And that was enough to make me happy for the rest of the week.
I think I’ve finally discovered my problem with writing…or at least what caused my problem with writing…
Let me take you back. When I talked about my life, I thought it was normal. Overly normal. I thought everyone worked summers in factories and shot beebee guns by firelight and wore patched jean jackets. NORMAL.
When I went to college at Ashland University, magic happened. I somehow wound up in the English 101 class of Dr. Joe Mackall. His first assignment? A personal narrative about whatever we wanted. So on a hot August night in my dorm room, I sat down and wrote about attending a KISS and Aerosmith concert–about how the grass felt on the lawn that night, cool yet sticky. About how I somehow felt a kinship with people I didn’t know, and people I’d never really know, and how I felt more comfortable in decades prior to my time than in my own time. I wrote about the chains that bounced off my hip as I climbed the hill of Germain Amphitheatre in Columbus, Ohio, and how I held the callused hands of a boy who kept me at skin’s length even though I wanted more than anything to be a part of him.
I turned in the paper. The next class, Joe kept me after. The humid air had crept in through the windows and the sweaty plastic of the desk stuck against my forearms. I felt like I was suffocating. “What’s your major?” he asked.
“Undecided…but leaning toward education?” I half-asked. Was there a right answer?
“No. Creative writing. You have something here,” Joe said. Apparently there was. When I left Miller Hall that day, two weeks into my college career, I felt like I had direction for the first time. The flowers were brighter and the sky was bluer, and I felt like Joe had uncovered a part of me that I didn’t even know existed, like he had peeled back my own calluses and exposed a raw, undeveloped part of me.
As with any “new skin,” this part of me was sensitive. I babied it, wouldn’t fully walk on it right away. It was an odd sensation, having someone believe that what I had to say was worth something, that my insights meant something. That my story was one that people might want to hear.
I spent many nights at the computer, my chair tilted back on two legs, trying to find my reality. Reality. It felt so foreign then. It felt like a thing of value.
All through college, I pecked away at my keyboard. When I couldn’t write, I turned on Metallica, turned off the lights, and hung upside down on my futon. I tried.
Four quick years later, I was getting ready to graduate when Joe asked me, “What do you think about grad school?”
I shrugged. After a barrage of questions from my mother about what the hell I was going to do with a Creative Writing degree, I decided that grad school would only be a waste of money.
So I applied. I got accepted. I didn’t respond until they started calling me and asking me what I was going to do. I decided I wouldn’t take it without a teaching assistantship, and the next day, I got the assistantship. So in August of 2007, I moved to North Carolina with a fire in my hands to write. I had managed to keep the skin that Joe revealed open–vulnerable, yet livable–everything that a writer should be. Because if a writer is not vulnerable, are they really a writer?
The truth was that Philip Gerard was wonderful. I felt comfortable with him much like I felt comfortable with Joe. I felt that I could learn something from them. But, as I’ve mentioned, I could never fully enjoy grad school because I’m not sure I ever fully acclimated. The place itself was wonderful, minus the humidity, and I ran into a few great people. But most of the people there ruined it for me. Remember that time I said “gypped”? With everyone trying to be so politically correct, there was too much sameness. People were letting go of their own identities so not to offend others.
But there was something else. Something bigger. Before I went to North Carolina, I found beauty in everyday things. I saw beautiful, wonderful creatures in the people I worked with at Whirlpool, and I saw meaning in a dead-end bridge and a four-stroke engine. I lost all that in North Carolina. In North Carolina, I no longer felt like anything I had to say had meaning. It felt like I was too normal.
This may or may not be true, and it may all be my own misconception, but it seemed very much like the only thing that was celebrated in my graduate program was the writing that was “different.” And I understand that writing should be original, but when I say different, I mean crap like the lyric essay. I mean taking so many risks with the format of the writing and the content that it no longer made sense. It seemed like that was the stuff that was praised in grad school. All I could think was, “Oh, you put a sentence four spaces down at the bottom and that space represents the emptiness you were feeling? Shut up.” When it came to writing, I always thought it was the truth behind it all, the crafting of the story, the reality that made it good.
