issue #16

Emotional Labor

Emotional Labor

A while ago a friend sent me a link to a forum of women discussing and sharing thoughts about emotional labor. I clicked and within a few seconds of scanning the table of contents I almost lost it. My heart raced, I got hot, my head felt like it would explode and I said to Bruce, who was standing right there, “Omg, I can’t even read this, I’m so angry I’m going to break something.”
I love Bruce, because he said the right best thing, instantly. “It’s ok Doob, I’ll read it, you don’t have to – I’ll read it for both of us.” And he did, and absorbed it and has taken measure of the emotional labor of our life together, and committed to it, accepting responsibility for a more fair share.
But it wasn’t really news to him. Why I had gotten so upset in that moment is that I had been noticing incrementally, and complaining – ok, bitching – about it for twenty years. To some acknowledgement, but little avail or relief.

Emotional labor is all the work of the world that is done to make things nice and bright and safe and tolerable for others, to enhance and create positive, beneficial experiences for others, to care for others. For a spouse, a family, a neighborhood, a world. It is social conscientiousness.

Like ….
Making sure a delicious and nutritious dinner is on the table, served at the right time for others’ needs and convenience, invitingly, generously, communally. Which means:
making a menu, making a grocery list, shopping, coordinating, cooking to a clock (and so planning, mise-en-place, multi-tasking), setting the table, serving the meal, clearing the table, cleaning the counters, washing the pots and pans, drying the pots and pans, putting away the pots and pans, loading the dishwasher, unloading the dishwasher …  so you can start all over the next day
Helping neighbors
Listening to the woes of others, and consoling them, advising them, guiding them
Making coffee at the office, or baking for your workmates
Decorating for the holidays
Managing money
Sharing the joy of others, in good faith
Remembrances of all kinds
Planning, making schedules for a household
+ tidying
+ cleaning
+ laundry
etc., etc., etc. …..

Some of this work is physical, some mental, but underlying all of it is the impetus or purpose of maintaining the emotional equilibrium of any association of individuals.
It is hidden labor, and unpaid, and therefore/thereby unvalued – and so, most always the work of women and girl children. By this I mean: if women do it, it doesn’t register or count. If women do it, it has no monetary value. If women do it, it’s not worth anything.

Twenty tears ago I made my first objection. I was exhausted. I was working seventy hours a week, including a long commute and evening work at home. Bruce was working thirty-seven and a half hours a week, with an eight minute commute. I wrote down a list of all the chores/tasks/labors of keeping our life on a smooth track, and the time it took to do them. It summed to thirty five hours a week, and I had it, irrefutably, on paper. When faced with the undeniable actuality of entrenched, endorsed inequity, Bruce said, “I know what you’re saying is right, but I just can’t agree with it right now.”  !
I laughed then, and it still makes me smile to remember, simply because, I had been heard.

We made adjustments. I was easier in my daily routines, but eventually we came to the realization that two salaries were not worth the cost of our unpaid work and what it kept us from. Emotional labor evenly divided was a taxing burden on us both, and left little time for recreation, relaxation, people. I was unhappy in my work, too, wanting to do more creative labor in design and art. So I quit my job and claimed a lot of the business of our life as a part-time job. My pay was the time needed [wanted] in studio. I was interested and happy to do financial work – budgets, bills, and investing – and I enjoyed cooking and found groceries a not unpleasant leisurely chore in my expanded time. We each did our own laundry, and other tasks we divided by interest – Bruce renovated and I gardened. He walked the dogs, I fed the birds. A lot still fell to me, but it seemed a balance, and I had time to create. Our decision was made possible by having no children, and also by the cultural frame we were in. We are the last generation able to live well on one (middle-class) salary. I’m not sure this option is open to younger people anymore, especially millennials, who are burning out even without families.

Such a balanced distribution of emotional labor within families is crucially important for every member’s well-being, in the present and for every future, but I’ve come to realize a balanced sharing within communities is just as important. I became quietly aware when we were last in Kentucky, for Katie’s funeral.

