Zac Walsh

However powerful our technologies and complex our corporations, the most remarkable feature of the modern working world may in the end be internal, consisting in an aspect of our mentalities: in the widely held belief that our work should make us happy. 

Alain de Botton, The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work 

Aged 40 and staring down the sick prospect of beginning my seventh job in seven months was not what I had in mind at 23, then just out of graduate school, lecturing at the local State University and consistently publishing work in respected literary journals around the country. No, by the time I reached the existential hour when my beard was this gray and my paunch this pronounced, I was sure what I would suffer from would be something like mild annoyance at the constant harassment from invitations to read from my newest (and no doubt widely proclaimed) novel. That my actual struggle would be finding the time to write fresh, brilliant prose due to all the extra-curricular responsibilities that my exceptional writing career had garnered and, consequently, hampered me with. At the very worst, I believed, I would be slowly rotting from loneliness and a hard drink in some dank Community College office where tenure alone was keeping me cruelly and angrily employed. Never in my wildest of early twenties delirium tremens-fueled hallucinations, however, did I envision myself at 40 years old, sober over three years, happily married and unable to teach. Not due to the physical and spiritual ravages of addiction or to the great success of my writing career, but rather to the powerful, steely and ruthless hand of the Teachers Standards and Practices Commission (TSPC) of the State of Oregon. 

The TSPC was founded in 1965, making it the oldest educator’s standards board in America. Founded just two years after our own spy agencies killed our own President, the TSPC seems born out of the deadly absurdity of this decade in our country, where the caliber of critical thinking led to the belief that John F. Kennedy was bad and Vietnam was good.The sort of ethos that claimed JFK was evil and the Federal Reserve Bank was just. A decade that ended by electing Richard Milhaus Nixon as the face, voice and moral core of the nation while it covered up the verifiable State-sponsored assassinations of John and Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr., and kept the war machine running all the while, powered by United Fruit, amongst other centuries-old sources of such ignoble and effective Molochian energies. 

I knew nothing of the TSPC when my wife and I moved to Oregon, myself coming with a full-time teaching gig tucked inside my prideful pocket. It was only when we fully moved in, set up our personal lives, and all the precious objects required to live them, that I was told by “my” school that it turns out I, unfortunately, would need to complete an additional two years of schooling at a cost of $20,000 to be considered worthy of teaching in Oregon. This even though I had a Master’s degree and seventeen years of legitimate college, high school and junior high teaching and tutoring experience. It was only after I sent in my appeal with full transcripts, proof of experience, and detailed letters of recommendation, that I was asked by the all-powerful board: “Considering your experience, have you thought about working in custodial?” I knew then I was up against an absurd juggernaut with the real ability to crush my heart, let alone my chances to teach and earn a living in the field in which I’m trained, a field that Oregon claims it is in immense need of filling with qualified teaching candidates that they somehow are unable to find.  

I missed Kafka in this custodial moment more than I knew I could. Franz would’ve loved seeing me humiliated and scrambling for work, I just knew it. Mostly because a lot of times I swear I could feel his bug-eyes on me and could hear that snigger of his, rueful and biting, somewhere off in the nearest tree. 

My first gig was going door to door selling state-of-the-art gutter guards designed to keep leaves and other pesky debris out of storm drains. I quit when a very old woman called me to say that “the installers were so mean to me that I had to call the police and the police never came and now my things are missing and my gutters still clog and this all cost me $15,000!” Next, I tried my hands at the assembly line, conveyor belt, sweet treats labor– an homage to my late mother’s favorite episode of I Love Lucy. At the end of the week, two of the machines conspired against my bad knee in a full-on sideways ambush, and I hobbled away in defeat. Luckily by this time it was the holiday season and a local hub of an international shipping conglomerate needed some low-pay, short-term help. The promised eight-week season sadly lasted two. However, it was then that the merciful light of the TSPC shined on me by allowing their humble servant to become a substitute classified staff member (meaning recess observation and minimum wage pay) at different schools each day, many 45 minutes away from my home. On my first commute to work, I saw a banner at a local fast food joint that advertised a better starting wage for a fry cook than what I was being given for the educational role the TSPC had permitted me to perform. This in a state that bemoans its over 1,000 unstaffed teaching positions. But enough about me, and thank you, patient reader, for putting in the work to allow me to get to the point, which I assure you is coming up real, real soon. 

