Working Make Believe

It’s 4:34pm on January 31st. I spent the last eight hours working. Today, that work was outside, ice guiding. I know it was work because other people knew I did it, and I got paid for it. Yesterday, I spent the same eight hours in front of my computer. Nothing I did touched another person or was directly revenue producing. So was it work?

When I was four years old, I went to school to work. Other kids went to pre-school to play; I went to Montessori. There is no play in the Montessori cannon. Young children work—even if it looks the same as the kids at the regular pre-school down the street where they call it play. I stayed at Montessori until I was thirteen. Since I went to college, I’ve always said that that school, Lake Country, single-handedly created my work and study ethic. I always said it like it was a good thing.

But what if it just set me up for an unconventional adulthood, where “work” is never fully understood? If, as a kid, I could build bridges with blocks and be told I had done work, then what do I, as an adult, understand as the demarcation of that term in the outside world?

My boyfriend is also a climbing guide. But he does it full time. He’s worked twenty-five of the past thirty days. He gets up, leaves the house, and comes back with a paycheck. I’m usually well into my second cup of coffee when he leaves, and just nursing the final sips of my fourth cup of tea when he comes home. What I do does not look the same as what he does. If I track my hours, I spend roughly 80% of my time working without an immediate corollary of income.

Maria Montessori never talked about getting paid for work. She just wanted for children’s time to be valued. But when those kids grow up they enter a world where value, for work, comes in the form of money. Or at least money is the clearest sign of valuation.

I’m not talking about being zen about all of this—about realizing the other things “work” gives us. That is another subject. I’m talking about what happens at the end of the day when you close your computer screen and look around, and for all practical purposes to anyone in the outside world, nothing has changed since you opened the thing ten hours before. How do you know if it counts?

Maybe conventional work was developed so that people would have parameters for what they did every day. It’s a giant container in which you can fit the things you do that are outside of, well, non-work. Life is supposed to be divided like that—or it is if you follow the way many societies set up valuation. But that edge is blurring for most people. Mountain guides come home from a day of “work” and have to dry out their gear to get ready for the next. People you work with send you messages on facebook. Your neighbor ends up across the desk at a job interview. Email bleeds into every part of life.

Then again, maybe it’s just about how we contextualize it. Today, out on the ice, a man next to me was describing his job as a truck driver to his climbing partner. He gets up, drives to the depot station, gets in his truck, drives where he is told, parks his truck, gets in his car and goes home.

“It’s honest work,” he said. The other man nodded in agreement. They moved on to the next climb.

I went back to belaying my client. This was my job for the day—the thing these men were doing for play. My work. My sometimes work.

It’s honest work. That was that. Enough said. Maybe that’s what Maria Montessori meant, after all.