I just got older – and I kind of found myself in the driver’s seat. One of the driver’s seats anyway. It’s a strange thing and hard to get used to when you’ve spent most of your life as one of the people who are definitely not running shit. It’s just a by-product of age though, and it probably happens to everyone who can stay alive and working long enough.

But it’s really good to have a job that I like going in to every day. I did not like going to the shops to stand in front of the presses or move tons of paper through a giant guillotine cutter, that was not enjoyable. I’ve been digging through some old notebooks recently to get some details about the time I was working with Boom Shaka, the reggae band, and I have notebooks from the times I was working the presses and they’re just chock full of whining and misery and repetitive complaints. So I’ve done my share of complaining, even if it was only to myself. But the way I look at it, this is where we are, we’re in this system where you have to work if you don’t want to live in your car, and since I have to work, I feel pretty damn lucky not to hate what I do. How about you?

I talked about going to the dentist a couple weeks ago, but I didn’t tell you that one of the things that happened was I got fitted for a bite guard. What the hell is a bite guard you may ask. Well, it’s a hunk of plastic that sits in your mouth all night while you try to sleep. I clench my jaw and grind my teeth in my sleep, I have done that all my life apparently, and now at my advanced age all that pressure isn’t doing the teeth in the back of my mouth any favors. So a few years ago my dentist said, “You know, you really need to get a bite guard,” and I was like, yeah, sure, let’s do that next time. And I just kept putting it off, but this last time he wore me down and I said okay, so now I have this space age hunk of acrylic that I jam into my mouth every night.

It covers my top teeth, and it’s pretty ingenious really, the way it works, but what the hell, man. From now on for the rest of my life I have to sleep with this thing in my mouth? It’s unnatural I tell you, and I don’t like it. But it was ridiculously expensive, and it does seem to keep me from crumbling my own teeth, so I suppose I’ll stick with it. But come on man, every night? Really? “You’ve got to wear it every night,” he said, “if you stop your teeth will move around and it won’t fit anymore.” Jesus Christ, what have I gotten myself in to? I find myself saying that every once in a while. It’s how I know I’m still succeeding at living an interesting life. Okay, catch you on the flip flop. See you at work.