Zen and the art of riding an atomic bomb

The iconic moment of Stanley Kubric’s masterpiece “Dr. Strangelove or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb” features Col. Kong played by a very folksy Slim Pickens who finds himself sitting on top of an atom bomb as it is dropped on Russia. Without anything to lose, he makes the best of it.

It’s only Tuesday, and right now a lot of your are already going through this.

Hell, so am I.

In the last year and a half, we barely recognize the world where we live. The fabric of our society has been changing. I’m reminded of the Eloi and the Morlocks from the Time Machine (let’s bring on some more obscure movie references), where the peaceful (if not completely stupid) Eloi live in an above ground paradise, while the Morloks summon them monthly through a monolithic stone head for a cannabalistic feeding frenzy.

I keep seeing a general glaze of ennui in everyone these days. So many of us are working from home and those of us who had to return to an office to work probably didn’t need to, but the status quo of being constantly supervised by some douche bag is more important to a company than happy workers. If anything the last year should have taught us, it is that we don’t need some kind of Joe Versus the Volcano grey-walled prison experience when it comes to work. A lot of people are appaled at factory farming as they stand around the water cooler listening to the hum of people on phones that won’t stop ringing.

The other day I had a conversation with a friend of mine who never got to stay at home. He got stuck with extra shifts, in the public, during the time when there wasn’t even a controversial vaccine that everyone politicized to protect him. He got to be the bad man at the gates keeping the other bad men out. We were talking about what he might want to do with his life instead. Sometimes that seems like such a far-fetched idea.

Instead? Instead of this? “Living the dream!” One of my bro-istas at Dutch Bros. refered to that expression as a white person’s way of saying they are dying on the inside. That was at the beginning of lockdowns and layoffs and Zoom meetings. Back in the day when you could call in sick from work instead of spending the morning crying in the bathroom. When you weren’t expected to report to work, or school, or anything else because you *cough* weren’t feeling all that hot and (rather than come into work on a day that wasn’t going to do anybody any good) you could take a day to decompress without having to prove to your employer that you were on a ventilator. No one is safe from the Zoom call.

My friend told me he envied my freedom.

Freedom does come with responsibility. And anxiety.

There are days that I still feel that pull of self-worth and productivity that was inculcated into me through years of working a 8-5 job. My life is by no means perfect in my attempt to change that to working for myself. Some days, I feel like I am a complete failure because I am still in bed at 9:30am, petting the dog while other people are deep into a 12 hour shift.

The other day I had a conversation with my dad about how much work I had been doing. I picked up a couple writing assignments and had made $300. He told me I should have been helping him in the shop, working on cars if I wanted to make more than that.

That isn’t the point. The point is that I am still in the beginning of making something for myself. That $300 took about four or five hours of work. The agency that gave me the assignments lowballs the hell out of writers too, which means that once I can get rolling, I could be making much more than this. I have a skill that I have been working on for more than ten years, which is something I have been aiming for as a dream for a lot longer. You can’t put a W4 on that.

Also, in the four or five hours of work, I didn’t bang my knuckles on a hot, sharp piece of rusty metal once. I didn’t have a gallon of 10W40 run down my arm. And I didn’t have to wash whatever crap had fallen into my eye as I tried to break the rust off a stubborn engine mount bolt. It’s honest, hard work, don’t get me wrong–and I could do it–but that’s not what I’m here for. That’s not why I left the city to come here. I took a big risk to focus on writing.

The drawback of course is that right now I don’t have lots of clients and that four hours of writing uses a lot of brain power which must be refueled with coffee, sometimes alcohol, definitely naps, and snacks. But I’ve still done more with writing for a couple hours a day than I did working for 8 hours a day at my old desk job.

I think that’s why a lot of people are fine with surrendering their freedom to someone else (and sometimes we have no choice in the matter). And why we have a hard time with boundaries too. When that call comes from that buddy who you know is already several beers in for the night and all he wants to do is call his ex and tell her what a bitch she is, or that supervisor that you know you are never going to make happy (mostly because they don’t know what the fuck they are doing and are projecting their bullshit onto you) we find it impossible to say no. We are held at ransom.

