Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Glass Half Full

Good day to you, Loyal Reader.

In light of my recent "Ultraman" confession I've been doing some soul-searching regarding my entries up to this point.  After reviewing what I've written thus far I fear that the tales previously told may have left you with the impression that I've hated every single job I've ever had.  This is simply not so.

Truth be told I've had as many as...um, two jobs in the past that I've liked!  So, there!  To all of you that think I'm being unreasonably Emo about my main topic of discussion I lob a hearty "HAH!" in your general direction.

In thinking about these past two cherished gigs I've managed to nail down what an ideal working environment would be for me.  As a corollary, here's a list of workplace conditions I'd ideally want to avoid in the future if possible:
  •  Being completely sedentary by sitting in a chair in excess of eight hours everyday.  Especially if sitting down for that long isn't by choice but because you will fail to achieve the inhumane level of production being asked of you on a daily basis if you don't.  I.E. If by getting up to pee, stretch your legs, have a quick chat with a friend or (perish forbid) eat lunch for thirty minutes makes you fall behind in your work to the point that your day is considered a complete failure you may want to seek an alternate vocation.
  • I don't want my primary mode of communication to be by phone.  Now I'm not opposed to communicating my phone at all but if your new boss hands you a headset to wear from day one onward, you can officially take this as an omen (or an ottoman, I'm not sure which).  I generally hate to deal with people exclusively over the phone because (1) You can't read people very well (2) Wearing a headset for eight-plus hours every day will give you a chronic case of swamp-ear and (3) I'm not a thirteen year old girl.  Or at least I haven't been for a long, long time.  Ahem, you probably should ignore that. 
  • I don't want to stare at a computer screen for hours on end.  Again, this isn't bad in short bursts but if you're zoning out on that sucker for more than two to three hours in a sitting, it's time to move on.  Especially if combined with the previous two conditions.  Every health professional I've talked to has told me that the sort of modern Dickensian sweat shop created by big business for their drones to toil in is slowly killing them.  I know for a fact that my posture is completely f#@&#$ and before I left work I had the beginnings of an nicely-developing "Mr. Burn's"-style hump from slaving away continuously at a workstation designed by former Nazi scientists who were fired from the S.S. for "excessively cruelty".
  • As a grown adult I want to work in a trusting environment where my employer believes that I can think independently and apply positive tenants to my daily work experience.  These tenants include, but are not limited to, intelligence, free will, independence, wisdom, training, experience, and common sense.  I don't want to work for someone that has (theoretically) hired me for all the above reasons and then promptly demands that I sit down, shut up and "do exactly as I'm told".                 
  • I don't necessarily want to be paid gobs of money.  It's been my experience that if you work in an environment where you get compensated disproportionately for a job you have no control over, it's a recipe for inevitable madness.  The robotic, practical side of your brain will pursue the perpetually dangling carrot to the point of exhaustion while the creative, active portion of your skull slowly atrophies like Joe Bonham in "Johnny Got His Gun."
Now, conversely, for the sake a maintaining a positive, "glass half full" outlook, here's a l'il sample of what I would consider to be a great working environment:


So basically I'm looking for face to face interaction with real-live people, the freedom to be snide to the grossly ignorant, the ability to discuss relevant topics of interest in a vaguely abusive setting and be semi-mobile at least.

That's not asking too much, is it?   I know these jobs exist; I've had two gigs in the past that I absolutely loved and embodied this philosophy somewhat.

Back when we still lived in residence at St. Mary's a buddy of mine managed to weasel his way into coordinating the student elections.  So, for every election, he'd retain his cronies (myself included) at the amazing rate of $10.00 a hour to mark names off a list and facilitate the voting process.  And by "facilitate the voting process" I mean hand someone a ballot and direct them to the slot after they'd managed to scrawl their secret "X" on it and fold it up.

The guy that ran the whole affair was a notoriously bad speller (and still is to this day).  I remember cracking up at the schedule for the first day because the name of two friends (Mike and Cheryl) had been mangled so badly it looked as if "Milk and Cereal" were working a shift together.  To this day Cheryl still answers to "Cereal" (along with "Roadie", but that's another story).

These elections were a blast.  I've always wanted to work with my friends and this was a real treat.  After someone cast their ballot at one poling station we'd have to use walkie-talkies to transmit their names to all the other stations so they could cross them off on their own lists, thus preventing them from voting again.  In the evenings when things got slow inevitably this would degenerate into the following call-ins:

"Yeah, new voter here...first name, 'Adoodie', first name 'Ahmed'."
"Head's up, people.  We got last name 'Torres', first name 'Clint'!"
"Alright, I need you to cross off 'Ocksmall', O-C-K-S-M-A-L-L, first name 'Mike'."
"Okay, I can't find this name on my list.  Last name is 'Weiner', first name 'Drew', middle initial is 'P'!"

Oh, some of the poor, naive girls we worked with.  We'd get them every time.  Sometimes it would take minutes for them to clue in and we'd just be dying on the other end of the 'talkie as they repeated the 'names' over and over again, their volume growing in direct proportion to their level of frustration:

"Mike HUNT!  Jill, can you see 'Mike Hunt' anywhere down there?  I can't find the friggin' thing at all!" 

