Why You Should Be Supporting a Universal Living Wage

I currently work as a freelance editor and writer, making almost all my income from these efforts. It’s the remote worker dream, one that I would be reluctant to give up, even for higher pay. I like setting my own schedule so that I can, for instance, write a random blog post when an idea hits me. This morning, at around 6:45 a.m., an idea hit me.

One of my most recent gigs is as a translator of textbooks, translating Spanish to English. Now, to be clear, despite the fact that I have lived in Madrid for nearly 4.5 years, my Spanish is quite mediocre. As in, my reading level might, might, be B1, and my speaking level is even worse. I survive in Spain in large part due to having a partner whose Spanish is much better than mine and the fact that most of my day-to-day interactions can be done in English or remedial Spanish.

I write all of that to say there is no one more surprised than me that I am a Spanish-to-English translator. What qualifications do I have? Well, for my clients, the main one is that I am a native English speaker/writer with an above-average writing and editing ability (I type this fully aware that there will probably be three typos in this thing after I post it). And that, it turns out, is just as valuable for this particular gig as someone with fluency in both languages.

I am able to do my job because of the existence of DeepL and, to a lesser degree, Google Translate. Years ago, it was common to joke about how these translation services mangled language. There was a common ritual that involved the translation of an English phrase through multiple languages and then back to English to see what kind of word salad you ended up with. These days, such a meme is a relic of a bygone era.

That’s not to say these translators are now perfect (far from it, which is why I have a job), but they certainly are vastly better than they used to be even just a few years ago. As an experiment, I tried translating the English phrase “I love you to death” with DeepL, running it through Spanish, then Dutch, and then Japanese. When I translated it back to English, it returned “I love you to death.” That’s just an anecdote, but the point is, these translation tools have gotten far more sophisticated in a short span of time.

That’s largely due to AI. Artificial Intelligence is being used in basically every business and science field imaginable, mostly in ways far less sexy or menacing than decades of science fiction have led us to believe it would be. AI is the future, but also, it’s the present. While the kind of AI we’re used to seeing in films like I, Robot is quite possibly a century or more out, its use on a smaller, more workmanlike scale is already universal.

Now, as you can tell by the title of this post, I’m not here to write about AI (the little I do discuss AI owes a great deal to the excellent book by Hannah Fry, Hello World; pick it up). I only bring it up because it’s intricately linked to the work I do now. Without its existence and its improvement to translating technology, I would be ineligible for my current gig. Someone who was actually bilingual and a good writer/editor would be required for the job, and they would be able to ask for a far higher wage for their efforts. Aye, there’s the rub.

For the last year or so, I have been asking people, “Could your job be done by a machine?” Some people reply, unequivocally, yes, while others say probably. And still others state that parts of their job can be done by a machine, but it would lack the “human” element. Few if any people have ever said absolutely not.

As a writer, I like to think that I bring something to the table that AI (or Robby the Robot) couldn’t. Creativity, life experience, emotion, faulty logic – the “human” element. But the reality is that AI is already being used to write books and if that technology improves at even a fraction of the rate translation has improved, we’re going to see a completely AI-written novel top the New York Times Bestseller list within the decade.

(If you’re dubious, read about David Hofstadter’s experiment in AI-generated classical music, which took place all the way back in 1997.)

I, too, would like to think my “humanness” (my specific talent and imagination) brings something to my work that is valuable. Also, I like to get paid for my work. But I know the inevitable reality is that, at some point down the line, my value – and your value – as a worker will be next to nil. That process has already begun.

I have value as a writer and editor because I am pretty good at both skill sets and, frankly, way better than the average person. And for now, that means that I can make a living doing this thing that I love doing. But I have no delusion that I couldn’t be replaced by an algorithm at some point down the line. I can’t help but think about my nephews and nieces and wonder what types of job opportunities will exist for them in the future. (When I accidentally transposed the ‘i’ and ‘e’ in nieces just now, my Word processor automatically corrected it. Thanks technology!)

There’s currently much discussion of self-driving cars and how those will put truck drivers out of work. I think that fear is a little premature because fully self-driving cars are probably a lot further off in the future than people like Elon Musk would lead you to believe (a topic covered thoroughly in Hello World). In my novel, Yahweh’s Children, I make a throwaway joke about a character 40 years in the future still waiting for flying cars. The point being that sometimes the promises of “visionaries” don’t pan out when matched with the pragmatic roadblocks of reality. But I digress.

