career explo (one way to look at it)

Yesterday it occurred to me all at once (like that moment during the morning commute when I realize I’ve forgotten one earring or neglected to put on deodorant) that one big hank of my lust for the harebrained lab career is the immediacy of change. Thinking of this friend-of-a-friend who inspired me, I’m drawn mainly to the cleanness of the break. She finished teaching in June, and by mid-July she was halfway through her first set of summer classes. Never to return to the not-right-anymore job.

How appealing that is! The quick change (which, even if I did it as quickly as possible at this moment, doesn’t seem so quick, as I have been asking myself for years now whether there’s something else I’d rather do). I think of it like hopping out of the lap pool, chilly with wet, and immersing myself in the hot tub. Contrast, relief.

The longer I spend exploring the idea, the less likely such immediate change seems. I am not, as I fantasized in July, going to quit my job in August and begin chemistry classes in September. It’d be financially irresponsible and existentially unwise. Not to mention rude to my coworkers. 

But I am going to keep looking into this new science life until it stops seeming interesting. There are for-profit college sales guys who will talk for an hour on the phone. There’s a community college admissions adviser fifteen years my junior who hands me a numbered list of steps, and, as I wind down my list of questions, asks me how I feel. There is a website called that tells which credits will transfer from one school to the next, more or less smelting my hard core heartfelt expensive liberal arts education (the hours in the throes of philosophy!) down to a handful of coins. There are easy ways to do what they call “job shadow”; hospitals have forms you can fill out to ask to come and watch. I’ll do this. I’ll be a shadow.

Meanwhile, also, I keep existing in my job. Not a shadow. Real, casting a shadow, working. Craving leaving, but still showing up for what I’ve promised to do. Our local library is hiring. For two-thirds my current pay, I could shelve books and help people sort out library card snafus. How’s that for a repetitive job I already know how to do? Hours of alphabetizing; moments of customer service. I could get to that. What shape can change take?

Twelve days ago I wound up the nerve to call the life coach a friend recommended a year ago, and she still hasn’t called me back. I will take this as a sign of a disorganized life coach (one I don’t want to hire) rather than the start of a book about someone hopeless. I think. I keep hoping to be jarred out. I keep looking for the possible change.

career exploration – 3ish

In June a friend of a friend who’d been an art teacher for a decade told me she’s left her job for a program in biotechnology. She’s getting a two-year associate’s degree, after which she’ll be able to work in a hospital lab, as a histologist (a word I’d never heard before). She talked about the visual nature of working in a lab—looking into microscopes, handling dyes and tinctures and slides. When I heard this, something inside me said oh!

OH! I could DO that. I’d LIKE that. I keep thinking of new explanations for how this idea appeals to me, and in the past six weeks I haven’t shaken it off. I imagine standing/sitting/walking work; cleanliness; order; repetition (I like to knit). I’m practically greedy for the whole new world of things to know (I aced the AP calculus test in 1992, but I haven’t taken a serious science or math class since). I loved my high school biology class; knowing those Latinate words, memorizing taxonomies to the pitying surprise of my classmates and teachers. I think I’d like the sanitized proximity to body fluids; the behind-the-scenes feel of peeking at life in a tiny way; The importance of the work; the lack of interpersonal heaviness to its success.

I wonder, though, whether I’m a a sort of newness addict. Shouldn’t I, by now, by forty (I round up; forty in March) have advanced beyond the level of technician? (which is what I am in this wordy non-profit job I’ve had for 11 years, and also what I would be in this potential new kind of job, after lots and lots of reeducation to get there). Shouldn’t I have moved, by now, up? Rather than …er… over? Or back? Would pursuing this wacky thing be a kind of failure, a kind of giving up?

I find myself wondering what kind of pattern this is part of, this desire to become a beginner again. In my past I see years and years of staying, mostly content, in one place, followed by quick, drastic-feeling change. It matters how I tell myself the story. Is it called giving up? It could be reinvention, or subversion of the expected story, or a craving for adventure. It could be courage, or fear.

career exploration.2

I came to my job—at a small non-profit, doing basically all the word work and some graphic design and what tech work I can muster—with a certain amount of idealism. Some realism, too; at 28 I was long past the idea that I’d save the world, but I came here wanting to feel I was part of positive movement—that my days weren’t turns of the hamster wheel, they were little scoots toward a more just world. But still, the idea of progress, of making life better for us all, went a long way toward making me satisfied to be here.

