SWANSON SHRUGGED

by Niv M. Sultan


Sitting down to begin writing this, having less than an hour ago watched the Parks and Recreation series finale—and thereby having completed my first viewing of the series in its entirety—I can already predict the criticisms that future me will have of the next few paragraphs. “It was supposed to be about Ayn Rand,” I’ll say; “about how Leslie is Bizarro-Dagny-Taggart, a gleaming blonde woman laborer who stops at nothing to succeed, and breaks through the walls that men build and maintain and protect from their seats atop them—but she does so in a distinctly public sphere, instead of the realm of private industry!”

Yes, I love that idea. I love Ron Swanson as the libertarian ideal, the apex of “social progressivism and fiscal conservatism” (whatever that actually means). When I scan a piece of pop culture, my mind has come to begin with a critique of the subject’s capitalist themes and implications, because I did it once and it stuck, and because I do capitalism every day. Parks and Rec is so wonderfully fitting for that kind of thing, too. It’s a show about work, the free market, and government. I could go in on Parks and Rec.

But not now.

That’s because for all of its compelling treatments of sociopolitical ideology, Parks and Rec left me feeling emotionally distraught. The season finale was a finger pressing on a new wound, digging at the emptiness that crystallizes when you watch seven seasons of a show in a very short timespan. I loved Leslie and Ron and Andy and Tom, and Jean-Ralphio and the pun-loving accountant. I can’t quite remember the last time that I got so sappy over a TV show, and I’m fairly certain that rather than making me feel more attached to its characters than any other show has (which it very well may have), Parks and Rec simply hit me at the right time.

When I was in college, the anti-capitalist shtick was simple because I didn’t have to compromise much in order to sustain myself. Flirting with socialism while typing away at a MacBook was easy because I didn’t have to pay for my meals. Nowadays, it’s harder for me to deny my hypocrisy; I have become the subject of one of my myriad college papers that I can sum up with: “This thing that I’m talking about is criticizing a thing while also being that thing!” I despise what capitalism does to so many people, but I do so from the safeguarded niche it built for me when people who looked enough like me made it.

In “One Last Ride,” the Parks and Rec season finale, Leslie Knope gives a commencement address in which she says that “We do it [public service] because we get the chance to work hard at work worth doing, alongside a team of people who we love.” It made me think of the year I spent in public service, fresh out of college, working on a team whose transition from starry-eyed to hardened was swift and helpful. I adored—and continue to adore—the coworkers with whom I built something good on a foundation of very little common ground.

My year of borderline-quixotic labor is behind me, but I now find myself less willing to compromise on the idealistic than I would have expected. I have an office job, and I get paid a salary, but when I really think about what I’m doing, I wonder what it’s worth. (Millennial malaise 101, perhaps.) I consistently reflect on how lucky I am to be gainfully employed, but as per my mind’s most dire formulations, working a job that isn’t what I want to do in the long-term can be one of two things: a learning experience, or the front step of the abyss. So, from a place of confusion and anxiety, it was painful for me to recognize how much the characters of Parks and Rec love their work and each other.

The fact that Leslie and co. work under increasingly rare, almost mythical conditions didn’t help, either. 40-hour work weeks and the ideals of public service are vestiges of a time long-gone, intangibles that the invisible hand has largely cut down. Today’s workers, should they desire success as 21st-century upper-class whiteness defines it, need to be willing to work 130 hours a week. There are, to many, few values beyond money and renown.

Ron Swanson, then, isn’t the antithesis of government labor—he’s its paragon. He comes in at 9:00, and is out the door at 5:01. He values honesty, respect, and family. One of his catchphrases, “Please and thank you,” evokes the philosophical bedrock of government work. When Ron asks for something, he doesn’t wait for a response before giving thanks. Thank you, the signifier of an honest job well done, is a given. And because thank you is a given, the government, an operation with thankless work at its core, is the pillar around which Ron’s world swivels.

Yes, Ron finds satisfaction when he temporarily leaves public service and runs his own construction company. But it pales in comparison to his ultimate job of managing a national park, a haven declared invulnerable to the sands of time and the hazards of private ownership. It takes Ron a while, but he finds the place to which his life has been a path. And when we last see him at work, he is at peace: paddling not into the abyss, but into a body of water that belongs to everyone and no one at all.