The truth is that self-driving cars will be a nightmare for truck drivers, but not because it will eliminate all truck driving jobs. What it’s going to eliminate is the need for skilled truck drivers, the type of people who have highly specialized training and can thus demand a higher wage (usually with the help of a union, but, again, I digress). A self-driving truck will still need a human driver (for the foreseeable future), but not one who needs to operate the truck with anything more than the most rudimentary knowledge. So, what happens then? It’s basic economics: far more people will be able to do that job, which means their labor will be worth less, which means they’ll be paid less. But somebody will still take that job; a job’s a job, as they say.

Truck driving is perhaps the most high-profile example of a job potentially being overtaken by technology, but it’s hardly the only profession that is at risk (just read up on how restaurants are looking at tech to replace workers). It’s also not just AI that is making jobs obsolete. The former US President won over some voters by promising to bring back coal mining jobs. It was one of his most transparent lies (as time proved), but also maybe one of the most telling. Coal mining is dying, and though advances in technology are playing a part in accelerating the decline in jobs, the reality is that an industry built on digging up a finite resource was always going to have an expiration date. But a chunk of the world wants to deny reality by putting their heads in the ground, and they will happily support someone who sells them a shovel.

Whatever your job is, whatever amount of humanity you bring to it, just know that at some point – in a few years, in a generation, in four generations – AI and related technology will take much of the skill and individuality out of it. Your position, as it exists now, will be replaced by a machine, possibly with a human to keep things running, but a human who is far less trained and experienced than you. A human who will get paid less than you get paid now, which is already probably lower (in real world dollars) than what someone a generation ago got paid to do your job.

Let me be clear: I’m not an anti-tech prophet of doom. I think technology is great, and even if I didn’t, I’d still know its progress is inevitable. The question isn’t if, it’s when, and all that.

What’s not inevitable (at least, yet) is how society adapts to technology. Anyone who tells you this current economic model of hourly wages and salaries is sustainable either has their head in a hole or is selling shovels. In not too many generations, we will either have a society that provides for its population (its entire population), or we’ll have one where wealth inequality is so astronomical, the concept of a “first-world country” will be meaningless. In both scenarios, let me assure you, the rich will be absolutely fine.

In many ways, the fight over increasing the minimum wage in the US (which I wholeheartedly support) is a sideshow, because at some point it won’t be about finding jobs that pay well, it’ll be about finding any jobs at all. If we acknowledge that technology can do some jobs completely and other jobs partially, we have to accept the math that there will be less jobs available (certainly less jobs that require skill). Considering that the global population is going to still be growing for the next four decades, at least, the decline in jobs that pay a true living wage is a problem that is only going to worsen.

And that’s why you should support a universal living wage*. You, the teacher; you, the doctor; you, the truck driver; you, the computer programmer; you, the writer. It’s not about Communism or Socialism (or any other poorly understood ‘-ism’). If anything, it’s probably the most capitalist idea possible: if you ensure the entire population has enough money to buy food and shelter and clothes and iPhones and Netflix subscriptions, business will thrive. Billionaires will still be billionaires and the Jeffrey Bezos and Elon Musks can continue to shoot their penises rockets into the moon.

Even if you adamantly believe that your job could never be fully replaced by a machine because of that intangible human factor, you have to at least acknowledge that parts of your job could be automated. Which means that at some point, the Capitalist Overlords or Job Creators (whichever term you prefer) will realize they can pay less money. And anybody who thinks that increasing the minimum wage is enough to staunch the wound is as much a victim of head-in-the-ground thinking as those coal miners.

~

Anyway, those are my thoughts on the matter. Now I have to get back to my day job. I’ve only got a few more years before Wall-E replaces me.

* I’m using the term “living wage”, but I understand it might be better termed a universal basic income. But the UBI that has recently been proposed in the US by people like Andrew Yang has always fallen short of what I’m talking about. I mean a true living wage, i.e., not just a bare minimum, but something that allows for people to do whatever they like (say, for instance, a decade-long travel project). Your “wage” is what you “earn” simply by being alive and producing whatever you produce.

Shuttering: My journey in photography

I don’t know what I want to be when I grow up.

