|Helena Fitzgerald||Sep 21, 2018|
The last minute is basically my only real skill. In college, (and high school, and since I can remember) there must have been things I occupied myself with in the hours between when I left class or left a social event and when, at 1am, or 3am, or 6am, I sat down to start work. But mostly what I remember is those frantic hours, the world around me silent, tunneling to the forced singularity of focus. There was a street lamp right under my dorm window, five stories down. It came back on at 5am, and at least once a week I would watch it spark to life, as the morning leaked back into the world, and I would feel like I had acquired some substance, like whatever was coming next would be survivable, like this version of myself, awake, capable of driving the work of two weeks into two hours, was worthy of praise. I felt tangibly good at something, the way I imagine athletes feel. I liked writing, but I liked at least as much being able to say "I wrote it in an hour" about something I’d written. I still do. At this point, after many years of operating this way, I can see the seams, the flimsiness of it, but I have been relying on the last minute for so long that I don’t know how to do otherwise.
Most prestige television is competence porn (a term I did not invent, one that’s been used for at least five years to talk about heavy-handed self-serious television) and almost all of it centers on a workplace. Competence porn is a slicker version of the Puritan work ethic, one in which the office replaces the church and job excellence replaces spiritual purity. If television in the last ten or fifteen has a cohesive thesis - and I believe it does - the thesis is that work will save you. Work replaces the family. It orders the world into meaning, and lifts singular identity into a high and visible register. Your ability to be good at your job is what makes you important, and if you can be good enough at your job, being good at your job becomes indistinguishable from miracle-working, and takes the place of love. In this figuration, the workplace offers the heroism missing from the paltry movements of our home lives. Perhaps romantic or domestic love never looked like it was supposed to, never made us whole, but being really good at a job will.
Framed this way, against the sacred expectations of home and family, love and romance and marriage, this kind of television manages to make the chained-to-the-wheel, work-til-you-die ethos of capitalism seem almost subversive, refreshing. This isn't new - American culture has always done this, our central myth is that work is greater than work, that work creates a higher, better self, and alone is sufficient as virtue. It's easy to see why the promise appeals. You don't have to love anyone, or make anyone love you; you just have to be really, really good at your job.
Of all the competence porn shows, Mad Men was perhaps their grand emperor, the one that took this promise, this office-as-whaling ship, office-as-Odyssey-and-Iliad notion the furthest. It's far and away my favorite piece of television ever created, and I love it deeply, and I suspect it is deeply corrupt and essentially Not Good. My suspicion of its not-goodness, its rotten core, is partly why I love it, and the fact that I love it is the reason I am so suspicious of it. Mad Men is selling what I am buying, which probably means its heart is full of dust and shouldn’t be trusted.
Mad Men gestures at more nuanced or enlightened ideas, but essentially it is a show about the holiness of the last minute. It is a long fancy story about procrastination, in which procrastination and poor time management prove that an individual is very, very, very good at his work. All of its best episodes take the form of all-nighters. Full twenty-four hour days stuck in the office are where the show gets at saying what it really means. The all-nighter is the form of worship in the religion of the workplace; the all-nighter is the mass, the praise dance, the church service, the talking snakes. The only genius, the kind that counts, the kind that can replace love and home and family, is the rusted, alchemical genius of the last minute.
This thesis is appealing, but it also breaks down quickly on examination. Work itself, the actual doing, is inherently undramatic, static, unbroken. All-nighters aren’t really competence; they in fact demonstrate its absence. Actual competence is boring, plodding and repetitive, the metered-out daily doing of a task, separated neatly into reasonable, manageable pieces. Competent people don’t pull all-nighters. Real competence does not lend itself to the frantic oil-painting of prestige television, or the high-wire plot-lines of drama and miracles.
I am near not the end but one completion marker of a very large project, procrastination on which has given substance and form to more years than I care to enumerate. Part of the reason this project is taking so long is that I have always assumed I could do it the way I have done everything else I have done in my life: By avoiding it right up until just past when it is unavoidable, by cramming it into the space between the night before and the morning when it is due, teasing out the holy from the desperation that lives there, the perfect peace of watching that street lamp come on at 5am below that dorm room window so many years ago. It is, of course, impossible to do any long-form project this way, and so it has been a series of false starts and switch backs, because I never learned to plan anything out or do anything patiently, and moreover because I have taught myself that doing so is a failure, a loss of particular genius. To do something reasonably, in manageable pieces, means to admit my limitations, to turn work from the register of miracles back down to the everyday, where it is just work.
One of the things I have learned from fighting with people I love is there are some things that are just not going to change. Not all of my habits or inabilities will yield to to revision just because I have realized it would be better if they did. There are some things I am stuck with, even if I can see how I would be better off being otherwise. The thing about being able to do things at the last minute is that at some point, at least for me, it switched over to not being able to do them any other way; the ability deftly created an inability, or transformed into one.
It turns out that procrastination, born in my case out of the drive to show how fast I can do everything, actually makes long projects take longer. The things that procrastination accumulates and ultimately makes primary are actually the things that competence porn and the religion of the workplace eschew and offer to replace: home, and family, and friends, non-lucrative skills, gossip, compassion, and unproductive fun, the domestic and interpersonal tangles that yield no achievements one can hold up to the world. If you spend your life avoiding work, you end up making primary everything that is not work.
This inefficiency, then, lets things marinate and grow. This one project I have been working on for much too long is embarrassing, but it has also become a dance diagram, a living record of how I have moved through the world and where my body has been in space, whom I have loved and hated and ignored and been ignored by, what I have wanted and gotten and wanted and not gotten, and how I have changed, all printed like a hand covered in ink onto paper. If our lives are defined in the space between what we intended to do and what we did, then I am all of the hours I have spent not-doing, all the time I have spent texting and cleaning my house and cooking elaborate things, tweeting my worst thoughts full of exclamation points and trying to make strangers on the internet love me by showing them my ugliest self, all the time I have spent reading livejournals and blogs and clickbait, stalking friends of friends of friends of friends’ instagrams and chasing cats around the apartment, taking walks in the bad weather and calling my mom and and thinking about sex and having sex and putting clothing and skincare in carts on websites without ever buying any of it, comforting friends and taking screenshots of things I wanted to tweet but didn't, and, sometimes, very occasionally, writing something. Work is so small a part of any of our lives, no matter how many hours we spend in an office, no matter if every waking moment is theoretically engaged with work projects. Life seeps in at the not-doing, the putting-off, the wasted time. All the large map of myself, marriage and failure and bank accounts and cabs and being scared on airplanes and reunions and departures and second chances, have been a lead-up to another last minute, on the way to the rushed hour, distractions on the way to actually doing the thing, which matters so little at all.
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