Niv M. Sultan
 
 
Niv M. Sultan is a writer based in Washington, DC, whose work has appeared on First Person Scholar and The Ontological Geek. He is currently a political and nonprofit marketing consultant, and recognizes that he’s often part of the problem. Follow him on Twitter.

SHE DID ALL OF THIS

by D’Andrew Allen Parker


It was six o’clock in the morning.

An obscure but warm, yellow ray tickled my nose and woke me up. I was upstairs, nestled comfortably on a twin bed in a small bedroom in Bridgeport, West Virginia. I heard the faint clanking of metal pots downstairs, the noise loud enough for me to sit up from my bed and attempt to figure out what was going on.

Before I fell asleep on the previous night, my mom had entered the house exhausted from a long day of work. In addition to her nine-to-five, she picked up small part-time shifts at a bookstore formerly known as Waldenbooks. I loved that store. Before my mom started working there, we could sit in that capitalist gallery of knowledge acquisition for so long, and never regret a minute of flipping through a myriad of texts; artful, political, instructional, imaginative. Fictional, universal, moral texts.

I don’t know when my mother ate lunch, or what she ate. She ate, though. Work for her started in the morning. I never remembered hearing an alarm clock sounding off. Maybe she was lucid dreaming and knew how to wake herself up? It would make sense because her mind would then be able to overcome the physical apprehension we all know so well: to leave the softness of a box-spring fortified, gelatinous cloud of relaxation. Her routine may have helped, too. Bath: check. Lotion: check. Deodorant: check. Brushed teeth: check. Perfume: check. Foundation: check. Eyeliner: check. Eyebrows: check. Maroon-ish lip gloss: check. False eyelashes: check. Hair: check. Outfit: check. Smile: check.

I was cold when I woke up. Normally, the temperature of my room would hover on the toasty side. Sometimes a bead of sweat would fall down the side of my temple from the biting warmth of the air; however, it was much better than putting on an extra sweater and doubling up on blankets to avoid the discomfort of shivering. We were in the thickest part of winter. Where did the blankets come from? As I walked downstairs, I realized that it was my mother who had laid them across me before she went to bed.

I walked into the dining room, which was set up similarly to my grandmother’s house: a table, a centerpiece, an assortment of China, and a large wooden case of decorated plates and silver utensils that sat parallel to the table. I walked past it to discover my mother working in the kitchen. Because she was unable to pay for the gas to be supplied to our house, not only was the house frigidly cold, but the water was, too. It was great for drinking. Nothing better than an icy mug of water! But in the winter, you don’t want an icy mug of water. You want a fiery mug of coffee or hot chocolate.

Fortunately, our stove ran on electricity. My mom turned on the oven and opened it to allow heat to permeate the kitchen. It felt much better than the walk-through-the-freezer trek I had made from my bedroom to the downstairs kitchen. On the stove top, four large pots whistled and bubbled. The water in the pots sang with every wisp of steam that escaped their metal trenches. In the oven, a double-part turkey cooker was also filled with water. I thought to myself, “Why is my mother heatin’ up all this wa—”; before I could finish that thought, she grabbed two different colored dish rags that lay across the silver neck of our kitchen’s water mouth. Turning towards the stairwell, my mom jerked her neck in a direction that signaled for me to follow her.

Climbing the stairs was so much different this time. I was pensive. So pensive that when I walked across the hallway on the upstairs platform, I bumped my pinky toe into the banister that jutted out from the railing. One of its wooden legs cracked a bit. Oh well. I didn’t know then what it would mean to work for it later.

In the bathroom, my mother reached for and opened the metal sliding doors to the bath-shower. Reaching down, she closed the drain. It was at this point that I understood how thoughtful my mom had been. After she poured the water into the bathtub, she twisted the knob to the right, which ushered cold water into the base and countered the steam pit. She dipped her hand into the water several times; to check its temperature, to make sure that it was tolerable. Leaving the bathroom, she instructed me to get into the water quickly so that I would be able to bathe in warm water. After that, I cleaned out the tub so that she could do the same thing for my brothers.

