“If you don’t get up on time and study hard in yeshiva, you’ll have to get up early to drive a truck after marriage.”

(Ari Mandel)

It’s now two years since I reluctantly got into a truck and drove across the country for the first time. I had just dropped out of school, the bills were piling up, and I needed a job, any job, and half a degree in a job search is about as useful as half a virginity on a shidduch resume. “If all else fails,” I’d told myself in the past, “you can always drive a truck. It beats being a Walmart greeter.”

At the age of 24, I left the Chassidic world I was raised in and joined the US Army with the high ideals of avenging 9/11, seeing if I had the cholent in the guts, and out-badassing the Hatzalah and Shomrim machers I mocked but secretly wanted to join. Above all else though, I enlisted to go to college. I had learned to blend in fairly well by reading books and watching countless hours of documentaries, PBS, History Channel, National Geographic and the like, and I went on to spend five years among people who knew nothing about the world I had just left, without being the weird guy in the platoon or being outed as having a peculiar background. But I still did plenty of clueless smiling and nodding, and I never felt quite like a Normal American. I knew virtually nothing about getting an education, and I’d struck out at the local community college when they asked for high school transcripts (high school what?), so the US Army seemed like the perfect solution. They would pay for the GED required to join, and the GI Bill would pay for a degree once I got out. College would finally cement me as a Normal American.

After being discharged from the Army, I was laser focused on going to college and getting that diploma. I knew the term “Ivy League,“ and while I wasn’t sure what it meant, Google informed me that Columbia and New York University were the two best schools in New York, so naturally I looked no further. Columbia said it was too late for that semester and to come back in a couple of months, so I went to number two on the list. Few days in my life were as happy and emotional as the day I got the acceptance letter from NYU. I didn’t have a pot to piss in, my marriage of over a decade was over, and I had no idea what to expect from the future or what I wanted to be when I grew up, but I was in one of the best (and most expensive) schools in the country, motherfuckers! I was going to conquer the world!

Philosophy, history, anthropology, critical thinking, writing, sociology, science, poetry. I was in heaven and my professors loved me; I was the most enthusiastic student they’d ever had. I arrived early, stayed late, participated in class, turned my papers in ahead of schedule and got good grades, all while working odd jobs and fighting a never ending battle with the Veterans Affairs, who kept losing my GI Bill paperwork, needing new forms, and were perpetually one signature away from finally being done with the whole process. “Oh, and that summer class? We’re very sorry, sir, but the GI Bill doesn’t cover extracurriculars…” The bursar’s office was kind enough to give me a week’s notice to get Uncle Sam to pay up before I’d be on the hook for $54,176. Or I could drop out. Sometimes they’d come through and pay and sometimes they wouldn’t, but I hung in. I was determined to get that piece of paper.

One day, a Facebook friend, someone I didn’t know and had never interacted with, messaged me, “let’s meet.” He’d been following me on social media, and he got a kick out of my shtick. He was the founder of a small startup, and was interested in “my services” as a guerrilla marketer. He made me an offer I couldn’t refuse, and before long I was wearing business casual five days a week, occupying a cubicle in a fancy shmancy Manhattan suite of offices, with my own business card, a budget, meetings, phone calls and deadlines. Several months later, the company’s Columbia-educated, MBA-holding marketing and PR chief left, and I was given his position. I’d made it! If you had asked me to describe my dream career a day before I received that Facebook message, I would’ve described this job almost word-for-word. And I was miserable. I was drinking every night. I was depressed, I started dreading work, and my performance started to slip. Meanwhile, my school work, which had been relegated to second place, also began to suffer. Everything I had worked so hard for seemed to be falling apart.

I left the company and went back to school full time. In the back of my mind I kept mulling over the months I’d spent as a cubicle monkey, trying to understand why I’d been so miserable doing what I thought I wanted to do with my life, but I chalked it up to being dragged down by external events, and tried to put it behind me.

Then, for the fifth time, I got an email telling me I had a week to get the VA to pay my tuition bill or I had to drop out. I was exhausted, I was stressed out, I was pissed off, and I was done fighting. “If all else fails, you can always drive a truck.” I called a friend who’s been trucking for twenty years and asked him to tell me about the whole trucking thing. “I love it,” he said, “I wouldn’t want to do anything else. I’m leaving for Los Angeles in a few days, and you’re welcome to come along and see what it’s like.”

“Babe,” I said on the phone a few days later, as I crossed the Utah/Nevada border, “I don’t want to scare you, but I really, really like this.” I didn’t ask what it paid, what it took to get into, or what the future of the business looked like, I was in love.

The technical skills required to drive a tractor-trailer, while challenging enough to keep me engaged and feel like I’m actually doing something, are fairly basic. What hooked me is the “lifestyle.” No office politics, no dress code, no boss breathing down my neck, and best of all — no customers to pretend to care about or agree with. I get a text message with my load information, an expected pickup and drop-off time, and it’s my responsibility to get there on time, with the cargo intact, and to do so safely, otherwise I’m left to my own devices. Once guiding an 80,000 lbs battering ram doesn’t consume 95% of your focus, you can relax and enjoy the road, and boy do I enjoy the road. From West Virginia’s Lord of the Rings-like rolling landscapes, to the otherworldly Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah, or dead factory towns in Kansas, I am endlessly enchanted and entertained. Not to mention the whacky and wonderful people along the way. But most of all, I cherish the peace and quiet that comes with this job, and the time it affords me to listen to obscene amounts of audiobooks, podcasts, satellite radio, lectures, music and comedy. The sense of calm that washes over me as I hit the interstate is indescribable, and the ability to indulge endlessly in my curiosities is priceless.