We were so very sad over the loss of our friend, and worried too about her family and the trials they faced. And yet … we were buoyed up by a mysterious, unnameable energy. Friends and family supported each other, of course, but there was more. The whole community held us in our grief, by an everyday, usual, genuine, well-wishing consideration. It is a cultural given there, that you are nice to everyone, including strangers; really, there are no strangers, because all belong, all are part of the human family, all deserve respect and kindness. It is the fabric of society. Every gesture is welcoming, and so comforting. We floated through our trial, not quite understanding what carried us, what sustained us, until we were home.

I realized too, that I am a different person there in Lexington, in response to the ether, having drunk the water. I take my time, and speak truly and authentically to each person I encounter in the course of a day, no matter how randomly. Grocery clerks, wait staff, people and their pets, other people’s children, skate-boarders, other shoppers. It is returned, thrice-fold. At a restaurant on a football night, among a throng of patient people expecting a long wait, I spied a small corner space on a bench. I said to the man next to it, “I’ll squeeze in here, if you don’t mind.” “Set raht down, darlin’,” he said, “Ah don’t baht.” Everyone smiled, and I sat, welcomed, comfortable, one of the family. You may think this trivial, but it is not a small thing. Life is easier there, for just this reason.

My hometown in the Northeast fails me in this way. There is no communal responsibility for well-being, no reaching out – no one does even small, easy, token emotional labors on behalf of others. And life is harder here, for just this reason. But I bring a little of Kentucky back with me from every visit, and share it. With grocery clerks, wait staff, people and their pets, other people’s children, skate-boarders, other shoppers … It is often appreciated and sometimes returned, a hopeful sign that people here are able to extend themselves on behalf of others, knowing that it works, mysteriously, for the good of the whole.




Matt, I have been lurking on OT for several years, and lately following you daily. I appreciate so many of your contributions, they spark a lot of reflection and dialogue. Right now I have many ideas and responses piling up that connect to your most current preoccupation – your Dream. I hope PM is an appropriate way to share my thoughts with you (I just can’t bring myself to post, besides, tl;dr, lol). If it starts a conversation GREAT, but if not just use/muse what you can. I intend this offering to support you.

There are a lot of ways in to the interconnected topics you engage … but I’ll start with WORK. You seem a bit at odds with it lately; here are my thoughts.

I. The Meaning of Work

Necessity of Work
That we have to expend energy to live is a given. The basic relationship of living things with the natural, physical world is one of (unequal) energy exchange. We survive by tipping the balance in our favor – more input than output. Although we have off-loaded much human labor to machines and eased our burden by harvesting energy-rich resources, human effort is still required and so we work. I see no way around this existential constraint; work cannot be eliminated. I find your goal to never work again puzzling, especially because you are not unfeeling and inconsiderate of the rights and need of others. How can you do this fairly? For me the problem of work is how to make it less onerous, more joyful, more dignified, more uplifting.

We have made progress. Many jobs are interesting – even exciting – to those whose skill sets they match/exploit/use. Other jobs that would be tolerable are made insufferable by necessary interaction with other less-than-kind people, as you well know. You have noted many times that you enjoyed the tasks of your job at Goodwill – it was your co-workers and supervisors that made working there untenable for you. But this is a people problem, not a work problem. And yes, many jobs are boring, stultifying, having little value in their execution or performance, but are still MUCH better than the subsistence living (let alone feudal serfdom and slavery) that preceded the industrial revolution. We are not yet smart enough to exploit nature well enough that no one needs to work. But even if we were, there are other reasons that make work meaningful to people.

Work as Structure
One filter I see people through is the need for structure. Two basic types in this scheme: those who need structure, and those who don’t. Within the group of those that need structure, there are again two types: those who can make structure, and those who can’t. Here are some associations I make among these groups.

