A lot of people my age got screwed over by happy horseshit about following our “passion” or our “dreams.” This starry-eyed counsel to be improvident seems to have peaked a few years ago, although I don’t have a very good idea of when or how much it has abated. It still has some staying power in bougie circles, and it always will abide among that portion of the truly wealthy that is not all Downton Abbey stick-in-the-ass about duty, propriety, and similar garbage.
Unfortunately, much of what has replaced this foolish cryptotranscendentalism (like, how you gonna eat if you don’t have a job, kid?) has been scam artistry hyping up STEM careers, so maybe today’s students only think they’re more rational than those of us who graduated before the onset of the Second Great Depression. I thought STEM credentialing was a good idea when I was an undergraduate, too. I also thought seriously about dropping out and settling into some menial but steady job until I had fully cleared my head, but I had only a vague gut feeling that dropping out might be prudent, not the hindsight following the dumpster fire of my six-month “career” in environmental consulting to fully convince me that it would in fact have been much more prudent than continuing to jump through hoops for an institution as frankly toxic as Dickinson College.
At other times, I considered dropping out to go to nursing school. Maybe I was still confident enough at the time to have made it work, but I’m not sure. I did have a pretty strong (and, I believe, accurate) sense that I was intrinsically academically unqualified for Dickinson, due to a tangle of mental health, social, intellectual, and existential challenges that absolutely no one working under the auspices of that entire institution had a prayer of resolving for me, but which frankly would have spontaneously resolved themselves over the course of a few months or years if I had moved myself into a healthier environment than Dickinson is capable of providing those of its students who are not charmed. Trying to power through an RN diploma program after burning out at a liberal arts college seemed like a bit of a madcap proposition at the time, so I backed away from it pretty quickly. I knew that I had bitten off more than I could chew by enrolling in such an academically rigorous college, so MOAR EDUKASHUN didn’t seem like the correct answer. Honestly, if I hadn’t been so risk-averse in the first place I wouldn’t have gone anywhere more rarefied than the Rutgers main campus, and I might not have applied for bachelor’s programs during high school at all, but I was deathly afraid of stirring shit up with my parents, both while I was touring and applying to schools and after I started realizing that I’d gotten in over my head at Dickinson.
If this sounds like over-the-top fatalism or false modesty coming from someone who writes as well as I do, realize that I was not remotely as organized a writer in college as I am today, and I was being instructed to write papers that required significant research and annotation. I don’t think I’m exaggerating to say that this was impossible. All this was happening in a truly bizarre, almost surreal community that had been purged of everyone but a narrow tranche of late adolescents of above-average intelligence, a narrower tranche of professors, and a few administrators and nonadministrative staff who were on cordial terms with students, all brought together on the expectation that, for the students, these would be the most magical years of our lives before we were turned out into a cruel world, but because this world was so cruel, we had better not fuck up college, especially our GPA’s, or we might not be able to adequately support ourselves after graduation. To make the grand mindfuck even crazier, we were clearly expected to take on extracurricular activities, even if it meant running ourselves ragged, and to spend one or both of our junior semesters studying abroad. The enforcers of this social order didn’t have to explicitly criticize any underachievers to get their message across; we lived in this cesspool every day and night, bathed in its poisonous fumes.
This is an objectively crazy environment. An academically shaky student presenting with bipolar symptoms while enrolled full-time in such an institution and living on campus doesn’t need counseling and psychotropic medication as much as he needs to get away from all the crazy. Some lunatics and charlatans think it an excellent idea to shoehorn ambivalent young people into all-or-nothing residential colleges with shitty group housing under the authority of callous residential life staff, extreme academic and extracurricular expectations, large numbers of entitled cutthroats among the students, and extreme social disruption arising from extreme student turnover, due not only to graduation but also to study abroad programs.
This is, of course, a screwy arrangement, and a terrible one to make effectively mandatory. Of course the melodrama destabilizes some students, especially students who are already emotionally unstable. I must repeat, however, that I held it together much more competently during my shifts at Hersheypark, even when I was an emotional train wreck, than I did in the very same weeks or even on the very same days at Dickinson. It was because all the extraneous horseshit was absent and I had a straightforward job to do.
