Friday, January 17, 2014

Recycling an Old Article: So What Do You Do?

Birds, and one man, in flight
Because the old version of is now dead, and the domain temporarily redirecting here to the Artful Mistakes blog, it's a fine opportunity for me to slap some old work up here. And so I will.

For a time, I wrote the back page article for a magazine for beginning computer users. I tended to have a hard time staying on topic, but the editor gave me a lot of latitude (thanks, Susie), so I often managed to work in what was on my mind if I at least, as in the case here, alluded to computers.

This article (below) was written in the winter of 2005, after I had finished a masters program in creative writing at UMiami and moved across the country to get rained on in Portland, Oregon. Oregon set records for the number of gloomy, gray days records that year, and my quest for employment was slow-going, leaving me to reflect on career choices. Not every point holds true to my current thinking, but I'll let it stand as is, a marker of that time.

What I like about this piece is that it hints at things that I would do in the future. I did, in fact, become a property caretaker, at two different places in New Mexico, in 2006 and then in again in 2012. I did end up taking painting classes, and sailing lessons. My interest in visual art was starting to bubble up a bit, before I was aware of it. And I still have itchy feet, prone to long walks and longer road trips.

I also still very much believe in the importance of dreaming.

So What Do You Do? 

Like the roots of plants growing in the same pot, identity and career are deeply tied and tangled. It's difficult to know where one plant ends and the other begins, even though on the surface, the different leaves and stalks appear distinct.

Here in America, "we are what we do." Politician or police officer, librarian or lawyer, musician or mortician, the answer to what we do (a verb) is usually announced as a noun: "I am a ____." We don't say that we politic and police. If we are trying to be a bit more evasive, we may say we are "in the __ industry." For example, you might say you're "in the film industry" when what you really do is drive a golf cart all over the set relaying messages and taking coffee orders.

These issues are on my mind because I'm unemployed and having an identity crisis. I'm pretty sure the two are related.

Technically, as a writer, I am not unemployed. I am "freelancing." Writers are either employed by a company or self-employed and freelancing. Of course, some writers are financially successful at freelancing. And then there are others, like myself at the moment, who quietly draw from savings and solicit loans to tide them over through lean times. (As the old saying goes, there's a fine line between self-employment and unemployment.)

Many of the efficient and gainfully employed around me have wondered, subtly and not so subtly, enviously and/or disdainfully, exactly how I've been spending my days. Here is the scandalous truth: courtesy of the Information Age, I've been spending an inordinate amount of time playing Internet dress-up with wildly diverse careers and the lives and personalities that might accompany them.

Over the last few months, I have looked into graduate programs in art, art history, library science, psychology, speech pathology, journalism, nursing, communications and business. (In a fit of confusion, I even read up on law school!) I've also pondered certificate programs in massage therapy, computer programming, and driving a semi. I investigated teaching English in Japan, organic farming in Maine, and permaculture in Costa Rica.

Under the idea of cutting expenses, I've looked into caretaker and housesitting gigs. So I've corresponded with a writer in Rhinebeck, NY, a graduate student in Cantonsville, MD, an artist/retreat owner ten miles from nowhere in Mississippi, and a very polite man in Portland, Maine, who didn't realize we were talking about two different Portlands (I live in Oregon, not Maine).

My surfing exploration has netted international opportunities such as volunteering at a yoga studio in Costa Rica, a fellowship in France, and sailing as crew on boats in exotic locales. I've learned surprising new facts, including of the existence of a country named Palau (1000 miles away from Guam, it is a tropical paradise devoid of any poisonous snakes).

Domestically, I've researched rents and yoga studios, universities and job markets in New York City, Miami, Los Angeles, Wilmington, North Carolina, Berkeley Springs, West Virginia, Washington, D.C., and St. Petersburg, Florida through,,, and a whole lot of Googling.
Locally, I've inquired about positions in painting, jewelry making, working with an autistic child, and fruit basket assembly. Although none of those folks responded to my queries, I did interview at a health and wellness medical clinic and an upscale watch and jewelry store. No luck in either case, but I didn't mind because once I was inside, I couldn't see myself happy there for long. (Apparently, neither could they.)

