Maybe We Just Want Less ‘Work’
Kai Wright: This is the United States of Anxiety, a show about the unfinished business of our history and its grip on our future.
Anthony Klotz: This is a moment of employee empowerment, worker empowerment that we haven't seen for a long time.
Stephanie Ruhle: It's been called the Great Resignation. In April, a record 4 million workers quit and in May another 3.6 million.
Ashley Wyrick: I couldn't do it, I could not work for somebody that treats their employees that way any longer.
Xavier: I can't be like one of those people who are just comfortable with just getting unemployment and all the other crap, I can't do that, I will go insane.
Angry Customer: Don’t lose your $8 an hour job….your $6.50 an hour job… don’t lose your job!
Len Kiese: During the pandemic, many of us have relied on grocery store workers to get us through, those employees are deemed essential. Now there's an effort to make sure their pay reflects that.
Eric Adams: Tell the people we're locked down, you are locked down, and we're saying that will remain.
Kai Wright: Welcome to the show, I'm Kai Wright, we start this week talking about work. It's Labor Day weekend, a holiday that many people just think about as a day off work. It's actually got a fascinating history that we'll get into later, but in the present day, it feels like everything to do with work is all scrambled up. That's begging a lot of questions. There's agreement on the fact of a labor shortage right now, there are more people trying to hire than there are people who want the jobs. It's being called the Great Resignation, because every superlative economic moment needs a catchy name.
There is widespread disagreement about why there's a labor shortage and what it means. Conservatives blame the pandemic relief packages, many people have pointed instead to the demands of childcare. I am wondering whether there's something deeper than all of that at play, whether there's a real and maybe generational shift in how people think and feel about their jobs in the first place. Let me introduce you to someone who did take a new job recently right here on our show. Kousha Navidar is a brand new producer here who's focused on talking with our digital audience.
Kousha, say hello to the people.
Kousha Navidar: Hello, my fellow people.
Kai Wright: You have spent the past week pondering this question we've had about weather and how our relationship to work is changing.
Kousha Navidar: Exactly, and to find out, I wanted to talk to people from all over the country and from all walks of life. To do that, I guess I defied the advice we've heard from every adult in our lives and I talked to strangers on the internet. My first stop was this website called Omegle, have you heard of it before?
Kai Wright: I most certainly have not, what is Omegle?
Kousha Navidar: It's this chat website where you get paired with a random person on the internet and you two can talk.
Kai Wright: Sounds shady, if I'm honest.
Kousha Navidar: Trust me, I was on there for a while, it could be shady. I found a lot of people, mostly young folks who are new to the workforce and are dealing with this question and were generous enough to share their perspectives. Here, listen to some highlights. The question is, has your relationship with work changed?
Anna: I don't really think so. I clean houses with my mom. I'm just trying to start with a little job, then get my diploma so I can actually make a living for myself. You do what you got to do to make money.
Xavier: I'm an electrician, I just got in the union, so I'm pretty happy. People really make money off of crap like TikTok and it's like, what? It has me questioning, researching more on how should I do that? At the same time, I don't want to put the effort and focus all into that when I have a career ready set for me and just I don't feel comfortable enough to risk it.
Angel: It has changed a lot since everyone's been inside and doing everything over online and stuff.
Kousha Navidar: Did the pandemic influence your choice to start this business at all?
Angel: We had the idea before it started.
Adrien: But we started the business.
Angel: We had more time.
Kousha Navidar: What do you want your relationship with work to be?
Anna: Fun, just a happy place, try to be independent.
Angel: To try to make money while being home.
Xavier: I just want to be comfortable at the end of the today where I don't have to really worry about where my next dollar is coming from or what I'm going to be eating the next day or if I can pay my bills. I don't want to have to stress about that, because at the end of the day, as long as I'm living comfortably, that's all I really care about.
Kousha Navidar: It's pretty interesting, some say it hasn't changed much, but when I dug deeper, what did change was the way they go about work and the opportunities that they see. I also heard that they want a job in a traditional sense, but they also want to start their own business or they want to be famous on TikTok and who can blame them?
Kai Wright: Because you can make millions of dollars apparently being famous on TikTok.
Kousha Navidar: My profile hasn't taken off yet, I guess I'm not that good at dancing, but whatever. Anyway, I wanted a wider perspective and I went to another platform called Discord. People join specific groups and chat in real time like on Slack, if you're familiar with that. I found this Wall Street Journal article about a Discord community called Overemployed, people on there are full time employees in more than one place.