Now that's not to say that we didn't do a great job. We actually drove up the voter turnout considerably.  It got to the point where we'd come up with all sorts of comically vaudevillian ways to get every SMU student to vote in the elections.  This obsession got so bad that one night I had a dream that we'd set up a voter station at 'Jumbo Video' and got Lenny Kravitz to play there.  When I shared the idea next day everyone laughed at me and thought  I was nuts.  Jerks. 

This goes to show a truism that big business often forgets: if you trust your people to get the job done and allow them some freedom to have a bit of fun occasionally, you'll empower them, keep their morale up and production will follow naturally.  Funny how these kernels of common sense don't seem so common sometimes. 

Like the "Festival Coast Tourism" gig that I talked about in a previous entry, the other assignment that I liked a lot could scarcely be called a job as well.  It was another make-work type project where I was hired by our local community college to compose and assemble a thousand student orientation packages and also determine the feasibility of an alumni association.

First some background info.  The "College of the North Atlantic" that at worked at has gone through so many name changes I've lost track.  From what I can remember it started out as the "Bay St. George Community College" (limiting it's range a bit) then morphed into the "Western Community College" (vague but catch-all), then became the blatantly trendy "Westviking College" and now it's known as the desperately rugged-sounding "College of the North Atlantic."

Kinda conjures up mental images of classes filled with students dressed in identical rubber boots, yellow rain slickers and Sou'wester hats with cock-eyed, pipe-smoking instructors espousing nuggets of wisdom like: "I sees he, says I to she."    

Anyhoo, I was charged as a twenty three year old kid to tackle these barely-legitimate make work projects.  Energized by the blind trust, responsibility and freedom only granted by employers who's own money they aren't spending, I launched into my duties with tremendous vigor.

Perhaps too much vigor. 

I remember my supervisor taking me aside two weeks into it and telling me: "Look you gotta slow down!  You're gonna work yourself out of a job!"

I couldn't believe what I was hearing.  My parents had it installed like software into my brain, "Matrix"-style that you never slack off doing a job.  NEVER EVER.  You kept hammering at it every second of every day of every week of every month until it's done.  You are never supposed to be IDLE.  That's just lazy.

So, once again, the things that I'd been taught about work were proving to be less than accurate.  I nearly had a mental breakdown consciously forcing myself to slow down.  It's still impossible for me to stop working or slow down until something is completed to my satisfaction.

Considerable stretches of time were spent taking stock in my surroundings. A buddy of mine had been hired in the library to do archiving and both of us had a blast trying to quantify all of the interesting characters at the school.  His supervisor, the guy who ran the library, was an interesting cat who looked like a combination of special effects wizard Dennis Muren and oddball physician Dr. Lawrence Jacoby from "Twin Peaks".  He even had the off-colored lenses for his glasses.  After being a first-hand witness to some of his quirky behavior we both concluded that doing whatever rabbit-hole academics it took to acquire a Master's Degree in Library Studies took too great a toll on the normal human mind and we hastily ruled it out as a future career path.

Another mutual friend would often stop by the school for lunch.  He'd managed to snag a summer job as a DJ at the local radio station CFSX and would regale us of how he nearly got fired for playing Led Zeppelin's "Over The Hills and Far Away" versus such corn-pone classics as Ian Tyson's horrendous "Navajo Rug" which was in heavy rotation at the time.

I guess we all had our crosses to bear.  

Speaking of music, at the time U2's much-maligned "Zooropa" album had just been released.  For some reason we became completely obsessed that summer with the song "Lemon" and made every possible opportunity to warble the lyrics to anyone within earshot.  In an inexplicable twist to residence pranks, if either of us left our office doors open (which was a disused classroom idle during the summer break) for any length of time we'd come back to find the blackboards completely covered in the song's lyrics, making the room look like the secret inner sanctum of the world wussiest serial killer.

More often than not one of our supervisors would pop in on us unexpectedly.  Can you imagine trying to have a respectable, serious conversation with a barely-legitimate authority figure while surrounded by mad scribblings like this:

See through in the sunlight
She wore lemon
But never in the daylight
She's gonna make you cry
She's gonna make you whisper and moan
And when you're dry
She draws her water from the stone  

In between all this wacky tomfoolery I had to procure 1000 condoms for the orientation kits.  For months I  had tons of prophylactics lying around in my "office".  If (perish forbid) a girl I wanted to impress popped in to visit I had to dedicate at least ten minutes trying to convince her that I wasn't predisposed to any freaky-deaky Wilt Chamberlain-like propensities.

I also had to include a letter from our Mayor with the kit.  This story likely explains why I hate trying to do things over the phone and often have a constant state of anxiety associated with it.

So I call the Mayor's office and speak to a nice secretary that sounds like she has a problem with her adenoids.  Eventually she patches me though and this is the first thing I hear:

"A-KACHK!!!  *COUGH, COUGH, COUGH*   BLAK-HUUURRRRKKK!!!  HAWWWWWWK!!!   Snort...(sniffle)."

