From today’s New York Times:
I used to think of my job as existing in its own little Busytown — as in the Richard Scarry books, where there’s a small, bright village of workers, each focused on a single job, whose paths all cross in the course of one busy, busy day. In my neighborhood in Brooklyn, I would see the same person at the Myrtle Avenue bus stop several days a week and imagine where he was going with his Dell laptop bag and black sneakers. I’d buy coffee from a rotating cast of the same baristas at the cafe on the third floor of my office building, where I worked as an editor at a magazine. I’d stop to chat with another editor, whose office was on the other side of the wall from mine; sometimes, she would motion for me to shut the door, and we would say what we really thought about some piece of minor professional gossip, important to at most about 3.5 people in the world. I would watch my boss walk toward a meeting with his boss and wonder whether their chat would wind up affecting my job.
We all mostly worked on computers, typing in documents and sending emails to the person on the other side of a cubicle wall, but there was a bustle to the whole endeavor. It was a little terrarium where we all spent 50 hours a week, and we filled it with office snacks and bathroom outfit compliments and after-work drinks. Even on a day when nothing much happened professionally, there was the feeling of having worked, of playing your part in an ecosystem.
Every job had its own Busytown. Although no one in the broader world wanted to talk about, say, cost-cutting strategies for a potential new client, you could find someone in your Busytown who was just as preoccupied about it as you were. In Scarry’s actual Busytown, meanwhile, the world is populated by people (OK, animals) who find it very easy to explain their jobs. They’re policemen and grocers and postmen and doctors and nurses. When the pandemic hit, the people with those Scarry-style jobs had to keep going to work. Their Busytowns rolled on. And actually, those jobs got harder.
Everyone else has lost all touch with theirs. They log on to Slack and Zoom, where their co-workers are two-dimensional or avatars, and every day is just like the last one. Depending on what’s happening with the virus, their children might be there again, just as in March 2020, demanding attention and sapping mental energy. The internet is definitely there, always, demanding attention and sapping mental energy. A job feels like just one more incursion, demanding attention and sapping mental energy.
And it didn’t help that, early in the pandemic, all jobs were pointedly rebranded: essential or nonessential. Neither label feels good. There is still plenty of purpose to be found in a job that isn’t in one of the helper professions, of course. But “nonessential” is a word that invites creeping nihilism. This thing we filled at least eight to 10 hours of the day with, five days a week, for years and decades, missed family dinners for … was it just busy work? Perhaps that’s what it was all along.
Read the complete story here.