David Foster Wallace ended his speech “Laughing with Kafka” with a German phrase das ist komisch which can translate to “that is funny” but also “that is strange, odd or weird” too, and Kafka is surely all of those things. The same way our modern reality with work is funny, strange, odd and weird. Kafka’s work is also described as nightmarish, ghoulish and absurd, and are these not accurate descriptors for our landscape of modern obligatory labor as well? From movers and shakers at the top of companies to highly prized celebrities of entertainment to ultra-comfortable managerial class to mid-level ladder climbers to lower tier grinders to week-to-weekers and day-to-dayers. To those whose lives have been inexplicably and unapologetically carved out as empty and without task or home. When all class and creed is made to feel the hallucinatory qualities of a world such as ours, a world built as a business for the purpose of mindless things, as opposed to a world built as a playground for the purpose of living, sentient beings. 

And isn’t it also wild, outrageous and true that the world we live in is fabricated, and thus philosophically belongs in the arena of make-believe? And isn’t it so that this is the world our species imagined and made into a stone-strong reality so long ago that we, the billions who are born into it, seem to falsely see it as essential, just the way it is? How funny. How strange, odd and weird. What a mess, some think, and if a mess, who the hell is supposed to clean all this up. And now that you mention it, where the hell are they already? Likely lost in a hell all of their own, and a hell not imagined or made by them, but merely silently and meekly endured. 

So what the hell is all the suffering for? A question our species is fascinated with perhaps more than any other, mostly because it is so much about us and by us. No other creature, by the best of our lights, can ask itself why it must suffer so or what purpose is all this pain crafted for. Nothing other than humanity can shake its fist at the whirlwind and loudly ask what the fuck is going on. Perhaps that is what the whales and chimps and condors are sounding off about too, but they at least seem to belong in their worlds better than we do. That is, they appear to know what they are to do, moment to moment. The same cannot be said for us. We are the only species to come screaming out of our mothers. Birds, for instance, do their squawking for food and are satiated in good time. Our wailing, however, never ceases. It is our sordid soundtrack from birth to death, cries all around us and within us too, and we are told by severe forces both intimate and unseen that we are to shut up and get to work. Why? Because that is what everybody else has to do, what our parents and their parents before them had to do. And that those who do not do so, do not eat. 

But plenty of people throughout the history of civilization do most of the eating and none of the working. We know this. We’ve known this and recorded this truth since ancient Sumeria, but instead of understanding these outliers of the rule of work as enemies to the harmonious and natural way of life, we lift them up and praise them as grand exemplars of how to live, even though they clearly live nothing like the rest of us who are constantly suffering from our labors. And if this was truly “just the way things are,” then pragmatically accepting it would make sense. But this is factually not the way things are because there was a time, indisputably, when things were not any way, a time when there were no things or processes or protocols or prime memberships. So why is it that our phantasmagoric kind, unlike any of our sentient peers on this planet, chose to construct a world in which people served things, and worse, were taught that being a servant to your own things was the best way to live, and that the only way to get a better life, therefore, was to work more, acquire more and feel your humanity less? 

In short, why do we give and keep on giving our decision making away to “things” like the TSPC, corporate-sponsored political parties, bloodsoaked brand loyalty, debilitating comparison culture and weaponized digital abstractions so easily? Why is the most powerful, flexible, brilliant and expansive being on our planet so terrified to be itself? What do we – those of us who have remained fans of Being– do in a world that has clearly been handed over to the inhumane Commissions, Boards, Trusts and LLCs, all now undergirded by the dark owl mind of Artificial Intelligence? And who has time to think on such things with so much work to do and so many of our neighbors to disagree with, envy and malign? Such questions speak to bucket work, the emptying of selfish water out of a mesmerizing pond, and such work requires one of our least favorite things, bending to one’s knees. 


In the world we find ourselves in, it is normal to coyly ask a new acquaintance “how do you earn your money and about how much of it do you earn?” but it is terribly strange, odd and weird to ask something like “what do you care about” or “in what do you believe?” We would be considered funny at best, and fools at worst, if we asked someone at a company party “what is the art that informs your life?” or “what delights the unexplainable parts of you?” and the fact that this makes sense to almost all of us is a testament to the captivating power of the world we’ve inherited and continue to push ahead. 

Yet we have reached a point in our species’ story where we are happily handing over the reins of that inevitable drive forward (toward where we are never told, oddly enough), though we do not understand the force to which we give control, and this seems to excite us all the more. Why would a species hellbent on gaining control for millenia seemingly freely give away the wheel to the work of our own hands? Might it ironically be because this force promises to take work itself forever out of our hands and minds, foretelling a day soon to come when the curse of the garden will be reversed and we will no longer have to toil in the dirt and die? This force promises to save us from the dying of the Sun and obliteration of our personal dreams, so why would we not be awaiting it as if it were a returning sword-mouthed savior in the sky? No more custodial muck to mop, papers to grade, sales pitches to form. No more items to checkout, scripts or novels or plays or poems or speeches to write. No more paintings to envision and stroke, sculptures to solve, books to balance, codes to crack. No more time clocks and timesheets and time reports, sick days or personal days or professional days. No more cubicle chatter or happy hour hangovers. No, just us back to where we began in a world without work, a world where we can finally become ourselves, a world of pure self-actualization at the peak of Maslow’s pyramid, a world that we can finally enjoy now that we have given it all away. 

