Evaluating Sabbatical, Part 1

My “sabbatical” is in the books. Part of this blog’s stated purpose was to serve as a cautionary tale or a yellow brick road to someone seeking a not-so-conventionally-wise way to change their career. I was planning some logical blow-by-blow scorecard on the whole thing, but that just isn’t going to happen. Here are a few perspectives on the sabbatical and the first few weeks of the aftermath.

 

I. Warm Piss and Cold Beer

A few weeks before I moved to Providence, I got stuck in traffic on Interstate 95 on the way to band practice. This is the first time this had happened. As I crawled along, I took out my drumsticks and practiced some rudiments on the steering wheel. I looked at the bored, anguished faces of my fellow motorists. I felt my bladder swell painfully. “Hey guy,” it seemed to say. “You and I both know what’s going to happen here.”

I had a strong rush of déjà vu – not the natural kind mind you, but the more thoughtful, (in this case) rueful sensation of “I’ve been here before”. This used to be MY LIFE, sitting in the car, in traffic, traveling 40-odd miles each way every single goddamned workday. These became my last memories of Chicago, not rooftop parties or exploring the city with yuppie-moneyed friends or languid strolls along the shore, but long daily car rides, their hard bruising edges rounded slightly by a selection of audiobooks.

Eventually I decided to piss into my “emergency bottle” – a former Vitamin Water receptacle which I always keep in the car. More Chicago memories came flooding back as I self-consciously unzipped and began the shameful, necessary adjustments to get the altitudes and elevations correct. In the end the process was a success: none of the other motorists saw my foul penis, and only a few inconsequential drops of urine got on my pants.

I set the nearly-full bottle down in the passenger legroom. It was warm in the way that vessels of new urine are always surprisingly warm, contrasting strikingly with the cold beer I had purchased to share at practice.

I have to belabor the point here – This incident was a microcosm. My old life in Chicago had become about control denied, frustration, obeisance to some god of routine and self-denial whose face I could not see. Alarm bells of self-preservation were ringing the whole time, first in the form of panic attacks, and later as a determination to escape with some shred of my soul intact. Friends hinted I could look for a better engineering job, while others laughably hinted at engineering graduate school. For the last year I heard these suggestions, and maybe pretended they were somehow helpful, but I was already checked out, ready to split from the whole fucking program. If I was going to subject myself to that kind of mildly demeaning, insidious, pervasive suffering again, it would be for a damn better reason than checking The Man’s fucking spreadsheets.

 

II. Confidence Intervals

I have had low self-confidence since childhood, a condition based around some real or perceived shortcoming or unmet goal. Acne, unpopularity, lack of attention from girls, not being black enough, being too black, thinking I was ugly, being shy and awkward, being in the wrong major, being in the wrong career – the list goes on. By the time I became a college grad and an “adult” I began to see more clearly the hierarchy, the game and what people (like those secret-nerd fratboys at Northwestern) were getting away with. However I never learned the proper techniques for myself. So it was a noteworthy occasion when I would have a conversation with someone, at a party or wherever else, and I could tell right away that I was more confident than them.

I felt invincible. Shall we dance? I’ll lead, is what I would think, and go at the conversation like some corporate interviewer who knows that he holds the key and can lose nothing in the exchange. I never picked on or intimidated anybody (at least I hope not), but it was exhilarating to be the advanced one in the confrontation (for all conversations between highly-effective types are confrontations).

However, it is deathly strange to be in a conversation with someone who seemed confident at first, but suddenly seems vulnerable and unsure of themselves. I have to be careful here, but (a composite) someone I had been around a bit, who has great natural resources and a great personality, did not seem nearly as steady on their feet the next time I saw them. It was like seeing them for the first time – like walking into a restaurant or business when a room divider is open and some secondary aspect of the space is revealed – and it changes the character of the whole. It was also like looking in a mirror, time-distorted, one concaved toward yesteryear. I could see all the mannerisms, the stammers and trailing sentences, the desire for a firm guiding hand, the desperation to please. Indecision! Woe! THE DEEP AND UNREMITTING PAIN OF BEING HALF A MAN!

The whole (composite) incident made me realize something that has been dawning on me – that I’m finally heading in the right direction. After college, one visits their hometown and realizes that a lot of their friends and contemporaries peaked in high school, if not before. Friends become townies – some happily, some not so happily. I don’t feel like I’ve peaked at all. Even though my body is creaking and grinding and falling apart and I (to paraphrase Henry Rollins) see my face changing and it frightens me, I still feel like my best days are ahead. That is not how I felt when I was in my cubicle – twisting in a cold sweat over the idea that life was just an endless string of hassles whose far end was tied irrevocably to the grave.

Sometimes I visit my friend Mary Jane. I talk and she listens. Once, in college, my friend and I went to her place. On her black leather couch, I had a severe attack of self-loathing, realizing that every action I took in support of my self-styled rebellion stemmed from the fact that I hated myself. I almost had a panic attack right then and there. So I worried a bit about visiting ol’ MJ place during “sabbatical”. I was an apostate from my field with no desire to go back to it. I was living unsustainably, and I had no accomplishments or qualifications in my newly chosen field. I thought I might really crack, that the floor would fall from beneath me and I would tumble into complete despair, falling into the abyss alone and never to be heard from again.

