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Were Freud and Mario Cuomo right about work?

We were on Delta 436 out of Memphis heading south to Cozumel, Mexico. Steven, my oldest son, and I have been taking annual scuba and snorkeling trips together for the past several years. Destinations have been Caribbean ports where the fish, coral and sea grass were exceptional to behold.

Steve had a window seat, I was in the center, and there was a stranger on the aisle, reading a magazine. I was curious as to what he was reading. I tried to look at the text without being too obvious. The print was super bold so I was able to read it without (I think) letting on that I was prying into his reading material. I zoomed in on a line that said, “Sigmund Freud said ‘Love and work are the two most important things in life.’”

I started to dwell on that thought. I had never contemplated the degree of importance, work or love played in the scheme of things. Work seemed to be just something that men did to make a living — end of story.

When I was a child, work just seemed to be something men did to put food on the table and clothing on your back. Women stayed at home to run the household and take care of the children; that wasn’t real work, was it?

It was the late 30s or early 40s. My father was out of work, looking for a job. The Depression was winding down and the Nazis were plundering Europe. The war produced a job for my father. He was an electrician and found work at the Brooklyn Navy Yard working on warships being prepared for battle.

My grandfather owned a 50 percent interest in a name brand ladies’ shoe store on West 39th Street in Manhattan. On Saturdays, he would take me to work with him. It was my first job. I was 12 years old. After Mr. Kleinman or Mr. Wells, the two salesmen, would make a sale, I would be given the pair of shoes to bring to the beautiful Norma Lopanto, the office worker who would package the shoes and I would return them to the salesman, who, in turn, would give the purchase to the customer.

About three weeks into the job I got a promotion. I was then expected to give the wrapped shoes directly to the customer with a proper thank you, thereby bypassing the salesmen. I loved my job, I loved the promotion, but what I loved most of all about the job was the beautiful Norma Lopanto. I don’t remember if Grandpa paid me or if I was just helping out, but I took pride in the fact that I was working, just like the men.

During the week, after school, my friends and I would look for discarded automobile tires, which were needed for the war effort, and were worth 10 cents a tire when you turned them in. Was that work? In those days, 10 cents would buy two hot dogs or an afternoon at the movies.

In my early 20s when I entered the workplace as an accountant, I knew that work was important because it provided some essentials of a good life such as money and relationships. Furthermore I had concluded that, the better the job, the better one’s life.

Ever since high school I wanted to be a biochemist. I loved high school chemistry and received one of the highest grades in the chemistry Regents. I thought I was well on my way. College chemistry, however, proved difficult for me, mostly because of the higher mathematics involved. I stumbled through Calculus and started to think about the possibility of other professions. I took a battery of tests to determine what I would be good at and Biochemistry wasn’t on the list. The psychology staff, associated with the testing found that I had good aptitude for a career in business; a sales manager or perhaps an accountant, but I loved science. Couldn’t they have suggested a career in pharmacy, perhaps? They didn’t and I didn’t pursue it.

I fell into accounting by default.

From the time I commenced my accounting education, when I was a sophomore in college, until I finally passed all four parts of the CPA Exam, about seven years had passed, two of then in the U.S. Army. To this day, I occasionally wonder if I actually passed the exam. Most candidates didn’t. Until I was 50 years old and a practicing accountant, I looked in the mailbox every day, expecting a notice from New York State informing me that there was a grading error and I had flunked. By 55, I stopped looking.. By 65 I decided that I had prepared enough tax returns and financial statements and moved on to other things.

We touched down in Cozumel in the early afternoon, picked up our rental car and headed south to our hotel, which was close to the southern tip of the island. We were on VACATION from WORK! Steve, a physician, had left his patients 1200 miles north, along with his medical chores, hospital rounds, meetings and teaching assignments.

I spent many hours over the next few days on a beach lounge chair sipping Pina Coladas while I continued thinking about work. I started building on Freud’s statements. One cannot have a vacation from work unless one works. Is the degree of vacation pleasure related to the type of work one does? The harder the work, the more enjoyable the vacation?

If Freud was right, there had to be reasons, other than vacations, that made work important. I thought work, of any kind, benefited society. In order for work to be work, must one be paid to do it?

I never really loved accounting, but having those three letters after my name, Leonard Berk CPA, garnered much respect in some circles. There were aspects of the job that I did like. Orderliness, organization and accuracy were important to me. It gave me pleasure to set things up and follow through. Also, as a CPA I met and cultivated relationships with doctors, lawyers, carpenters, wallpaper hangers, furriers, haberdashers, car salesmen, bartenders, restaurateurs and more. Clients became close friends and close friends became clients. Most accountants weren’t very socially skilled, so when people got to know me, it was nice to hear many of them say, “You really don’t seem like the accountant type.”

When you spend most of your daily hours working, year in and year out, it’s not surprising to consider its importance, yet, I don’t think that most people realize how significant work is to life.

Mario Cuomo, the former governor of New York, was once asked, “Do we have a purpose here on earth and if so what is it?”

“To do whatever it is you do, the best you can” was his reply.

So I’m sitting on a chaise longue on the beach eating some chips, drinking my second or third Pina Colada, thinking about work and at the same time I’m watching beach workers. A woman wearing what looked like a white, frilly party dress was walking along the beach picking up plastic glasses discarded by beverage drinkers like me. She nestled the glasses, one in another, and she had a tower of them — about 30 feet high.

Gravity caused the inserted glasses to curve and form a modest arc as more were added. They seemed as if they would fall any second if she kept adding glasses, but they didn’t. I thought she did her job well. I thought I did my job well. I thought again about Mr. Cuomo and his statement on life’s purpose. He had it right. It doesn’t matter what your job is, CPA or plastic glass nestler collector, as long as you do it well, you are succeeding at life’s purpose.

Freud did not actually define work. So what is work, actually? Must work be related to making a living? If you do something without remuneration, like cooking, for example, that others do for compensation, is that work? The Merriam-Webster definition of work is stated simply as an effort to produce or accomplish something.

All things come to an end. Simple, yet profound. When should one’s work life come to an end; at age 65, 70, 80 or 90? Should the termination of one’s work life be related to age at all? I think not!

My opinion is that one’s engagement with work should end (apart from financial considerations) when that person either no longer enjoys the job, is unable to perform the job well, or just wants to fill life with things other than work. Furthermore, I think that retirement, in all its aspects should be considered carefully. Must it be “All or nothing at all?” I don’t think so.

As for me, I’ve arrived at a place where I am considering my options. We’ll see what happens.

Len Berk is the Forward’s lox columnist. He worked behind the counter at Zabar’s for 26 years.

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