Friday, 14 August 2015

Sits-vac and Thinks of England

These last few weeks have been a bit more trying than I'd like. Brought back a lot of nonsense from before. Two old gremlins have come a-knocking - work and women. I shouldn't have thought I was 'cured' I suppose but on the other hand, these are problems I was not having to face this time last year so, on the positive side, maybe it's time to apply something of what I learned then to the new situation.

Last week was awful. I'm not sure I've ever been truly suicidal but I have certainly considered seriously the advantages of not being around any more. Two things stop me - one, I can't think of any method that might not leave me crippled or brain-damaged if I get it wrong, and two, I wouldn't do that to my mum and my bro. There have been so many times though over the last few years I just wanted to not exist any more. But then there is number three - I do always have some hope. These days it is less easy. I feel like I'm running out of time. I know I know, I'm only 52, but I don't have that sense that there is time to make something important happen now. In the absence of ample time any big plans I might have now would require ample funding and I know my talents, and making money is not one of them.

So, in May, Miss Green died. I had a month's notice and then I was unemployed. I've found a few bits of work since but nowhere near enough, and last week the car failed its MOT and I had to borrow off mum. The flat I live in is too expensive for me really but I can't face moving again. At the same time I had two awful dating experiences, culminating in both women knocking me about with fuck-you emails. I came back at them equally hard, which was slightly satisfying, but the whole experience left me feeling misjudged and resentful. The whole thing felt horribly reminiscent of being a teenager again. I was extremely low for a while there and for a day or two went back to my old ways of trying to explain things to people and get some answers.

So - where to begin - work or women?
The main difference between them is I want the latter and enjoy thinking and talking about them, whereas the former is merely a necessity. I've never really talked about work problems before so I guess that's where I'll start. Save the fun for seconds.

Job hunting for me is a miserable experience - the worst thing I ever have to do, including public speaking and exams. I believe I'd rather sing in public than job hunt, if it came to it.
Why? Is it because I'm lazy and don't like hard work? I hope not. The 'common sense' view I was brought up with about people who fail to live up to expectations is simply that they are not trying hard enough - they are perfectly capable but simply choose not to bother. Thus everyone else (family, teachers, employers) can neatly avoid any responsibility and leave the person to suffer on their own with just the occasional taunt to get them to buck their ideas up.
But like most people I think I'd very much like to have something worthwhile to do with my life - something that is satisfying for me and makes a difference to others (and pays the bills). I love having something I really believe in to be getting on with, and when I do I tend to go at it almost too much and wear myself out. I'm one of those full-speed or stop people - no good at relaxing or pacing myself. If I have something I'm really motivated by I wear myself out and often get a migraine next day. I've had to remind myself to eat enough, drink enough, even to go to the toilet, and generally take breaks, but it doesn't come naturally. I have had to learn to relax in the evenings which I do using DVD boxed sets. But I'm not one of those people with tons of energy all the time, even when doing something I love. I really envy those who do but I need a lot of sleep and space in between activities. The busy-busy, work-hard-play-hard lifestyles you hear about sound awful. I also hate those jobs where you spend a lot of time trying to look busy or where people spend a lot of time skiving off. If I'm at work, I want to be busy.

So no, I don't think I'm lazy. I am perhaps a little conceited though. I do feel that I should have a job that is worthy of me - not just some crappy thing that someone else wants me to do. That does sound conceited doesn't it, but I think I am realistic about my abilities. If I was just some gormless slob with no motivation, creativity or intelligence perhaps I would be expecting too much, but I don't think I am. I actually think I'm capable of a great deal and yes, I do feel the world owes me a living - not because I'm an entitled elitist, but because, well, why wouldn't it? If a person has all this potential why wouldn't the world want to use it? Just ignoring it because it doesn't quite fit their preconceptions of what an employee should look like seems to me like cutting off their individualistic noses to spite their free-market faces.
Yes, if I really was desperate of course I'd have to take whatever job was on offer, but it hasn't come to that yet. I know the capitalists would like us all to behave as if life was terribly hard and none of us has enough and we all have to work all the hours to survive, but that isn't the case and I hate to have to behave as if it is. Funny how the capitalist right always talk about freedom (especially in the US) and yet expect us all to do whatever it takes to make money and to tie ourselves up in financial commitments, and call us lazy if we don't. Something about that infuriates me and makes me refuse to give in to it.

