In the Loop

Program Archive: Are You Your Job?

March 2007

Jeff Horwich addresses the audience, March 22, 2007

Does your job define who you are? A huge portion of our lives is governed by the work we do to pay the bills, and Americans work harder than almost anyone in the world. Do we let our jobs define us? Should we be defined by what we do for a living? This show features songs written and performed by a state tax auditor and airport security screener, and voices from around the working world. Features new songs from The Smarts and host Jeff Horwich.

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Title: That's Just My Job (That's Not Me) by Jeff Horwich (with The Smarts)
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Title: Is This What You Expected by The Smarts (with Jeff Horwich)
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From the audience

Does your job spill into your personal life? Is it just a pay check? Are you what you wanted to be growing up? We also asked for poetry related to work.

Jason Shannon on the banjo

Maintenance man rocks his office building after hours

Maintenance man doesn't sound like a dream job for an aspiring rock star, but Twin Cities songwriter Jason Shannon was able to marry his day job with his music.



Interviews by Jeff Horwich

AccessAbility is a Twin Cities nonprofit that puts people to work for whom working at all is not a foregone conclusion. The people who work there include adults who were born developmentally disabled, or those who became disabled later in life. They do things like document sorting, shredding, and data entry. These are voices of three people who remind us of the meaning of work, and why we do it in the first place.

Moira Hefferen

Retiring and identity

Interviews by Joel Grostephan and Roseanne Pereira

At some point most of us will confront the question of what we are when we no longer have our jobs to define us. Some will face this question earlier than others. Here are two of those people – an auto plant worker and a recently retired teacher – wondering what their future identity will be.

Stay-at-home mom

Stay-at-home workers

Interviews by Molly Bloom

There are some other people who realize the best job satisfaction may actually be found at home. Stay-at-home parents may have a little trouble answering the "what do you do" question at parties. But these two suggest you can not have a "job" – and still be deeply defined by your work.

Ibrahim Abikar


Interview by Jeff Horwich

Lots of us will go through job transitions in our lives, and sweat over our career choices. But whatever obstacles life throws up in front of us, few of us will have our careers manhandled by fate like Ibrahim Abikar, a former pilot for Somali Airlines who now works for the state of Minnesota.

Submissions from our audience

Does your job spill into your personal life? Is it just a pay check? Are you what you wanted to be growing up? We also asked for poetry related to work.


Kari McDonald, Minnesota sales and use tax auditor

Gabe Heller, former airport security screener

Allan Staples, working retail and loving (it)


Leigha Horton

The Faces in Between

By Leigha Horton

Since graduating high school I have worked a bare minimum of 30 hours per week (even during my four years at college), and it never really complemented my raging sense of entitlement. I was meant to be an actress; my cost of living claimed otherwise.

Last December I left my day-job after five years of indentured servitude masquerading as an assistant position in the non-profit arts world. My liberation from desk-work was prompted by a full-time, yet temporary, role performing on stage at a prestigious local theater.

That gig ended nineteen days ago.

Aside from a voice-over session here; a staged reading there; and an over-arching theme of panic relating to the next source of income; I have been blissfully unemployed since then.I now know what my mailman looks like. I have discovered the artists and freelancers and stay-at-home parents at the local dog park, even though I don't have a dog.My internal clock wakes me at 9:24 am every morning. When taking my time, I make a killer sandwich.

Yes, I have tasted retirement. And it tastes good.

Alas, I am 28 years old and my unemployment checks won't cover rent, groceries, internet, AND my sense of self-worth – therefore, back to the grind I go. I've got some contract work starting Monday to keep my standard of living adequately afloat.

I still have all my corporate clothing, and I still clean up well enough to look respectable behind a desk.I just consider it another acting gig – act normal, act responsible, act like I'm interested in business.I have several upcoming auditions this week and next – hopefully something lucrative will come of it. After all, it's far more entertaining to play roles "outside the box."

