Tuesday, February 05, 2008

Content with my Harm

With my arm being temporarily immobilized and travel, dancing, and adventure sports out of the picture, I’ve had the chance to sit down and put a major dent on a stack of books that I’ve had with me since returning to Kagoshima last Christmas. In addition to those, I found myself purchasing another relatively assuming one while I was passing through the local Kinokuniya last week.

How Starbucks Saved My Life: A Son of Privilege Learns to Live Like Everyone Else. Although one might assume the author had intended to gain a quick buck with a cheap marketing ploy, the story itself is simple, straightforward, and grabbing.

Enter one Michael Gates Gill. Born into wealth (not just riches, wealth) on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. Got a job out of college without even interviewing for a top advertising company, wife and four kids soon followed (gradually sucking the income, I might add). Works there for thirty years.

Fired shortly after a merger. Had an affair. Divorced, losing his savings, and now supporting five kids (one from the affair), he still manages to throw down a few dollars and splurge on a Starbucks coffee.

And here’s where we see something remarkable; this man accepts a hourly-wage-paying job at Starbucks. Completely by chance. More to the point, he starts thriving on it, getting more out a job of manual labor and repetitive tasks than he ever did in advertising.

Many of you have heard me criticize tasks like cleaning up in some of my previous posts. The reasons for that aside – not the work itself, just how it’s “sold” to teachers – everyone should experience something like this.

You don’t have to work in a Starbucks on Manhattan Island. You don’t have to be cleaning the restrooms in a steel monstrosity of central Tokyo. But you should know pain. You should know the toils that come with a life of labor, because while you might have the choice to go abroad and teach English, stay at home and work in a cubicle, or achieve your dream job, some don’t; some know only chores that let them survive to the next day.

I’m not trying to adopt a “holier than thou” or "look to the little people" attitude or anything of the sort. Even though I’m currently sitting in a clean apartment having come from a high-paying desk job, you might not realize that, in my lifetime, I have:

- Had my blood plasma collected on a weekly basis so I could have enough money for gas to get to other jobs, necessary for food; a needle was inserted into my left arm, the blood withdrawn, mixed with an anticoagulant, and the red cells returned to me
- Spent full days lifting up trays of heavy dishes, burning my hands from the hot water and my eyes from the bleach fumes
- Had a full-time job that involved cleaning the residue built up in a drainpipe after daily use in a restaurant; to this day I don’t think I’ve smelled anything worse

The point is, don’t ever look down at anyone doing what you consider to be a worthless job. Gill himself was a professional for years and years, and he describes how intimidated he is when asked to work the register at a retail store! The uncertainty he feels in the early days of his Starbucks career: it was in fact a question of if he could do the job. The gratitude that builds for his coworkers and his increasing understanding and humility.

His thinking really does evolve to become more along the lines of Henry David Thoreau, for while he does keep a steady job, an apartment, and ties to the world, he starts seeing life in terms of necessities, not luxuries. And it all derives from his job at Starbucks… I’m aware of the irony.

Think about it: could you work at Starbucks? You might even have smirked or gone over some condescending thoughts one day as you were picking up a triple decaf cappuccino, but do you know how to make that drink? Can you change the oil on your own car, fix the air conditioner, replace the brake liners? Do you think its bad a single mother would choose to work at Dairy Queen to provide some kind of income?

Never assume anything. With regards to Japan, this all ties into the language barrier:

…instead of being superficial, we might bother to consider the people behind the language travesty, this illusion we put up in our minds. Where do these travelers come from? They’re obviously here for a reason, and maybe they’re trying to learn the local language. They could be doctors, lawyers, teachers, and office workers, people perfectly capable of being eloquent. But what do we associate with them? Lack of intelligence. “You can’t speak properly, so I must be smarter than you”: an assumption so far from the truth it’s ridiculous.

I encounter a Mexican who can’t speak English in Texas; he could be a professor doing a guest lecture.

An old Japanese woman sees a black man walking the streets of Roppongi late at night: “he must be a sex-crazed dirty gaijin criminal; thank god we’re fingerprinting them now.” The man in question has spent one day in Japan and found himself wandering an area popular with his contacts.

You, fresh in a nicely-pressed suit and tie, come across a unshaven garbage man tossing a load onto the truck… “some of the happiest people in the world come home smelling to high Heaven”

It’s all about personal satisfaction, and that can easily change with age and experience. Not everyone can be a Starbucks barista.. and some people don't even have that choice.

Live it all: paint fences, clean toliets, scrub floors, dig holes, lift dishes, serve snooty people their drinks, guard buildings, haul trash. You might hate it, but after a time, everyone gets some satisfaction from physical jobs.

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