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Navel gazing, self-hatred, and Whole Foods: Or, Work, Bitches!

Yesterday I found myself in Carmel IN with some spare time. Living in a small city means a living with a dearth of retail options, especially in the all-important edibles category, so I decided to waste some time and cash at Whole Foods. As soon as I got within a block of the place, I realized I’d triggered my own rage response. The whole parking lot and most traffic heading in that general direction represented one my least favorite demographics: the very privileged sub/urban stay at home mom; she of the Lulumon yoga wear, the Mercedes or BMW SUV, the bleached teeth, the perfect skin, the size 2/4/6 post-baby body, the no-job.

While pushing my sleek black mini-cart around the immaculate store, I muttered to myself about the herd of wealthy, idle, indulged women shopping around me. What I actually said is both irrelevant and was quite vulgar. Suffice to say that when a blond, tan, toned thirty-ish woman in tight black spandex spent a little too long picking through the Honey Crisp apples while I waited for her to move, words rhyming with “hunt” and “twitch face” occurred to me in some fascinating variants. Around that time, a Whole Foods worker bee dropped a very large box of cava on the floor, sending glass, fizzy wine, and noise all across the floor of the store. My ranty concentration broken, I slunk over to frozen foods, and while searching out sprouted dinner rolls, the thought struck me that hating on the burbish baby mommies is probably pretty damn close to an act of self-hatred. I am all of those things, except idle (and blond, and lately, toned).

This triggered a second pass through the wine section.

I’ve always resented the idle rich, possibly due in part to my very work-heavy Scottish/Southern protestant/Calvinist upbringing. How can anyone justify their continued absorption of water and sunlight when not producing anything of value? I mean, really, work IS the whole point, right? Add some wasted youthful years listening to hardcore punk rock, and a definite pique can be raised by overt consumerism very easily.

So I came home, ate some very tasty organic produce, had a lovely glass of viognier, watched a few episodes of Orange is the New Black and went to bed, mostly recovered from my earlier rage party.

This morning, trolling around the vacuum tubes of all human knowledge, I came across a short essay by a young writer on the primal need for creative work(read it here: http://mashable.com/2015/06/09/post-hipster-yuccie/).

Apparently, while I was busy hating on yoga moms, the kids have created a new template for Work. It takes hipsterism a step further, denouncing the outer symbols of anti-establishment sentiment like tattoos and fedoras while embracing the inner hipster drive for self-propelled creative careers.This current trend and struggle is both a lot like, and completely new, compared to the generations of the recent past.

Gen X, once we got off of our collective asses and mom’s sofa, embraced a weird brew of “stick it to the man” and “I like having stuff”. The internet explosion put a good number of us to work in software start-ups, or at least, in decent-paying IT gigs that didn’t make us come home from work smelling like french fries. Looking around at my cohort from high school and college, I think most of us (who had enough social privilege to attend college and make a wide array of life-work choices) have managed to grab at least the brass monkey, if not the brass ring, financially.

What seems less clear is whether or not we’ve made any progress over our Boomer parents in creating work that makes us matter or feel fulfilled at some basic level. The Boomers, of course, struggled mightily against The Man, and then in their late 20’s or early 30’s, mostly caved in/sold out and moved into split level ranch houses to raise us. They started out rebelling against the consumerist and conservative mindset of their WWII winning parents, denounced materialism and corporations, and like us, later determined that having stuff makes life hella easier.

People who are free to choose their work may be a relatively new phenomenon, especially on the female side. Gen X is only really the first generation of women in the US raised from early life to believe that all careers are open to us. The “yuccies” then, are only the 2nd or 3rd generation of Americans with such a wide range of options on view. So, is the preference for creative and self-propelled work a natural evolution of chosen work, obviously made far easier by technology, or is there some other phenomenon at play? Will Gen X be remembered as the last generation of corporate tools in a future of micro industry? Will the wives of executives of the future still choose to be idle?

