October 31, 2003

A Column by Byron McAllister


You and I--surely this goes without saying--work hard all the time. But, do other folks work, too?

Not if you believe the claims people make.

The first time the question came to my attention, I was still a child. The Great Depression was in progress, and such Federal programs as the Works Progress Administration were creating jobs at which some of the otherwise unemployed could earn a little money. Driving past the construction projects that gave the programs their most visible face, people would notice that sometimes many of the men were leaning on their shovels. At least, that's what they said they saw. For us kids, it took a while to see it for ourselves, because we couldn't drive by, but eventually we'd get a chance to see. When we did, sometimes there really were people "leaning on their shovels," as reported.

And then, sometimes there weren't.

However, even a kid could easily see that the "leaners" were simply waiting for some other activity to be completed--something that usurped the workspace for a while, making it futile or impracticable to employ their shovels. And, by the way, most of us kids had, ourselves, been required to dig enough times that we knew it was impossible to keep that shovel poking every second of the day. A simple matter of variable amounts of available energy and of occasional muscular inadequacy. We understood that digging is hard work.

Okay, maybe there were a lot of lazy people getting government money for "leaning on their shovels," and maybe there weren't. The topic was sometimes thought to be political, because the programs in question were "Democrat" programs. Therefore, one could already guess what one's Republican acquaintances believed. Objective truth, on the other hand, was harder to come by.

Along the same lines, over the years, I sometimes noticed that some of the clerks in large stores had a certain amount of slow time. My mother set my mind at ease on that one, observing that if a place hired just barely enough clerks to suffice when business is minimal, then there couldn't possibly be enough of them available to cover the moments when business is booming. Examples of both situations abounded, and it was easy to see that Mom was right, even when we took into consideration that there's often something the idle-looking ones could be set to doing.

Eventually, I pursued a career in academia, where I often heard my colleagues wonder what the people in other departments could possibly be doing. "Nothing," was their usual conclusion, or, more accurately, "nothing of importance." (We academics like to try to be accurate.) It took a while to realize that in those other departments the same slogan was going around, and that at times the finger of suspected idleness pointed at my own peers--even including me.

Reminds me that when I was an undergraduate, I'd assumed that all the faculty had to do was teach our class and check our exams, so that, especially when the paper-checking ran behind, I always felt they were neglecting their work. By becoming "an academic," I did find out what else they had to do, but then I felt distressed to realize that most other people still held to the good old undergraduate assumption that the faculty were an idle bunch--people who needed close watching. It was far from encouraging to realize that the administrators in the institution believed the same thing. Needless to say, however, many people in and out of academia feel that administrators, themselves, are mostly idlers. (Do they believe this of each other, also? I can't say.)

That view of teachers isn't restricted to college types. Most of the public believes that teachers in the K-12 sequence have June, July, and August completely "off." That goes hand in hand with the belief that a teachers' work-time occupies not one second more than the interval from the time the bell rings to start classes to the time it rings again to tell the kids they can go home.

Maybe the ultimate form of the opinion I'm talking about was expressed by a business man of my acquaintance, who once confided to me that that if we could only get rid of laborers, that incredible drag on the economy, then people like himself, who make their living by what many call "paper shuffling," would soon create a perfect world. Since I had heard many times that paper shufflers never work, and contribute nothing of value to society except bacl-slaps and occasional parties, I chose to make no reply.

Well, is anybody doing any work? And, is there a moral here for mystery writers?

There is! It's perfectly obvious to all writers that publishing houses are composed entirely of idlers, because, for example, we've heard that they no longer hire people to correct the imperfections in a submitted manuscript. In fact, it looks to us like acquisitions editors never look at a manuscript themselves unless it has first been vetted by an agent they trust (trust being established over lunch, not as a result of anybody doing any work) and/or by undergraduates, hired at slave-labor wages, to cull out everything but duplicates of current best-sellers, so that the editors will never have to waste time looking at a manuscript that doesn't promise to pull in at least a gazillion dollars. No doubt we can also assume that the higher-ups in the literary food chain are anxious to dispense with the lower-downs, who appear to them to be idlers.

At times when we are forced to sit and think instead of working our fool heads off (i.e. when there is nothing on TV), what are we to suppose about who is doing the work? After all, some things do seem to get done, despite the omnipresent charge that nobody is doing them. Well, for one thing, we might try looking around to see if we can spot somebody doing something useful. If we do, should we just claim it's an illusion? Of course. If we don't agree that nobody but us ever does any work, we'll be out of step with popular opinion. Besides, when you haven't actually seen somebody working, doesn't that prove that he or she doesn't work? Especially if he or she doesn't come forward and brag about how much got done. So let's continue to agree that nobody but us ever does any work. That gets us out of dealing with questions like "could the world possibly be more complicated than can be summarized in a few snide formulas?" And then we can turn on the TV and "get to work," watching it.