Kai Wright: That's a lot of work.
Kousha Navidar: Some of them were kind enough to have an interview with me, we've masked their voices to protect their anonymity. Take a listen at some of the highlights.
Male 1: Working from home because of COVID, it's occurred to me that I could do more than one job, so I guess that's what's changed.
Male 2: If you treat yourself like a business, because businesses are treating you like resources.
Male 3: If I compute my expenses down to one job and have multiple jobs, I can pay off debt, I can have savings, I can protect myself from many bad things that could possibly happen.
Male 2: I think the loyalties to each other and not to any company or corporation.
Female 1: Corporation don't love you, love yourself more. If a company can overwork you, it means that I can overemploy myself because I own my time, I don't think any corporation has the right to dictate what's morally right or wrong to people.
Male 3: One of the company I was laid off from they had a huge company appreciation picnic, and the next day, they're escorting everybody out of the building.
Male 2: Person X is too expensive, taking too long, you fire him, you can hire five other people in India to replace him.
Male 3: Work is just work, it's just a paycheck, they don't care about me. The people that do care about is my family. I'm much more focused on taking care of my family, than I am about [unintelligible 00:06:51] at work.
Female 1: I'm an immigrant, after many years in this country and working for the greater good, you do get fired and you get taken advantage of. I feel that, hey, it's fine, let me take care of myself, let me take of my of my people.
Male 2: I think to work remotely just requires a lot of things I think for minorities, people of color, people of different beliefs and whatnot.
Male 1: I'm here to make money so I can do the things that I really care about in my life. But I do sincerely hope to be productive and be a good member of teams, someone that people are happy to work with at both places.
Male 2: We lived in a very segregated life before, "Okay, morning, get ready kids, you go to school, I got to live nine hours separately in my office." I think now, that's more integrated life, it's a wonderful labor. I get to spend time with my kids, take them to school, pop out, say, hi, my little coffee breaks, if you will, I work. Now I just say hi to my family. That's labor of love, nothing else.
Female 1: Being emotionally detached from your work is really the key factor, [unintelligible 00:08:11] success. Work for me is just a transaction, it's my sugar daddy. That's it.
Kousha Navidar: What's that last part that you said, it's what?
Female 1: It's my sugar daddy. That's it.
Kai Wright: Work as sugar daddy, WNYC is my sugar daddy, apparently.
Kousha Navidar: Mine too, in the same boat. For some people work is way more transactional, it's purely a method to generate money, but also, and here's the crucial thing that really stood out to me, it's about calling the shots in a different way, a new way to think about your relationship with labor. For me, a lot of this hits close to home, I've had a diverse career from math teacher to speech writer and now a producer. Not only have I had my own big changes, one of them, like you said, Kai, very recent, but all this puts into context just how many ways people are reconsidering career and what role labor really has in their lives.
Three questions. I've got. Our original one, how is America's relationship with labor changing? Number two, why is it changing? Three, can anyone say where this trend is going?
Kai Wright: I do happen to know somebody who can answer those questions. Sarah Jaffe is a labor journalist who we last spoke with on the show this spring. Her most recent book is on this very subject. It's called Work Won't Love You Back: How Devotion to Our Jobs Keeps Us Exploited, Exhausted and Alone. She's a fellow of the Tight Media Center, an organization for which I should mention I am a board member. Sarah, welcome back to the show.
Sarah Jaffe: Kai, hello. Thank you for having me.
Kai Wright: Let us cut to the chase on the first question Kousha asked. How is our relationship with work changing? Did you hear anything, either during your reporting on the book or maybe just in your own life about that question that surprised you?
Sarah Jaffe: I heard a lot of things that surprised me, but really what's been interesting is-- My book came out in January. I finished writing it full on in February of 2020 and then had to go back and do a bunch of pandemic edits on it in the spring of 2020 because obviously, the world had really changed. Yes, there were a lot of little details that really surprised me. Then in the last year, it's just been really stunning how quickly people have started to re-evaluate. I think it's things that some of us were already saying but not that many people were really on board with it.
All of a sudden, we're talking about the great resignation and stuff like that. It really seems like the pandemic has caused people to re-evaluate their relationship with work. I think there's a few reasons for that. One of them is that, frankly, a lot of us realized during the last year and a half that our bosses didn't really care about our personal situations, our family situations, our health, in many cases, as long as we continue to be productive. That was maybe always true but not so obvious as it has been recently, and then now, we're really in this point where everybody has seen that.
