All the jobs I’ve ever had

It’s April… many people are graduating from college in May (including our daughter). Some of them already have jobs lined up (not our daughter). There is much anxiety out there about working. I wonder how many people are reading Penelope Trunk as they panic about post-graduation possibilities. Back when I was at the beginning of the golden years of rock ‘n roll, I didn’t think so much about careers but mostly about how to find a job to make enough money to 1) have some spending money, and 2) stay in college. I was not really picky about work because when you grow up at the edge of financial calamity, you never feel entitled to a high-paying job when you know you have very few skills.  At the beginning of your working life, your job skills (when you graduate with a non-practical degree) are limited to showing up on time, appropriately dressed, behaving cheerfully, finding out what exactly they want you to do, doing it in the best way possible, and planning your next move. No one found me a job when I was young. I had no mentors, didn’t have a clue what I could do, but somehow ended up eventually getting more degrees, and actually doing things I wanted to do all along but just didn’t know exactly what they were at the time. I’ve had a varied “career” but the beginnings of it all were nothing exciting.  

So, I began to think about all the jobs I’ve done in the past and I decided to try to list them all. And I realized that no matter what job I did, there was something good about it, I learned something from the experience, and I can do almost anything for a year or two. In what may be the twilight of my working life, I can look back on half a century of jobs and see that I have done the usual things and then some not so usual:

