Back to work

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January 26, 2004 // UPDATED 2:39 pm - April 24, 2007
By: Julie Landsman
Julie Landsman

Black ice and clouded hearts in the work-a-day world

When Sept. 11, 2001 benefit concerts began, I waited for someone to sing the song "American Tune" by Simon and Garfunkel. These days, just returned from another holiday in New York City on deep orange alert, heightened color everywhere in the form of police presence at the Algonquin hotel, on the bridges, along the railway lines, I play that song quite often. Willie Nelson and Eva Cassidy have recorded it, among others, and each new singer captures the song's wistfulness, its tired willingness to try and understand what is happening in their lives in this country.

"I'm just tryin' to get some rest" go the words, after "another workin' day."

Being in Manhattan and then back home for New Year's celebrations, I was struck more than ever by the fact that so many of us are simply working people, taking a break during the holidays before the regular hurry of work life begins again in earnest.

Once the regularity of January begins, the temperatures drop and we struggle to get to work on black ice, we become unified by the regular workday rhythm. We are just Americans going to our jobs in classrooms, in Fed Ex trucks, at busy lunch-hour restaurants. Our resolutions to keep some of the slower rhythm of the long weekend crumble as we are swept up by alarm clocks, new deadlines and a frenetic pace of lessons, shopping and cooking for children. It makes sense that we are known for our productivity in this country. And I think that "American Tune" captures this -- as well as our yearning for a less complicated life.

We seem to struggle with loss -- not of things or money so much if we are middle class, but loss of time. We often have dreams that after retirement we will do what we have always wanted to do: paint pictures, try ice skating, ballroom dancing, writing poetry. And then maybe our work life extends into a year and another year because we want enough money to live well until we are 100. We put off our desires. We notice color but do not try and capture it on the page, we sing songs along with the radio but do not sign up for the musical at the nearby community theater, or we hear the piano keys sound only when they are being dusted.

Here in a land where what we don't have is held up to the harsh light of our television screens and where more and more, we are left on our own to struggle through hard times, bereft of any compassionate public policy, we seem to be an increasingly anxious people. And so we give up that idea of playing the flute, of picking up that old guitar, of going up north to camp in February. We are working people, "just trying to get some rest."

I am reminded of this every time I pass the huge yellow Hummer parked in our garage. I wonder: is this is what we all think we need -- a war truck for every family finally providing enough security and status Is this finally what we all go to work for, why we can't sleep?

I don't think so. Yet I think this car, truck, hunk, symbolizes some strange need Americans have to acquire, and thus to overwork, and thus to hoard to ourselves all we have, our money, our services, our parking space. No matter where we live, we often go on working long hours for security or for the medical care many other developed countries provide as part of benevolent government services.

Yet I am convinced that many of us also stop, in the window of our kitchens on insomniac nights, noticing, for a moment, what has slipped by, bewildered by loss.

So, I want to hold the lull of a long weekend next to me, keep trying to capture the red in the poinsettia, and who knows, perhaps breathe easier as I watch the sun set on another working day.

Julie Landsman lives in North Loop.