Sunday, August 21, 2011

Warning: If you major in English, you may just end up washing dishes in a working camp on the arctic coast

So, I’m a working man again. I just finished my first forty-hour week (of menial labor) in over five years.

At Deadhorse Camp (which is one of several camp/motel facilities in the greater Deadhorse area), we have about 30-50 oilfield employees who, for three weeks at a time, live here and work twelve hours a day. We house them, serve them food at breakfast and dinner buffets, and make them sack lunches. (No need to point out the hypocrisy of a raving environmentalist indirectly abetting the initiatives of the oil industry.)

I am one of five people who work here (three of whom are permanents). And while I’m not one of the permanents, if you include me in the five, then sixty percent of the Deadhorse Camp workforce has a college degree in English—a degree that has clearly served no purpose in preparing us for the duties of our jobs, but does, however, empower us to have impassioned 45-minute conversations on whether the film Scream does or does not fit within the horror genre. (Self-deprecation aside, I do and always will cherish my impractical degrees.)

I’ve been spending about six hours a day in the kitchen, every day of the week. I scrub the bottoms of burnt soup pots with wire brushes, dip my hand into sink drains to pluck out palmfuls of slippery vegetables, and cram heavy black industrial trash bags into polar bear-proof dumpsters. I set up the salad bar, slice the bread, arrange the dessert rack, and fold used cardboard.

Apart from the hikes I’ve gone on over the course of the summer, it’s been awhile since I’ve had to be in a continuous state of movement for hours on end. By the end of my first shift, I was physically exhausted, with sore feet and an aching back—and duly embarrassed because everyone around me had been working twice as long. Now—after a week—my back and feet have adjusted and I am in full-out, body-on, brain-off, work mode.

The job, more than anything, makes me reflect on my many previous menial jobs. Over the years, I've mowed lawns, sharpened skates, flipped burgers, scrubbed toilets, delivered papers, cashed a register, and pushed carts. While it is in fashion to glorify some of these blue collar trades, I have no issue unequivocally stating that I hated all these jobs and admitting that I hate work in general. And I realize that—as an American—such an admission is just about as blasphemous as doubting the existence of Jesus as our savior, but there’s no way around it: I hate work and I’ll do most anything to avoid it, short of taking unemployment checks. And when I mean “work,” I mean working for somebody else, punching a clock, at a job that isn’t entirely of your choosing, at a place or company you’re not exactly free to leave whenever you want. I don’t consider tutoring kids work, or building David a stone path work, or writing my book work—largely because of the loose, unstructured, independent nature of those “jobs.”

Mostly, I hate how the hours go by, how the days melt into one another, and how you realize, suddenly, just how many weeks, months, and years have passed—with the great majority of them devoted to giving someone else your time and spending what few hours you have of your own recuperating from the exhausting toil.

After dishwashing, by the end of the day, I have no ambition to do anything. I have little desire to write, or self-improve, or do anything constructive. All my instincts tell me to lie down, drink cheap beer, and watch another episode of “The Wire.” (In the week I’ve been here, my coworkers and I have exhausted our supply of booze and watched the first 13-episode season of “The Wire,” which, by the way, is one of the greatest TV shows I’ve ever seen.) And while there's nothing wrong with resting after a day's work in front of the tube, a man can't help but question his purpose in life when he spends his time doing something of very little consequence for just a little bit of money.

I know I’ve only been doing this for a week, but there’s nothing like washing one individual spoon after another, for half an hour, in the middle of the night, in a silent kitchen, at a working camp 300 miles north of the Arctic Circle, that makes you think about the direction your life is headed in.

My prevailing thought: What the fuck am I doing washing dishes up in Deadhorse?

This question takes on added significance when I consider a recent job opportunity I turned down. Right around the time I got my degree from Duke, an EiC of a respectable magazine strongly encouraged that I apply for a writing job that offered a yearly salary in the high 30’s. I was tempted. But only for a moment. The catch was, if I took the job, I had to stay there for at least three years.

But if I took it, I would be able to do what I love most (writing), I would have a respectable job that puts me on a track to a respectable career, and I would make plenty of money I could put away for a rainy day, as well as the other standard perks: health insurance, dental, 401k….

Ultimately, I turned it down because I didn’t want to be stuck somewhere for three years, sitting at a desk for much of that time, writing articles about things I’m not entirely interested in… I thought I’d be missing out on other challenges, glories, and wonders if I sentenced myself to three years of obligation. In other words, I sacrificed financial security for freedom.

