(I promised two outings, and two outings I shall deliver. The first, my solo hike last Monday, wound up spilling over into four installments. I don’t expect the second one to take that much space , but we’ll have to see how it goes.)
Talk about contrast! The very next day after my hike on Kamiak Butte, I had a completely different type of event on my calendar. With it came an utterly different experience.
Since I decided not to return to college after the winter break, I have been without a job and trying to clearly define my career goals. Seeking as much information as I could obtain about career opportunities in the area, I was pleased to learn that Our State University was sponsoring a career fair in The Big Coliseum On Campus. I set out to prepare at least as well as I had for my hike: printing up a stack of resumes, properly packing my briefcase, and dusting off my Interview Suit:
I figured I was ready to go, and so I went. (Irony alert: as I type this, my Jango streaming station is playing “Ants Marching” by Dave Matthews. Go figure.) My Dear Wife and I went in together that morning, as she had class or office hours or something, and we agreed to meet up later. She says that she tried to warn me about events like this, and I don’t deny the possibility that it happened. At the same time, I don’t remember it either. I wish I had.
I walked into the midst of an amorphous snowstorm of voices, bodies, tables, signs, and sunlight. By sunlight, I mean the harsh, glaring kind that streams through large plate-glass windows and heats a space uncomfortably. I followed the flow of the crowd as best I could, moving clockwise through the broad atrium surrounding the main arena. Smiling people stood tall at tables covered in pamphlets, pens, and other swag, ready to Answer All My Questions and Engage in Constructive Dialogue about Optimizing the Process for Sustaining Initiatives to Maximize Throughput and Enhance Value, or…something. Eager young undergraduates in slim-cut suits and contemporary haircuts calmly milled about, somehow able to hold conversations in the nightclub-level volume. I could barely hear myself think, and what little of that I could hear was yelling, “RUN!” Even now I feel myself tensing up to remember it. (Now playing: “One Way Out” by the Allman Brothers. No kidding.)
I got around and through, more by dint of stubborn determination than desire, and left the way I came. After catching my breath and feeling my heart rate settle, I walked back to My Dear Wife’s office for a cup of tea, a turkey sandwich, and a pat on the shoulder. She was properly sympathetic to my shell-shocked state, attributing it somewhat to hunger as I worked through my second turkey sandwich; and convinced me to give it another go. On the walk back, I spent some time clearing my mind; breathing rhythmically, walking deliberately, keeping to the less-crowded side of the street. Now that I knew the layout, I figured, I could navigate the space and get something done here. I’ll be fine; people do this sort of thing all the time.
If they do, they’re not people like me; I don’t know how they manage. Almost immediately upon returning I felt the tightness in my chest, the shortness of my breath, and the inability to make eye contact that mark the onset of an anxiety attack. I gamely pressed on, determined to make it around once more. Career ‘fair’? Maybe the fair when you get lost after dark and wind up behind the carny trailers with a creepy off-duty clown. This felt more like a gauntlet than a ride. I would “pull over” at every exit door and stand over the air vents in the floor, gratefully sucking in spare oxygen, then try to merge back into the chaotic human traffic of the broad hallway. The high ambient noise level made thought, let alone conversation, impossible for me. The Brownian motion of the crowd kept me unbalanced enough that I couldn’t even formulate a plan past “keep moving.”
I finally emerged from the throng into an open area near the check-in desk, where a kindly counselor offered me a chair and a drink of water. I sat by myself for quite a few minutes, drawing a map of Kamiak Butte on my portfolio pad and getting my breathing back under control. The kindly counselor was able to draw me out of my protective shell and into a conversation about the madness of the career fair and alternative job-search methods. To my relief, she reassured me that I wasn’t alone in my reaction and that all the employers there welcomed web inquiries. I passed her my resume, and she gave me her business card; it was the most substantive contact I made all day.
Relieved that I had managed to salvage something from the wreckage of the afternoon, I was able to leave with my head high and my eyes dry. The contrast between this day and the one before was as stark as the stripes on a freshly-painted road, and what it told me about who I am and how I function-or don’t-is something I have yet to fully unravel and understand. Even if I’m not alone, where does that leave me? Do I prefer being outdoors to being indoors by that much? Am I hopelessly shy, or am I just hopeless in large groups? Is the “career fair” format simply not feasible? How do I maximize my strengths and compensate for my weaknesses in a career search? And what shall I do? I’m not sure, after all those years in restaurants and all my solo ramblings, that I’m cut out for an office job. Tramping through the woods, then writing about it, may have too limited an appeal. Is the best of both worlds possible? I’ll have to find out.