As High Arka has put it, “You go to college not to learn, but for the experience, after which you’re entitled to a job. Perfect SWPL.” This was roughly what Dickinson promised us, especially its blowhard president, Bill Durden. We were expected to jump through hoops even if we were exhausted just to prove our work ethic, but Durden constantly aggrandized us with tall tales of our superior intellectual skills, especially in critical thinking, and how irresistible these skills would make us to hiring managers. In alternating breaths, he told us bogus stories about Benjamin Rush’s life and times, the moral of the story always being that it was our duty to fork over pledge money to the development office’s bagmen. It doesn’t get much more anti-intellectual than that. For this reason, it’s always an appropriate time to note that Tammany Hall was more honest than any of these fuckers. The Dickinson experience under Durden styled itself as being rigorous and meritocratic, unlike, say, a confirmed stoner school, but Durden had a bottomless supply of intellectual legerdemain at his command to prove our inherent superiority by mere virtue of our being Dickinsonians.
It’s indescribably bizarre to graduate from a program with total costs of over $50,000 a year and feel like the only true failure to launch in one’s entire graduating class and half a dozen classes on either side of it. The only Dickinson classmate I can think of who is likely a comparable fuckup on paper is a girl who was suspended and barred from campus during our freshman year for incorrigible alcoholism. Everyone else seems to be doing all right professionally. Facebook and Dickinson Magazine are not disinterested chroniclers in this matter, but even so, I’d expect to see more cracks in the façade if other alumni had had remotely similar difficulty in the workplace.
The only anecdote of serious professional trouble afflicting a recent Dickinson graduate that I’ve heard came a few years ago, when I was told on good authority that a 2007 alumna’s parents had bought her a sinecure in some administrative office with a $50,000 gift to the college. She must have been in a fairly bad spot for that to seem like a prudent move. The only people I blame for this corruption are Dickinson’s administrators, for being so fucking venal when they could have had the graciousness to set this young woman up with some sort of job as a routine alumni networking favor, one already duly purchased with her tuition. I don’t recall this chick ever treating me badly, unlike quite a few other people around us, and it sounds like she and her parents got a dog-ass return on their investment. This is a school that presented itself as the crookedest sort of self-dealing, incestuous old money, all but explicitly insisting that playing nice with the bigshots would be a surefire lifetime meal ticket, but then it turned out that the only way to get these scumbags to actually honor their constant promises of alumni job placement was to pay a $50,000 bribe. Otherwise, you’re on your own. Say, yotta use your Distinctively Dickinson networking and critical thinking skills to get your own job, kid.
With Boss Tweed, you mostly had to be Irish.
None of this would be possible without rampant gaslighting. When I think through it rationally, I know that my work ethic is decent because I never slacked off at Hersheypark and have bust ass without complaint at numerous farm jobs, including ones for Joe Dirtbag for which I had no hope of being paid because he’s a shameless fucking freeloader. Rationally, I know that he’s dodging all responsibilty to compensate me for my labor not because my work has been deficient, but because sponging off of pushovers is what he does. Rationally, I know that the work I’ve done for him and for commercial growers and winemakers has been much more tangibly productive than the work done by a great many of my friends and acquaintances. Intellectually, I know that even if I’m not a lifetime net material contributor to society, I’m an extremely productive member of it whenever I do farm work.
These are certainly pleasant thoughts, and objectively reasonable ones, but sobriety, objectivity, and rationality do not transcend erroneous gut feelings. Certainly for me they don’t. The damage done to American society by irrational people drunk on their own arrogance is pervasive and easy to see. Donald Trump’s utter lack of loyalty to Atlantic City, as demonstrated by his abandonment of his hundreds of employees there during hard times that were brought on in part by his own managerial incompetence, is an excellent example of this. Honey Donald don’t care. Joe Dirtbag is alarmingly similar to that bastard psychologically and tactically. I have no idea of how to outwit Joe Dirtbag when he gets belligerent and manipulative, and I’m scared to hell of stooping to his level if I try to stand my ground on anthing but specific, articulable things that I’ve witnessed. My reflexive refusal to fake it till I make it may make me look bad, but what the fuck else can I do? There are too many shameless lying sacks of shit in this country already, and I’d hate to contribute to their population. I’m painfully uncomfortable even flat-out lying about my housing situation, which is often warm homelessness. The revulsion I feel at grossly misleading people about these humiliating circumstances is stronger than the humiliation I feel when I admit that I’ve been bouncing between cheap motels or sleeping in my car.
