Monday, 11 August 2008

Full-time Jack Of All Trades

My first job was when I was twelve. I deseeded chili peppers, unloaded sterilized soil from a huge oven, and picked peppers and avocados. I worked under my father's supervision, and after one day of this I began to see why he always came home tired. Whoever knew that simply breathing in the air around cut-up peppers would make your eyes tear up and your nose run? That soil could weigh so much or your neck and shoulders would ache after only twenty minutes of picking avocados? There is a challenge in picking avocados. The trees grow to a great height, so you have to wear a pith helmet to protect your head against falling fruit. You also wear a great bag around your waist and carry a telescoping aluminum picking pole with a sharp blade at the tip. When the bag is full, it pulls on your shoulders and they start to ache. Your neck hurts from being bent back, and you have to squint to prevent debris from falling into your eyes. And yet picking avocados is far easier than picking peppers, which grow on small plants low to the ground; you aren't constantly stooping, squatting, then standing up again, but more importantly, you can work in shade. I have seen migrant workers bent over in fields, moving from pepper plant to pepper plant picking fruit under the full blast of the sun. My mind boggles when I consider that there are people who do this for hours a day, week after week, to feed their families. This is hellish work.

My second job was babysitting. I worked in a small day-care nursery that catered to working mothers and students at our local university. I worked twice a week, on Tuesday and Friday, walking two miles from high school to my job. There were eight kids, from ages two through five, and I loved this job. I played with the kids, I sang songs with them, wiped their noses and made them snacks and told them stories. I also learned how to get bubble gum out of hair, a skill I have since put to good use. (Peanut butter rubbed in, in case you're wondering.)

My third and fourth jobs were as a file clerk and clerk typist for insurance companies in Miami, Florida. Filing is deadly boring and I lasted only a short time; they didn't like my attitude. By the time I got hired for my fifth job, I had learned to be more punctual and not to ask questions that people could not answer. I worked as a clerk typist at a large land development company, also in Miami. Ninety nine percent of the management were gay or bisexual, and the other workers were a lot of fun. This is the first job I proudly listed on my resume.

I have almost lost track of the jobs I did after this one. I worked as a dictaphone transcriber, a receptionist, a medical transcriber, a waitress, a cleaner, a babysitter, a unit clerk in a hospital. I painted signs and tutored children in reading and cleaned people's houses and typed out letters, dissertations and surgical operations. I filled orders, bused tables, washed dishes and waited on people, and somehow, I managed to put myself through college and graduate school, but it took ages. Time was money for me, and the work I did to pay my way through taught me a lot. Mainly it taught me that learning to do any job well was a challenge. And it taught me that I didn't want to end up filing or typing for a living.

Since graduating from university, I have worked as a medical secretary, waitress and portrait artist (San Francisco and New York City), potter and dish-washer (Amsterdam and s'Hertogenbosch), translator (Japanese to English), teacher of English and Japanese (California, Japan, The Netherlands, and Wales), and waitress, legal secretary and inn-keeper (Scotland). And of course, I've been a mother too. Am I a jack of all trades? Absolutely. And I've had a blast. Believe me, there are worse things to do with your life. I don't necessarily recommend this way of life, but I'm certainly not knocking it either.

My main line of work has been as a teacher in Japan, where I worked for seventeen years. Then I started doing rewriting, proofreading and translations of short articles and educational materials, all of which I loved. My husband and I got caught up in the yen trap: we earned good salaries, but we were stuck in Japan. Now being stuck in the Japan is not a bad thing per se, but we began to feel that our options were somewhat limited. We also began to worry that our kids, who were as fluent in Japanese as English, were missing out when it came to reading and writing their parents' language. So we moved to the U.K. and started a business.

The business prospered and our kids did well in school; we were miserable. So we sold up, and my husband retrained for a job that no one would hire him to do. Everyone told him he was over-qualified and advised him to dumb down his C.V. My husband is no slouch: in addition to teaching and writing, he has driven a tractor and picked grapes and hauled strawberries to the market. And though he has not been able to work in his chosen field -- English teaching qualifications are not recognized in Scotland -- he has managed to feed his family. My past work experience came in handy too: since settling here I have waited on tables and cleaned rooms and babysat for children. I have typed and filed too, but we live in a stunningly beautiful area and a lot of people have come here for quality of life reasons. Whenever a halfway decent secretarial job comes up, it is immediately snapped up by someone more secretarially qualified -- and more British. I have looked long and hard for a full-time job doing anything more challenging than waiting on tables or wrapping cheese, but I have not found one.