I also suffered from what I call “The Plight of the Happy Writer.” You see, all of the people I went to school with had some huge issue that they were dealing with, either from childhood, an ongoing battle with themselves, a sickness, a something. I felt like I was at a disadvantage (in writing only) because something horrible hadn’t happened to me, because I wasn’t molested as a child, or struggling with my sexuality. I had never been paid for certain sexual acts or had a horrible disease. I hadn’t traveled all over the world and saw the beauty and devastation. I was just an Ohio girl who was realizing she didn’t really have anything to say. And I became wonderfully happy with my lack of traumatic events.
So I let that callus that Joe so easily ripped off grow back over, and I hardened myself to writing. I was surprised that this hurt more than when Joe ripped that callus, and more than the period of my life before I even knew I could write. I was (read: am) purposely suppressing something that came naturally to me in response to something that seemed unnatural to me. I gave it up.
I haven’t been able to write since, but standing in the bathroom this morning while I was brushing my teeth, I saw that thing of beauty reemerge. That simple, everyday beauty that comes from an overused toothbrush and a paste-flecked mirror. I saw the imperfections, the reality of life creeping back in. So I stuck my fingernail underneath the callus to see how easy it would be to lift away again. Did I even want to? Baring one’s soul is not a decision that should be taken lightly.
But until then, I’ll enjoy the bent bristles of my toothbrush, the blue flecks on the glass, the cold tile underfoot, and I’ll keep picking at that callus to see if it’s ready to come off. I hope that it will be soon.
There was a bell early in the morning that told you when to start working.
There was a bell between each rotation (period).
The lunch period was 18 minutes–and not long enough.
You couldn’t smoke.
There were “cliques” among lines.
People knew your parents, because most likely your parents or someone in your family worked there.
Affairs were had there.
Flirting and anger ensued.
You had your favorite “rotations” or classes.
You fought to work next to people who you could tolerate (kind of like sitting by your besty in class).
People talked about each other.
You goofed off and sneaked food when you weren’t supposed to have it.
You went to the bathroom just for a break…
But you had to ask to go to the bathroom because you couldn’t just walk off the line.
Your bosses are like teachers, so you tried to look busy.
People “graduated” by retiring, or moving to a different line.
You had the top of the class that could do the work.
You had stoners.
You had jocks.
You had ’em all.
And most of all, you couldn’t wait for the end of the day.
There are hundreds, thousands, of folks that worked at the Whirlpool factory with me. They were true Whirlpool employees–ones with benefits, and families, and an intent to stay on the line.
And then there was me, and the rest of the temporary help–the college kids.
We were only there for the summer, and I could never quite tell if the true Whirlpool employees like the idea of summer help coming in, or if they dreaded it. I can think of reasons for both.
I’m sure they liked when we came in because it gave them the opportunity to take vacations. They got to train us which meant that they got to work half as hard for a few weeks. And I’m sure that it was nice talking to someone new, someone they hadn’t worked with for 20 years, and someone whose story they hadn’t heard. And on top of that, we were entertaining.
I worked on the Line 2 Horseshoe for five out of the six summers I worked there. It was the feature panel line (feature panels are the back of the washing machine) and it was literally shaped like a horseshoe. The people I worked with were (mostly) great. There were the regulars–an eccentric group of people who had known each other for years–and the college kids: me, my cousin Heather, Joni, and occasionally Sarah, Nick, Rob, and some others.
Heather, Joni and I were really the ones who were there the most, in the same spots, in the same rotation. I like to think we brought life to the line. From Heather talking about all of the crazy stuff that went on at college to Joni putting Kevlar sleeves over her calves as leg warmers and dancing around wildly to the Michael Sembello song “Maniac”, we had fun.
We picked on Manny and laughed with Terry. I picked Drew’s brain for hippy memories and to build my summer concert list, and we took time to talk to Artie the jeep driver. We played Big Frank’s “What would you do if you had a million dollars?” game, and we spent hours telling Little Frank that he wasn’t as badass as he thought.
I think that many of the regulars liked talking to us because we were something new. I think our generation–a generation without much censorship–shocked them a little and made them laugh.
Working 8 hours a day next to these people made it damn near impossible not to develop friendships with them, and to not care about them. And I kept up with many of them, too.
I emailed Drew for awhile, called Terry a lot and went to visit her when her husband was hit by a car. I go to see Toni (from my sixth summer on Line 3) once in awhile, and my dad fixed Artie’s lawn mower.
