Category Archives: Employment

The Whelming

1100-2

Spur yourself to muster the power of faith. Regard your survival as wondrous. Employ the strategy of the Lotus Sutra before any other.

Many things in my current slice of Vermont life are overwhelming. Underwhelming, too, as those two words are more collusive than opposing.

All the concrete biggies are in play: Finances, Health, and Security. The existential ones too: Purpose, Meaning, and Creativity.

I am anxious about being able to provide for my family, my dangerous drop in weight, and the uncertainty of the future. I worry about not doing what I was born to do, finding less attached too often to meaning, and words unwritten dying with me.

I take action of course: applying for better, more-suitable employment, like with the Vermont Humanities Council; creating work and putting it out there, like with this post; and continuing my volunteer activities, like with reading submissions for the Mud Season Review.

I take more actions than the above and try to think of what further things I can do, what other steps I can take, to create a life that is something other than “nasty, brutish and short.”

Lately, in addition to chanting, I’ve been reading and rereading Strategy of the Lotus Sutra. It is a short letter, just a page or so, Nichiren wrote to his devout follower Shijō Kingo. It is a reply to a letter Kingo had sent about being ambushed by some of his fellow samurai, encouraging him to remain strong in faith; indeed, for him to become even more resolute.

Faith is difficult for me to muster.

Ribs clearly visible in my gaunt body, I envision the formidable obstacles in any potential roads taken and doubt my abilities. Yet I am still alive to have or not have faith, time passing either way.

“Regard your survival as wondrous” seems to have two meanings. The first as in thinking wow, I survived this horrible attack. How amazing! But also, life in general is a constant struggle to survive, and us being around at any given moment is something quite extraordinary.

The “strategy” of the Lotus Sutra is faith; not just having it but understanding its relation to other things. Faith is not something to be added later, but should come first. It is the foundation upon which all other actions – strategies – are built.

I’ve been trying to chant – and take action – with such thoughts in mind.

Nichiren ends the letter with “A coward cannot have any of his prayers answered.”

I think of this line, too, as I take determined steps forward, despite being very much afraid.

Sick Oh

Friday morning I woke up sick.

Or I should say woke up sicker than usual as it’s been many years, decades, since I’ve been what I would consider truly healthy in any tangible sense of the word; if there had ever been such a mythical time and not just some fanciful memory.

But that particular morning was sickness of a specific sort that encouraged me to call out at work, something I rarely do.

I had gotten up to take Jack out. I started to change out of my robe into something more socially acceptable to wear outside. My fingers touched something unpleasantly wet and, upon examination, dark.

As if to emphasize its origin, I sat on the commode and proceeded to defecate in a splattering fashion that sounded more like urination. Over the next fifteen minutes I tried three times to make it from the bathroom, but ended up instead back in that rather helpless position of waiting for my body to do what it was going to do with or without my consent.

The fourth time I escaped the bathroom, got dressed, and took Jack out, like I originally had planned. Likewise, I thought I would continue with my routine and go to work, being stoic with matters of illness. But a few more attacks disabused me of such a notion along with the realization that the constant physical strain my current job entails would exacerbate such issues; especially since it already does so on a regular basis, just to a lesser degree.

So I called out and ended up spending most of the day and night in bed, dwelling on sickness, pending death – for it is always pending – and my relentless lack of means that makes the former harder to combat and the latter not as unwelcome, not as rage against the dying of the light, as it should be.

Relentless insomuch as my best efforts seem to no avail, with me frequently left an outlier to the world and feeling much like Equality 7-2521.

It is taxing not doing what you were born to do. It makes being born at all taxing.

Sickness bleeds the turnip.

Yet…

The next morning, not feeling great but not feeling as bad, I got up, took Jack out, and drove to Burlington for a board meeting. For I don’t know what to do when efforts are thwarted except put forth more effort.

I’m sick in that way too.

Temperature Cold, Feels like Poor

Vermont gets cold.

Winter lasts a long time. It is March and it snowed last night. I’m glad to be inside. Most days I’m trudging through whatever weather to work. But today I have the day off.

I will go out later in the afternoon to attend a board meeting of the Vermont PWA coalition. But for now, I’m in my robe and typing this while listening to “Resist” by Rush.

And I’m warm enough and so is my family.

Friday night I was scared we wouldn’t be. We ran out of oil. I was hoping what little we had left in the tanks would stretch until warmer weather or until I could find a better-paying job, whichever came first; both seeming equally elusive right now.