Poet and prophet Robert Bly worried over this world we are living in long before we knew it could exist. In his 1990 masterpiece Iron John, he predicted that a world in which the inhabitants are taught to be stuck on the surface of things and lost inside of false images on make-believe screens there will be a dearth of art and artful (or critically intentional) living. He argues that a surface-minded, narcissistic culture is forced to believe there is an outside force on its way to help organize and better the mess that childish, naive cultures inherently create. Bly writes, “No giant is going to come along and suck out all the water for you: that magic stuff is not going to help. And a weekend at Escalon won’t do it. Acid or cocaine won’t do it. [One] must do it bucket by bucket. This resembles the slow discipline of art: it’s the work that Rembrandt did, that Picasso and Yeats and Rilke and Bach did. Bucket work requires much more discipline than most [people] realize” (9). But here we are coding and growing and advertising and feeding the giant Bly references day by day, and as Sam Altmann pointed out about the public’s affection for AI, isn’t it funny, isn’t it strange, odd and weird that we want AI to take the hassle of art away from us in the first place? Write our words, draw our pictures, manifest our dreams, do our jobs, find our mate, raise our kids – these are objectively what we are asking of the machine. And yet, this is common sense in the world in which we all, each of us, simply one day just appear, conscious, poof, seemingly and experientially as if out of the thinnest of air, and with no shared explanation as to why, other than “get to work gathering whatever you are told to gather.” 

Wouldn’t a culture thus described suffer horribly from epidemic levels of self doubt, deep psychological wounds displayed on screens for all to see, massive spikes in depressions, anxieties, suicides, addictions, untenable traumas, inabilities to care for oneself, violent outbursts, mass rage, brother fighting brother, caustic societal lines being drawn, a severe lack of empathy, a disappearance of community, a loss of verifiable information, a crumbling of self-presrervation skills, and a desperation for a large, quick fix for such a daunting collection of problems? Wouldn’t a world so gigantically trashed as this require an equally giant custodian to come and wipe it all away? Isn’t that what we are being promised in new ways from the same ancient force that formed Sumeria, the force that raises kings and pharaohs and bails out bank CEOs, the force that has been with our species since the beginning, whispering in our ear its sweet sophistries: you will not die, for if you eat of me, I will make you a god! 

And it may well be this is, indeed, what we were so mysteriously created to do. We could actually be destined to be the creators of a brand new deity, an electrically embodied version of the same godlike force that destructively convinced us that civilization was for our own good, way back in the first place. So who’s to say whether we are fated to blind ourselves, or the subject of some vapid cosmic wager, or each of us just one infinitesimal particle of a bit in a video game so dimensionally infinite we cannot fathom, or any of the other thousands of theological or philosophic or scientific or economic or political attempts we’ve come up with to make sense out of the nonsense we love to do. But one thing seems near certain: the fact that there is no turning back from our obsession to become God has never been more true than it is right now. But certainly do not take my word for it, a no-name out of work writer guy. Listen to Ray Kurzweil, Principal Researcher and AI Visionary for Google, who claimed in a 2015 talk at Singularity University that humans will become “godlike” when we connect our brains to the Cloud. A man who when asked if God exists said no, because we have not made God yet. 

So while I, like Job, am not able to know why things happen or what is truly good, I, like Kafka, still fret over how thrilled we are about the fact that we are heading off a staggeringly high place towards a very exciting, if not also messy, landing – the kind that requires a well-staffed and sprawling custodial crew, if sadly nothing else.

About the Author

Zac Walsh’s work has appeared in journals such as Calliope, Ink in Thirds, Blue Unicorn, LUMINA, Gulf Stream, Cimarron Review, Oakwood, Alligator Juniper, The Awakenings Review, The Other Journal, The Charleston Anvil, Light/Dark, Pissior, Inscape, Big Lucks, Lime Hawk, Spectre Magazine, the DuPage Valley Review and The Platte Valley Review, as well as in the anthologies Extrasensory Overload, Blood on the Floor and Small Batch. He lives in a small, unincorporated town in Oregon with his wife and a very old dog.