I still think my organization does good work. I know we do. But I’ve also seen so much repetition—not like knitting, but in the annual- to five-year cycle, unintended and fruitless. The same problems resurface in different shapes, and we solve them in the same incomplete ways over and over. We spend more and more hours on what we call “reporting” ; funders and intermediaries require week-eating reports. So much time to prove we’re doing good work and so much less time to do it. More and more programs have their brains eaten out by umbrella organizations and bureaucracies who control the money, so that we are more like robotic arms than our own whole living things. Everyone is so stretched to cope with all this, just to stay in place, that there is no energy to innovate, even though we say that’s what we do best.

And it’s not just in my organization. Friends in other places say the same; I see it at conferences of local non-profits. Especially fundraising conferences. The lack of passion. The ongoing dowdiness.

And, most eerily, I see so many people like me doing this job. White, female, overeducated, more or less liberal, more or less creative, more or less getting by. Where are the old white men? Where are the young black women? Where are the geeky young guys and the ladies who wear a TON of makeup and the NASCAR fans and the African immigrants my age? I think that my job needs someone much less like me in it. I think I need a job that surprises me more.

career exploration

Eleven years into my post-quitting-grad school life and I have the itch to start something new. Poetry continues; parenting continues. Work needs to pay, and it needs to feed those other parts of life.

What I fantasize about is being part of a drywall crew—not lifting the big heavy slabs, but mudding the seams. Using a big spatula (is that thing called a spatula?) to smooth that wet white goo.

When I drive by a grain elevator or a railroad yard, I think of climbing metal ladders, getting to know the complicated shapes of those buildings. Slinging chains and pulling levers, coupling up railroad cars, making things move.

A neighbor writes copy for an online company that sells embroidery patterns. She writes a thumbnail description of each one. This appeals to me, too: bright colors, small collections of words.

And I envied the women at the lice-picking salon who combed every damn hair on my head last fall. The beginning and end of their task, the low-pressure educational chatter. All the friendliness of a hair salon, without the scary fashion sense.

There are quizzes that try to help us figure out what to do next, and of course I take them; I’ve been a sucker for the quiz since 1985, YM Magazine, “What’s your Guy Q?” Which of the following describes you and your interests? I check almost all of the boxes. I have a great imagination.

Item: “I like to build things.”

I like to knit. Does that count? I like the repetition. I like the satisfying completion of each stitch and then each row. I like to imagine the three-dimensional thing made of flat pieces made of small actions. I like the feeling of pulling yarn along, of having a physical record of each moment. Still, “I like to build things” doesn’t seem like a line I’m supposed to select.

Also, where do I say, I’d like to drive a big truck, but only if I never have to put it in reverse? Where’s the box for, I liked working as an old-fashioned secretary because the constant activity made the work seem urgent, like working in a hospital, only without the life-or-death heaviness? Where’s the box for I hope not to sit in a chair all the time? Or I have a longing to work with equipment. Please please put me in the world of physical things. Or I am good at timing; the pasta, salad, and sauce are done at the same instant, each ready to put on the table at its correct temperature.

New Surfaces

In Michael Dennis Browne’s What the Poem Wants, in an essay on the attractive topic of failure, I find this, from José Ortega y Gasset:

So many things fail to interest us, simply because they don’t find in us enough surfaces on which to live, and what we have to do then is increase the number of planes in our mind so that a much larger number of themes can find a place in it at the same time.

On which Browne expands this way:

Imagine a flock of several hundred birds looking, toward the end of day, for a place to spend the night. They fly past the tree that has only a branch or two and a mere couple of dozen twigs—not enough room for them, not nearly enough surfaces. When they detect a tree that has many branches, multiple twigs, that’s where they land and settle in. In my own experience, there are plenty of poems I have failed to write, or to complete, because I wasn’t able to provide enough surfaces for landing, and so some potentially powerful visions went on by. An image is, says Pound, a “visual chord,” is “that which presents an intellectual and emotional complex in an instant of time,” and the imagination needs to be constantly renewing itself, putting forth new areas, landing sites, if it is to receive the new subjects and new language that constantly propose themselves to us.

