The Man Who Doesn’t Fit In

Robert Service knows me:

The Men That Don’t Fit In (c. 1907)

There’s a race of men that don’t fit in,
A race that can’t stay still;
So they break the hearts of kith and kin,
And they roam the world at will.

They range the field and they rove the flood,
And they climb the mountain’s crest;
Theirs is the curse of the gypsy blood,
And they don’t know how to rest.

If they just went straight they might go far;
They are strong and brave and true;
But they’re always tired of the things that are,
And they want the strange and new.

They say: “Could I find my proper groove,
What a deep mark I would make!”
So they chop and change, and each fresh move
Is only a fresh mistake.

And each forgets, as he strips and runs
With a brilliant, fitful pace,
It’s the steady, quiet, plodding ones
Who win in the lifelong race.

And each forgets that his youth has fled,
Forgets that his prime is past,
Till he stands one day, with a hope that’s dead,
In the glare of the truth at last.

He has failed, he has failed; he has missed his chance;
He has just done things by half.
Life’s been a jolly good joke on him,
And now is the time to laugh.

Ha, ha! He is one of the Legion Lost;
He was never meant to win;
He’s a rolling stone, and it’s bred in the bone;
He’s a man who won’t fit in.

I Was a Welfare Case(worker)

Here’s an interesting story that I don’t believe I’ve told before. It’s from the days before blogging. At this time twenty years ago, I was collecting welfare.

I’d spent the 1992-1993 academic year in Grand Rapids, Michigan, attending a teacher training program at Calvin College. I’d applied to all the Ontario teachers’ colleges but hadn’t been accepted, despite strong grades. At the time, teaching was one of the hottest careers going and everything about the profession was very competitive. I enjoyed a very good year in Michigan and learned a lot, personally and professionally, but when I returned to Ontario in the summer of 1993, I had absolutely no contacts here. I was living with my dad, on a bed behind the sofa, and having gone into debt to attend teachers’ college, had no money at all to support myself while searching for a teaching job. My dad had recently exhausted his severance after taking early retirement from IBM at the age of 49, so he was suffering financially as well. Wanting to devote myself fulltime to finding a teaching position, and thinking it would only be for a month or two, I applied for welfare. My monthly cheque was for the princely sum of $663, $400 of which went to my dad for room and board. In those pre-Internet days, I had to send out resumés by mail and search for information at the library. The library was really the only place I could get out of the apartment without spending any money.

Although I had a few interviews, they were only for private school positions or to be added to the public school supply lists. As I mentioned, things were very competitive, and I had no local teaching experience. I taught a day or two as a substitute at a local Christian school, and volunteered at the junior high school next to my dad’s place, but nothing better came along. After spending so much time and money preparing for this career, I didn’t want to give up too easily, but really, $663 a month meant I’d never get out of my dad’s apartment.

In the spring of 1994, during a meeting with my caseworker, she looked at my qualifications and mentioned that the municipality were actually hiring caseworkers and that I should apply. Coincidentally, one of the other Torontonians who I’d met at Calvin had been hired as a caseworker several months before. With her encouragement and guidance, I aced the preliminary exam and in May, 1994, I was hired. I’d gone from one side of the desk to the other.

It was a demanding job, but one which, for a while, made me feel like I was helping people. Then in 1995, Ontarians elected Mike Harris, a Conservative whose “Common Sense Revolution” promised to lower taxes and punish those on social assistance. Welfare rates were slashed (single people saw their assistance cut from $663/month to $520/month, and those rates remained in place for many many years) and “workfare” programs were drawn up. My job became much much harder. For instance, people on social assistance were required to report any and all income they received, and it was to be deducted from their monthly cheques. If you lived in the city of Toronto, $520 wouldn’t even cover rent, never mind food, so unless you were living with family or several roommates, it was very tempting not to report income. And how could I blame my clients?

I saw scores of new Canadians, families who’d immigrated after being promised that their professional qualifications would lead to good jobs in Canada. They were disillusioned and sometimes angry. I had ex-convicts who couldn’t get jobs or who talked about doing odd jobs for cash. My most trying period was when I had a caseload of more than 150 single mothers. Caught between finding child care and pursuing child support, it was difficult for these women to think about finding meaningful work, even if they had enough education to find good jobs. There were also a lot of bad boyfriends whom we often suspected of living with our clients, sometimes contributing financially and sometimes sponging off the already meagre income of the households.

Over time, the work became more and more stressful as I realized that as a front-line employee, I had no power to change the legislation I was enforcing. I grew frustrated not being able to really make much of a difference in the lives of people who wanted help. Even more frustrating was seeing how many people had given up completely, simply content to take whatever small amount they could get. I saw some of my co-workers who’d been there a long time treating people rudely and without compassion. Things must have been bad enough that when an opportunity to sell computers in a retail store came up in 1998, I saw that as my ticket out.

