in the employ of no one

Great Basin gopher snake (Pituophis catenifer deserticola)

Great Basin gopher snake (Pituophis catenifer deserticola)

From almost the very beginning of my tenure here in the desert I’ve had vague details of an old book floating around in my head, a book I haven’t touched since freshman year of college: 1984, by George Orwell. It was (and is) an important novel, one which I found mordant and portentous way back when, but my recent thoughts did not dwell on Big Brother or doublespeak or anything so philosophical or insightful. I kept returning to poor Winston and his government sinecure.

Female ruby-crowned kinglet (Regulus calendula)

Female ruby-crowned kinglet (Regulus calendula)

Winston Smith, the utterly unremarkable middle-class protagonist, works as an editor in the all-powerful Ministry of Truth. His days are spent engaged in “historical revisionism,” essentially rewriting political history to ensure that in no document or newspaper article or book does this fictive government contradict its ever-changing party line. He tasks himself with tidying the paper trail, trying as he might to accord past transgressions with present platitudes and proclamations of prosperity. He is, in effect, the retroactive public relations toady. The job itself suits him fine, but it isn’t long before he becomes intrigued by and then embroiled in the uncovering of real truth, that hidden sum of all his revisions and redactions.

Now, there’s really nothing remotely similar between Winston’s duties and my own. I sit at a desk and put on my welcoming face, ready to answer questions and hand out maps and tell the rare visitor where the playa is—this latter feat accomplished simply by pointing out the window. The only resemblance lies in its characterization. Orwell describes Winston’s position as a sinecure—it was my first encounter with this word—which, according to Dictionary.com, means “an office or position requiring little or no work, especially one yielding profitable returns.” It is an old word with Latinate roots: sine means “without”; cure, “care”—no effort, no concern. Just as manicure and pedicure relate to care for the extremities, so sinecure defines the careless desk jockey: underemployed, apathetic, nonessential yet bankrolled.

Not that I necessarily agree with that summation, but it’s a moot point. I’m on furlough. Now I am officially not working, instead of writing and researching and exploring under the pretense of work. One could say I’ve been preparing all season for just this sort of eventuality.

Another, redder gopher snake

Another gopher snake

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