“Heigh-ho, Heigh-ho, It’s Off to Work We Go”: Odd Jobs, Career Ambitions & Happiness

“Heigh-ho, Heigh-ho, It’s Off to Work We Go”: Odd Jobs, Career Ambitions & Happiness

“With your head full of brains and your shoes full of feet, you’re too smart to go down any not-so-good street.”

– Dr. Seuss

One of my first albums was Bryan Adams’ smash hit, Reckless. I remember opening the Christmas gift from my Aunt Sybil and seeing a shiny new jewel case with an awesomely designed CD. After hearing “(Everything I Do) I Do It For You” from his Waking Up the Neighbors album and Kevin Costner’s 1991 film Robin Hood Prince of Thieves, I started listening to his music. That song was nominated for Best Original Song at the 1992 Academy Awards but lost to Beauty and the Beast. No musician is more identifiable to my youth than Bryan Adams. His albums matched a moment in my childhood when I dreamed with intent. As I listen to Reckless, I think back to that younger me, wondering, was what I envisioned…this? I often measure my life against the existence I imagined when I was a kid and blasted Bryan Adams’ songs regularly from my stereo.

My life is grander and more exciting than I could have ever dreamed. Yet, there is one area where I feel my path has curved far more than I expected. Remember when you were young and inspected your reflection in a mirror, trying to picture what you might look like as an adult? That’s kind of what I mean, but instead of wondering what I will look like, which I am still asking myself, I am referring to my profession. In elementary school, maybe fifth grade, we did a play about what you want to be when you grow up. Although I secretly wanted to be a comedian, I performed as a baseball player. But all types of professions were present; even one child dressed in B.U.M. Equipment clothing represented a homeless person. Not sure how that was inspiring or compassionate.

I have been teaching for some time, but I often ask, is this it? After the odd jobs, hours of reading/writing towards my Ph.D. degree, and nearly two decades in a classroom, is more to come? If so, where does all this lead? Many people, including my wife Corinne, are asking ourselves these questions. The pandemic and the “great resignation” have shown life is too fragile and “work” is no longer going to be accepted for what it was. Instead, paths forward will demand leaps of faith and scenery changes. I love teaching, but is it what I expected, or is my position what I imagined? In the end, as long as I don’t resemble, nor act like, a core member of the Roy family from the HBO series Succession, how bad can it be! Well, maybe Greg, but I like Greenpeace, so maybe not. Join me as I explore my career and ponder what’s to come.

What Do You Want to Be When You Grow Up?

“And will you succeed? Yes you will indeed! (98 and 3/4 percent guaranteed.)”

– Dr. Seuss

It’s simple; I have never held a legitimate full-time job. How, at nearly forty years old, can that be true? Well, it’s simply half the story. One half is a life lived in pursuit of a dream or an idea. The other half is a life one step behind that dream or vision. Ok, maybe that’s not as simple as I made it out to be, but as the saying goes, “the ends justify the means.” I have yet to fully reach my end, so justifying my pursuit, as is, gets harder each passing day, month, and year. That’s ok. I learned a long time ago that life is not a competition, no matter how much those around you pitch it as such. I will continue my pursuit, not because the end justifies it, but instead because this is my life, my quest, my purpose, and maybe the professional terminus is not precisely what I imagined or expected. The question arises from the constant reimagining of my goals and whether, personally, my pursuit was what I thought it was.

In Mike Judge’s 1999 film, Office Space, there is a perfect moment when Peter, played by Ron Livingston, meets with the “two Bobs,” played perfectly by John C. McGinley and Paul Wilson. In this meeting, the Bobs question Peter about his work ethic, or lack of, and Peter responds, “The thing is Bob, it’s not that I’m lazy, it’s that I just don’t care.” I love the comedy in this film, especially related to work culture and how we see ourselves within that complex mechanism. Peter is aloof, gloomy, and has given up on his mundane life working at Initech. He seeks a life, a career antithesis of what he assumed he wanted. Of course, ridiculous things transpire to make the movie a classic. I remember watching the film shortly after its release. I recall thinking how a 9 to 5 job was not something I was interested in, yet it made me think; what type of career did I want?

While my dad owned an insurance business, which fascinated me but did not necessarily interest me, he secondarily owned an ice cream parlor. He sold soft-serve ice cream (coffee, vanilla, chocolate, and black raspberry) with hard ice cream options and had a menu offering delicious local staples. My dad had always dreamed of owning such a palace, and for over ten years, made that dream was a reality, even as he oversaw a successful insurance business. What my dad did was inspiring. He made his dream a reality, and I spent my teenage years working there. My sister-in-law Kaitlyn is jealous of this fact, as she could have had free vanilla soft serve with cherry dip. My entire family worked at the eatery, Jeff and Becky made ice cream cones and milkshakes, Bobby oversaw the staff, and I worked the grill. Yes, my first job was grilling hotdogs and hamburgers, scooping clam cakes into the industrial fryolator, and scolding myself far too often in the process.

