Thursday, March 19, 2009

Fly Brother and the Curse of the Aimless Intellectual

Image by 60$

Warning: Long post, but good. Really.

There is one tiny personality quirk that separates me from millions of other second-generation college grads who went into the career field they studied and now bring home mid- to high-five figures (if, alas, they are still employed), pay a mortgage (well...), and own a flat-screen plasma TV: incurable wanderlust.

It's this wanderlust that first sent me to Sweden at age 16, then to the Dominican Republic five years later, and now to a life of indefinite and bittersweet self-exile. Not that I'm anti-American or anti-9-to-5; I've just always felt called toward a less traditional path to greatness. My problem, however, is that I haven't the foggiest idea about the actual endeavor in which I will become great.

From elementary school until about the 10th grade, I wanted to be a great architect. Then I failed algebra. I entered undergrad a broadcast journalism major and graduated with a degree in political science; I just knew I was going to be a congressman and eventually a senator representing the Sunshine State in Washington. But after working in state and national government, I learned that, sadly, if "they" can't find any dirt in your past, "they'll" make something up. I saw many a young, promising, politically-inclined brother sidelined this way. So, I gave myself two choices: grad school or the Foreign Service. I applied to both; passing the written Foreign Service Exam, but declining to take the oral because I had been accepted to the University of Miami's creative writing program with a full scholarship (and W. had just been elected, and I couldn't, in good conscience, defend that bastid or his policies). After a year, I transferred to the American University in Washington, where I snagged a TESOL certificate along with my Masters. From there, I headed to Colombia with the intention of teaching English until my Big Break - essentially "waiting tables" until the heartbreaking work of staggering genius also known as my first novel was published.

Four years and a very-close-but-no-cigar-moment-with-a-big-publishing-house later, I'm at the crossroads of another major life decision. Youthful, foolish, uncapped discretionary spending sent me from a stimulating-yet-poorly-paid university teaching post to a lucrative-yet-lunacy-inducing high school position (résumé titles for this job include Booby Hatch Babysitter and Shawshank Security Staff). And despite glowing references from supervisors and unexpected appreciation from students, I realize that teaching ain't where my greatness lies (or, at least, not my greatest greatness).

I am surer than ever, though, that the astonishingly intoxicating Brazil is indeed the place where that greatness will come to fruition, and no matter where I see myself in the very-short-term, I'm poisoned with a visceral desire to live there soon.

There's still a persistent, nagging hope that writing is the path (and that six-digit student loan debt was not accrued in vain), hence this blog and several oft-discussed fiction and non-fiction projects. Some suggest my photography, which is decent and has been occasionally published. Considering that teaching has always been my fall-back plan, though, it's no wonder that I've been more successful at my fall-back plan than at my other pursuits; considering that I hardly have the time or energy to pursue those pursuits because my fall-back plan is full-time. (Are you noticing that I like to use hyphenated words, repetitive conjugations, and "considering" in my writing?) Still, a brotha gotta eat.

Over the last 18 months, I've pondered several possible paths to greatness, considering my talents, expertise, experience, education, interests, and desires:

PhD candidate in history and writer: I contacted faculty members at the universities of Florida, Miami, and Emory in Atlanta about history doctoral programs at their institutions. Both Florida and Georgia have all-expenses-paid fellowship programs for students of color (click the state for more info), and I was definitely hip to the idea of teaching for a few semesters, traveling in-between, going on sabbatical for a year to write, then completing that cycle again for the next thirty years. Then I read this. And this. And this. So basically, according to The New York Times at least, I can forget about that little pipe dream.

Diplomat and writer: Inspired by Presidential Fly Brother Obama's pledge to increase the agency's reach, and having passed the written FSE once before, I figured I'd make a dashing, culturally-informed addition to the U.S. Foreign Service. However, being sent from Baghdad to Astana to Ouagadougou every three years before finally getting to choose my posting, plus not being able to go to certain neighborhoods or cities or use normal forms of transportation seemed to shackle the very freedom that travel and living abroad is supposed to represent. I'm a dictator, I don't get dictated to. But then, who knows what I'll decide after five more years of unfettered globetrotting?

Model and writer:
Why not?

Flight attendant and writer:
Seriously. Before the bottom dropped from under the economy, it dropped from under the aviation industry during the gas spike last summer. Before that, I was actually considering a job as airline steward for Delta, which publicly advertised for Portuguese-speaking hosties and privately intimated that they needed more men on the planes for security reasons. Though my personality and physical being is better suited to the position of pilot, I had not the money nor the time/patience to enrol in flight school, and I certainly didn't want to spend years of my life flying Flint-to-Fresno when I should be traipsing off to Dubai for the weekend and writing about the associated exploits. But on a 5:45am flight from JFK to Miami last year, I realized that the passengers were better off not having me as their in-flight server, lest coffee be spilled not-quite-accidentally on some besuited Neanderthal's head.