It may serve my long-term self-interest to be honest about these circumstances, too: anyone explicitly and defiantly doing to a close relative or longtime employee what JD and the Family Shrew have more tacitly and slyly done to me would be shunned by relatives and friends before long, on account of unrepentant moral turpitude. I work unpaid in exchange for the privilege of crashing in a cluttered, uninsulated building on a property with no flush toilet, whose other tenants have been found shitting onto beds of newspaper or into a trash can. Letting some shitbird get away with this feudal nastiness unchallenged just because he’s a cool, groovy cat who gets angry and belligerent when dissidents harsh his mellow is disgusting.
Bizarrely, my dad maintains that this shambling clusterfuck is my “best opportunity to learn about organic agriculture.” Shit. I’m years past the point of giving a goddamn whether a farm is organic or chemical. Some of the very worst ethics I’ve seen are on small organic farms. Many of the people who run these operations are so full of their own feelings of environmentally correct goodness that they show absolutely no shame about flagrant labor, tax, and housing violations. The best pay and the most reasonable, levelheaded bosses I’ve had in agriculture have been on conventional farms. Objecting to a grower who treats his employees excellently but sprays for wild grapes is one of the stupidest beefs I can imagine pursuing. That is not my battle, and I will not be drawn into it on behalf of anyone else, no matter what I think about the drawbacks of herbicides. If the principal spot-treating weed patches is what it takes to bring me onto the payroll at several dollars an hour above minimum wage, I have a question: where do I sign up?
All else being equal, I prefer organic agriculture, too. But all else is not equal. A convential grower whose spraying practices I don’t find ideal is a huge improvement over a scrupulously organic grower who is a freeloading scumbag, a belligerent gaslighting fraud, a religiously preoccupied nut who thinks it her place to enforce the private sexual morality of unmarried women by evicting them when they get pregnant, or a shambling bipolar wreck who uses binoculars to spy on her field crew from the packing shed. I cannot commit myself to a movement run by people like that. It’s just fucking impossible. I’d be selling myself short in service to people who are unfit to supervise employees.
The passion that I used to have for organic agriculture has changed focus to agriculture in general, and specifically to farms whose owners and managers do right by their employees. The groovy crunchy shit can wait until someone shows up with payroll income worth my time and a workplace safety regime that doesn’t look like it will get me killed. It’s a trifecta if I have a male boss who pays me well, doesn’t needlessly endanger my safety on the job, and isn’t a skin-crawling creep about my masculinity relative to his own. It’s some cool shit if I’m working for someone who is not overtly mentally ill, immoral, or just weird.
I’m serious. I love agriculture, and not just in a rom-com happy horseshit way. I’m deeply devoted to it, happy to endure what many of my friends would consider physical hardships in order to contribute to the craft and its harvests. This does not mean that I’m willing to sleep rough under a fucking bridge surrounded by erratic psycotics or be chronically humiliated by some shithead who finds it crass to monetize his farm so that he can pay his employees. I’m not stupid enough to do anything of the sort if I perceive other halfway viable options. I’m not looking to be a fucking martyr here.
My dad seems to find it somehow incoherent of me to seek pay and adequate working conditions instead of figuring that things will somehow work out with Joe Dirtbag and his farm in the end if I just stick with it. This is full-throttle SWPL, of course; only the affluent can afford to be so cavalier about money. In fairness, Joe Dirtbag has been committing extortion and securities fraud against both of my parents, in the spirit if not the exact letter of the law. If you can stand an image that you won’t be able to unsee, it’s financial domination of non-consenting clients by a Humpty-Dumpty lookalike who needs to brush his teeth and take a long, hot bath, with soap. I wouldn’t expect most people to want to confront a relative or friend over this. It’s a clusterfuck. It looks hopeless. Joe Dirtbag has hundreds of thousands of dollars from his friends and relatives tied up in this shit, and he basically threatens to burn it all down the moment anyone confronts him. It’s mutually assured destruction, but with one side too timid to fire and the other one waving a big swinging missile in its face. When push comes to shove, this isn’t Khrushchev and Kennedy, but Stalin and Carter.