Robert Augustine


By Robert Augustine

The broiler guy is getting his a$$ kicked
And I sit here and write a poem
He's moving fast
If I were to help him
I would just be in his way
And he might get insulted
Like I didn't think he's good enough
To handle the rush
So I sit here and write a poem
From the corner of my eye
As I write this poem
His silver tongs are a blur
As he spins, topping his gourmet burgers
With tasty ingredients
Artichoke hearts with goat cheese
This one's medium rare please
He ducks down low
Because he has to sneeze
He wipes his glasses
Because they're caked with grease
He walks with a limp
Because he has bad knees
And I sit here and write a poem
He's from a small village in Mexico
And sings mariachi music as he works
He's pretty good too. It makes me laugh
He charms the ladies with his smile
He's working right next to me
And has no idea he is the subject matter
Of my latest poem
I wonder if anyone has ever written a poem
About me
               Maybe someday
                                        I'll wait and see
He told me he used to stand below
Young mamacitas' windows and serenade them
And read them love poems in an attempt
To win their hearts…how smooth is that
Right now he's putting bacon strips
On top of a cheese burger
The sacrifices we make
As I write my poem

Sean Dilley

Cafeteria Zoologist

By Sean Dilley

Do I "live to work" or "work to live?" 

That's a no-brainer I work because I have to.

My corporate communications job consists largely of stultifying boredom enlivened by bursts of drudgery. I would quit today, but tedium is preferable to starvation.

Lunch is the high point of my day, because people-watching at a large company is downright fascinating. Much like Jane Goodall with her chimpanzees, I have assigned names to my fellow employees based on their distinctive and outlandish behaviors.

"Liquid Lunch Man," for example, invariably consumes exactly the same meal every day--a strawberry instant breakfast drink, on the rocks. I suspect he is some sort of an automaton with only a rudimentary digestive tract that cannot tolerate solid food, but I have yet to test my hypothesis.

Then there's "Apple-Biter," a prim Chinese woman in early middle age with brightly lacquered red fingernails and a distinctive manner of eating Granny Smith apples First, she takes a large bite and spits it into her hand. Next, she uses her prominent incisors like some sort of marsupial to scrape the flesh from the skin. As she eats, she stacks the denuded, limp pieces of green skin into a tidy mound. Incredibly, Apple-Biter's ruby nails remain pristine during this process. She is truly splendid in her peculiarity.

I have named and cataloged many other specimens in my corporate bestiary. I keep my watchful eye on "Missy Mumbles," "Nose-Picker," and "Mr. Apocalypse," who can often be heard warning his tablemates that ominous portents foretell the imminent arrival of The Rapture.

I always keep my eyes open for the next Apple-Biter, the next Liquid Lunch Man, the next human oddity who will brighten my day with quirky or maddening behavior

Because unless I win the lottery, I'm stuck in the zoo with the rest of the monkeys.

John Troyer

Stick it to the Man

By John Troyer

I quit my job two weeks ago.
Got fed up with passive-aggressive middle management idiots
not understanding that when you hit the sum key
in Microsoft Excel it creates a sum.
Numbers added-numbers subtracted, it's a goddamn basic
principle of math.
But I know I'm asking a lot, because clearly
anyone with the word Manager in their title
should never learn how to make the morning coffee
or remove a piece of paper from the printer just because
the readout says "remove paper-jam.”
And when a question, even a good one, needs answering
it takes three paper memos, 16 voice-mail messages,
25 e-mail messages, a full meeting of the Board of Directors,
an outside Analyst firm, and full Cultural Diversity
training for all employees. All to learn, the person
asking the question was out of line because they're
support staff.
And where the hell did the term support staff come from?
I think it's time we call our jobs by
their true names, like:
"Alienated summa cum laude college graduate forced into doing the
work of a chimpanzee while supervised by the
anal- retentive gaze of an incompetent, fresh water manatee
surfacing just long enough
to make aforementioned monkey boy re-do an
entire years worth of worthless information for no
foreseeable reason.”
or better yet: "undersexed, over medicated
person in charge of others staring at the ledge outside the window
wondering if anybody can see them looking up on their computer.”
That's why I think we need a new office holiday.
Most places celebrate secretaries...oops I'm sorry
Executive Assistants day.
Still others, that want to look good but don't really care,
celebrate MLK day.
Even thought he was kind of uppity.
We need "Stick it to the Man” Day in offices all across America.
Let us all, employees confined to the modern day monkey cage
cast off our cubicles, and forced upon
handbook dress codes. Let us march through our
narrow and confining corridors, making the head of
the Human Resources Manager on a stick our glimmer
of hope.
Put down the Microsoft outlook manual
on how to make an appointment in a calendar for
your boss who's incompetent.
Unplug all the printers.
Make 50,000 copies of your a$$
And put LSD in the cup of the office
herbalist who insists on making
a pot of mint medley tea instead of coffee.....every freaking day.
Let us gather all the managers, the neo-managerials in
search of a life they'll never get just waiting to pounce on the smallest human mistake, bitter, overpaid, ignorant officer wenkers and
stick it to them where they keep their heads--
up their A$$.
Then brothers and sisters of the techno-menial job force,
take a day off, relax, and ask for triple overtime.

