Olive or Twist?

Do you ever have fantasies about running away? About shelving this whole academic (or corporate, or whatever) life, maybe moving to some other city, and just doing something different?

I do. Not so often that I think they should be taken terribly seriously, and nearly always coinciding with some big pile of grading that needs to be gotten through. But I do fantasize from time to time about chucking this whole grind and going back to bartending.

I tended bar at a restaurant on Bourbon Street for a little less than a year, just after the job in Hollywood that ought to have been great but wasn’t, and just before going back to grad school. Undoubtedly I’m romanticizing this job in undue ways: I’ll stipulate right here that it was without question the dirtiest job I’ve had (yes, if that’s the case I’ve been quite lucky, but I stayed pretty permanently sticky, those months), that it came with tremendous amounts of drudgery (not least among which cutting fruit for garnishes every time I opened and polishing that damned brass bar top every time I closed), that it paid terribly (tips generally suck at bars in restaurants, because everybody wants to transfer their tabs to their tables, so that the waitrons wind up with the real benefits), that it resulted in way more hangovers than one girl should have (NOLA service staffs are notoriously hard-partying), and that it was probably only tolerable because I was fairly certain, as I waited for the results to come back from my grad school apps, that I had an out date, that I would not be spending the rest of my life in the service sector (or that branch of it, at least).

But nonetheless. I think a little more frequently than perhaps I ought to about what it would be like to walk away from the academy and to head back behind the bar. There would be many fewer meetings. Work at the bar would be confined to the bar, without the need to continue working at home. Days off would actually be — and this seems pretty incomprehensible at the moment — days OFF, and would be unaccompanied by guilt about the work I ought to have been doing. I would make the drinks. I would hand out the drinks. I would not need to make the patrons prove that they’d drunk the drinks, or to test them on their own drink-making abilities.

Sure, all those downsides to my previous bartending experience remain, along with the too-frequent need to deal with obnoxious drunks and the other insults and injuries of the service industry. But during periods like the one I’m in right now, with more work to do than can conceivably be done in the hours available, with more pointless meetings taking up more and more of my time, having the fantasy available — knowing that, if I really need to, I could totally blow this joint and do Something Else — helps.

That and knowing that, as of December 17, I’m on sabbatical.

So what are your escape fantasies? What gets you through?

14 thoughts on “Olive or Twist?

  1. well, usually my fantasies involve not being where i am. my plan is to take a month and get out of dodge, prolly to europe maybe to asia. using my salary and some book money, i can afford about a month, longer if i line up some talks.

  2. Almost identical to yours, actually. To work in a coffee shop.

    I’m particular, though. It must contain cool people who have interesting lives, and at least partly be devoted to purchasing and selling fair trade coffee.

    Never done it before. Would love to. Knowing that I could do this and have a good life gets me through academe.

    (But honestly, I’m a geek. The academy has a strange pull.)

  3. Well, my fantasy is to have your life. Namely, tenure — at which point I will go home at a decent hour, not take work home, say no whenever I feel like it, and generally live the life of Reilly.

    Hey, I said it was a fantasy.

  4. I think all the time about packing up my bags and leaving this whole thing behind. I look at my calendar and it’s completely blotted out with meetings and classes, and then of course at the end of the day I come home to my two theses.

    I mean, no one really needs a president, right? I’m outa here. There are definitely other lifestyles which involve less of that constant strangling feeling.

  5. Every time I started walking north towards Foothill, I used to think, “What if I kept walking and didn’t stop?”

  6. I’m living my dream right now, in that regard. I’m using my sabbatical year to work in a bigco, getting to tell everybody I meet what I think they really ought to be doing. It’s fabulous, and completely different from teaching and academic research.

    And meg, while tenure is in many ways everything it’s cracked up to be, professors who care about their jobs end up working too many hours regardless of their tenure status. Tenure doesn’t make the papers go away, or the students who need advice. And when you become a “senior” faculty member, you’ll have junior faculty to mentor as well, not to mention all those committees to serve on that only tenured faculty members can be on. <sigh>.

  7. While I share Meg’s fantasy (and realize what the reality of the caring tenured professor truly is, as Liz points out), my typical fantasy involves packing up and moving to NY to work in Murray’s cheese shop in the village. I was disappointed to learn this past year, however (coutesy of the NY Times), that there are apparently a number of “retired” academics already living out my fantasy in that very cheese shop!!! My fallback plan is to start up my own gourmet food shop right here in paradise. There’s something wrong with a college town that has no acceptable place for foodies to shop. Everyone needs more Tallegio, Epoisse, cured meats, and fresh gravlax in their life!

  8. My fantasy involves the coffee shop as well, a place I too worked in the past. And yes, I remind myself of coming home covered in frappucino-stickyness from head to toe. But I think the attractiveness of it for me (in addition to the all-important days off) is the end-of-shift congratulatory moments, in which co-workers and managers say things like: “good job today” or, “nice work at the bar” or, “have a great day off, see you on Wednesday.” It’s the small affirmations we miss in academe, no?