Then also, I think just one of the things that happens when you're locked in your house alone or with a very small group of people for a year and a half is you really start to think about, "Wow, what do I miss doing with my time? What do I wish I could do with my time? What actually matters?" I think the combination of those two things is causing some real re-evaluation about what we spend most of our time doing, and for so many of us, that is still work.
Kai Wright: Just to underline here, you agree with the premise. I mean, you're somebody who has been covering both the labor movement and work in general and our relationship to it for a very long time. You've studied it over the course of our history. We have these moments culturally where we make out of something that isn't there. Everything's changed and it hasn't changed. Do you feel like this really is a lasting shift that's happening?
Sarah Jaffe: I don't know what the lasting shift is going to be towards, but it does feel like this is an inflection point. What's happening now, I was just talking to somebody earlier today about there's this attempt underway by a lot of businesses and a lot of corporate leaders to get back to normal, except there's-- I don't know how much of New York is still dealing with Hurricane Ida. I think I-676 in Philadelphia is still flooded. A big chunk of New Orleans and that part of Louisiana is still without power. The climate crises is also looming. To think that we can just go back to pre-pandemic normal is already impossible.
Kai Wright: It's hard. I have a [crosstalk] job, and it just feels like there's churn, churn, churn. You've got to keep up. You've got to get back to it. It feels like the world is ending some days.
Sarah Jaffe: Yes, it's like the world's ending a lot. It's very weird. I went to university in New Orleans and I lived in Philadelphia and New York for most of the last 13 years, and those three places have all been devastated by a hurricane inside the last week. You're like, "Oh, what does normal look like right now when these cities that I called home and that a lot of people I love still call home are facing massive crises?"
A lot of these places-- I'm in London right now. I'm also in a part of a major global city that will be under water in 10 to 15 years if nothing changes. The idea of going back to normal is the thing that is starting to feel like mildly crazy right now.
Kai Wright: Listeners, Sarah and I want to hear from you as we talk. Has your relationship with work or what you want out of work changed recently? Give us a call at 646-435-7280. Maybe it's that you want a job that has more meaning for you or a job that's more secure and pays more or maybe there's something you do now that you consider to be labor but you didn't consider that work before. Why do you think any of this has changed in your life? 646-435-7280. That's 646-435-7280 or tweet us using the hashtag #USofAnxiety. Kousha will be watching out.
We'll take your calls after a short break, and we'll talk about the history of Labor Day and of our relationship to work in general with journalist, Sarah Jaffe. Stay with us.
Kai Wright: Welcome back. I'm Kai Wright, and I'm talking with labor journalist, Sarah Jaffe, about how our relationship to work has changed over the years and how it needs to change further. One person tweeted Sarah before we even started the show. Lauren Vegga, she said, "I haven't left the city since March of 2020, volunteered, protested, worked the primary race, spent countless hours working the streets." She goes through it and ultimately says, "I found my purpose more broadly, and I'm looking for work in that regard."
How much did you hear of that kind of thing? Again, you started reporting this book before the pandemic still, but we were still coming through the Trump era, I imagine, similarly, there were a lot of people who were shifting what they thought they wanted from their jobs.
Sarah Jaffe: Yes. I think one of the challenges is, and this is one of the core issues in my book is that a lot of the time when you try to find a job in the field that you want to be working on, particularly when you try to find a job in movement work, is that you get to that job and you find out it's still a job. When you get there, at the end of the day, you still have a boss and you still have to be there for X amount of hours, and you're still judging your productivity. The nonprofit sector, this is a whole chapter in my book, is not actually as different from the rest of the workforce as we would maybe wish it was.
This is certainly something I've experienced in my own life. I think one of the challenges is when you get to this point and you're like, "Okay, my job doesn't fulfill me, then what? Do I try to find a job that fulfills me or do I just want more time away from work that I can do things that fulfill me?" Those are some of the tensions that I think a lot of people are facing right now.
Kai Wright: What is that owing to? When you say the nonprofit sector is no different than any other sector of labor in some way, it's still a job. I imagine that's dispiriting to some people to hear-
Sarah Jaffe: [laughs] Often, yes.
