Good lessons can come the hard way

By Jenny Neyman

Redoubt Reporter

For many kids on the Kenai Peninsula on Saturday — and across the state and the rest of the nation — their first work experience came in setting up and operating their own minibusiness as part of Lemonade Day.

For me, commerce at age 6 meant hunting for slugs with a salt shaker. This might not make sense to anyone who hasn’t attempted to maintain a garden in a rain forest, but those sodium-sensitive globs of congealed snot can swiss cheese a rhubarb leaf in a day if left to their slow-moving digestive devastation. The gig paid 5 cents per dissolved slug, via my mom. Profits were invested in a diverse portfolio of frozen stock — cherry Otter Pops, orange Push-Up Pops and, if business was really booming, chocolate-vanilla swirl Pudding Pops.

I once, in second grade, got paid a dollar at recess to give a classmate lessons in being nice. It entailed me following the girl around and telling her not to punch people. Or at least help them up when she didn’t heed my first suggestion.

In third grade, I decided I wanted to be a roller-skating waitress when I grew up. I have no idea why. I couldn’t skate well with my hands free, much less encumbered by a tray of burgers and malts. Come to think of it, I didn’t even know what a malt was. And a brief stint waitressing when I was 13 proved I had no aptitude for the food service part, either.

At around 10 years old, I had a standing contract with a neighbor to find and return their family cat when it heard the call of the wild and headed for the hills — in this case, the nearby lumber mill yard — as it did every couple months.

By age 12, I and many other kids in our Southeast Alaska town spent our summers pickaxing garnets from slabs of mica schist, shining them up and hawking them to tourists at the ferry and cruise ship docks. (I realize, in retrospect, that this sounds like child labor, but given what we made it was not exploitive. Let’s just say we were livin’ the Pudding Pop life.)

I’ve mowed lawns, stained decks, sat kids, cleared brush, dug ditches, run theatrical lighting, lugged sound equipment and been a concert bouncer. No military service, but food service, customer service and lip service (aka, public relations).

Most were done of some sort of necessity — bills to pay, time to fill, favors to return. None I would consider to be integral to what has become my “career” — whatever that means in this day and age of people shifting professions an average of three to seven times. Certainly none I would list on a professional resume.

A few I viscerally hated, some I tolerated and even of the ones I enjoyed, none are anything I’d want to do again as a means of support. If I had to go back to one it’d be slug hunting, if it weren’t for the effect of recession on the value of a nickel. Alas, another victim of a slowing economy.

There were some miserable moments — thorny salmonberry bushes raking sunburn blisters, meeting a 4 a.m. ferry in the pouring rain hoping at least one of the passengers briefly disembarking to walk their dogs would have enough money and sympathy to buy something — please-oh-please anything! — or conferencing with the cook over an order for eggs Benedict because neither of us knew what the yellowish glop on top was supposed to be (we went with a mixture of canned nacho cheese, mayo and Thousand Island dressing and got back, as one would imagine, an untouched plate and no tip.)

But even though I don’t care to do them now, I wouldn’t undo any of those experiences. Even the worst jobs teach you what you don’t want to do, and that’s a lesson not to be undervalued.

My most random, dead-end or supposedly irrelevant job experiences have been my most meaningful. You learn a lot more about how to work doing something you dislike than something you love. Growth, after all, doesn’t come from comfort, nor does motivation from complacency.

From lawn mowing I learned that some jobs just take a certain amount of time. Push too fast and you’ll end up with a cut that’s patchier than a Norwegian teenager trying to grow his first beard.

From selling garnets I learned that it isn’t always the product that matters so much as the packaging — a little baby-oil shine and a cheap velvety display mat inevitably helped fetch a higher price for the same old rock. And that even competition is an opportunity, as I made a killing selling cookies to the other garnet vendors who had little impulse control yet plenty of cash at their disposal.

From waitressing I learned that it’s sometime best to own up when you can’t do something: “I’m sorry Ma’am, but you’re in a diner in Bush Alaska with sh–t on a shingle on the menu. Neither I nor the cook can even pronounce ‘Hollandaise’ sauce, much less make it for you in any form that you’re going to want to eat.”