  1.  Babysitting was my first official “job” for which I was paid money, which likely started out in the 1960s at about 50 cents an hour. I babysat from the age of 12 until about half-way through college when I had better things to do with my time and other ways to make money. I even spent an entire summer once as a nanny.  Best thing about the job: figuring out that child care was not something I wanted to do for pay over the long-term. What I learned: managing kids is really hard.
  2. Bud’s Chicken Take-out, Lake Worth, FL – my first “real” job, meaning a place where you go to work, in this case, after school and during the summers for a couple of years. In 1967, it was a very small place with no eat-in, only take-out, and not air-conditioned because Bud was afraid it would change the taste of the chicken. (?) Think about South Florida in the summer. Us girls wore cute smocks over our white blouses and sweated rivers standing in front of heat lamps that kept the fried chicken warm while we filled customers’ orders. Best thing about the job: free fried chicken after work. What I learned: food service and I are not a good fit.
  3. Department store clerk:  South Florida, 1960s/1970s. Working retail over holidays and summers was a fill-in thing for many young people in those years. Seemed like everyone spent some time in department stores. Best thing about the job: seeing what’s on sale before getting off work. What I learned: how to work a cash register.
  4. Bookkeeping assistant: for Montgomery Ward’s in West Palm Beach, Florida, the summer after my freshman year. I was the only person in the office with any college education. The boss asked me to quit school and work there full-time! I did not. Best thing about the job: the paycheck. What I learned: bookkeeping is boring.
  5. Typesetter:  at college in Florida in the early 1970s, I worked for the student newspaper in the evenings in a windowless office full of cigarette smoke. Before the advent of desktop publishing, typesetting of printed material was produced by hand using small sharp tools. I started out as a journalism major so it seemed like a logical job. I changed my major however. Best thing about the job: reading the paper. What I learned: I could write better than a lot of the newspaper writers.
  6. Resident advisor: This was a bonanza job that I did for 3 years in college. It paid well, I had a private room as part of my job, and in those days, it wasn’t a job that seemed like police work. Best thing about the job: it paid for braces to straighten my teeth. What I learned: how to listen and how to ask questions.
  7. Dude ranch laundry worker: After the summer at Monkey Wards, I was determined not to go home to South Florida for any more summers. By Christmas of sophomore year, I had applied to three resorts in different parts of the country. I didn’t care what the work was, I just wanted to be in a beautiful place with less humidity. And I did just that – for 3 summers – Moosehead Ranch in Jackson Hole, Wyoming. The first summer, I sewed curtains, cleaned cabins and waited tables. The next two summers I ran the laundry room. I lived for my summers in Wyoming.  Best things about the job: Grand Teton National Park; riding horses; floating the Snake River. What I learned: how to clean bathrooms & make beds properly, and how to rock climb (on my one day off each week).
  8.  Ward clerk: Eventually, I finished taking classes for a master’s degree in anthropology in the mid-1970s and needed a job in order to pay the rent while I wrote a thesis. The highest paying grunt job in Gainesville, Florida at the time was ward clerking at the university’s teaching hospital. I had an interest in medicine anyway, so did that job for two years while deciding what to do next. It was a clerical job on a pediatric ward, full of very sick children. Thus it was emotionally wrenching. But the experience in a large hospital was invaluable. Best thing about the job:  participant observation in a medical setting – how things work, what people do, how sick people can get.  What I learned: how to hold a kid still while someone does a procedure, and how to keep important information organized. I also figured out that a career in hospital administration did not interest me. Also, that I did not want to go to medical school or to nursing school.
  9. Research assistant: While I was ward clerking on the 4 to midnight shift, I worked for about 6 weeks during the day interviewing caregivers at an institution for people with severe disabilities – it was actually a type of evaluation, although I didn’t know that at the time. I was just the interviewer. It was a place called Sunland Training Center in Florida. Best thing about the job:  getting paid to participate in research. What I learned: how to interview people in order to get good information.
  10. Editorial assistant: Eventually I went back to school for another degree, this time in medical anthropology. While in school, I worked for my advisor who was an editor for a professional journal. I helped with editing the articles before they were published. Best thing about the job: reading articles in my area of interest. What I learned: editing skills (immensely useful).
  11. Ambulance driver and EMT: Fast forward to the early 1980s in southern New Mexico where we happened to be living. I decided to volunteer on the local ambulance service after taking an 81-hour EMT course, taught by the two local National Health Service Corps physicians (one of which was my husband). For one year, I worked part-time driving the ambulance and responding to emergencies. Best thing about the job: adrenaline rush & orange jumpsuits. What I learned: emergency first aid.
  12. Independent consultant: Yes, indeed, quite a catch-all label. Tells you nothing. However, in 1983, we moved to West Africa. Eventually I found work as an “on-the-ground” liaison to international development organizations that needed someone local to help them do their work. Living and working in Niger and Kenya for seven and a half years, learning to function in another culture, learning French — added to my research training — meant I had skills I could contribute to international public health. I always had work which was different, interesting, challenging and paid well. My favorite consultancy was working in Uganda on a project with traditional healers. Best thing about the jobs: flexibility and my income was not taxed because I found the jobs while based overseas. What I learned: working from home is great; French; Kiswahili; rhinos are dangerous; how to be adaptable.
  13. Program evaluator: Now we get to what I really “do”. I was trained as a social scientist in how to do research, but I realized eventually that 1) I did not want to teach anthropology in a university and 2) I didn’t really have “my” research that I was dying to do. Yes, I have done research. Yes, I have published some papers. But I did not care to jump onto the tenure track and anyway, there are not many jobs. In 1991, when we moved back to the US, I was hired as an “evaluation officer” on a federally funded international HIV prevention project, not because I was an evaluator (I was not) or because I had experience in HIV-AIDS prevention (I didn’t), but because I had lived overseas for 7 years, because I spoke French, because I was a social scientist, and mainly because I was easy to get along with! I worked on that project for six years, then consulted part-time for another decade as an evaluator, and then went to work full-time about 2 ½ years ago on an NIH grant as a program evaluator. I live in Wisconsin. And I really like my job! Best thing about the jobs: The work I do is practical, applied and useful because it helps people figure out 1) what they intend to do (goals and objectives), 2) how they’ll know they did it (metrics), and 3) where the information’s coming from (data sources). What I am learning: Evaluation is tricky, needed, and very, very marketable.
  14. Direct sales consultant: I had to add this as a postscript because I am still technically a direct sales consultant with the Creative Memories company – a 23-year-old supplier of scrapbooking and digital image management products. I’ve been a CM consultant for 10 years and created at least 80 scrapbook albums of family photographs and stories. Best thing about the job: getting scrapbooking supplies at consultant cost instead of retail, and meeting so many people who I would never otherwise encounter. What I am learning: running a home-based business is a lot of work and takes time away from scrapbooking.

What I wish I could say: as a post-postscript, I have to say that if my life had been different, I would have liked to say simply that I am a writer or a photographer or a musician. I do all those things, but not professionally, and not for money. “Do what you love” was not advice that I heard 30 or 40 years ago. I did not have the self-confidence to even consider doing something as risky as photography or writing or music. On the other hand, some would say that a social science degree (like anthropology) is plenty risky. But whatever…. Half a century later, I’m working, I like my job, I have good benefits, I’m satisfied. And I learned plenty from all those other jobs.


First 70 degree day!