Kai Wright: -who will think like, "Oh." What is the core problem, then? Why would that sector not be different? I'm not picking on that sector, but what is the bigger problem then that would go across all the job sectors that make them not fulfilling in that way?
Sarah Jaffe: We think that nonprofit means it's outside of the normal pressures of for-profit, which is, we take to mean like capitalist enterprise. The reality is that the nonprofit sector is still funded by wealthy people who are often looking for a tax donation or looking for something that sounds-- not to pick on NPR stations but looking for something that sounds good to be underwriting. Look, I am also supported by nonprofit media and nonprofit foundations. It's real, and this is what allows us to do the very important work that we do. But, it's not outside of the larger world of pressures.
I've worked for small media companies that are trying very hard to not be answerable to those same pressures, but at the end of the day, you still got to keep the lights on. You still got to keep the mics plugged in. You still got to feed your staff. You've got to figure out ways to do that, and so the pressures of keeping everything funded are really very real. That's the most generous reading that I can give to all of this. It's absolutely real that there's actual pressures to keep these organizations going.
Also, just like we're shaped by the broader society that we live in and that society tells us that productivity is everything, even during a global pandemic, and that if we are not delivering deliverables, which is a word that I deeply despise, we're not worthy and we're not doing things. One of the things that anybody who's done movement work for a long time will tell you is it's hard. If we knew what worked magically, we'd have solved a lot of social problems by now. It's actually hard to figure out how you can organize a community to change the police department or change the housing situation or any number of other massive struggles that we're dealing with right now, to say nothing of solving climate change.
Kai Wright: To say nothing of solving climate change.
Sarah Jaffe: These are hard problems. One of the things that's really tough when you're talking about deliverables, which is again, the worst word in the world is that those are hard and sometimes you're going to fail, and that's what has to happen in order to actually get to what will work. The workplace that we're in now and the broader structures of work that we're in now, don't have a lot of space for that.
This is also true, we're journalists, you and I both know the pressures of like, "I've got this idea and I'm pretty sure this is going to be a good story, but I might follow it through." This has happened to me. I might get to this point and then suddenly the source that I had, stopped talking to me, or whatever it is, and you've done a bunch of work on the story that then doesn't pan out to be a story and you're just like, "I did nothing."
Kai Wright: You have now not been productive. It's the forces of productivity. [crosstalk]
Sarah Jaffe: It doesn't mean I haven't worked. Even though we've been working our tails off for months. Yes. This is the thing that I think is actually really important after the pandemic, because one of the things that's been really true of work in everything from the service sector to manufacturing in the last few decades is that, even healthcare. They talk about lean health care, all of the sort of redundancies and extra space for mistakes and for just flexibility, if you have say a global pandemic and suddenly you need all the hospital beds that you had, that's all been stripped out in the idea of being as efficient as possible.
Again, that's true of everything from manufacturing cars, to healthcare, to service industry where you will be sent home if the restaurant is slow. What's happening with a pandemic is you can't do that anymore because the odds of somebody needing to call out sick on an average night have just gotten a lot higher because COVID, and so we're seeing the problems of that merciless drive to efficiency, showing up in all of these different sectors where now if you're working in a restaurant right now, and one of your coworkers is like, "I got exposed to COVID," you're not going to ask that person to come in and serve people food, hopefully. Hopefully.
What does that mean if your restaurant is mercilessly calculating down to the penny, how many people they can afford to staff for that night? We're really seeing this moment of that lean mentality coming up against its hard limits.
Kai Wright: Let me break in here and bring in some callers who maybe have experienced that. Gail in the Upper West Side. Gail, welcome to the show.
Gail: Yes. Thank you for having me. I loved everything our speaker was saying, thank you for doing this program. Everything resonates with me as a career switcher. I have a master's degree. I've been in management for many years. I worked for fortune 500 companies before going into the nonprofit world with great conviction. I share everything you said because after 17 years in the nonprofit world, it was time for a career change.
Right before COVID, I decided to return to the fitness world where I had been a fitness instructor back in my 20s. Right before COVID hit, I became a dance fitness instructor for adults over the age of 50 plus, because for me, turning 50 was really a remarkable change and realizing that sitting is the new smoking. The sedentary lifestyle is really killing Americans and that the higher education you have, the prize is you get to sit more in front of the computer.