Writer: Ain't nothin to it but to do it, right? I could take my pithy little savings, all $4,500 of it, set up shop in some shoebox with a magnificent view of São Paulo, eat lámen noodles, take photos of this megacity, and write prose and posts for the six months my tourist visa grants per year, before starting a translation program which would let me translate fiction and poetry from Brazilian authors into English, or before working with Brazil's first historically black college, Faculdade Zumbi dos Palmares, whose noble mission is to create a class of professional Afro-Brazilians.

Or I could work for another year in, say, Korea, saving more money, exploring Asia and the Pacific, and cleansing my mental palate before returning to Latin America with a better financial cushion.

Or I could do Korea and then get a one-year Masters in literary translation in Barcelona (hot, right?), gallavanting around Europe and Africa before settling in Brazil.

But I really want to do a round-the-world trip before nesting someplace.

See the problem? Curses!

My parents gave up along time ago on encouraging me to settle in one place and get a job like everyone else; I haven't ever been everyone else. They're just content knowing that I'll probably make it back States-side when I'm 40 with a family (I want my kids raised in Florida, summering in Brazil, of course).

Now, I realize that to many people, this whole jet-setting "lifestyle" seems decadent and irresponsible. But my résumé is indeed solid and consistent. What concerns me most, and what keeps me up with anxiety many nights, is whether or not the decision I take makes the most long-term financial and professional sense, vis-à-vis mental and emotional security. Every choice is a gamble. My curse/blessing is that all of my options are great ones.

Greatness, here I come.

Fly Brother
welcomes your views. If this post hit the spot, please comment below and/or click


Ms. Wooden Shoes said...

Oh my brother, life is so hard, huh? Where are you posting this from by the way? Some fab location? The Brazil option sounds like the best one for you in my opinion. From what I've read so far that is where your heart is so stock up on your noodles and get to writing and setting up your translation service (although I must admit that deal in Barcelona does sound pretty hot).

American Black Chick in London said...

Yay! Sorry, I know this is not at all related to your post (great post by the way), but I just want to say I love your blog! I'm currently doing the temporary expat gig by studying for my MA in London (and blogging about my experience being American and black in the UK), so I love it when I come across blogs by other black expats!

David said...

Hey Brother

Ive been reading your blog for a few months now. I enjoyed this post and want to suggest A book for you. It's called Delaying The Real World. I'm not sure of the author but i'm sure you can find it. Happy travels!

Fly Girl said...

Hey Bro,
This is a familiar issue for most creative souls. Security or the dream? Well I can tell you from experience that it's better to go where your heart is. I've had a traditional 9-5 job for about 3 years of my entire life. I have been a freelance writer and adjunct journalism professor the rest of the time. This means that I don't have the 401k's, insurance, and overall security that one would generally expect from 15 years in a career. It also means that I have a flexible schedule that allows me to go on last minute press trips around the world, fullfillment from writing about what I feel compelled to write and a sense of purpose and job satisfaction that I don't see with any of the people that I know who have all the trappings of security. Yes, full-time teaching sucks all the energy out of you, that's why I only do it part-time. There will always be reasons for you not to pursue your dreams, don't set yourself up to regret what you could have done. Your education and experience will insure that you always have some career options, I wouldn't second guess about what financial or career path you'll be on in the future, nothing is guaranteed. Palamares sounded like an exciting movement when I was in Brazil. If that's where your heart is, go.

Anonymous said...

Hey Fly Brother!

I enjoyed reading the post! It's good to know that I'm not the only one "struggling" with this. I spent the whole week wondering whether or not I wanted to return to the United States after my one-year stint here. I don't think that's going to happen because I'm enjoying the expat life too much.

Now, for some comments on your post...

1. I read the part of your post that stated that "they" will make up stuff about a person's past if they can't find any dirt. I also heard some horror stories from co-workers (at previous jobs where I used to work) about relatives of color who had to deal with two-faced, backstabbing co-workers and supervisors while trying to hang on to their government job somewhere in D.C. Thanks to these "warnings" I'm not going that route!

2. Have you heard of "self-publishing?" In other words, instead of dealing with repeated rejection from publishers, you can publish your own work and market it yourself. The cool part is that you can upload your work online and the publishing house will turn it into book form with it's own ISBN and everything.