Then something utterly amazing happened: I sent some stories off to a writing competition and won first prize. Shortly after this, I entered a short story competition and won another prize. Someone paid me for another story, then a poem, then an essay. Admittedly, they all paid peanuts, but even a pittance that you earn through writing is huge. One thing led to another, and through writing -- and competing -- I met another writer, Kim Ayres, who encouraged me to start a blog. Until meeting Kim, I didn't even know what a blog was.

Even before that first wholly unexpected win, I was hooked on writing, but after this I began writing non-stop. If I'm ever properly published, I look forward to telling the world I became a writer because I could not make it as a legal secretary.

Now something else amazing has happened: our eldest daughter has passed her higher finals with flying colors and she has been accepted at the university of her choice. Upon learning this, my husband applied to over a dozen overseas teaching posts. Just last week, he and I were tentatively offered teaching posts in a land far away which I will not divulge as I do not want to tempt fate. So now we're packing up and moving away, and he'll take the high road and I'll take the low road, but we're all leaving Scotland together -- even our eldest, who claims this will be a kind of gap year for her. And although I am still bristling with stories, this is why I may not be able to post for some time.

It will be strange to be teaching full-time again, and there will be a lot of challenges getting used to living in yet another country. But I look forward to it too; waiting on tables and typing up depositions is only exciting for the first couple of weeks.

And whatever happens, I'll still be your Resident Alien.


Tabitha said...

Wow, Mary!! So many things in this post. Congratulations to your daughter, congratulations on the teaching job offer, (belated) congratulations on winning those story competitions, and I can't wait to hear which country you'll be living in next. I'm selfishly hoping for the US, because it means I might be able to meet up with you at a conference one of these days. :)

And, thank you, Kim, for telling Mary about blogging! :)

Katie Alender said...

Mary, how exciting! Every new event in your life is a great story for the rest of us.

Did you know you can set Blogger up to receive blog posts by email? You can cut down on your comment replies, we won't mind--as long as we get a few posts.

Jacqui said...

Congrats and congrats and congrats! I hope you won't be gone too long!

We eagerly await news and good luck!

(wow, that's a lot of !s...)

Christy said...

So exciting! I wish you the best of luck in your traveling and cannot wait to hear when you are settled in your new home.

AnneB said...

Mary, keep on taking notes, and write at least a one-sentence blog entry at at least twice a week so that we can keep up with what's happening!

I'm guessing--an ISL school in Thailand.

Eryl Shields said...

Oh crikey, you're off again! Great, congratulations to the two of you, I do hope it works out. Can't wait to hear what country you're going to, lord another country, I do envy you. I can't say I don't feel slightly sad because even though I only see you about three times a year I'll miss knowing you are just up the road. Are you selling up or will you keep the house? So many questions!

Kim Ayres said...

I am soooooo torn over this.

I know this is exactly what you and Mr Whitzl need, and I am so pleased and excited for you.

On the other hand I'm seriously upset that you're not going to be 50 minutes drive up the road anymore. I've loved those rare occasions when I've been able to call in, or you've been able to poke your head round our door.

And I was looking forward to many more years of this, only increasing the frequency of visits.

The only thing I can think of is you will have to find a way to convince where you're heading that it's vital they fly this guy from Scotland and his family out to visit you twice a year in order for you to work at optimum efficiency.

I'll even throw in some free web advice and photography for them.

Keep me up to date as I have to pop round at least once more before you leave.

debra said...

Wow, lots of changes, eh, Mary. Fingers crossed that whatever you'd like to happen does so with grace and aplomb (I love that word almost as much as plethora :-)

Jun Okumura said...

picking avocados is far easier than picking peppers

...and easier to say.

Good luck. Let me know when you and your husband are in the neighborhood again.

Merry Monteleone said...

Oh my! Congratulations, and safe travel, and congratulations again!!! And congratulate your daughter for me...

Can't wait to hear where you land... if it's anywhere close to Chicago let me know... or close to Sicily, let me visit :-)

Best of luck in everything and I'll keep stopping round for when you can post again.