People who don’t need structure are rare. They are so intelligent, creative, and flexible that they live by competently improvising, day-to-day. Many live equitably, managing fair gives and takes fluidly. Some are artists, musicians, inventors, who enrich culture and life for all. But there are always cheaters, grifters, and con artists who live off the system they do nothing to maintain.

Of the people who need structure, those who can’t make their own are followers. Structure making is high-level thinking, comprising the management of multivalent systems at multiple scales. Creating order out of such complexity is hard work – mental work is the hardest thing humans do. So some people opt to plug in to structure that others make for them. They are the cogs in industrial, corporate, religious, cultural machinery. This is a kind of piggy-backing, but I think it not unfair. People in such situations willingly accept fewer material rewards, in light of the hard mental work they don’t have to do. They see the structure they rely on as a form of pay, or as a benefit of less-skilled work. This is where I put many working class Trump supporters. They are happy to work for wages that allow them to raise a family and be secure. They don’t aspire to wealth, because they know the greater effort it takes, and either understand their own limitations or value things that working so hard at such a high level would cost them, like time with family and friends. They are un-resentful of other life-styles too, accepting that greater effort earns greater rewards – as long as they are getting a fair deal. Which they believe they no longer are.

There are really capable people who excel at making structure, and do so willingly for others. I generally think of these people as entrepreneurs, inventors, also teachers of every level, religious leaders, philanthropists, and others in public service at high level. A great many of these folks live equitably, enjoying out-sized rewards for their tremendous contributions, but of course there are cheaters too, whose rewards are not justified and come at the expense of others. Private equity executives, for example.

In every honest case, though, work provides structure that most people need.

Work as a Social Construct
People also need to belong – we are a social species. We create many, many, many types of groups to satisfy this need. One is the workplace. As important as belonging is, so is signaling that you belong. A job is a participation badge, as are the spoils of work: home, car, clothing, hobbies. I am unsure from your posts if you have little need to belong, or are at odds with the ways available to belong in our cultural milieu. If the first, you are very unusual, but I get it. I am an outsider in so many ways – left-handed and female, INTJ/INTP and unusually intelligent, although I am comfortable with it. If yours is the second reason I am very sympathetic. Belonging possibilities in contemporary Western culture are narrowly defined and are so abstracted and removed from meaningful human interaction as to be inauthentic. I think we share these struggles. However, I am just as determined to live equitably, as I am to live on my own terms.

II. The Ethics of Work

I can embrace your dream, because I don’t need you to be anything – I am broad enough to embrace many concepts of participation and many frameworks for belonging. Neither who you are, or the choices you make are any reflection on me (unlike all shaming Priscillas). So I can respect you and your choices ….. as long as they don’t burden, hinder, or harm me or others. In the main, this means you have to support yourself. I see it as a moral obligation.

In the contexts I outlined above, all work is important. But some work is devalued, mostly by those who rely on comparison with others for self-identity (Powers, for one). An example I use to make this point (especially with friends who like to rank) is that of garbagemen. We live in a city, and the people who collect and dispose of our garbage are the most important public service workers we have. Aesthetic and physical comfort depends on garbage pick-up, and in the extreme, so does our health. José Saramago brilliantly and viscerally made this fact in his novel “Blindness.” For another illuminating take, check out the recovered/rediscovered/uncovered humanity of Brazil’s recyclers in Victor Muñoz’ photographic essay “Pictures of Garbage”. I do not want to live in a world without garbagemen (or women), and I take good care of mine. Most OT sucksters don’t see it this way (although I do believe BoBro gets it), and use the forum to profess their hierarchical view of work and workers, and to shame non-workers. I do share their concern with, if not disdain for, those who don’t/won’t work. But I think I have a more generous view of work, so fewer people are out of law in my world. A lot of work is unrecognized as such, and so invisible, without value.

Unrecognized work has a long history, because historically it has been the work of women or of low-caste members of society. Google ‘emotional labor’ or ‘worry work’ for descriptions of the hidden work of contemporary life that is usually unacknowledged and uncompensated. Those who most vehemently discount it are often the ones who most benefit from it. See the Catholic Church for an obvious and egregious example: doctrinal sanction of the unpaid and devalued even-though-necessary work of women, which intentionally signifies women as inherently less worthy.