But there is more to this anxiety about job hunting than simply being a refusenik. The very act of looking at the sits vac makes me feel like running away and crying. Whether online or in the local paper I feel overwhelmed by the choices. I feel I simply don't know where to start. No matter how I try to read and think, I find I am simply observing shapes on the page. They don't mean anything. I feel a panic rise and the more I try to force the words down my optic nerve and into the relevant part of my brain the more my mind slides off and wants to do something, anything else. It feels like a waste of time. It feels futile. It feels like what these people are writing about has absolutely nothing to do with what I can do, and, at its worst, is designed to exclude me. A lot of the job titles mean nothing to me - mostly, I guess, office jobs. Those that do make sense are either things I'm not qualified to do (teachers, mechanics, nurses etc) or menial, so it tends to be the menial ones I end up looking at - cleaners and labourers, shelf stackers, fast food and kitchen porters, sometimes landscapers and garden centre staff but all minimum wage or little more. It's a miserable experience. There is nothing about what I find in sits vac that feels interesting or promising. It is a dreary trudge, looking for something that will be boring or frustrating, and which will barely pay for the basics, and then only if I spend the vast majority of my waking hours doing it. And we're expected to be motivated and optimistic about job hunting! Hah!
Most people don't seem to feel this way though, and I'm not completely sure why. I heard my relatives and their friends talking about work when I was a kid and knew then and there that I wanted no part of it. What a waste of a life. I think I decided long ago to not have kids and to avoid the many other financial ties that go with being a grown-up (mortgages, cars, insurance, pensions) so that I could spend less time at work and do something that meant something to me. Mostly I've managed to do that, until now. Now I have the flat and a car and the business. Still, at normal self-employed gardeners' rates (£16 - £20/hour) I can live on three days a week, plus whatever the nursery brings in, and until Miss Green so selfishly upped and died, it worked. Three days a week. £300 a week. It doesn't seem too much to ask. I don't need much. I'm not asking for much, until now.

But the question you must be asking is "Surely there must be something else you can do? It can't all be office jobs and minimum wage" and I have to agree. I find this perplexing too. I have two good degrees, and, as I said a whole lot of other good qualities going for me and yet I can't for the life of me think what to do with them. I'm sure most of the people I graduated with have had good post graduate jobs and taken it for granted that that was what to expect. The economic climate has probably lead to many disappointments but through no fault on their parts. They just expected to get good jobs. Why not me? Why is that so unimaginable for me? I expect also that many of them have found jobs that have little to do with what they actually studied (transferable skills and all that). I expect most of them are on salaries far higher than mine, and that many would be able to work freelance, self-employed or as part time employees, which would suit me fine. Why have I never even attempted, or even been able to imagine attempting to get into a similar position? I have simply never had a graduate level job (except for a brief and ill-fated sojourn in teaching in further ed.) Isn't that odd?

I think I have a distorted view of what it's like to be at work. I actually have a deep fear of what it would be like to be in that situation. It's not exactly a phobia, but I don't think it's particularly rational. Even so I can't seem to get past it. I think I fear that if I'm put in some position of responsibility, that sooner or later I'll fuck up and let everyone down, and the humiliation will be awful. That is pretty much exactly what happened with the teaching. I was fine for a while, although I had more of a sense of winging it and getting away with it than of feeling competent and confident. Then the summer term came around and things began to fall apart and my confidence just dropped away completely. I couldn't think clearly. I just wanted not to have to do it any more. I said some stupid things, made some mistakes. I couldn't talk to anyone - I tried but they just looked down on me, and got increasingly exasperated with me. I was on my own. Bear in mind this was my first teaching job and the college in question (Plumpton) had no arrangements for mentoring a new teacher - they just wanted fully formed staff to just get on with it. But even so, I don't feel other people in my position would fail so completely. Something else would have happened. I don't know what. The same sort of thing has happened in the past when I have had any kind of responsible job. I interview well, interestingly, and then I go in with confidence and energy, but then sooner or later things start to go wrong, and sooner or later they find an excuse to be rid of me. Partly I think perhaps when things start to go wrong I become defensive, but it's not like I don't ask for help. I ask too often perhaps. There is a phase early on when I am almost too keen to please.

Maybe I burn out from the anxiety or maybe it's just a periodic thing - every few months I just go into a phase when I can't function properly and I just need to coast for a while. I'm prone to periods of depression and low energy even when I have something good to do but employers above all want employees who are consistent, and I'm not. And it's not just the employers - it's the colleagues too. I think a lot of people, even if they don't particularly like their job or their boss, at least enjoy the company of the people they work with. I feel though, at some point, they will all be looking at me and wondering what is going on, and judging and dismissing me. That's why I hate work - because I feel that that time will come, sooner or later. Maybe I fuck up or maybe I just lose my energy. Either way there seems to be no way up, or at least, I've not found one yet.

And yet I don't really believe it has to be this way. I don't know how it can be different but I'm sure it doesn't have to be that way.

