Thursday, December 15, 2011

Changing careers

The first paying job I ever had was a gig with the block association in my neighborhood on Chicago's South Side. Several times a week I was to walk up one side of the street and down the other, picking up trash. I have no memory of how much I was paid, but I do remember the goal: a bicycle, a two-wheeler. I think I remember that the bike on which I had fixed my desire was a Schwinn "Green Hornet." It was definitely green, and my parents told me they couldn't afford it but that I could try to earn the cost of the bike. Thirty dollars. A princely fortune to a third-grader in nineteen sixty something.

But boy-o-boy, I wanted that bike.

So I picked up trash on our block, eventually earned the thirty bucks, bought the bike, and learned to ride it on the asphalt of the schoolyard up the street: Bryn Mawr Elementary (now the Bouchet Academy), the same school Michelle Robinson would enter as a kindergartener a year or three later, by which time my bike and I had moved on. Young Michelle's future husband, now the POtUS, was living in Jakarta at the time.

I did a fair bit of freelancing work between the third and ninth grades -- lemonade stands, selling greeting cards, mowing lawns, shoveling snow, baking dessert breads with my friend Henry and selling them to moms in our neighborhood, babysitting.

Then I got on a payroll. One payroll after another. McDonalds, Long's Drugs, miscellaneous lab assistant gigs, delivering flowers, loading lunch trucks, hauling obsolete machinery to a storage facility, wiring circuit boards, managing procurement for a tech startup.

Then I went freelance again: writing end-user manuals for software companies, programming, data-entry or temporary secretarial gigs when better-paying work dried up. When I got tired of looking for the next job with all that delicious "spare time" that was supposed to come with being your own boss I tried my hand as a cook.

And then I signed on as an employee at UC Berkeley, where I've been for ... a long time. Mostly in some job title or other that boils down to "professional geek." I'm billed as an "IT Architect" these days, and have trouble explaining exactly what that means, especially to people who don't work in software development. What I can tell you is that the title is less important than it might sound. And the truth is, most days I'd rather write fiction. (It's okay if my colleagues read this confession. My ambitions as a novelist are common knowledge at the office.)

Sometimes working as a professional geek seems ... complicated. The job claims a lot of mindshare, and not just during regular hours. The work involves a lot of lying awake at night, worrying. Every few months I toy with the idea of changing careers again. Mostly this sort of musing is make-believe, which is especially obvious when I fantasize about becoming a barista.

Yup. An espresso jerk.

In some moods, I'm really drawn to the idea of making a living at something that doesn't require deep intellectual engagement. My theory is that with a lighter-weight job I could save deep intellectual engagement for something in which I'm eager to engage, deeply.

I was sitting in one of my several favorite Berkeley cafes a few weekends ago, reading an old issue of The New Yorker (I'm behind, shamefully behind, I can't keep up any more). When I looked up, one of the newer baristas -- a striking Central American with pale green eyes -- was hanging a sign in the window, translucent plastic with red lettering, in blocky upper-case letters. "NOW HIRING" it said. I was looking at it from behind, so it looked like GNIRIH WON if I let the part of my brain that can read backward go a little bit out-of-focus.

I thought about it. About the sign, not about reading backward. And about asking the guy whether they were looking for somebody full- or part-time. About asking what the gig would pay.

In the end I didn't ask. See? Make-believe.

Maybe next year.

What would you do for a living if you could do something other than you're doing now?


  1. Steve - the label for this should be ruination, not rumination. It ruins me to contemplate what I should be doing for a living instead of what I'm actually doing. Like a speeding train, I'm heading for a marker of a birthday and so, I suppose it's expected to contemplate the "what ifs" and the "if onlys." If I'm feeling mushy, I'd say that it doesn't matter what I do for a living, it matters who my friends are, the books I write and read, the dogs I talk to :)

  2. I'm pretty lucky to work at the library in a job that's fairly interesting and that has no lie-awake-processing-or-worrying component. I'm lucky, too, to be able to work parttime. Fulltime has half killed me before.

    As a kid I thought I ought to prepare myself for office work, thinking that would complement being a writer more than something more physical or intellectually demanding. When I say I prepared myself for office work, I mean I took typing classes in high school, even one called "simulated office." Simulated office was one of the most boring & frustrating classes I ever took - voluntarily, anyway. I remember on one invoice (or whatever) I used so much Wite-Out that I was afraid it would slough off in a big piece, taking all my work with it. Once I realized I sucked at office work (& hated it), I really couldn't imagine what I'd do for a living. Not until I'd worked in college libraries did I think, not only that I could do library work, but that I usually did it better than my coworkers.

    Having worked fast food and customer service and retail I can say none of those are calling me. I'm no good at sales; I want to connect a person with exactly what she's looking for. I have no interest in convincing her what she really wants is something else. I mean, I will gently suggest alternatives if what she claims she's looking for doesn't sound like it matches what she says she needs, but if she objects I'm fine with letting her go. Sometimes a person comes to the library with huge needs - a call from a hospital bed comes to mind, the caller wanting to know how to get her partner help who was in jail and having mental problems - and I feel for the person in trouble, but I'm damn glad it's not my job to jump in and get to work on fixing that life.

    Kent says he would like an ice cream shop. He likes to imagine the eyes lighting up as he scoops a yummy dollop. So simple, so friendly. I think how little I'd like to keep the books, hire & fire help, clean up the shop ...