Over the span of my illustrious adulthood, I have changed jobs more times than I’ve gone to a barbershop. Due to my decade-long itinerant ways, that was essentially inevitable, but even if I had stuck with one home, I can’t imagine stomaching one career for very long.

I’ve never had the luxury of choosing a job that matched my career ambitions. I worked at Forever 21, for god’s sake. Paying the bills has always taken precedent over holding out for a dream job, though there are definitely careers I would love to try.

I recently applied for a particularly enticing position with the New York Times as a travel writer, a “dream job” if ever there was one. I’m not going to be hired, I know that. (Yes, yes, I hear you chiding me to put positive energy into the world, but I’ve been screaming “Oprah’s going to give me a million dollars” at my mirror for years and it still hasn’t happened.) Even knowing the odds are slim-to-none, I had to apply. It would have haunted me for the rest of my life if I hadn’t.

This particular job would be especially gratifying because it involves the three things I love most in the world: Travel, writing, and photography (not necessarily in that order). For most of my life, writing has been the main focus of my creative output, but there are times where I find greater satisfaction through other outlets.

Currently, while I’m enjoying traveling (next weekend, I’ll finally be making my first visit to Paris), the activity that’s giving me the greatest thrill is photography.

This photo was published in the After Happy Hour Review.

Behind the Lens

I studied photography in high school. “Studied” is perhaps not exactly accurate. After learning the basics in Photo 1, I took three straight semesters of Advanced Photography (because, for some reason, that was allowed) and spent every available moment sniffing the fumes in the darkroom, attempting to Frankenstein cool images with light tricks and merged negatives. Of the hundreds of experiments I tried, maybe a dozen of them resulted in anything remotely compelling.

My days of shooting and developing film ended with high school as the costs grew increasingly prohibitive and I no longer had free access to a darkroom (I considered Matthew McConaughey-ing around, but I just didn’t have the moustache for it). So, while I will always relish the stark look of film (particularly in black and white), I’ve been shooting in digital ever since college and I’ve come to appreciate the versatility it provides.

How I was in the darkroom, stumbling through hours of failures to achieve one shot I loved, is essentially the same way I am as a photographer. For every shot that comes out well, I have four or five (or fifteen) lousy photos that I just delete. With digital, I can afford to fail. If I were still shooting on film, that technique would have bankrupted me years ago.

I miss film, though, no question. I miss spending hours in the darkroom. It’s not quite the same rush staring at Photoshop for three hours (but I do it).

Whatever the tools, I am enamored with photography, both as an art form to appreciate, and a medium with which to express myself. I wouldn’t call myself a particularly skilled photographer, but I am eager to learn and constantly trying to improve. My aim is to understand more about my tools, both my camera and the photo editing software. And, then of course, my own eye.

Capricho Cascada

The Eye

During 10 Cities/10 Years, I was usually alone when I explored. People don’t tend to get too enthusiastic about wandering their own city, so I spent many afternoons walking aimlessly, just me and my camera. My photography from those years, as a result, generally reflects a solitary eye looking for the sublime or unusual in the ignored or seemingly mundane.

I will always enjoy that sort of photography, but as with everything else in life, I’m compelled to keep trying new things, pushing against the boundaries of my style.

For the last year, I’ve been attempting to photograph more human subjects, mostly candid. Major cities are a fruitful place for this, because the citizens there have all essentially grown to accept that they’re being photographed or filmed all the time. Don’t get me wrong, some people definitely aren’t happy about being on camera.

Most of the time, though, people just look through me when I point a camera in their direction. Those are the results I enjoy most.

Now that I’m in Europe, I find an essentially never-ending supply of remarkable vistas to inspire me to reach for my camera. There’s so much unexplored territory (by me) that I never grow bored of shooting. Even better, I’m surrounded by fellow displaced travelers.

My co-travelers here in Madrid afford me a bevy of opportunities for collective candid shots and unplanned moments (like when they’re trying to pose).

Additionally, I’ve even gotten in a few “model” shots, which is a whole other world of photography that I’ve never even considered trying my hand at.

In the past, I was always hesitant to shoot people (er, photograph people); there’s something so intimate about photography, it can feel strangely intrusive. But, of course, that’s also why it’s so compelling as a medium. I envy the boldness of photographers who manage to capture truly evocative candid images, the kind that feel like you’ve been granted a private window into someone else’s life. That’s what I aspire to.

