Back to the salt mine! (a few thoughts on the workaday world)

My son is starting a new job today, operating a roller coaster. (Must...avoid...rim shot...aaagh!) A lot of ups and downs, all right? There! I said it!

The pay is lousy, but he has free passes to the amusement park, and any time he complains about the heat or the feet, I'll remind him that his grandfather once had a job baling cock roaches, then launch into lecture #1432: "Mom's Checkered Employment History." By the time I was 25, I'd been employed as a doo wop singer, dishwasher, answering service operator, funeral home receptionist, butcher, baker, candlestick maker--you name it. As a recovering theatre major I had to grab a paycheck wherever I could, but those odd jobs blessed me with more than money. In fact, the lowest paying positions were often the most enriching.

Working the bar rush shift at the Embers Restaurant instilled a lifelong respect for those who serve and taught me the difference between humility and humiliation. Even at fifteen I recognized that serving the drunks in the corner booth was more dignified than being one.

The following summer, I worked at the Deltronics factory. As my hands evolved from soft to sore to strong, I began to understand how real life textures a person. The assembly line became a ballet, and the women around me started to look more wise than weary.

Every grocery checker knows that need is the common denominator that levels us all. Two famous athletes occasionally came through my line; so did single moms on food stamps. As a purveyor of life's staples, I came face to face with folks from both sides of the tracks, all needing--and all entitled to--the same things: sustenance, courtesy, and the occasional Snickers bar.

Performing with the Vigilante Players and other theatre companies taught me to dodge slings and arrows. The same critic who praised my "comedic genius" in one show, compared me to "a lumbering wapiti" four months later. On the flip side, a reviewer who trashed my first novel was later employed by my publisher as a copy writer and forced to write glowing propaganda--a veritable Joni-palooza--for the dust jacket of my third book. I've been purposefully ignoring the monkey chorus ever since. If you buy into the accolades, you get buried by the sludge.

Dispatching bull semen for Tri-State Breeders taught me more than I wanted to know about nature. Being a forest fire lookout in the Trinity Wilderness taught me a fraction of what I want to know about God. As an all-night disc jockey, I learned the power of invisibility. As Dulci the Singing Clown, I learned that people really hate singing clowns. As do dogs.

Teaching creative drama was my favorite part-time job. I don't know if kids are the clients or the product, but being a caretaker human taught me (among a thousand other things) that a moment spent giving bears greater and sweeter fruit than a decade spent in pursuit. More than any other, that gig disciplined me for self-employment, inspired me to attempt the high-diving horse trick of making a living in the arts, and brought a ministry-over-manufacturing philosophy to my professional life, making it possible for me to find joy in my work, come feast or famine. When the feast happens, I'm grateful, but I've already been blessed by the day's labor, and that's what gets me through the dry spells.

"Success is counted sweetest by those who ne'er succeed," said Emily Dickinson. But it's counted bitterest by those who never learn its true meaning. The publishing industry is littered with unhappy writers, published and unpublished. The happy writers I know embrace the journey, roller coaster ride that it is.

"We work to become," said Elbert Hubbard, "not to acquire."


Brilliant post, Joni. And I thought I'd cornered the market on crummy jobs in my early career.

The worst may have been swing shift beer bottle packer/inspector, a summer job while I was in college. I still flash back to watching those amber bottles pass before a bright light bulb in an endless procession at 4:00 AM. It's like counting sheep except that you get screamed at and fired if you fall asleep.

Gillian Layne said…
Wow, Joni. This is brilliant, and I'm going to have by two older daughters read it.

I worked in both a high-end boutique and a dime store as a teen, and yes, I learned a lot more about real dignity and true values from the dime store workers and customers then I ever did from the boutique patrons.

Have a great week, ladies! I'm off for a short vacation with the kids and hubby. :)
Joni Rodgers said…
Thanks, gals. And have fun on your vacation, Gillian!

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