Just Quit Already!
Day-by-Day through Year One of Retirement
Working Life: My Jobs Through the Years
To be retired, you have to have worked, so here is the list of jobs I’ve had. I’ve been grinding at it since I was that little. Sure it’s exploitative being handcuffed to the chain gang. On the other hand, it’s better than getting to age 30 and never having worked a day in your life. I believe that there is (usually) dignity in hard work and I – like most people – always took pride in doing my best. If there are two harder jobs than baling hay and detasseling corn, bring ‘em on. Take those jobs when you are 13 and it’ll give you a work ethic that will pay off dividends for the next 50 years of your employed existence. And beyond, into your self-controlled life of retirement.
• 1950-1969 Schuyler, Nebraska
o Bread Boy. My dad had a little independent mom & pop grocery store and my first job, at 10-years-old or younger, was to check the bread shelf. If customers had made the display messy, neaten it up. I don’t remember what I was paid, probably something like a quarter or maybe even a dollar. I can’t even recall if I was employed by my dad or by one of the bread salesmen to keep their brand looking tidier at the expense of the competition. I also sometimes had to walk a few blocks north to the Locker Plant (the exciting part was picking my way across the railroad tracks) and pick up packages of hamburger to bring back to dad’s store.
o Household Chores. Other than mowing the lawn and shoveling snow off the walks I don’t remember being assigned any household chores. I would get dropped off to mow my Grandma Becker’s yard. She was the old-style grandma, stern and resolute. These were not paying jobs – I was expected to do them for the good of the family (my Grandma would pay me with a butter-and-jam sandwich on a big slab of homemade bread, and a glass of ice tea). Neither did I get an allowance, my family didn’t have a budget for that. Once I was a teenager, my dad would sometimes give me money for a night out.
o Shoveling sidewalks. It snows in the winter in Nebraska. In junior high or early high-school years I worked with a partner (first Bill Saalfeld and then Doug Kucera). We had a standing gig to get up early the morning after a snowstorm and scoop the walks for a couple of elderly folks in the neighborhood, and then we’d pick up whatever other one-off snow-clearing jobs we could find.
o Detasseling Corn. This was one of the few jobs a guy could score before he was old enough to drive or big enough to bale hay. We were actually paid an hourly wage – a new experience for us — by the Flynn Brothers. The job consisted of a crew of adolescents walking through stifling summertime corn fields – think lots of ticks — and stretching up above head-high to pluck out the tassels and prevent the corn from pollinating. At least I think that was the objective. It was the equivalent of stoop labor except that instead of stooping we reached overhead. When I write it now it sounds like child exploitation. In fact, it was a blast.
o Walking Beans. Similar to detasseling, except that the crew of juvenile boys were handed long and sharp machete-like “corn knives.” What could go wrong? We then walked down the rows of waist-high soy beans and chopped out invasive weeds. I still have a scar from elbow to little finger from where the guy in the next row misjudged his swing and the blade nicked me.
o Baling Hay. You have to be a bit older – maybe 15 — and stronger because you might be bucking hay bales weighing up to 90 pounds apiece all day. There was no timeclock, the job was over when the field was done. Now you see hay in fields baled up in those gargantuan round loaves, but that didn’t exist in my era. Then you rode standing on a wagon towed behind the tractor; the baler sends twine-bound bales up the chute and you stack them as high and tight as possible. It’s like creating a reverse jenga puzzle. You work all morning, eat a huge lunch back at the farmhouse, and work all afternoon. Under a blazing Nebraska summer sun. I partnered with Doug Kucera, my snow-shoveling mate, and we hired out as a team for Martin Healey and other farmers.
o Wagner Mills. Wagner Mills was generally considered the biggest business in Schuyler (or, at least, Kermit Wagner was considered the richest man). I think we had to be 16 to get hired there. I worked at various teenage labor jobs doing before-school work and also was hired full-time in the summers. It could be me and Bob Houfek, shirtless in a cooking train car, unloading dusty bags of fertilizer. (That can’t have been super healthy, can it?) It could be working in the extremely nasty chicken shed, where they had an egg production operation. These were vast block-long metal buildings filled with cages packed with chickens. It stunk in there. The crew included Dick Kunneman, Alvie Carlson, Bud Houfek, John Hefner, Roger Davis. Our job was to do various cleaning duties (happily, only rarely involving actual chicken shit; that was mostly handled automatically with mechanical scrapers) and anything else adults didn’t want to do but high school kids would deal with unquestioningly. We must have got the jobs done but my memory is that we pretty much personified the notion “Working hard?” “Hardly working.”
o The Hallucinations. My sophomore year, or so. The band played gigs at parties and school dances but I don’t remember if we ever actually got paid.
