Since my early 20s, I have always had more than one job. I did the clothing retail thing, selling cheap fashion. I have worked the box-office and concession stand at a movie theater. I have been a step-aerobics instructor and personal trainer. I have taught elementary and junior high kids. Did customer service for an evil credit card company. I was a sales clerk at a gay bookstore. I even worked at a rather well-known bathhouse in Texas for a while (I was the cashier, not the entertainment). While the jobs are varied, they all served one purpose—survival.
I didn’t mind working 60-70 hours a week, getting no sleep, and living mostly off convenience store food that could be quickly inhaled, while dashing—in my car—from gig to gig. I was young. I had the energy. I was full of caffeine. I needed the money.
Things changed in my 30s, though. Like most folks around this time, I paused and took a quick inventory of my life—where I had been and where I was going. The past was a blur and the forecast for my future was “beige” (that is the best word I can think of to describe it). I spent the first part of my young-adulthood floating from job to job, profession to profession, never having found myself or what I wanted to be. Figuring out my identity had always been a challenge, as I spent too much time, as an adolescent, brooding instead of bothering to explore my options and taking some much-needed risks. What served me in the past, however, no longer was. Something had to change.
Eventually, I settled (not necessarily in the negative sense of the word) on social services as my career. It paid a real salary, I was able to help people, and it seemed like a field that I could advance in with the right amount of effort and determination. Long story short: I was right.
Most of my professional life had been focused on work with individuals infected with HIV. I went from street outreach worker to case manager assistant to case manager to lead case manager to a director of services (all within the same agency), and then—eventually—a program specialist with the State of Texas’s health department that provided oversight, technical assistance, and trainings to agencies like the one I started off with in the first place. No too bad for someone who used to bounce around a raised, plastic rectangle for hours to techno music, huh?
While my automatic response to this question, instinctively, is a resounding, “True that,” I hesitate to voice it knowing—all too well—the cost associated with my choices.
Throughout my 30s and 40s, I have never held less than two jobs—often holding three or more. I have had one full-time job and many side gigs. I have had two full-time jobs and a couple of things here and there that were good for bringing in a little “fun money.” Weekends became a thing of the past, melding into Fridays and Mondays until they just didn’t exist anymore. If I wasn’t working behind a desk, I was on-call, or on the road, driving from one ER shift to another. I rarely socialized and did not date. I tossed back antacids like peanuts at a steakhouse and discovered what GERD (gastroesophageal reflux disease) was all about, firsthand. Why would I, a sane and rational person, do this to myself? Because that is what my father did.
Looking at my attitude towards work, I realize just how much influence my father (and his values) had over me, as a child. He was an educator and school administrator, an elementary school principal, but that was not all. He taught high school equivalency courses—math and English—at night for years, dragging me along every Monday and Wednesday to his classes. I did not understand why he worked so hard when I was younger: I didn’t know we were what some people might call “lower-middle class.” My dad did what he had to do to keep the family afloat—even though he wasn’t too crazy about the family he was floating. Even though he walked away from my mother, sister, and me, I have always looked up to him in that respect. When he was personally committed to something, he gave all he had a more. He made things his mission and took whatever steps necessary to get things done, using work to do it.
So, that is what I had been doing for a very long time. I would take on more and more to earn more money to do or buy the things that were important to me (at that moment at least), but somewhere down the line things became more about “wanting” things, not “needing” them. I had changed into someone, who was more about acquisition and establishing an image. I became bored at my jobs, often applying for higher positions to not only to break the monotony of my day-to-day grind but elevate myself via the inflation of my own ego. I hated to manage people, but I applied for those positions, anyway, just for the higher salary, the status, and the power they allotted me.
I do not know where my gravitational pull towards Freud’s “work principle” came from. Sure, my father was an influence, but even he did not spend most of his life at work. Things are way more different, now, than they were in the 70s. Today’s society places such harsh expectations on men to do more, learn more, earn more, be more: it feels like a roller-coaster that doesn’t stop and then nothing I do is ever enough. There is no limit and to do less is shameful, saying more about my character and metal than anything. That is how we men were raised. Once you become an adult, everything centers around work. Support your family. Buy a house. Pay for the kid’s college. Leave a legacy behind. While my father never told me any of these things, his actions did—just as his fathers did, probably.
I bought into it. I admit it. The narrative that has directed my life for almost three decades has not been my own. I let the view from an AMEX Platinum tower dictate my life decisions for me without giving much thought about my non-monetary needs. I do have them–even if I don’t like to admit it–such as the desire for family bonding, leisure time, spiritual growth, and love. Ironically, my recent trek through mid-life crisis has given me some perspective on things. I realized I was unhappy and unfulfilled. This exposed the cold, hard truth that all my sacrifices (around work and career) were for largely for naught, bringing about a life I never really wanted or truly bought into. It is taking some time to reconcile all that, but I am getting there.
All I can do is approach things, differently, going forward. While I cannot guarantee that I will work less, I can assure that my output will have deeper purpose—something more than just bringing home a paycheck. I will stop using work to fund ME and use it—instead—to fund a LIFE: one that is balanced and nourishing. Juggling my academic and writing careers, while possible, will involve many extra hours outside of my regular eight-to-five way of life. There will be long nights, loss of sleep, dark circles and bags under my eyes, and many, many cans of Monster. It will be worth it, though. After all, the work is not just a means to an end, it is about paying some long overdue dues and a beautiful “blue box” with my name on it.
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