Number 267, April 18, 2004

Sing The Song, Children!

Temporary Worker, Permanent Tourist
by Joel Simon

Exclusive to TLE

Sometimes, it seems, the worst disasters turn out to be blessings after all. A prolonged, expensive disaster in my life may have blown down one of the walls of a trap I had thought inescapable.

You know the trap I'm talking about. You think about it every time you read an article about the Free State Project, or any time the subject of 'dropping out' comes up. You can't do it. You've got a family, a job, a life.

But the treadmill that comes with them seems inescapable. The only way to meet our responsibilities, it seems, is to go for The Career. Next thing we know we're sessile as mushrooms; fat, soft targets for whatever fate and Uncle Sugar send our way.

So when somebody like Jason Sorens comes along and says, "Hey, gang! Let's a bunch of us take over New Hampshire and kick out the .gov!" or some other such fantasy, we lean back, scratch our stomachs and think, "If only."

Yeah...If only there were more than two cities in the country where we could get good jobs in programming, or script writing, or whatever. If only every dime we owned weren't tied up in that white elephant in the suburbs. If only our wives would let us. If only.

Many of us feel a growing sense that something is coming. We don't know what it is exactly, but it's bad, and we're stuck in place like that damned mushroom. In the face of galloping taxes and fees, cavity searches and universal surveillance and a dark perception that everything's just generally going to hell, here we sit. Deer in the headlights. Stuck.

It's a skewed perspective, but we can't know it when we're stuck inside. We have to step outside it, or get blown out, before we can see it clearly.

When I was young, I was an auto mechanic. I could get a job wherever I wanted, and the accounting practices of some of my employers were pretty lax, if you know what I mean. I hated the work, but there was a freedom to it that I was later to look back on with bitter nostalgia.

Then came marriage and the demands of marriage. "We need a house." "Let's go [somewhere expensive]." "Why do you drive that junky old car?" And the big one, the one that got me into this mess: "If you hate your job so much, why don't you do something else?"

My wife was a drivin' woman. She had all the ambition and schooling I never had, and the smarts and know-how to go with it. Under her tutelage I got into teaching and then writing and then managing, all in the automotive industry. I made good money. She used that as seed money to make even better money. Gradually we were living pretty well.

Living well is expensive. Being good at a profession in a limited industry ties you to certain geographical areas in ways you don't appreciate until you need to break those ties, and find that you can't.

When it all came apart, it was ugly. The marriage broke up just about the time the company I worked for ran into some hard times and dumped me out on my butt. I went back to contract writing, but I'd gotten kind of grizzled and gray in the meantime. The grayer I got, the harder finding new work became. In the meantime there was still alimony, and child support, and taxes, and, and, and...

My life, with apologies to Claire Wolfe, was at that awkward stage. It was too late to avoid the middle-class trap, and too early to shoot myself.

Last year I stopped being able to find work in my field at all. I've never quite been sure why. But when I stopped panicking, I learned something very interesting.

I had gradually learned to get along on much less than I thought I needed. Over a space of about four years, as my income deteriorated my living arrangements shrank from a big apartment to a studio apartment, to a converted garage, to a rented bedroom. I sold or gave away or just abandoned maybe a ton of kibble, because there was no room or I got tired of schlepping it around. Half a lifetime's expensive habits fell away because I was just too broke to pay for them. And I didn't need them! Except for legal obligations, I didn't really need much money anymore.

So it finally dawned on me—maybe I didn't need such a highfalutin' job anymore, either.

In Job Task Analysis there's a concept called Core Competencies. They're the things you absolutely must be able to do, before you can do anything else. So what were the most basic saleable things I could do? Well, I'm a pretty darn good typist. I know Word and Excel and PowerPoint like the roof of my mouth. I'm good on the telephone. I can smile cheerfully, and I can drive. So where could I use those core competencies to keep from starving?

It turns out there are lots of places.

First off, I got a night job delivering food. The pay's amazingly lousy, but the tips are pretty good and they'll hire anybody with a driver's license and a car. Me being an older man with (presumably) some concept of work ethic, they hired me on the spot.

It'll pay for food and gas, but not rent. For sure, not child support. Still, it was employment I hadn't known was there.

Once I started thinking outside the corporate box, I quickly found much better employment. Businesses are afraid to hire anybody they might have to fire in two months when things slow down again. But they need to get the work done. The market for temporary help is booming.

The day after I signed up with a temp agency, I was shuffling paper in a mortgage company for fifteen dollars an hour. In the past several months I've done all sorts of things; data entry, phone work, even tech writing. The pay varies with the skill set. Sometimes it pays pretty well. Mostly it doesn't. But the rent and child support are paid. Once my daughter's on her own, maybe I'll scale back my work hours to keep under the radar. As a temp, I can do that!

My "career" was a cold, demanding wife I should have divorced long ago. When I finally let it go, I suddenly wasn't shackled to one city or one region any more. In fact, except for the need to be near my kid, which will end in a couple of years, I'm not shackled at all.

Because I'm not just a pretty good paper shuffler and typist. I'm a bloody damn master paper shuffler and typist. And I can take those skills anywhere. Maybe I'll check out what Boston T. Party's doing in Wyoming.

Only time will tell if this really is the way out of the trap. But it's a hole in the wall that's certainly worth investigating.


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