As far as the college kids go–Heather’s due date for her first son is tomorrow. Joni has a darling little girl now and Sarah is in cosmetology school. My cousins Meghan and Heidi worked on a separate part of the line, and they’re both teachers and doing well. Heidi has a little boy, too. Sarah is in cosmetology school, and Rob kind of disappeared from what I understand. And Nick…Nick died in a motorcycle accident about two years ago. And it was horrible to hear about.
When you all experience a job like working at a factory, and when you spend that many hours a day next to people in close quarters, you do end up talking, and probably sharing more than you would in another environment. You do it out of boredom at first, and then it becomes pure interest and friendship.
I really appreciate the time that I spent at Whirlpool, and all the people I got to know through it.
I’ve been thinking a lot these days about what it was like to work in the factory. I’ve been doing this for my own reasons, which I may eventually address. But I thought, “What a great way to blog this week, talking about all the things that happened at the factory.” I mean, this is a pretty significant part of my life, so much so that I wrote my 288 page graduate thesis about it. You can read a portion of it here.
But here’s the quick background. For six summers and some school breaks, I worked on the line making washing machines at the Whirlpool factory in Clyde, Ohio. I rotated anywhere between 5 and 12 jobs a day for 1/2 hour increments. There was a lot to learn.
My first couple of weeks there were the hardest. I had to learn each job with a trainer, and then learn to do it alone. During this time, my friend “Ta” would let me watch her perform each task-routing a wire this way, and snapping this ring into that hole, using your knuckles to push a harness out of the way to get to the place you needed to be. Then she would step in front of me on the line so that I could do the job, and she could catch what I missed.
I thought I’d never learn the jobs, but I did.
My hands were merely parts of the line that I was working on, tools full of veins and muscle instead of iron and gears. Factory workers train their bodies to do work the way that gymnasts train their bodies to perform. Muscle memory, strength training, sheer will to get it done and to get it done right.
I went through the motions during the day, and sometimes I went through them in my sleep. I knew the jobs well. I knew them so well that sometimes I did my job and my cousin Heather’s at the same time so that she could go grab a coffee, pick up our paychecks, or just take a break. And she did the same for me.
Those first few weeks flew by, because learning the jobs took 100% focus. But something happens. Once you learn the jobs, once the motions become second nature, you have to start thinking about other things, whether you want to or not. You find other ways to make the 8 hours pass, from the starting whistle to the stopping whistle. And it is during those 8 hours that you learn more about yourself and the people around you than you could have ever imagined…
Cliff-hangery? 🙂 Check back tomorrow to see what it is that we actually did.
I don’t know about your family, but mine has been in the same place for a long long time. Let me explain.
I grew up in Fremont, Ohio. Most of my family has been in Fremont and Clyde for at least 70 years. See that map? My entire immediate family including grandparents is pretty much in there. My maternal grandmother grew up in Clyde and searched for Jessie Simmons’ tongue on the very farm I searched for it years later. She married my grandfather, who was also living in Clyde. My parents, aunts, and uncles all married people in the same vicinity. And let’s be honest. Everything is easier for them in terms of seeing loved ones. If my grandparents need something, they have 4 kids and their spouses right there, plus some grandkids and cousins. It’s easy to pick a place to have a family gathering because everyone is right there.
And up until my generation, everyone was still there. My grandparents have 10 grandchildren. Seven of them are still living in either Clyde or Fremont. I am just south of Cleveland. My cousin Heidi is right around Ashland. I know we would love to be able to get back more often and see our family, but sometimes it just isn’t possible.
Getting off of work at 5, driving an hour and a half home puts me at 6:30, long enough to eat dinner, say hi, and head on out before the hour and a half drive back, so that I can go to bed at a decent hour. I’d love to be able to drive 10 minutes down the road to have a cup of coffee with my mother.
There are advantages to this. If you marry someone from your hometown, chances are you get to be close to both of your families. That makes celebrating holidays with both much easier. It makes planning the actual wedding easier. It creates built-in babysitters that you don’t have to pay and grandparents get to see their grandkids. I loved spending every weekend at my grandparents’ house.
But it’s hard to do that as a Gen Y kid. We move away, go to college, graduate, feel guilty for not using our degrees, and live somewhere we can get a job. During that process, most of us fall in love, either with someone from our hometown, someone in college, someone in grad school. And eventually you have to choose. Do you live closer to your parents? Or your lovers? You’re coming from different places, after all. Will someone be upset? What if you both can’t get a job in the same place? What happens then?
It’s just all very weird.