I had no business cooking food that we eventually served to a paying customer. I am sure if Anthony Bourdain had visited, he would have loved the ice cream but had a litany of suggestions for the grill cook who had no idea what “medium” meant when written alongside “HB/CHB,” meaning hamburger/cheeseburger. Everyone got a burger cooked burnt, but the fries I cooked to perfection. Although I had no business in a kitchen, the job wasn’t bad. Working for a family can be difficult, but I have tons of fond memories of working beside my dad and siblings for several years. It’s weird; at the time, I imagined doing anything other than cooking food. I think warmly of my dad explaining how to use a chef’s knife, preparing the clam cake mixture, and his belief that “snapper hot dogs” were going to be a massive success. They weren’t, but he tried.

Still, “acting” as a cook showed me that I didn’t foresee a future in the restaurant business. I continued on my path, and when I enrolled at the local community college, my passion, at the moment, led me to major in criminal justice. So, to go along with that career path, I left my job cooking food and got a job working for loss prevention, or security, at a local department store. Those four years had far too many ups and downs, but I met some incredible people, many of who I’ve remained friends with ever since. It was a job that taught me about minimum wage, taxes, that a career behind a desk was not for me, like Peter from Office Space. It convinced me of whether I wanted to enter into a profession based around criminal justice. If you had asked me then, where was I headed? I had no idea, but, like most teenagers, I thought I had it all figured out.

For the most part, security work included hours of chatting with my coworkers and staring at CCTV screens until my eyes burned. I did enjoy the people I worked with, for the most part, and from time to time, we did apprehend someone stealing, which was grossly thrilling. One time I chased a guy across the highway because he had regularly stolen tools from the store, but on this occasion, he stole women’s clothing. He ended up discarding it as he ran, eventually hiding in a local Chinese buffet until the police came. Another time a guy was stealing jeans, and when I confronted him, he punched me in the face and ran. When apprehended by local police, he had a medical emergency, and officers called an ambulance. I felt terrible for the man. I didn’t particularly appreciate participating in this part of his life.

I didn’t stop many other shoplifters during my four-year stint. Instead, I focused on worker/customer safety with my boss’s approval. I enjoyed that immensely and thus believed life within the world of security/policing or any aspect of criminal justice was not for me. This feeling came quickly and electrified me further after the September 11, 2001 attacks. I changed my college major, put in my notice at the store sometime later, and explored becoming a “teacher.” I wanted to understand the world and my place in it. I wasn’t sure what that meant, at least not at the time, but it felt right. I transferred from the community college and enrolled at the local university focusing on History, and things clicked. Once I left, I got a job for a local school department and worked in a second-grade classroom as a paraprofessional, assigned one-on-one to students with disabilities.

As someone with a learning disability, I felt inspired to assist others with similar challenges. Still, this work wasn’t what I wanted to do as a career, but I enjoyed working alongside a passionate teacher. I felt as if I was part of a community, and this feeling proved I was on the right path. I wanted to be a teacher, but maybe not an elementary school teacher or one in high school. I loved history, and I eagerly shared that passion with anyone, so I moved on from the elementary classroom. Again, it’s crazy and funny; at the time, I was so eager to continue my path with blazing speed that I left my job halfway through my second year, feeling I could capture my dream, like it was lightning in a bottle. I knew it would require hard work, but I needed a job to match my quest. Yet, that year, working with kids with disabilities was one of the most rewarding experiences of my life.

With my M.A. program coming to an end, I got a job working as a part-time Academic Advisor at the same community college I graduated from four years earlier. I worked for the same advisor who advised me in my journey from a criminal justice focus to a transfer student and eventually college graduate with a degree in history. For several years I worked part-time, advising students as they, like me years before, explored their educational goals and charted a path towards various career endeavors. It was beautiful and worked with, and for, incredible people who offered support, guidance, and life-long friendship. Some I am still in contact with, others I lost touch with, and sadly, one passed on before I had the chance to reconnect.

I worked in that capacity for five years, only deciding to resign because adjunct teaching history proved I wanted to further my historical knowledge. Corinne and I moved to Hawaii with a few online courses guaranteed, where I entered a Ph.D. program. Thus, I taught exclusively online for the next few years, not dissimilar to today, and took classes, passed comprehensive exams, and wrote a lengthy dissertation. I did all of this in pursuit of not only an opportunity to teach full-time but to attain a terminal degree and write a dissertation I’d be proud of and, if nothing else, and have an experience no one could take away. As I have said previously, but it’s important to remember now, those Hawaii years were some of my happiest, and what I accomplished, the friends I met, and the memories I recall constantly make me smile.

