02 January 2007

43. Right Livelihood

Dear right livelihood,

Why are you so hard to find?

At first it seemed like the problem was that work in general was hard to find. I still joke that the only thing worse than having a job is looking for one, but (to borrow a phrase from Dan Bern) that's not funny, it's just true. Applying to jobs is depressing, both boring and stressful, and I take rejections personally, even when I know I shouldn't, even when I don't have to call and ask whether my application has even been received, let alone rejected. Searching for jobs to apply to is almost as bad, only in a more impersonal and desperate-feeling kind of way. I was unemployed for six months after moving to Eugene, and by the end of that time I went from sincerely looking for interesting work to applying to any place that seemed like it might take me, all the way back to applying only to jobs I was fairly sure I actually wanted, because I was so sick of hating myself for rejections from jobs that didn't even seem that good to begin with. Now that I'm back to being unemployed, it's once again really hard to motivate myself to look for jobs, let alone apply, but I'll get to that in a bit, after my flashback to those first six months.

One time, I ended up relieved to be rejected after getting my hopes up that I might actually find work that was almost related to my undergraduate field of study. A local company was accepting applications for a part-time research assistantship, but it turned out to be for a project on training bartenders to refuse to serve alcohol to pregnant women. Like bartenders don't have enough to do already, right? And like pregnant women are completely incapable of making decisions, like somehow it's not enough to lecture them on the potential dangers of every single thing they might do? Please. "Before I pour you a beer, would you please pee in this cup?" I don't think so. By the time I was done interviewing, I knew that job was not for me.

Which brings me to the next aspect of why you're so hard to find, right livelihood: you're hard to define. When I got my last job, at my favorite local natural foods store, it came with an employee handbook that read in places like a manifesto all about you: individuals nurturing community and each other and in turn being enriched by that experience and all that good hippie stuff. It got me really hopeful, but that hope faded after about a month, when I realized the manual didn't come with a section on how to deal with idiot customers who can't be bothered to look in front of their faces for the biodegradable compostable spoons made from corn which just happen to be conveniently placed at eye level. (I developed a theory, a bad one both because it's incorrect but also because it reflects poorly on me as a human being: people actually use the salad bar blindfolded. Either that, or I'm some kind of genius for being able to put tongs back in the container they came from, but let's face it, that's a pretty bogus mutant superpower.) But whatever. After a month, when the novelty of a new job started wearing off, despite the fact that I liked all my new coworkers, I found myself wondering if I'd really moved up in the world of employment, because I still liked most of the coworkers at my old job, too. The free food was great, as was the employee discount and the knowledge that I was helping one of my favorite places in Eugene stay in business, but the work was boring and the customers? Beyond tedious and on to stressful way more often than I'd like, which, along with worrying about whether to quit my old job and when, was what got me started writing this letter in the first place.
Eventually I moved away from the front lines of customer service in the hippie deli, retreating to the kitchen, where depending on my shift I often didn't have to talk to anyone but my coworkers all day. It was great; two or three days a week, it was my job to cook whatever delicious organic vegetarian or vegan food I wanted, with whatever ingredients were available, as long as it fit in well with our other dishes and could be sold at our standard prices for a reasonable profit. It was creative and self-directed and fun. I quit my other job and kept a few hours out front every week, and sometimes wished all my fellow kitchen crew did the same, as a way of not forgetting who it is we were working for out there (hint: not just our managers). But as you may have guessed by the fact that I'm writing this letter, it did not last. After about six months and a few hellish staff meetings, one of which (along with too much coffee) was good for several more paragraphs of this letter, the kitchen department was restructured, leaving me without a job I wanted, and I moved back to the front of the store, this time as head of the cheese department, four days a week. I lasted about six months before I tried to give up some of those days and instead ended up leaving awkwardly, despite all my best attempts to be graceful. It was a pretty miserable experience all around, one that summarized all of my reasons for quitting.