But freedom to do what? I’m effin’ broke and I still have no idea if the book is really going to happen. I currently have $2,000 in the bank, $400 in my wallet, and about $1K in checks that I’ve yet to cash. Freedom to wash dishes?

I suppose, while washing spoons that night, I wondered, for the first time, if I made the wrong decision. I wondered if I’d become too rigid, too unrealistic, too dogmatic. I wondered if maybe I ought to start making more “responsible” decisions. Maybe I should have taken the writing job. Maybe I should have been a park ranger again, making twice as much money doing fun, worthwhile stuff…

But then I reminded myself how lifestyles are traps—traps that are incredibly difficult to escape from. Once you get a career, you get things, you get money, you build around you the infrastructure to have a family. And then—now that it’s convenient—you get a family. And ten years later, you find yourself stuck—stuck in a career you can’t afford to give up, stuck in a family you can’t morally extricate yourself from, stuck inside a personality that is one-dimensional. I think I’ll be happy to be stuck someday, but not now.

What I want more than anything is to write and to continue to experiment with life, which a career very much inhibits. I guess I sometimes forget what I want; I lose sight of the path I put myself on. So I guess it’s good to do what you hate once in a while. When you're most constrained and least inspired, dreams are resuscitated from the dead, empty souls glow to life like blood pumped back into slumbering limbs, and the comatose are shaken awake with a swift kick to the groin.

Mopping the kitchen.

I make about 25 lunches a night. You got me what this lady wanted.

Drinking beer with fellow coworkers after my shift. They were eager, to say the least, to get their paws on the Pabst, as they'd been subjected to Genesee before I came up.


Julie g. said...

The lady clearly wanted tuna on wheat, and a ham sandwich with veggies and Swiss. Just FYI.

Amela said...

"Scream" is so a horror movie! Maybe it doesn't scare you though :)

Grace said...

Have you thought about teaching English abroad? I did it for 2 years in Taiwan. You don't need any qualifications other than a college degree, the pay is quite good (I made about $40,000 working part-time; you would probably make more since you have an MA), and it's exciting to experience a different culture. Mostly you teach children, which you seem to like doing.

When I was there, it was really easy to get jobs (people used to offer me them on the street), so a lot of people would get a job, work for a few months and save money, then quit and travel around SE Asia for a few months, then repeat. It's a very footloose lifestyle.

On a (more superficial?) note, as a white guy in Taiwan you have your pick of female company. (A lot of my male coworkers had a different girlfriend for every night of the week, though I think this is a little shady.) Taiwan is very beautiful and has great beaches. And the beer isn't bad.

I think just washing dishes in an unpleasant Alaskan town is probably a waste of your time.

Ricardo said...

Why would a magazine offer a 3 year contract? Is this standard industry practice in the US? In this economic climate, it is wonderful to have options. Besides, there are always tedious elements with any kind of work. Good luck, Dude.

Ken said...

Julie--I don’t know if I’d say “clearly,” but I think that’s what I gave her.

Amela—That “Scream” was a horror movie is the position I defended, but my combatant made some solid points, nonetheless. There really is no sustained “thrill” and there’s more than enough drama/comedic relief to question its genre.

Grace—I won’t go so far as to call it a waste. This place has made me think and I’ve gotten to live in an extremely remote and unusual locale—for that I’m gracious. Plus, I think I’ll only be here another week or so. Good to know about Taiwan and the job teaching kids. (Though I’m afraid to say I wouldn’t be able to take advantage of the dating game, as I’m deeply monogamous by nature.) I do love teaching kids, but frankly I’m turned off by those hyper-capitalistic Asian countries, though I should remind myself that I shouldn’t judge a place until I’ve seen it with my own eyes.

Ricardo—thanks man. It wouldn’t have been in the contract, but if I took the job, it would have been expected of me to stay for three years. And I certainly couldn’t give them my word, and leave whenever it fancied me.

Grace said...

I live in Singapore now, which is definitely hyper-capitalistic. Taiwan is a lot more laid back (of Hong Kong, China, Japan, Singapore and Korea I would say by far the most).

When I lived there my apartment looked out onto a national park, in which I used to go hiking every day and admire the monkeys and flying squirrels. If you enjoy nature and hiking, then it's a really cool place to live.

I just have a bias that anyone in your situation (no debt, no pressing obligations) ought to travel internationally and experience a little bit of the world's vast variety. The US is really interesting too, but after all it's fairly culturally homogeneous and doesn't push you out of your comfort zone in the way that a truly foreign environment does.