She did all of this—before she went to “work,” of course.

I learned that work for my mom was not limited to punching in or punching out, but moving forward, sharing the glow of an obscure and intangible love that knows no bounds—a love that presses on in the face of trial, and tries in the face of challenge. And for her, work was enjoyable. It wasn’t something she had to do, but something she wanted to do. She taught me how fulfilling work can be when the only barrier to your success is the one you are not willing to break. Or fill, I suppose.


D'Andrew Parker
 
D’Andrew Allen Parker is an educator based in Washington, DC. He holds a B.A. in Music, with concentrations in voice and piano, from West Virginia Wesleyan College. Recently, D’Andrew graduated from City Year Washington, DC, and began his work as a Special Education Inclusion Teacher at Cardozo Education Campus, the school at which he served as an AmeriCorps Member.

THE CUSTOMER’S ALWAYS RIGHT (AND SOMETIMES AN ASSHOLE)

By Dan Fitzpatrick


Among the most sacred American rites of passage is the first job. Like other fortunate youths, I found myself working not out of economic necessity, but rather as a character-building extracurricular. Menial and unpleasant by design, the first job is meant to teach us punks the meaning of responsibility. A hard day’s work. The value of a dollar. All good stuff, to be sure, but my biggest takeaway had more to do with human nature. I learned to deal with strangers, particularly those who were less than interested in being my friends. You know, assholes.

Back in my early teens, I became a caddie at a golf club in my hometown. It’s a place where successful middle-aged men go to blow off some steam and take their amateur sports careers a bit too seriously. Granted, the vast majority of people you come across in any industry are harmless enough. Some are even pleasant. As a novice caddie, however, you often get assignments for the less-desirable golfers. The trainwrecks. The troublemakers. The assholes.

On one such occasion, I was asked to carry for one such asshole, an older gentleman with a well-paired sweater vest and frown. We’ll call him Mr. Turd in order to respect his privacy, but also to avoid respecting him too much.

It was a round where I couldn’t seem to do anything right. Turd ordered me to stand close to keep the sun out of his eyes, but snapped at me for breathing too loudly during his swing. Later, one of his partners—a nice guy, oddly enough—suggested I take a break and strap Mr. Turd’s bag onto his golf cart for the last couple holes. I gladly complied, but my overlord unfortunately saw it as an act of unforgivable laziness. Before we could tee off on the 17th, he took me aside and berated me in front of the other players and caddies with all the righteous fury of a doomsday prophet.

In the moment, of course I wanted to stand up for myself and let him have it. “One day, I’m gonna be somebody, Mr. Turd. Then you’ll be sorry you were so miserable to me!” Then everyone starts clapping for me, and we all deliver candy to the orphanage that Mr. Turd was trying to shut down. You know the drill.

But I just stood there and took it like a champ. “Sorry, Mr. Turd.” And boy, I’m glad I did. Somebody had to, or else we never would’ve gotten off the golf course.

A couple years later, I switched over to a part-time cashier gig at Wegman’s, a local deluxe supermarket. The endless scanning and bagging was a bit mind-numbing, but it was a decent enough job. The interesting thing most people don’t realize about the food-buying experience is how impersonal the entire thing is. Grocery store employees present thousands of items in perfect rows for shoppers to browse at their leisure, but rarely do the two groups ever come face-to-face—until customers reach the checkout lane.

For the assholes, this is their opportunity to announce their list of grievances. The cashier will hear exactly how their days are going, like it or not. This even applies to the self-checkout aisle—that’s right, not even robots are safe. It’s a weird sensation to have your “Hi, how are ya’s” met with immediate yelling. Maybe the store was too bright, there was no more of that special yogurt, or the parking lot was crowded. Whether or not the problem was my fault, I was bound to hear about it. Meanwhile, the other customers (the good eggs) were caught in the crossfire, trapped between a shouting lunatic and a rack of Us Weeklies.

That’s what assholes do: they take an entire situation hostage with their anger, their selfishness, and their total inability to solve their own problems. The entire world screeches to a halt around their flailing egos. For the good of everyone else, crises like these require a hero to defuse the assholery and allow ordinary life to resume.