Ahhhh…. bliss!! It’s over 70 in Madison today. The first day in six months that it’s been this warm! For the past couple of weeks, despite fog, clouds and some very chilly days, the bicyclists have been out in force, stubbornly insisting that the snow is gone so therefore it’s time to bike, even if there was frost on the ground each morning. I tuned up my bike (or rather, paid someone to do that) and rode in on Tuesday for the first time this season. It felt so good to breathe the spring air and peddle for 40 minutes before spending the workday in my windowless office. How nice it would be to work from home…

For much of my working life, I consulted from a home base — in several states and other countries, I worked on a daily consultancy fee. There is much to be said for that lifestyle as long as you figure out a way to get health insurance. It’s also much easier if you have a household partner/spouse with a “real” day job, which often resolves the health insurance problem. Perhaps with the new legislation, there’ll be increased opportunities for home-based entrepreneurs – more freedom to work in different ways than the Office Space routine, because keeping health insurance may not be so difficult. We hope.

When I read the posts on Brazen Careerist, I often find myself feeling unsettled and neglected because I’m not 20-something, trying to land my first job on the way to some imagined heights of income and satisfaction. But I find that much of the advice is certainly just as relevant to me as a returning-to-the-working-world middle-aged person — still trying to figure out what I want to be when I grow up. So why keep insisting that only the new generation needs to hear all this? So, I continue to read and pay attention and think, even though the advice is supposed to be aimed at the digital natives. Those young ones who grew up on electronics. But where was I…. the balmy weather… the warm breezes, and today is still March.

March has been an odd month. It’s a month in Madison where many people leave for a bit to float on boats, or get a real tan, or hang out in Arizona. I can’t seem to get away because the first quarter of each year for my job involves annual reporting, juggling statistics, writing narratives, assessing & evaluating — in general, justifying our spending of federal grant money. April would be a reasonable time to finally escape, and indeed, April or early May in Florida are the best times if you want to avoid the serious heat and humidity of late spring and summer. March is also a time of mad mania and not just in Madison. The temperature spikes like unmedicated bi-polar disorders — snow one day, sunshine and spring the next, followed by crashing temps and frigid wind. But we all expect those weatherly behaviors in March. And now it’s the last day. March blows out and April drifts in with scents of spring.

I’m biking again tomorrow!

Snow’s gone

Well, almost. Temps rose all week, we had some rain. Very little snow is left, just in protected corners and crevices — places without much sun. The lawns are pressed flat, browned, mushed down smooth and ugly. No signs of plant life yet. Well, maybe a few. But I’m not seeing any crocuses in our yard yet. I spend most of my day indoors in an office with no window, so I’m cut off from the natural world, parked in front of the computer screen. Each day, I come out into a changed world —  less white and more dull March-ness. March is not a pretty month. I’ve noticed that in the 6 years we’ve lived here. Meanwhile, back in northern Virginia, it’s been in the 60s and within a short time the cherry blossoms will pop. But the 3 years I spent at home in Wisconsin prior to going back to work were very different with much more exposure to sunlight, than the 2.5 years I’ve been working again. Now that I’m working, time has speeded up, seasons pass quickly, I miss out on skiing, I miss out on winter vacations. In my prior non-working life I was outdoors much more. That was better.

What is it I do? It’s hard to categorize, to people outside my world,  but that’s the case with many jobs these days. Even an epidemiologist recently asked me, but what do you really do? I write, read and think. Not necessarily in that order. I help my organization and all its disparate components clarify what they really want to do, figure out how they’ll know they’ve reached their objectives, and help them identify where the information’s coming from. The short-hand for what I do is called “evaluation”  but that word doesn’t really explain itself very well to most people. I like my job a lot. It’ satisfying. I work in a great team of like-minded people who are all trying to do the right things. Despite not having a window office, I like my job. If I do a good job, that will help obtain future jobs for many other people, and we’ll be very small cogs in a much larger wheel. In many ways, we just have to trust that the small things we do will accumulate into larger accomplishments and progress. Only decades from now (maybe) will someone or several people really determine if this national consortium of which my group is a part, will have actually caused some culture changes that make a difference. Meanwhile, we all have our jobs providing resources to researchers. My parents never did understand what I do or what I did or what I studied in college. It was all a complete mystery to them.

And I can help pay for our children’s college educations with this job I do. It makes me feel good to be able to do that. My own parents could not contribute a dime to our educations — my brother and me. They always felt badly about that; they wanted to help, but they couldn’t. They never attend college themselves and didn’t really know anything about what a college experience was. They came of age when only rich people went to college. Or people who were extremely bright and extremely motivated. For people with average to good motivation and talents, college was not the norm the way it is now. And my parents were in the disadvantaged sector economically. My dad had exceptional musical talent but that talent did not ultimately provide him and our family with a secure existence. My parents married young, had kids later than most in their generation, and never quite managed the 60s, 70s, or 80s very well.