And so I'm back to worrying that you don't really exist, right livelihood, even though I once had a job I both liked and was good at. I know I need a job if I'm going to continue to support my reading and writing and house and cat habits, despite the part of my brain that thinks Allen Ginsberg had a real point when he asked, "Why can't I go to the supermarket and buy what I need with my good looks?" Having a job that forces me to get out of the house a few days a week is good on a general staying sane level, too. But I don't like the fact that even when I have a good job, my bad days at work spill over into the rest of my life, and even the good days often tire me out and leave me less fit to enjoy my house and cat and partner, let alone get any kind of writing done. And that's when I work part-time! The standard five-day, forty-hour work week is pretty much right out as far as I'm concerned. I guess you could say I'm less than motivated to look for jobs again.

What I need to keep reminding myself is that there's more to you than jobs and work, right livelihood. Which brings me back to the problem of your being so hard to define. My dreams about you are all incredibly vague, stuff like using my powers for good instead of evil, not that I really know those powers, but that's probably a topic for another letter, and all kinds of soul-searching about how maybe I'd already have superpowers but for my lack of trying, blah blah blah. You seem to be well-defined for some people, right livelihood, even if I'm 27 years old and should really know better about comparing my insides to other people's outsides. For instance, I read an article about people who work for the government agencies in charge of the horrible decisions involved in taking children away from their birth families (and of course, it's almost never the families with the privilege and resources to fight the system). One of those people grew up in a family with two or three birth siblings and maybe a dozen foster siblings, and was quoted in the interview about the importance of balancing those early life experiences with the work experiences that proved that foster care was not always that beneficial. It seemed logical, inevitable, and right for this person to be working in that capacity. Closer to home, I met a sign language interpreter at a work party. She was there to help one of the new kids in the kitchen interact with his coworkers. She was amazing. Inspired, and embarrassed by all the Sign I'd forgotten, I asked her where she'd learned, only to find out that her brothers are deaf. Damn. I grew up bilingual, but Dutch isn't generally considered a disability, or maybe I'd have found a way to make speaking it my life's work. Or maybe I wouldn't have, because I'm just a slacker bitch kind of person, I don't know. Either way, it was kind of a downer to think about later on, and I'm going to move onto a new subject so I don't have to be brought down by it any more right now.

Back to definitions. When I talk about you in terms of using my powers for good instead of evil, what I mean is that I want everything I do, including what I do for money, to make the world more awesome. I also want to be good at what I do, but most importantly, it has to be something I like enough to want to do it, or it won't get done. So freelancing is a possibility, provided it's work I like and finding it isn't too painful. I know I'm the worst boss I'll ever have, both micromanaging and never there to help when I need me, but again, I can set my own hours and get stuff done fine if the goals and deadlines are well-defined. (Secret confession: I want to be a rogue scholar when I grow up. Mercenary nerd-for-hire, with a whole string of arguably-useless advanced degrees and a truly fearsome command of all kinds of only possibly relevant information. I'll charge a flat daily rate plus expenses, like a private investigator, only geekier. Ask me a question, let me loose in a library, and see what I come up with. Like the guys in Foucault's Pendulum, only preferably without the madness and conspiracy theories and death. Also I want to fight crime and the forces of evil. And while I'm dreaming, I want a pony. And a punk rock teahouse of my very own, to share with my friends.) Meanwhile, I have a job interview this afternoon, for work that may or may not be awesome but would be most welcome for relieving various and sundry financial pressures.

You see, right livelihood, I need the money to force my own hand. Last term I took a class at my friendly local university, and I'd like to continue this trend, in the hopes of creating a more grad-school-friendly transcript and GPA. Worst case scenario, it's another notch in my rogue scholar utility belt, but who knows? Maybe I'll discover some heretofore unknown to me avenue towards more actively making the world a better place. Maybe. I hope I'm not just lying to myself, right livelihood. It sure would be great if you could give me a sign that you're out there. And wish me luck on that interview.


Started 15 February 2005, published 2 January 2007, edited 6 January 2007, title abridged 1 December 2011, last updated 6 June 2014.