Little by little, I got better at dealing with the bores and bummers who dared compromise the tranquility of my lane. I dispensed swift justice, issuing curt apologies and ushering troublemakers out of the store with a sedated “I’ll be sure to pass on your concerns. Thanks for shopping!”

These encounters turned out to be far more valuable than the minimum wage I earned those summers. Assholes will never go out of style, or get outsourced to China, so I got used to dealing with them. Keep the bullies moving, I told myself; don’t let them put down roots in your golf course, your register, or your head.

Even if I fail in that endeavor, I at least know how to avoid becoming my own worst enemy. It’s so easy to not be a Mr. Turd. I’m better off for it, too. Because once I shake off Mr. Turd back into his sportscar, he’s got nothing better to do than pick on another peach-fuzzed teenager.


Dan Fitzpatrick
 
Dan Fitzpatrick is a writer and comedian based in New York City. He is a regular contributor for popular online publications, including Above Average, Splitsider, and The National Memo. He also has a personal humor blog, The Danopticon, and can make a mean omelet (it hisses insults at nearby children). Follow him on Twitter.

LOCKS TOO BLACK

by Anon.


[Note: On September 15, 2016, the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals upheld a decision ruling that it is legal for employers to reject job applicants because of their hairstyles. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission had filed the case on behalf of Chastity Jones, after Catastrophe Management Solutions rescinded her job offer because of her dreadlocks—because, as an HR manager explained, “[T]hey tend to get messy, although I’m not saying yours are, but you know what I’m talking about.” According to NBC News, the court’s logic was that “hairstyles, while ‘culturally associated with race,’ are not ‘immutable physical characteristics.’”

The author of this piece wrote it prior to the court’s decision.]


About two months ago I sat in a salon chair, with my hair hanging past my ears, newly released from the universal object of women’s entrapment, the hair-tie. On that day I was going to fulfill a lifelong goal—I was going to express a side of myself that was truly symbolic of all of myself. I sat in the natural-hair salon to finally lock my hair. My stomach was turning, hoping that the finished product would be something I could get used to.

I sent my mom an excited text, “I’m doingggg it, I’m locking my hair!” I didn’t hear from her for another hour. When she responded, it was without exclamation marks or hyperbolic joy. She advised me to think about timing and getting a job. She warned that, unfortunately, it mattered to employers. I rolled my eyes and explained that I was smart enough to get hired anyway. She insisted: the choice to lock my hair, a step of self- and identity-exploration, would narrow my range of options in the workforce. The interlacing of large strands of my hair with one another would require me to think about alternative interview strategies and ultimately decide which employers were confident in my abilities. I was advised to wait for a number of reasons, and so I did. The thought process and rationale surrounding that decision is what bothers me most, and is haunting for the simple fact that I succumbed to it.

Black hair politics has long been an important component of black identity, and when the time came for me to challenge the white standard of beauty, I thought I’d be ready. To my surprise, I was not—for three reasons.

1. My options to work inside the system, whether politically or legally, would be narrowed. Simply put, there has not been enough exposure to black aesthetics in government or the law to afford me the choice of locking my hair. When I challenged my mother and asked if this meant that I also shouldn’t wear my hair natural, she shook her head, squinched her eyes, and said, “No!” I couldn’t understand the difference in acceptability between having locs and natural hair. When I asked her to explain, her words fell short as she murmured, “It’s just the way it is, baby.”

2. I decided that I was not betraying my heart and identity by waiting to get locs. I am a black woman, and so naturally my hair is intertwined with my mood, my expression, and my growth. When I first debated taking out my two-strand twists (pre-loc stage) after going to the salon, I talked with my boyfriend, my friends, and my mentors. Locking my hair was a professional decision. I asked questions about whether they thought I could pull the look off, and if I would be okay in interviews. We tussled with these ideas, but at the core of each conversation I was looking for reassurance that this would not make me a “sell-out,” or make it seem like I was ashamed of who and what I am. In the end, I concluded that my decision and my identity could coexist. Not to mention that black women have sacrificed a lot more than a hairdo to find work.

