Wednesday, February 16, 2011

The Market Economy

It's hard to feel lucky in February. I think it's easier to feel that you're putting together a lot of the details that will make good things happen in subsequent months, things that aren't even noticed now but will soon come poking up like green shoots out of melting snow.

I spent a month working on a proposal for my 1/6 time job last September, and even though it wasn't accepted by the people I pitched it to, I've pasted an idiot grin on my face and continued to wave around the thick sheaf of paper describing it. Now another proposal is in the works--a bigger one which includes the first as an appendix--and it offers a chance that my job will be classified as at least half time in the next few years.

I thought I needed to give this work most of my attention for a year, to see if I can turn it into more of what it should be, but it's hard going some days. I think of my life in the village where I work as if I'm a character like Auden describes Brueghel's Icarus in "Musee des Beaux Arts," someone who is "not an important failure," but that's not the perception of the people I pass on the streets of the small town where I live. Their situation is a lot more like the one in Marge Piercy's 1977 poem "The Market Economy":

Suppose some peddler offered
you can have a color TV
but your baby will be
born with a crooked spine;
you can have polyvinyl cups
and wash and wear
suits but it will cost
you your left lung
rotted with cancer; supposed
somebody offered you
a frozen precooked dinner
every night for ten years
but at the end
your colon dies
and then you do,
slowly and with much pain.
You get a house in the suburbs
but you work in a new plastics
factory and die at fifty-one
when your kidneys turn off.

But where else will you
work? where else can
you rent but Smog City?
The only houses for sale
are under the yellow sky.
You've been out of work for
a year and they're hiring
at the plastics factory.
Don't read the fine
print, there isn't any.

Where else will you work? I keep asking myself that. Why did you quit commuting, with college costs looming over your head like a cartoon anvil? Suppose you get what you want--you get paid for working full time--and then you have to do this work for the rest of your life?

"What if" is a wearying game. It's easier to plod along doing the same thing every day without ever thinking about it, except then one day the snow is all melted and you realize that you're older without having gotten any wiser.

Jonathan Franzen is giving a talk at the college tonight, and I'm going to put on my insulated parka and venture out to hear it. You know the saying about ventures, don't you?


FreshHell said...

Enjoy that talk! I know how you're feeling. For me, it's the realization that I'm kinda stuck. Sure, the job's full-time with benefits and keeps things churning along but I'm bored. Massively bored. There are no challenges and I can feel my once-sharp edges frighteningly dulled. And yet, where else would I work? Moving is out of the question. So, I try to make the best of it. Hope your new proposal bears fruit.

Lass said...

My probably over-simplified view is that as far as any of us know, we only get one shot at this and to spend it doing something you hate seems, well, a waste. We are never really stuck anywhere, except in our heads. Also, I am jealous that you're going to hear Franzen speak. Smart and dreamy. Sigh...

Jeanne said...

FreshHell, Sometimes moving really is out of the question. I think of my parents' bemusement at where they ended up and hope that some day I will be able to escape the north.

Lass, it's complicated. My relationship is not, but my career path is.

Perks like hearing Franzen tonight and getting to play for Bernstein's Wonderful Town tomorrow night make up for a lot of drawbacks.

FreshHell said...

I like where I live. The problem is that what I do for a living is a small niche so jobs are few and far between. Most days, things are fine. Other days, I wonder what else I could do. Esp with the same benefits which are absolutely crucial. My kids need healthcare. As do I. I've been on the other side before and it was ugly. There are things I'm not willing to give up. At least not now. So, I find my enjoyment in other pursuits.

Jeanne said...

FreshHell, exactly. I could have the most fascinating job in the world, but I'd still get enjoyment from other pursuits. Because I'm a Renaissance Woman!

kittiesx3 said...

This: Suppose you get what you want--you get paid for working full time--and then you have to do this work for the rest of your life? nails it for me.

Also sometimes even when I think/hope/devote all my efforts into changing the status quo, it doesn't change. I feel then as I did when I had to undergo some particularly nasty medical tests that NO NO NO I do not WANT this. It didn't matter what I wanted, it was happening anyway.

Geeze I woke up in a gloomy jet-lagged mood.

Jeanne said...

Elizabeth, in this case changing the status quo means a risk of getting noticed, which could end up with the loss of the 1/6 time job and starting all over at something else in the same small town.

One of the benefits of one of us working full time at the college is that we only have to pay 85% of college tuition costs at the place Eleanor has chosen (room and board not included).

It goes to show that mood is not dependent on place if you can wake up gloomy in Hawaii!

Jeanne said...

Ahem. Number reversal. The college pays 85%. We only have to pay 15% of tuition.

readersguide said...

Okay -- 85% of college being paid is huge. You have to stay there through the end of Walker's college, which is in 6 years, right?

I have found that just having the kids off on their own makes my own life seem much more possible. I think taking care of them, while intensely rewarding, take a lot more of your attention than you realize. Once they're gone, I think you'll find more time and energy available to make your own working life more interesting. Commuting may once again be possible, once you're no longer driving people to chess matches. Or something else -- who knows?

Ohio has so many colleges . . . and I think teaching is where your heart is . . . I think something will definitely eventually work out.

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Jeanne said...

ReadersGuide, exactly. Six years until we get them both through college, assuming it takes Walker four years and that he picks a GLCA school where the tuition remission applies.

Teaching is definitely where my heart is. I remember coming home during my first semester as a TA and exclaiming to Ron "and they PAY me for this!"

Teena said...

Lucy keeps asking me, when the snow melts, is that when its Spring? The answer to that question is surprisingly complicated. As is the question of what comes next, and when does that start?

Jeanne said...

Teena, yes; teaching anything can be surprisingly complicated. Of course, part of the fun of it is learning from your students...and former students.

Jenny said...

Have fun at the talk! I am keeping my fingers crossed for the right thing to happen for you.

Jeanne said...

Jenny, thanks for the crossing of fingers. I'll no doubt have something to say about the talk later this week.

Marie said...

Good luck with the talk! I hope you enjoy(ed) it! :-)

Jeanne said...

Marie, I enjoyed it way more than I expected to.

First of all, he was funnier than I expected. He uses pauses quite effectively to characterize himself as fumbling and awkward, which may lead me to read his fiction in a new way.

Second, the students who asked questions were less polite than usual; they really put him on the spot. He would take a few minutes, and then give a really good answer.

Good writers are rare, but people who can think on their feet are even more rare, in my experience.

I enjoyed it so much I'm going to go to a smaller discussion with him today.

Jeanne said...

One final note on seeing Franzen:

Today he had a question and answer session about writing fiction and said "If there's no humor in fiction, it's a real uphill battle for it to be really good."

Okay, I'm totally won over!