Sunday, December 10, 2006

Volunteers Needed

Welcome to "The Gods Are Bored!" Tis the season to be stressed to the max by overwork! Take your troubles to the bored gods. They're partly responsible for this predicament.

There's a dirty little word out there that sounds all noble and high-minded but is really just a synonym for slave.

That word is volunteer.

Everyone from popes to presidents lauds the work of volunteers. But aye, that's the rub. Volunteers work. They work their babyfat off, and for what? The State of New Jersey has given me a coffee mug, two t-shirts, and a plastic lunchbox for my volunteer work at a local museum. (Oh, yeah, I forgot the annual Certificate of Appreciation and Volunteer Brunch that I never have time to attend because it's hell and gone in Hoboken.)

In order to earn those certificates, uneaten bagels, and trinkets, I've had to deal with a "Here's Johnny" museum director who loves his volunteers one minute and treats them like chattel the next. If you say, "I just bought a wreath for the front door," he says, "Great! But you know, it has to be absolutely authentic to 1777, or, well, oh, em, well, we just can't use it, but you know it's your call." And then he'll spend 30 minutes telling you about the nice little old lady who's too old to volunteer now, but who always got every last detail absolutely perfect.
Yeah. My cat box stinks, and I'm volunteering to work for this guy.

Never is the volunteer drudgery heaped on you more than at this joyous Holiday time. Call the holiday whatever you want, you're gonna be expected to bake 12 dozen cookies, plan two parties (one of them for loud, destructive, furniture-staining kids), and --- here's the hardest part --- keep your regular damned life moving along at its regular manic clip.

I'll be the first to admit that the award for selfless slavery volunteerism goes to church ladies. Set foot in any church and say hello, and the next thing you know you're up to the neck in volunteer quicksand, making 15 lamb hats and 27 shepherd costumes while baking those 12 dozen cookies and five casseroles for the congregational dinner. Then rushing off to choir practice. But oooops! You forgot the holiday acolyte run-through for Xmas Eve! Now you're in trouble.

I'm not a church lady anymore, but I'm still loaded to the plimsol line with volunteer duties, which weigh all the heavier now that I'm out of the goat pasture and into a 10-hour-a-day paid position.

Please don't tell me I can "Just Say No." How can you Just Say No when your 12-year-old wants to be president of the local chapter of Children of the American Revolution? Even if that means planning not one, but two big parties? Parties that will be attended by D.A.R. Poobahs who know how a finger sandwich ought to look. And taste. And be displayed on a platter.

Have you ever heard of a caterer who knows what a finger sandwich is? If they do, they know how to charge top dollar for the skimpiest of nourishments.

Now let's ratchet this rant up one more notch.

Volunteering reaches its peak of need at the darkest time of the year, when every sane person is suffering from Seasonal Affective Disorder.

So now you're doing your job, keeping your house, watching your kids' faces fall when you tell them you can't take them to the Macy's Christmas Display downtown because you have to buy groceries, and you're rushing off for five hours of volunteering at the museum, because hey, it's Christmas, and that's the time for a extra festive Open House! And Oh Holy Night, you didn't notice your prescription for Quaaludes has run dry!!!!!!


I know this post is meaner than my usual meanness. Because without volunteers, homeless people wouldn't have blankets and hot soup, scientists wouldn't have the money for breast cancer research, and every single community everywhere would be a bleaker, darker place. It's not pretty to conceive of a world run by Ebenezer Scrooges.

That's the trouble, though. The Scrooges are in the ascendant. They're expecting more work for less pay, and no pensions or health insurance. What does that mean to the future of volunteering?

Just this: No one will be able to retire with enough pulse, energy, and extra gas money to hand out blankets. The golden days of little old lady volunteers who got every detail right is over. This is the end, my friend.

Oh yes, there will always be legions of high schoolers trying to pad their college aps by tutoring and picking up litter. And there will always be church ladies. Yes, there will always be church ladies. Especially in churches where it's considered a sin for women to work outside the home. But overall, the level of volunteerism in America is dropping at about the same rate that the global temperature is rising. People just don't have the time.

Don't believe me? Attend a meeting at your local Masonic Lodge and find a man under the age of 65. The Masons helped found this nation and have rocked on with charity work ever since, but in 30 years they'll be gone. Gone.

The D.A.R. might last a bit longer, but it too will eventually sag into the sea. Who has time to spend four days in Washington every year, marching in formation with badges on shoulders and listening to national Treasurer's Reports? Who's available to attend that local luncheon on a Wednesday? Who wants to spend a weekend driving to the other end of the state for a convention?

Squeezed by Scrooge, new generations will volunteer no more. Don't believe me? Try picturing a Ladies' Auxilliary for the Veterans of the Iraq War. Trust me, these vets' wives will be working two jobs, and the vets will too. Until they drop dead, victims of illnesses they had no insurance to cover.

In summary:

1. If you have time to volunteer, you must have a nice pension.
2. If your volunteer assignment is worse than your job, cut bait.
3. If all your volunteer duties climax in this darkest of months, and are tied to your place of worship, think hard about your religious choices.
4. If you're that little old lady who knows how to get every last detail right, you'd better dive into the bunker. The world will be clamoring for you, and you've already proven you don't know how to say no.

Now you must excuse me. I'm late for my appointment with the speech therapist. She's going to teach me how to say "NO!"



BBC said...

I've done volunteer work for years, and I've learned one thing. Do it freelance, don't commit to anything long term, or anything you don't want to do.

I did teach a computer class on how to use the Internet and Email for two nights a week at the library for two years, but I really enjoyed it.

When I stopped enjoying it, I stopped doing it.

And I don't volunteer expecting to be recognized for it. Certificates and things in the paper make me a little uneasy, I just do things because they need to be done.

But I've been goofing off lately and haven't done a lot other than little things I come upon. It's been about six weeks since I even went to the peace protest.

Shame on me.

Sunny said...

There is another, even more sinister level of this phenomenon. We call it "helium hand." This particular strain of volunteerimania involves taking on too many individual responsibilities, within the scope of your already time-consuming role as a volunteer. When you're on numerous boards, have a high degree of commitment to those causes, and want to make sure everything is done RIGHT, it's easy to fall into the trap of taking responsibility for far more than you can realistically achieve without burnout. I seldom, if ever, "drop the ball," but I sure do crash and burn from time to time. Right now I'm taking a small hiatus from my responsibilities until mid-January... except, of course, that the church council has to have a quarterly meeting, I have emails to write for PLSC, there are a couple of moon rituals that have to be held, and nobody wants to cancel drum circle, even through the holidays... *sigh*

(going back to read your post one more time...)

Anne Johnson said...

I feel your pain, Sunny. Thanks for sharing.

Interrobang said...

I hate to be crotchety, but I don't believe in volunteering. I've come to the conclusion that too many "volunteer opportunities" are really just wankfests for cheap-labour conservatives.

If you need me there that much, you can pay me minimum wage. I'll consider my "charitable donation" to the cause to be the difference between what you're paying me per hour and my usual billing rates (a not-insignificant contribution, btw). I don't work for pizza I can't eat and a badly-printed certificate, sorry...