Carin Bratlie

Eight Hour Shift

By Carin Bratlie

I curl my left foot
in the leather cup of shoe, toes
pinching ball into a wrinkled pincushion,
top tendons tight as aimed rubber bands.
I place the foot barely behind me,
pressing heel into floor,
pulling calf taut,
flattening veins under skin
like Saran-Wrap stretched tight.
I lift my foot,
heavy like a gallon of milk,
rotating it slowly at the
ankle, each angle
straining bones and joints,
shrugging off the yolk of my shoe.
I shift, starting over with the right.

Bill and Ava Ostrem

I'm a Lucky Guy

By Bill Ostrem

I'm a lucky guy, I think. I work from home part-time and take care of our daughter part-time. Or maybe I take care of her full-time if you count all the work that parents do on evenings and weekends. So I work a lot. But I love my job. Or my jobs.

Our daughter will be three years old soon, and we haven't wanted to put her in full-time day care. So she goes to day care Mondays, Wednesday, and Fridays, or as she says "Mondays, Fridays, Saturdays." We're working on the days of the week now.

It used to be harder taking care of her. We delayed putting her in day care until she was 16 months old. In those younger months she cried a lot. On particularly bad days I'd call my wife and hold the phone up to our daughter's screaming and yell, "When are you coming home?" I was desperate and had to share.

I'm lucky that it's been easier lately. Now my daughter and I can have conversations. I can ask her to do something and she can simply say "No," instead of screaming. Like when I ask her to pick up her toys and she says, "I don't think so. I'm too tired," just before doing a full gymnastic routine on the sofa.

I'm lucky that my other job, my directly paid employment, is flexible and I get to stay home with my daughter on snow days, and we get to climb the 20-foot pile of snow that the plow left next to our driveway and I pretend I'm going up the north face of Mount Everest. It's not so easy when she's home because she's sick, when she's feverish and needs to take some medicine but won't because it's not red or because it's too thick and none of the five medicines in the cabinet meet those criteria.

When I show up for work as dad, sometimes I have to deal with resistance. I hear "Daddy, go away!" or "Daddy, I don't like you!" Dr. Brazelton says it's normal for children to show a preference for one parent now and then. I'm still waiting for my turn to be the preferred one. If this is my workplace feedback, I may have to do some thinking about my managerial skills. Or maybe I just have a difficult employee. Or maybe I'm not really the boss at all.

Whichever way you look at it, there's still plenty of reasons to say that I'm a lucky guy. I'm sure of it now.

Unsafety Gear

By Wally Firesteel, Cowboy Poet

Skywalkers scramble over
Girders of steel
Fifty feet above the dangerous ground
Some more careful than others,
But none wearing safety gear
No harnesses
No hardhats
But nobody in our crew falls
And nobody gets anything worse
Than a scratch, jammed finger
Or bruised knuckle.

But the day we hear a rumor
That some poor guy fell and died
Building a Super Wal-Mart
On the other end of town
The Boss gets the fear of OSHA
So we put on harnesses
And hardhats
To clank around the jobsite
But I get tangled up in my harness
And fall headlong . . . .
I don't even scream
But I laugh, with embarrassment
Because I was working on the ground.

The safety measures last
For a couple days
And then it's back to
Business as usual . . .
No harnesses
No hardhats
But nobody in our crew falls
Especially me
And nobody gets anything worse
Than a scratch, jammed finger
Or bruised knuckle.