But Friday night, the worst possible night for such things, hope sputtered out and the temperature in our house started dropping. I thought of my ill husband. I thought of our 19-year-old cat with his thin skin.

I thought of Edgar Allan Poe’s cat providing warmth to the impoverished writer’s dying wife; they couldn’t afford heat.

We can’t afford heat. We also really can’t afford the additional cost of an “emergency” oil delivery either. But I leaned on my already strained credit to get us oil that night.

Maybe we could have toughened it out till Monday when there would be no extra charge. Maybe our two-year-old long-haired cat would have been kind enough to act as an extra quilt. Maybe odds are our older cat would have survived the weekend anyway without costly intervention.

But I’d rather not rely on playing the odds when it comes to taking care of my family. Yet, that is often what being poor means, with stakes a lot higher than the stocks in one’s portfolio dipping a little.

How delinquent can you be before electricity gets shut off? What are the rules of eviction? Can you use the food pantry more than once a month?

People of means do not ask such questions nor do they lie awake worrying about such things.

Keeping the car insured takes up a lot of grocery money. A fifteen-dollar co-pay for medicine is at least three meals. Muffins closer to the expiration date get marked down 50%.

People with means don’t spend time making such comparisons.

Yet our government – and much of the private sector, actually — is full of people with means making decisions about things far removed from their daily experience and, at the end of their privileged place-at-the-table day, of little consequence to their world.

Just a little food for thought for those of us who have trouble affording any other kind.

Interview Blues

How do you parse your life in marketable packets?

Coming home from a botched interview for a job I really wanted, I navigated the ensuing snowstorm without incident until I got home. Going up the steep drive to our apartment I couldn’t quite crest the hill. It ended up being a drawn-out ordeal with getting stuck and all the fun that comes with such situations.

But I ended up learning two things from a neighbor who helped me out.

  • If your car has front wheel drive and you’re stuck, try putting on the emergency brake and hit the accelerator. Emergency brakes are usually connected to the back wheels, so doing thus should whip you around and out of that situation. I didn’t have to do this, but I filed this information away as a last resort.
  • I always had previously thought salt with ice and snow. But my neighbor suggested – and that night effectively used – dirt. I filed this information away as well.

These snippets of data are retained and will be recalled in future snow incidents. However, if I went to a job interview the next day and was asked something general like “When have you tried a new solution to a problem?”, I’m not certain I would think to bring up this incident.

Data in my head doesn’t get organized in such nicely sellable chunks. It gets absorbed, recalled and used when needed, modified if necessary, then becomes reabsorbed. This ultimately makes me a heck of an effective worker who is able to accomplish much, but makes me altogether lousy at showcasing ability during interview time.

Once I learn something or accomplish something, either trivial or major, it becomes so integrated into the already existing and constantly evolving chunks of what I know and what I can do, I am hard-pressed to chisel them out again for the presentation successful job hunting requires.

In a probably futile effort to salvage this latest job search disaster, I wrote a letter to my interviewer, pressing myself hard to isolate a look at this rock of ability. Here is the letter, without names of course:

Dear __,

I gave a rather anemic answer to your question about when I have used creativity. So I thought I would provide this additional thought.

Creativity by its very nature is fluid. It flows daily and throughout the day enhancing activities in both minor and major ways. It is so ubiquitous I take it for granted and do not typically “record” specific instances of use. Its immediate output is ad hoc; its mechanism overshadowed by the results it fosters.

That said, here’s a concrete example of my solution-generating creativity at work:

I created a queer history display for Pride Vermont. My original vision featured a center panel with a collage of pictures from prides throughout the decades; a visual history. I diligently copied materials from the Vermont Historical Society.

The problem: As I put the display together, it became apparent that a collage would necessitate not including some years, which would subtract from the larger goal of infusing the display with a sense of time. Indeed, the space itself seemed too small to encompass the trove of wonderful information I had unearthed and wished to share. Even paring it down to one or two pages per year presented logistical issues for such limited surface area. There were too many years…

My creative solution: Instead of a standard mounting, I chronologically overlapped the documents, thereby allowing an easy view of year-by-year via a simple lift of one page to see the page – in its entirety – that it overlapped. Through this approach, no years were omitted and I did not have to compromise my aesthetic sensibility; form, function, and beauty coexisted.

Creation of the display involved other assorted creative bursts, which I discuss in some detail here on my website:

http://jdfoxpresents.com/queer-history-on-display/

Focused as I am on the present and the future, I am not good at heralding past accomplishments; an interview weakness for sure.