I’m growing and I’m learning. I’ll keep pushing myself, because I enjoy it.

It’s not that I believe I’ll ever cultivate a career in photography. That’s extremely unlikely, and honestly, probably not even something I’d want (trying to monetize art always makes me queasy). I simply find immense satisfaction in nurturing the hobbies and pastimes that give me a reprieve from whatever job I find myself stuck in at any given moment.

I’ll always have to find some gig, more or less temporary, to pay the bills. As long as I have my creative outlets, though, I’m able to bear any job for at least a little while. Even Forever 21.

 

 

Jack String and the Case of the Strange Influence

It’s been a busy couple of months for me. In addition to my two day jobs, I’ve been working weekends as a server and teaching an ESL class one night a week, all while trying to write (rare), study Spanish (rarer), and have a social life (so rare, it’s still mooing).

Of all those demands on my time, I’m finding teaching the most rewarding. For about three hours every Monday night, I volunteer at El Centro de Educación de Trabajadores in Hell’s Kitchen, an organization that provides a variety of services to help immigrants and those whose first language isn’t English. They provide a good community service, a necessary service, and I’m glad I’ve had the opportunity to play a small part in it – as well as a little sad that next week will be the end of the quarter.

Partnered with a co-teacher, I help adult learners with first level English, teaching essential grammar and vocabulary. The students are at varying skill levels, and almost every week we’ve had a new student arrive, so there’s a lot of on-the-fly adaptation and rejiggering of lesson plans.

Every Monday morning, I leave my apartment at 8 to work a full 9-5 (5:30, really) and then immediately take the train a couple stops north to start teaching just after 6. The class ends at 9 and then I have roughly an hour ride home back to my apartment in Crown Heights. Then another six straight days of work. Sunday nights, I go to sleep exhausted just by the thought of the next day.

The strange thing – or not so strange, based on the admissions of my fellow volunteers – is that by the time class has started, I’m re-energized, excited to engage with the students, to hear about their weeks and learn more about them. They come from Venezuela, Brazil, Mexico, Iran, and other locales. Every week we talk about what life is like in their home countries, what they enjoy about New York, and what differences they experience in American culture. These are the conversations I live for.

When it’s my week to lead the lesson, there’s always a wee nervous stirring in my stomach, the weight of responsibility, a sense that there’s more at stake than whether a cheeseburger comes out at the right temperature. The glimmer of excitement in someone’s eye when they understand something that only minutes before they had not is the ultimate gratuity.

I’m sad that I won’t get a second chance to work with El Centro or my co-teachers. I hope to someday return to a similar type of program, either abroad or when (if) I return to the United States. Until then, I’m grateful for the opportunity. I don’t yet think of myself as a teacher, not really, but this was an important stop on that journey.

snowflake

A Puzzle with No Solution

Ms. Drake turned out to be a surprisingly pivotal person in my life’s direction. I say surprising because, when she was my sixth grade teacher, I always found her teaching style to be a bit juvenile. She decorated her classroom with color paper cutouts that looked more appropriate for kindergarteners. We also had a midday break where she would read different books to us, some of them well below my reading level. I was mostly bored in her class.

Hell, I’m providing her the pseudonym of “Ms. Drake” not to protect her identity but because I genuinely don’t remember it. She only lasted at the school one year.

And yet, Ms. Drake, my Ms. Frizzle-esque sixth grade teacher absolutely changed the course of my life.

Up until sixth grade, when people asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up, I said a “mathematician.” I didn’t really have a concept of what that meant or how exactly doing math could manifest as a career. I just knew that I liked math problems, any math problems.

When I was still in single digits, I used to borrow my sister, Debra’s, algebra textbook and solve problems from her homework. I enjoyed all math, but algebra appealed to me the most because each problem was like a little puzzle, and boy, I loved puzzles. One summer, I took a school math book home with me to do homework so that I could advance the next year. By the time I was in sixth grade, I had leapt ahead in my math course to be in the same class as my older brother, Daniel. He loved that.

So, every day, usually coinciding with Ms. Drake’s reading period, I and another student, a much brighter boy than me named Juno, would leave our sixth grade classroom and go upstairs to join the upper level math class (our school was a private Christian institution that housed K-9 grades all in one yellow, metal barn-shaped building).