Carolyn Sonnek

Why I Love My Job

By Carolyn Sonnek

For years, I went from one unfulfilling job to another.

When I was in college - nothing interested me I ended up transferring from a university to a technical college where I got a "degree" in retail management Not because I wanted to be in retail management, I just wanted to be done with school I just wanted to get started on my life.

After a long string of retail jobs, with no room for any sort of growth in sight, I went through a rollercoaster of job changes:
- Car sales
- Mobile radio sales assistant
- Administrative assistant
- graphic Designer
- Technology assistant

After that string of one bad job after another, the final straw was a job so horrible mentally, physically and emotionally that I lasted all of 4 months before I took a job back in retail that paid me nearly half the salary just so I could escape it.

I started to evaluate my skills, of what I could do for a job that wouldn't kill me One that would allow me to afford the life I wanted, one that wouldn't mentally destroy me and one that wouldn't follow me home To find that balance It took me over a year in that retail job before I got a position as an executive assistant It paid well, it wasn't mentally taxing and it was an easy job But it wasn't fulfilling

I never thought of myself as someone who needed to feel a sense of accomplishment when I went to work, someone who needed to be recognized for their efforts or someone who needed to be challenged in my job I thought a job was something that paid the bills and your life was something that happened outside of the office But after more than two years of doing the same mundane tasks, one after the other, never getting recognized for what I do or being given new responsibilities because there were none to be had, I came to a realization that I needed more But, once again I was stuck What do I want to do with my life? Do I go back to school?; Do I even know what I want?

Then along came an opportunity as a legal administrative assistant I had no legal experience, nor did I ever consider going into the law field But what made this opportunity shine was the job itself It was working for a department in the law firm dedicated to doing only pro bono law work and community service projects A job filled with challenges, responsibility and the fulfillment that had been lacking in so long I can't wait to come to work every morning and while I'm at work, I feel a great sense of accomplishment helping all these people in need I get paid to save the world (in my own little way) and it's enough to live on!

I love working at a company that values the importance of helping those who cannot ever repay you And the feeling you get when you know you've made a difference in someone's life - that's the best feeling in the world

How is that not the perfect job?

Soho Square in London

Leaving London

By Anna Torborg

I grew up with a parent on either side of the work-to-live/live-to-work fence.

For my father, his career represents a creative outlet; though he has a rich life outside the office, his current position is the product of many years' effort in a single industry. My mother, on the other hand, has always felt that her job was the means to an end – the paycheck that goes towards the things she really enjoys in life.

I was always firmly rooted on her side of the fence, even when I landed the job of my dreams. Having a degree in English, I would have been happy just to find somebody to pay me, but I guess I was pretty lucky in the end. I found a job, but not just any job – one in publishing. And not just any publisher, but a small, upcoming house based in London. And if there's anything more perfect for an English major than working in publishing, it's being in London while you do it. Why, I would hardly be able to stop myself becoming the next Virginia Woolf!

My problem was that I had – and have – too many interests. I have friends who are desperate to come up with a new career path, who would love to do something else, if only they could figure out what that something else is. I find I have the opposite problem: I would love to work in radio, move into teaching, investigate politics, all sorts of things – if only I didn't already have this dumb perfect job.

In this way, a career is a burden – something to attend to while missing out on other opportunities. A desk to sit at for half the day while I could be out discovering the world. No matter how wonderful my job was, I always held a grudge against this obstacle between me and my free time in London. Then I returned to Minnesota.

In some ways, leaving London was an easy decision to make. Financially, there was no contest – the salary that could barely have kept me afloat in the UK's capitol is actually rather decent here in the US. When personal circumstances prompted a change, I knew I had to return, but it was still emotional.

There is something very grand about living in another country, and as a result, something quite humbling about returning home. I've continued to work for the same London-based publisher, but my relocation has changed the way I think about my job. Instead of holding me back from everything else I could be doing, it is the link that keeps me in touch with the life I left. Despite my decision, I never wanted for that chapter of my life to come to an end.

So now my job has ceased to become an obstacle to change and has become instead a reason to remain the same. It's a tether, to be sure, but it's holding me tight to a life that I don't want to forget.

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