It is the Christmas season, so I recently watched Jingle Jangle: A Christmas Journey. It was a charming film with a beautiful message and fantastic music. Midway through the film, Forest Whitaker, as Jeronicus, after having yelled at his granddaughter Journey because he no longer believes in magic, sings “Over and Over.” It’s a simple yet powerful ballad that underscores part of the point I am putting forth, at least regarding my career journey. I might not be as pained, nor suffering from an identical loss, in the scene Jeronicus stands alone in his workshop, surrounded by broken toys, and reflects on a wasted life. I am still young, eager to teach, but there are moments when I am unsure of, if not doubt, my journey. Maybe it’s the pandemic, or perhaps I see life through a much clearer lens.

Career Advice from Office Space

“If things start happening, don’t worry, don’t stew, just go right along and you’ll start happening too.”

– Dr. Seuss

The film Office Space posits the question, “What would you do if you had a million dollars?” Well, I always thought, or imagined, I would do what I am doing. I have been teaching as an adjunct for nearly sixteen years, and while the work is fulfilling, I often wonder if this is it. I love teaching but have fallen out of love with the institution, the mechanism that expects constant progress. Creating this blog and writing for me is a point of immense pride. I couldn’t be any less interested in attending academic conferences, writing published articles/books, or further throwing myself into a world I no longer exclusively imagine as my career terminus. This feeling brought me to the film Pig, which stars Nicholas Cage. As I talked to my brother Jeff about the movie the other day, my thoughts drifted to the restaurant scene, but not because of Cage’s acting or his character’s prophetic words.

I thought about Chef Finway, who Rob, Nicholas Cage, cuts down measuredly. He pointedly digs into the chef for his over-the-top dish and eatery, asking why he didn’t open a pub, as he had always dreamed of when they worked together. Chef Finway rambles about critics, opulence, and, as Rob senses, a marketed and aligned life of success for others, not-self. With each passing moment, Chef Finway breaks down, unable to maintain the façade, recognizing his passion, as Rob correctly pointed out, is nowhere to be found. For money or fame, or possibly both, he sold out his dream, but Rob offers him, with honesty, another path. That’s the thing; sometimes, pursuing the goal constructs a mythical reality. You may attain it, and it might be everything you desired, but it could just as quickly be that the ideal is nothing you expected.

I have weathered the proverbial life of an adjunct professor and, during that time, worked at a couple historical sites and completed a challenging Ph.D. program. I assumed, or it was told to me, that my goal was a tenured teaching position. Everything, and everyone in positions of authority, seemed to be directing me towards that objective. I enjoy the work; building courses, designing projects, engaging with students, and the pageantry of standing in front of them, commanding their attention. It’s fuel for the soul, and it motivates me. Yet, I do this steadily, even as departments change leadership regularly. I must constantly self-advocate with a new boss or several bosses, none of which recognize my progress from one semester to the next.

This existence quickly reminds me of Office Space. Far too many supervisors, the feeling like you can’t do anything right, and the space you occupy is more a padded room than a space supporting intellectual insight. The only problem is that the real world doesn’t offer well-written and designed comedy, especially around office politics, TPS reports, and missing work. I like what I do, but I’m not sure I want to be anything more than an adjunct professor if I remain in an academic setting. Full-time seems spent with self-gratification and the constant need to compete with colleagues. I have felt that pressure on a micro-scale and couldn’t imagine constantly dancing that dance. It’s not as if I don’t put in full-time work; I do. I teach far more courses than most, but I get to choose where I work and what topics I teach.

Sure, several aspects of my schedule are not under my control. Classes must be offered. But I’ve built sixteen years of work on my resume to take on a sufficient number of courses each semester. I have come to see myself as something of a contract worker. I go where I am needed and stay where I am appreciated. Like many, I have started to see myself that way since the pandemic. Since doing so, I have gained agency over an academic world that forcibly maintains control of the professional wheel. Sure, it requires ingenuity with my schedule, but it allows me to see myself with far more professional self-worth. Here lies the value that the academic institution has errored through lack of support. I love teaching, and I am thrilled with this newfound agency.

It might be that tenure is not what I want anymore, as long as I teach. I no longer worry about the ends and whether the means justify it. At the moment, I will live as far as work is concerned and seek out those opportunities that make me happy and support the life Corinne and I have built. Maybe my path will lead into a private high school classroom or the visitor center of a museum or national park, or it may, still yet to be, offer me the opportunity to be a tenured professor at a local community college. I am not sure, and that is perfectly fine. If I have learned anything from the pandemic, live like you have a million dollars. Like Peter in Office Space, if that means leaving a regimented position where I have grown complacent, so be it. Do what makes you happy. That sounds cliche, but why feel constantly stressed?