It is pretty cool that you've voyaged so widely in Alaska though and I have enjoyed reading your posts about that. (I've only been to Anchorage sadly.)

Anonymous said...

A thought for you: Life is never "one-dimensional" unless you are the one that makes it that way.


Anonymous said...

I laughed when I read your comment: "My prevailing thought: What the fuck am I doing washing dishes up in Deadhorse?"

You are a great writer and appear to be a hard working individual. But here is the kicker, and I mean no disrespect, you have some serious commitment issues, dude. Ask yourself one deep, probing question, "why am here?" (and I don't mean in middle of nowhere Alaska but rather on this planet).

Why is lifestyle as you put it a bad thing? From my point of view you have chosen a cop-out lifestyle post graduate school. You are idealistic and self-righteous wasting a good education serial washing spoons in a far flung camp. Face up to the reality you might have to give up some freedom now to get to where you really want to be later. Life is about trade-offs and compromise.

Good luck, Ken, and keep writing. You are good at it and entertaining too!

Ken said...

Grace—Good to know about Taiwan. Another friend emailed me a similar message. And I really do want to travel overseas. So far, a brief three-week tour of Ecuador has been my only excursion outside of North America.

Heb—Good to hear from you. I agree, though I think the conditions of work life oftentimes hugely influence and limit just who/what we can be. One of my friends works like 50 weeks a year in a cubicle. Another, who did work in corporate America, just mentioned to me how the workday, now, never really ends, because it’s required higher-up employees be constantly thumbing their Blackberrys even after they’ve left the office. Of course you’re right, though: most everyone has the power to draw their own destiny

Anon—Well, I did just finish a 2.5 year grad program, and I remained committed to that, as I did with my five-year undergraduate program. After being “stuck” somewhere for 2.5 years, I really don’t want to be stuck anywhere for another three, at least for a little bit, so turning down the writing job was a fairly easy decision. And while I do second-guess myself sometimes, I wouldn’t call this a cop-out lifestyle. I’m writing a book so I need to shelve a few desires and stay stationary for a bit, at places where I can work little and live cheaply. Coldfoot is one of the only places where I could have pulled something like that off. And I’m here washing dishes for a couple weeks to repay the company who so generously let me live on their dime for the whole summer. Seems like a fair deal to me. I crave adventure and travel and movement, but I need to do whatever I can to write this book.

Anonymous said...

Ok. Fair enough. Writing a book is a worthy "job". Good luck with all your endeavors.

Anonymous said...

Ken's quote: Though I’m afraid to say I wouldn’t be able to take advantage of the dating game, as I’m deeply monogamous by nature.

Lost in translation
1. Thanks. But, Asian girls just don't do it for me. ;)

2. I am still holding a candle for a love that dare not speak it's name (an ex-gf who'd kill me if I mention her on my blog.)

3. But, I am willing to dip my candle into some hot latina loving reminiscent of my sizzling Ecuadorian ex-gf.

Ken said...

Anon--no worries; thanks.

Anon--someone's got a candle fetish. ;)

Trish said...

Ken, it seems to me that you are being true to your own ideals at this time. I don't think most people spend enough time considering their path thru life. And often when they do, they are labeled 'too introspective'. Get on with it, for goodness sakes. get a job, even if it is a grind, get a mortgage, a house in the suburbs where rules dictate that you can't hang out laundry to dry.

I for the most part enjoy my quiet life, but I do regret to some extent decisions I made in my 20s. I don't know how I could have done things differently, and really, I am happy with where I am. I don't have the big career I thought I would have, but I have learned over the years that I don't enjoy being super busy, I simply can't do a job that doesn't have some meaning for me, and I can only tolerate human interaction for a certain amount of time each day.

I so enjoy following your blog, and finding out what you are going to do next. I think it takes a certain amount of fortitude to reveal your thoughts as you do, knowing that it will be critiqued by your readers. I would be really annoyed by some of the declarations made, but you seem to take it all with good grace.

Keep on blogging or I'll be really pissed off.

Ken said...

Trish--I've always thought that the most honest and open writing is the most interesting. So that's what I strive for. And I hate, perhaps more than anything in the world, immature and vitriolic internet comment sections, so I do my darnedest to keep this tiny corner of the internet clean. A graceful tone, as I've learned from my mother, can do wonders to calm volatile tempers. Thanks for the kind words. I'll keep blogging, I promise.

Anonymous said...