Information sharing is one type of hidden labor, and I see this as the work you do. It is how I know you and what my amicable feelings towards you are based on – your curious, critical, questing, contemplative, and generous intellect. Especially compelling to me are your posts in the Science and Engineering thread regarding the latest medical/health/biology studies, but I find your philosophical musings also worth my time. It is significant to me that you are not satisfied with discovery, that you are driven to share what you learn and know.

So, contrary to the opinions of most OT-ers, I think you do work and contribute. If you were inclined to participate more fully in your society, Reference Desk Librarian would be an excellent – ideal! – sanctioned job or profession for you. But I also believe your dream life as you envision it has the possibility of maximizing the offerings uniquely yours to give. Because it is founded on sharing – via Instagram, OT posting, and conversations – I think it valid work. You have expressed an almost philosophical refusal to be existentially pigeon-holed by any job, and yet I could see this ‘work’ as your calling, and thereafter define you. Maybe the drive for meaningful work isn’t pie-in-the-sky, but instead innate and valuable? Rather than dismissing work as an inherently unfair concept, I think we should strive to re-define it, to include all possible forms and flavors of human capital and labor, and then to fairly compensate them.

The question for you becomes, how is your Dreamwork underwritten? In other words, how do you get paid?

Self-funding is the most acceptable model in contemporary culture, since your dream’s product and the labor required to produce it are economically invisible.
GoFundMe is a model that accommodates more forward thinking about work, yet also satisfies barter/transactional frameworks, in that contributors expect a benefit from your shared perspectives and knowledge, and as such are clients or customers, however indirectly.
Universal income is another valid payment model, if it is framed as compensation for the hidden labors of life, of which altruistic knowledge-sharing is one.

With respect to self-funding, I really have no problem with you using a UI settlement as start-up cash. You’ve paid into the fund for years, as have your employers, and if it propels you into another fair, albeit novel, work-for-pay situation, well then, that’s exactly what it’s for. I would have a problem – philosophically – with you using any or all government ‘welfare’ program payments as your perpetual, basic income source. I think it unfair to others.

III. Adulthood

Hinduism explains life as a series of developmental stages, with varying responsibilities. I make (a Western) sense of this in terms of the changing relationships an individual has with the wider world. As a child, you have limited responsibilities for others; rather, others are responsible for you. Adolescence is that part of childhood where you seriously prepare for the next stage – taking care of yourself. This marks the beginning of adulthood, and encodes the first principle of responsibility: you alone are responsible for yourself. I take this to mean you are required to engage in equitable exchanges with others, i.e., you do not take more than you give.

This is the crux of my issue with perpetual reliance on government assistance – or any other subsidy – for the necessities of life. As an adult in this our contemporary human evolved state, you are beholden not to be a burden to others. Of course, calamities happen. But built into any modern social safety net are the ideas of impermanence, and paying in. The Western cultural expression most easily understood this way is insurance. You pay for protection against unforeseen and no-fault random happenings, against bad luck. That’s fair to others, because you’ve provided for your benefit in advance. You’ve hedged against calamity, contractually, with a group. In your case using your UI settlement for any new venture is cashing in on your policy, and so valid. Living on the dole, on the other hand, is an unfair, out-of-balance exchange with others.

(Of course there are people who can’t work, and I believe there are equitable ways to accommodate them. But you are able, so I’ll leave that discussion for another time.)

The other developmental stages of life that follow the acceptance and attainment of personal responsibility in Hindu philosophy simply enlarge the circle of caring to match an increase of capacity. When you have taken full charge of yourself, you can then care for children and spouse; when your family is secure you can expand your scope to cover community. Community responsibility takes many forms, like serving as an elder in your church, or starting/running a business that keeps others employed. Your dream falls into this stage, for me, due to its emphasis on sharing; I see you caring for a collective well-being. The final Hindu developmental stage is an inward turn, where you forsake the outer world, and attend to your spiritual growth. I also see your dream having this aspect to it, in some part.