I’ve learned about patience — and relearned, and relearned, and need to learn it again — humility, resourcefulness, how to be managed, how to manage others and, most valuable of all, how to manage myself. From earning money when I’ve really needed it I’ve learned to value how far it will and will not go. But I’ve also learned that what distinguishes the good jobs from the bad is very rarely strictly a matter of numbers on a check.

From the smiles on their faces, the lessons learned by the kids participating in Lemonade Day were all good ones — primarily, that work can be fun. If that’s these kids’ first work experience, then it’s a great one.

Soon enough they’ll inevitably have to learn some of the harder lessons the harder ways. At least, I certainly hope that’s the case. Because it’s my fervent wish that they all eventually find careers that put those same smiles on their faces. But just like you won’t know the supremacy of fresh-squeezed, real-ingredient lemonade until you’ve had the powdered, you can’t know and enjoy a good job until you’ve had the bad.

Jenny Neyman is a reporter and editor for the Redoubt Reporter.

Working it

What’s the most irrelevant-to-your-career job you’ve had, and what did you learn from it?

  • Aaron Selbig, news director, KBBI public radio in Homer — “U.S. Army infantryman. In most ways, including money, it was less than ideal. In a 17-year-old-kid-learning-about-life kind of way, it was useful.”
  • Lane Schwartz, master’s degree in philosophy from Cambridge and a doctorate in education — “Movie theatre/video store worker. I learned how to make awesome popcorn.”
  • Robyn Sullens, marketing consultant at KSRM Radio Group in Kenai — Working on a crab processing ship in the Bering Sea for three months at age 18. “It was for quick money but I was exposed to a whole new world living on the Bering Sea and will always be grateful for the experience, but will never again eat crab.”
  • Rashah McChesney, photojournalist at the Peninsula Clarion — Working at a gyro stand in Ames, Iowa, for a year during college. “Probably the greatest job I’ve had thus far if only because the work ethic was such that you could always count on everyone to do more than their fair share of work and everything got done when it was supposed to get done. Add the music and dancing in the streets and it was a blissful time. Plus, no one gets pissed at the lady who gives them food when they’re drunk.”
  • Randy Daly, owner of Hi-Speed Gear! — “I’ve been working since I was 12. I’ve learned something at every job. Then again, I’m not as bright as some.”
  • Marc Berezin, database engineer and retired teacher — Working as a Chicago taxi driver, and a job as manager of an Earl Schieb auto paint shop. “Both jobs taught me what a degree in psychology qualifies me for.”
  • Kelly Keating-Griebel, Realtor — “When I was 17, I delivered tickets for the Alaska Peace Officers spring concert fundraiser. There are some INTERESTING FOLKS out there.”
  • Libby Berezin, ceramics artist with a degree in literature — “I worked in the cornfields of Illinois, de-tasseling seed corn for megafarms. Corn leaves can cut you to shreds.”
  • April Emmorey, preschool provider and seasonal compliance officer for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game — Working in a haunted forest one October to raise some quick cash in college. “I learned that there are moose in Idaho. October was freezing cold. It was fun, though.”
  • Marti Dusenbury-Pepper, Realtor — Being one of the few English speakers working at a hops farm at age 16, and a wire operator for Smith Barney investors in Boston in her early 20s. “I made more money on the hops farm.”
  • Sally Cassano-Archuleta — “After being a heavy-equipment mechanic for years in the mining industry, then a millwright in the timber industry, I moved to Alaska and fell into a job frying donuts for a local bakery. Funnest job ever, worst pay ever. Didn’t care.”
  • Penny McClain, ceramics artist and staff at Soldotna Professional Pharmacy — Working one day at a liquor store. “Hated it and only took it because I needed a job. Found out I can buy liquor but I can’t sell it.”
  • Daryl Palmer, information technology and composition director at the Peninsula Clarion — “Cleaned a butcher shop every night. Taught me the value of cleanliness.”
