Jennifer McLean, 12/5/2010

Current occupation: grant writer
Former occupation: I’ve held a variety of jobs, including management consultant, conservation project director, legal secretary, policy researcher, sales rep., deck crew, canvasser, and farm worker
Contact Information: After several big city and small town adventures I have settled for good in Asheville. Some of my stories appeared a long time ago in Writ, The Trinity Review, and Off the Coast. I am back in the game! Fellow readers and writers are welcome to contact me at jmstory”at”rocketmail”dotcom”.



What do you do?

In the end, after several failed attempts to purchase a 700-square foothold in DC, I was decidedly catapulted out of the city and landed somewhere else, far far away. On my way out I glanced at a cubicle wall on which was pinned the brave statement: “How we spend our days is of course how we spend our lives.” A frightening thought.

There were a few polite visits to make before the day of departure. Not knowing I was on my way out, people would ask me ‘what do you do?’, as is the custom. Not ‘how do you do?’ but ‘what do you do?’. It’s generally the first thing anyone asks you here in Washington. I say ‘policy analyst’ – I really am – and hope that suffices. It’s a handy, all-purpose title and happened to be true in my case. If they persist by asking me ‘Where?’ I am coyly literal and say “just north of the Circle” and if they finally buttonhole me with “But who for?” I reply with equally aggressive calm, “a nonprofit”. I found myself having to take it the whole nine yards like this for an intrepid young woman interrogating me at a so-called party. It was one of those stand around and yack about your job gatherings that Washingtonians deem to call happy hour. It was at my friend X’s house, which had been a hopeful sign because, although still in her 20’s, she’s not boring like most of the career-heads her age.

Eileen is nice, I have been told. I have to take this on credit since she sounded pissed for having had to interrogate me. When the tables are turned I find out she’s not working for anyone at the moment but is poised to counsel the suddenly wealthy on what charities, i.e., nonprofits, to give their money to. In spite of myself I take her card.

“But you won’t be using your degree,” she says, in a tone that I could have to describe as aghast. If it were a hundred years ago I would have just announced that I was leaving my husband. She’s embarrassed for me, feels sorry for me. I’ve just told her I would take any job – at a deli for instance – if I could be happy with where I lived.

I push on recklessly, perhaps the microbrew I had been guzzling out of boredom did it, and say with a fair amount of swagger, “I’d rather be making sandwiches for a living. At least I can see the result of my work and know I gave someone what they wanted.” Hoo-hoo! Such a brave declaration of tangibility, honest work, and all that! It’s true I’d often gazed down from my office window into the alley where the men, jolly or grumpy as the case may be, emptied the trash or unloaded things for the restaurant next door. And I felt wistful. At least they know when they’re doing something right, I thought, as I turned back to my computer and peck at the keyboard like a listless battery hen. But your back would kill you, I argue reasonably. Not that it isn’t already.

Back at the party, a few more swigs of beer and I wax poetic, rebut the admonishments to remain wedded to the Cause and do Good Work. “I make the world a better place every time I smile,” I say bravely, matter of factly – or so I thought. But the ironic snickers from the ones standing around the snack table send it back to me sounding like a trite greeting card. Only the dog licking bits of fallen chip dip under the table would have understood but he’s not paying attention, too busy. It’s clearly time to leave.

Before going to bed that night I read a book on wallpaper that turns philosophical. I stop at something from one of William Morris’ influences, Ruskin or Carylyle – I forget which, disgusted with Victorian industry. I make a few edits.

People                  digital
Men are grown mechanical in head and in heart, as well as in hand. They have lost faith
in individual endeavor, and in natural force, of any kind. Not for internal perfection,
but for external combinations and arrangements, for institutions, constitutions – for
Mechanism of one sort or another, do they hope and struggle.

Our own Whitman had talked about the same thing in more hopeful terms. “And there is no trade but the young man (or woman, I assume) following it may become a hero…” Yeah, yeah, no trade but the one following it may become a hero. Sounds about as sincere and as realistic
as the mottoes inscribed over the doorways of the great cold granite buildings downtown. In loneliness I have read these sorts of things here and there in books but I had never heard them spoken to me. Wait. Just once. Years ago. My father had told me something, after I felt I had to put down my factory job.

“You don’t ever need to be ashamed of honest work.”

It was completely unexpected and went straight to my heart, although I couldn’t have guessed the full significance of it then. Without my knowing, he had given me my ticket out of here – ‘here’ being this paralyzing culture of self-consciousness and accomplishment. My father’s words came back to me and for the first time and for the briefest moment, I felt I might have been born with a tremendous advantage.


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