I took great pride in my math proficiency, and was more than a little bit of a shithead about it with my older siblings. But since I was a mortally shy and uneasy kid, it’s all I had; it was my entire identity, other than being the youngest boy from a messed up family – which I also took a weird kind of pride in.

Having that one thing to hang my hat on was very important because sixth grade was also the year puberty body slammed my groin like a Republican congressman and I discovered the most magnificent of life’s horrors: falling in love.

Her name was Laura. She wasn’t the first girl I’d had a crush on. That was Melanie in kindergarten, and there’d been others. But Laura was the first girl for whom seeing her enter the room made me feel like I was dying and being born at the same time. My crush on her is probably the reason I can’t remember Ms. Drake’s real name or most other things going on in my life from sixth grade through much of junior high: she outshone everything else.

As a chunky 11-year-old, I was not a smooth talker, and I was not cute, at least not to sixth grade girls. I was confident that Laura – and every other girl for that matter – was in love with my best friend at the time, Aaron, an athletic, naturally popular kid. That’s how I envisioned him; I’m sure his memory is far less charitable, as no one remembers their pubescent years fondly.

I went through that entire year in complete devastation, certain that I was invisible to Laura, though I know for sure that she actually did notice me: I was the jerk who made up some stupid, rude nickname for her. That’s right, I was the cliché, the boy who didn’t know how to talk to his crush so he insulted her instead. This was the beginning of a phase where, when I couldn’t think of anything funny or witty to say, I would just be mean. I expect that phase to end any day now.

There I was, in love with this incomparable beauty (there are few comparison points for an 11-year-old, Christian boy), and completely unable to break through the barrier between us. I’d met the unsolvable puzzle.

This is where Ms. Drake comes in.

In addition to the reading period, Ms. Drake would also set aside a portion of the day for us to write in our journals. We could write whatever we wanted, and at the end, those who wished to could read what they’d written aloud to the class. I’d never really done any personal writing before, never had a diary or anything, but I took to this activity with gusto.

During one of these writing periods, I created my first character: Jack String, a bumbling idiot of a private eye who always managed to solve his cases by pure dumb luck. I’m not sure where the character came from, but like most everything else about me at that age, I’m sure I stole it from something I watched on TV.

Feeling confident one day, I volunteered to read my Jack String story to the class. That’s when it happened, the most perfect, most beautiful, purest life-sustaining moment of my paltry existence: I read the silly story and the class laughed. Nay, Laura laughed. That was it. Fuck math, I was a writer.

Writing was powerful, it was world changing. It made me funny. Once Jack String came to life on the page, he became all I wanted to write about, all I wanted to do. Entering his world offered the briefest of respites from my uncertain real life. (Years later, when I unearthed the original Jack String pages, I was shocked to find that these “short stories” where barely two paragraphs long.)

As I grew older, Jack String transformed into a more dour detective until I abandoned the character altogether. Though I had loved reading Encyclopedia Brown and other detective stories, it turned out I was lousy at manufacturing meaningful mysteries of my own. My fiction grew less plot heavy as I developed as a writer, more character based. The humor also changed, from pratfalls to sardonic quips that are really only funny to me. It turns out, my sixth grade self knew how to entertain an audience better than current me.

Laura and I became “friends” throughout high school but it was always a walled off kind of relationship. At 18, when I read my poetry for the first time in front of an older, rowdy audience at the Jazzhaus, I invited her as my guest, hoping not too subtly that my exquisite words would wow the audience and capture her heart.

We were the only under-agers allowed in (my brother, Steve, ran the show) and we drank Cherry Cokes together at our separate table. When it was my turn to read, I sheepishly worked my way through the narrow passages between the swiveling chairs and up onto the spotlighted stage.

There I stood, a stick figure child with the blondest of long blond hair, standing before a drunken crowd of adults. I cleared my throat in preparation of reading truly terrible poetry, but before I could get any words out, a disembodied voice from the darkness hollered, “Hey, Hanson!” The crowd exploded into hoots and guffaws. I turned beet red, and then grew redder. Apparently I could still get a laugh as a writer.

Dripping sweat, I managed to mumble out my angsty couplets before leaving the stage to polite clapping. I sat through the rest of the show, every few minutes looking at Laura with a twitchy smile, but there was nothing to be done, nothing to salvage. I’m pretty sure that was the last time I saw Laura.