One of my favorite poems is Rudyard Kipling’s “If”. It is a wonderful meditation on grown-up personhood. Maybe you know it? I think you would like it, if you haven’t already encountered it.

I am excited for you and your dream, and I hope it comes to pass and is more fulfilling and healing and wonder-full than you can imagine. I’ll be following your journey on social media, and here at OT too. I am about as far away from your starting point as possible in the continental US, but if you make it [to Connecticut] [here] you are welcome to come and see me – for a shower, a meal or two, a bed for a night, and lots of conversation. Good luck!


(And feel free to include any/all in your posts, but keep me anonymous? Thanks)


Creative Work

Creative Work

With all of the work this past year launching MUSE, establishing writing as a daily practice AND getting all of my backlogged ideas and products out in the world, I haven’t spent as much time making art as I used to. But now that issuing MUSE is more routine, I have time again in studio. For this issue about work, I thought I would share the process and craft of making a paper painting. Here are a few in-progress photos of the first in a new series about Iceland. (I’m looking into making a video, too, and a flip book of a paper painting, start to finish.)

I start with a photographic print. In the course of ‘painting’ a scene I refer to the photograph often, especially at the beginning. This is a photograph of the panorama visible from the house we stayed in, near Bogarnes in western Iceland. It was taken in May, close to midnight.

My paper paintings have always been landscapes of real places that affect me deeply, so as I ‘paint’ my mind’s eye takes over, and also the emotions I felt in that place at that time. The result is something less than a reproduction, less than accurate, yet still a true and real representation.

I use stretched canvas as my base. For my previous desert series I applied textured wallpaper as a first layer. The rough surfaces help define different visual elements, and give the painting depth and dimension. Art papers conform and stick nicely to the wallpaper, too. Here are the wallpapers I am considering for this series.

Then I choose my ‘palette’. Here is my first selection of art papers, for the background, middle ground, and foreground. I will do a lot of experiments layering them with each other and with the wallpapers, to find the right materials, sequences, and combinations. Some of these papers will result in an impressionistic mode, others – the electric blue wavy one – in a more abstract rendering. I don’t know just yet which way the painting will take me.

A few of the experiments. These are some first ideas about Icelandic clouds and sky, for the background.


A rule of thumb about landscape drawing and painting is that two of the three grounds – back, middle, and fore – are featured, while the third recedes. My inclination is to emphasize middle ground and foreground here, to let a muted sky hold the bright mountains and crisscrossed plains. Then again, the Big Blue Sky may want center stage … I’m not sure yet.

Here are some textures and patterns to represent the foreground.


Next I’ll work out the snowy and ziggurat-ed middle ground.

The following photo is a mock-up of the whole, to test composition and color scheme holistically.

When I’m ready ‘to paint’, I’ll start with the base – in this case two or three wallpapers. Then the background, beginning at the top. I use matte medium as glue and sealer.
The rest of my process is a back and forth, layering the papers down the canvas, and atop each other to get the right effects.

That’s as far as I’ve gotten. Look for the completed painting(s) in an upcoming issue!



To Do

To Do

Just to capture a moment in time, personally and culturally, here are the minutiae of the next few weeks. On our schedules:

Take the old chest to the antique restorer
Pick up the police accident report
Submit claims
Birthday Brunch with E and K
Take Adie to the Princess and the Frog
Built-in cabinetry (linen) design to Casey
travel for work (San Diego)
Snowshoeing with Printha, weather permitting
Submit proposal to Arts and Society
Financial portfolio maintenance
arrange trip to Hawaii for our fortieth wedding anniversary, and J and M’s wedding!
attend Local Authors Read at LOTTA studios
hem pajama bottoms
order knobs from Georgetown Pottery for desk drawers
install shutter hardware
new shades for dining room?
Print photos and frame them
clean out the basement
winter pruning
Theater workshop with the girls (Adie’s play)
Studio session with E
haircut – Bruce
Salon – me
Set a date for the block party
tea with Britt