3. I was convinced that if I wanted to be a part of fixing the system, my role was to be in the system and wreak havoc there. I have been afforded privileged opportunities: I had great schooling, am politically well-versed, and have a supportive family and financial stability. My privilege also extends to the way I look. Because of my light complexion, narrow nose, and petite figure, I have the ability to align with an image of beauty that sits well with white professionals. Of course, I do not look white, but I do not have “traditional” black features. As uncomfortable as I am saying this, I know it’s the truth, and I would be remiss if I did not acknowledge it here.

The idea is that with this privilege and my education, I can position myself in systemic places of power to then turn the system on its head—challenge the legislation they pass, the rhetoric they use, the people they appoint, and the oppression they allow. And then, only then, ONCE I HAVE EMERGED VICTORIOUS, I can lock the hair that is mine. Then I will not be laden with the social stigma of having locs, because I will have proven my credibility to my white peers. This would circumvent the urge to judge my ability by their level of comfort with my hairdo.

With hair neatly kept, I would swing my long locs across the floors of Congress and have my cake and eat it too.

THE GAG IS: I got hired with two braids and a head-wrap on my head—one of the blackest aesthetics. Go figure.


 
The author of this piece is a black woman, a public servant, and a poet.

 

ANOTHER DAY AT THE OFFICE

by Niv M. Sultan


In real life, people measure the passage of time with units on which the world has largely agreed: there are 60 seconds in a minute, 60 of those in an hour, 40-ish of those in a workweek, and on and on. Time operates differently in TV, though, where it often bothers less with pinpoint accuracy and more with broad taxonomy—scenes make up episodes, episodes are pieces of seasons, and seasons are little vessels of a show’s character, either magna opera or things that we don’t talk about. The Office is a series that recognizes and amplifies the incongruity between show-time and real-time, turning an environment in which time tends to be meticulously tracked (in at nine, out at five) into a temporal black hole. Very rare is the instance in which viewers get concrete numbers that elucidate the duration of relationships or gaps between events. To be fair, this sensation probably has a lot to do with the fact that I watched the show on Netflix. In “The Duel,” Jim reveals that the episode takes place 17 days after the one that preceded it—but with Netflix’s distortion of space and time, only seconds separated the two.

Regardless of Netflix’s bending of dark matter, The Office consistently plays with time when it comes to one topic specifically: love. When Jim leaves Scranton and meets Karen and Pam dumps Roy and Jim comes back and celebrates his six-month anniversary with Karen, the “six-month anniversary” is our sole means of contextualizing the events within a timeframe. Timing is similarly elusive in other relationships, be they between Michael and Holly, Erin and Gabe, or anyone else. Pam touches on this in “Heavy Competition,” when, after Jim second-guesses the timespan of Dwight and Angela’s affair, she mentions that “The timeline’s messy.” The timeline is messy indeed; and its messiness points not to the timelessness of love, but to the erosion of the traditional work-life balance. Love, sex, and paperwork bleed into each other because The Office, for the most part, takes place in the office. There isn’t time to have a life outside of work, so the employees of The Office forge lives within it.

The work-life balance was a subject of Juliet B. Schor’s The Overworked American (1992), which explored the nature of America’s modern work culture. Schor explained that over the course of the 20th century, Americans spent increasing time on work, and decreasing time on leisure and family. She wrote that “It is hard to avoid at least a touch of nostalgia for a world in which work was more integrated into family and social life, recreation less commercialized, and time more an easy background than a scarce commodity frenetically spent” (14). Schor’s assessment of free time is the reason why I sometimes skip through the opening credits even though doing so can take longer than letting them run. There’s the creeping feeling that every second outside of labor must be spent preciously, as efficiently as seconds spent laboring.

The state of The Office’s work-life balance is predominantly the handiwork of manager Michael Scott, the show’s backbone. Rather than simply replacing family and social life with work, Michael deeply interweaves the personal and the professional. See (indulge me here): Michael discussing a coworker in “Business Ethics” (“She’s my friend, and ultimately my strategy is to merge this into a relationship without her even knowing”); Michael in “Michael Scott Paper Company” (“They always say that it is a mistake to hire your friends, and they are right. So, I hired my best friends. And this is what I get?”); Michael in “Nepotism” (“Mixing family and business is a beautiful thing”).

