Wednesday, December 15, 2004

My own little paint factory?

I've been thinking a lot lately about the trajectory of my life. (Yup. It's going to be one of those "deep thoughts" posts. If you're looking for more laundry disasters and other typical NK pap, try back tomorrow.)

In some ways, I feel like I've always followed the path of least resistance when making major life-decisions. This seems like an odd statement, given how hard I work at the things I take on. But I feel like I've sometimes made decisions by default, basing them on the collective "common sense" of society and not on what I really want to do. My technology career is a perfect example: it's based more on a knack for the work than a deep passion. And lately I've been wondering if I really want to spend another 30 years doing more of the same.

I was struck by this tribute to a man I knew only as a wizened old movie reviewer with a cluttered office.

During his travels, Mr. Wyatt visited more than 100 countries. Over the years, he rode a camel by the pyramids in Egypt, lectured at a college in Kyoto, met with dissidents in pre-Velvet Revolution Prague and strolled among ancient Incan ruins in Peru. [...] Mr. Wyatt graduated from North (Nashville) High and David Lipscomb College and held a law degree from Vanderbilt University. He also studied Russian history and language for two years and took an Arabic language course at the University of Baghdad from 1945 to 1946. Mr. Wyatt served for 2½ years as a crypto analyst in the Military Intelligence Service, mostly in the USSR and the Middle East. [...]The longtime reporter, editor and lawyer merged his journalistic and legal interests in reporting on legal aspects of race relations in the 1950s.
Will my obituary be that interesting? Not at the rate I'm going. Here lies D-, struck down in his prime. He, umm, did something with computers.

As this was marinating somewhere in the back of my brain, I saw this story in the paper:

A mower, some cans and a dream of the Gulf

In mid-October, Bainbridge got bored with Indiana, his home for most of his adult life. Unable because of an injury from a severe auto accident to hold a job and unwilling to be trapped in "factory work" even if his back were stronger, the Hoosier said he "just felt like he had to get out while he could."

So Bainbridge, 44, cranked up his 34-year-old Massey Ferguson lawn mower — bought for a song for $35 — hitched on a small trailer that serves as his home on wheels and headed for the Gulf of Mexico … picking up a small mountain of discarded beer and soda pop aluminum cans to finance his trip along the way.

Last weekend, Bainbridge slowly rolled through Lebanon and into Murfreesboro on U.S. 231, attracting stares and a few waves.


If all goes as planned, he'll ride his lawn mower to the Gulf, dip his toe in the surf and "turn left."

"I'll go through Georgia and turn north. I've always wanted to go to Maine," he said.

Here's another guy whose obituary will not lack for interesting material. I was captivated by his ability to simply shake off "common sense" in pursuit of happiness. Then today I read Quitting the Paint Factory: On the virtues of idleness , an essay by Michael Slouka that finally brought this all together for me:
Increasingly, it seems to me, our world is dividing into two kinds of things: those that aid work, or at least represent a path to it, and those that don't Things in the first category are good and noble; things in the second aren't. Thus, for example, education is good (as long as we don't have to listen to any of that "end in itself" nonsense) because it will pre­sumably lead to work. Thus playing the piano or swimming the 100-yard backstroke are good things for a fifteen-year-old to do not because they might give her some pleasure but because rumor has it that Princeton is interested in students who can play Chopin or swim quickly on their backs (and a degree from Princeton, as any fool knows, can be readily converted to work).

Point the beam anywhere, and there's the God of Work, busily trampling out the vintage. Blizzards are bemoaned because they keep us from getting to work. Hobbies are seen as either ridiculous or self-indulgent because they interfere with work. Longer school days are all the rage (even as our children grow demonstrably stupider), not because they make educational or psychological or any other kind of sense but because keeping kids in school longer makes it easier for us to work. Meanwhile, the time grows short, the margin narrows; the white spaces on our calendars have been inked in for months. We're angry about this, upset about that, but who has the time to do anything anymore? There are those reports to re­port on, memos to remember, emails to deflect or delete. They bury us like snow.

