Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Working for pay

My college thesis advisor (Joanna Russ, a feminist science fiction writer) told me that she thought that stories about working life were notably absent from fiction. She said there were great stories that no one had told yet and it was surprising because so much life, especially American life, is spent working. In most fiction, working life is on the sidelines or relegated to a mere plot point: it’s not the meat of the story. (Exceptions abound but the main point is valid.)

I’m not writing a novel about work but ever since she made that remark, I keep my eyes open for good stories about work. Blogs, of course, are great sources, but most of us take pains not to write about our current working life for fear of retribution. However, what about our work history? Mine, interestingly enough, has relatively little to do with my current position, so I can get right into it.

Aside: as I’m writing this, I realize that I wrote a dissertation that was sort of about “working for pay." “Working for pay” was my dependent variable (outcome of interest) and it was merely a quantitative measurement of how much, or if, the person had worked for pay in a given year. I didn’t study types of jobs or pay or benefits or anything like that. Sort of funny, though, to have written a dissertation on a topic about which I know very little. To clarify, my main focus was on one particular independent (predictor) variable and how it influenced work, not actually on work. Oh, and we say “working for pay” because working inside the home is work too, but not what I was measuring.

Being a good American, possessed of a strong Protestant work ethic (even though I’m Jewish), I was interested in earning money from a very young age. Childcare was my chosen field. I liked kids and overestimated my ability to wrangle them. At age three I appointed myself overseer of a two-year-old and tried to feed her a peanut butter sandwich for lunch. She refused. I picked her up with the intention of carrying her to the sandwich. She bawled. My first attempt at babysitting was a failure.

My first successful babysitting gig was several years later when, at age eight, I watched a three-year-old while our parents looked on. His mother was very pleased with me and gave me a quarter. I showed it to my mom. She was proud of me and taped the quarter to a piece of paper and wrote, “[Jamy’s] first quarter earned.”

My first legitimate babysitting job was right here in Washington D.C. when I was 12. The family lived a few blocks from my house in Mt. Pleasant and they hired me to watch their two-year-old son for the evening. My mom took me over and met the parents. I was to call her if there were problems. The kid was awake but his parents put him to bed after I arrived and then they left.

After the parents were gone, the kid started making some noises. Not crying noises, talking noises. But he didn’t speak any language I could understand. I went into his room and tried to figure out what he wanted. He kept saying the same word over and over, “Arsh! Arsh! Arsh!”

What was “arsh?” I held up a stuffed animal. Nope, not arsh. Another toy. Nope. I held up everything in the room that seemed like something he’d want to sleep with but nothing stopped his calls for “arsh.”

I took him out of the crib and we played on the floor in his room for a little while. He got sleepy and I put him back to bed. He slept this time and I spent the rest of the evening watching tv.

When the parents got home I told them about “arsh.”

“Oh!” the mom said, “His cars! He likes to sleep with those little cars. Sorry, I should have told you.”

“Ah, well, I couldn’t understand what he was saying.”

“It’s fine.”

It didn't occur to me that any kid would want to sleep with hard little metal cars. But when I played with him on the bedroom floor—it was with those little toy cars. Live and learn.

This puts me in mind of many other amusing babysitting stories. Hrm. I can either tell all of those or figure out what the next non-babysitting job was. Decisions, decisions.

Last and unrelated: don't forget to VOTE. I got three reminder calls to vote: one from Mayor Fenty, one from a computer voice and one from Michelle Obama. Guess who they were rooting for?

Grateful for: the right to work and vote.

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