Barbarella
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Nobody on his deathbed ever said, “I wish I had spent more time at the office.” — Paul Tsongas

I rolled onto my right side and stretched my left arm toward the nightstand. I simultaneously gripped my iPhone and flipped the tiny switch on the side to silence it — I didn’t want David to hear the electronic click when I unlocked the screen. I wasn’t being considerate, I was being cautious. I was avoiding the lecture. And anyway, it’s not like I was working. I was only checking my email to confirm for my fast-beating heart that no pressing matters required my attention at six-something in the morning. I needed peace of mind if I were to be able to linger beneath the covers beside my man.

David had been incredulous the first time he’d caught me scrolling through messages beneath the covers shortly after lights out. “Now you’re bringing your phone to bed with you?”

“Jesus, beh-beh, you’d think I was hiding another man over here,” I quipped. Despite my cavalier attitude to David’s increasingly frequent comments about my face being forever buried in my laptop or phone, it killed me to think my work habits were upsetting him. But rather than adjust my behavior, I became sly about it.

My father instilled in his daughters a severe work ethic, a “show up early, stay late” approach to business. He detests anyone who complains about work, believing that their breath would be put to better use counting their blessings. I am an earnest employee, of the opinion that those who stick to their job descriptions are easily replaced.

Now that a fraction of my friends and family members have recently been laid off, I’ve bumped my output up a notch. I’ll wear any hat that is handed to me. No matter its appropriateness in size or style, I’ll make it fit. I fear David is getting tired of having to step aside to make room for my growing collection of duties. “You know, you don’t even talk to me anymore,” he said one recent afternoon. We were seated in our dining nook. I had put out some cheese and crackers, and David had poured us each a glass of rosé frizzante.

“I’m talking to you now,” I said.

“No, you aren’t.” David sighed. “What you’re doing is talking at me. Every time you talk to me now, you’re either listing things you have to get done or figuring out how to do something. It’s more like you’re thinking out loud, and I just happen to be in the path of your words.”

I began to respond, but the words caught in my throat. He was right. I’d turned my husband into a sounding board, another instrument to assist me in my quest to do it all. My expression must have betrayed the anguish I felt at this realization because David’s face softened as he watched me.

“I know a lot of opportunities are presenting themselves to you right now, and I understand you want to make the most of them while they’re available.” David paused to consider his next words, a trait of his that I do not share. “Don’t worry about me, I’m fine,” he said. “You know you’ll always have my full support.”

Suddenly, David rose to his feet and walked away. I panicked for a moment, thinking he was disappearing to his corner of the house for the night, but then he returned, with paper in hand. “I wasn’t going to show this to you, but it’s the best way to illustrate what I’m about to say. You see, it’s not that you’re always working so much as how your work affects you.”

I looked down at the paper. It was a printout of a calendar. As I read the small typed words inside some of the boxes, I saw that it was more a log of sorts, documenting symptoms of stress. Things such as “Scratching neck” or “Snippy” were joined by observations such as “Won’t sleep” or “Sitting in the dark with head in hands.”

“I feel so stupid,” I said, setting the paper on the table beside the plate of picked-over cheese.

“That’s what you said last Tuesday,” David said in a gentler tone. I glanced down to see the typed notation corroborating his statement.

“When you look at it all together like this, it’s pretty incriminating,” I said, a nervous chuckle punctuating my words.

“The depth of your stress can be really distressing,” David said. “I don’t like to see you stressed out because I care about you, but on a purely selfish level, you’re more fun to be around when you’re happy and relaxed.”

The next day, I found myself obsessing over the exchange and replaying David’s words in my head. I remembered my father’s stories about how he’d always worked at least two jobs, whether it was driving a taxi for 12 hours a day while going to college or working 16-hour days at Pan Am. Once I got him on the line, I asked the very man for whom hard work was a creed on par with Catholicism if he’d ever felt he had “over-worshipped.”

“Once,” came the answer, to my surprise. “It was 1977. I was working six days a week in the Navy and taking nine credits in graduate school, and I also had my Shaklee business — that’s like Amway — and I had around 140 distributors in a bunch of different states across the country.”

“And when did it occur to you that you might be overdoing it?” I asked.

Again, the answer was unexpected. “When I crashed my car.” Dad explained how, exhausted from his schedule, he’d fallen asleep at the wheel of his Fiat 124 Spider, which he’d purchased in Italy the year before. “It still had Italian plates on it.... I was exiting the highway and went off the road. The car flew through the air and landed flat on its wheels. But when it landed, it broke my back — cracked one vertebra and crushed another. I was still in uniform, and when the highway patrol found me, they thought I was dead because my uniform was covered in blood.” A memory surfaced in my mind of Dad apologizing for not being able to pick me up and carry me around like I’d asked him to. “After that, I quit school,” Dad concluded.

I didn’t think I was going to crash my car or anything — I handle most of my work at home. But the two most important men in my life had left an impression.

I found David in the kitchen. “I’ve been thinking about things, and I’m really going to make an effort to not be such a workaholic,” I said. David smiled. “You know, I mean, as soon as things let up a little, maybe in a few months.” His smile faded from joyful to knowing. I was relieved it hadn’t vanished entirely.

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Comments

David Dodd May 20, 2009 @ 12:49 p.m.

Stress definitely takes its toll. The last place I worked - for five years - I finally snapped at the end. I work well under stress, with deadlines, and I was often asked to do the impossible. Believe it or not, I thrived on it. The stress became more overwhelming when I saw what had to be done and I did it without being asked. What made it worse, what caused the breaking point, was when my employer then told me, "But we didn't ask you to do that."

The bottom line was that it needed to get done, and since I was responsible for the operations in the production aspect of the job, and since there wasn't anyone else to do it...

I'm guessing you probably know what I mean.

My home life didn't suffer from it. Every day after work, I stopped at my favorite cantina for an hour and swallowed it with some beer. By the time I arrived home, I was fine. In the end, I left for two reasons: The company was struggling due to the downturn in the housing market, and people were getting laid off left and right which piled too much responsibility on me creating a no-win scenario; and they wanted me to lay-off my right-hand man, which would have been a mistake. My leaving ensured him remaining which was logical for the company, he is much younger and can easily find work quickly, whereas I would have come back after being laid off since I'm not so quickly employable at almost 48 years of age.

Anyway, my unsolicited advice: Do what needs to be done, but note the difference between what they ask of you and what you do on your own. For me, that's something I didn't get from my ex-employer, and you seem to work for a pretty good outfit. If they can see it, then they can help you compensate in many different ways.

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Barbarella Fokos May 20, 2009 @ 1:01 p.m.

Thanks for the tip, refried. You're right about the fact that I put it on myself -- all my stress comes from within, my thinking I have to do more and be better. All of the people I work with now are accommodating and exponentially more pleasant than the handful of half-wits with unrealistic expectations I have had to work with in the past.

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