o Higgins Alfalfa Mill Irrigation pipe mover. Paul Ehernberger and I would ride out to the alfalfa fields in the back of a pickup truck driven by Ross Braithwaite. I also took piano lessons with Paul and we were bandmates in the Hallucinations; 50 years later he was still playing, using the name Pfree Spirit. Once in the fields we would hop out, manually unhook the long lengths of metal irrigation pipe, carry them over 10 yards and reconnect them. This must have preceded the walking sprinklers or center-pivot irrigators. Or maybe it was just cheaper to pay us than invest in newer technology.
o Higgins Alfalfa Mill test lab. This was the summer after my senior year of high school. It was the first job I had that wasn’t basically unskilled labor. The alfalfa had to be tested for things like moisture content so we spent all day looking at samples under a microscope-like device – probably some kind of spectrometer. Very tedious. It did not spark my passion to become an agricultural chemist.
• 1969-1985 Lincoln, Nebraska
o Journalism School work study, University of Nebraska-Lincoln. I worked with another student, Roger Rife. Beyond stuffing a few envelopes from time to time I don’t remember us doing any work at all.
o Daily Nebraskan. For my last three years of college I had all kinds of reporting and editing jobs for the student daily. It was a really good paper and lots of people who worked there went on to successful journalism careers. I wrote general news, I got my first shot at writing about music, I was news editor, I wrote a column of college-style satirical opinion called “Gnostic Turpitude.” We got paid a little bit and we had a lot of fun. During my college years I did summer reporting internships at the Omaha World-Herald and the Santa Fe New Mexican.
o Freelance, writing essays and papers for athletes. I knew a lot of these guys – in the off-season I would go over to the old Fieldhouse and play pick-up basketball with the football players — and they knew I could write these essays better than they could. I got $20 a pop for papers for their literature classes. I would bang these things out as fast as I could type and they would turn in my first draft unrevised. A few of them would ask me to tell them about what I had written, in case the professor doubted the authorship and quizzed them orally about it. Others didn’t even care. If I actually knew something about the book they were supposed to have read, they’d get an A. If not, I would bullshit my way to a B for them. Some people will feel that this cheating was really morally corrupt but I never felt guilty about it. Partly, life’s a hustle and you do what you gotta do to survive; for me, I was broke so $20 was good cash to have in my pocket. Second, I was helping somebody out who needed the help. Third, it’s a pretty light misdemeanor in the big picture. Fourth, the professors must have known something was up and also didn’t give a shit. And, lastly, the few times I’ve thought about the ethics of it I concluded that it seemed to do more good for more people than harm. In fact, I couldn’t really see anybody who was hurt by it.
o General Leisure Corp. The summer after my freshman year of college — 1970 — I worked at this aptly-named North Omaha factory. I stayed in my sister’s basement and my brother-in-law let me drive one of his extra cars to work: a 1959 yellow big-finned Cadillac convertible with a patch in the black fabric roof where somebody had cut into it. Sweet ride. The job was an assembly line, at which we made lawn mowers and mini-bikes (remember them?). The same engine went on both products, just a different frame. We’d be slamming together lawnmowers, the line would stop, and here would come mini-bike frames. This is where I also learned another lesson about commerce: we would put together a plain all-black mini-bike that sold for one price; the exact same mini-bike with the frame painted gold and with decals on it sold for more. The workforce was students, hippies and guys from the neighborhood ghetto there. All we did all day was smoke weed and put together lawnmowers and mini-bikes. I would not have wanted to be the quality control officer on that gig. I enjoyed that summer, not least because the handful of compatriots I fell in with at General Leisure introduced me to two good bands I hadn’t heard before: Leon Russell and Traffic.
o Rick & the Rockets. My junior year, I auditioned into the Rockets. We played a lot and it was beyond fun. We must have got paid sometimes, but I don’t remember that part of it.
o Land & Sky Waterbeds. After I graduated from college I needed to make some money to pay the rent, so I worked this job over the winter. It was waterbed manufacturing – sealing together pieces of vinyl to make the mattress bag — not working in the retail store. I imagine we earned minimum wage or so. And, as with my previous production line experience at General Leisure, all we did was smoke pot and put together waterbed mattresses.
o Lincoln Journal. I finally got on the professional career path in early, 1974 when I was hired to be a beginning reporter. At the time, the Journal was a really good little paper with a superlative staff. I was never “Death & Weather,” but I started just one step above that. My first professional byline was over a story about a giant dieffenbachia plant growing at a beauty salon on South Street. “And don’t let them tell you that Leaf Shine doesn’t work,” said the shop owner. I wrote general news, I worked in the City Hall bureau, I subbed in as city editor once in a while, I started writing record reviews, I got promoted to arts & entertainment editor.
