Archive for January, 2008|Monthly archive page

Annual expenditure, 19 pounds, aught and 6; result: misery.

Although I visited the subject a lot during my last year of college, I’m looking at the idea of class with fresh eyes. Since then, I’ve moved away from my childhood home (indeed, my childhood state), managed my own finances, graduated from volunteer to employee, and have taken over complete control of how I spend my time. Basically, I now run my life – and I’ve found that I’m at somewhat of a loss as to how to approach it.

Up to now, I’ve thought that my problem was just one of laziness and reluctance to accept the role of “adult.” Who decided that I was officially qualified to make life decisions? I’ve sharply felt the absence of somebody who somehow had apparent knowledge and experience that I didn’t have access to, dictating to me what I should do with myself. Whether or not I listened to them was immaterial – the suggestions themselves were all that mattered. Now, I know that sense of security was an illusion. My idea of the world has utterly changed. Now I imagine it as a runaway train, one that never had a destination (or had one at some point, but was long ago forgotten) and whose driver nobody can name. Somehow it keeps moving, but there’s no one at the wheel. As long as it’s moving, the workers are occupied and nobody has to think about where we’re headed.

But now I realize that this terrifying idea of the world has, in part, been caused by my inability to accept either the working-class paradigm (which I grew up with) or the middle-class paradigm (which I learned in college). Neither of them suits my purpose, and as a result I’m stuck in a formless limbo, faced with the varied and seemingly random aspects of the world around me with no framework to make sense of them.

A friend of mine let me borrow Limbo by Alfred Lubrano, a reporter from New York and the son of a bricklayer. Right at the off he explains that his book is not sociology, it’s journalism: over 100 interviews with people who’ve toed the class line, people who’ve studied the class line, and people who’ve done both. It’s more concerned with the fact that the situation exists, rather than what to do with it.

His introduction is a brief discussion of what class is – his definition: “Class is script, map, and guide. It tells us how to talk, how to dress, how to hold ourselves, how to eat, and how to socialize. It affects whom we marry; where we live; the friends we choose; the jobs we have; the vacations we take; the books we read; the movies we see; the restaurants we pick; how we decide to buy houses, carpets, furniture, and cars; where our kids are educated; what we tell our children at the dinner table (conversations about the Middle East, for example, versus the continuing sagas of the broken vacuum cleaner or the half-wit neighbors); whether we even have a dinner table, or a dinnertime. In short, class is nearly everything about you. And it dictates what to expect out of life and what the future should be.”

Of course, there are many factors other than class that decide these things, but for my purpose the definition will do.

I grew up with a working-class sensibility. My father was fond of saying, “It’s all in the eight”; in other words, work is to pay the bills, and when the quitting bell rings, you don’t take it with you. At home, the conversation was centered around either gossip about the nieghbors, family members, and mutual friends, or television. Time spent at home was time relaxing; working all day earned you the right to switch off and enjoy yourself. It was a comforting structure – but it was insular. When I got to college, I was surprised to discover how much I didn’t know about the rest of the world – or the rest of the country, for that matter.

In college, my naive and pliable young self turned a complete 180: I never watched television; I started listening to NPR and reading news from the BBC; social networking websites boomed and I learned more about technology in a year than in my 18 years previous. I stopped eating meat and started watching documentaries, I joined a philosophy club and a completely new social circle inhabited exclusively by middle and upper-middle class Caucasian activists. My mind was completely occupied with high and lofty ideas, and I was plagued by a constant insecurity that I didn’t know enough. I pretended to be interested in international politics and social injustice, even though I didn’t completely understand what that entailed.

The college atmosphere was the impetus that led me to live a middle-class version of life. I existed entirely in a world of intellectual progress, up-to-date news, critical discussions, meta-awareness and high brow humor. I’d never felt completely comfortable in a working class mentality, and this new way of being appealed to me even though I didn’t quite fit in that one, either. I assimilated some of the practices and norms, and accepted others as they were thrust upon me.

But now on my own, by myself, with no outer influence, the way I grew up is reasserting itself by habit, and the aspects of college life I had temporarily adopted because of their omnipresence are gone, and I can’t sustain them solo. The result?

Even after a year, my job is exhausting. I work with immigrants, refugees and children all day, which is incredibly rewarding; but, for an introvert like me, being exuberant, patient and interested for 9 hours drains me of energy. However, even though I’m inclined to do as my parents did and settle myself down for a night of food and television (or, in my case, video games), an overwhelming sense of guilt comes over me. In college thinking and interest and action lasted from dawn till dusk, and beyond. The result is my inability to relax with a clear conscience, which leads to even greater lethargy and indecision.

Do I keep it “all in the eight”? I’m pretty tired when I get home, and I’d like to be unproductive. But that doesn’t signify; I feel disconnected. In school, when I was active all day, I was a student – a role that came to me naturally, and energized me rather than drained me. I spent all day broadening my horizons, and though I felt that I was behind, I was working on it, and that tamed my fears. Now I have to work harder to maintain the same level of worldliness because my day job is not “training to become a productive member of society.”

I must find a way to reconcile the two. I must accept that I am not a hip, concert-going young person who attends rallies and only listens to vinyl. I must find a way to maintain a sense of connectedness outside of my work that doesn’t seem like a burden, and I must accept that it’s okay to indulge in unproductive pastimes that do not advance my knowledge of world events.

Who among us has had a similar dilemma? I think the phenomenon is more widespread than we think because it’s not easily recognizable. Case in point: I didn’t realize what was going on with me until I read it in a book. A successful marriage between a working-class upbringing and a middle-class life; result: happiness.