Then COVID hit and fitness centers closed. Senior centers closed. Everything I wanted to do was off the market. I went online and I developed my own online dance fitness program for adults age 50 and over, it's called Move and Make Merry. It is really about infusing joy with fitness and dance fitness. What I found was that it was the most meaningful work I have ever done because while the world stopped and stood still, everyone was sitting on their couches. People who are older were terrified to go out and they needed not only exercise, but they needed some joy, and that's the core of my brand.
I also offer a free class every month. If anybody wants to take a Move and Make Merry dance fitness class, please join me and my regular classes I keep them very accessible and affordable $5 each. I also want to comment on productivity obsession.
Kai Wright: Gail, I'm going to have to interrupt you there just for time because I want to get to some more callers, but thank you so much for that. Anybody 50 plus out there that wants to learn to dance hit Gail up. Alex in St. Augustine, Florida. Alex, welcome to the show.
Alex: Hi there. I'm 50 plus. I'm 52 years old. I formally worked in retail down here in St. Augustine on St. George Street which is a tourist town. I was just getting a little too freaked out. It was very tight proximity to a lot of people coming in the store, so I switched careers. I got in construction. I'm not making a lot of money, $15 an hour, but I'm out in the sunshine. It's hot. It's beautiful and I love it. Eight hours a day, 10 hours a day, whatever it is, bring it. [laughs]
Kai Wright: Thank you for that, Alex. Then we have a tweet from, I don't see the handle, but someone who says, "Caring for my kids and my elderly dad should be enough? Between cleaning, cooking, nursing, nagging, laundry, food, shopping, meeting doctor's appointments at all, isn't that a full-time job? I get why women aren't going back to work. Who has the time?"
You have written a lot and talked a lot about care work, and how we think about it. Can you just walk us through this understanding of what has and hasn't changed about care work and how we think about it as actual labor in our political culture?
Sarah Jaffe: Yes, one of the things that's been so striking over the last year and year and a half going on, I don't even want to think about how long it's been, is that we have had this reckoning with the fact that our society really doesn't provide much support for carers. Recently, I'm working on a story about home care workers and what they have been through during the pandemic, because for home care, a lot of what they do is take care of people who are elderly or have pre-existing illnesses that are for a variety of reasons the most vulnerable people in the pandemic.
Yet a lot of these home care workers get paid very little money. They don't have health insurance that's paid for through their jobs. They don't have paid sick time. They're being squeezed to do as much work as they can, pick up side gigs, all of that, at the same time as what they're doing is caring for the most vulnerable people out there. Yes, just the way that that work is undervalued.
One of the things we've also seen is just when public schools are closed, when childcare centers are closed, when anything that exists to help parents take care of their children is shut down and parents are 24/7 stuck with their kids, making sure their kids are doing their online schoolwork, all of that stuff, oh my God, it's exhausting.
Kai Wright: I can literally only imagine.
Sarah Jaffe: Yes. We've seen these stories, the New York times had this big package that was moms are losing it. It was titled Primal Scream literally. You see this realization. Oh my goodness. I think Ezra Klein wrote a column for the New York times, it was just like, "Oh, caring is work." It's like, "Yes"
It's been work. I think we talked about this last time I was on the show, the welfare rights movement in the '60s and '70s, which was led by Black working class women was saying already. Like, "We're doing work." [laughs]
Kai Wright: We're doing work. We've only got a couple of minutes left and I promised at the top of the show, we were going to learn about the history of Labor Day. Can you do this in 90 seconds? Tell people the history of this holiday.
Sarah Jaffe: 90 seconds. Oh my goodness. Labor Day in America is different than Labor Day in the rest of the world because Labor Day that is celebrated in the rest of the world, which is May 1st, is actually because of an uprising in this country in 1886, which was connected to the movement for shorter working day and the rebellions in Chicago, the Haymarket riots and all of this, it's a very story. What happened is that a bunch of radical immigrant labor agitators were accused of throwing a bomb into a rally killing some police officers and they were executed with very little evidence. This was such a rallying cry for labor around the world that it became International Workers' Day, which is celebrated on May 1st, and the US government-- Grover Cleveland is the one who made Labor Day the first weekend in September rather than May 1st, because he didn't want it connected to this history of radical agitation.
Kai Wright: Wow. From the beginning, it was an effort to de-politicize the idea of work?
Sarah Jaffe: Yes, and particularly separate it from this particular immigrant led struggle for a shorter working day that was really unifying working people across the country. I think the shorter working day bit, or the immigrant bit are both really relevant right now when we're talking about work and people's re-evaluation of their relationship with work like that return to thinking about, "Maybe what we want is just less work."