Working for myself scares the hell out of me.

For one thing, there is some security in knowing that the checks will keep coming if I just put out enough effort to not be fired. Working for yourself means that being fired is the day when you finally starve to death because you didn’t put in the work. It’s like Columbus burning his ships on his second voyage. My 20 years in Higher Education taught me some really bad habits. Especially the more efficient I got at doing my job.

Most of my days in Higher Ed were spent on Facebook. Before that it was internet forums, YouTube, and at the end of the day, I could pack an entire weeks work into the last two hours on a Friday afternoon. If the big boss wandered in and said, “Let’s go home early, people!” I did, because I was just following orders. But you see, my work ethic told me that was okay because I was getting paid to do the job I had been hired to do. I had no joy in the job I was doing. I got lazy. Complacent. It didn’t bother me that I was cheating myself out of doing something that I found joy in doing. I was being rewarded with a steady paycheck for doing almost nothing. Certainly getting no spiritual reward out of it.

When I would have been happy working my ass off for something I enjoyed doing at the cost of that security.

In a few days, I’ll be 46. I don’t have many years left to realize my dreams. Not everyong has a chance to chase their dreams either. I am fortunate.

I worked with a lady who spent 99% of her time surfing the internet. She was reading about the Kardashians or downloading recipes. She was always talking about how unhappy she was. She moved her house several times in the years we worked together. I think jumping through all the hoops of real estate gave her something to do. She was always on the phone with her bank or realtor. If it wasn’t them, it was her insurance companies, dentist, retirement/Social Security, etc. When she was given something new to do at work, she balked. So I wound up taking on most new tasks–for no more pay. Eventually I got tired of that and declined the offer to take on another responsibility at my job. I knew my name was on the layoff list anyway.

So, I said No.

It was empowering. Intoxicating.

Well, I also got yelled at by my supervisor in the middle of the office, with people walking in and out. It was an indication that I had made the right choice. Or at the very least one that was too late to roll back on now.

Maybe that’s the problem with this depression that has taken hold of many of us. We got to take a step back and see the absurdity in sitting at a desk all day, when we could be doing that at home–and probably getting more done. But that would mean that we had free will. And for whatever reason, constant monitoring, overseeing, and environmental control are more important.

The trade off being, however, these jackasses somehow feel entitled enough to step into your life, into your home, whenver they feel like doing so. And now a lot of them are saying they shouldn’t have to pay as much because you don’t need the money for gas to commute. They want that dependence.

Am I terrified that I don’t have the motivation to achieve my goals? Absolutely. But maybe I can tell my fears NO for once too and see how good that feels. After all, a bad day doing what you love beats a good day doing something you don’t.

So, for anyone who has a dream and needs to hear it, don’t fear it. For anyone who isn’t happy with their life, you can change it. For anyone who is feeling stuck right now, it’s just one day–keep going. It will not happen instantly. It WILL be painful, terrifying, anxiety inducing, extremely difficult…but it will be worth it. Even if you have to put people you care about on hold, they will understand. If you have to make sacrifices, they will be worth it.

I just keep thinking of that lady with her microwave fish dinners and how you can be miserable and secure, or happy because you are doing something that has called you. Dying slowly inside living a life of quiet desperation…or starving to death slowly until you hope you catch a break.

Where was I going with this again?

Oh yeah. I guess just ride the bomb and enjoy every second of it.

2 thoughts on “Zen and the art of riding an atomic bomb

  1. Writing is definitely a long game.
    And you can shorten it substantially – as in grind it to a halt – by taking an unfulfilling manual-labor job that exhausts you.
    It’s scary not being able to rely on a paycheck, but consider this: you will always act in your best interest. At another employer, management’s job is to act in the best interest of the company, not an individual employee. So it’s not really as secure as it feels.

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