November 1999
s m u g
by Leslie Harpold

Doctor, Lawyer, Indian Chief

The view from my office is something not terribly uncommon in New York. My windows face several garment manufacturing sweatshops. All day I see people cutting cloth, sewing, folding, pressing, doing whatever it takes to make designer knockoffs to be sold at mid-range department stores.

My mother has worked at the same company for 33 years, although her role there has changed dramatically over the years. Your parents may have only changed employers two or three times. One generation ago, people changed jobs twice and -- if they were somewhat anomalous -- they changed careers twice as well. It was far more common to stay in the same career, or at least the same field, for most of the adult working life.

Today, the average American will change careers four to six times in their adult lives. These statistics do not include the jobs we take as teens - serving ice cream, mowing lawns, acting as camp counselor, or any number of mall based employment opportunities, but actual careers where there is some measure of responsibility and at least the illusion of commitment involved.

When I was younger I had a very specific list of things I wanted to do when I grew up and I believed they were all possible. I was going to be a painter, sing in a rock band, be a horse veterinarian, write seven books, (five fiction, one about being a horse doctor and one about art), host a talk show and of course, I always wanted to direct. I was completely certain from age 12 to age 22 that I could accomplish all these things with alacrity and without being questioned by society as a whole. It was only natural that I would hop from vet school to Oscar Night and take notes in between, which would evolve into novels. Summer vacations I'd tour with my band, and I'd paint before work or at night. It was going to be a cinch.

I don't have to tell you how the story ends, since very few rock star veterinarian artists have time to publish web zines. My goals are different now, but they're still varied and disparate and although my plans have been slightly altered, they're not that far from the originals. I've released the veterinarian ideal completely (I decided at a certain point that despite the fact I would have made a great vet, I didn't have the heart to put down animals I couldn't rescue, and would spend many years and thousands of dollars in therapy crying over every pony I couldn't make immortal). I want to be on NPR's This American Life, I want to make a short mockumentary I've had storyboarded since I last flew to California, I want to make my contribution to the art world, and I'm even lucky enough to want to do what I actually do, design web sites. In the past I've made trading cards, produced music videos, wrote ad copy, and reviewed hundreds of records. Not too shabby. I don't think the rock star thing is going to work out, but I still sing in the shower. If you listen to the point of abstraction, the falling water kind of sounds like thunderous applause. Adulthood and the National Enquirer taught me I don't actually want to be famous anyway, I'm way too sensitive to take that kind of abuse.

Most of the people I know are the same, in spirit. The professions change from person to person. New York especially is full of bike messenger/painter/performance artists, writer/C++ programmer/restaurateurs, Bond Traders/Internet entrepreneurs/beverage distributors. Initially I attributed this to the changing global economy and all other buzzwords of that ilk, that we're trying anything to be the best at something, but I realize that it's more than likely the product of two distinct forces.

First, Dr. Benjamin Spock, who encouraged our parents not to limit us, or discourage us from our goals, thereby never getting hit in the face with the reality stick, which I consider a mixed blessing of epic proportions on both sides. We, despite our outward cynicism, possess a certain sense of awe and wonder because we didn't get as much of the "boys who don't eat broccoli can't be President" kinds of smackdown. Thus instilling in us the belief that we might, if we take to something we really like doing, actually stand a chance of being really good at it. Maybe even the best. Everyone wants to excel, it's biologically coded into us, what's not is how hard we're willing to work at it.

Secondly this: Low self-esteem. Before you tell me how much you like yourself, hear me out. We're working longer and harder so we really are our work. If you're going to change jobs, you - in some way get to change who you are and what that entails. With all the pressure in contemporary society to have a "great career" before we get married and settle down, or while we're getting married and settling down, we keep trying new things in the hope that something will make us feel as interesting and fabulous as we hear is possible.

It's not all bad, and I'm really not complaining. The diversity of paths has definitely made us more complex and multivalent people. The encouragement to pursue and magnify small obsessions makes the world we live in more interesting. Still there are times I look at my oddball friends who decided at age six they wanted to be a doctor or a ballet dancer and then pursued nothing but that one dream their whole lives. It's their certainty I envy.

The self esteem part also presents us with a certain amount of reticence in acknowledging we have grown up. I mean, if we're not married and we have no kids, it's only the way we handle romantic breakups that separates the early 30somethings from the newly minted college grads. We still listen to good music, go out to see bands play, and feel like the year starts when the leaves turn, even though it's been a long time since we went back to school. We may own businesses, property and always pay our bills on time, but that never feels like an accomplishment after you do it the first time. It becomes something that merely happens, a nonevent, like cleaning the bathroom.

The people who work in the sweatshops across the street from me didn't choose their lines of work. Their choices are made for them based on the status of their illegal residency in the United States. They entertain not what is possible, but what is plausible, and are working the other end of the system. I never forget how priveleged I am to entertain my possibilities. To even classify it as a luxury, and not have it be function of my survival.

However, if I had to pick a desert island companion, I'd pick one of the career changers. They're more adaptable, out of necessity, and they are more likely to know how to tell the good mushrooms from the really good mushrooms when hunting and gathering. I'd be a great companion because I wouldn't be desperately freaking out, I'd relish the time I had stranded because finally I'd have the time to write those seven books and the screenplay, finally meeting some more of those childhood goals. Despite all evidence to the contrary, I like that technically I'm a grown up and I still have some slack to change my mind and dabble. That the walls of the boxes people get put in while not disappearing altogether have gotten looser and changed shape. I still like daydreaming about what I might be when I grow up.

what do you want to be when you grow up?

in the junk drawer

and such
and such

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