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It's time to take this job and shelve it

The Baltimore Sun

I have some advice about real life, and it is this: Escape from it, as often as you can.

Who am I to be giving advice? Nobody, really, just a guy who's been in the same career all his life - a career he's grown increasingly disillusioned with; a life that, even without heeding advice, has lasted 54 years so far.

I've never been much for advice - giving or taking. But I've noticed that the older we get, the more unsolicited advice we are prone to dispense. In our 50s, 10 percent of what comes out of our mouths is advice; in our 60s, 20 percent; and it doubles every decade. By the time we're in our 80s, 80 percent of what we say is advice. (In our 90s, the equation falls apart, but then, so do we.)

When I recommend you escape your life, I don't mean you should end it (that would be cowardly). I don't mean using drugs or alcohol (that would be hiding). I don't mean abandoning family obligations (that would be wrong).

I mean escape as in breaking out, busting loose, flying the coop - like Steve McQueen in The Great Escape, like Paul Newman in Cool Hand Luke, like Jack Nicholson in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest.

I don't pretend to be in their league. I didn't jump a barbed-wire fence on a motorcycle, stand up to a sadistic warden or endure electroshock therapy. Then again, I succeeded where they, despite their heroic efforts, failed.

I didn't even have an identifiable oppressor - unless you count the declining state of my industry. That, and being a slave to an increasingly frustrating routine, were the squashers of my spirit.

Back in August, I packed my worldly goods into two wooden storage pods, terminated my lease, took a leave from The Sun and moved to Montana to teach journalism for a semester.

In the white-collar world, it's called a "sabbatical" or "hiatus." In the blue-collar world, it's called "take this job and - for a few months anyway - shove it." I'm not sure which color my collar is, so I just call it a much-needed break.

You need one, too. Trust me.

Even if your job is pure bliss all of the time, which I doubt, you need a break. For, during that break, you will get some idea of what your seemingly full life lacks, what more is possible. Your horizons will expand. Your blinders will come off. It's like the hamster finally getting off that running wheel and covering some new ground.

The point is, just as you can get too comfortable at home on the couch, in front of the TV, with your remote control and your macaroni and cheese (at least those are my personal preferences), you can get too comfortable in your job.

And trying something new - no matter how financially, logistically and emotionally difficult - is going to be, at worst, worth it, at best, life-changing.

Being a visiting university professor was a job I had little training for, and at first I felt like an impostor. After a few weeks, though, I realized I did have some wisdom to share - even if I didn't always manage to do that in the most organized and polished way.

The more interest my students at the University of Montana showed, the more ardent I became about passing on my knowledge, and patching up some of the holes in it.

I had, for the first time in my life, an office, with a view of the mountains around Missoula. I could ride my bike to work. I could walk over to the University Center and get my choice of gourmet coffees for 50 cents a cup. I could root for the Grizzlies, climb up mountain trails just minutes away, amble along rivers through which, get this, clear water flowed. I could walk my dog without a leash - and relate to his joy of being unchained.

My class - a lively and dedicated group - met once a week. Afternoons, I hung out at the student newspaper, the Kaimin (it's the Salish Indian word for "message"), where I served as an adviser, and played Nerf sports.

While I went in struggling with the idea of encouraging students to enter a field in which I was losing faith, a funny thing happened along the way. My time with them, in addition to jumpstarting my fading idealism, buoyed my confidence in the next generation of journalists, which, in turn, gave me a little hope for my industry.

Logistically, it was a ton of work - moving twice in four months. Emotionally, coming back was difficult, and I'm still trying to get a handle on what significant changes, other than the new "motion-activated" paper towel dispenser in the men's room, have taken place here.

But this I know unequivocally: Sabbaticals - the word is from a Hebrew term, which literally translates into "release" - rock.

In the Torah, the seventh year of the agricultural cycle is the sabbatical. The land gets a rest. Planting, plowing, pruning and harvesting are forbidden, and any fruits that grow are considered ownerless and may be picked by anyone.

So consider this advice one of the fruits of my sabbatical.

And, by all means, take it.


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