Career Changes?

“Well, do you at least know how to operate a pallet jack?”

I hesitate.  I have eight-and-one-third years of higher education under my belt.  I really should have a good answer to this question.  “I’m sure I’ll pick it up quickly”, I offer optimistically.

Last Tuesday was my first day at my new job—my first non-research-related job since I was the receptionist at a law office six years ago.  It’s been a tumultuous few weeks that have brought me to this point.  At the start of October, I was TAing an introductory sociology class, plugging away on a series of articles for publication, and preparing for my qualifying exams—and, I should add, unequivocally the most miserable I’ve ever been in my entire life.  So I decided to leave.  First I told people I was “dropping out”.  I’ve since graduated to “withdrawn” or, when I’m feeling particularly optimistic, “taking a sabbatical”.

The idea behind coming home was to give myself time to “get healthy”, but I quickly realized this was not an activity that could be blocked off on a day planner like “exercise” or “study”.  Casting about for meaningful things to do, I gravitated towards food, as I always have: with the freegans at Princeton, Food Justice at Oxford, and Food Not Bombs at Berkeley.  I filled out an online volunteer form for the Flagstaff Food Bank, noting with a bit of embarrassment, in response to a query about “available hours”, that I was free pretty much anytime.  Within 24 hours I got an enthusiastic call from a somewhat desperate volunteer coordinator and within 48 I was offered a part-time job.

Now I work in a warehouse.  I unload trucks coming in with donations, weigh pallets of surplus food, and assemble emergency food boxes.  Having spent the last six months gradually watching my capacity to do the things I enjoy and find meaning in wither away, there’s something rewarding and contemplative about spending four hours a day sorting out rotten mushrooms.  The cold of the refrigerator room gives me a much-needed jolt, and the Christian rock that blares over the loudspeaker provides me a strong incentive to get healthy and return to my old life.  And yes, I’ve learned how to operate a pallet jack—first a manual one and, today, a mighty and somewhat difficult to control electric one (with which I almost managed to precipitate my first workers’ comp claim).  Maybe forklifts are next.

That said, even in my current state, my goal is to progress as quickly as I can beyond moving around gaylords* of stale bread.  So when the Food Bank director announced on Friday that we would have a meeting about improving our operations, I was excited.  Perhaps I could put those years of higher education—which we discuss in the warehouse only in the context of making fun of my utter lack of practical knowledge—to some use!  I spent the weekend researching the academic literature on emergency food systems, and even dreamed up a small interview project to better understand the needs of our clientele.

On Monday, the time for the meeting came—and went.  I kept packing boxes and waiting for someone to come get me.  I finished my tasks for the day and wandered up to the front of the warehouse.  Not knowing the layout, I stumbled into a room where pretty much everyone else from the Food Bank was assembled.  “Can I help you?” my boss asked.  As it turns out, I wasn’t invited.

I’ve been having doubts for more than a year about academia.  I don’t know if those doubts have precipitated my depression or if depression has created the doubts; it doesn’t really matter, because it is increasingly hard for me to imagine myself “making it” as a professor.  But veering from that course, I’m quickly realizing, is not easy.  The internships and entry-level positions I’ve been looking at online are meant for people who are, well, younger.  And while I’ve gutted through the lowest eschelons of academia, I haven’t put in my time anywhere else.  So why would I get invited to a planning meeting, anyway: I’m just a guy who works in the warehouse.

* The name for large octagonal cardboard boxes.  You learn something new every day!

2 thoughts on “Career Changes?

  1. The word depression can refer to an individual’s mental state or to the overall economy, but they both seem to be connected to food. People who don’t eat well become depressed, depressed people lose their appetites, and in a depressed economy it is difficult for people to eat well.

    You do seem to have a lot of valuable experience, in addition to your academic burden. Perhaps you could find a place that doesn’t have a Food Not Bombs and start one. Or think up some brilliant way to expand the meta-FNB phenomenon.

    I’m lumpen. For various reasons I was locked out of the work force and spent much of my life homeless, unemployed, and broke. I worked at whatever I could get whenever I could get it, but it wasn’t much, often, or worthwhile. It cost the government about $2 million to finally cure me of my destructive work ethic (the first real, living wage job I ever had turned out to be a sick joke) and allow me to appreciate being alive–and by then I was pretty old anyway.

    Power to the punx!

  2. If I remember correctly, my first job after a quit, or uhhh, “took a leave of absence” from law school was hostessing at a local seafood restaurant. It sucked as much as you might imagine, particularly when I looked (and might have been) old enough to be the much, much older sister of nearly every other employee there – including the managers.

    I hesitate to offer this at the risk of sounding trite, but it gets better. I left the restaurant long ago, had many more fits and starts, and now have a business that I love, something I never would have imagined as I was seating busloads of Japanese tourists on the “Lido deck.”

    Give yourself some time to grieve the loss of who you thought you were going to be, and then spend some time getting to know who are and what you really want. In my opinion, that’s the only real and lasting way out of the spiral.

    Best of luck to you!

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