BY NOW the sequence is familiar to all television viewers. The sun fades, a whistle sounds, beer bottles clink. Tired workers heave a well-deserved sigh. Then a soothing voice intones something like, "You've just dug a sea-level Panama Canal with your bare hands. Now comes Miller Time."
Ah, to be not working. Or more precisely, to be not miserable. Miller Time, to be truly satisfying, depends on contrast. What you do during the day must be draining, backbreaking, authentically excruciating, in order for not doing it to be in itself a delight. The same way hitting yourself over the head with a hammer can be a pleasure because it feels so good when you stop. Once worn out, you are ready for your first Miller and a few rosy moments of contentment before the awareness of all your problems returns.
Miller commercials so far have only depicted people finishing a day of "real" work -- loading ships, flying planes, roping calves. White-collar America has yet to be celebrated for getting through its day; no commercial begins, "You've just filed your second amended brief in a case that will drag on inconclusively for decades. Now come Miller Time." This, I think, is both a marketing and analytical mistake. First off, America's work force is increasingly desk-bound, involved in some pursuit that either is or seems to be professional. More important, the pace and form of white-collar work are increasingly influenced by the desire to qualify for Miller Time.
An eight-hour day of "real" work automatically sets you up for some fine Miller Time -- it burns the muscles and strains the back while providing the satisfied feeling that some real job, like a loaded ship, has been accomplished. Professional work isn't always the same. Eight hours in the office may leave you feeling only a little woozy, never really strained and never sure what (if anything) was accomplished. That's a recipe for Valium addiction, not a rousing Miller Time.
On the other hand, there is one way to make professional work provide the same "burn" as real work -- sheer endurance. Put in longer hours, generate more make-work; then relaxation at the end of the day will feel truly satisfying, even if there's only a very short time left for it.
How else, I wonder, can we explain a paradox of contemporary life, that many professionals today work harder, put in longer hours and get more ulcers, than their counterparts of 20 years ago -- even though 1982 offices are lined with computers, word processors and other labor-saving devices? The imperative seems clear: Work expands until it justifies Miller Time.
Maybe this relationship is most easily seen in the fitness fad, which is largely a professional-class phenomenon. Everyone needs exercise, of course, but many runners now pound the streets as if training for a decathalon. Running, say, 50 miles a week goes far beyond what is necessary for fitness. But it does produce enough misery to justify a little Miller Time when it's over. It's a solitary kind of misery, being self-imposed, and also a solitary kind of celebration, as the runner toasts himself for what he alone endured. Yet it sure is popular.
Isn't modern desk work the same? Much of its exertion, like running, is self-imposed -- meetings, memos, interoffice politics, nursing bruised egos. The level of self-imposed exertion, as in running, often goes far beyond what is necessary to get the job done. But the thrill of stopping, the moment of Miller Time, isn't satisfying unless work has been cranked up to a painful level.
Of course another influence is involved. In this city of workaholics, many people log extra hours and generate extra office agonies as a form of escape -- from self-doubt, from lack of love, from growing up. So perhaps it's only natural they should base their pleasures on work, too. In circular fashion, this inspires the workaholic to even more frenzy. When Washington professionals get together (however briefly) to unwind, they generally talk not of what they did, but how hard it to was accomplish. How hard to get to the client, how hard to get past the editor, and so on. If things went smoothly, many would be disappointed.
As my generation (late twenties) increasingly turns away from marriage, family and community and toward work as a source of meaning in life, Miller Time may become an important social form. Just as runners can become addicted to their own bodies' production of the pain-killer endorphine, workaholics can become addicted to the high of knowing that the day's manic exertion is over. Anyone, for instance, who has attended the basic Saturday night Georgetown or Capitol Hill party knows it for a nervous, joyless affair. Weeknight Miller Time in Washington, on the other hand, can be full of life. On weeknights Washingtonians feel high, their suffering at work being so close at hand. On weekends the high wears off and many feel out of place, longing for the office and a chance to hit themselves over the head with a hammer again.
It's not masochism, it's just safe. The joy of Miller Time -- hard work followed by release -- is predictable and dependable, whereas the other main source of earthly joy, people, is not. Someday Miller's commercials will acknowledge this and slant to the professional mind. Viewers will see a smartly dressed man or woman locking up the office late in the evening. "You've just sacrificed your marriage for a report no one will ever read," the announcer will say. "Now comes Miller Time."