Tigermama said...

Is it Lebanon?! I could show you how to drive these crazy streets! :)

Congratulations! May you have a stress-free and easy move.

Carolie said...

Oh, oh, oh, oh!! Mary, please write, please let me know if I will perhaps see you closer to my side of the world! (And let me know if I should go ahead and send off this half-filled box, or if it can wait until it's full...?)

Hurray for all of you, for your work ethic and your indomitable spirits!

Marcia said...

Lots of excitement! Congratulations!

Really enjoyed the info about picking peppers and avocados. My MIL always said, "You don't know what someone else's job entails until you try it yourself." I remember reading details in a novel about picking oranges properly. Makes you appreciate what it takes to put food on the world's tables.

kathie said...

Mary, Mary, Mary, this is a stunning development. YOu are amazing and will find an amazing spot to live for sure. I can't wait to hear more. Thanks for letting us into your life.

Mary Witzl said...

Tabitha -- Thank you. I'd love to meet you at a writing conference one of these days!

The competitions I won were what pushed me to write full-time. In all honesty, the first one I won was a fluke, but it was a good, useful fluke.

Katie -- Honestly, I need to sit down and learn all these things. I suspect they'd make my life much easier. And I appreciate you encouraging me to write more posts!

Jacqui -- Please wish us good luck. We could use some, believe me. I think I'll settle for a situation that is safe and reasonably stable.

Christy -- I'm supposed to be teaching 24 hours a week, which is a lot of hours. But I'm hoping that I can write -- and sneak out a few blog posts too. Otherwise what fun will I have?

Anne -- Ooh, Thailand would be fantastic -- I love Thai and Vietnamese food. But no, I'm not telling until that offer is on for real...

Eryl -- Come and see me and I can tell you all about it. And do you need any basil plants? I seem to have dozens -- and five different varieties, too.

Kim -- I still haven't accepted the verbal job offer I have been made, so we're only 95% decided at this point. Once they've cleared up a few points, we'll be able to relax -- for about five seconds. I feel the same way you do: I thought we'd be here a lot longer. Things have moved a lot faster than we thought they would. I'll call you!

Debra -- Grace, aplomb and plethora are all great words, aren't they? 'Aplomb' in particular sounds so weighty. Please keep your fingers crossed for us.

Jun -- What a great blog you have, and for a giddy moment, I hesitated to post a comment because you write so beautifully and on top of that, you post statistics. Just typing the word 'statistics' makes my mouth dry up, so I'm amazed I actually worked up the courage. But I'm glad I did!

Merry -- Thank you! We still can't get over the fact that the kid passed her exams. What she might have achieved if she had actually studied makes me feel a little wistful. I think she lucked out. We could all use a little of her luck...

Tigermama -- Send me an e-mail if you want and I'll tell you when we know for sure! Lebanon sounds (and looks) so beautiful. And a stress free move would be great, but what an oxymoron.

Carolie -- My work ethic pales next to my capricious spirit, but thank you! Please hang onto that box. My kids would almost sell their souls for furikake and nori, and they are greedily contemplating what might be in your package already.

Marcia -- (I've picked oranges too!) Your MIL is certainly right. I think farming nowadays is a lot easier than it used to be in many respects, but the people doing the picking and planting still earn far too little for their labor.

Kathie -- I only hope that the place we settle in will be safe! Once I've satisfied myself that it is stable and relatively safe, I am hoping it will be amazing too.

Angela said...

Enjoy your new adventure. I can't wait to hear where you are moving to!

I started babysitting before I was 10, my first job was selling refreshments at the city pool when I was 12.

I think teaching will inspire your writing.

Gorilla Bananas said...

Sounds like another adventure in prospect! Wonderful that your children seem to be excited about it too.

Carole said...

Well, as I was reading this, and enjoying your varied careers, I found myself so sad that you are moving away. Your writing makes me feel like you are next door and that we often have tea and crumpets together. I was thinking I would miss our little visits and then I remembered. So now, I am as excited as everyone else to read your posts, from whatever country you move too.

I've written it down(the country I think you are going to)so I can see if I guessed right, when you finally tell us.

Angela said...

Wow, wow, wow! I'm thrilled for you and your family, and I admit, gleeful myself because I know that more wonderful stories will be coming once you arrive in your yet-to-be-disclosed locale. We'll miss you and eagerly await your return to blogger land!!