The motivation behind Michael’s approach to workplace relationships becomes clear in “Take Your Daughter to Work Day.” In the episode, a young Michael explains what he wants out of adulthood to a puppet interviewing him on a children’s TV show: “I want to be married and have a hundred kids so I can have a hundred friends, and no one can say no to being my friend.” This, like many moments in The Office, is slightly more tragic than it is funny. Yes, I laughed at the feline puppet’s stunned face, and at the palpable tension in the conference room. But more powerful than awkward humor is the recorded, immune-to-the-withering-of-time proof that Michael looks to work to combat seemingly countless anxieties and insecurities. The beach trips and charity races and excursions to the mall are more than the procrastinations of a lazy manager. They are the remnants of Michael’s dreams of family and friendship, the scars of the temporal ellipsis that bridges his childhood and the moment in which he shamefully relives it.

It’s easy to sympathize with Michael, who trembles at the thought that his employees might leave Dunder Mifflin (or, worse, that they might want to leave). Life often feels like a series of relationships developed and severed; a collection of friends scattered to the wind in the name of progress or growth. It could be that long-distance friendships are like The Office, constructed on the non-negotiable clause that there will be chasms between seasons. Maybe when I see friend X or Y or Z again, months or years from now, we’ll hug and laugh, and I’ll sit back at my old desk, the perch from which I used to play pranks and cast longing glances. I could be Jim, in Stamford, missing Dwight and finally understanding that Michael was less a lunatic and more the string leading to the labyrinth’s exit.

If anyone in The Office has a relatively clear view of the work-maze, it is Creed. Creed is alpha and omega, Old Man Willow in an age where the forest is reduced to paper. But instead of existing outside of time, as primordial avatars often do, Creed is acutely sensitive to it. When post-promotion Ryan visits the office to introduce “Dunder Mifflin Infinity,” Creed warns Michael about the initiative’s dangers: “You’re over 40. That’s the cut-off. Are you listening to what he’s saying? Re-training. New system. Youth. I’m telling you, this kid is the Grim Reaper.” In the workplace, the bringer of death takes the form of a young MBA, returning like a king, with a beard that took who knows how long to grow, killing 9 to 5 with Blackberries that promise that you’ll never have to leave work at work. You’ll bring it everywhere, or you won’t bring it anywhere at all.

Michael, however, ultimately rejects the joblessness-is-death understanding of life. When he leaves The Office for Colorado, without any job prospects, after recognizing Holly as his family—and his coworkers as his best friends, nothing more and nothing less—he muses, “They say on your deathbed, you never wish you spent more time at the office, but I will.” Ryan was not the Grim Reaper, and leaving the workplace is not death. For it is only upon leaving that Michael untangles love from work, and himself from the office. I don’t believe that Michael no longer thinks of his former employees as family. I do believe, though, that at some indeterminable point after his plane takes off and Pam watches it escape, when Michael is on his deathbed, he will miss them, as one misses family and pieces of oneself.


Niv M. Sultan
 
 
Niv M. Sultan is a writer based in Washington, DC, whose work has appeared on First Person Scholar and The Ontological Geek. He is currently a political and nonprofit marketing consultant, and recognizes that he’s often part of the problem. Follow him on Twitter.

OF ONIONS AND OGRES

Welcome to Eponym!

Let’s get right to it: at Eponym’s core is the belief that there’s room for writing and voices with thorns, for a middle-ground between Facebook feeds and the kinds of websites that a very specific type of friend—you know the one—somehow publishes a piece with. There’s room for layers, for onions and ogres, for Shrek references a page or less away from things that seem unrelated to Shrek. Everything’s related to Shrek.

This launch is a reflection on the subject of labor, with pieces about The Office, black hair politics, mediocre first jobs, stove-heated baths, and Parks and Recreation. The writers who have generously contributed their time and work are curious, thoughtful, and disillusioned (to varying degrees). Eponym takes after them.

I won’t promise regularly-timed issues, because the when, what, and who of the next one remain unknown. But that mystery is fitting, given the theme of labor and the difficulty of juggling work and the rest of the world.

So I’ll write, as I find the time, and I invite you to reach out and write as well.

Enjoy.
Niv M. Sultan