In School (Album)

For all that humiliation, for all the social anxiety, I have Ms. Drake to thank. But, sincerely so. Getting up on that stage and being roundly embarrassed was a necessary experience. I went up almost every week for the next three years, and eventually grew more comfortable performing before an audience, even if the poetry didn’t improve. It was facing that fear that led the groundwork for other major leaps that I would make in my life, particularly 10 Cities/10 Years.

It’s a strange influence that a teacher can have on a student’s life (and a preposterous society that doesn’t revere and support its teachers). If you were to ask me which teachers I’ve learned the most from or who I had the most admiration for, Ms. Drake wouldn’t be the first to pop into my head, and yet, truly, no other teacher sparked such a fundamental and lasting passion in me.

It’s crazy to think, if not for Ms. Drake, I might be an engineer instead of a writer.

I hope she’s sorry.

 

 

Factotum

…jack of all trades, master of none…

On most days of the week, I stare at a computer, a screen projecting a swath of information I don’t and couldn’t care about. For hours at a time, I figure out how to best formulate that information so someone else can make money. It is my job. For now.

If you are familiar with the term “factotum,” there is a good chance it is because of the author Charles Bukowski. It was the title of his second novel (and a 2005, Matt Dillon-starring film based on it), which tells of Henry Chinaski, an alcoholic ruffian who can’t hold onto a job, or won’t.

If you’re unfamiliar, a factotum is someone who holds many jobs, someone who doesn’t specialize in any one particular occupation but bounces from one gig to the next. Sometimes, factotums are easily bored, always looking for something new to hold their attention. On the hand, maybe they’re just bad at everything and stumble from one failure to the next. And then there are the wanderers.

I’m not sure which category I best fit into, but I am a factotum.

The jobs I have carried:
Barista
Stockroom supervisor
Sales associate (books, clothing, music and movies, porn)
Bookstore manager
Waiter
Bartender
Caterer
Fry cook
Data entry clerk
Phone bank operator
Small scale construction (a bathroom; a basement)
Mover
Editor
Marketing associate

I’m likely forgetting some.

I’m currently in the process of embarking on a new, well, career might be too strong a word, but employment direction. For the last month, I’ve been volunteering as an ESL teacher for a program in Hell’s Kitchen. This is fulfilling my practicum hours so I can complete my certification with the International TEFL Academy, which will hopefully open up teaching opportunities globally.

It’s just the next step in an oeuvre that will likely never settle into one groove.

God Bless You

My First Job

Not counting cleaning my dad’s office, the first job I ever held was at a KOA campground on the outskirts of my hometown. The campground was owned by a family who attended the same church as mine. I was happy to avoid working at a fast food restaurant as my older brothers had for their first jobs (alas, fast food employment was still in my future). I was 16.

My responsibilities at the job were a little ill-defined, but mostly I was there to maintain the fields and long-term campsites. The campgrounds were split into three sections: The first consisted of open fields where overnight visitors could set up tents and cook around fire pits. Moving north across the property, there were three lanes of extended-stay parking where RVs and campers could be hooked up and stay for a few weeks.

Finally, there was the long-stay section, where families would often sit for months at a time. Essentially a trailer park, with all the negative associations that brings to mind, I dreaded going anywhere near that section. Of course, these were all just poorer families making do in a tough situation and providing a home for their children; no shame in that. But as a sullen teen responsible for cleaning around their “lawns,” I was unsympathetic to their plight.

On my first day, my boss, Bob, handed me a pair of gloves and directed me to the long-term sites to pick up trash. Thus, the first task of my illustrious and diverse working career involved picking discarded cigarette butts out of gravel like the bleakest claw machine ever (flashing neon: “Win cancer for a quarter!”). Every day of work since then has just been a variation of that.

There were aspects of working at KOA I liked (cruising around on a riding lawn mower) and aspects I loathed (cleaning out the dog walk trash bin with my hands), a dichotomy of activities that fell under the blanket theme of Just Obeying the Boss; you know, a job.

About halfway through the summer, a friend from church was hired, a guy named David, so I had someone to work alongside. We had a good time working together, but much of the gig was fairly solitary, which I didn’t mind. Mowing lawns, weed whacking, cleaning the public bathrooms, they invoked a kind of zen-like trance through the sheer repetition and simplicity of action. Sometimes, that trance was a little too deep.

