Downturn: A Make Your Own Way Adventure

by Kyle SUNDBY


After four years of high times and low, you are graduating high school. Your parents have always been so supportive and they think — no, they know — that you can do anything. Your guidance counselor is a pitiful little man but he tells it to you straight.

“I have to tell you straight,” Mr. Gordon — hey, man why don’t you call me Phil — says. “With your grades, you might want to have a few fall back schools. In fact, you might want to consider jumping right into the workforce.”

You look at Phil to find out if he’s trying to be funny but the reflection off those little John Lennon glasses he wears blocks any look into his dead eyes.

“If you decide to take a route besides college, I’ll need to know pretty quickly,” Phil says. “I’ve got to have these one-on-one sessions done before my review. If would be a real shame if it was you kids who lost me this job.”

You’re sizing Phil over, up, and down because you can — because he doesn’t have the strength, courage, or charisma to try and stop you. For being so skinny, he sure sweats a lot.

“So what’s it gonna be?” he asks.

— If you ignore whatever it was that Phil was saying and tell him to just give you the college applications already, go to Section II

— If you ignore whatever it was the Phil was saying and can stop thinking about what it is that’s peeking out from inside his nose, and then just happen to realize that earning some cash would be a better idea than accumulating school loan debt, turn to Section VIII


Responses to your applications, of the responses you received, anyway, say thank you but no. A week after graduation, as anxiety builds with continuing thoughts about the past, about high school being the best years of your life, triggered by a passing remembrance of your sketchy counselor, of all things, whose name and face are already disassociating, you receive a letter of acceptance from your state college. You begin to think that the future might not be so bad after all, and attending State kind of means high school isn’t completely behind you.

Two months later you’re on campus. Not that it took you two months to get there. With a pair of binocular and a view from the top of the physical sciences building, you could probably wave to your mom as she comes home for lunch. But you don’t because you’ll be home for dinner soon enough.

Because you didn’t specify an interest in a major during your application, you’re meeting with a student advisor to help best choose a field of study. Sitting across from the man reminds you of somebody and makes you feel pressed to pick from the list of options. You whittle it down to two fields of study. One you believe avoids much of the scholastic workload that really interferes with a college lifestyle and could give you a more well-rounded personality while the other is heavy on the studying but will open doors to a sparkling career.

— If you choose to major in English Lit, go to Section IV

— If you choose to major in Biochemistry, go to Section III


You’re halfway through your sophomore year when the organic chemistry tests, the laboratory write-ups, and the advanced math homeworks begin to accumulate faster that the pace of your study habits, which you realize may have never been challenged or developed during your formative years. By the beginning of your junior year, switching majors becomes less an option and more a necessity. You understand at this late juncture that if you were truly meant to be a scientist, choosing a major two years prior would have never actually been a choice for you. And you would have known, before taking Biochem 355 as a pass/fail last semester, exactly what it was that biochemistry meant or did.

You’ve already amassed student loans and you’re eligible for another two years, so dropping out of school isn’t really an option. You set up an appointment with an advisor from the English department.

— Please go to Section IV


You’re receiving a diploma stating you’ve earned a bachelor of arts in English literature and you’re starting to think about the next stage of your life. There’s a stack of books in your bedroom that your roommate insists you pack out, if you want any chance of receiving the security deposit that will likely be forfeited to repair costs for cigarette burns and hastily patched and painted walls. And the bathroom — forget about the bathroom. You’re going to throw those books into the trunk of your parent’s car because you’re kind of proud that you read a few of them and think they’ll be just the thing to lend an air of refinement to the condo or turn of the century bungalow you plan on purchasing in the city, only blocks from some small but well-respected publishing company. Heading back to your apartment, you see a flier for a graduation party/live show at the bar just off campus.

— If you decide that you deserve to cut loose tonight, go to Section V

— If you think its best to skip out on drinking for one night isn’t a bad idea, go to Section V


The next morning you’re up bright and early. Before rolling off your futon you make a mental checklist of all the tasks you should address today: finish packing, print out updated resumes and cover letters, call the student loan people about deferments, and read the employment and apartment rental sections of the newspaper. You turn off your alarm clock, pull the covers over your head, and fall asleep.

—Proceed to the next Section


You don’t wake until the late afternoon and you’ve got a headache that feels like a cross between a stress and hangover headache. The remainder of the day you spend recuperating with aspirin, coffee, and the TV with the volume turned low. For the next two months, most of your days are spent the same way. The only difference is that the last of those two months you’re waking up late at your parent’s house.

