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Good Letters

David, my boyfriend, has a master’s degree in philosophy, but the job he held most recently was at Christmas, repackaging Nintendo DS accessories in an unheated warehouse an hour and a half bus ride from home.

Before that, he made cold calls for the Muscular Dystrophy Association to local businesses, trying to get their executives to sign up for a fake arrest and “lock-up”: an annual fundraiser. He was instructed to follow the script exactly:

“Hi, , this is _____ and I’m calling on behalf of the Muscular Dystrophy Association and Seattle Seahawks. Someone turned you in for having a BIG HEART and a “Fun Warrant” has been issued for your arrest.”

Before that he worked as an “ATM Ambassador” for Bank of America, which involved standing beside an ATM for eight hours a day, assisting any customers who required help or seemed confused. Once a month the Ambassadors participated in a conference call where they asked questions like, “What should I do when someone has trouble pressing only one button at a time because they have big fingers?”

“A common problem!” answered the manager. “An easy solution is to offer the customer a pencil so he can use the eraser to press the buttons. This also works wonders for women with long fingernails.”

Before this illustrious ambassadorship, David taught two years of philosophy at our undergraduate university as an adjunct professor, but the pay was so crummy that he was forced to supplement his income with work as a pizza delivery driver for Papa John’s. On more than one occasion he delivered to his own students. They were great tippers.

This is all true. Sadly, it’s not uncommon. Only one of my good friends from college is working within her field of study, as a French teacher. But even she is unsatisfied: what she really wants to be is a dog trainer.

Job hunting can be a frustrating and degrading experience, one that often leads to feelings of worthlessness and despair. Since the economy tanked, adults of all ages find themselves unemployed and underemployed, and for those of us who want to work in the arts, fulfilling positions (not to mention paying positions) are even harder to come by.

I hit my job-search rock bottom last winter in Boston, where I had moved to find a job, thinking there would be more options than in my Tennessee hometown. There were more options, but there was also a massive, teeming, Ivy-league-educated pool of competitors.

I sent out maybe fifty applications to positions advertised on job boards, but couldn’t even get a call back from temp agencies. After finally snagging a retail position at a failing home goods store (and only because my friend was quitting and put in a word for me), I felt some relief, but it was short-lived. The work was demeaning, my boss treated me like crap, and I once went for three weeks without a paycheck after his accounts were frozen, fallout from a legal battle with the landlord.

I walked a mile to work in the morning, and a mile home at night. These were my favorite parts of the day, because I was alone and could allow the optimistic façade I tried to maintain with friends and family to fall away with a thud. Walks home at night were the best, because it was dark and the path I took was often empty. I would march through the snowdrifts, watching flakes swarm crazily in the lamplight. I would think about what would happen if I had to go back to Tennessee, where my parents had both lost their jobs.

I would look through lit windows of apartment buildings and houses that lined the road and think, “That person has a job. So does that one over there.” I would pass stores and businesses and think, “I bet there are thirty people working in that building. I bet there are twenty working in that one.” I would cry.

My idea of what was valuable about me was obviously not valued by the world.

Not a day goes by that I don’t take a moment to give thanks for having a job now, doing work I love, that I think is important. It is not something I take for granted.

Last week it was my turn to lead an enrichment session for our interns (all SPU English majors), something our staff does each quarter. Toward the end of the hour I talked about what they can expect after graduating from college with a liberal arts degree.

I asked what their plans were for post-graduation. One said graduate school. Another said Teach for America. The third said, “I plan to keep playing music until I figure it out.”

For artists, there’s no better directive. When despair sets in, the drive to create often subsides. But what truly sustains us, in times of plenty or in times of drought, is this: the music we love, the music we love to make.

The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.

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