o Free-lance journalism. While I was working at the Journal I started getting a few outside jobs, as many journalists do. I did a few local things, contributed to Living Blues magazine (writing about musicians who played in Lincoln) and wrote album notes for a few local records.
o South Street Shakers, Pinky Black & The Excessives. Both of these bands were good and played a lot on weekends. The Excessives was a rung above the Shakers and actually made decent pay for some of the gigs. This was basically long green or walking-around money for me.
o Hootie’s Blues. This was a 30-minute documentary about the great Kansas City jazz piano player Jay McShann. A wonderful and engaging warm person and a nonpareil imaginative musician. He was from the Count Basie era; McShann was the better, more inventive player; Basie was more famous. I was involved as interviewer/writer/producer with a crew from Nebraska ETV. I was proud of what we did. The film turned out well and got some acclaim. Somebody has posted it on You Tube in two parts. At the time I thought this might wedge my foot in the door of another, related, line of work but nothing more came of it.
o Til The Cows Come Home. My book on Nebraska rock ‘n’ roll history came out in 1985, about the time I was leaving Nebraska for Seattle. It turned out to be a very fulfilling project. Half of it was a personal essay about the meaning of rock & roll in rural America. Half of it was an encyclopedia of Nebraska musicians, a few of whom were known names to the music cognoscenti but most of whom labored in total obscurity, for the love of it. They had pure motives. It was fun to do, the resulting product was good and it got a lot of praise. It picked up laudatory reviews (often with an admiring “who knew what was under that rock?” tone) in national magazines that mattered, like the Village Voice, which devoted a full page to an insightful and appreciative write-up. Bruce Springsteen’s people got ahold of me for a copy, and then Springsteen himself got ahold of me to gush about it. That was a pretty good day. It was self-published and may have made a little bit of money. Or not.
• 1985-2015 Seattle, Washington
o Inside the Seahawks. After I had been in Seattle scuffling for freelance work for nine months I got hired by this a start-up magazine owned by the great Seahawks safety Kenny Easley. It came out weekly during the season, with a game report but mostly with various features. The staff was talented and we had a small-but-mighty mentality. After hanging in there for most of the season I couldn’t take any more of the direction, to use the term loosely, provided by the managing editor, so I moved on.
o Crafts Report. I basically was the staff for this monthly trade magazine for ceramicists, weavers, and other craft artists. There was also an editor, some freelance contributors and the boss, who was a great guy and an old-line leftist (and once brought his friend Pete Seeger around the office to meet us all). The readership was primarily craftspeople that were one-person businesses and the magazine covered everything the small-businessperson needed to know: marketing, bookkeeping, taxes, shows and fairs calendar.
o Seattle Weekly. I had been contributing as a freelancer for a while, getting hired on a piece-by-piece basis to write about that seam between pop culture and the avant-garde. After a while they were paying me for something every week so they offered the staff-writer position in 1987. Later it got tired, but at the time The Weekly was the coolest thing going. The writing staff was beyond superior and there was a genuine sense of camaraderie and competition. You’d better bring your A-Game every week if you hoped to keep up with Fred Moody, Roger Downey, Kathy Robinson, Paul Roberts, Terry Tang, Bruce Barcott. It was taken for granted that there would be rigorous intellectual analysis of whatever topic was being covered but also that the story would be exquisitely written. Every week the office would be abuzz about that issue’s literary winners – sometimes a whole story but sometimes The Best Sentence or a metaphor or a parenthetical aside that knocked everybody down. My favorite headline was one a great editor, Jane Steinberg, wrote, on a story about chicken restaurants, “Fry the Beloved Poultry.” Almost 30 years later we were laughing about that online and she told me her favorite picture caption I ever wrote was “Kenny. Gee.” That made me feel good. After four years I departed under rancorous circumstances. I had an offer to write a book about the burgeoning craft-beer phenomenon and the upper editorial management questioned my loyalty for not writing this topic for the Weekly. It was petty then and it sounds trifling now but they were parochial or maybe threatened. They definitely wanted all of their staffers to feel beholden, as if it was the Weekly that made the writers, not the other way around. In fairness, of course, they did provide a terrific opportunity, great freedom and a crazily inspirational atmosphere. When it came to this beer project they basically said you can either write a book or you can keep writing for us, you choose. I did. Bye bye.
o Seattle Brews. The book came out in 1992. Craft brews are everywhere now, but they were a new and exciting phenomenon then. I wrote an essay about savoring beer as part of the slow-food movement, interviewed brewers and then reviewed 100 pubs that fit the vibe. For me, that project was good on all fronts. I liked the people I worked with at the regional publisher; it was fun to research (going around and drinking beer); I was proud of the final product; I made money. I got an advance of a few thousand dollars and then for some years afterward I got regular royalty checks. Eventually, comically, the checks started arriving in the amount of $0.00. They were getting more returns than sales.
