Tell the folks back home this is the promised land callin’
And the poor boy’s on the line –Chuck Berry, Promised Land
Every so often Yves gets a request from a reader who — not to be unkind — thinks she’s Dear Abby and asks for advice. Lately people have been asking for what starts out sounding like career advice but ends up more like “What am I to do?” (given that population has increased by 13 million since 2007 and jobs have decreased by 3.2 million that’s not such an easy question to answer).
So, slipping into a more complete disclosure mode than my lambert persona normally allows, I’m not sure I’m qualified to give advice, and when I outline my mad career you’ll see why. My first job, if you don’t count collecting soda pop bottles — free money! — was in Junior High School: Shelving books at the local library for 25¢ an hour, if I recall; that’s when I got my Social Security card. Then: Mowing lawns in the neighborhood (I got a lot of work because I priced badly). Dishwasher. After a brief college career (it was the ’70s), with volunteer work in brackets: White metal jewelry caster, (writer), packer, assembler; braider tender, braider tender, braider mechanic; runner, coordinator, paste-up artist, typesetter, production manager; paste-up artist, [writer, desktop publisher], desktop publisher, freelance desktop publisher, production manager, editor; technical consultant, consultant, consultant, consultant. Independent consultant. [Blogger.] Data analyst. Landlord / site developer / blogger, which is where I am today: Three jobs at once and (I like to think) only good at the last one, also the only one fun, and the only one worth doing. Maybe I’ll go full circle and end up collecting bottles again! Quite the narrative arc. Anyhow, if I count right — the guys in shipping would never let me help because I’m terrible at counting — that’s 27 jobs, so I maybe I’m qualified to answer “What do I do?” if I get around to it. Probably, readers, many of you have had careers like mine, and so you’re just as qualified as I am!
So, was it all worth it? All that work? I mean, for anything other than paying the bills? I think so; up until the dot com crash ten — no, thirteen years — ago, I’ve enjoyed every job I had, never angsted about any of them, and always moved ahead. (For a critique of “work,” Jack Crow asks the essential question: “Why shouldn’t everyone have it easy?” A hard question to answer. To pre-empt the moralists: “The good ended happily, and the bad unhappily. This is what Fiction means.”) I loved shelving books using the Dewey Decimal system ZOMG!!! and I loved all the factory jobs, because they taught me to break down work into steps, and even more importantly, forced me to live in my body for the first time. (Though looking back, I was lucky to have come up before all the factories were turned into lofts; I don’t envy the young people of today working in retail or, Heaven forfend, in one of Amazon’s robot warehouses.) I loved the precision and deftness of mechanical paste-up — anybody out there know what a waxer is? — and even more so the art of typography. And when all that went digital… I had a pretty good run, after I integrated my humanities background (a rent). For awhile. I’m also qualified to give advice on being poor, since I’ve been poor at least three times, even if my professional upbringing has always enabled me to “pass,” and will until my teeth go.
The first time I was poor, working in the factories, I didn’t even know I was poor; even if “Insurance, what’s that?” I could afford an apartment and books and some entertainment on a factory worker’s pay. (My first caster job paid $2.25 an hour. After three months, they gave me a raise to $2.35!)
I got poor the second time after the dot com crash. I had naïvely assumed that I was making more and more money because my mad technical skillz were getting better and better, which was true but irrelevant. All the money was from the bubble, which burst for me in late 2000, at a conference where I also watched the hanging chads counted on CNN in my hotel room. Following a shot at my own consulting firm, which temporarily succeeded, but then failed, owing partly to my less-than-stellar (INTJ) marketing abilities, but mainly to IRS Section 1706 (the same law that caused that Texas guy to fly his small plane into an IRS building), which prevented me from leveraging skillz into billable hours without going through a rent-sucking intermediary — which, of course, wanted nothing to do with me.
In any case, after a year or so drawing down the cash I had, and after several months in Philadelphia without electricity or gas, when I blogged from various WiFi outlets around town — WiFi was new then, and much more open — I landed a job, in a month when Bush created 500 jobs, nationwide, with a humongous rent-sucking corporate content provider that actually needed the not-yet-atrophied technical skillz I then had to offer. I was then not willing to leave Philly, because I had grown to love the grit, the slack, the Reading Terminal, and my under-the-radar apartment off an alley where the rats were so smart they carried little tools, and so took on what was in retrospect the major stressor of a two-and-a-half hour commute (each way). After a couple of years of stabilization and dental care (though I did have to dodge the “Let’s get you on this assembly line to pull all your back teeth and then bill the insurance company!” scam), I began to realize how angry and unhappy I was, not only with the commute, but with the cube, and how happy (by comparison) blogging made me — even though I was at that time very much in “More and better Democrats” mode (and goodbye to all that). So I began thinking of the Starbucks solution: A throwaway job. With health care! And time for blogging!
Fate intervenes! When, in 2006, my mother died, I was psychologically prepared to let go of the cube and do what I really wanted to do, which was blog. I felt that, with a “this old house” — partly mine, partly a family member’s — and the inheritance, I would be well-equipped to make a go of it. My mother always said: “Do what only you can do!” and I was going to do just that.
Fate intervenes and I am poor for the third time! Most of the inheritance is stolen and pissed away by a family member, in such a manner that I have no recourse (trust me on this), and instead of this old house and capital, I have this old house. I adjust. I figure out how to become a landlord — yes, readers, I am a rentier — and I figure out how to build a very smallish clientele the Drupal skills that I had developed blogging.