The voice on the other end of the line seemed to be suffering from severe emphysema.  I waited patiently as the hacking died down and then struck up again.  On an alternate phone line I hastily dialed a "9" and "1" and was poised to dial "1" again if I heard a thump hit the floor.

Eventually the cacoughany ('Cacoughany?'  Geddit?  Huh?  Dooya?  I'm tellin' ya, every one's a friggin' Maserati!) died down and I heard: "Yeah, (first initial of first name omitted)?"

"Yes, Mayor (Omitted), my name's David Pretty.  I'm calling on behalf of Western Community, er...Westviking College."

Endless awful silence.

"And I'm, uh...assembling an orientation kit for the students in September."


Finally a sign of life!  I hung up the other line, happy that I didn't need to get a paramedic on speakerphone to try and talk me through some sort of emergency medical intervention. 

"And we'd love to have a letter of welcome from you to include in the orientation kits."

"A what!?"

"A letter, sir.  A letter signed by you that we can include in the student orientation kits welcoming them to the college and to the town."

A disproportionate span of time was once again consumed by terrible silence.  I held my breath and prepared to hang up, hoping to cut my losses and write this off as the worst crank call in recorded history.

"Yes, 'by!" the Mayor suddenly shouted, forcing me to hold the phone away from my ear for a second time.  Suddenly the man became animated as the venerable, respectable senior statesman I'd expected.  "Come on over tomorrow afternoon and I'll 'ave something for ya."

I swung by his office the following afternoon and true to his word, he'd composed a perfectly professional letter and hand-signed every one.  Although the phone conversation had been terribly awkward, the man certainly came though nicely. 

For the other part of the job I had to determine if an alumni association was feasible for the college.  I contacted a slew of other schools with already-existing alumni groups like Kwantlen College (now "Kwantlen Polytechnic University", Ooooooooo!  Fancy!) to see just how they'd determined the likelihood of first setting one up.  They were very helpful, sending back survey templates that they'd mailed out to graduates in an attempt to gauge interest, determine what activities and privileges they'd like to see and if they'd be willing to pay a small dues to ramp up their benefits.

I composed the package, got it approved, procured the mailers and return postage, then fired it off to about two-hundred graduates.  And then waited.  And waited.  And waited some more. 

Barely any of them came back.   

At the time I wasn't really that surprised.  The economic recession at the time had hit Newfoundlanders particularly hard.  It must have been galling for many graduates to have invested their time and money in a practical trade only to see no career results materialize upon graduation.  Hell, if I was them and got a survey in the mail asking them to confront their folly and if they'd be willing to pay dues for what amounted to wound-worthy salt, I would have turfed that f#@%^& thing as well.

Regardless of the reason, I was stuck.  What the hell was I going to do?  As per my own supervisor's advice I'd taken my sweet time getting to this stage in the work term and within a week or so I had to go in front of a board of directors with the results.

I went to my supervisor and he told me all the right things: "Well, you did your part. It's not your fault that people didn't respond.  The questionnaire you sent to them wasn't particularly long or difficult to answer.  It was the exact same format that other schools have used to good results.  I'd say work with what you got back and don't worry about it."

Even still, the meeting with the higher-ups was pretty awkward.

"So, what was the survey return percentage?"

"Um...about thirty percent."

"Okay.  And what percentage of people who responded wanted to join an alumni association?"

"Er...about the same."

"And your conclusion?"

Yeah, as if that wasn't self evident.

"I'm afraid that there just isn't enough interest at this time to justify establishing an alumni association for Bay St....er, Westviking College just yet." 

Uneasy exchanged glances followed but I saw in this a chance to be optimistic.  Glass half full, as it were.    

"But, perhaps mail isn't the best way to correspond with alumni about this sort of thing.  For the past two years at St. Mary's I've been using this thing called 'email' to keep in touch with friends.  I'm fully confident that there's tremendous potential here and one of these days you'll use more sophisticated and easy ways to reach these people and for them to reply to you.  In light of this and how enthusiastic the responses were from  those people that actually did respond I just sense that the college will have an alumni association sooner rather than later."

Their collective faces brightened considerably.  The mood in the room seemed to relax.  

"Well, we thank you very much for your diligent and honest efforts, Mr. Pretty.    We'll take your report into consideration and we wish you all the best in your upcoming year at St. Mary's."

And that was that.  

Y'know I kid about this stuff but I think it's quite telling that in many ways I had more trust, responsibility and opportunities to be creative and self-determining in a workplace as a twenty three year old kid than I did as a man close to forty years old in his last "real" well-paying gig.  In tune with this entry's title I'm trying to stay positive here but I gotta tell you that experiences like this really set me up with unrealistic expectations for what was to come.

But still I remain your humble, eternally positive, potential servant.


EPIC:  http://www.cna.nl.ca/alumni/

BONUS EPIC: http://www.penny-arcade.com/patv/pa-the-series/
As another example of a dream workplace, if Mike and/or Jerry ever see this and want to hire me I can tell them right now that I can string a sentence together, have sales experience and work cheap.



FAIL:  http://www.usabilitynews.com/news/article2528.asp Maybe I did better than I thought?

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