Have I been here before?

I broke my toe. Not doing anything special, just walking down the stairs, slipping, and catching myself by whacking my right foot into the metal bar that turns a corner at waist level and becomes the railing. This bar/railing, I bought rust-inhibiting stripper and almond-colored metal-coating paint for back in August. The stripper and the paint, and some special green gloves, and a special brush, are in the basement, in the bag from the hardware store, waiting. The railing is also still waiting, and my toe is waiting to heal.

This was 10 days ago. My first broken bone since age 6 when I rolled out of my bed in the middle of the night. Ostensibly in my sleep. According to my description to my parents, in my sleep. In reality, and according to the description I finally gave the doctor, who, noticing my nervousness as I told the story, banished my parents from the room and asked again and again for the real truth: I was not sleeping. I was supposed to be sleeping but I was awake, and was reaching across the bookshelf to pull out the next book in the Wizard of Oz series without getting out of bed, when I leaned a bit far, fell, and landed backwards on my bent-over hand. The relief of the doctor. My relief when he agreed to keep my secret.

Ten days ago, both ostensibly and actually, I was walking down the stairs to put on my shoes and go running. Which I did not do. But I have thought a lot about bones. Mending themselves. The doctor at the emergency room used bad grammar (“It’s broke.”) And told me the bone would heal “after a couple of weeks” but would be “gummy” for a couple of more weeks after that. Gummy! Bones!

Even my kittens have grown up. I’ve repainted my writing corner and put up squares of cork to hang up inspirational items on. Friends’ old dogs keep dying. I try to write poems but every word seems indelible. Makes it hard to commit.


As much as that looks like lunch, I really do mean lurch. Lunch isn’t for another few hours, YOUNG.

Lurch. How our days, even in lives that are by all standards smooth (and by that I mean no huge medical issues, no death for the moment, no major economic troubles, natural disasters, and so forth) change speed. Frequently. In a way that hurts my head.

How I value smoothness. (Have I mentioned I become carsick easily?) There is bliss in I am weeding the garden on a Sunday afternoon,  same as last Sunday afternoon, same as last spring and the spring before. Spring Sunday afternoon, weed the garden.

Aaah, but the lurches. I blame A’s travel, but that’s just a scapegoat. Things hum along, one week at the exact same level of complexity as the last: boil eggs, remove splinters, locate tap shoes, ballet shoes, leotard, and tights. Cut soy nut butter and jam sandwich in diagonal halves and place in waxed paper bags for lunches. Etc.

But then: cannot hit the grocery store on Thursday because now it’s swimming lessons on Thursdays and this week it’s kindergarten orientation night anyway, so what will we have for dinner that’s quick and doesn’t need cooking, and suddenly the lawn needs mowing again and how come May doesn’t have any pants without holes in the knees?

This is partly about being a project manager, and I imagine our household would benefit from some sort of MBA-level analysis. There is probably a term for being at absolute fucking peak capacity all the time, and therefore having a bit of trouble shifting routines when things change, like, for example, the weather, or the size shoes your kids wear, or, twice a year, when school starts or stops for the summer (a practice that seems more and more like a relic of an old and strange time) and the whole weekday routine gets spun around. Not that we can’t cope with these changes. Just that there are moments (days, weeks, depending) of whiplash. Times when I forget what it is I used to cook for dinner all the time because every night we are shlepping a tub of hummus to one potluck or another. Or when I am just confused about where in the hell all of August’s socks are all of a sudden and how it is that I am managing to neglect so very many things all at once.

This must be one of those things most people learn as they age: life is not actually an interstate highway. It’s more like tooling through my neighborhood in a Honda Civic, stop signs every three blocks. Or, come to think of it, more like the autoroutes in France, where one second you’re flying along between the white lines at some number of hundred kilometers per hour, and the next second you’re screeching to a stop in some tiny village while three uniformed school children and an old lady pulling a little trolley full of apples cross the street in front of you. And the second they’re done crossing, you’re off again. Zooming along until the next little town. Maybe at the same time you’re also singing all the lyrics to the entire Crowded House album Woodface, peeling a tangerine, and letting the infant in the backseat suck on your right thumb. And every few minutes you open the window up and vomit from carsickness.

So exciting. And yet there’s so much undone all the time. When’s lunch?