Confessions of a Laid-off Lawyer

Just Your Average Joe Blogging Away His Debt—In One Year or Less

Darker the Collar, Lighter the Stress

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Total Black: $93.50
Total Red: $228,370.88

One significant difference that I’ve noticed between white-collar and blue-collar work: stress-inducing versus stress-reducing.  White-collar work seems fraught with veritable landmines of stress.  That many white-collar workers must insure themselves against malpractice speaks to the quantity of stress some professions produce.  Many doctors, quite literally, hold their patient’s life in their hands.  For lawyers that can be true as well, and if not in a criminal defense case then at least the client’s livelihood or financial life.  And where corporations go, lawyers, accountants, and business executives hold the company’s life in their hands.  Arthur Anderson and Enron no longer exist.  Same for Merrill Lynch and Lehman Brothers.

As I noted in Feelings and Finances, my dad worked as a janitor at a vocational school, sometimes working three different janitorial positions at the same time.  But he loved going to work.  He loved the people.  He loved the kids.  And he took pride in his work.  Today I was reminded of that.  I spent the evening erecting trusses.  We’re getting the Recession Art Sale up and running.  Before today, I didn’t know “truss” was word.  Tomorrow we’ll finish trussing and then install the lights.  I have to say that it felt good getting dirty and sweaty, doing manual labor.  It’s been too long since I last did that.  And there’s definitely something therapeutic to it.  Maybe because it gets your body moving; loosens your joints and muscles.  Maybe it’s that moment when you step back and see your efforts taking shape.  Or maybe because you give your head a respite from stress and worries.  Regardless, I liked it.  And it’s not something I could say about law firm work.  I wonder how we’ve come to this point: where doctors drown in debt and whore themselves to pharmaceutical companies; where lawyers sacrifice principle and ethics to climb the corporate ladder.  Or has it always been this way?

When I worked as a porter on the Mississippi Queen, my biggest stress was the weekly haul of luggage on and off the boat.  Porters worked 12-hour shifts, seven days a week, for roughly five- to six-week rotations.  Once every week, from about 10pm until roughly 7 or 8am the next morning, we’d lug all the luggage off the boat, stacking it along the riverbank until the morning when we’d load it on buses.  We’d get about two hours after the departure of that week’s passengers when we’d have to quickly polish brass, vacuum, wash windows, and otherwise clean up before the next set of passengers began to arrive.  The worst shift was midnight to noon because you’d have to handle both unloading and loading the luggage, and sometimes the passengers too.  One time I had a very large woman, a very low tide, and a very steep decline from the riverbank to the bow—if it hadn’t been for another porter coming up the ramp at the same moment, that lady, her wheelchair, and I might all have gone overboard.

Besides turn-over days, the only other major stress was hauling garbage off the boat.  The boat kept garbage bags in black cubes outside along the port side of the boat.  We’d have to haul those cubes up the embankment and empty the contents into dumpsters.  I found that the worst thing about garbage is that sometimes it smells good!  You’d lift that cube lid and out wafted this wonderful scent of Italian dressing from the salad scraps left over from dinner.  Instinctively your nose would send out the “yum!” signal to your stomach until your brain could short-circuit it by reminding you this was garbage you were smelling.  I enjoyed my riverboatin’ experience.  Even though it only lasted four months or so, it gave me some of the best memories of my life thus far.  I suppose it’s not exactly accurate though to say that only luggage and garbage caused me stress.  Being in the closet did as well.   And so did coming out of it.  We lived on the boat with randomly assigned roommates.  So, I was afraid to be honest about myself.  But that’s not the type of stress I’m speaking of here.

Both white-collar and blue-collar workers exacerbate work environments for each other.  Instead, I’m speaking of the work itself.  Take interpersonal conflict out of the picture and we’re left with nearly stress-free levels in the dark blue-collar worlds and very high-stress levels in the snow white-collar worlds.  Haven’t heard of many garbage men or short-order cooks with malpractice insurance.  Have seen many law firm partners with bags under their eyes.  Seems the lighter the collar the heavier the stress.  And the darker the collar the lighter the stress.  I’m not planning on dropping my license and picking up my broom.  But I am alarmed at the levels of stress, depression, and substance abuse among “snow white”-collar workers.  And I wonder why it’s considered an acceptable “occupational hazard.”

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