I reiterate here my impassioned interest in working for ______ and hope that this missive adds favorably to its articulation.

Respectfully,

JD Fox

Things blur inside me, not just creatively but analytically as well. I help Gary with formatting an excel spreadsheet, then that knowledge too goes back inside me until needed. Which is a very minor example of analytical, for sure, but it happened just yesterday and is what I am able to chisel out at the moment, other incidents currently being irretrievable.

Though I know they – both creative and analytical skills — are there for me to use when I need them; or someone else needs me to use them. I just need to find a way to prove it during the allotted 30 minutes of question and answer showtime.

Invisible Me

I’m Nobody! Who are you?
Are you – Nobody – too?

I’ve never been popular. And I don’t expect to be.

Most of my thoughts are probably too esoteric for the Viral Video population while at the same time being far too simplistic for Great Thinkers. My stories are a little too subversive for mainstream consumption while being too ordinary for postpunkalyptical digestion. In conversation, I’m frequently only half-understood, and usually it’s the wrong half.

I would never be described by:

Whoa oh, it’s out at night he goes
He slips easily into conversation

That’s okay, though. Or more okay than not. For one doesn’t have to have everyone read you or understand you or like you for a pleasant life to be obtained. A carved-out social niche could be quite comfy enough for such purposes.

But how does one make such a space? A place where you are welcomed and accepted? Or at the very least one where you are acknowledged?

Such questions become doubly difficult to answer when something happens that indicates you’re going about it all wrong or, worse, that maybe there’s just something fundamentally wrong about you that keeps such a place always over there and out of reach.

I had such a recent experience with being turned down for a job.

Now it should be noted I am used to rejection. Don’t like it, of course. But I am used to it. Competition in both the writing and the job market is fierce. Submitted stories frequently get replies of Does Not Meet Our Current Needs and the same is true with employers who are Pursuing Other Candidates At This Time.

But this particular not-getting-the-job was special. Or rather not special, which is what made it all the more troubling to me.

For the employer knows me and I’ve done non-paid work for them. Still will do so, in fact, as I believe in their mission. All in all, I had always thought I was reasonably well-liked there.

They have a small staff of paid folks and when an opening came up I applied. As it was something I truly wanted to do and something I was impassioned about, I spent a lot of time on crafting cover letter and resume.

Still, I tried to keep my hopes at minimal. For like I said, the market is fierce and I know they had received a staggering number of resumes. With so many applicants vying for the same position, and with probably a great many of them also well-liked and also having done work for them, it would be unwise to have Great Expectations.

It turned out, though, that my low expectations were apparently not low enough.

For I not only didn’t get the job, I received a form letter rejection that gave no indication that the employer knew me from any other applicant on their desk. That impersonal missive hurt far more than just the “No.”

Emily Dickinson goes on to write:

How dreary – to be – Somebody!

Yet I can’t help but think how dreary it also is – to be – Nobody! Especially when I thought that I was finally becoming something else; something visible.

Drug Testing Dilemma

Next to my computer is my ePassport™ for a pre-employment drug screen at Hendricks Occupational Medicine II in Plainfield IN.

Such screens have become frighteningly routine. More times than not when you fill out an application for work, you must consent to such testing. In fact, I have yet to see a not. I have a huge problem with this. But unfortunately I have to weigh this moral reservation against the need to bring money into the household.

And it is a moral reservation, because there is definitely something unseemly and insidious here.

First and foremost of course is the invasiveness of it. They are taking bodily fluids from me. Am I the only one who finds that a little bit creepy? People should have the right to be “secure in their persons“. Such testing violates at the very least the fourth amendment.

Second, it is exploitation. Drug screening isn’t free. There may not be a cost to the employee, but people are getting paid; there is currency exchanged. Now this may sound all good from a capitalist model. But the source material that is being used is your very own bodily components. In the past I’ve given plasma and received a check. But here I am giving for someone else’s benefit — I already know my medical information, so I gain no knowledge from it — and am not being compensated for it.

Third, think about the big-picture implications. It probably sounds innocuous to many folks when you say it as “drug testing”. But let’s reword it for better accuracy: companies have the right to perform medical testing on their employees.

I’m sure some people will read that last line and say I’m just being extreme here for the sake of fun and argument. But one must bear in mind how much medical technology has advanced and is advancing. We can do all sorts of testing if we want to do so, all of which could have the same good-of-the-workforce argument made.

Brain scans, genetic testing, vaginal ultrasounds… and on and on and on. Think such a scenario is far-fetched?