Kai Wright: Just less work. I'm struck by I think I said this before in 2018 when I was reporting on a congressional race in Pennsylvania, going door to door, and asking voters what they were into. I just remember this woman standing on her porch being like, "Well, I want to say," and being asked about who she's going to vote for. She said, "I just want to be able to hang out with my family more." She had no idea what I was talking about for the congressional race but what she said were politics. What I know is, I don't get to hang out with my family in the way that I used to.
Sarah Jaffe: Yes, absolutely.
Kai Wright: Thanks to everybody who called in for calling. Sorry, to those that I did not get to. You can keep your answers coming by sending us a voice memo firstname.lastname@example.org. [unintelligible 00:30:55] that, we're going to have to leave it. Sarah Jaffe is a labor journalist whose most recent book is called Work Won't Love You Back: How Devotion to our Jobs, Keeps Us Exploited, Exhausted, and Alone. She's a fellow at Tight Media Center. Sarah, you've got that article coming up. You mentioned, when's it out?
Sarah Jaffe: Next month.
Kai Wright: Tell you what, I'll tweet about it when it comes so follow me to find out. Thank you so much for coming back on the show.
Sarah Jaffe: Thank you as always. It's always good to talk to you.
Kai Wright: Up next, 45 questions that could help us better understand each other, and ourselves. At a moment when I know a lot of us I know I am just really, really, really are on each other's nerves. How can we make that work as a society? That's coming up. Stay with us.
Kousha Navidar: Hey, everyone, this is Kousha Navidar. I'm the new senior digital producer on the United States of Anxiety, longtime listener, first-time worker. My role is to bring this show to new platforms. How can we tell stories and deepen conversations with audiences across the digital universe? That's what I explore. This is important to me. Our country has been going through tough times and I think a lot of people out there are hoping for a new beginning. I know for me, that's what this job represents a way to offer new voices, new kinds of content, and new spaces to our listeners but it takes a village.
Here's my ask of you. When you're not listening to this podcast, where else do you like to spend time online? Is it YouTube? Instagram, Tiktok, someplace else? Shoot me and the team an email at email@example.com and in return will email you a fun GIF or GIF. You know what I mean. All right, great to meet you. Thanks for listening and making this a community. Talk to you soon.
Kai Wright: Welcome back. I'm Kai Wright. I don't know about you, but I am finding it more and more difficult to simply deal with other human beings. It's the politics, yes, and the relentless crises of a warming planet, and of course, the pandemic. Listen, all of these pressures we're facing as a society are about systems. I know that but increasingly, I cannot separate the systemic horrors from the individuals who gleefully support those systems. I don't mean just insurrectionists and white supremacists and the like.
For instance, I recently went to a movie premiere in Brooklyn. It's probably the most "normal" social thing I've done in, I don't know, how long but no one at the door of the theater or the event checked vaccines. Very few other people wore masks, including the young and hip and I'm sure very woke event organizers. Lo and behold, I was later notified that somebody at the event tested positive for the Delta variant. It was fine. I was masked and vaccinated and tested negative but let me tell you about the level of anger I held for days at the unmasked individuals in that room. Honestly, that I still hold at the irresponsible or so I feel wildly irresponsible event organizers.
There are days when I just want to scream, "Let me off this ride, I do not want to have to share anything with these other people who make choices I do not agree with." That, of course, is not an option. We literally cannot avoid each other. Like it or not, we live in a society with a lot of different kind of people, so what to do? That is perhaps an existential question, but one that we're actually going to try to wrestle with a lot in the show, as we move into this next phase of life together, whatever that's going to be.
This week, that question has me thinking about a story we told in our podcast just after the pandemic began. It's a story about a list of questions. 45 of them actually, that we can ask to really try to understand other people or ourselves. Reporter Jenny Casas can explain it all better than me. Heads up, one of the people that Jenny talks to uses a slur to describe themselves and who are we to tell them how to describe themselves so left it in. Anyway, here's Jenny explaining the list.
Jenny Casas: It was introduced to me last summer. It was like a beautiful Chicago evening, I was out by the lake, I was having beers with some friends, new friends, old friends, and somebody pulled up this poem. We all just started asking each other these questions, these 45 questions around the circle, and it was so intimate and so straight to the heart of the [chuckles] matter. After that, I pulled up this list of questions all the time, in any social situation where I was trying to get to know the people around me better. You've definitely as one of your friends. I've definitely heard of this list.
