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Work, fatigue, frustration, and—finally!—creativity again

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Exhaustion from my previous long-term job at Amazon.com essentially killed my creativity and desire to write the first few months of 2014, from January into early April, when I lost that job. I was too busy fighting work fatigue to do much of anything else—my life had essentially reduced itself to work, sleep, eat, recover from work on my days off, and then work again. The few days I had off I mostly just lay around inert. A real creativity-killer indeed, and also a real killer of desire to do anything but loll around, letting the fatigue and muscle soreness heal itself before I returned to work again.

Indiana itself is a killer as well of creativity and the urge to write. The tsunami wave of Indiana’s hidebound mediocrity overwhelms even the talented and creative one, drowns that person literally body and soul, chokes off the creative urge as it chokes off the better part of one’s personality and talent. It so overwhelms that the simple urge to create and write is no longer there, that all desire to write and create now becomes totally submerged.

That was especially so in my case those prior four months, those months where, even at age 67, I was financially forced to hold down a physically exhausting full-time job at the Amazon.com warehouse in Whitestown, Indiana. (On which I’ve written before for examiner.com, having previously worked for Amazon at Whitestown, and at another Amazon warehouse in Central Indiana; see George Fish, “Amazon.com’s Whitestown, Indiana warehouse is a hell of a place to work,” January 20, 2013, http://www.examiner.com/article/amazon-com-s-whitestown-indiana-warehouse-is-a-hell-of-a-place-to-work.) My most recent job at Amazon as an order picker required me to walk 10-15 miles each 10-hour shift four days in a row. It’s a job that pushes one physically to the limit, especially for an older worker such as myself, as it would severely challenge the physical capabilities of even a twentysomething, and makes each shift worked the equivalent of an Army boot camp hike, or several strenuous gym workouts done back-to-back. But in addition to just the demands put on the body by all that walking is the demanding quota system of orders to be picked in an hour, an exacting computer-determined and computer-monitored system that makes the picker but an appendage to the order-processing machine, with every motion, every order picked, every order bundle placed on the conveyor belt, rigidly calibrated and monitored down to fractions of a second.

A New Yorker article earlier this year pithily summarized this well:

Amazon employs or subcontracts tens of thousands of warehouse workers, with seasonal variation, often building its fulfillment centers in areas with high unemployment and low wages. Accounts from inside the centers describe the work of picking, boxing, and shipping books and dog food and beard trimmers as a high-tech version of the dehumanized factory floor satirized in Chaplin’s “Modern Times.” Pickers holding computerized handsets are perpetually timed and measured as they fast-walk up to eleven miles per shift around a million-square-foot warehouse, expected to collect orders in as little as thirty-three seconds. After watching footage taken by an undercover BBC reporter, a stress expert said, “The evidence shows increased risk of mental illness and physical illness.” The company says that its warehouse jobs are “similar to jobs in many other industries.”

(George Packer, “Cheap Words: Amazon is good for customers. But is it good for books?” A Reporter At Large, The New Yorker, February 17, 2014, http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2014/02/17/140217fa_fact_packer?currentPage=all.) Indeed, a co-worker of mine at Whitestown told me that a fellow picker who’d worked during the Christmas rush brought an odometer to work, and calibrated that, during this busiest, most demanding, of peak seasons, a picker actually walked 20 miles during a 10-hour shift. Ironically, warehouse jobs at Amazon are among the better-paying jobs in Central Indiana, and are sought after; after losing my Amazon job in April, I got another warehouse job through a temp agency, same as with Amazon, but had to take a $2.00 an hour pay cut. While the work at my new job is not much easier or less demanding that at Whitestown, it only pays $9.50 an hour compared to the $11.50 an hour I was making. In Central Indiana, Amazon’s pay is on the high end of what’s paid warehouse workers; unskilled temp jobs at other warehouses only pay within the $9.00-$10.00 an hour range.

Moreover, although a college graduate, I have found myself for the past few years, same as many other college graduates, having to work unskilled physical labor because those are the only jobs available in Brain Drain, low-education, low-skill, low-wage, job-hemorrhaging Indiana. Documentation of these crucial Hoosier lacks is extensive, and below I will list a substantial part of that documentation.

