WORKING, by Studs Terkel (BOOK Seven – Part 5 – Reflections on Idleness and Retirement)


This is quite a chapter title and, as it implies, it’s got plenty for an anti-work thinker to chew on. Unfortunately we start off with a mixed bag and then go on to something okay and finally onto something great. It’s a bit of a roller-coaster ride when it comes to this chapter and the folks that Terkel decided to interview. I shouldn’t be surprised though, the way work culture has imbued us with many biases, even ones that work against our happiness or healthy conceptions of ourselves are strong, even in later life.

Barbara Terwilliger (Idleness)

Terwilliger gives us the most to think about when it comes to the topic of work vs. idleness. She is in her thirties and has “independent income” (what this means is never explained). When she wasn’t so “affluent” (as Terkel describes her, p. 422) she was a saleswoman, an actress and engaged in other occupations besides.

She concedes that while it’s “splendid not to work for a while” (ibid) it can also get tiring after a few months. Love isn’t a suitable replacement for her as it can’t be counted on and “If you have any sort of ego, you can’t make a love affair a justification for life” (ibid). I agree that love by itself is likely a poor justification for living, though it also can be a great help on its own.

That said, there’s a tricky bit of wordplay going on in passages like this:

To be occupied is essential. One should find oy in one’s occupation. A great poet can make love and idleness fructify into poetry …He wouldn’t think of calling it work. Work has a pejorative sound. It shouldn’t. I can’t tell you how strongly I feel about work. But so much of what we call work is dehumanizing and brutalizing.

pp. 422-423

There’s a lot going on here in terms of definitions and philosophy. Even as an anti-work advocate myself I don’t disagree that occupying yourself is essential and that whatever does occupy your time should be joyful. But “occupation” and “occupied” can mean many things.

I find meaning in my writings even though they offer me very little in the way of financial contribution and that’s fine. I don’t need a lot of financial support to make writing a worthwhile pastime for me. It helps me not feel beholden to anyone (except a small number of friends and even then not a ton) and not stress myself out in trying to write all of the time.

But even so, it’s fun and rewarding to write down my feelings and emotions and put them to (digital) paper. It gives me something to do with my time which helps me feel structured and purposeful. That’s going on at the same time that I also realize my life has no objective meaning to. As far as I can tell life is terribly random and chaotic and anything can happen at any time for any reason. Life can be scary when you think about it like that!

So it helps to have healthy coping mechanisms such as meditations, going for walks, seeing friends, watching your favorite TV shows, playing video games and of course, writing. All of these (and more!) are things that help me go from day to day and still feel like I’m doing something for myself. I’m not sure any of it will come to much global meaning but ultimately I’ve connected with many great people, made (and lost) many wonderful friends over the years, and discovered things about myself that I could never have imagined.

In any case, Terwilliger is right to call most of what’s referred to as “work” the total opposite of the kind of occupation she wants folks to be entangled with. But then there’s sentiments like this:

I really feel work is gorgeous. It’s the only thing you can depend on in life. You can’t depend on love. Oh, love is quite ephemeral. Work ha a dignity you can count on. Work has to be a game in order for it to be well done. You have to be able to play in it, to compete with yourself. You push your limits in order to enjoy it.

p. 423

A few problems is that most of what Terwilliger said before contradicts this message of work as play or as something you can “count on” for dignity. If most work is brutalizing and dehumanizing, then how can this be something that is also playful and able to make you push yourself to your limits in ways that you actually enjoy?

I’m not sure I understand the lexicon but I think what she is saying here is supposed to be the ideal of work. Notice the words she uses, “gorgeous” and then brings up love, another concept filled with ideals. But for Terwilliger, love is a temporary matter, at best. Still, I wonder what she’d think about at-will contracts. There’s also the problem of generalizing your personal experience on to others which I feel she does often.

It sucks that love isn’t always something you can count on, but hey, neither are economies! Nothing in life is guaranteed and we’ve all got to do our best to seize any bit of happiness we can for ourselves as ethically as possible. I’m not sure I’m a hedonist necessarily but I do think pleasure is a wonderful thing and often an ephemeral love can outweigh or at least tip the scales against a dehumanizing job. At least then you have something for yourself that can temporarily heal your woes, if just in minor ways.

And really, in the end, it’s all temporary isn’t it?

