I’m no longer working on houses for a living. It was never much of a living, in my case, but for a long time, the greater part of my adult life so far, it was what I did and what I wanted to keep on doing. The trouble, always, or a considerable part of the trouble at least, was that I wanted to do it ‘different’ — and, crucially, didn’t really understand the conditions for doing so. I’ve made some real gains in understanding the conditions, yes, but not in time to sort out along the way how to make effective changes in my approach to the business. And now I’m out of the business. The last slender tie I had to it was a part-time job I held for six months in the kitchen design department at a Home Depot here in Flushing, Queens. I left it in April.

Left it, that is, because it looked like my other work, my self-employed work, was picking up enough steam that I could be done with the second job, and because the sort of employment a Home Depot can offer a person these days — though I’m grateful to have had it when I needed it and grateful for its peculiar part in my getting to know New York — is one a person can only hope to trade up from, one way or another.

I did inwardly cherish, for a little while, some thought of making Home Depot a springboard back to better work in construction. For the most part, though, I’d come to see that the dream — the old dream of coming into my own in the residential building trades somewhere, working (ideally) with architects and ‘building scientists,’ by way of arrival at the right combination of skill-acquisition and circumstance — was dead. Dead may not here mean beyond possibility of resurrection, but for a variety of reasons we’ll have to stipulate that if there’s to be a resurrection, it’s on strict analogy to the Christian idea: bodily, to be sure, but no longer with the old body. I’m well into decomposition now. There’s no simple going back.

Where did I turn the corner? What was the snag that started the unraveling? That’s the point of curiosity this little narrative is leading to. It doesn’t come down to one thing, of course; but one thing certainly critical to this eventual shift in my work was my beginning to notice, a few years ago, that marketplace obstacles (in this country, that is) to adoption of ‘smart’ building practices were really inseparable from a class of problems I’d largely wished to put aside, at least for work purposes, as matters above my pay grade (in Candidate Obama’s unfortunate expression) — problems more purely political and economic than business. I’ve generally preferred to think that I could contribute something to ‘making the world a better place’ and remain, at the same time, a bit of a practical agnostic about money and power. If I’m slow to grasp relation between working life and money or power, though, I’m not much good at maintaining such interior boundaries once I do, even if the boundaries are preferential. It doesn’t help, obviously, that ‘sustainability,’ in building as in other fields, is a minefield of political and economic issues. The greater my effort, perhaps — and it’s been considerable — to establish what I had to bring to this field of business, the more inevitable my running aground in some fashion on complexities ultimately rooted beyond it. Gradually I found it difficult not to be as concerned about the shape of the marketplace as I’d already learned to be about what a conscientious building and design entrant has to deliver in it. My choices about working relationships became more constrained, and at the same time more subject to a certain optimism (Christian, to my way of thinking, but whether ‘healthy’ or ‘unhealthy’ I won’t try to conclude here).

When I moved to New York a year and a half ago, it seemed that my exacting criteria had been met in the most remarkable way. I was optimistic about BWP — not unreasonably so, I think, other limiting factors on the decision being taken into account — and threw all my eggs, as far as remaining in construction on terms I could live with goes, into one basket. That was the real beginning of the end. But this isn’t a lament! It’s an attempt to lay some groundwork for new discussion here, that’s all.

6 Replies to “Leaving”

  1. There’s so much I want to say about this, as it touches on experiences I’ve had very closely, but I’m increasingly feeling the failure of communication via these brief text boxes (blogging or social media) but then that probably comes back to my lack of skill in this sort of communication, which relates to my leaving academia…

    So, unlike you, my foray into academia was more of a lifelong yearning rather than an actual attempt. I didn’t go to university until I was 27 and had done some serious loitering beforehand. Perhaps this is merely useful experience for a philosopher… except it really isn’t. At least what a professional academic philosopher is nowadays. Indeed, to be an academic of any sort (because a philosopher is really no different anymore, if they ever were) requires a special focus. Something that I never had. Or at least this is what I always believed…

    A brief few years later and I had just completed a one year postgraduate degree in librarianship and have now found myself in a temporary one year position in an academic library in Scotland. From here I have a view of the academic output process, I am partially responsible for maintaining the institutional repository, something that becomes important for universities rankings based on their published output. Now I see the administrative pressures, the routes into academia from PhD to junior lectureship being ‘guided’ based on certain criteria of academic popularity, the utter lack of any real individual creativity. Merely it is a process, a business process, based on prestige and not true expression. It is a very banal production indeed. During my time as a post-grad philosophy student I felt a socio-economic pressure between my imagined work and what the university actually wanted. This view has now been made much more apparent to me as a librarian. The neoliberal business model has crushed the spirit of the university and now even in the midst of the crisis caused by this model, still they attempt to respond in the same old ways.

    I like to think that there is still a place in this world for dreamers, for people who wish to approach things slightly differently from the norm. Perhaps, being in the UK, I’ve more of an immediate reason to worry about whether ‘this’ is sustainable.

    Anyway, apologies, I’m rambling…

  2. I suspect we’d produce a sizable list of experiences more or less in common if we laid out our respective stories at length. My timing with post-secondary schooling was also late, for instance.

  3. You’re hardly alone, of course, in observing that what we can call the neo-liberal business model (among other apt names, I guess, for what’s developed through a period of decades here) is destroying the idea of the university. It’s something that needs to be told from a variety of viewpoints, though. Hope you will continue to write about this.

  4. I clearly need to stop by here more often. Would love to catch up sometime soon and see what you are up to. I so resonate with all of what you’ve said here. It helps to know there are others on a similar journey without maps.

  5. Julie, I haven’t offered folks much incentive to check back often. Thanks for reading! You’re right, we’re overdue for catching up more directly. (Would be easier if I were getting back to Baltimore with any frequency, but that’s been difficult this past couple of years.)

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