February 25, 2008

This entry brought to you by contraband tomato plants in my bedroom. Seriously.

My job as department secretary here involves one fabulous forbidden pleasure: opening official transcripts. You know, the ones that say UNOFFICIAL IF OPENED OMG DON'T OPEN THIS all over them? It's like cutting off the tag that says DO NOT REMOVE UNDER PENALTY OF LAW, which I always giggle gleefully while doing. For my first week here I had to be constantly reassured that I wasn't going to get in trouble for opening transcripts.

The transcripts show me everything that people have done before they come here to be grad students, and sometimes I read the class titles and degree concentrations and wonder what the hell I thought I was wasting my time with at Berkeley. Seriously. I was patiently memorizing the names of the fiddly bits around the door of a Greek temple while other people were taking Lab: Coastal Exploration, and I was falling asleep over the complete geologic history of Africa while they were in Environ. Perspectives and Whitewater Rafting. And I think this and sigh and tell myself that in the real world at a real school you can't spend your entire undergraduate career getting credits for ceramics and sailing trips.

And then I ask: why the hell not?

Yesterday I went to my local plant nursery, because there are only 16 plants currently living inside my house and it's just not quite enough for me. Also, chickens. It's a strange nursery: a tiny, crowded indoor shop selling little houseplants and elaborate fern dioramas and chicken feed and obscure soil amendments, surrounded by a sprawling backyard dotted with tables of arbitrarily-arranged seedlings and giant tubs of strawberry stubs (I really don't know what else to call them) and stacks of straw bales and dusty plastic pots and three nonchalant hens pecking around in the straw and wandering out the back gate to see what's going on in the alley. It's just... well, it's ragingly Portland.

The reason I mention this is that I make my living in a fluorescent-lit office surrounded by stacks of paper. My work does not involve chickens. It does not involve food. I do have seven plants in the department office, but I am discouraged from regarding them as a primary responsibility. My work does not involve dirt, paint, screws, or hand tools (no, I will not count my stapler). It does not involve coastal explorations of any kind. And I have a nice salary and health insurance and vacation days and a typical work day doesn't require me to break a sweat, so of course by all the standards I've been taught to accept I have a job that is good and legitimate. But I'd really, really like to trade it for a job involving things that interest me.

Problem: I have had a very nice respectable upbringing in an upper-middle-class professional family with high expectations of me. Things that interest me have a tendency to involve dirt, doing shit with my hands, things that grow (even if, as in archaeology, they are merely holes), and food (not necessarily in conjunction with dirt, though, you know, depending). These are not respectable high-expectation upper-middle-class professional family things. I can squeak archaeology in under the radar -- yes, there is that undignified phase of digging holes in the ground and touching dirty old things, but then you get to go take a shower and spend a year or two sitting around in an armchair writing about what you found. And at least in the abstract that sounds snooty enough for the standards and unsnooty enough for me to potentially like it. But what if I don't? What if I realize in a moment of cold realism that academic archaeology means publishing or perishing, and grantwriting and teaching and all kinds of uncompelling things, and CRM archaeology means constant stress and diplomatic difficulty and dealing with legitimately angry people whose great-grandparents just got accidentally dug up after you promised they wouldn't be? If there is one thing on this earth I cannot cope with, it is legitimately angry people.

What if, indeed, I would rather learn to do one solid, concrete thing, like fix bikes or make pies or build porch rockers or whatever, and just do that forever and be competently serene in the knowledge that I am the Person Who Does That One Thing? In my bucolic fantasies I am starting to sound like my dear off-the-grid sister and I am probably no more realistic than she. But what's really happening is I'm going totally batshit Portland. My ideas about work and status are getting all turned around, so that, for instance, working in the plant nursery and selling people obscure soil amendments and tomato seedlings isn't, ugh, retail, it's a job where you know that you are just always tending and selling little wonderful green things. Or working at the Rebuilding Center isn't, ew, manual labor, it's a job where you are always picking up big bits of recycled houses and taking them carefully apart into smaller bits and sorting them so crafty people can find them. How far does this go? If I let myself fantasize long enough would a job as a prep cook at Nutshell turn from, gah, food service to something where you are always cooking tasty food, that's all, really, just tasty food all the time? You'll never get to 4:45 pm and realize that there's some obscure and vitally important task that you forgot to do, unless of course you just didn't make tasty food.

This isn't the first time I've been tempted to drop out of people's expectations of me, so I should probably take my own fantasizing with the proverbial grain of salt. On the other hand, the last time I was tempted I actually did drop out, and went to bartending school and spent four months unemployed and obsessing over my tomato plants, so I should probably also consider myself a loose cannon who might do anything if not properly supervised. On the gripping hand, it's starting to be springtime and I'm feeling slightly superhuman and unreasonable right now. The sun, you know. And I don't know whether to move back to California because Oregon is clearly making me slightly unhinged, or stay in Oregon because unhinged is starting to seem pretty good.

Tune in next month, by which time for all I know I'll have quit my job and moved into a $200/month houseshare in Southeast and gotten hired as a farmhand at a CSA farm. Then tune in the month after, when I've had enough of getting what I wish for and gone back to living like a nice little yuppie-spawn suburban sheep. Sheesh.