Of course, if you've gotten this far, you may have noticed that the vast majority of this frenetic research has nothing at all to do with what I say I do when people ask. My actual stated career as a writer, excepting sporadic but enthusiastic work on my novel, ranting and researching e-mails, quarterly columns and rare blog entries, has been largely ignored amidst this uproar of possibilities.

So if "we are what we do," what does all this Internet research and dreaming and dress up say about me? That I don't know who I want to be, and I don't want to be who I am? Yes, in part. But in a larger sense, what does it say about our society that most people will no longer have just one career, but several? Amid the end of company loyalty and pension benefits, the Internet offers quicker and broader exchanges of information than ever before. It sets the scene for career switching to blossom as quickly as hothouse flowers.

Consider one of my friends, who went from seven years as a librarian, and then retrained to be a psychologist. Or my cousin the graphic designer who is now studying accounting. Or another friend who went from repairing Persian rugs to working as a computer guru, and is now starting his own business as a photographer. Two other friends both worked as lawyers, and then quit. Neither is sure what is next on the horizon. But then, another friend, a former caregiver and vet tech, is in her second year of law school, and loving it.

Americans, in particular, tend to ask that dreaded and dreadful questions, "So what do you do?" and then slot you into whatever category and status your profession allows. But we are not only that. We are also what we dream about doing even if we never do it. Because in those aspirations and explorations, we are trying to find expression for some part of ourselves that we want to expand and allow to grow.

We want recognition for characteristics not usually associated with our primary profession, or we yearn for something in our lives that the profession doesn't necessarily foster. The librarian realized it was the people he wanted to help, not the information he wanted to find, and so psychology was a reasonable switch for him.

Many people find a livable compromise in deciding that their hobbies outside of work can reflect other facets of their personality. Another friend runs a fashion design company, but I met as a classmate in a poetry class in graduate school. My aunt, who by day deals with bankruptcies, by night is ballroom dancing or quilting or otherwise doing something completely different.

We are not just what we do for work now, but also what we have done before for work, or for fun. Changing jobs does not change who we are. The librarian still lives in the psychologist. But even that history, the total of our actions in and outside of work, with friends, family and loved ones, this is still not all of it. We are also what we have thought about, what we have dreamed about, what we've wanted to do and might (or might never) do in the future. We are also what interests us, by which I mean, what we remember, what moves us, what motivates us, what we admire, what we care about, what makes us curious, what we want, rational or not.

We are not just actions. We are not (only) what we do.

The Internet makes it easy to let our thoughts wander. Wandering helps our dreams evolve, sets the scene for that serendipitous stumble into new connection. Without wandering through caretaking ads, I'd never have heard of Palau or ever corresponded with a literary archivist. Not that it may ever be important. But then again, it might be. Without the dress-up, without the random reading, without asking the questions, without exploring and e-mailing of experts and amateurs, how will we, in the present moment, continue to step forward onto increasingly authentic paths?

Preferred career: cat pillow
And yet: a caution. Many eastern religions stress the importance of being present in the moment, and there is great wisdom in that, in paying attention to precisely what we see and hear and smell and taste, enjoying, or at least noticing, the life we are living right now, rather than always daydreaming or researching an invented future. As much as I try to put myself in other shoes, I only have my current self. No matter how hard I imagine, I can't ever so completely envision my dream life as a dream lawyer or sailor or best selling writer so to determine my next move small with certainty – I can only expand the possibilities of which I am aware. Until I, or you, are in a place or situation or job, with all of its real life complications, until we are in a moment, actually doing something, we can't entirely know how we will feel.

In the end, every choice in life is a gamble on an unknown. We can't know if what we choose will be better. We can only know that if we choose change, it will be different. And even if we choose to stay the same, life changes every moment anyway.

Still, I'm pretty sure the next place I live and the next job I find will be perfect. Everything I've read on the 'net, and everyone I've asked have verified an idyllic world where I am magically transformed into a much, much better person than I am right now. It's all out there, just waiting for me to make the leap into becoming the person I've always dreamed of being.

Whoever that is.

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