There is an old joke about a man asking a woman if she will sleep with him for a million bucks. She says, “Yes.” So he then asks her if she will sleep with him for a dollar. She gets offended and says, “What kind of person do you think I am?” He replies, “We’ve already established that. Now we are quibbling about the price.”

We have allowed the establishment of medical testing as a “routine” occurrence.

Now we are just quibbling about the details.

Learning at the Cost of Understanding

I drove Gary to the FSSA office today out on Crawfordsville Road. He recently got approved for disability and there was some additional bureaucratic stuff we needed to do via appointment.

This blog isn’t about that bureaucratic stuff.

Instead it is about the skills involved in the modern world to make the bureaucratic stuff happen. More broadly, it is about skills of that nature in general.

Sitting next to Gary in the cubicle in a maze of cubicles, I noticed how the worker had two computer screens at her desk, both with information up. On the primary screen she worked off of, she entered data, switched screens, then more data, and so on. At one point she got assistance from a supervisor on how a particular entry had to entered and was advised to enter such and such here, then here, then click here, switch screen here, enter such and such here, and so on. Then she was back on her own entering and clicking and screen-to-screening and turning the great bureaucracy forward for our benefit.

No doubt the program used is a very specific program and the person who knows how to use it — has such skill — is valued by the administration for possessing them … valued that is until the program becomes outdated, is abandoned, or otherwise no longer around.

I originally was going to call this entry high-level skills versus low-level skills. But I thought “low” in low-level sounded disparaging of possessing such skills, which is neither my intent nor focus. Also the word “skill” itself is a misleading term what with how much can be lumped under it. A significant amount can be lumped under “learning” and “understanding”, too, but I will cash them out in a way that will distinguish them and perhaps limit such lumping.

Companies like to trumpet that they encourage learning. Other companies promise to help you “learn new skills” to make employers snatch you up. However, often the learning and skills that fall out of that educational endeavor are short-term helpful at best to the ‘student’ but long-term harmful.

For knowing a skill doesn’t guarantee you understanding of something. Yet understanding is what’s most valuable because it is transferable and transcends the particularities of a situation.

Learning to me is gaining knowledge of “how” to do something. Understanding also involves a how, but that how encompasses the environment outside its current situation. Understanding embraces other one-word questions like “Why?” and “How?” while furthermore encouraging the world-changing “What now?”.

For example, we learn to avoid fire early in our human evolving because it tends to cause bodily harm to us. But understanding how fire is created, what it burns, and a host of other things about fire and its relationship to the world means we can cook with it, warm with it, and largely control it for purposes far beyond that initial “fire bad and scary” exposure.

Another, more modern example: knowing how to enter HR data into, say, Peoplesoft is a skill. But better is knowing how that data relates to the people it describes. Even better still, as an HR professional, is knowing how to most effectively put a decent workforce together. The latter knowledge requires understanding of such things as work needs, labor pools, and recruitment strategies, all of which can be used and leveraged regardless of the workplace specifics.

Yet we see a large chunk of the jobs in the marketplace where the person is expected — required even — to have experience with a “learned” skill instead of possession of an understanding. More and more you see this in job ads, which rencourages a rush to learn rather than to understand. This is very helpful to the company of course, as they can plug the person in the like a cog in a machine.

But for the employee? I say it is short-term helpful for the obvious: a “learned” skill gets you that niche job, you get paid, and you can buy stuff so you can enjoy little luxuries like food and shelter. The long-term harm here isn’t as directly visible as the short-term company paycheck, so I’ll try to cast light on it this way:

Imagine your life as a finite series of moments. Which it is, so that should be easy to imagine. Each moment can be used for either action x or action y, any combination you wish. But since there are only so many moments to go around, action x is always “Life – action y”, and vice versa. So more time spent on learning skill x is less time spent on understanding y.

Now granted x and y can — and should — work in tandem. Y may even require x. But…

Imagine having a car. You learn how to turn it on. You learn how to change its tires, check its oil, put gas in it. All of this is good stuff — good skills — and helpful to have learned. But what if you were never allowed to take it out of the garage, let alone out on the road? This is exactly the kind of environment the modern workforce seems like it is promoting with its emphasis on narrowly defined “experience”.

Which is all good and well for the gas company, the tire company, the garage company… for the whatever company that reaps huge benefit from the continuously exploited skill. But the benefit for the worker of such in-demand ability is drowned by the obvious:

Under such vehicular conditions, just how far down the road of a well-lived life will they have gotten?