Warning: If you major in English, you may just end up washing dishes in a working camp on the arctic coast.
And if you dont like that, try to find the easiest job you can get that is funded by tax payers.
That is where you will be in 5 years . Wanna bet $100 ?
And if so. Why should tax payers be forced to pay you $50,000 for your education , just for you to become part of their over head?
$50,000 is a lot of money. How many middle class WORKING Americans( not like you who pay nothing ) would it take to pay for your $50,000 privilege ? And then there will be your government job that you will end up with, $800,000 min lifetime cost.
You do realise that you are going to end up on the government dole ,as a government worker dont you ?
I do realise that i have offended you, I Hope you remember it.
I am following your posts to see how long you pretend to be such an independent man before getting on government dole once again.

Ken said...

Anon—Why the angst, man? Firstly, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with working for the government. We need teachers, policeman, firefighters, rangers, garbage truck drivers, even paper-pushing bureaucrats. I won’t bet you because teaching or rangering are respectable careers that I might take up. And what’s up with all this government dole stuff? I’ve had something like 10-15 jobs in my life, and exactly three of them have been government (ranger, tutor, conservation crew leader)—jobs that were all helpful at best and harmless at worst. And yeah, I think college should be cheaper and yeah, I think the government should do something about it. Regardless, I paid my whole undergraduate debt back on my own and lived cheaply to afford my graduate education. I really don’t see how I’m being hypocritical, or giving someone reason to think that I will be…

Anonymous said...

I feel compelled to identify myself as ST posting about your commitment issues under Heb's post. I am not trying to offend you as the "other" anon clearly is.

Anonymous said...

Anon, 2:51am
Someone has to have those government jobs, why shouldn't it be Ken. He seems intelligent. Wish I had a government job, great benefits.
Watch out Ken, anon is "watching" your blog.
Hope you become very successful!!!!!

Anonymous said...


You are, i believe indiputably, on the road to being a loser. a loser is deifined as one who is a leach on everyone else (my definition). your favoritie author would not approve. i expect that when you come back to the lower 48 states, you will be on welfare. This certainly is not befitting a young man of your stature. When i use the word "expect" i mean a 40 percent chance. Please be honest about whether you are actually recieving food stamps upon return. By the way, you are wasting your youth doing stupid, unprofitable shit work. I think you know this.

Anonymous said...

I think in this economy, any college major can lead to menial jobs. This horrible recession has effected every college student...

David said...

Anonymous actually has played a useful rule in the discussion by giving voice to the pressures that all young people are under to conform and to climb onto the treadmills of industrialization and corporatization. His is an extreme right-wing version of this set of pressures, so notice how he constructs a single narrative that demonizes both government and non-conformers. Knowledge for knowledge's sake and the study of the humanities is deprecated. Time for contemplation or experimentation with alternatives is dangerous, because it leads to dissent against the established order. People must allow themselves to be told how to live their lives.

Notice also that Anonymous imposes a single, one-size-fits-all prescription. He clearly knows nothing about you. He has either not been reading what you've written, or he's too dense to be able to see you as an individual. In his narrative, nothing is asked about the character of individuals and what they are suited for, or what kind of dreams they have. ALL must be subordinate, ALL must lift the bales and tread the mills. Troublemakers must be made to feel the iron boot. Never mind high unemployment, falling real wages, the spiraling cost of education, corporate criminality, the disassembly of the social safety net: If the treadmill slows, it is because the workers are lazy. The Holy Blessed Glorious Market is perfect and infallible; it cannot fail.

This is authoritarianism. It is Orwell 101.

Ken, I hope that being insulted by people like Anonymous will increase your determination to live differently and to shine as much light as you can on the soul-killing, life-sucking demands of the corporate order and consumerist society. Now more than ever humanity needs young people who will experiment with alternatives, tell their stories, and help others find their way.

Anonymous said...

By all means find your way, Ken, but washing dishes is not your strength. And you have already spent a bunch of time in Alaska in the past. Try something new. And apparently, if you do go on welfare or food stamps, don't tell anonymous.


Anonymous said...

Well said, David.

Anonymous said...

Please, please, please Lord, help me channel David's brain so that I can stop procrastinating with my paper!

