Thursday, March 1, 2012

Career man

Insight can come in strange places. Like, for example, during a make-believe game show about your life being played by a dozen and a half or so friends on your birthday, while you watch from a lawn-chair-of-honor on the sideline so you can occasionally arbitrate disputed answers.

Well, that was when this particular insight came to me, anyway.

It was, like I said, my birthday. So some friends, with the collusion of my wife, concocted a game of "Kenpardy!" -- think of it as a deeply revealing, often amusing, sometimes mocking, somewhat embarrassing, and occasionally surprising (even to me) version of "Jeopardy!" that mines my personal life for the answers and questions (in that order, in Jeopardy! fashion) in five categories. The friends who had gathered to partake in this fun-at-my-expense divided themselves into three teams, and the game was on.

All went well, aside from my being reminded of -- and then having to recount -- a few incidents and experiences that I had worked hard to sweep under the social rug. We shared some laughs (both with and at me), dredged some past, and exhumed a few corpses. My ego was fed a hearty and healthy heaping of humble pie.

Then came the exciting all-or-nothing final round. Each team was given a piece of paper and pen, and then had three minutes to complete the following task: "Name as many jobs as you can that Ken has had."

Like I said, it was my birthday -- and a rather significant one, one of those that ends in a "0" -- so maybe I was particularly predisposed toward critical self-reflection. But I was more than a little taken aback by the number of successful tallies each team was able to accrue in a short span of time.

This game laid bare the fact that in the course of my as-yet-unfinished life, I have been employed in a vast and varied array of occupations, jobs, positions, employments, and both profitable and unprofitable endeavors and pursuits. The spectrum of which, to give a sampling, runs from the prideworthy -- bus company manager, college teacher, published author, river guide, magazine editor -- down to the hideworthy -- roller-skating waiter, textile mill machine operator, highway flagger, tractor-trailer decal applicator, door-to-door canvasser, and male stripper (just one time, as a favor to a friend, and I was paid only in drinks. Quite a few, actually. But I didn't even claim it on my taxes).

Well …  No wonder when I got my first "real," regular, 8-to-5, five-day-a-week job -- quite recently, actually -- I'd tell people about it, and they'd just chuckle and say, "No, really. What's up?"

Yet startling as it was to hear that list, it allowed me to see the grander pattern in my extensive and seemingly erratic resume. I finally understood that despite my rambling worklife, I have actually been a life-long career man, of a sort. And that my one true career, my true life's work, is still -- even after all these decades -- the very same as my first major in college:


When I entered the University of New Hampshire "undeclared," it meant I was actually doing something very specific: I was wandering around, sampling different fields, trying out an array of employments, and learning a little bit about a lot of things. Once that wandering was done, of course I was -- as is implied in the very term "undeclared" -- supposed to "declare": I was to focus on a specific professional skill, in preparation for the world after college.

But I had found my skill: Wandering. Hence, for me the world after college looked kinda like the world in college, minus the frat parties and homework. And henceforth, my life would be a patchwork collage of part-time gigs, short-term jobs, and long-term projects (both money-making and hobby-esque), interspersed with periods -- weeks to months -- of time off for various voyages and forays, both domestic and abroad.

"Work," as it has worked out for me, has been just fodder for my real work.

And that, my friends, is how I ended up in the American West. And why I remain.

This year marks another significant anniversary: This is the 30th year since I first came to Colorado, to try out another occupation for a while -- ski bumming. I had fully planned to return to the well-paying software-manual writing position I held back in Boston. But … well, you know. I got to like Rocky Mountain towns. Then, as everyone knows, ski bumming was just the gateway drug to river running. And then, as these things go, I fell in love with and married a fellow river guide. And then we moved to Durango -- where old ski bums and river rats go, if not to die, then to at least settle down and raise a family.

So, add "parenting bum" to my anti-career portfolio. Because despite my wandering inclinations, I've stuck around Durango and the West. Why? Because people get it here. While people elsewhere might cringe and fret over choosing to walk under rather than climbing the corporate ladder, here they chuckle and don't believe it when you get a "real" job. And they have parties and host fake game shows to celebrate your wandering career.

This year, by the way, is significant for another reason, too: My son started college. Undeclared major, of course. I couldn't be prouder.


Read and share this article in The Durango Telegraph's "La Vida Local" column.
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