Friend 1: Yes, it was your birthday.
Jenny Casas: You remember?
Friend 1: Yes.
Jenny Casas: I mean, there was a time over the summer, I think that you were just like, "Let's answer these questions."
Friend 1: I just remember it was like a question I didn't want to answer like, "[sighs] It's just too much."
Kai Wright: At this point, you sold me. I really want to know what are these questions? What are these magic questions that get to the gut of us?
Jenny Casas: I think a crowd-pleaser number six. If you could punch one person in the face, who would it be?
Kai Wright: Oh, my goodness.
Jenny Casas: Number five is also one of my favorites. What is the cruelest thing you have done in love?
Kai Wright: I'm getting a sense of a tone here.
Jenny Casas: Number 17. What is a shame you have learned to live with? Then there's also these questions that are pretty easy, but I think could mean more, like number 40. How many days has it been since you changed the bed clothes, like your sheets?
Kai Wright: I have a lot of questions about these questions. First off, it's a poem, whose poem is this?
Jenny Casas: Okay, the poem was written by the Chicago artist, activist, and educator named Benji Hart.
Benji Hart: Hello.
Jenny Casas: Hi.
Benji Hart: Good morning.
Jenny Casas: Good morning. I first saw these questions on Benji's old blog.
Benji Hart: Rad fag, which is short for Radical Faggot is a personal blog that I began in 2011.
Jenny Casas: At the time, he was a middle school teacher posting creative writing about radical education politics. A couple of years ago, he wrote this poem. It has two main inspirations. The first one was this other list of questions written by a law professor named Dean Spade.
Benji Hart: Specifically questions about being a workaholic and about questioning your relationship to work.
Jenny Casas: Questions like, do you resent Facebook or do you know how to have fun?
Benji Hart: When I read it, I was like, "Wow, that is the best poem I've read in a really long time."
Jenny Casas: The second inspiration for Benji, which will give you a sense of the ethos of it all, was that-
Benji Hart: I was going through or healing from a really bad breakup and I think that's originally what waiting meant for me, 45 questions while waiting I think meant I'm in a period where I'm in a lot of pain, and I'm working on myself. I'm working on healing and the fruits of that labor have not yet emerged and probably aren't going to emerge in a long time and while I wait for that process to see itself through, what are the questions that I'm in the midst of asking?
Kai Wright: What made you think of this right now?
Jenny Casas: I think it's just the fact that we are all sort of saturated right now in conversation. I know for me I'm texting a lot of people that I wouldn't be texting otherwise or having a million Zoom calls.
Kai Wright: So much more than I ever would be doing normally. [chuckles] I would be honest. I'm a lot more social than I was, now that I'm socially distanced.
Jenny Casas: I think about this list because it helps us or the questions on the list are the types of questions. It's the stuff of building a foundation with a person. They just get straight to the point, [chuckles] which is why I really like them in the first place. I mean, you know me.
Kai Wright: Which is very to your-- yes. This is very much your personality. I'm getting the picture.
Jenny Casas: [laughs] Yes, because our relationships are changing maybe forever under this new context and because these questions for me are so good at building intimacy. I wanted to revisit them with some of my sweet friends. Number 36. Which aspect of your character makes you difficult to live with?
Jenny Casas: Number 33.
Friend 1: 33.
Jenny Casas: Which question do you wish someone would ask you? Number 24. Can you name a time you were least proud of yourself?
Friend 2: I really hated that one. [laughs]
Friend 1: These are hard questions.
Friend 2: Yes. I had to deal with my heart dropping into my [unintelligible 00:41:28] floor.
Jenny Casas: These questions always surface a lot of things that I think maybe we aren't predisposed to just share out loud.
Jenny Casas: Yes.
Jenny Casas: Number 37. What gut reaction are you purposefully ignoring?
Benji Hart: I think it's the gut reaction just to snap.
Benji Hart: We all reach our limits and I have definitely felt at different points in this pandemic and in this week alone. Even today I've reached my limit and since there's no escape, there's no distancing from who you live with, really and so that snap to just be like, "You're asking me to still be here with you?"
Benji Hart: I'm like, I have to hold that back. There's another option. There's another option. There's another option.
