I spend a not-insignificant amount of time thinking about what my life would look like if it were a TV show or a film. Some of it may be delusions of grandeur, but I think a large part of it is just a coping mechanism. This is ridiculous is a thought that is frequently followed by: Think what a hilarious scene this would make in a movie. It’s a survival tactic and makes conversation flow more easily at parties. Listen to this stupid thing that I did, I like to say, You’ll never believe how it turned out.
I spent seven years as contingent faculty and freelance musician, and I spent most of that time in the Plains states, where the next city over was 90 miles away. I have done a lot of driving. I have done a lot of overnight driving. I have developed strong opinions about hotel booking apps and have favorite rest stops on most of the major interstates. I have eaten more six-inch roasted chicken subs from Subway than any one human being should eat, and I have strong opinions about the frying techniques used at several chain restaurants in the Four States area. All Chik Fil-As use the same recipes, but they don’t all cook their chicken the same way, and I will fight about it.
The year that my academic career felt like it was finally starting to take off, I had a MWF class at Kansas State University in Manhattan, Kansas at 9 a.m., and another from 11:30-12:30 p.m. On Wednesdays and Thursdays, I covered flute lessons for a friends’ maternity leave in Weatherford, Oklahoma, which was approximately 5.5 hours away. I taught in Kansas until 12:30, ate a quick meal (usually in my car), and began teaching in Weatherford at 6 p.m. Lessons went until 9 p.m., at which point I would check into the dorm across the street, set up my room for the night, and try to imagine myself back in college. (Nelly Furtatdo’s “Like a Bird” played endlessly on repeat in the background of both dorm experiences, for the record.) The following day, I’d teach from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m., and drive back to Kansas, generally arriving at around 11 p.m., if I ate dinner in the car. If I didn’t, it would be closer to midnight. Classes started again Friday morning at 9. I did this for ten weeks and managed to only cancel classes once. (There was a KMEA conference that morning and most of my students were performing. I actually stopped mid-commute in Wichita and watched their concert.)
The following year, we relocated to Norman, Oklahoma. Of course since we were living in Oklahoma, I was now working in Kansas and Missouri - leaving at around 10 a.m. to teach and rehearse 400 miles away in Salina, Kansas, until about 9:30 p.m., at which point I would drive to Joplin, Missouri and arrive between 1 and 2 a.m., sleep for a few hours in a Quality Inn (paid for at my own expense), and then teach from 9 a.m. until 6 p.m. with only a thirty minute lunch break, scheduled at the very reasonable hour of 3 p.m. I generally used it to get gas for my car, so that I could leave more quickly at the end of the teaching day. Then I would drive back to Norman, sleep a bit, and teach lessons at a local middle school (7 a.m. commute!) or work a shift at my retail job.
I played for the Topeka and Salina Symphonies, which each held concerts once a month.
Somewhere in there, I was hired for a woodwind quintet that did elementary school outreach events in Fayetteville, Arkansas. We visited elementary schools on 22 separate occasions, adding a fourth leg to my strange commuting triangle, and a lot of early mornings to the already bizarre schedule. The outreach was pretty close to my “main” adjunct job in Joplin, and if the two overlapped, the group in Fayetteville covered my hotel. I considered it a money-saving venture, and secretly hoped that the orchestra associated with the organization would hire me more often to play their larger concerts.
It sounds ridiculous and impossible on paper.
It probably was.
I don’t know why I say probably.
I thought of it - and to an extent, still do - as the hard work montage in the movie of my life. All of the other arts and sports films have a series of scenes in the middle where Eye of the Tiger or Final Countdown plays while Rocky Balboa runs up and down the stairs, or the aspiring dancer practices leaps and falls and falls and falls until she doesn’t fall anymore. My leaps were long-distance, late night commutes. My Final Countdown was Waltz of the Flowers from Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker.
If a film-runner ever decides to capture those moments of my life, I want to hear Waltz of the Flowers in the background while some impossibly beautiful actress pretends to drive frantically from one end of Kansas to the other, eating french fries out of a cardboard container on her lap. She will not gain any weight because she is in a movie and calories do not count in movies. It should be noted that this was not my real-life experience.
There should be actual ballerinas rehearsing the actual Nutcracker overlaying sitting in rush-hour traffic. If you know the piece, Waltz picks up speed, instruments, and intensity. More ballerinas, more french fries. Driving faster! Spilling ketchup down the front of so many dress shirts, spinning ballerinas, and driving even faster. The actress will learn to keep Shout Wipes in her glove compartment so that she doesn’t have to teach in ketchup stains.
The music continues! Waiting out a hailstorm by practicing flute in the car. Trying to hold conversations with normal people who have normal schedules, more spinning ballerinas, more french fries! Frantic crying jags while definitely practicing more music in a dark parking lot (because it’s too late to make sounds in a hotel). More spinning! More french fries! And beautiful, pink, sparkling ballerinas!
The actual ballet becomes more and more frenetic, eventually exploding into a cadence that no one entirely anticipates. There’s another shorter, slower piece in the ballet - some conductors say it’s a musical metaphor for the passage from adolescence into adulthood - but either way, two hours of music comes to a close with the constant movement that is Flowers, there’s a quickie slow movement, and then it’s time for roses an applause.
It sometimes feels like the adjunct and freelance phase of my life was the same. I drove nearly 39,000 miles in that last year, for work alone, and then it just … stopped. There are still days when I feel out of sorts or somehow not like myself, and I find myself buying fast food for lunch and eating it in the drivers’ seat of my car. I often park the car outside the building where I work. Eating in a stationary vehicle would have been an unimaginable luxury just a year before, but eating in the vehicle feels more normal, somehow. It feels like where I’m supposed to be. (This is the very definition of Stockholm syndrome. I don’t really enjoy the french fries.)
I talk about it occasionally. It feels a bit like surviving a traumatic experience - my friends already know the details, so they just kind of laugh and roll their eyes. Periodically, one of them has to make a late night drive and comments incredulously that they don’t know how I survived it, which tells me they knew, but they didn’t know. I made the mistake of trying to talk about it in a panel about freelancing and adjunct work at a conference, and discovered that it doesn’t translate well to strangers - particularly those who live in more metropolitan areas. Or maybe it does, but we’re only supposed to talk about the sparkling tutus to keep the illusion that the arts - the ballet, music - are only the beautiful parts.
My experience has a had a lot of beautiful parts.
But it’s also had a lot of french fries in the car.
Don’t forget the Shout wipes.