Walking the Floor

I feel monotony and death to be almost the same.

–Charlotte Brontë

A co-worker recently asked me to define vicissitude. I confess, I didn’t know it. And neither did I know how relevant it is to my current state of being. Ah, the vicissitudes of life. You might utter such a sentence if vicissitude is part of your vocabulary and you are 33 years old, just quit graduate school, and find yourself looking up words like vicissitude while in the backroom of your new retail job selling camping, hiking, and travel gear to people who can afford to take vacations in the multitude of beautiful, awe-inspiring landscapes this mighty, yet delicate, earth possesses.

Exactly three other current or former Ph.D. students work at my store: of Philosophy, of Classics, and of Creative Writing. All four of us, through frustration, desire, or apathy have left academia with no real intention of going back. But all four of us are unsure of what exactly we are supposed to do. We possess a wide range of skills: teaching, writing, critical thinking, and problem-solving among them. But it seems that the only employers eager to take us in are those who know we are easy to train, relatively hands-off in terms of figuring things out, and desperate for a job. In other words, retail. We are good at retail, not because retail is easy (and have no doubt, it is), but because it is a job driven by logical reasoning and by the ability to empathize, i.e. imagine yourself in another’s perspective. We can anticipate what needs customers have by the way they communicate. We are interested in their stories and understand that by narrating their experiences we can better help them find what they need. We can look at our surroundings and notice when something is amiss and quickly figure out how to rectify it. We can adjust our demeanor, approach, and position to better adapt to how customers present themselves to better serve them, but also to mitigate our own frustrations. We can hold our frustrations in check because we know that acting out only makes the immediate situation worse, and we know that as soon as a customer leaves, our lives will return to a certain normalcy, meaning we understand ourselves as separate from others, a consequence of realizing that we are not the center of the universe.

Ah, the vicissitudes of life. I can’t speak for my co-workers, but despite being good at retail, it certainly isn’t the position I imagined myself in at this age. I know that there are certain consequences for the decisions I have made in recent years, but I would be remiss if I did not admit that I feel undervalued, purposeless, and somewhat lost roaming the aisles of my store. The skills I named above, yes, are skills that serve me in retail, but they are also the skills that promoted me from Project Assistant to Project Manager in 3 months when worked in the book publishing industry. They are the skills that made me an effective and appreciated educator (according to my students and supervisors). They are the skills that got me into graduate school. And they are the skills that have helped me to find and retain some of the best friends a person could ever ask for. But they are skills that don’t seem to be helping me find a job or a career in which my talents are both appreciated by my employer and, in my own estimation, are being challenged and improved upon on a regular basis.

Ah, the vicissitudes of life. I like the store I work in. It sells things I like, things that facilitate my favorite activities. The people I work with are really, really nice, and funny, and warm, and helpful. The managers I work for are competent, encouraging, appreciative, and fair. But the lights in the store are sapping my soul. The repetition of my invitations to customers, “What can I help you find today?” “Anything specific you looking for?” “Just browsing? No problem, just holler if you have a question” is slowly hardening my heart and softening my brain. The monotony of restocking, size organizing, straightening, folding, and refolding is deadening my senses. Mostly, it concerns me that I feel this way after only two weeks on the job. Does it mean I’m spoiled? Or lazy? Or ungrateful? Does it mean I made a mistake leaving graduate school?

Ah, the vicissitudes of life. These are first world problems, I know. But I can’t help but lament that I could be helping others in a much more effective and rewarding way than making sure a family has the right type of water filter for their Colorado River Rafting trip. I try not to be, but I am a nostalgic person. And the problem with nostalgia is that it is inherently melancholic. This has the effect of graying the present, especially when your present is mundane and monotonous. I am certain there are ways to rectify this, but I have yet to discover them. And what troubles me most is that I fear I have wasted a great amount of time, and I can feel its consistent march. It causes me anxiety and worry that I will waste more, too much more. This in turn causes me to analyze my decisions or choices in such scrutiny that that process may be wasting too much time!

Ah, the vicissitudes of life. This summer, in its majority, has been wonderful. I have had the perfect ratio of solitude and reunions. I have seem much of this land that I had never seen before, and its beauty has been overwhelming. I feel free in ways I haven’t ever. That is terrifying, but in a good way. I have grown more honest with myself and my family. My fear of failure has waned some, and I no longer seek to numb it on a regular basis. These are the good things. These are good.

Ah, the vicissitudes of life. I didn’t really want to write all that touchy-feely mojo. But when you walk the floor of retail, your mind wanders quite easily. I wanted to instead address the problem of employment. Of the fifteen or so other jobs I have applied to, the more professional kind, those in publishing, education, and intellectual development, why do they not jump at the opportunity to employ me and the likes of me? Is it the sea of applications my own is drowning in? Is it that they do not know my face? Or that I do not possess experience in the exact field to which I am applying (and if I do, it hasn’t been enough)? Or, my worst fear, that I have a funny sounding name? I really can’t be sure, but here is one hypothesis I have. When I quit school, I feared there would be no jobs. I have found that is not the case. There are quite a few jobs for which I am qualified, by my own estimation, and which I believe I would be happy in, or at least content. So why, then, no call backs, no interview requests, or acknowledgments of my existence other than the email robot informing my application was received and filed in the darkened store room of computer servers and databases scattered throughout the nation? The last 30 years has seen the pre-professionalization of universities. Students receive pre-nursing, pre-job, or pre-graduate school degrees. Have employers being doing the same thing? Do they seek the pre-professional candidate? Does it give them some sort of comfort or security to see “pre-” on resumes and curricula vitae?

This all but conjecture. The truth is that I am in the dark. Or rather in the uneasy florescent light. Above it hums. But I barely notice it as the intercom calls my name, “Kiren to the register. Kiren to the register.” No need to change course, I’m already walking that way.


One Comment

  1. Joel July 10, 2013

    This is fucking great, Kiren. “I fear I have wasted a great amount of time…”

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