Jenny Casas: There's some stuff that came up that I probably wouldn't have known otherwise. Number 20. What hypocrisy in yourself have you yet to amend?
Friend 3: I don't know. I guess, I love the idea and the concept of what it is to be a human being, but I generally don't like people. Generally speaking as a whole I don't like people at all.
Jenny Casas: That was the last thing I thought you were going to say.
Friend 3: [chuckles]
Kai Wright: I'm just having physical responses hearing those to be honest.
Kai Wright: I could feel it in my body. Oh, I don't want to deal with that. I don't want to talk to you about that.
Friend 4: That's so funny. Yes, I mean some people really don't feel great about them. I thought about texting you beforehand and being like, "Hey, is there any way to make sure that these questions are asked?" There's just so much stuff there and it's a lot to put on someone.
Jenny Casas: Number 3. When was the last time you cried over something that later seemed silly?
Friend 5: Oh. Well, just last week I was bawling because I was thinking about everyone I know could die or maybe not everybody, but many of them and even if not many of them, one of them. I think the only way that I got out of that feeling which was like, multiple days of feeling that way. Well, one, I decided to work 12 hours straight, [chuckles] which I mean it worked, but then I think after I finished the work, I was like, "It's just out of my control." I think that crying that everyone I know could die will take time away from the time I have with everyone.
Jenny Casas: Number 34. What terrible truth could everyone find out?
Friend 6: That I'm not always only looking out for the collective immune system. That the first chance I get, I'm going to drink and smoke, and take whatever drug is in front of me.
Jenny Casas: I added a question to the list. Can I ask it to you? [laughs]
Benji Hart: Absolutely.
Jenny Casas: What are you waiting for?
Benji Hart: I think it's a great question because it's at the heart of healing for me. The break-up that in some ways inspired this poem happened for me almost four years ago, and I'm still healing from it, and I'm still processing it in a lot of ways. A revelation that I had really this week was that the grief that I feel around the loss of that relationship is actually not going anywhere. Healing doesn't mean that grief is over. What does it mean to make peace with that loss instead of imagining that healing is when it no longer feels like a loss or it no longer feels sad or it no longer hurts.
I think as an activist and an organizer I've spent so much time thinking about the world after this one. I spent so much time thinking about what is coming or what is going to happen or what are we trying to make happen? I'm a part of communities that are losing people all the time and we're losing people all the time before this virus swept the planet. I think I've had a hard time breathing because I'm already so full of grief and I don't know what to do with this new crisis. That's what comes up for me when you talk about sort of like what comes up first?
I'm like, oh, I'm waiting to feel less grief. I'm waiting for a world which in some ways we've had a glimpse into this week where all of a sudden we're talking about guaranteed minimum income, and we're talking about moratoriums on evictions and on arrests and things that should have happened long before a pandemic made them happen. That being said, while I feel like I'm waiting for that vision of the world that the focus on what is to come is what robs you of what is in front of you. So often it's what's in front of you that has the most to teach you, which I think is another irony of this list.
Jenny Casas: Maybe that's why the title is so brilliant because maybe the point is to make us not wait anymore.
Benji Hart: I hadn't thought of it that way until you asked that question. I'm like, "Oh yeah, all these questions are actually about grounding yourself in the present."
Jenny Casas: You can read the full 45 questions to ask while waiting on radfag.com or on our website at wnycstudios.org/anxiety.
Benji Hart: 45 questions to ask while waiting. One, which part of your body aches most by evening? Two, where is the least visited corner in your home? Three, when was the last time you cried over something that later seemed silly? Four, when piling things on the floor how do you arrange [unintelligible 00:48:53]
Kai Wright: United States of Anxiety is a production of WNYC Studios. Mixing and music by Jared Paul, Kevin Bristow, and Milton Lewis were at the boards for the live show. Our team also includes Emily Botein, Regina de Heer, Karen Frillman, and Kousha Navidar. Our team music was written by Hannis Brown and performed by the Outer Borough Brass Band. Veralyn Williams is our executive producer and I am Kai Wright.
You can keep in touch with me on Twitter @kai_wright or hit me up on email at firstname.lastname@example.org. As always, I hope you will join us for the live show next Sunday, 6:00 PM Eastern. Just tune in at wnyc.org or on your smart speaker WYNC. Till then, thanks for listening and happy Labor Day.
New York Public Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline, often by contractors. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of New York Public Radio’s programming is the audio record.