Austin Murphy’s Grace
Sometimes students will talk to me about a career in journalism. I try to discourage them, using an approach I first encountered as an undergraduate, in Rainer Maria Rilke’s Letters To A Young Poet. It’s a thin volume of the correspondence between a young poet, Franz Kappus, and the by-then famous older poet. In this exchange, Rilke answers Kappus’s doubts about whether or not he should commit himself to the writing life:
Nobody can counsel and help you, nobody. There is only one single way. Go into yourself. Search for the reason that bids you write; find out whether it is spreading out its roots in the deepest places of your heart, acknowledge to yourself whether you would have to die if it were denied you to write.
This above all — ask yourself in the stillest hour of your night: must I write? Delve into yourself for a deep answer. And if this should be affirmative, if you may meet this earnest question with a strong and simple “I must,” then build your life according to this necessity; your life even into its most indifferent and slightest hour must be a sign of this urge and a testimony to it.
That sounds awfully grand when one is talking about journalism, not poetry, but it’s still good advice. I tell young aspiring journalists that the only reason to continue down this path is if they seriously cannot imagine doing anything else. To enter journalism at this point is to commit yourself to a perilous path of relatively low pay and, most of all, job insecurity. I have been at this for almost 30 years, and from 2004 to 2009, went through three, maybe four, rounds of layoffs. There’s no feeling like the morning the pink slips are being handed out, sitting in your office wondering if the angel of career death is going to stop and invite you in for a chat … and then watching your friends and colleagues come away from those chats ashen-faced, having lost their jobs, and you thinking, in quick succession, “Oh, how terrible for them!” and then “Thank God it wasn’t me this time.”
I’ve noticed in the past few years that young people find it hard to understand why I’m so anxious about this stuff. I tell them that I know now that at almost 52, I will never, ever be able to rest in my career. They find that hard to believe at first, given that I’ve written or collaborated on five books, two of them New York Times bestsellers, and that I’ve got a good, rewarding job at TAC. I know I must sound like my late father, who lived through the Great Depression, and who after that never was able to believe that everything was solid, economically.
Now I will point them to this intensely sobering Atlantic essay by Austin Murphy, who is driving a delivery truck for Amazon. He wasn’t always. Excerpts:
The hero’s journey, according to Joseph Campbell, features a descent into the belly of the beast: Think of Jonah in the whale, or me locked in the cargo bay of my Ram ProMaster on my second day on the job, until I figured out how to work the latch from the inside. During this phase of the journey, the hero becomes “annihilate to the self”—brought low, his ego shrunk, his horizons expanded. This has definitely been my experience working for Jeff Bezos.
During my 33 years at Sports Illustrated, I wrote six books, interviewed five U.S. presidents, and composed thousands of articles for SI and SI.com. Roughly 140 of those stories were for the cover of the magazine, with which I parted ways in May of 2017. Since then, as Jeff Lebowski explains to Maude between hits on a postcoital roach, “my career has slowed down a little bit.”
I’ll say. Now, at 57, the former SI senior writer faces an immense daily challenge: where to pee? More:
The google search Amazon driver urinates summons a cavalcade of caught-in-the-act videos depicting poor saps, since fired, who simply couldn’t hold it any longer. While their decision to pee in the side yard—or on the front porch!—of a customer is not excusable, it is, to those of us in the Order of the Arrow (my made-up name for Amazon delivery associates), understandable.
Before sending me out alone, the company assigned me two “ride-alongs” with its top driver, the legendary Marco, who went out with 280 packages the second day I rode shotgun with him, took his full lunch break, did not roll through a single stop sign, and was finished by sundown. Marco taught me to keep a lookout not just for porch pirates—lowlifes who swoop in behind us to pilfer packages—but also for portable toilets. In neighborhoods miles from a service station or any public lavatory, a Port-a-John, or a Honey Pot, can be no less welcome than an oasis in the desert. (The afternoon I leapt from the van and beelined to a Honey Pot, only to find it padlocked, was the closest I’ve come to crying on the job.)
Delivering in El Sobrante one day, I popped into a convenience store on San Pablo Avenue. I bought an energy bar, but that was a mere pretext. “I wonder if I might use your lavatory,” I asked the proprietor, a gentleman of Indian descent, judging by his accent, in a dapper beret.
A cloud passed over his face. “You make number one or two?”
“Just one!” I promised. He inclined his head toward the back of the store, in the direction of the “Employees only” bathroom.
After thanking him on my way out, I mentioned that I was new at Amazon, still figuring out restroom strategies.
“Amazon drivers, FedEx drivers, UPS, Uber, Lyft—everybody has to go.”
But where? When no john can be found, when the delivery associate is denied permission to use the gas-station bathroom, he is sometimes left with no other choice than to repair to the dark interior of the cargo bay—the belly of the beast—with an empty Gatorade bottle.
Read the whole thing. He’s not whining, not at all. He’s just reflecting on what it’s like to lose. It’s going to be something that many of us, in many fields, are going to have to deal with at some point in our lives, given the churn rate in our economy.
A couple of things come to mind.
First, I’m reminded of a speech I heard Sen. Ben Sasse deliver in September 2017. Excerpt from the post I wrote about it:
“We’re entering an era for the first time in human history where people are going to hit forty to fifty [years old], where their entire skill set will cease to exist, because of technology,” he said. Sasse went on to discuss the strong challenges this new world pose to human community.
According to Sasse, social science data show that a human being needs four basic things to be happy:
- A theological or philosophical view that explains death and suffering
- A family
- Close friends
- Meaningful work (Defined as work in which people think that they’re needed. “Not, ‘Do I make a lot of money?’ but ‘When I go to work, are there actually people in the world who need what I do?”
Sasse said that technology and automation is going to rob more and more people of meaningful work — and that whether we like it or not, this is going to have tremendous impact socially and psychologically.
Second, this bit of information I picked up at my family’s big Christmas Eve gathering. A cousin who works out West as an executive in the nuclear industry said that his company hires these days “based on who you are.” What he meant was that they believe they can train most employees to do the particular jobs they have open; what the company is looking for is whether or not the job candidate is reliable, stable, disciplined, and capable of learning new things.
Back to journalism as a career: I’m sitting here drinking my coffee, thinking about how my back, which I threw out 10 days ago, is still pretty achy and shaky, and thanking God that I don’t make my living with it. I read Austin Murphy’s essay, and think, There but for the grace of God go I. I don’t read the sports media, but I spent a little time googling his stuff, and man, he really had reached the top of his profession. You’d think that if anybody would have a safe sports media job, he would. He is handling his fate with far more grace than I can imagine mustering in his situation. I think it is damn near heroic. Pay attention. Admire. Learn. I am.