Just last week, Mom and Dad mentioned something about rent and there was more recently a discussion that featured you and chores in the same sentence. With that in mind, you pay attention as your mom informs you that the company operating the plant only a mile or two away is hiring.

— If you fill out an application for this company, go to Section VII

— If you think you’re too qualified for the jobs they’re offering and refuse to apply, only to find out two days later that your mom filled out an online application for you, go to Section VII


The interview for the company is something you take lightly. All you know is that it’s a high tech company that manufactures small bits of electronics, transistors, circuits, microprocessors, or something. The job opening at this high tech company is decidedly low tech. It is shift work spent on an assembly line, joining part A to part B to pass to the next worker, who is waiting to attach part C. You know it’s a low skill job because the application has a yes/no box next to the question about high school graduation.

The job is full time and comes with a suitable health care package. Notices concerning outstanding debts and student loans are landing in your parent’s mailbox and voicemail. You wouldn’t be bound by contract or anything from moving to a different job if and when the opportunity arises. At your parent’s house, you’re sleeping in the Formula One car bed that you loved as child.

— If you think there’s a choice to be made concerning the job offer you’ll no doubt be getting, think again and move to the next Section


You’ve got yourself a job and an apartment all to yourself. The paycheck is decent — it won’t allow you to retire early with a healthy portfolio, but it’ll allow you to live at a fair level of comfort. Time and paychecks pass by. Before you know it, you’re in your thirties.

With cost of living increases and raises, you’ve made enough to purchase a house. Payments are kind of steep. Other people, who work where you do, also become homeowners. In fact, people all around the country obtained mortgages of their own. Something shifts. You and everybody else knows the deal — knew it before it went down but didn’t act on the knowledge. Products that come with parts you help make don’t have as much demand. Your paycheck doesn’t feel as comfortable any longer.

— If you think you should buckle down and continue to work hard to keep what you’ve got, go to Section IX

— If you think, ah fuck it, and slack off on the clock because you know what’s coming, no matter what you do, go to Section X


Economic downturn be damned, you’ve got a job to do. Production has slowed and manufacturing capacity is down fifty percent, so sometimes it’s hard just to find tasks that need doing. But you’ve been at the company for a decade and your seniority and reflective hourly wage means you’ve got to set an example for the other employees in your department. These machines aren’t going to run themselves. Okay, maybe they are — they’re performing tasks at micro and nano levels with various gas, plasma, vacuum, and electrical processes that can’t e done by hand, after all — but someone has o push the on and off button. And who better to push that button than an employee who has done the job for years, with commensurate annual pay increases? Surely not one of your entry-level coworkers that received the same training but only take home half what you do. Definitely not workers in another country with daily wages you’ve spent in gas for your morning commute.

— next Section, please


Arriving at work on Friday, you and your coworkers are diverted by a group of security personnel. You must have never noticed that the company has such a large security department. Everybody is in the employee cafeteria, including the Human Resources staff and the company president. The lunchroom is divided into two sections and you’re told o move to one side where a few senior employees and a handful of newer workers with poor performance records are gathered. An HR representative has some paperwork and some unfortunate news.

— If you hear the nice lady with the calm voice explain exit interviews, unemployment,, and lapsing health care insurance, go to Section XI

— If the buzzing sound in your head, caused maybe by an accelerated heartbeat, excessive sweating, or that nervous tic thing going on around your eye, interferes with audio reception, re-read Section X until things become clear


You’ve cashed your weekly check, courtesy of the government. Tomorrow, you’ll head back out and discover that a job, particularly a job calling for your limited skill set that will provide a wage that can cover your mortgage and assorted loans and bills, is a not so common thing. During the times your energy level is low and the television plays a little too loudly, you’ll wonder if there was something you might have done differently to change your current state-sponsored status. You’ll question the choices you make. You’ll try to answer those questions. You’ll try to guess the possible outcomes.

—If you think you could have made different choice resulting in a different ending, feel free to start at Section I and give it a go

— If you believe that, no matter what you did, everything would have turned out the same, then you must think you’re pretty special — you know, being controlled by fate and all, like you’re the personal project of some higher power

— If you don’t consider the choices made available to you were the kind of choices you’d make, and in fact there weren’t that many choices to begin with, then take that extended pinkie finger from your cup of tea and place it forcefully into that upturned nose, you high-minded critical bastard

— If you read into this and realize that this isn’t you, but rather a thinly veiled reflection of some poor unfortunate with a writing utensil and recent accrual of a lot of free time, then feel at ease knowing that I still have room on a couple of credit cards and plenty of irons in the fire

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