When you are unemployed, waiting for Gmail is a lot like waiting for Godot.
“So, what do you do?”
I make tea at 10 a.m. It’s what I do to force the day into happening. Meaning that, by the end of the day, when I say, “things happened,” I’m hoping to be able to say, “things happened because of me,” and not just—as it’s been during this stretch of unemployment—“things happened without me.”
An outline of failed attempts to start the day, prior to 10 a.m.:
1. Waking up
4. Checking all three email accounts
5. Then opening Twitter
6. Then going back to the email accounts, waiting for that friggin’ word “Inbox” to look like this: Inbox (1)
What I always hope it’ll look like: Inbox (1 Million Messages that Validate Your Existence)
Now, I put the electric kettle on. While I wait, I line up my brown teapot, and one of four vintage Pyrex mugs. Since it’s a Tuesday, I use the one with the weird black stains on the lip. I save the spotless ones for Thursday and Friday. Friday also means I’m entitled to use my “Friday Spoon”—a square-tipped jam spoon with a filigreed handle, and the only one of its kind in our drawer. Because of its singularity, I perceive it as “the best,” and hope that it’s uniqueness will be the thing that wrenches me out of this broken carousel of waiting.
But, I’m getting ahead of myself. For now: the water runs, gets hotter.
I will hold back the details on how I use a little of the water to warm up my mug, how I rotate the teapot 360° while I pour the water over the teabag, how I warm my hands on the mug, how I use the remainder of the water to sterilize the sponges and the toothbrushes, and then how, only after all of this, I remember I’m still in pajamas.
By the time the tea is steeping, I’ve only killed about eleven minutes, and The Email I’m eternally waiting for is not highlighted in my inbox. Still, I sit back down, click refresh, and wait for the next thing to boil.
I am Waiting for Gmail while I am Waiting for Godot.
My neighbor Matt once described the internet as preying on humanity’s most basic desire: to find something and be rewarded. From hunter-gatherers, to Magellan, to nanotechnology, we’re wired for discovery. The cliché explanation by now is to call obsessive email/wiki/blog-checking a case “instant gratification.” When this behavior is coupled with unemployment, it’s no longer so simple. The empty repetition of “checking” and “searching” is not comprised of instants, but of mobile delays. It is not destroying us so much as it is tripping us into a loop of never-ending almost discoveries.
If you were to pay me to tweet, blog, and email, I would suddenly feel that I was meant to do these activities, where I am the jail keeper and not the incarcerated. And when you asked me at a mixer, a red-cupped G&T swinging in one hand, “So, what do you do?” I would not sweat through three shirts, I would not keep thinking of how I make tea, and my answer would not be more of an attempt to convince myself that I’m actually doing something.
Take a look at this list of slightly modified* answers to a standardized test question about wanting to purchase a gift for a loved one. The question is directed at American children in elementary school:
A) Jenny had no money, so she did her chores.
B) Jenny had no money, so she went to the bank.
C) Jenny bought a gift, so she had no money.
Without seeing the question, it is unsurprising that A) is the “right” answer. As it implies, you work hard not in order to survive, but to be the kind of good person that buys gifts as proof of familial love. Even the use of “chores” is revealing—a word we use to infer drudgery, not something like “vocation” or “calling” that suggests we find a way to marry our passion for discovery with our need to survive.
“You shouldn’t talk so much on your blog about being unemployed,” a friend told me. “It sends the wrong message to future employers.”
In the last year, I’ve sent out over a hundred resumes, dozens of fellowship applications, applied to Starbucks, and countless staffing agencies. Clearly, I still don’t know what the right message is to send to employers.
So, what do I do? I make tea. That is, I find another way to get tragically addicted to waiting. Finding a job won’t change that habit, nor will it stop my desire to receive The Email, even though we all know that’s a self-defeating fantasy. Still, I have seen what pains I will go to in order to distract myself as I wait for imaginary validation. Here’s what I’m afraid of: pouring pot after pot of tea into stained cups until the water runs out.
*Due to confidentiality and copyright reasons, some of the details of this test question have been left out and/or changed. The essence remains intact.
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