3. As the firstborn daughter, my parents also wanted me to do "traditional things" like get a job and settle down, but I see now that that's not going to happen for me. I've "wasted" ten years in the American rat race, so now this is my chance to actually live life! There is so much to see and do outside of the United States, so I'm going to travel and take advantage of it.

4. So that explains why I saw so many male flight attendants on my flight from South Korea to Japan! (Not that I'm complaining, heh-heh-heh!)

5. Yeah, come on over here to South Korea for a while, if you like! There are schools here that are begging for teachers!

6. I envy you for saving money and beginning to travel internationally at the age of 16! At that age I was too busy trying to survive a madhouse called high school! I had a summer job, but over and over my parents kept saying, "We don't have enough money for this and that, blah, blah, blah."

7. As for the Brazil option, go for it! Don't do what I did and wait ten years to pursue your dream! You will have plenty of time to work and settle down later!

kelly jo said...

au, huh? if you wanna save loads of money and live in africa (rural and crazy, check out aun. i know some people...

there are more and more of us out here doing exactly what you're doing (including me, just on another continent). i think we need to throw out the expectations of the generation before and create our own version of what the future will bring, one step at a time...

Anonymous said...

I learn something every time I visit this blog.
This is helping a great deal as I too am at a crossroads, not in career but in where I really want to live and where I can thrive, sometimes this is not always where you think. A pleasant surprise has happened!

This Time Now

Brandie said...

What a great post! First of all - there is no such thing as a 9-5! It's usually a 9-7 or 9-8 depending on what project you are working on. And having come back to the land of the free and 'security' I can tell you that I totally miss the 'other side!' There ain't no green pastures here! Although it is nice to be closer to friends and fam. But honestly, I'd go with Brazil and writing if I could!

Stacy said...

Love this post!! I'm in the exact same situation! 5 months ago I moved back to NYC from Paris and immediately landed a "glamorous" magazine job. Unfortunately, I quickly realized that commuting to/from the office with a bunch of sullen New Yorkers and sitting in a cubicle for 10 hours a day doing a job that bores me is depressing and so NOT how I want to spend my life... so yesterday I resigned-- to everyone's shock and horror (particularly my folks). But after an incredible year abroad I just can't settle for predictable and mundane. And I can no longer justify living less than my best life.
So now the goal is to be a freelance writer (maybe with a few side hustles!), earning just enough to support my traveling the world and living in new countries-- however long I feel the desire to do so. I have no idea how I'm going to do it and I may end up penniless but its better than making a bunch of money and being miserable.
I think I may have a touch of wanderlust too... great to know that I'm not alone :o)

kwerekwere said...

well, i've known most of this post before you actually wrote it. if you do do the children thing, i would advise you to drop brazil from the itinerary when they hit adolescence.

anyway, hm. as someone who's in the middle of a "you have got to be kidding me" visa situation -- and i think i might have worked my way out of it, i don't know yet -- if you want to keep moving, by all means do so.

if i had a choice-choice, among all of your choices... hm. i would probably be a coffee moffie for a few months, or probably [if i had your looks and waistline] jump in front of a camera for a bit.

oh, wait, the foreign service. i could brain you -- if you had started the foreign service in 2001, you would almost be at the ouagadougou stage right now. [and let me be the *first* to tell you that ouaga is a happenin place. SERIOUSLY.] maybe you would have gotten malabo or luanda [the latter being another happening place] instead of baghdad, but methinks you should keep that particular option open. you get a DIPLOMATIC passport to go with that, and diplomatic passport holders don't need visas to ANYWHERE.

[i repeat. diplomatic passport holders do not need visas. diplomatic passport holders do not need visas.]

just something to think about.

Fly Brother said...

Ms. Wooden Shoes - Come on, now...don't think just because I'm in Latin America, I'm laid out on a hammock, swaying in the ocean breeze, sipping on a mojito. I teach high school in a highly disorganized, dusty industrial town. Admittedly, when I moved here, I thought I'd be laid out on a hammock, swaying in the ocean breeze, sipping on a mojito, LOL.

ABCiL: I have a lot of catching up to do on your blog. Glad I found it.

David: Thanks for the book suggestion! I Googled the title and found an attractive website devoted to adventure seeking for twenty-somethings. At 31, I hope I still qualify.

Fly Girl: I appreciate the insight; you know teachers are getting the big shaft these days...might as well focus on doing what we enjoy.

Juanita: Thanks for the lengthy comment! Seriously! I don't think I'm enough of a hustler to self-publish, at least not at this point in my life. I think you might be heading down to visit me on Korean Air's Seoul-LAX-Sao Paulo flight later in the year.

Kelly Jo: I looked at AUN; could be interesting. Waaaaaay out in the boondocks, though. How easy/expensive is it to get in/out of there?

