I escaped a computer wasteland

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One year ago this week, I left what many would describe as a cushy white-collar desk job to become a blue-collar worker who – as the great rock ’n’ roll band The Who sang – gets his back into his living.

While I was glad to be ex-officio and out under a blue sky again, it was a tough adjustment becoming a delivery driver, handling everything from 50-pound boxes to 500-pound drums.

I thought I had developed a thick skin serving as a newspaper reporter and editor for the prior 15 years, but after a few days on the job, the skin on my soft hands was a painful mess. And that was only the beginning of the physical effects of making a drastic life change that took me from looking at a computer every day, even on weekends, to one where I used my muscles and hand-eye coordination to earn a paycheck.

Physically it was hard, but mentally I was happy as a clam.

A year into the career change, I can say it was a good choice. Sure, on rainy or snowy or bitterly cold days I long for that warm, dry office. But the feeling lasts only an instant. I love being out in the world, driving around Maine and New Hampshire seeing things happen, being part of the scene, and overall acting as a small tooth in the churning cog of the economy. I’m the final phase of the global shipping network, and it’s a noble feeling.

But I often think of my former fellow office workers – not just the ones I worked with directly but all those across the world who must endure hours sitting at a desk staring at a bright screen. Oh, the humanity!

My loathing of computers knows no bounds. I’m surprised we don’t hear more stories of raging office workers throwing tantrums at their computers, perhaps heaving it down a hallway or out a window. Email, especially, is a beast. As a desk jockey, I spent my life trying to keep pace with incoming emails. It was a fool’s errand. The email never ends.

In 2001, when I started work in the news business, very little transpired through email. People would mail or walk news items into the office. By April 28, 2016, the last day I was employed as an editor, no one brought anything into the office and very few called with information. It was all done by email. I’m sure that hasn’t changed in my year away.

Messages would come in at an alarming rate. I felt like Sysyphus, condemned by the gods to an eternity of pushing a boulder up a hill, watching it roll back down and hefting it back up again. Like that poor fool, I never could conquer that hill of emails. I tried every day to keep it in check, even on weekends. After a week off, I’d have more than 1,000 emails in my inbox, many of them junk that still had to be sifted. I particularly remember my last day. My goal was to clean out every last one of those email messages so my successor wouldn’t have to deal with them. I may have managed to zero-out my inbox, but, in reality, that email conquered me instead.

This is the way of modern life. Computers are here to stay. Sitting all day is the new norm. According to a 2015 Pew Research Center poll, 61 percent of those who use a computer at work say email is their most important method of communication. The poll didn’t ask the respondents whether they liked email, and I bet many would say they don’t. They do it because it’s expected of them.

Why am I lamenting computers when computers have obviously won the battle in the workplace? Just as marchers protest other aspects of modern life – oil, pollution, Trump being president – I’m here protesting the way modern man has set up his work environment. The masses may have to put up with staring at a screen all day to make a buck, but it’s no way to spend the majority of our waking hours in the one life we get. Working in the blueberry fields, unloading a trailer filled with boxes, painting houses, mowing lawns or digging ditches is better for the soul and body and, dare I say, mental outlook, than slaving at a computer.

Maybe in 10 or 25 years we’ll see a revolution in the workplace. I know it did me good to get out and do something “real.” I doubt the next generation, already at one with their smartphones, will want to look at anything other than a screen. But here’s hoping.

John Balentine, a former managing editor for Sun Media Group, lives in Windham.