Alice said...

Mary - I love you...but you are SOOOO evil to leave me hanging like this.

(Why don't you secretly e-mail me where you are heading!?!?)

(And then I'll save up to visit you.)

(Please tell me you're going to Fiji.)

Robin said...

Mary, major congratulations! For you, your husband, and your daughter! That's wonderful.
I can't believe you are so incredibly busy, yet graciously answered my silly e mail, and agreed to read my stupid book. You should have told me to "sod off"! Good luck with the move!

Carrie said...

Selfish witch that I am, my first reaction to this post was "NO--YOU CAN'T STOP BLOGGING!!!!!!!!!!" I will really miss your posts while you're away, but look forward to hearing about your new adventures! Congratulations!

Ello said...

Hey Mary - I haven't been around because I've been so busy finalizing my manuscript and have begun the querying process - and school is just a week away!

Am so happy for you - congratulations for all the great news in this post! I think it is all wonderful and best of luck to you all!

Mary Witzl said...

Angela (the Tiger!) -- Kids are so coddled and cushioned nowadays, that it's hard to imagine any I know babysitting before the age of 10. I started babysitting early, like you (for one or two kids at a time), but my fourteen-year-old feels she is too young for this. I intend to remind her of this when she wants to start dating.

GB -- You are right: our kids are absolutely thrilled with the idea. They don't have to pack books, put furniture in storage or sort out passports.

Carole -- It DOES feel like we have tea and crumpets together! Do you like your crumpets lightly toasted, or brown and crackly? (I like mine lightly toasted, actually.) And how about Earl Grey tea? Now I feel sad. I just got three jars of homemade raspberry jam and I'd love to share them with someone.

E-mail me (or Kim) and you can find out if you're right about the country!

Angela -- I want so badly to keep writing! I'm worried that my teaching schedule will make it hard, but I intend to give it my best. Our eldest has promised to do housework during the week, but I know how that goes. I'm steeling myself for a full-time job, then a full-time stint at home, cooking and cleaning.

Alice -- I would love to go to Fiji! We applied for a whole slew of jobs, but sadly, Fiji did not come up. There was a heady moment when it looked like my husband might land a job teaching Gurkhas in Nepal, though.

Robin -- I've already heard about your book and I'm looking forward to reading it. I've got teenagers and they're angsty and moody; your book will really come in handy, especially if it's funny.

Carrie -- Thank you -- I'll be back! You can't imagine how much it pleases me that people enjoy reading my posts. Even if all you guys are lying, I don't care, I'm still pleased.

Ello -- Congratulations on getting that far! I'm still messing with my manuscripts too, though I think they're going to have to sit in the back seat for a few weeks or more, unless moving is a lot easier than it looks like it will be. And that is never the case...

Kara said...

damn. you people have some balls just picking up and moving like that. i'm going to call you The Nomads. you're now Mrs. Nomad. nicknames are non-negotiable.

All Rileyed Up said...

Oh my goodness! Congrats and good luck! Can't wait to see where you go next. I told you you were worldly!

I tried to email you but the message didn't go through. Thought you might find this article interesting--

And three cheers to the jack of all trades! And no better place to be, ha ha...

Kappa no He said...

Amazing! I can't wait to find out where. And if it's Japan...let me know!

Mary Witzl said...

Kara -- I love that title, 'Mrs Nomad'. Can I keep it?

We really do have some balls, though -- you're right. Four exercise balls (one aqua, one purple, one red, one grey), three soccer balls, a whole set of boules, fifteen tennis balls, and more of those little colored ones you get out of gum machines than I care to count.

Riley -- I feel very worldly lately, going through all our possessions.

I read about Prime Minister Fukuda's decision not to pay his respects at Yasukuni jinja just before I got your e-mail. I applaud him for making this choice and hope that he will be in power a long time. Thank God the last fellow didn't last long.

Kappa -- We may well be back in Japan one of these days and if we are, I'll get in touch!

Danette Haworth said...

Mary, Good luck on the move and the upcoming job. Good luck to your daughter and your husband on their new endeavors. I hope all goes well!

Mary Witzl said...

Thank you, Danette! Right now I'm just hoping we survive the next week. One small step at a time...