A funny thing happened on my way to the office last week. I suffered a compound fracture of my puritan work ethic.
Friends tell me that in some cases a fracture of this kind never heals. I hope this is one of those cases.
Until a week ago, I had always been a workaholic. The worse I felt in the morning, the more compulsive I was about going to work.My guiding principle was that only weaklings and wastrels surrender to illness.
On one occasion, even an appendectomy wasn't permitted to interrupt the continuity of the column.The day before surgery, I wrote two columns instead of one. The extra piece took care of the day of the operation. The next day, I resumed a daily work routine from the hospital.
My wife ran a pony express service between the office and the hospital, bringing me letters from readers and then going back to type up my handwritten copy. She thought I was crazy, and she was probably right. But the show had to go on, and it did. I don't know why the show had to go on, but the notion gets fixed in our minds at an early age, and it tends to stay there for a long time. My own fixation didn't come unglued until Friday, Aug. 11.
Since I dropped the Saturday column some years ago, I have seldom worked on Fridays, but on the 11th it had been my intention to go to the office to catch up on a lot of correspondence and phone messages.
There was only one problem: I felt awful. I had difficulty breathing and could hardly walk. So the pony express woman suggested, "Get back in that bed before I clout you with a broom." Nobody had ever explained it to me that clearly before.
I got back into the bed and remained there until Saturday night - time to begin working on Monday morning's column. But my condition had become worse rather than better, so Saturday's decision to remain in bed was easier to make than Friday's had been. And I didn't even feel guilty about taking sick leave.
"I'm a sick old man," I consoled myself. "I'm entitled to die in peace. The guarantee has probably run out on the artificial heart valve that has been keeping me alive - and why not? How long can you expect 10 cents worth of plastic to last? Goodbye, cruel world. Now that it's all over, I'm sorry I worked so hard."
When I was finally well enough to go see the doctor, his first move was to check my heart carefully. "Steady as a clock," was his verdict. "That's not your problem."
His educated guess was that weeks of unrelenting heat, humidity and air pollution had put me down, and that if I'd get my house air-conditioned I would become ill less often.
Until a week ago, that advice would have sent me right out to buy air conditioning. But now things are different. I'm not sure I want that fractured work ethic to heal.
I have made a startling discovery: When everything else feels bad, it feels good to be able to stay in bed.
By coincidence, one of the first letters I opened when I returned to the office was from Donovan E. Pratt of Fairfax. He wrote: "Before World War II, I taught English at the University of Illinois and at Purdue. Now retired and a bit rickety, I wrote to two colleges near my home, offering tutoring in English (or in either of two European languages) in exchange for lawn mowing and ivy trimming.
"No student responded. Neither of the colleges (Northern Virginia Community College and George Mason) bothered to reply.
"It's true that I was not proposing a federal project. The goal was no higher than to help one student to understand better the anatomy and functions of his language, and to get my grass cut. Were these aims too modest? Or does no student in Northern Virginia need such aid? What is your view?"
My view is that many of us should work at improving our English, but work does not appeal to some.
The young need to be taught to be industrious, thrifty and diligent, and thereby provide themselves with a measure of security for their old age. In these times, however, some young people reject industry and thrift. They live by Thoreau's philosophy instead: "If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away."
Having just heard that different drummer for the first time myself, I know how beguiling the cadence of his beat can be. But I also know that if somebody isn't willing to work, none of us will eat.