And I did have a few anxious thoughts, but for the most part, the same idea bubbled up on every visit (though regular readers of this blog may disagree): You know how to fucking write. For perhaps the first time in my life, I feel strongly about something I do. I’ve never felt like I was actually good at anything (like professional-level, of high enough quality for others to use good), ever. It is a buoyant thing, this idea that I am a good writer – unpolished and inexperienced sure, but with real potential and enough skill to set me apart from Joe College Essay. This confidence has radiated outward like oxygen-rich blood, making me feel as though I am actualizing, approaching that vaunted two-thirds-of-a-man mark. I don’t feel ashamed of my career path anymore, just under-accomplished and with a galvanizing feeling that I have more work to do.

I still have to answer a lot of embarrassing questions though. I sublet (rented) an apartment for the summer from a RISD student and I live with a bunch of bouncing college-aged kids. On first meeting, each and every one of them asked me if I go to RISD or Brown. All of their friends followed suit. Nope, I’m just a guy, I say. I used to be an engineer now I want to be a writer. Some of them are cooler about it than others, but I still get that feeling, that miffed reaction, that cognitive dead end (“Oh, so you’re just hanging out?”) and palpable loss of face (I am an outsider, a nowhere man, an intruder on their little community) that comes with being de-institutionalized in this society. Why have so many of us become dependent on our unfeeling corporate or academic overlords for our feelings of belonging and self-worth?

Regardless, I still carry that glowing coal of self-realization. I never would have earned it if I had stuck around at my stinkjob, or made a lateral move within my stinkcareer. I used to feel a very real twinge of fraudulence every time somewhat asked me what I did (a gauche question in this day and age, by the way) and I answered that I was an engineer. My heart wasn’t in it, so when people would say “That sounds cool” or “Ooh that’s interesting” I would have to decide whether to just give the game away and shout “I HATE MY JOB!” I may be a late career-changer, and some people might think I’m just on some weird suicide lark with the writing thing, but life feels like a kind of adventure now, provisional, but open-ended, with real choices, not just prioritized obligations. Conformer needed an operation, and now he’s a train gone off the tracks only to discover he has the ability to steer. Conformer really needed that operation, and FormerConformer is growing stronger every day.

 

III. Rejoining Society (Somebody Blew Up the Kitchen)

After I had to give the house back, I moved to Providence, into the aforementioned RISD sublet. Did I mention that living alone was a dream come true? I’m not saying that I want to be a hermit forever, but solitude and I have become pretty good friends. I was doing rotations of three days alone, one day with human contact with the greatest of ease.

But that’s all over now. For reasons I won’t detail, I moved into an apartment that was far messier and more decrepit than I expected. This caused a fiasco, which I won’t recount.

IMGP6323

Welcome Home!

My roommates are all really cool people, and a cute kitten lives here! However, any more than a summer here and I would revert to my old bitter-roommate ways. There is a gulf here, between my standards of cleanliness and theirs. I have already started writing a scathing, unpublishable poem entitled Somebody Blew Up the Kitchen (a parody of Amiri Baraka’s Somebody Blew Up America) based on all the injuries and indignities that have come with sharing kitchens in several apartments over several years.

Kitty!

Kitty!

I should just say that there are tradeoffs. I live in the city now, practically next door to downtown. I can bicycle to things, including band practice. I can go to happenings downtown, and I no longer have to impose on my friends by languishing at their apartment and on their couch. There are things I miss though. I still don’t have the keys to the practice space I pay rent on, so I can’t practice the drums at will (update: I have keys now). Even if I had them, my kit is mothballed for lack of space within the space. I have the internet now, and I feel its mighty, distracting pull every time I sit down to write. Overall I just feel like it’s harder for me to get in the zone. I have stirring memories of sitting downstairs at the house, next to the wood-burning stove, banging out a chapter of the novel and going to bed with the mildly euphoric buzz of having been fruitfully creative. These seems to be a fog about me now, some feeling of looming deadlines and vague commitments, expanding to fill the time available and making me feel sluggish and unproductive.

However, I have the city and can live in it. My roommates aren’t really up to much themselves, so I don’t have to live in the baleful yuppie-judgment of 9-5ers coming home to find me haunting the apartment. I have a little money coming in, and I can afford a little slyness – as in “I have my ways” or “I have a little gig that keeps me going.” The focus issues will get resolved. Once they do, it’s gonna be a good summer.

 

IV. Conclusion

In the end, the sabbatical wasn’t some self-contained wonder-treatment that fixed me completely, but it was a fair-sized leap in the right direction. Conformer became Formerconformer, just like that. Every time I tell someone I’m a writer, it feels a little more comfortable, like shoes breaking in. Every time I tell someone I used to be an engineer, it seems more and more like I’m talking about a bad dream that never really happened. I would cautiously say I’m entering the “paying my dues” phase that most people who want some swagger in a reasonably creative field must go through. There is a sort of ephemeral censure at my age, at my having picked the wrong career the first time, but that could be lingering self-doubt jumping, like static electricity, into the gestures of those I’m speaking with. At least now I feel like I’m making something of myself, making my sacrifices to the right gods. If I could look through a wormhole at the version of me that stayed in the cubicle, I’m pretty sure he would beg me to trade places, and I’m pretty sure I would laugh at him, and tell him to get back to work on those spreadsheets.

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