I’m incredibly proud of my wife Corinne, who has recently resigned after six years at her job. No longer willing to suffer in the hostile atmosphere or shoulder the unequal responsibility asked of her for little pay, as well as asked to travel into Boston with zero employer support or subsidizing her horrific traffic commute, she said enough is enough. She’s doing something most should do; she’s betting on herself. She deserves more from a job than what she received. It’s not necessarily her boss, who she adores, but the culture of the instruction that would rather lose good workers instead of offering pay raises. Corinne has always believed in me, and I believe in her. She will discover what makes her happy or, at the very least, something that inspires her.

As Tom Smykowski in Office Space, Richard Riehle turned a horrible car accident into an opportunity to reach for his dream, building his “Jump to Conclusions” game. As he described, “You see, it would be this mat that you would put on the floor… and would have different CONCLUSIONS written on it that you could JUMP TO.” I know it might seem odd to continue to go back and forth between an honest discussion of “careers” and the 1999 film Office Space. This actuality is anything but abnormal for those who know me or have regularly followed this blog. While I don’t identify with any character, nor is the story anything I have experienced, I perceive some truth in the storyline and how the film represented work culture. Those who find happiness reject conformity, like Joanna, played by Jennifer Aniston, and Lawrence, played by Diedrich Bader.

As Peter said in that famous scene with the Bobs, “It’s a problem of motivation, all right? Now, if I work my ass off and Initech ships a few extra units, I don’t see another dime, so where’s the motivation? And here’s something else, Bob: I have eight different bosses right now… Eight, Bob. So that means that when I make a mistake, I have eight different people coming by to tell me about it. That’s my only real motivation is not to be hassled, that and the fear of losing my job. But you know, Bob, that will only make someone work just hard enough not to get fired.” That scene is iconic, but it makes a fantastic point, and Judge offers the audience the ability to laugh at the absurdity of everyday reality. Peter couldn’t take it, so he leaped, and the net appeared. Corinne is doing the same thing, and she will be better off.

Clock Out, Shift Over

“Think left and think right and think low and think high. Oh, the things you can think up if only you try!”

– Dr. Seuss

In the closing moments of The Farewell, a beautiful and emotional cinematic experience, Nai Nai, played by Shuzhen Zhao, offers Billie, played by Awkwafina, life advice. Zhao says, “You’ll encounter difficulties, but you have to keep an open mind. Don’t be the bull endlessly ramming its horns into the corner of the room. Life’s not just about what you do; it’s more about how you do it.” Following that prophetic advice, I have reclaimed agency and added this creative outlet. I never dreamed of creating a space like this or writing as many posts as I have, but I surprised myself. I have taken back the enjoyment of writing, something academia almost eroded, and in so doing, I took a path I never imagined existed. That proves my point, don’t write your entire life story; live it, then write about it. When I flipped burgers, or went numb watching security cameras, or oversaw recess at the elementary school, I couldn’t accurately conceive my current professional life.

The reality is far better, but it demanded recognizing my agency to get there. I teach according to my passions, write posts about beautiful memories and movies, and happily live near family. This post, in the end, dealt with preconceived ideas on what I would be when I grew up, which I am still asking, happily. I have wrongly assumed that work and life are the same. I now see they are at two ends of a very long spectrum. Employment is continuous, but it shouldn’t define you. Yes, it took me a while to separate life from my professional journey, but I had to see how extraordinary life is or watch Pig and The Farewell. I’m a professor, no matter if it’s part-time or not, and for now, that makes me happy, but if it doesn’t, well, then I will cross that bridge when I come to it. That’s who I am professionally, but I am eager to continue contributing to this blog. Doing so allows me to turn on my UE Boom, open the Amazon music app on my phone and select Bryan Adams and Reckless. Immediately, the memories flood back to me, and I start typing.

2 thoughts on ““Heigh-ho, Heigh-ho, It’s Off to Work We Go”: Odd Jobs, Career Ambitions & Happiness

  1. An interesting read! I’ve had 17 jobs myself and chased dreams. I even worked in security, too, (airport security) but mostly with the feedback they got and not doing actual security checks, though I had to do the training. Anyway, I wanted to also say that Office Space is my favorite movie!!! It depicts office life so perfectly in all its absurdity. It really is absurd to sit in front of a desk all day – I’ve been very happy about how the pandemic changed that in my current work life. I now work from home and it suits me so much better! Though if I won the lottery, I would quit immediately! 😀 I’d volunteer to save the environment and just do plenty of yoga and swim and enjoy life…

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you so much for your comment! I appreciate you sharing your personal work story, and I like your plan if you win the lottery! Either way, keep enjoying life. Yes, “Office Space” is fantastic, and it is a perfect example of a film that I quote at the drop of a hat for most situations. Again, thank you for the lovely comment and for taking the time to read my post.

      Liked by 1 person

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