I should be loyal and committed to this senile-acting bastard? Hell no. That I tolerate him graciously now and then, mainly to keep my skills sharp, is more than enough. Managers who act like him at companies with garnishable assets and written employment agreements get their companies sued to hell and themselves fired with cause for gross workplace misconduct. I’m ambivalent and flighty around this shithead who could get Chateau Ste. Michelle or Mondavi in the national news and hosed for large five-figure settlements for acting the same way in front of subordinates on one of their crush pads, so, yes, I’m quite a starry-eyed, entitled little brat. Remember the Korbel sexual assault/zebra abuse thing? That involved drunks in a hot tub. This shit that Joe Dirtbag keeps pulling is overwhelmingly happening when he’s stone cold sober. In my experience, he never really looks drunk.
Throughout the time that I’ve worked on farms, the money has never been there. Again, you have to be a lot more SWPL than I am, either financially, philosophically, or both, for this not to be a problem. It has practical ramifications, like not being able to afford a bed indoors for the night. Longer-term, it can only look ruinous, unless you’re either legit loaded or a real numbnuts. I’m neither. If I were actually a trustfunder, I’d probably figure, cool, I gots money, but I currently have a non-retirement net worth of something like $6,500. Big pimpin’, that.
Yes, it’s better than nothing, or a negative net worth, but I won’t hold my peace of Joe Dirtbag or the Family Shrew try to fin-dom me with relativistic talking points. They have more than twice that in federally guaranteed annual retirement income, and they own property. If they get that arrogant to my face, I’ll flat-out tell either or both of them to shut the fuck up, and if Joe Dirtbag responds by getting up in my face, yelling at me, or making threats, I’ll call 911 and sic cops on his ass. There isn’t a state trooper in Oregon who would not place him under arrest without hesitation immediately upon establishing probable cause.
My dad thinks that all three of us, and maybe the other farm shareholders, should all sit down together to hash this shit out. Why he thinks this prudent is beyond me. I’ve flatly refused to be involved in anything of the sort. I know what will happen: Joe Dirtbag will walk all over all of us. It would be insane for me to go to such a meeting without an attorney representing me present and making an audio recording, just to rebuke and document any monkey business. It’s a moot point, though; I won’t be there under any circumstances. It’s one thing for me to be willing to have further interactions with an abuser as long as he’s more or less holding it together, and with the conscious, unabashed understanding that I can and will immediately leave with cause if he seriously loses control again. It’s quite another to invite the abuser to a meeting of equals, as if it’s all just a big misunderstanding between reasonable people of goodwill, when he’ll inevitably hijack the process and blurt out fighting words in a seat-of-the-pants scheme to continue getting his way. Joe Dirtbag nearly lost the farm over an oral gentlemen’s agreement to amend a written contract, but then my dad gave him $50,000 to stave the other dude off. We don’t need any more of that.
Even on farms without this insane horseshit, the payroll work is rarely consistent. It provides for a marginal financial existence, not nearly enough to start a family without immense savings or other sources of cash flow. I’m thinking more seriously than ever about shacking up and having children, but if I keep trying to piece together farm jobs, I’ll remain financially unmarriageable. If I remain Joe Dirtbag’s obedient little bitch, even just some of the time, and let him keep weighing me down with the asswipe paternalism he feels compelled to project onto me because he insisted on remaining monogamously committed to a deliberately barren shrew, I’ll remain unmarriageable for psychosexual reasons that should be obvious enough. I’m getting too old for this shit. At the very least, I want to be able to afford prostitutes more often, and I can’t do that if the money that might otherwise be available to pay me for my labor is tied up as capital in a business that the principal insists on running into the ground.
Getting work somewhere around my parents’ place is the only viable option right now. It isn’t about my passion in life. I don’t have access to the money for that, and I almost certainly will not unless I start saving it up from my paychecks. My parents insisted on moving to this nigh useless lake because it inspired their fascination, and I don’t live in the sort of magical money kingdom that would allow me to check in on them every few weeks by flying in from across the country. Even Philadelphia would probably be too far away. If they won’t live in the real world, I’ll have to put in extra time there. I can’t be an only child with parents turning into shut-ins 2,500 miles away. That’s insane.
Hell if I know whether I’ll be able to explain any of this to them without a meltdown.