Usually I don’t quote the last few paragraphs of an interview but I want to here because it so heavily conflicts with my own philosophy:

Everyone needs to feel they have a place in the world. It would be unbearable not to. I don’t like to feel superfluous. One needs to be needed. I’m saying being idle and leisured, doing nothing, is tragic and disgraceful. Everyone must have an occupation.

…I don’t mean work must be activity for activity’s sake. I don’t mean obsessive, empty moving around. I mean creating something new. But idleness is an evil. I don’t think [people] can maintain [their balance or sanity in idleness. Human beings must work to create some coherence.

You do it only through work and through love.

And you can only count on work.

p. 424

Wow, again, a lot going on here, but I’ll try to break it down.

I think a lot of this is, again, Terwilliger projecting her own insecurities onto other people. Yes, it’s true, many of us feel like we need to be needed but just because we feel this way doesn’t mean it’s the best way, only way or that there are not alternatives actively being practiced. There are many different cultures surrounding work and labor and not all of them neatly intersect with Chicago in the early 70s.

That said, that doesn’t make this some sort of alien feeling or something I can’t sympathize with. Feeling needed is a thing many people deal with but it isn’t exactly healthy. It’s telling yourself that we are not enough unless we put in the energy and work. And yes, that is important when developing ourselves, but people who can’t work because they are disabled or have mental barriers, are too young or too old or sick in some way aren’t any less in this world than the rest of us.

This is no way to measure the worth of people!

Creating something new not just for the sake of it or doing it for no reason at all is nice, but it needs to be backed by freedom of choice. People need to be creating because they want to and it gives them meaning in their own life. And yes, for some or even many, that may make them feel more whole than they otherwise would and if it makes them happy and doesn’t harm others, all the more power to them! But I still feel like this cultural stigma around effort makes it so we demonize the folks who can’t work.

More than anything I want to rebuff this idea that idleness is evil. First of all, of course Terwilliger is able to say that given her own financial condition. Most people would kill to have a few months off from their terrible jobs (which she would likely agree is terrible). And she even says earlier in the interview, as I noted, that idleness for a short amount of time isn’t such a bad thing. Second, I feel like she’s going through some huge inner turmoil if she feels it’s such an evil and yet makes no mention of going to get a job anytime soon. Nowhere in the interview does she mention she’s looking to combat this supposed “evil” by looking for a new job.

Funny that, huh?

While fun, lazy intellectual inconsistencies or “gotchas” aside it’s important to also note that idleness is an integral part of getting “work” done in the first place. Without idleness many of us wouldn’t even be able to get our work done in a satisfactory way. As is, many of us don’t get our work done in a satisfactory way because we work so much and have such little time to ourselves. The real evil isn’t the idleness but the work that makes our idleness necessary as a form of self-care, a way to repair ourselves from the way society treats us and values us.

And that makes work the real evil.

Bill Norworth (Retired Railroad Engineer)

Okay, look, I know I’m stereotyping myself a lot right now but goddamn I love trains. I’m autistic (surprise?) and I love trains. I especially love model trains and I also love the subway and the feeling of being snug in a train that’s going through tunnels (have I mentioned I love tunnels?!). It just makes you feel like a dark blanket is covering you with all of the beautiful sounds and sights. Yeah, I’m romanticizing it a bit, I know!

That said…I don’t have much to say about this interview. There’s some bits here and there with Norworth’s wife (we don’t learn her name), lamenting how much Mr. Norworth left her alone with the kids. And while said it’s not exactly anything new either in this book or in life in general. Work tends to tear families apart or at least make them much harder to function than they would otherwise if we didn’t feel compelled to work so much.

There’s another part where Mr. Norworth remarks that he got a “half-century card” for working there 50 years. It’s pretty sad and I think Mr. Norworth realizes that as well. He doesn’t make much of a fuss about it and it closes the interview on a pretty small note, honestly.

Past that…there’s some comments on diesel vs electric, the life of a railroad engineer (it sucks, you’re almost always at work and never with your family) and assorted other topics. I just…didn’t find a lot to grab me in this interview, which isn’t to say it was bad. It’s worth reading about as much as any interview, really, but not much stuck out. Take a look and judge for yourself and listen to the Ologies podcast on trains for goodness sake!