On the Brain Drain and its impact on the college graduate population, there are, for example, two articles of mine: George Fish, “Indiana’s Brain Drain, the problem that won’t go away,” examiner.com, August 3, 2009, http://www.examiner.com/article/indiana-s-brain-drain-the-problem-that-won-t-go-away, and George Fish, “Add another Frustration to Being Unemployed: A Case in Point from Indiana’s WorkOne State Employment Agency,” New Politics, December 12, 2011, http://newpol.org/content/add-another-frustration-being-unemployed-case-point-indiana%E2%80%99s-workone-state-employment-agenc. See generally George Fish and Dave Fey, “Mediocrity—a Hoosier affliction,” Bloomington Alternative, July 12, 2009, http://bloomingtonalternative.com/articles/2009/07/12/10039. According to the Status of Working Families in Indiana, 2011 report, issued in April 2012 by the Indiana Institute for Working Families, http://www.incap.org/statusworkingfamilies.html, p. 20, 60% of Indiana’s college graduates leave the state, a key reason being lack of jobs. Further, in the “Hoosier Mediocrity Fact Sheet” contained in Fish and Fey, op. cit., http://bloomingtonalternative.com/f/Hoosier%20Mediocrity.pdf, 46.6% of Indiana’s college graduates leave the state within one year of graduation (citing data that originally appeared in the Indianapolis Star).

On Indiana’s per capita income, although it has increased 9.8% from 2006 to 2011, according to Hoosier Data webpage provided by Indiana’s Department of Workforce Development, going from $33,087 in 2006 to $36,342 in 2011, Indiana’s per capita income in this time has actually dropped as a percentage of the national per capita income, from 86.8% in 2006 to 85.9% in 2011. (http://www.hoosierdata.in.gov/dpage.asp?id=2&view_number=1&menu_level=&panel_number=2.) Standing at $38,812, or 87.1% of the national per capita income, in 2013, Indiana’s per capita income ranked only 39th among the states. But Indiana ranked 34th in 1983, 28th in 1993, 36th in 2003, so while per capita income has grown, it has declined compared to growth at the national level—Indiana continues to fall behind due to job loss and low wages. (STATS Indiana, compiled by the Kelly School of Business, Indiana University, http://www.stats.indiana.edu/sip/inc/inc2_18.html.) As the Indianapolis Star reported, “Income for Indiana residents last year was $38,812 per person, a 2.3 percent increase. That compares with $44,543 for the nation, a 2.6 percent increase. Indiana’s income ranking has dropped in recent decades, down from 30th in 1980, and 21st in 1950. The drop has been tied largely to the decline in high-paying manufacturing jobs.” (Maureen Groppe, Star Washington bureau, “Indiana’s per capita income ranks 38th among states,” Indianapolis Star, March 26, 2014, http://www.indystar.com/story/news/politics/2014/03/26/indianas-per-capita-income-ranks-th-among-states/6934411/.) Even in recovery, Indiana still continues to lose jobs. For example, while Indiana gained 144,007 jobs in the three months September-December 2010, during this same period it lost 131,387 jobs, for a net gain of only 12,620 jobs. (http://www.bls.gov/cew/ew10table14.pdf.) And even though Indiana’s unemployment rate continues to drop, and in April 2014 stood below the national average at 5.7%, that still leaves 182,900 Hoosiers without jobs. (http://www.bls.gov/eag/eag.in.htm.) [Jobs, unemployment data from the Bureau of Economic Statistics of the U.S. Department of Labor.]

So statistically one could say I’ve been one of the lucky unlucky ones, having generally secured unskilled labor employment through temp agencies since 2003, even though, as a college-degree holder, not the work I would desire by any means. But, as indicated, this “luck in unluck” employment took its toll on me creatively and as an active writer, and that certainly generated frustration and chagrin. However, and felicitously, since April Fool’s Day that creativity and urge to write has actively returned, and I’ve been on a somewhat consistent writing jag since then, having written several poems which I’ve shared in fellowship at the Tuesday afternoon gatherings of poet colleagues here in Indianapolis. And despite the economic hardships involved with my new employment, I have gained in not being so overwhelmed with fatigue I could not create, only sleep and loll around in utter exhaustion after a grueling workday and workweek. A mixed yet palpable gain for this poet/economist/laborer/journalist.

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