The Art of Instability
stability. n. 3. continuance without change; permanence. 5. resistance to change, esp. sudden change. 8. a vow taken by a Benedictine monk, binding him to residence for life in the same monastery. Random House Dictionary of the English Language
Verification came with the swiftness of a pouncing owl: Mine was not the "usual" job history.
We were asked to stand, several hundred of us, and the ones who had worked for just one employer were then asked to sit. Half of those members of the Oregon State University class of 1958 who had returned for their 30th reunion sat back down. I was startled first by the sound --- the rustle of thin dresses, the grind of chair legs against the parquet floor --- and then by the realization that all these people, many of whom I had known as carefree, had dropped into neat slots at such an early age.
I pictured them rising each work day for 30 years, eating the same brand of breakfast cereal and plodding off to a dreary repetition of the day before, with no thought to the possibilities of life --- too faint of heart to sniff the intoxicating mixture of euphoria and fear that comes with every waking breath to one swept by wind and tide.
I first learned of instability as a way of life in January, 1969, when I charged off to Boise, Idaho, armed with the lofty title of Corporate and Financial Press Relations Manager for Boise Cascade Corporation, a wild weed in the burgeoning field of conglomeration.
It was there that I encountered Mark Christopher Israel Stewart XXVII, a one-man think tank employed for the amusement of a senior vice president. The first account I had of him was written across the pinched face of my normally imperturbable secretary: "There's this...man out here!" she moaned.
Mark poked his head in and whooped "Aha!" He had read of my arrival and had come to probe my mind. To my surprise, I bared my soul. He, in return, led me like a newborn babe into the labyrinth of artful instability.
He explained why he hopped on one foot around corners like a Keystone Cop, plunged headlong into swift streams just shy of the lips of waterfalls, and slid toward goals under the outstretched arms of adversity: To keep from ever slipping into a groove, or settling to the muck and mire of that grave alternative, stability.
The secret lay in looking forward to change --- striking fear from your vocabulary, and being ready to jump at a moment's notice. To these I added: Letting your heart rule your head.
I was thrilled by the realization that I had practiced Mark's brand of instability from an early age!
At 15, I waved off my Eagle Scout award after having met all the requirements. When T.J. Wilson, who shared scoutmaster duties at Troop 127, vented a long-simmering disagreement with his spit-polished counterpart, I marched out to help him form Troop 129. My Eagle application languished, and finally lapsed.
My experiences as assistant scoutmaster were hilarious, like the time at Camp Meriwether when T.J. took sick upon our arrival and left me in charge of an unruly mob of 12-year-old Tenderfoots. (T.J. miraculously recovered on the last day of our two-week stay.)
Had I stuck with Old Blood-and-Thunder, I now would be able to point to a badge. Because I left, I have stories to tell.
As a senior at Lake Oswego High School, I won a four-year Navy ROTC scholarship. My advisor, Miss Barbey, went catatonic when I informed her. She even phoned the Navy Department to confirm, so great was her disbelief.
She, sister to Admiral Barbey of World War Two fame, expected nothing short of ruin for me, for reasons I did not fully fathom for years --- in a nutshell, my appetite for artful instability. And here I was, about to sully her illustrious brother's branch of the service with my contemptible presence!
I did everything necessary to become an officer in the U.S. Navy, then changed course six months shy of receiving my commission, and my baccalaureate degree. I had discovered, over three and a half years as a Midshipman, that my love of ships and oceans was no match for my loathing of the military mindset.
I reveled as mid-watch lookout in the crow's nest of the Battleship Wisconsin when even seven layers of clothing failed to keep the North Sea chill from my bones, and as forward lookout on the Destroyer Bristol in the Caribbean when pods of dolphins cut across the bow by day, and luminescent jellyfish lit the pale green waters by night --- but I flat-out withered when asked to judge the military fitness of my "inferiors."
So, away I went in pursuit of my Muse, who at the time resided in Greenwich Village. The chair once reserved for Dylan Thomas at The White Horse Tavern was still warm (to my mind, if not my behind) when first I sat there.
I crashed at the flat of the model for Lady Brett Ashley (a fact gleaned from Hemingway's intimate inscription on the frontispiece of The Sun Also Rises. I partied at Mary McCarthy's. I was fed after-hours by the bartender who fed Thomas Wolfe after-hours. I thrilled to Maria Callas in La Traviata at the Met.