Posted by dianna at February 25, 2008 11:14 PM

"Do Not Remove Under Penalty of Law" tags don't apply to end users. You can remove the shit out of them and there's not a damn thing George W. Bush or any of his jack-booted thugs can do about it.

The law in question applies to retailers, who have to leave the tag on so that consumers will know what's inside the mattress, in case they're allergic. Mattress regulations were a product of the progressive era in the early 20th century, and since people were still getting used to the idea of mandatory labelling on products the government had to include a punishment to prevent retailers from just taking the labels off mattresses they got from the factory. You can read more here.

I'm MoltenBoron, your guide to the world of unsolicited knowledge!

Posted by: MoltenBoron at February 26, 2008 02:04 AM

That's Dianna: a loose cannon who might do anything if not properly supervised.

Except there are no real supervisors. I am still coming to grips with the concept that being grownups means that we get to decide what being grownups means.

Posted by: Ping at February 26, 2008 03:29 AM

Zach, I did know that about the tags (I generally ignore the "except by the consumer" part because it makes it more fun to pretend I'm doing something illicit), but I'm really glad that my mentioning it gave you the opportunity to use the phrase "remove the shit out of them", as though there were some way to remove them that is EVEN MORE REMOVEY than ordinary removal. Hee!

Ping: that sounds suspiciously like it's quoted from the XKCD comic about turning your apartment into a ball pit. That, too, sounds like an excellent and Portland-appropriate idea.

Posted by: Dianna at February 26, 2008 07:35 AM


You are behind the ball, man! The XKCD guy already built himself a ball pit.

Posted by: MoltenBoron at February 26, 2008 08:02 AM

Things to write one day:

1) Quip about Dianna and wild Dianna-related activities

2) Fantastical claim about robotic or alien supervising overlords

3) Sociological point about class, occupation and opportunity

4) Psychological reference to cognitive style or personality traits, esp. relating to concrete tactile activities

5) Bitter remark about "the system(s)"

6) Fatalistic resignation in the face of confusion

7) Profound observation about Life


Instead all I've got is this: be wary of food service. I have a friend who went to culinary school for a year, did her externship, and then swore of the whole thing forever. Long hours, low pay, chaotic/stressful working conditions, not much creativity. Notable absence of joy of cooking. Basically...not the same as cooking for yourself at your own pace. As always, your mileage may vary.

Posted by: Elliot at February 26, 2008 08:45 AM

Zach: OMG.

Elliot: 1. Now that you've issued this bizarre teaser, you are obligated to actually make the quip. Get goin'.

2. You? I am shocked.

3. I am genuinely agog to hear this.

4. Ditto the previous.

5. Go for it; I'm currently a pretty receptive audience for such remarks.

6. Would it help your attitude if I mailed you a can of artificial haggis? Because I can do that.

7. Ditto #3 again.

As for the food service thing, you make a good point. I tell myself it would be different if I were, say, selling gourmet vegan cheesecakes out of my kitchen (I just met someone last week who does precisely that), but, well, there's that pesky inverse relationship between fun and money. Anything that's still fun probably isn't going to make even a Portland living wage.

Huh. That last sentence sounded a lot like your #6. I must resist! If I go home and hop on my bike right away I think I could get myself a Froot Loop donut, a craft zine, two baby chickens and a beer in under an hour and $20. I should do it and tell my employer it's critical mental health treatment.

Posted by: Dianna at February 26, 2008 09:23 AM

In re existential angst:

Have you all not been paying attention to the ball pit portion of this conversation?

Posted by: MoltenBoron at February 26, 2008 10:06 AM

I do what I love for a living and it comes with a whole mess o'unloved stuff I have to do to make it happen. I actually spend most of each day not writing, but instead doing the administrative side of keeping my own little business up and running. Or researching, also a thing I Hate To Do.

My point here is that as long as you love your dirt-digging fiercely enough, publishing and grant writing and all that is going to be mostly a delight. I was surprised to learn this was the case, but there you have it.

Not that you shouldn't grow bikes or whatever if you really want to. But don't give up on your archeology without trying it, is my unsolicited advice.

Posted by: didofoot at February 26, 2008 10:30 AM

It's good advice. I value it. And when I of all people say this about unsolicited advice, well, you know it must be pretty remarkable.

Part of my problem, though, is that I lack patience. I can do dirt-digging eventually, but (Edit: this is where my comment got mangled by accidental-select-and-paste goblins)I am listening. How many trips by bike do you think it would take to collect enoug(Edit: end cut-and-paste goblins)to get there I have to go to grad school and to go to grad school I need to continue my GPA enhancement project for a couple of more terms and to afford to continue my GPA enhancement project without being admitted to a financial-aid-enabling grad program I basically need to be working here, because where the hell else am I going to get a 75% tuition discount and the ability to step across the street for a couple of hours to go to class? Few places, I feel. But if you know of any, holler.

Whereas in my personal fantasy universe I can simply decide today to walk over to the local Pie And Bike Center and convince them to hire me, and hey presto! Instant gratification. You see the temptation?

Zach: I had typed a response to your comment, but one of those accidental-select-and-delete things happened and reduced my comment to "h balls?". I think I'm going to stick with it. H balls?

Posted by: Dianna at February 26, 2008 11:43 AM

Well, hell. Now I see what happened to my ball pit comment. What a clusterfuck.

Posted by: Dianna at February 26, 2008 11:47 AM