At the end of the beauty aisle, passing all sorts of hand-crafted, micro-brewed, super special non-toxic organic merchandise, I had to wonder how a person with endless choices could forego all of them and choose instead to consume rather than contribute, to buy rather than to do. Certainly Calvin would condemn the idle yoga mom to hell in a chai soy latte cup. Maybe it’s the choice to matter only in reflection, in servitude to others that pisses me off so violently. The inertia, the unmet challenge of DOING, the missed opportunity to make is something like refusing to accept lottery winnings, or maybe it’s my own frustration at still be “employed”, even in a relatively creative job, that grates.

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Repotting time

My mama says lots of memorable and useful things. One of her best is about the periodic need people have for repotting. If you’ve ever had a house plant, or a garden, you know what happens when you get lazy and let the thing grow so big that the roots end up molding themselves to the pot. The same thing happens to people. Some experience it more often than others, but at some point, we all feel the need to move into a new pot. Our roots get all bound up. We can’t get enough spiritual nutrients. We begin to droop. Mama says, it’s time to repot yourself. Note that she doesn’t say, ask someone to repot you. It’s a thing you have to do on your own, albeit with help, most times.

I’m feeling might root bound lately myself. The pot I’ve been in for the last seven years is feeling too tight. There’s no room for growth, and I’m constricted.

Noticing that it’s time to repot one’s self (again) is simultaneously terrifying and invigorating. No one who’s ever changed jobs or careers or partners or towns is a stranger to that feeling: standing on the event horizon of an exciting new start, terrified to step out into it. I’m at the tug-of-war stage of repotting just now (I’ve done this several times as an adult, I’m starting to see the patterns). I know my current gig isn’t doing it for me anymore in terms of allowing me to stretch in productive, growth-fostering ways-but it’s steady. In particular, the paycheck is steady, and that’s a major consideration at midlife.

So, how to decide when and where to plant myself next? Jean Baker-Miller, who was always decades ahead of her time (her “New Psychology of Women”, written in the 1970s, is still revolutionary) is helpful with questions of repotting. While Dr. Miller intended her list of 5 good things to be an evaluation tool for interpersonal relationships, I find that it works for careers as well. Her 5 good things are: increased creativity, increased clarity, increased self-worth, desire for more (in her case, relationships, in mine, projects related to a career position), and increased zest or energy.

When I think about my current gig as a  graduate school professor, I find that I see it now as energy-zapping, ego-deflating, and generally something I need a break from, rather than something I want to do more of. Seven years ago, when I finished my PhD and began my first job  as a professor, I felt the five good things keenly. I felt creative about my teaching strategies and ideas for curricular changes, I felt good about myself based on my new status as a professor, I felt that I’d have time to do the things most central to my mission in this life: advocate on behalf of children and women, write about those issues, and help younger people learn to be effective therapists. Although there were the usual ups and downs; stupid meetings, stupid decisions by pointy-headed administrators, and difficult co-workers, the balance sheet still came out in the positive- until recently.

Now when I look at JBM’s five good things and think about my work, I get frustrated and angry. I don’t have those things at work anymore. We’ve had some big personnel changes in the leadership of the university over the years, and the cumulative impact is that my responsibilities for record keeping and nose counting keep climbing, while at the same time, I matter less and less to the institution and loose my creative freedom a tick at a time.

This slide in balance hasn’t been particularly dramatic. I imagine it’s the same for most workers in organizations at different times. Day by day, my sense of mission and accomplishment has shrunk, while my sense of being forced into a too-small pot has increased. It’s now time to find a new pot.

During the next year or so of transition, I know I need to refocus on my overall mission for this life. I need to stretch creatively and loose 99% of the administrivia in my life. That much is abundantly clear. I’m still working on the details, which means I need to spend a lot more time doing creative thinking and processing (I LOVE the new adult coloring books by Lacy Mucklow & Angela Porter- they’re perfect for focusing thoughts) and talking to folks in the new line of work where I’m planning to plant myself.

If you’re in a similar situation, I encourage you to use JBM’s list of good things. If your current gig isn’t meeting those, what are your options? Can you make enough changes in your work setting to make a difference in the goodness? If not, what’s your ideal pot? If you don’t yet have a clear overall mission for your time in this life, now is as good a time as any to meditate on that and start forming ideas about what shape of container would best support your progress towards those dreams. And a bit of gardening advice- rootbound plants don’t bloom.