Joe Zmuda (Ex-Shipping Clerk)

Surprisingly I haven’t given much thought over what would be the best interview of this book so far. There are many gems and interesting people with great stories. Whether I agree with all of them or not, whether I individually like them or not, Terkel almost always does an amazing job drawing things out of people. It’s no wonder he was so well renowned in his time and far beyond that for his interviews.

As you can guess, this interview, while perhaps not my favorite of the book, is definitely up there. Zmuda is a fascinating man who has lived a long and interesting life and goes into much detail throughout this interview. What’s particularly great is that he contradicts the first interview and its premise that an idling life is “evil” or could never be fulfilling in the long run. Zmuda doesn’t make any complicated philosophical arguments either, he just tells us about his life through Terkel’s questions.

Zmuda is almost 75 years old and living in the seventies means he has sadly passed on by now. But it also means he has memories of times as early as the 1920s which was wild to read! I’ll start towards the beginning though:

The first two years I was downhearted. I had no place to go, nothin’ to do. Then I gave myself a good goin’ over. You can’t sit at home like that and waste your time. So I kept travelin’. I went to see one of my old friends. Two days later, I’d go see another one. Three days later, they’d both come over and see me. That’s the way life went.

p. 430

The “waste your time” bit seems harsh but it’s understandable that eventually you want to go out and do something with your remaining time. Capitalism takes so much of our time from us and in the end we only get a pittance (financially and life wise) in return. So we have to use that time as wisely as possible and for some folks that means exploring the world, seeing old friends and having them see you. I think that’s a great way to live out the rest of your life; enjoying the people and world around you.

Zmuda tries not to daydream and not be a grump about the world, he doesn’t regret the time on his hands and manages to live on a pension and social security. He does most of his own cooking , he gets up late every morning, around 9 to 10:30 AM (big same!). He watches baseball games, listens to the news (and is sick of politics), and on Sundays he goes to church. He enjoys baseball a lot as well as pool:

I go to the tavern Saturday or Sunday. I meet my old gang there. There’s another fella, may his soul rest in peace, he died about six months ago. He liked pool very much. I’d beat this guy and he’d start hollerin’, “That nasty old man beat me again.” (Laughs.)

p. 432

This is the way to live your life, spending whatever time you can with friends and games. Keeping in touch over your favorite activities (a few drinks, a pool game, D&D, whatever!) and reminiscing about the past and looking forward to the next time you can all get together. This is how I often try to spend my time, though with more video games and more gear toward spending time with my partner and close friends. I don’t drink but I can understand and appreciate the camaraderie in “the old gang”.

There are some sweet memories that are shared in this interview such as the one from all the way back in 1920.

Like I say, when we were young fellas, there used to be one of them amusement parks. I’ll never forget that place as long as I live. I ha an occasion to take my girl friend out there. That thing went up and then down and up again. … When that goddarn thing went down, she like fainted. I had to hold her. … When we got off, the words she used are not allowed to be printed. Outside of that, she was a sweet kid.

About fifty-three years ago. This is what we talk about.

p. 432

It reminds me, in a way, of a buddy of mine who met in college (almost ten years ago what???) and the ways in which we remember college and the one semester we spent together. They’re still a good friend though they’ve had some troubles here or there with me coming out as trans. Nothing major but small issues here or there as well as a sense of humor that hasn’t aged terribly well for me (jokes about sex workers for instance).

Still, they’re a good person overall and I enjoy the times we spend together. The last time we hung out we talked about how things are but also how things were and how they seemed simpler in some ways back in college. I think that’s a nostalgic bias but it still feels true in some strong way. There is something comforting about remembering the past with friend who shared it and can validate your experiences and the feelings you have about them.

Zmuda also discusses the Eastland Disaster which I had never heard of. Apparently over 700 people drowning when a ship toppled over near a pier, what an awful event. It was in 1915 and Zmuda was there or in the area as an “errand boy” (433) at the time.

There’s more besides that; a dance in 1915 with a woman Zmuda never married but maybe regrets not doing so. He remembers a lot and knows a lot more by the sounds of it. He went to Disneyland in California and thought it was amazing, he wants to be around for another 5 years, but not another 20, he says old people get “childish” (434) eventually.

It’s an eternal recurrence of childishness I guess and Zmuda would rather avoid the whole thing I suppose, makes sense to me. It’s a great interview and an excellent end to Book Seven.

Onto Book Eight, the penultimate Book!

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