Time passes. It slowly becomes clear to me that I, and “this old house,” are in a slowly deteriorating situation where the most likely outcome is some sort of collapse — and how very meta that is. The fabric of the house, because it was built before the era of speculative styrofoam pediments, is wonderfully tough, but there just isn’t enough money to simultaneously support the family member, keep me, and maintain it. Two of three, only. And work in the great state of Maine is very hard to find, especially if you are not young, are heavily over-qualified, and are carrying — for all the reasons you read here — a chip on your shoulder the size of Mount Katahdin.
So that, dear readers, and dear advice seekers, is my resume.
* * *
So, to play Dear Abby for a moment, I’d answer “What am I to do? like this–
I really do believe that my mother had it right: “Do what only you can do.” That’s not the same as “Do what you love and the money will follow” because plenty of times the money doesn’t follow. (The great mathematician Paul Erdős was, essentially, a couch surfer, and what of that, given all the proofs?) Finding your calling isn’t easy — it took me twenty-odd jobs, after all, to find mine. (I actually tried to be a poet back when I was a caster, but found I had nothing to say). And finding your calling doesn’t necessarily make you happy; after all, I’m as angry now as ever I was in the cube, though granted for different and I hope better reasons. However…. Well, I won’t go so far as to say you’ll know that your life has meaning, since that raises philosophical questions, but I can say that you will feel that your time on earth is not being wasted. That’s a great feeling. (“Do what only you can do” is a lot like “Be the best you can be,” but… I was certainly the best white metal jewelry casters I could have been, but there are, or were, a lot of white metal jewelry casters in the world, some of them, surely, as good as me.)
Looking back, I’d also say “Volunteer for something.” If you’re disemployed right now, for example, it’s vital to your well-being to get out of the darkened house into the light and connect with people. Avoid depression at all costs! (Because “depressions are depressing.”) Volunteering is an excellent way to force yourself forward and keep in motion. Pragmatically, for me volunteering (the bracketed jobs in my career) was a great way to pick up skills: I learned desktop publishing as a volunteer, and on the job I got through that skill, I picked up the skillz that… Well, the dot com bubble trashed them, but I had a good run there for awhile. And although my plan to “Blog and Grow Rich!” didn’t quite work out, nevertheless readers saved the house when the pipes burst in the first really bad cold snap.
I’d also say “Euthanize the rents.”* I made the terrible mistake of buying into the idea that an advanced degree — not the same as “education” — made the debt worth it. But the bubble burst, and in my experience, the degree wasn’t worth it. Wasn’t anywhere near worth it. (I thought it would take the chip off my shoulder. Can you imagine?) And — thanks, Joe Biden! — because student debt can’t be discharged in bankruptcy, it’s very, very risky. Far more risky than starting a business! In retrospect I would have done better to have become an electrician or a plumber. So, before taking on student debt, think once, twice, and then again.
But student debt is not the only rent. Euthanize all** rents, to which the emotions of fear, horror, and repugnance should be attached. Don’t give Big Money your rents: Get rid of as much plastic as you can, move your money to a credit union, and so forth. Don’t give Big Food your rents: Every time you eat a “food-like substance,” instead of food that’s good, clean, and fair, you’re paying rent. Rent to the intellectual property owners of the weird chemicals on the label, rent to the food chain, rent to the marketers. Stop it! Net positive to you: Better food makes you happier, cleans your body, and clears your mind. Don’t give Big Media your rent. Big Media wants to destroy the Internet so they can sell porn — Oh, I’m sorry, “interactive video.” So why support them in that endeavor by giving them one thin dime? If you can, cut off your cable. Turn off the teebee. Don’t give Big Oil your rent. If you must drive, consider Ride Sharing, or work out a pooling solution. Who said every household had to have one car? In each case, you’ll be saving money you probably don’t have, and removing physically and mentally toxic material (in the case of Big Media, especially) from your life. Why should you carry all that baggage around? And if you are dumping all that baggage because you have become poor, then consider that an advantage of poverty.
Finally, yesterday’s Dear Abby had a letter that I don’t need to quote, because you can write it yourself given the headline: “GIRL FAILS TO MEASURE UP TO HER OWN HIGH STANDARDS.” Dear Abby’s advice:
I do have a few suggestions, and the first is to stop being your own worst enemy. The more you dwell on what you think you lack, the more you will amplify those things. Find one thing you like about yourself and build from there. …The more you brood about yourself, the lonelier you will become. The more you think about helping others, the less time you will have to think about yourself.
And that’s good advice, too. Occupy Sandy, for example, was all about “helping others,” just like Dear Abby said. However, Dear Abby’s headline slips in the assumption that the “standards” are “hers,” when it couldn’t be more clear that the writer’s internalized them, and they aren’t really “hers” at all.
Similarly in the world of work: People who are DISemployed tend to blame themselves. (“Guilt starts as a feeling of failure. The wise ruler provides many opportunities for failure for his populace.”)*** But why are we regulating the economy by throwing people out of work? (Why isn’t there a Jobs Guarantee, for example?) That’s not to say that people don’t make mistakes; I’ve made a ton! But “our” society makes the penalties for failure vicious, brutal, and deadly. Losing your job shouldn’t mean the loss of your house, your health, or your life — and in too many cases, it does. Hopefully, some of the advice above can mitigate, at least. I know, I know, Job’s comforters….
Adding… I’ve gassed on about my own working life quite long enough. What about yours?
NOTE * I didn’t say “Euthanize the rentier. This is the “What am I to do?” conversation. The “What is to be done” conversation is that way.
NOTE ** Well, not all. Be pragmatic. I’m overstating the case to make the points.
NOTE *** It’s late, so I’m spacing on that quote; Frank Herbert, I believe. Readers?