I soaked up the jazz that remains part and parcel of my soul: Duke Ellington. Miles Davis. Gerry Mulligan. Ben Webster. Dizzy Gillespie. The Modern Jazz Quartet. Dave Brubeck and Paul Desmond. Count Basie and Ella Fitzgerald swinging into Lullaby of Birdland --- at Birdland!
The point was, and still is: Most straight-line activities become deadly dull in a fat hurry. I would have wasted away as a lowly Ensign in a weighty chain of command. As a free spirit, not knowing where my next meal was coming from, I thrived.
The emcee at the class reunion asked those still on their feet to sit down if they had worked at only two jobs. Another rush of sound ensued. After three, I found myself face to face with a woman whose smug expression told me I had better climb on my horse and hightail it out of town.
"Eight!" she boomed.
"Sixteen!" I shot back.
She collapsed to her chair. A gasp arose around the banquet hall. "That's not possible!" a man shouted, leaping to his feet. He wanted proof, so I rattled off my resume, bang-bang-bang, until he slumped to his chair.
I accepted the prize --- a coffee mug with (irony alert) OSU Grad on its side --- before the meaning sank in: I had held 16 jobs in the 30 years since my original class passed into the real world --- and they'd had a full year's jump on me!
After returning to Oregon, I graduated from Portland State College (now University) and went looking for a newspaper job. The best offer I received from Portland's newspaper of record, The Oregonian, was a two-year stint as a copy boy, followed by an indeterminate period of rewriting obituaries.
I hired on as a reporter and photographer for the Oregon City Enterprise-Courier, a small town daily. In addition to covering seven beats and shooting half the photos, I wrote a humor column on my own time, just for the fun of it. When I started, I was a lousy typist, and I'd never handled a camera more complex than a Brownie Instamatic --- but I got up to speed in a flash!
Less than a year later I was fired. I still chuckle when I recall the publisher trotting at my heels down Main Street, pleading with me to stay, explaining how the managing editor had canned some of the state's best journalists. Martin Clark. William Sanderson. Future Pulitzer-Prize-winning investigative reporter William Lambert. Despite being a month shy of parenthood, and stone broke, I walked away happy.
My job search took me to daily papers in Salem, Eugene, Pendleton, Astoria, Medford, Walla Walla, and finally, Bend, where the editor of The Bulletin told me the state's tourist promotion agency was looking for a writer, and the job was closing that afternoon. I screamed across Santiam Pass, pedal to the metal, and landed the job --- even without taking the mandatory civil service exam.
It was a dream job, more like play than work: I bounced from beach to mountaintop to desert, wined and dined travel writers and editors at plush resorts, immersed myself in the beauty of the state, and put my thoughts and feelings into words.
Had I stayed, I might have become a top-level bureaucrat drawing a fancy salary.
Fate spared me in the form of John Armstrong, former editor of The Oregonian's Northwest Magazine, but then the director of Information Services at Reed College --- and, fortunately for me, a member of the State Travel Advisory Board, later changed to the Oregon Tourism Commission. I had attracted notice by initiating a travel industry newsletter, and creating a rock hounding brochure featuring a detailed map, with no budget and in-house design and printing services. It was a hit with little promotion, while requests for the high-budget, glossy, full-color, ad agency ski brochure, advertised in national publications, trickled in.
"How would you like to become my assistant?" he asked, pointing out, in the same breath, an obvious drawback: The person who previously held the job had been recalled into the Navy for a year (Berlin Crisis) and could, by law, reclaim his old post, though he had stated his intention to stay in the service.
"Sure," said I, "why not?" I was primed and ready to throw over my cushy spot for a job which not only might end in a year, but also scared the hell out of me. What did I know about managing a college news bureau? What did I know about editing a quarterly alumni magazine?
My predecessor suffered a stroke in The Philippines and came back to reclaim his job. John invited me down to the University Club two days before Christmas and plied me with stiff drinks and scintillating conversation before dropping the bomb. Oh, but what a fantastic year it was!
I managed to shake up alumni who were accustomed to reading The Sallyport, but now were forced to look at it as well. The storm of protest following my second issue, which featured on its cover a comely coed in a spring frock ensconced in the crotch of a flowering apple tree, still tingles my spine. "Not a Reedie!" they raged, shaking their fists, despite the open tome in her shapely hands.