It takes a particular personality to tolerate, much less enjoy, living in a tin can for days at a time, not having a regular 9-5 schedule, and spending much of your time hundreds or thousands of miles away from home, but if you’re wired that way, long haul trucking is a pleasure. I’ve always enjoyed being somewhat of an outsider, whether it was claiming a different chassidus than where I was at the moment or feeling like an outsider in the army, so being the youngest and least threatening-looking person at truck stops feels comfortably out of place.

I struggled for a while with my decision to “give up” and go to work, and to drive a truck no less. People protested my decision with “you’re wasting your brain!” And my defensive response was “would you tell a woman she’s wasting her body unless she’s a stripper?” But slowly, unconsciously at first, my thinking and feeling on the matter started to shift, and when I “read” (listened to) Tribe by Sebastian Junger, things started to clarify. The angst and unhappiness I’d been experiencing previously, and the calm and contentment I was feeling now were perfectly natural and understandable. You’ll have to read his book (highly recommended, and see also Shop Class as Soulcraft) to do the topic justice, but in short he posits that our modern, relatively struggle-free lives are the cause of much of the ennui so prevalent in western society today. After millions of years of chasing gazelles and desperately trying to outrun sabertooth tigers just to survive, our lizard brains are bored and itching for action. It’s why higher socioeconomic groups are associated with higher levels of anti-depressants, and why combat veterans miss the excitement, high stakes, and comradery of war. It’s why no matter how good a sugar water salesman I was (and I was pretty good), or how great an advertising slogan I came up with, I felt empty inside, and why my toughest days in the Army were some of my most satisfying. To be sure, there are downsides to my profession. Lonely nights, long stretches of boring highway (sorry, Midwest!), missed family events, and being forced to share the road with you suicidal knuckleheads, and sometimes I still agonize over whether or not I made the right choice, but no job is perfect, and the pros in this one far outweigh the cons.

But there’s another aspect to this that I’ve been playing with in my head, and that is the dearth of positive role models in the Chassidic world, where gender roles are very clearly but very narrowly defined. Men are patriarchal heads of the household, and career options are pretty much limited to one of various rabbinical jobs, working for a local Chassidic-owned small business, or trying their hand at business themselves, while women are primarily mothers and homemakers, and can choose between teaching or secretarial work to help support their large families. Let the goyim do everything else, from accounting to brick-laying. Having left that community and rejected their worldview, I’ve had to rethink what it means to be an adult, what it means to be successful, what it means to be a man. What does success mean when you’ve been told “If you’re not Jewish (aka Orthodox), you’re in the toilet. You’re a loser.” Does masculinity mean hitting on everything with a pulse, talking about dat ass with my bros and snapping towels in the locker room after a sweaty lifting sesh? My plumbing is male and I’m attracted to the opposite sex, so by definition I’m a heterosexual man, but is that enough? Does being a man mean being a rage-prone, emotionally stunted workaholic who only shows his love by how he chooses to throw his money around? What’s the example I want to be setting for my teenage son? Jesus Christ, I have a teenage son…

The stereotype Luzer mentions in One of Us, that everyone who leaves the Ultra-Orthodox world either winds up in prison, in rehab, or goes back to the community, is mostly a lie created to scare people away from leaving, but it’s also a self-fulfilling prophesy. If you have no secular education, no marketable knowledge or skills, and your only concept of work is sitting in kollel or checking lettuce for bugs, there’s a good chance you’ll have trouble finding and maintaining gainful employment. If you set someone up for failure, and then call them a loser, how long before they start acting like one? And it’s not like the cliché non-Orthodox go-to professions — doctor or lawyer — are the right options for everyone either.

Financial concerns have always been the biggest cause of stress in my life, and having stability is definitely a big part of why I’m feeling better, but there’s something slightly primal about getting up before dawn to inspect my truck and trailer, and hauling 45,000 lbs of salt up and down the hills of Pennsylvania, till I’m so disoriented I only know I’m going uphill when my RPM drop and I have to downshift, and without stalling or hyperventilating. I’m not curing cancer or advancing world peace, and I’m definitely not writing press releases or coming up with clever ways to sell boner pills, but my occupation helps make the world go round, it has some bite to it, and it allows me the opportunity to indulge in interests and hobbies no other career would.

Of course I can’t help wondering how much of this is honest self-reflection and how much is post-hoc justification; how much of what I say is to convince others and how much is meant to convince myself. I do plan on finishing my degree some day, but it’ll be because I hate quitting, because it’s the main reason I joined the Army, and because I would still like to have that damn piece of paper on my wall. But don’t expect to see me in a suit and tie in a corner office; I love the ever-changing view from my cubicle. It took me a while to get there, but like most of my positive traits (like modesty, for instance), none of which I learned from my rebbes, by the way, my parents taught us that there is virtue in simple, honest, blue collar work, and that wealth doesn’t make you a better or more valuable human being. For years I had a burning desire to be rich and to change the world, but I discovered contentment instead, and that’s more valuable to me than nicer toys.

As for being a man, I haven’t found The Answer yet, but I’d be happy with something like the Lebowski Standard (being prepared to do the right thing, whatever the cost… And a pair of testicles), or maybe, as I discovered after losing belief in the supernatural, the answer is “I don’t know,” and learning to be okay with that. If I manage to impart upon my son a healthy dose of skepticism, along with open-mindedness and an acceptance of some amount of uncertainty, I’ll be satisfied. I may have had a late adolescence, and I’ll forever feel like a work in progress, but if I can give him a bit of a head start and an array of options in life, it’ll all have been worth it.