Requiem for a job

smurfette in her declineI spent a lot of time thinking about what I should do, occupation wise, when I grew up. I had a poster of a smiling Smurfette sliding down a powerfully bright rainbow, exhorting that girls can do anything. Being a precocious 8-year-old, I aimed straight for the top, Icarus or no Icarus, and settled on POTUS. Why not president, after all? After a time I saw reason, and selected doctor instead. This wasn’t as big a leap as it might seem, since I spent a good amount of time as a child in hospitals and medical offices, and doctor clearly equaled boss. Which is who I was. I was boss, at least until I stepped out of the house to wait for the bus and came into uncomfortable proximity with the bullies from my neighborhood, and at that point I was pretty much clear that they weren’t responding to my personal sense of leadership.

For a decade, I had picked physician, and it’s difficult for me to explain why I was quite so attached to the concept for so long. I was a kid who thought that there would come a point in my life during which I would have learned everything there is to learn. I hadn’t thought about the progress of humans, clearly, but I also hadn’t given any quality thinking time to the space after I’d absorbed it all. What would I do then? Reread it all? Become a globe of light?

Someone at some moment exposed me to the idea of histology, and my dreams of Dr. Maroon evaporated. That just seemed too hard. I went with the wave of young women giving up, perched as we were, at the precipice over the ocean, quietly taking our turns leaping in. So willing, those lemmings. My friends had gone from talking about fighting fires and scuba diving to find new marine life to being secretaries and nurses. Don’t get me wrong, there is nothing wrong with office employment or nursing. There is something wrong, in my book, with giving up on one major life goal due to insecurity, but to add the arbitrary nonsense of insecurity from one’s gender, race, or ethnicity, and the world starts to go off the rails a little.

And yet, even as I write this, there are four women in orbit around Planet Earth. Clearly the confines of the 1970s have relaxed quite a bit. I only had the Space Camp movie and Sally Ride as models and hell, I was a long in the tooth teenager by then, my fate already sealed. Okay, of course it wasn’t but I also believed, having not yet acquired a distrust of stupid talking people, everything adults said to me, even when they were clearly incorrect or limited statements. For example, upon graduating high school after 12 years of Catholic education, I honestly believed that people were only ever one of the following:

  • Catholic
  • Jewish
  • Protestors

I have no explanation; we all had to take world religions our third year of high school. I read about Confucius and Hinduism and the Qaran, but I didn’t see those kids in my world, so they must not have been in the United States, or at least, New Jersey. But these contradictions didn’t worry me one bit; I bought what was told to me soup to nuts, and trusted that I was not science-y enough to be a physician. I did get praise, however, for my writing.

rorschach inkblot testWriter, however, was not a word that instilled happiness in my parents. It sounded to them like a straight shot to poverty and narcissistic delusion. Before I could blink my mother whisked me off to Philadelphia to take a battery of tests otherwise known as career counseling. I sat in a wooden chair for 6 hours filling out Myers-Briggs questions, a Stanford Binet IQ test, ink blot and other occupation-oriented tests. And voila, a couple of weeks later, a lovely letter came in the mail with the answer, as if a civil servant and a carnival fortune-teller had a love child with a fixation on material wealth.

I was strongest in expressing myself, I had a genius ability to handle spatial relations, and I was scraping genius on verbal ability, with an exceptionally average ability at math. So of course they decided I should be a lemon grower. Okay, they didn’t say lemon grower. And sadly, there is no Lego Building major at our institutions of higher education, anywhere. The letter said I’d be good at mass communication, journalism, writing, and oh gosh, this was probably the worst news for my parents. And now they were out $400 to boot.

I considered a career as a book editor. That was steady salary and I still got to play with books and words. And suddenly, it was my career path, until I realized that I could easily lose my mind doing such a thing.

I hit college and realized I’d been letting everyone else make my decisions for me, however well intentioned they’d been. I took classes in television writing and directing, only to learn that collaborative writing entails other writers, who are sometimes burned out, sycophants to someone else, or mind-numbingly closed off to learning new stories. One workshop had Sally Field’s son in it, and he was a good writer, but the professor couldn’t do enough to rave on and on about every word he farted out of his ass. For what it’s worth, I thought his work in the workshop was boring and a little too misanthropic for me, but hey, we were all there to learn and grow, right? Over time the prof started showing up drunk, and then he stopped coming altogether. Word in the Hall of Languages was that he was going through a divorce. I just wanted feedback on my story, or for some of his colleagues to help him out. Neither happened.

I realized the end of my college career was fast approaching, so I did what any reasonable person would do, I took the Graduate Record Exam and went straight into graduate school. Even deferring the real world for two years was better than nothing, and when that was over, I looked at my 24-year-old self and still wasn’t sure what the hell to do with my life. I knew I was tired of living on a $9,000 stipend, but I didn’t—still—feel any confidence in my skill set. So I puttered around my college town for a few years and finally took a job selling and buying books down in the nation’s capitol.

It was a terrible, painful, unproductive job, with overworked staff who wanted to know why the boss had hired outside of them, who the fat white girl was, and how long I would last. Anyone who’d placed a bet on less than a calendar year, I hope you made some good money off of me. Ten months later I was out the door, scrambling to find anything in the very-more-expensive-than-upstate-New-York city. Four months into my search—it was well before the tech bubble burst—I found a job as a publications coordinator. This started me down a waterslide of jobs into the heart of information technology, and 8 years later, I was pretty much at the top of the technical ladder. None of this had come from an ink blot.

Moving out to Walla Walla, the people who read this blog regularly already know, has been a helluva big adjustment, and not just because I haven’t found a single decent job lead since we moved. But I do think that it’s given me some things I haven’t had before: time to write and work on my craft, a sense that I can really sit back and think about my next career move, absent the kind of heart-pounding pressure I’ve felt before, and an opportunity to re-evaluate self-evaluation. Maybe I am not my career. Maybe I don’t have to take job names: usability specialist, bookseller, writer, and pretend they are all I am. Those are good things.

I’m not sure what my next move is, although I did get a call from the Census (two, actually, which makes me wonder how many people they’re actually about to hire this spring) to do enumeration for the next ten weeks, and I may have a job with Microsoft, which up until this move has been like spokesperson for Satan. And yet I know that if I go with either of these options, I don’t have to make them about me. I can just be me.

Smurfette taught me I can be anything, after all. And while I didn’t really take any vocational advice from her, that rainbow in the picture? It made me kind of gay.

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Categories: ponderings, transplanted

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