Telluride Daily Planet, Sunday, August 15, 2010
It was the single, solitary boyfriend of my high school career (the only one clever enough to skirt the electric fence of my father), who got me thinking about jobs for the first time. By the age of 16, Peter was already depositing bi-weekly payroll checks from the potato chip factory, where his job consisted of picking the burnt chips off a conveyor belt, one after another, chip after chip after chip after chip.
Just the thought of him standing there in some sort hazmat suit and hairnet reaching his right hand thousands of times a day onto an endless rubber loop made me crazy inside. It was a short circuit in my brain, a synapse center frying and blackening just like one of those chips. I saw myself doing that job and being hauled off in a straightjacket by one of the guards. Wait — there would be guards, right? Because weren’t jobs like prisons and insane asylums?
My first one (three summers’ worth) was. I was a receptionist in a doctor’s (our next door neighbor-doctor’s) office where my job — done in white poly hazmat nurse’s dress — was to answer the phone and take orders from the two kooky nurses who had been arguing with each other for 20 years while wedging in a roster of truly oddball patients.
I was so bored and stationary, a couple of things happened. My fantasy life burgeoned, for one. And, conversely — because I came home with stories about the patients every night (stories my parents came to expect) — I realized truth was, in fact, far stranger than fiction.
Dad, whose options for me had included Do-good Doctor, Do-good Lawyer, or Do-good Scientist, believed the job would be good training for my Do-Good Future. If he had paid attention, he would have noticed that I wasn’t coming home talking about doctors, diseases or even the money he was forcing me to bank but about characters, both real and imagined.
My first summer after college, I did paralegal work at a law firm in Seattle; and, based on that experience of men in beautiful suits involved in much less beautiful class action suits, I crossed Law off my list. And Science? Well, at that point, dad might have also taken note that I was an English Lit major taking Latin, French and fencing, and that my great little college had lured people like me with basically no science or math requirements. My second college summer, I moved to D.C. for a political internship (file under Let’s Get Her Interested in Law, Part II) that never panned out, and, after a month of eating oatmeal and going to free museums all day, I desperately lied my way into two waitressing jobs, one during the day in Georgetown serving a brand new thing called sorbet, and the other until very late at night in a bar on Dupont Circle that sold 700 kinds of beer. My last two years in college I had the best and most far-fetched job of my life, doable in four painlessly easy steps: 1) Check out any library book dealing with the connection between sex and death in Victorian England. 2) Read it. 3) Discuss it with the handsome and ridiculously smart professor who was my mentor and wanted to write a book about the subject. And 4) Collect my check. Was I ready for the real world, or what? At my first job in New York, in publishing, I relied entirely on my 10th grade typing skills and doctor’s office phone skills. My second job, in advertising, I relied almost entirely on my 10th grade typing skills and doctor’s office phone skills (but scratched the words “Junior Copywriter” onto my resume). I still felt a lot like the girl in the white polyester hazmat dress, like I was about to go crazy, be collected by the guards, and hauled off for impersonating people who knew what they were doing on the outside.
That’s went I bolted and ended up here … where, relying on the same familiar set of skills to make ends meet, I eventually tapped into the heart of my imagination (and my love of characters and visuals both real and imagined) and did a few other things. So, now, as my own daughter starts thinking about college and beyond, I sit here, trying to come up with advice about life, which, for most of us, consists of jobs, vocations, avocations. And all I can think of is this: Tend to your skills, your mind, and your heart in equal measure and you’ll never get bored, go crazy, or find yourself without means. In fact, quite the contrary.