I also sat beneath a weeping willow tree with poet Donald Hall and talked of life and love. Drove Aldous and Sir Julian Huxley all over northwestern Oregon, listening hard as the brothers discussed such heady topics as Victor Hugo's sexual proclivities and the impending end of humanity. Hosted Dr. Leo Szilard, co-holder, with Enrico Fermi, of the patent on nuclear fission, and fervent peace advocate. And staved off assaults on the college by people and organizations opposed to the speaking appearance of Gus Hall, America's top Communist at a time when any Communist, top or bottom, drew more potshots than a bull elk on a rural right-of-way.
Years later, after prolonging a case of 24-hour flu in order to finish J.R.R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings, I returned to my job as public information director for First National Bank of Oregon and promptly gave two weeks notice --- effective, coincidentally, on my fifth anniversary. I consider it a narrow escape. I am forever in Tolkien's debt.
Between the bank and Boise Cascade, my sixth job in 10 years, I went to work as public relations director for Oregon's largest home-owned advertising agency, despite a warning from an agency art director --- a high school friend I'd hired to design publications for the bank --- that the agency was about to blow apart.
It happened, and through the final six months, I witnessed a feeding frenzy as three factions fought over the client list like hyenas over a day-old lion kill.
My penchant for instability has saved me time and again. Still, I've managed to meet financial obligations, provide for a family, and indulge a wide variety of pastimes. To me, instability is not an excuse for sloth, but a spur to lofty attainment.
This is not to say I view my approach as a paradigm for all to follow. What I do advocate is a willingness not only to accept change, but to seek it out --- to loosen the ties that bind you to a place, a lifestyle, a job, so you're able to bail out when the time seems right, or you're forced, with the tip of a saber inches from your ribs, to jump ship.
In my experience, not knowing what the future holds beats a dead certainty hands down. It fills your sails with a sense of adventure. It teaches you fancy footwork. It gives you a heady rush of adrenaline, not unlike the stage fright that turns to bliss once the curtain rises.
As I write this, I am emerging from my longest stint ever --- six years --- as a paid employee. I look forward with unbridled glee to being out of work, to knowing my spirit is free again.
I may splatter on the rocks, splash to a boiling cauldron, or disappear into the black abyss, but right now I am turning somersaults and hooting like a loon.
Epilogue: This was written January 1, 1993, the day after my last full-time job ended. (The politician I worked for retired.) Since I was close to having the first draft of a novel, I decided there would never be a better time to go for it. Six weeks later, a man driving twice the limit through a residential neighborhood and reading something on the passenger seat, according to an eyewitness, broadsided my Toyota sedan with his Jeep Grand Cherokee. For the better part of three years, except for brief spans of lucidity, I was unable to write. When the fog lifted, I plunged into reviving the Oregon Poetry Association, and saving Canemah Bluff --- a site above the Falls of the Willamette south of Oregon City brimming with cultural, historical, geological, and ecological significance --- from a housing development. Best of all, I renewed my relationship with my Muse, writing and publishing "Petty Frogs on the Potomac" in 1997, a work that presaged the Abominable Conman currently ensconced in the not-so-White House, "a populist whose first act will be to order a gold throne."
Comment by Ginger: "If ever I needed to read something at the right time, this is it. It has been 16 years since my high school graduation, and since college I've worked 2 jobs. I am bored OUT OF MY MIND. The job is not bad; the sameness is soul sucking. I dread opening the door I've opened countless times before. I hate the wallpaper. I love this whole story and this line especially: 'In my experience, not knowing what the future holds beats a dead certainty hands down.' I'd rather have adventures good and bad - the stuff which great stories are made! Parking in the same spot for 13 years does not make a life. I've got to stop doing that, hehe. I'll keep you posted on when I get to "turning somersaults and hooting like a loon."
Comment by me: I tracked down Ginger this afternoon (3-6-17) and learned that she did indeed quit her soul-sucking job --- to become a glass bead artist! (Coincidentally, I collect glass trade beads, ancient through 19th century.) If I'm able to make contact, I'll flesh out her daring act of instability.
Carpe diem, y’all!