I could have had a long career with the Department of Social Services. The friend who helped me get the job just received her 20 year pin from the City of Toronto. She probably has a very nice pension plan by now. I’ve thought about re-applying for my old job. That would certainly be interesting. And should I find myself back on the other side of the desk, well the rates have gone up in the past 15 years. A single person can now collect up to $626/month. Yes, that’s right. It’s less than you’d have received 20 years ago. Good thing rents in Toronto haven’t increased, right?

Report Card for 2012

Overall Grade: C+

Borrowing a very cool idea from the smarties over at Hazlitt, I thought I’d write up a (hopefully not-too-long-or-maudlin) summary of my own 2012. It’s always good to take stock, and looking back is as important to me as looking ahead, so here goes nothin’.

I’ve already written about my suspicion that years that end in 2 or 7 are bound to be momentous for me, and I wasn’t wrong about 2012.

Things started off normally. In October of 2011, I’d gone back to work for the wine importing company I’d been with from 2003-2007. They were having a whole new web site built and needed someone to manage the project and do some content stuff. It was meant to be a six-month contract ending in April. But lots of internal company stuff was happening (or more accurately, not happening), which delayed the site launch until July. Even then, the main reason for the redesign, e-commerce, was not ready. I stayed until the end of the year, in the end handing off my position to someone else. Fingers crossed, e-commerce is set to launch in the next little while…

I left for the same reason that getting back together with an old girlfriend is a bad idea. The comfort is nice for a while, but then you remember why you broke up the first time. Besides, I’d been making noises the whole time about how I wanted to go freelance, set my own hours, work from home, blah blah.

So on the work front, 2012 was a year spent marking time, waiting for the right combination of circumstances to launch myself as a freelance dynamo. January 1st is a good time for launching things, right?

Truthfully, the last third of the year sucked for another reason. In September, my father was hospitalized with difficulty breathing while on holiday in Ireland. Brooke and I were scheduled to travel to Belgium and Luxembourg during the same time, so we were able to re-route and see him in Dublin for a weekend. He seemed to be making a great recovery, so we finished the rest of our European vacation and went home. For the next couple of weeks, I spent lots of time with Dad, making appointments for him to see specialists and making sure he was sticking to his nicotine patch regime. And then suddenly he died.

We were close, but I don’t think we really understood each other. My mother died when I was in my early 20s, and as an only child, I worked hard to build a relationship with my dad where none had really existed. Though I was never completely successful, we loved each other. We even liked each other, though as he got older, his stubbornness and constrained life and world view annoyed me. My sadness seems to have turned pretty quickly to a kind of resentment, not of him exactly, but of all the administrivia and physical labour involved in what feels like nothing more than erasing all traces of his presence in the world.

Things Brooke and I have avoided in our own lives (mortgage, car and pet ownership) are now part of the burden of things I have to sort out. My first month or more of “freelance” life will most likely be spent working as a freelance cleaner, mover, and filler of forms.

Brooke and I celebrated ten years of marriage (and 15 as a couple) in October. It’s hard to believe. We may have one of the most low-maintenance relationships I’ve ever witnessed. We’re not without our issues, but I’d say that our default status is “contentment.” I hope I’m not just speaking for myself.

As usual, I started far more things than I could finish in 2012, but a few of them are worth noting.

Shorts That Are Not Pants is a quarterly screening series for short films that officially kicked off last January. We have hosted four screenings so far, three at the NFB Mediatheque (now closed, sadly) and one at the Carlton Cinemas. PLUG: join us on Thursday January 17th at 7pm at the Carlton as we kick off our second year!

I also began writing for the excellent Short of the Week, which features excellent short films available online. Though my contributions there this year have been sparse, I’m proud of them and honoured to be part of a great team of writers and curators.

I wrote far less than I would have liked here on my “personal” blog and on Toronto Screen Shots, my general film blog, but I’m not going to beat myself up over it. My book/article/web project on Toronto art-rockers Max Webster has also gone dormant, but I’m not giving up on it.

I want 2013 to be full of great moments. I want to capture more of my life in words, and I want to spend more and better time with those I love (and that’s all of you, by the way). As always, I want to express myself more clearly and openly with people. Each day, I want to articulate to myself what I want out of life and pursue it without fear of failure.

P.S. When I started writing this, I wanted it to be more in the style of some of those Hazlitt staffers, recounting kooky anecdotes from my year. That may have to wait for another post, I guess.

Where Do I Go Now?

Where Do I Go Now?

