My former students will tell you I’m a bit obsessed with the idea of social norms in America. I call it the “Machine of Life.” I frame my entire senior English course around the concept — and everything we read and watch and write centers on this idea.
Why we do the things that we do? Like marriage. Like kids. Like WORK. These institutions are the chains, the things that ground us, the things that keep the Machine of Life running.
Early in the semester, I tell my students to list the following on a sheet of paper:
- Male or Female
- Age you want to be when you get married.
- Number of kids you want to have
- Dream Job
Then we go through all the ages and list them on the board. I’ve done this exercise at least a dozen times, and only ONCE, a student wrote, “when I meet the right person” to No. 2. This student was male. Females always have an age — and it’s never after 30.
That’s what I make them think about. WHY? Why do we have an age in mind — and what happens if we don’t meet the “right person” by that age?
When you’re 17, you think you have life figured out. I know this because that’s how I felt at 17, but also because I work with this age group every day. When I was 17, I thought 28 was the perfect age to marry. Going to college and getting a job and turning it into a career had to happen before I could get married. So did I push off marriage because I wasn’t ready…I think so. Marriage talk happened during some of my relationships in my early and mid-20s, but I definitely wasn’t ready. One ex-boyfriend who was nine years my senior once asked, “If I ask you to marry me, what would you say?” I replied, “I’d say I wasn’t ready.” Then he said: “That’s bull shit.”
And he was probably right. I wasn’t ready to get married to anyone because I was 26, but also I definitely wasn’t ready to marry him, because I didn’t want to. He called my bluff and we broke up the next day.
Camus wrote in his journal, “What sordid misery there is in the condition of a man who works and in a civilization based on men who work.”
So sad and true, especially in America today. Work is the center of our worlds. Most of us spend more time at our jobs than with our families. We spend more time at work than at play. Such is life.
We make decisions all the time for our careers, for work. It’s the center of my life in every way. Some days this disgusts me to the core. Other days I love my job so much, I can’t imagine doing anything else. But, no matter what, I’m constantly conjuring up an escape plan in my head. What does this say about me? My job? My life?
My diary entries seem to discuss the state of work in January and February mostly; as a teacher who lives in Chicago, this shouldn’t be surprising.
Forbes recently named Chicago as the 4th most miserable city to live in; in January and February, I agree. Forbes cited traffic and weather as two of the primary reasons for its misery.
Why do I sit in traffic on the Edens, at least an hour of my day lost to driving a boring expressway, bumper-to-bumper? Sometimes I wonder if I would like my job better if I lived somewhere that didn’t depress me so much in the middle of winter.
Is love a chain? I pose this question, and it throws my students for a loop. Does love keep us from doing what we love?
Or does doing what we love keep us from love?
In our 20s, many career-focused people seem to choose work over love. I did. I accepted my first teaching job — at the same school I still work — a few weeks after ending a two-year relationship with a man who lived in New York. He was eleven years older than me and ready for me to move out there and start my life with him. Instead, I grabbed the first teaching job that came my way so I could start my career in the midwest and be close to my family and friends.
That time, love lost. And I’m still chained to my career.
When I first met Mike, he thought I didn’t want to have kids because on one of our first dates, we went out to dinner and I pontificated about the machine of life. When I was 16, I didn’t want to have kids — but that changed sometime in early 20s and since then, I’ve always talked about wanting kids. With children — at least for women — there is something biological going on, but societal pressures dictate this as well. Especially when we have kids. I had kids in my mid-30s because all my peers were having their kids then, and even if we think peer pressure ends in high school, it doesn’t. Indirectly, we pressure each other every day to fit certain norms.
That’s the Machine.
I struggle because sometimes the machine sucks every ounce of energy from me, like in the Matrix, black tubes protruding from my skin as I lie comatose.
How do we avoid the machine? Can we? Do we want to?
These are questions I pose to my students because they haunt me. So, now, I pose them to you?