Bastille, Brandie, and Stacy: Thanks for the comments and support, ladies. Part of the difficulty with non-traditional paths is the pressure to conform and the anxiety it causes. Those of us who chart our own courses have to support and motivate each other.

Kwere: LOL @ my looks and waistline. Being childless in the Foreign Service is OK, but with a family, I wouldn't want to be uprooting them with every post change. Thanks for "brainin" a bruh, tho.

F!TO said...

Back to the struggle my dear beloved friend...
I hope you take the decision that best suits you. Whatever that decision might be, make sure it's the one you REALLY want (without sacrificing the one you need).

I wish you the best of luck, and btw: When are you coming to Cali?

Nikita said...

Fly Brother!

So funny that I just stumbled upon this post because I just got home from a week long vacation in Mexico, where I used to live. It was soooooooo exhilirating and I am actually a little depressed to be coming back to the mundane-ness of life in Canada.

I totally feel you on the travel thing; I go through the same self-contemplation on a semi-regular basis. After two years in France and one year in Mexico, I knew that my thirst for travel had just not been quenched. But I came back "home" to Canada anyway, and settled into the whole 9-5 thing (which, by the way, for me, is really only an 8-2pm gig since the high school I teach at starts and ends fairly early everyday)!!

But, after truly being honest with myself, I realized that I am not ready to "settle", and maybe will never be. I really wanted to see other parts of the world, hence my future move to Hong Kong in August... Cliche as it may sound, you need to follow your heart and do the damn thing. It just so happens that there is money to be made in HK so my gallivanting and jet-setting will at least pad my wallet... If you are seriously considering doing the Asia thing (which wouldn't hurt- you can always go back to Brazil in a year with more money and life experience under your belt because you travelled and worked in Asia) make sure you hit me up!! You can have a corner of my shoe-box (even though we've never met, lol, cuz us like-minded travelling black folk need to stick together)!!

Tdkdibbs said...

Fly brother,

I thought this problem only affected creative souls as fly girl described it earlier,unfortunately it does affect all of us even investment professionals like myself can attest to what you are going through,I thought getting married( a wedding which you were present) would change my mind and keep me grounded in Toronto, but here i am strategically planning another exit to a different location as Nelly furtado describes it " Fly Like a bird".
basically i think it's Quarter life crisis accentuated by pressure from our Parents who are not used to seeing their beloved sons and Daughters wondering around the world being vagabonds instead of being doctors and lawyers,to show them off at churches on Sundays to their friends. Frankly i think you should go to Brazil, you heart has been in that country god knows for how long!!

kelly jo said...

hit me up and i'll give you the scoop.

lynne said...

How old are you? 31? You guys a few years before you need to anic. But as long as you can keep tripping and leave no human or credit carnage behind... Enjoy life!!! I love Brazil. Was there many moons ago... writer, teacher, translater and waiter... can ya bartend?

Blackgirl On Mars said...

Live your life creatively, that's all you need to do. That is why you are an artist. Let only those who inspire you be your teachers.

Anonymous said...

I agree 100% Blackgirl on Mars.

This Time Now

Fly Brother said...

F!to: Thanks for stopping by, man! I think I might head down to Cali in May or June. I'm overdue.

Nikita: I think your HK experience will be phenomenal. It'll most likely be my first stop in Asia whenever I get over there. You're right, we have to support each other in our goals and aspirations since we're working against a societal tidal wave of can'ts and shouldn'ts.

TDK: I'm looking forward to the day when I can hop over on SAA to Cape Town to visit you and Di, or when y'all come crash at the pimp crib in Sao. Soon, player.

KellyJo: Done.

Lynne: One of my best friends says, worst-case scenario, I'd end up bartending in Brazil. Funny you should mention that. I'd like to know more about your experience there.

BGOM: Thank you for finally dropping some love on my blog!

This Time: You know I 'preciatecha!

Brat2Wife said...

E, I could tell you some SERIOUSLY hilarious stories from my sister's flight attendant days. OMG, I mean it was a wonder she didn't end up on CNN b/c she is SO not into the catering to others thing. LOL Imagine it: a dark skinned black woman having to kiss the butt of some the most ignorant old white women in ATL. I am going to collect the stories in book format one day. :)

Erin said...

You'd better take the Manizales route to get to Cali if you go see Fito!

Note: Foreign service is definitely not dashing or romantic. I can't wait until I can actually travel again, and that's me not even belonging to them officially. I can't imagine having to have a panic room in my house, and only being able to stay in certain parts of town. Ugggh.

Anonymous said...

I feel like I can really relate to this post. I have the wanderlust too!