One sunny day, I was out mowing the far south camping field, a long and thin rectangle of open grass bordered on each side by gravel roads. Other than a couple trees and a fire pit or two, the field was just open grass, which made it a perfect patch of land for accelerating the riding mower to its limits. Starting from the center, I rode that hog in outward concentric circles, gaining speed all the way.

The important thing to know about this field is that it was formed like a flat bowl, with its immediate edges curving up to meet the road.

I was able to pick up the most speed on the long stretches of the field which I would then use to whip across the short sides and back up the other long side. I had managed to pick up considerable momentum by the time I reached the outer edges. That’s where I met the 45-degree incline. I was fine along the long southern side, but as I took a left-hand turn onto the short eastern edge, I experienced a terrifying sensation: the mower tipping onto two wheels.

In that horrified moment, it wasn’t my life that flashed before my eyes, but a vision of the next ten seconds. I’d heard stories: The mower would flip, taking me with it, either crushing me underneath or, having flung me a few feet, rolling and landing wheels-down – blades-down – on my arms, legs, or neck. I wouldn’t be driving home that day.

As I hung at maybe 80 degrees, instinct took over and I kicked with all my strength to leap as far out of the path of the mower as I could. I hit the ground and rolled, looking up just in time to see my mighty steed right itself onto four wheels and drive off without me. For a moment, I stared in astonishment and relief. Then I pushed myself back onto my feet and ran after the riderless mower as it crested the edge of the field, crossed the gravel road, and descend into the next field.

I leapt back into the seat and took command of the mower. Looking around, I checked to see if anyone had seen my near-decapitation, but I was out in the field alone, no witnesses for my embarrassment. I spun the hefty piece of machinery around and sheepishly finished the rest of the field at half speed.

Most days lacked that sort of adrenaline rush. At worst, I’d weed whack some unidentifiable wire hanging from a camper in the extended parking lot and panic for a second, before shrugging it off and continuing with my day.

My worst days came with the arrival of Phish-heads who swarmed to the campground on a weekend in which their beloved jam band was playing a show nearby. The patchouli stench would have been enough, but when they decamped, they left behind piles of garbage, untended fire pits, and, no exaggeration, a centimeter of caked mud on the floor of the bathroom. These were no hippies.

My two young passions, NYC and puzzles. Ladies.

Despite those unpleasantries, I mostly enjoyed the job, albeit only as much as a 16-year-old can enjoy any job. For one, I liked the physical activity. I was a hefty – nay, fat – teen, so that summer spent working outside in the hot sun was the beginning of a period of dramatic weight loss.

Plus, in general, I like working. I’m happy to have an occupation by which I can pay my own way and occupy my body, if not always my mind. It’s why, during my ten years of relocating, periods of joblessness were so depressing. It wasn’t just that I was anxious about money, I hated feeling so listless and inactive.

I’ve never found a job that I wanted to keep forever, and I don’t imagine I ever will. I’ve had some great jobs, working with good people and completing rewarding tasks. I’ve also had my share of soul-crushing gigs. Every one’s had an expiration date. That’s the life of a factotum.

In my younger years when people asked me what I wanted to do for a career, I told them I wanted to be a novelist. As I got older and came to understand how unlikely it is to become successful enough writing fiction to pay the bills, I expanded my career ambitions to include other writing gigs, maybe working for a magazine, or writing travel pieces. Now, though, I’m no longer holding out for that writing dream. I’ll always be a writer; I may never make a dime from it. That’s okay.

I have two passions in life, writing and traveling, and as I age, it’s the latter one that brings me the most satisfaction. Seeing some place new for the first time is life sustaining for me. Money is the necessary evil that allows me to pursue that passion, so I will continue my factotum ways.

Monumento a Jacinto Benavente (Green)

 

Teaching English is just another means to an end. I enjoy it; like, a lot. I could see myself doing it for years, as long as it opens up avenues for new homes in new countries. But will it be the occupation that gets me to settle down somewhere permanently? Unlikely.

I hope you enjoy your job. I hope it fills you with a sense of purpose and satisfies you creatively, intellectually, or physically (ideally, some combination of all three). But if not? Well, nothing has to be forever.