The alarm rings and we're off, running so hard that by the time we stop we're too tired to do much of anything except nod in front of the TV, which, like virtually all the other voices in our culture, endorses our exhaustion, fetishizes and romanticizes it and, by daily adding its little trowelful of lies and omissions, helps cement the conviction that not only is this how our three score and ten must be spent but that the transaction is both noble and necessary.

[...] All of which leaves only the task of explaining away those few miscreants who out of some inner weakness or perversity either refuse to convert or who go along and then, in their thirty-sixth year in the choir, say, abruptly abandon the faith. Those in the first category are relatively easy to contend with; they are simply losers. Those in the second are a bit more difficult; their apostasy requires something more ….. dramatic. They are considered mad.

In the final analysis, Slouka relates the obsession with work and the antipathy toward idleness to proto-fascist ideals of the early 20th century -- and lays out his belief that America's obsession with "success" (as achieved through work) is destroying our democratic society. Idleness, as distinct from the commercialized idea of "Leisure", is necessary because it allows time for reason and informed decision-making:
Idleness is not just a psychological necessity, req­uisite to the construction of a complete human being; it constitutes as well a kind of political space, a space as necessary to the workings of an actual democracy as, say, a free press. How does it do this? By allowing us time to figure out who we are, and what we believe; by allowing us time to consider what is unjust, and what we might do about it. By giving the inner life (in whose precincts we are most ourselves) its due.


Could the Church of Work – which today has Americans aspir­ing to sleep deprivation the way they once aspired to a personal knowledge of God – be, at base, an anti-democratic force? Well, yes. James Russell Lowell, that nineteenth-century workhorse, summed it all up quite neatly: "There is no better ballast for keeping the mind steady on its keel, and sav­ing it from all risk of crankiness, than business.

Quite so. The mind, however, particularly the mind of a citizen in a de­mocratic society, is not a boat. Ballast is not what it needs, and steadiness, alas, can be a synonym for stupidity, as our current administration has so am­ply demonstrated. No, what the democratic mind requires, above all, is time; time to consider its options. Time to develop the democratic virtues of independence, orneriness, objectivity, and fairness. Time, perhaps (to sail along with Lowell's leaky metaphor for a moment), to ponder the course our unelected captains have so generously set for us, and to consider mutiny when the iceberg looms.

So what does all this mean for me? I don't know quite yet. But I've been thinking about it a lot lately.

There are some things I'd like to do that have always seemed somewhat incompatible with my day-to-day Office Space existence. For example, I'm attracted to the idea of iving in a foreign country long enough to become comfortable speaking the language. (The top candidates for this would be Germany, Austria, Switzerland, Spain, or somewhere in Central or South America, since I already have a slight linguistic headstart in German and Spanish. But I'm not all that picky.)

I've also been thinking about my longterm professional plans. Right now my job is split between a traditional techie job and managing an internal research library and archive. The techie stuff is lucrative, but there are big parts of it that I just don't enjoy that much, at least the way my job is currently structured.

On the other hand, I really enjoy a lot of the work I do in the library and archives. The problem is that my company really doesn't place that much value on this. Officially it's 15% of my job description. And in the constant battles over time and resources, things like organizing 70 years of photographic prints take a backseat to fixing laptops.

Furthermore, while I've had some training in archival management and now have several years of on-the-job experience, I'm smart enough to know how much I don't know. Most organizations that take this sort of thing seriously look for degrees in history, preservation, and library science. My liberal arts, journalism, and technology management background is a good start, but it's probably not enough to open some of the most interesting doors in the field. So I've been pondering what sort of course correction it would take to steer my career toward greener pastures. Perhaps the most likely scenario involves quitting my job and going back to school full time for a few years. (Maybe pursuing program like this.)

Of course, all these major life-changes would represent a huge financial hit -- something I'm still working through. But they might also be an opportunity to escape the corporate quicksand into which I fear I'm sinking. Maybe it's time for me to escape.

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