Why is it that March brings out dull brown reminiscences from the depths of my memories? The snow’s gone and we won’t likely get any more this season. I didn’t ski this year, and now it’s too late. I didn’t even get my cross-country skis out. And no warm trips came my way. We may be looking at a long chilly rainy spring.  But I didn’t really seem too distressed most of the time. Odd that the winter didn’t depress me. I was too busy. Too busy blogging.

Happiness and choices

It might be misty moisty March with the realization that the time is about to change [I hate the spring forward thing] and the threat of taxes coming due [I hate all that calculating] or the worry that one final blizzard will come out of nowhere. But somehow I have this feeling of disorganization, a sense of waiting and wondering, and not feeling hugely productive. And then I read a post on Brazen Careerist and want to write about similar topics because I don’t sometimes agree with what I read or I have questions or things aren’t defined sufficiently. That’s always my big gripe about blogs… people don’t define what they mean and then communication is more complicated.

I was wondering what it is that makes me happy. And how do I feel about the extent of choices in my life? I have not spent years researching happiness. I guess I’m a little surprised that researchers spend huge amounts of time studying what makes people happy. Why bother? Aren’t there more urgent issues to study? Wouldn’t it be reasonable to be a little happy with some small things each day? Like lunch. How can you exist in some state of perpetual ecstasy? Is it necessary to love your job? Wouldn’t liking it a lot be sufficient? Why would someone think that liking a job instead of loving it would be incredibly sad? I don’t think that.

Am I too busy to worry about whether or not I’m happy? Does it matter? I really don’t think I’m too busy. I’m sitting here writing a blog; how can I be busy? But I’m a bit nervous about the times right now, because in the past it seems like whenever I’m in a calm period [a period where I have time to wonder about these things] it usually means that disaster is just around the corner. But that sounds pessimistic and cynical; maybe I don’t really feel that way. I so clearly remember the summer of 2001 — it’s even in the family photo album: that summer we’d had lots of nice experiences and the weather in northern Virginia was beautiful — and then September came and school started… and then 9/11 happened and everything fell apart for several years in a variety of ways. By the time we surfaced in Madison, Wisconsin, in the summer of 2004, there’d been a fair amount of depression, destruction, death, disorientation, disorganization and decompensation. But then things got better. Life is full of cycles and the best thing about being at the bottom of a pit is looking upwards, and realizing that things can’t get worse, so they must be about to get better! And they do. And they did.

Once, our son asked me if I was happy with my life and satisfied with what I’d done, where I’d gone and where I was at the moment. I was caught off guard into stunned silence that our son had asked such a question of me. He rarely asks those kinds of penetrating questions that require some thought to answer. But it wasn’t that hard. I answered “yes.” Because in fact, I’m fairly content most of the time. I don’t have a huge number of diagnoses — just ones that are manageable. I have what is likely the usual number of regrets, but nothing worth writing a novel about. There are no astonishing skeletons in my closet. Some would say I’m a bit boring, but then again… maybe not. Only to my kids, possibly. Happiness… what is it anyway? “Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness…” Is that what we’re always seeking? Is there anything I’m seeking right now?

OK, it’s not about what it is that makes me really happy. That’s not the right question. The real question is… what are the things that grab me? What am I obsessing about lately? Or rather, what do I love and who cares if it’s not something that makes money? That question is fairly easy and simple to answer, which maybe explains why I don’t spend much time worrying about what makes me happy. I can like my job — even like it a lot — and it helps pay the bills, so then in my free time [which I do have because I value free time] I can do things that intrigue me. Things that are interesting to me. Like listen to pandora and read about music and musicians whose sounds I like but who I’ve never heard of before. I really enjoy that. Or working on genealogy for my family. Or editing photos and getting them printed and writing about the events connected with the photos. I like that. Or reading novels. I read every day just before I go to sleep. Or walk on the treadmill and watch whatever it is that is next on my list. This week, I’ve been watching Empire Falls, an HBO mini-series from several years ago. We just read the novel for my book group. I enjoyed it a lot. And I love planning my next trip to Scotland. I sure hope it actually happens. The trip will make me very happy, and then I’ll spend 6 months working on the photo albums while listening to Scottish music on my iPod. I will be happy! Choices? I didn’t talk about choices in this post. I think I have lots of choices every day. Such as, which delectable item will I choose for lunch? And what can I talk about in my post?