Dear Anon 2:51,

I wouldn't call working a 40 hour week scrubbing pots and making sack lunches 'the easiest job'. Anyone who has ever had a job in a kitchen at a fast food restaurant for minimum wage can attest to it. You are mistakenly attacking Ken for your skewed perception of him scheming the system. Frankly, I don't see the difference between him working at this camp any different than working at McDs. You are resenting him for providing food service to others? It is his life! Evidently, he is working for his keep, just look at his tired but blissed out look on the couch after a hard day's work. The only reason why you would want him to fail is because deep down, you are a pesimist, you don't think that anyone can live beyond the constructs of a globalised economy (pinching David's line of reasoning). We are all cogs in the machine until we figure out how to break free and try to do something that would enrich our lives. Chill out, ok? Ken isn't exploiting tax payer dollars, he is earning it.

Ken said...

Anon—No worries. I was able to differentiate the various anons from one another.

Anon—Having worked at a couple government jobs, I can say that I’m aware of why many perceive the government to be “bloated bureaucracy.” For instance, the park service seemed like it had more money than was needed, allowing them to build buildings that needn’t be built and overpay its staff for relatively undemanding work. Plus, several of my fellow rangers would cash in on unemployment checks for the other 8 months of the year while pretending to look for other work. In other words, the government can be easy to “use, mistreat, and take advantage of,” yet on the other hand, I worked 60 hours a week for an AmeriCorps program doing hard, honorable work for very little money, just like a lot of public school teachers… I think it just depends on the job. While some demand hard work and dedication, others allow for sloth, laziness and corruption. Just depends.

Anon—Well, I suppose, firstly, I’m flattered that you’ve taken an interest in my future, even if you prophesize only gloomy things. And frankly, since I neither know how to change my own oil, play an instrument, kick someone’s ass, or “pick-up” a girl, I am already, in many ways—and I have known this for a long time—a loser. So no need reminding me. I will be honest about receiving food stamps or welfare, but I really can’t see myself accepting either. As mentioned above, a lot of my fellow rangers accepted unemployment checks, but I decided not to because I thought it was morally reprehensible. I disagree with you that I’ve wasted my youth, doing “stupid, unprofitable shit work,” largely because I haven’t done much work at all in my 20’s—and that’s why my 20’s haven’t been wasted. One last note: I find it odd how you seem upset that I don’t contribute my fair share of taxes through a normal, middleclass, working American job, yet you seem to detest where all these taxes are going toward (government jobs, student financial aid, etc.). Why live to pay for that which you hate?

David—Beautifully said, my friend.

Jason—Not my strength? You wouldn’t say that if you saw just how immaculately spotless my dishes are.

Anon—Thanks for the supportive words!

Mike said...

Hey Ken! Don't you mean: Warning: If you major in English, you may just end up washing dishes if you are also apt to turn down writing jobs paying over $30k a year? ;-)

It wouldn’t have been in the contract, but if I took the job, it would have been expected of me to stay for three years. And I certainly couldn’t give them my word, and leave whenever it fancied me.

You and your ideals. You think the company wouldn't hesitate to let you go before the 3 years was up whenever they fancied? You make your promise in good faith. And if things change in two years and you need to leave, you kindly and apologetically explain that to them.

Anyway, keep on keeping on. That anon guy's a nut-job. I hope he doesn't find my site, he'd have a cow.

Ken said...

Mike—I hear ya, but I couldn’t have made that promise in good faith, as I know I would have been itching to get out after Year One. Plus, the sort of articles they write is not of huge interest to me… So it really was an easy call. I’ll keep on keeping on… Been enjoying your site; should start commenting more.

Anonymous said...

"Right around the time I got my degree from Duke, an EiC of a respectable magazine strongly encouraged that I apply for a writing job that offered a yearly salary in the high 30’s. I was tempted. But only for a moment. The catch was, if I took the job, I had to stay there for at least three years."

Ken - I can tell you right now you are worth much more than a starting salary of upper 30's! If that bozo EiC wanted to keep you for minimum of three years you should have told him you needed a minimum of $60K/yr because that is what your writing would have commanded after just three months of working there!

stephen said...

Hey man, you don't know me (I just read your blog because I think we have a similar outlook on life and I hitchhike a lot too), but I really would look into teaching English abroad. Personally, I wouldn't want to teach in China either, but there are so many other places that might not pay as well but would offer a very enriching experience (i.e. Mongolia, Thailand, Eastern Europe, etc) and would allow you to start traveling internationally. You really do owe it to yourself to spend some time outside of 'Merica, I promise it will change you in the best way. I do feel kind of guilty about the carbon footprint of flying to get overseas, but I think if you make the most of it then it's worth it.
You can check out my blog if you want:

It's not very well-written because I don't have a computer, which forces me to work within the 30 minute time constraints of library computers while I'm writing posts. But anyway, there's that. From one stranger on the Internet to another.