+ water the plants
+ exercise
+ grooming
+ pay bills
+ laundry
+ menus, shopping, cooking, dishes

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

I wake up around 7:30, sometimes before, sometimes after. At that time of morning in winter light streams in around the shutter and bedroom door. Bruce is out to work already, and the house is on pause, waiting for the day to fill it. I open the door, and the shutter, and the skylight shades. Next I do the shades in the extra room, and those in the bathroom so the bright winter sun can reach in, all through the second floor.

Downstairs the cardinals and titmice are calling to be fed, so I slip on Bruce’s down coat and slip outside to sprinkle sunflower seeds on the slate under the wisteria. The cardinals are platform feeders, but not the titmice. They have adapted, though, landing just to pinch a seed, then flying off to a perch in the magnolia, where they crack it open on the branch. I put out a few old grapes for the sparrows too. Soon the jays and squirrels will muscle in for what is left.

There are clean pots and pans to put away while my tea warms. Today I am drinking Russian Caravan, but other days I opt for Willoughby’s special blend of black tea and dried apricot. I hit play on WMNR and classical music layers into the morning and the kitchen. The light above the hood stays on night and day, but loses its importance by eight a.m. No other lights are needed even on winter’s shortest, cloudiest days. Email and weather are unremarkable, so I check the headlines, but nothing there is of note either.

Back upstairs I make the bed, and put a load of laundry in. I like to do laundry in the winter, when the sun makes pleasing patterns and warms the tile floor. The Miele goes swish swish swish … swish swish swish … swish swish shish. It is rather hypnotic.
There are bills to be paid so I have another cup of tea while I schedule them. Then I call Meg, for news of the kids and the estate settlement, and her work.

I am ready now, to go up to studio, and write. I have established a practice, for every weekday morning. I spend at least two hours writing, to put down six hundred to one thousand words. Today I will write about today.

Bruce is stopping by to photograph a painting in progress for an issue of MUSE. I can’t work through the interruption, so I’ll exercise while he is here, hand weights I think. I’ll finish writing when he’s gone.

When I am done writing, I’ll make lunch. It is the meal that breaks my overnight fast, and the biggest of the day. Today I’m having a beef stir fry, with asparagus, red pepper, green onion, basil, garlic, ginger, and soy, and sticky rice on the side.

After lunch I usually nap upstairs in the sun, on the bathroom chaise, catching up with Sucksters on my Kindle until I drift off.

When I wake up, I’ll water my menagerie of house plants to ease into the rest of the day: painting in studio, and emails, miscellaneous chores (like closing all the shades I opened this morning), and edit what I wrote this morning. Then Bruce is home. We’ll catch up over a light supper/snack, and likely have a deep discussion about ideas or plans or news or people. Then I’ll watch Jeopardy! and Wheel. Afterwards there is time for reading – “Making Sense of the Smart City” or “China Rules” – or a Netflix binge, and quiet togetherness. Then I’ll sleep until tomorrow, and wake when the sun streams in around the shutter, again.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

January is a traditional time for reflection, resolutions, new routines and plans, too. At our age, a list of New Year’s resolutions looks a lot like a bucket list. Here’s mine:

  • open a gluten-free Bakery and catering company (with Bruce the baker, natch, and Printha when she’s old enough).
  • Take a one-year sabbatical on the island of Puerto Rico, to do historical architectural research, genealogy, and recover my fluency in Spanish.
  • Work as a volunteer plant material gluer/assembler on a Rose Parade float.
  • Try out for Jeopardy (again).
  • Travel – a very long list …
  • Make art – another long list of ideas and projects.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * *




January is also the month of Bruce’s birthday. Here is the card I made for him.

Emotional labor, right?


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