Monday, October 17, 2011

Barbie's Dream Job

Last week I wrote about Dream Jobs - god, how evocative is that phrase, even? Don't you feel like Dream Jobs have Katrina and the Waves playing in the background all the time, and the commute is you, in a convertible, on a freeway beside the ocean? And your office, even if you're a grunt who's on some no-health-benefits one-year contract, is massive and decorated with healthy plants. Oh! And there's another cute new-job person, and he's got a chin-dimple and clear eyes and is fun and easy to talk to? Dream Jobs! So good!

My last Dream Job was at a Toronto non-profit that specializes in housing. Given that I was fresh out of school and riding a three-year wave of enthusiasm for, and interest, in co-op and alternative housing options, I was so stoked. It was a real office job, with my own email account and a phone extension and everything. In hindsight, I should have picked up the fact that things were not totally right when 1/3 of the hiring committee was late to my interview: the company president showed up half-way through my Xanax-enabled babbling about agency and community and punctuality, and yet I still managed to get the gig.

Six months into that job, I was having anxiety-induced hallucinations. I had to get the hell out of there. My boss was rude and the hours stank, and the small company that I had admired on paper turned out to treat its employees like garbage. It's hard for me to buy into the idea that offices that ignore despicable behaviour - and this was a place that rewarded one particularly awful manager by giving her a spot on their board - can be places that really understand how to effectively implement social change. You know how charity is supposed to begin at home? It's my opinion that, for social-justice organizations, compassion begins at the office.

My Dream Job, when I was 18, was waitressing at a popular downtown noodle house. I loved it. I made a ton of money, got a name for myself as a cute local girl, was flirted with and tipped well. I was also working for a boss who, when I fell carrying a full armload of plates during a jam-packed Friday night rush, coldly told me to quit fucking around and get back to work. He was a man who was widely regarded as a jag-off and a meanie, generous one moment and enraged the next. I was nervous every time a table sat down - dealing with the public, despite a decade of practice, is still not something I really enjoy. And after a summer of Dream Job, I was burned out. I was working with a crew that focused on getting drunk and chasing girls, and since I rarely (at that time) drank, and I rarely (even now!) chase girls, I was lonely.

I've had a variety of idiosyncratic bosses and weird working environments - I had a boss who insisted that employees show up fifteen minutes before their shift started, but screamingly refused to pay for the extra quarter-hour. During the the blackout in 2003 that paralyzed the Eastern seaboard, we worked until it was too dark to see the gas fryers in front of us. While I heard stories later that friends of mine had enjoyed the blackout in various outdoor pools and states of drunkenness, we held off zombie-like hordes of folks angrily demanding french fries from the only open restaurant within a thousand miles. I've worked as a factory two blocks away burned to the ground, the heat from the fire strong enough to be felt inside our building. I've held jobs where we were required to evict drunk transients from student housing, where we found violent Japanese pornography, where we found a laptop bagged stuffed with fake penises.

But in those other jobs, I've felt a sense of cameraderie with the people I work with. Some were friends, some were just laid-back co-workers, but they always made me feel safe and secure. There was no loneliness in my workday, only the satisfaction of doing a hard job well. My Dream Jobs, despite the fact that they held the promise of new and interesting work, never made me feel like mistakes were acceptable. I lived in fear of screwing up.

My Dream Jobs now are a little vaguer: I love writing, but I also feel deeply satisfied when I tie on an apron and make meals in my kitchen. This fall, cupcakes and cookies have been pouring out of my oven with a regularity that borders on diabetes-inducing, but it's proving to be therapeutic to follow recipes and explore new cuisines. My reluctance towards returning to an office is tied directly to my last Dream Job, where I was so stressed out that my brain chemistry was changing. Safety, security, compassion: as it turns out, some basic things to consider when entering into a new workplace.

I hope to God that I find work soon. I don't need a Dream Job. I just need a job I like doing, one that isn't going to ruin every single day or make me anxious and crazy. I need Katrina and the Waves, I need sunshine, I need agency and punctuality. I need compassion.

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