  9. Liz — believe me, I know all of that; I was just being silly.

    On a (rare) non-silly note, I *am* living my fantasy, even if I reserve the right to bitch like hell. There were fourteen years between high school and college, during which time I worked dozens of jobs and owned two businesses. When I started college, I was aiming at precisely the position I’m currently in.

    So, In fact, I don’t fantasize about ditching it all. I know what skills I could fall back on if this life went to hell, but all my other jobs were so much less satisfying than this one, I don’t even think about where the towel is, much less tossing it in.

    Or I could just have an impoverished fantasy life.

    [PS: Food service? Worst. Job. Ever.]

  10. Ack. Don’t get me started on food service. Near the end of my bartending stint, the management started trying to move me gradually out from behind the bar, having me wait tables a few shifts a week. And I can tell you, with no qualms or qualifications, that while I am a fabulous bartender, I am a crappy waitron. I sucked. And I hated every minute of it. Leave me back behind that big slab of wood — I’ll stay on my side, you stay on yours, and you play nice if you want your drink. The end.

    I do have to back up Liz, though, on her implied sense of the post-tenure blues — tenure is indeed freeing, but it comes with so many added burdens that it becomes, as a colleague of mine once said, golden handcuffs. Gorgeous and lush, but imprisoning nonetheless. And, as Liz suggests, some portion of that imprisoning has to do with the escalating burdens of administration that often come with tenure. This differs from position to position — folks appointed in relatively large departments with relatively active senior faculties will likely feel the crunch less than someone, say, who is the sole senior member of a desperately understaffed and overstudented interdisciplinary program.

    Just for instance.

  11. Hmmm, I left all that academic B.S. behind for the corporate world.

    Now, I speak only for myself here, but here’s how it turned out: not a bad deal in many ways, but not “freeing.” If anything, it’s much more confining — the sameness of the routine, the limits on what you can say and how you can be.

    It’s true that the academy is a very totalizing environment: it tends to swallow you up, to annex your entire personal and imaginative life into your work-self. Some people thrive on that marriage of professional identity and personal, but most of us chafe a bit. And since that publication/paper-grading/article-reading pressure to keep up never goes away, one is hard pressed to feel “off duty” without the aid of strong drink.

    The corporate world, on the other hand, is not like that for most people. With the exception of specialized professions, your average white-collar worker isn’t asked to identify all that closely with his or her work. I engage in any number of specialized tasks during the day, some of which involve quite a bit of thought, and others of which are purely rote, with a great deal of stuff in between. None of it adds up, in the eyes of my colleagues or friends to “who I am”, and I would wager to say that this is true for almost everyone I work with, with the exception of a few designers and hardcore programmers in my workplace.

    But the countervailing problem is that the sphere for thought and action is heavily reduced. I am a “dialed down” version of myself at work, strongly hemmed in by conventions and reminded constantly that there is an immediate hierarchy that must be constantly placated. In the case of my workplace, it’s an astonishingly benevolent and human-friendly hierarchy, composed of people who are on the whole approachable and reasonable, and who lead balanced lives. But imagination and critical intelligence are to be kept strongly in check at all times. (Not that there aren’t incredibly powerful hierarchies in the academic world. But in Cubicle World, I have to confess that — really — the hierarchy is pretty much all there is. One’s job is to please the boss, and that’s about it.)

    So, in order to exercise imagination and critical intelligence, one comes home and gets to work on something “real.” The project that feeds the soul, that keeps alive the notion that one is a craftsperson at least, to say nothing of an artist or a critic. The bugbear of Writing that tormented as an academic turns out to be a life preserver — although that doesn’t make it any less of a bugbear.

    I will say that the slightly higher income I make in my cubicle life does enable some additional freedoms. It surely does, and I’d be wrong not to mention that.

    But is it any wonder that teaching — although in its classroom-centric high school form more than now-unreachable-for-me tenure-track life — is the “escape hatch” I look longingly toward? A “day job” that might somehow also feed the soul? And let me be a little bit more myself? It sounds pretty sweet. Although I know I’m willfully suppressing all of the bad parts…

  12. I started to respond to this early this morning, but it devolved into a kind of insider ‘Nawlins joke about Big Daddy’s that, I thought, could be taken horribly, horribly wrong(ly).


    Is it so bad that I want to spend the rest of my days working at seat #2167 in the British Library Humanities I reading room?

  13. I’m not sure yet, but I think that the tunnel-ending light involves:

    a) ending up somewhere in South America after having raised the money to get there on my own by hustling (possibly multiple forms of) post-undergrad income.

    b) writing pretentious thoughts down in pretentious moleskin journal.

    c) blowing my last traveller’s check on a round of drinks for a group of strangers who are my best friends for that night.

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