The Work Ethic

4 May


                 Last Saturday my wife Diane went with her friend Nancy to lunch at a teahouse in Seymour, about 50 miles away, leaving me unsupervised for most of the day. With nothing special planned, I suddenly found myself at loose ends. As the British novelist Susan Ertz once wrote, “Millions long for immortality who do not know what to do with themselves on a rainy…. afternoon.”
Only I knew what I should be doing, I just didn’t want to do it. I could see that a lot of people around town were making home improvements, completing chores or working in their yards. Diane says she’s been selling a lot of gardening books at the bookstore lately. We know many people who take their gardening very seriously and this was the kind of weekend when they would be hard at work.
It’s times like this when my sporadic sense of guilt kicks in and my father’s voice comes to me saying, “You are not  going to watch cartoons all Saturday are you? Don’t tell me you have homework to do, it’s July. Get out here and get to work.” The next thing you’d know I’d be knee-deep [literally]  in one of his weekend projects —  mixing concrete, heating up tar or squeezing into some insect-infested crawlspace, that would terrify even Indiana Jones.
His voice is the internalized critic that is the part of personality that Freud called the Superego. Such introjected parental values serve as a basis for our conscience, which produces guilt when we don’t comply with our beliefs about right and wrong. When these beliefs refer to placing value on hard work and diligence, people call it “the work ethic.” This is the conviction that hard work is morally beneficial and a sign of good character. It is related to what is often referred to as “The Protestant Ethic.” It was the belief held by some early Protestants that hard work and success in life were the mark of being one of the elect who were predestined to go to heaven.
Commenting on today’s workforce, syndicated columnist Dale Dauten recently wrote, “The work ethic is dead.” He claims that, “Younger generations in the workforce have killed it off.” It seems like previous generations always think that their successors have less of a work ethic than they did. I personally never worked as hard as my father and usually give in to my natural tendency toward laziness, but at least I feel kind of guilty about it. In my father’s generation calling someone a “bum,”  “gold brick” or “deadbeat” was just  about the worst insult you could make. I always thought it had to do with how they lived through the Great Depression, when work was so treasured and hard to get. I wonder if the  high and enduring unemployment rates of the current recession will lead to similar effects in the future. One thing is certain; the current generation of workers will undoubtedly criticize the next for being lazier.
To prove that I have at least some work ethic left and to assuage my Saturday guilt, I decided that I should  prioritize my efforts and work on the most pressing household chore. Deciding which chore tops the list, however,  can  be  a significant challenge in our household. Cartoonist Scott Adams, author of “The Dilbert Future,” says that we live in a “crumbling and defective world.” He then proceeds to list all of the things in his home that need to be fixed in some way, including his cat. Adams says he has adopted the “active neglect” method, primarily because he is far “too busy or clueless to fix anything.” Of course, the massive Stawar fix-it list puts Scott Adams’ paltry inventory of misery to shame.
Despite the myriad of possibilities, at this time of the year, spraying the perimeter of the house with insecticide, to keep the ferocious tics and ants at bay, seemed to make the most sense. I assumed that this job was going to be like most of the ones I conduct and involve spending large sums of money on tools and supplies at the hardware store. Just last week our oldest son replaced a towel rack in our  bathroom and it involved buying a $70 drill, drill bits and anchors, all to install a $13 towel rack. I had delegated the towel rack job to him, after I had previously put up  a matching toilet-paper holder. Using wood screws that were way too long, I had creatively managed to bolt a bathroom vanity cabinet drawer shut.
Fortunately this time, down in our basement, I was able to find several bottles of extra strength insecticide to spray around the house. The spray looks to be very toxic, but household chores are always much more attractive when they include some degree of risk. Comedian Rita Rudner says that men’s interest in barbecuing shows that they will even cook, if danger is involved. Even the slightly possibility of losing a limb or becoming asphyxiated, can turn an everyday chore into an adventure.
Contrary to my usual M.O., I actually read all the insecticide instructions and took all precautions as suggested, however, after spraying the poison around the house for a while, I must have inadvertently inhaled some of the fumes,  because I had a sudden coughing attack. I thought to myself, “Just great, Diane will come home and find me in the backyard laying in the grass flat on my back, like a big dead tic, overcome by my own poisonous concoction.” And that’s the only thing people will remember about me — “Oh, wasn’t he that guy who literally exterminated himself?” Fortunately, I was able to revive myself, with only negligible central nervous system damage, as far as I can tell.
With my token attempt to demonstrate some sort of work ethic finished, I spent the next hour scrubbing  off all the insecticide that I had spilled on myself. My final job of the day was to put a pork roast in the oven by 3 p.m. Regrettably my post-chore nap ran a little overtime and the roast was a little late getting in the oven.
But I did wash my hands again to minimize Diazinon contamination of the pork roast and to prevent some unfortunate chemical interaction with the Sweet Baby Ray’s Barbecue sauce.

Originally published in the Southern Indiana News and Tribune



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