o Freelancing writing. I was out of a regular paycheck but I still had to eat, so I started to be more aggressive about freelancing. Eventually I was really successful. I wrote about any topic if somebody would pay me for it. For local publications, in-flight magazines, a dab here and there for Sports Illustrated or Rolling Stone. One of my main regular gigs was with Details; I wrote about stuff like car-customizing, treating it like fashion or art. There was no such thing as starting a blog then, you had to market yourself, work with editors and research and interview and write an outstanding story. The good news was that there were still lots of magazines buying freelance work and a writing stylist could find employment. During this time I also taught evening classes in magazine writing for several years at the University of Washington Extension Division. The students were various permutations of wanna-be writers. Usually, out of a class of 25, there would be one who had what it really took and a handful of others who looked like they would be successful hard workers. The rest didn’t have a chance and I couldn’t help them. Similarly, for a few years I did Writer-In-The-Schools. That job provided one of the best moments of my life. One time for the in-class assignment on metaphors and similes they had to complete the sentence “it was raining like ———.” A tenth-grade girl wrote “It was raining like pins falling off a table.” When I later told the writer Tom Robbins about this while we were watching a Sonics game together, he got the same look on his face as I had on mine and asked if he could steal the line. I said yes but I don’t know if he actually ever used it. He also liked one I used myself one time: “I can’t believe I’m sitting next to the man who barked like a dog at the end of Big Mama Thornton’s “Hound Dog.” “Yeah, I was gonna meow like a cat but it was too hip for ‘em.”
o MetCom, PreText. During this period I partnered with two other freelance writers, Todd and Clay, to form an alliance. We were all at about the same place in our careers and our lives and we were ambitious. We still each did our own thing but we figured that we’d be three times as attractive to corporate accounts if we combined forces. This proved true and we got a lot of jobs and made a lot of money. First, we called ourselves Metropolitan Communications or MetCom; we thought that was funny because it suggested something megalithic and we were just three guys working off of our kitchen tables. Then we really started to get some momentum as the dot.com balloon started inflating. This was before Al Gore had invented the internet, so the state-of-the-art technology for information was CD-ROMs. For example, Encarta was like an encyclopedia on disc; you’d buy the CD (instead of a set of books) and then pop it in to your computer whenever you needed to look up some info. We got hired by Microsoft to write Microsoft Major League Baseball and then Microsoft NBA basketball. We could type really fast but not fast enough; we had to hire additional people to keep up with the deadlines. We had to buy extra shovels so we could scoop all the cash into our vault, like Scrooge McDuck. The people who wrote these CD-ROMs – us — were known as content providers or text providers, so we changed our name to PreText; we thought this was funny because we provided text at the pre-production stage, and for the obvious joke with pretext. This rewarding partnership kept going productively for quite a while.
o City of Seattle Water Department. In 1992 I got a freelance assignment to write some water-conservation brochures. Then the region had a summer drought, water restrictions went into effect, and the Water Department went into hire gear so they hired me temporarily as a regular staffer. Gave me a desk and everything. When the communications supervisor quit in the middle of it, I got the interim job running the emergency messaging. Then, eventually, I was hired for the full-time position. On the surface it’s hard to imagine a more ill-fitting gig for me: not just bureaucracy but engineering bureaucracy. I am the kind of person who gets a little bit of info and that is sufficient, “OK, let’s go.” Engineers, on the other hand, are always, “Let’s run one more test.” And water. A really essential and wonderful product but maybe not the most exciting topic. On the other hand, it provided a lot – I mean A Lot – of security, with all of the benefits of a government gig. And my immediate work group of writers, graphic designers, community-outreach staff was a blast.
o City of Seattle Housing & Human Services and Office of Housing. Four years of Water Department work is enough for any non-engineer so I applied and got the Communications Director gig with Housing and Human Services. When they split off the Housing Office into its own entity, I was included as a Player To Be Named Later. It required the same skill set I’d been using at Water. Along with this 9-to-5 job I was still doing a lot of freelancing, and PreText was going strong, but when Elena was born in 1995 my priorities changed; I wanted to be home tucking her into bed, not sitting on the tarmac in Atlanta after flying there to interview somebody for a story. So I dialed back the freelancing to the assignments I could do from my home base.
o Bellevue College. After a dozen years I was done with City government work and I scored the Communications Director job at BC in 2004. My previous experience prepared me for it, and I was used to it: big slow-moving bureaucracy, tiny staff and budget, no clear strategic direction for the organization. I liked it. I was hands-on for a lot of tasks and supervised the Creative Services group that comprised messaging, branding, advertising, media, graphics, publications, social media. I hung in there for more than a decade. And then I closed the book.