  • Maria Allison, musician — “Worked at a Russell Stover’s Candy Factory. It was good for eating all the chocolate I ever wanted. And in retrospect, makes me shake my head wondering how I could work a swing shift, go to graduate school and write a masters thesis? Maybe prepared me for the shifts in activities we have to do constantly.”
  • Rhonda McCormick, Kenai Watershed Forum — “Either hotel maid or bagger at Safeway. Didn’t earn much money at either but know not to put perfumed/scented items with groceries.”
  • Pattey Parker, account manager at Baker Hughes — “Working in cannery out in South Naknek. (I learned) I didn’t want to professionally work in a cannery, or live in South Naknek.”
  • JP Bennett, teacher — “For one summer while in college I was an armed guard during the midnight shift at a Coca-Cola bottling plant in Detroit. I asked my boss if I was really supposed to shoot someone who was trying to steal some Coke. The guy didn’t like my attitude.”
  • Lorrene Forbes, teacher — “Worked one summer assembling the boxes, packing and stapling closed the boxes for small pool tables. Hot, on concrete floors and no iPods so mind-numbingly boring. Helped earn college tuition money because I knew I didn’t want factory jobs.”
  • Johna Beech, director of the Kenai Chamber of Commerce and Visitors Center — “Peddling perfume out of the trunk of a car in Phoenix. I learned that I was not a very good cold-call salesperson and that truck stops were skeevy!”
  • Bill Holt, commercial fisherman and retired teacher — Hot-walking thoroughbred race horses at Del Mar race track was the shortest job Holt ever had. “Six hours until a million-dollar horse looked me in the eye, stepped on my foot and crushed my little toe. I didn’t learn much but I’ll never trust those big horsey eyes again.” Holt’s first job was in the seventh grade playing an extra in the movie, “The Music Man.” “Marched around ‘River City’ at Warner Bros. studio for a week. I was one of the 76 trombones leading the hit parade. The best part was this requirement: We had to do schoolwork four hours a day and our classroom was the Tiki bar of the original ‘Hawaii 5-0’ set. ‘Book ’em, Danno!’ I made enough money to buy a real racing bike.”
  • Molly Dischner, reporter for the Alaska Journal of Commerce — “I learned how to attach electrodes to someone’s head for a job one winter break. Sadly, it was the beginning of the study and I never got to actually hook them up.”
  • Betsy Martinez — “Pulling weeds out of beet fields one summer in North Dakota. I learned that money wasn’t easy, and also about the benefits of sunscreen.”
  • Terry Rensel, program director at KBBI — Cut excess material off of parts in a plastics shop one summer during college and pulled metal parts out of an industrial washer. “Getting 150-degree heat blown on me for 10 hours a day right before moving to Alaska. They were both just paychecks, but on the second job I lost 40 pounds and was back down to my high school weight. It was a nice, mindless job … reminded me that I could do anything for a finite amount of time, and motivated me to keep chasing radio jobs.”
  • Ed Kobak, director of media relations at Twin Cities Raceway — Assistant to a butcher in a grocery store in Vermont at age 17, which required wearing a white shirt, good pants and good shoes, despite getting soaked everyday with bloodstains. “Learned real fast that an education is a great thing. And to buy a lot of clip-on ties. I was out of there in three weeks and back to working at the ski resort, which was a whole lot better!”
  • Rocky Laster, co-owner of the Kasilof Mercantile — Among many other jobs, Laster has sold magazine subscriptions in back roads West Virginia where he was repeatedly told no one in the house could read, butchered crab on a floating processor in the Pribilof Islands, washed 3,000 trays per meal in a 125-degree kitchen on an aircraft carrier in the Persian Gulf, removed seeds from produce on an organic farm in northern California next to the redwoods, worked in chocolate factory on the Washington/Canada border, deckhand on a halibut charter, set-netted in Cook Inlet, delivered pizzas, sold cotton candy at Harlem Globetrotters games, Monster Truck rallies and other events. “I’m dumber now than I’ve ever been. I’ve learned squat. Life is beautifully absurd.”

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