Jobs have meaning to me. You work, you get paid. Careers don’t make any sense to me. I grew up working, I had my first job at the age of 14. I hated that job but performed the functions of a guy who carries golf bags faithfully. I graduated to the caddyshack cleaning and storing members’ clubs. My first time-clock job came at 15. From that age to the age of 42, I worked jobs. I hated them all.
I believed I found my place in the world when, at the age of 34, I landed a job working for $18-grand at a newspaper. For three years, the job kept me from falling into that trap I so often got into when I worked jobs. I didn’t hate the job. I got into ruts but climbed back out of them again. I won regional and national awards. While I worked on one story, intimidating men followed me around. It was obvious that I was onto something.
Then the owner of the paper sold out to a large corporation. The job turned into a series of exercises at staying busy. I was no longer out pursuing real stories or uncovering government and corporate corruption. The new regime had little interest in those sorts of things but loved the kinds of stories I could write in my sleep. Without the challenge and pushed by the corporation to do things I didn’t like, I quit journalism, for which I had great talent and enthusiasm. If I had stuck with it and aspired to it, I could have gone on to write for larger publications. I didn’t and instead went to work as a book editor.
When I worked for the publisher in the early 2000s, things were exciting for about six months. I was writing books that authors couldn’t deliver. I tackled rough editing jobs and sold books. Then my boss quit and I joined another division. We made gift books, cute things that challenge no one. When I started at the publisher, I looked forward to literature. But they didn’t want literature. They wanted the kinds of books that look good around the cash register.
After a year, I looked around my desk. I had cards with my name on them. All the necessary office supplies were on the desk. I had a file cabinet. I thought to myself, I could make a career of this. The job was just the kind of thing a well-educated 40-year-old should have. Promotion possibilities. 401k. Three-week paid vacation. I saw myself at my desk. I’d come from lowly caddy to book editor making 35K a year. Not quite rich but respectable and secure. I could’ve been somebody.
I was miserable. I’ve never been that happy at indoor work, anyway. I worked maybe 10 hours a week, at the most, on the job. The rest of the time, I fiddled around on the computer and wrote my own work. I stayed busy because I needed to look like I was doing stuff for the company.
At job evaluation time, my boss took me in and said, “We have a problem. You came in late, take two-hour lunches, and go home early. I don’t criticize your work. It’s not extraordinary but it meets all the requirements of the job, plus some. But I have an office full of people who went to school specifically to do this work. They have been here longer than you. They see your behavior and wonder why they can’t get away with it. For this reason, I’m only giving you half the raise I can. You will have to change your habits.”
My wife heard the complaining, the whining. Oh, I hate my job. I want to get out of there. It’s killing me. The people are all crazy. Etc.
“So, why don’t you just quit,” she said.
I did. For the next year, I did whatever came my way. I painted houses. Hauled rock. Built stone walls. Anything for money. I had never been more happy with work in my whole life. I made more that year than I had at the publisher. I was a nobody and that was just all right with me.
Then, I decided to go to grad school. Even then, I was touched with luck. Between scholarships, fellowships, and graduate stipends I made almost as much money as I had at the publisher. For the next three years, I pulled down a regular 30K just going to school.
Then, I joined the ironworkers’ union and spent two good years putting steel things together. I built bridges, culverts, concrete slabs. I once helped tear out an assembly line at a factory. I never worked harder in my whole life.
Unfortunately, the economy hit the skids. Work slowed down. I got on at the community college by dint of having taught there one semester as a graduate student on an exchange program where one of the college’s full time teachers went to my institution and I went to theirs. I remember calling the head of the department up and asking if he had any openings. Sure, he said, can you start next week?
Since then I have taught school. For a while, I worked building bridges in the summers. It was a good gig for me. I spent the school year indoors challenging my mind and went outside then to challenge my body.
Unfortunately, being at school got me back into school. I started researching my dissertation. I set myself up with a desk and computer in the graduate assistant lounge at UMKC. When I wasn’t teaching, I was at that desk. I spent the next two summers working on that dissertation every day from 9 or 10 a.m. to 4 or 5 p.m.
Then, a dissertation, the most excruciating and humiliating work I’ve ever done popped out. It’s trash, that dissertation. It does good things, but it will never see publication. I have since quit ironworking, something I still miss. But teaching has its upsides, the greatest of which is that I get to write every day.
I look back now. I haven’t had a real job since 2003. Even ironworking was a take-it-or-leave-it kind of thing. If I got laid off, I could take my time getting back to the union hall. A day on the bridge wasn’t like working a dead-end desk job. It wasn’t all pure joy but it wasn’t a regular job job.
It’s good not having a job. Employment, I say, is overrated. Do what you love, they say, and you’ll never work a day in your life. That’s bullshit. Don’t do anything but what gets you by and you will never have a career to worry about.
The beauty of my present position is that I call the shots. I go to school when I want and write when I want. I’m living the life I always wanted. Sure, I haven’t produced any blockbusters and the chances I will are slim indeed, particularly if I keep writing travel memoir. It’s a niche market. You can name all the people who have broken out and made millions writing travel: Jonathan Raban, Ian Frazier, Jan Morris, William Least Heat Moon, Bruce Chatwin, Cheryl Strayed, and John Steinbeck. There may be a couple more but not many.
I’d be better off monetarily if I wrote romance stories. But I can’t. I’m doomed to be a minor literary figure, if that.
But, as long as I keep from getting a job, there’s a chance.