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Heigh Ho, Heigh Ho


Back in the days when I was a 'salaryman' in Canada, I had mixed feelings about the kind of working life I was leading. I basically enjoyed the work I was doing, felt myself to be fairly productive and an asset to the company, and in general, had little to complain about.

But being human (or just being me?), I of course did complain. Not so much out loud, because I'm not a 'whining' type, but mostly in my own head. I didn't complain about the salary, or the days off, or the working environment, or any other 'details' such as these, as I am a basically fatalistic type, and tend to go along with whatever environment I find myself in. And in any case, as my employer treated me very well, these things were not suitable source material for complaints. The two things that were bothering me however, were things that were beyond his control, and indeed were perhaps not causing much concern to any of my fellow workers.

The first of these was the repetitive nature of our business, stemming from our position as a supplier of products to schools. Our work thus followed the school calendar, and the patterns repeated almost exactly, year after year. I'm not sure now just why this repetition bothered me; I suppose it was the "here such-and-such comes again ..." feelings that were always present. The first few years in the job had been years of discovery and challenge, but after a decade had gone by, it felt like being back in school again, not being a working adult ... "Here comes September again ..." Ughhhh!

By itself, this would not have been enough to drive me away from that life, but there was a bigger 'complaint' that grew in my mind, year by year. "Why do I have to go to work like this?" I didn't mean, why did I have to work, as I accepted (and accept) that I had to make a constructive contribution to society, but that why work had to be so separated from 'normal' life. I had to be two people, the 'company employee David', who resided at that particular desk in that particular building from nine to five each day, and the 'private David', who resided at a different place, and engaged in completely different activities.

The switch back and forth was of course directed by the clock. Nine to five. Nine to five. Day after day. Year after year. I ranted on (to myself, mostly) about how, since the time of the Industrial Revolution, we had built a system of schools, factories and offices that, although based on sound principles of division of labour and organizing production, had grown into a huge monster that now devoured most of the daylight hours of most of our lives. Especially during that bus ride each morning on the way to work, did my thoughts turn in this direction.

I felt under no illusion that life before the Industrial Revolution had been any kind of Golden Age, and wouldn't dream of seeking to restore that kind of society, but felt that surely there must be a better way to organize our lives. With all our machines, robots, and computers, couldn't we somehow set up a society where I could be productive without having to behave like a robot, sitting on the same bus each day at the same time each day, going to the same desk ... month after month ... year after year ...?

Such thoughts gradually became a kind of obsession with me, and led to me eventually quitting the job and striking out on my own. I planned carefully, very carefully, for a long time ... planned how I would be able to live the type of life I envisaged by turning my hobby of woodblock printmaking into a way to make a living. Working and living together in one location. Operating on my own schedule, working when I felt like it, and leaving it alone when I didn't. I was quite sure that I had enough self-discipline to ensure that I would not fall into 'lazy' habits and end up being unable to support myself.

The plan was sound, and the dream did come true, although taking somewhat longer than I had anticipated. About six years after resigning from the job, I was finally well established as a craftsman - a woodblock printmaker - earning a steady income from my activities ... activities conducted in my own home, on my own schedule. Wearing no wristwatch, working in one room of our apartment, when and as the mood took me, I lived the very dream that I had imagined.

Heaven, right? Well, yes ... and no. It was truly a delight not having to commute to work each day, and not having to work on a nine to five schedule. These two differences transformed my life, and I will never, never become an employee again, under any circumstances. I have tasted freedom, and I can assure you that it is delicious indeed.

Why then, am I writing about these events now? Isn't all this fairly self-evident? Am I just trying to show off what I have accomplished? Well ... I did say yes and no just now. There has been a down side. I had forgotten about one thing - something I had read about in books, but had just felt was somebody's attempt at being 'clever'. I had forgotten the Peter Principle: "Work expands to fill the time available."

Instead of being in an office from nine to five, I was now in my 'office' from the moment I awoke in the morning, right until I fell asleep each evening. My 'time available' for work had hugely expanded. And yes, the work did indeed expand to fill it. To fill it completely. I worked mornings, I worked afternoons, I worked evenings, and I worked nights. Rather than bringing my work to my home, to do in a convenient location at convenient hours, the reverse had actually happened. I had 'moved' to my office, and now lived surrounded by work 24 hours a day. There was no more 'private David', only the 'working man David'.

Of course, this hadn't all happened overnight, but over this past winter I finally came to realize what had happened to me, and to understand why life sometimes seemed so tiresome, when it was nominally so 'perfect'. Once the light went on though, during a conversation with a friend a couple of months ago, it became immediately obvious what the solution to such a problem would be. Become a nine-to-fiver again.

No, not back on the bus, heading off to a company, but simply by reorganizing my daily schedule. I promised myself that I would 'down tools' every day no later than six in the afternoon (I don't usually start work until about ten each day, as I take a morning swim at a local pool). Down tools and not touch them again until the next morning. The evening hours were not to be used for printmaking work, under any circumstances.

Could I actually get all the work done in eight hours? Work that had been taking upwards of twelve hours a day? So far, so good. I'm wasting less time during the working day, and am finding that the 'expanded' work does seem to be compressible back to its original size. It's all a question of sensible utilization of the time available ... ten to six ...

And the evening hours? What am I now doing with them - the hours that had been 'lost' during these past few years? Well of course, there are no shortage of activities waiting to expand to fill this time: catching up on shelves of unread books, talking on the phone with a lady friend ... or working on my new hobby - a computer/synthesizer system for music composition. I've recaptured the 'private David' part of my life again ... none too soon.

... But I wonder now, do you think there is any way that I could organize my life to somehow make a living out of my music hobby ...?

Have you ever met such an idiot?!