Yesterday’s post was a necessary look back, but I want to focus now on what’s next. As I mentioned before, I’ve taken myself away on “career retreats” on two previous occasions. In 2003 and again in 2009, I spent a couple of days in Kingston, Ontario, chosen, frankly, for its blandness and lack of distractions (sorry Kingston!). On both occasions, I returned energized and with job descriptions in hand for jobs that did not (yet) exist. On both occasions, I went on to work at those jobs after reaching out to the relevant communitites (wine and film, respectively). And I still have great relationships and potential or ongoing work with both of these communities. So clearly my strategy has been effective. The issue was that in one case (wine), the industry was too small and my prospects limited, and in the other (independent film distribution), the economy made it impossible for me to work full-time for decent wages.

Given that I would like to continue to work with the people I met in those two jobs, I’ve been exploring the idea of launching my own content consultancy. I’ve certainly worked in many different business sectors and have seen the same issues in all of them. A lack of clear communication and a need for guidance when it comes to online tools, for starters. The shape of this new business will need some experimentation and some advice from trusted friends, but it’s a potentially exciting new direction.

And just to reinforce that my basic skill set has been in place all along, here are what I listed as my “transferable skills” back in 2003. Each was based on a job I had performed at some point in my working life:

I’m a person who can:

  • write clearly
  • edit
  • research
  • sell
  • teach
  • explain difficult concepts simply
  • find cool stuff
  • learn quickly
  • lead people
  • understand technology
  • read a lot
  • train others
  • communicate well verbally
  • make connections between things
  • find mistakes and defects

I took the photo for this post myself. It’s a road sign we saw in rural Iceland on our trip there in 2008. I invite usability experts to weigh in on just how helpful this sign could be to anyone traveling by car.

How Did I Get Here?

Crossroad, by Daniele Sartori

As I write this post, I’m sitting in a San Francisco café in the midst of my third “career retreat” in the past eight years. For someone who thinks about the world of work so much, I don’t seem to be very good at figuring it out for myself.

I left my position at St. Michael’s Hospital just over a month ago, six months into a ten-month contract. Without getting into too much detail, I was unable to work effectively within such a large organization, with all of its existing power structures and areas of dysfunction. Plenty of people do, but I’ve just realized (again) that I’m not cut out for working in bigger companies.

I’ve been working for money for more than 30 years now. I took my first job in the summer of 1980, selling magazine subscriptions door-to-door. Since that time, the longest I’ve ever held a job has been four years, and that’s been on two occasions. From 1994-1998, I was a welfare caseworker for the City of Toronto. And from 2003-2007, I was the web guy for Lifford Wine Agency. I enjoyed both jobs, but left for similar reasons. I was worried about stagnating. I’ve come to realize that when it comes to work, I have a fear of commitment.

It hasn’t helped that for the past decade, I’ve been working in web-related positions. The online landscape shifts so often as to make just about anyone insecure. I’ve always been happiest as a generalist, but each job I’ve taken in the past few years has pushed me to specialize more and more. I’ve learned a lot about what I don’t like to do in the process. What’s been harder to nail down is what I do like to do.

And so I’m here, spending a week away from my regular routine, reading, thinking and writing about what I want to do with that part of my life devoted to earning money. I’ve tried to be unsentimental about work. My generation may have been the first raised to expect more from our careers, not just money but fulfillment. I’ve always thought that was a tall order. And yet.

We spend half of our waking hours working. We often see our workmates more than the members of our own families. We should be looking for an environment in which we can use all of our abilities and develop good working relationships. We should be able to balance our work and home responsibilities with as little stress as possible. Let’s face it. I’m still an idealist.

Everywhere I have worked, I have diagnosed areas of dysfunction and lamented relationships that just didn’t work out. I’ve often thought that I would make a good manager, but without the power to actually make organizational changes, I know I’d grow bitter and frustrated.

I’ve often joked that entrepreneurs are people who just can’t work with anyone else, and now I feel like I understand that mentality.

Over the past eight years, on my career retreats, I’ve compiled lists of my skills. I’ve read about flow. I’ve tried to combine my passions with my abilities. I’ve created non-existent positions and then sold companies the idea of hiring me to fill them. So why am I still back in this position, unemployed and looking for my next gig?

I’m 46 years old. I like to think that I know myself pretty well. I like to think that the income matters less than the opportunity. That I’m ready to take on new challenges, again. But I worry that others will see me as a job-hopper, as someone who’s never stayed in one place long enough to achieve mastery or to assume responsibilities. As someone who is afraid of commitment.

I often compare the world of work to the world of relationships. And I worry that I’m that guy waiting for “the one” to sweep me off my feet. And I’m perpetually disappointed. And worse, it’s not possible to take a break from working the way one might decide to take a break from dating. We need to work all the time, and when we’re working it’s hard to find energy to find better work. So many people muddle on in jobs they hate. Except me. I get out.

And as each position I leave is found wanting, I worry that I’m running out of options. Who wants to hire someone so unsure of what he wants out of his work?

So this week is about me remembering my experiences, recalibrating my expectations, rethinking my ambitions and researching my options. God help me.

Thanks to Daniele Sartori for making his photo available under a Creative Commons licence.