I have had two jobs that weren't this way - Miss Green's garden and a garden centre job I had back in the 80s. People seemed to accept and even like me. I fucked up sometimes but it didn't seem to matter too much. They left me to it, and it seemed to work. Of course both were fairly menial. There were no real ramifications if I did badly, and I did ok at both. Miss Green had no problem with me starting late and finishing late - a timetable that seems to suit me well. Why are so many bosses preoccupied with starting work early? I can force myself to get to work by 9 or before but they won't get the best out of me. I naturally wake at about 8 but it takes me a while to get going and I like to take the morning to potter about getting household stuff done, having a proper breakfast (usually about 10) and generally getting my brain in gear. If I'm forced to move around too fast in the morning I just get clumsy and irritable and I'm no good to anyone. On the other hand I'm happy to work til it gets dark because evenings are a bit of a waste for me if I've been working hard all day. Miss Green was fine with this. I think she felt she got her money's worth. Even one winter a few years back when, thinking back on it, I must have been very depressed, instead of working in her garden I sometimes just went for a walk in the woods. There was nothing much to do in the garden and Miss Green seemed happy with what I did do. This last year though we got loads done. I got on well with the other staff and although I mostly worked alone I miss them now. They were a good bunch.
I think I need to be trusted to get on with things even if I'm not always at my best. I like to think my good times easily make up for my bad. When I'm on form I am really very good - very hard working and very bright, but I'm not like it consistently, and I'm certainly not like it if I feel my boss or colleagues are looking askance at me. That way leads to The Plughole of Doom described above. The more people push me the worse I do.

What else could I do? I'm good with deadlines and I'm good with having one task at a time to complete. That's why I was good at uni. I'm quite good in a crisis but I don't function well with constant nagging and suspicion. I'd like to work from home, freelance, part time, working late? Surely people do that don't they?
This is when the other problem kicks in - which is that I suspect the people who do those kinds of jobs come from a different social background than I do. My background, as I've said before, was all about getting a 'proper' safe secure full-time job. I knew, as I said, from an early age that that wasn't what I wanted but I never knew how to do anything else so I've been scrabbling about around the edges ever since. I'm fairly solitary so I don't have contacts, and I don't have much professional confidence so I don't 'sell myself' well. I'm neither one thing nor the other. There are various possibilities I can imagine for someone who writes reasonably well and knows a lot about gardening and ecology and so forth but I wouldn't have a clue how to go about 'putting myself out there'. I've made some tentative steps but, as with job applications generally, I don't seriously think they'll amount to anything. It feels like going through the motions.
The nursery is the only thing I can say I really know how to promote and make the best of but it's a very niche market and I doubt it will ever make me a living. I've had this idea for being a kind of planting consultant - working with garden designers and landscapers (who often, bless them, don't know much about plants, although obviously I can't point that out to them) but deep down I really don't believe in it. Like my novels - I love them and think others might well enjoy them too but I've done no serious PR, and only attempted to approach publishers once. On the one hand I am excited about what I do and believe it could be really good. On the other hand I don't really genuinely believe it will happen. It doesn't matter how positive I feel about what i do because i don't really believe anybody else will be interested, or if they are it will only be in a way that makes my original idea so distorted and dreary as to be no more worth doing than some menial repetitive chore. They'll just make it about money, or they'll dumb it down and make me do it their way (even though they know massively less about it than I do). I have no real trust in collaboration or teamwork.

Maybe I have too high an estimation of my abilities. I don't feel particularly intelligent but I think I have a certain originality of thought and creativity that could be valuable if anyone chose to use them, but they can't be forced into a mould or they won't work. If as a boss it is more important to you to have things done your way than to foster individual creativity you won't get anything out of me and we will both have lost out. You will also miss out if it is important to you that I look the part (so important that you are prepared to reject me on my appearance, no matter how able I might be. And when I say 'appearance' I don't mean clothes or grooming - I mean my ability to look positive and confident when I don't feel that way.) Apparently we're all on the sales team these days. Of course there are jobs that genuinely need people to work well under stress (doctors for example) and to be highly competitive (sales perhaps), to be 'team players' (sports, obviously), to always appear confident and charming (hospitality) and to turn up early every morning (farming), but probably not nearly as many as is often insisted and I suspect these things have just become a fetish of bosses who are under the delusion that everybody should be like them.There is no longer a place for the gifted misfit in the back room, except maybe in IT. Perhaps the world would be a better place if everyone was like this, but we're not. Does that mean we aren't allowed a decent job? Anyone who took me on would have to accept me as I am - not due to some egocentric arrogance on my part but because I simply don't seem to be able to be any other way. 

I'm sure I'm far from alone in this. I've met enough gifted weirdos in my time to know that there are a lot of us, excluded because we can't conform and don't know how to do it another way. Many of us turn to drink or drugs or maybe move into some alternative lifestyles, claiming benefits, doing a little cash in hand here and there, frustrated and anti-social or harmlessly stoned. I don't do any of those things. I keep holding it together, making it up as I go along, living as small as I can so the little I do make (and pay my taxes on - it's become a point of honour) is just enough and I have time to myself to do the things I really care about (and there are so many things).

I dare say some more gardening work will come along - it's just a matter of time. I only need another day or so. Mum seems finally to get me now. She doesn't want to see me lose this flat or the nursery but I hate depending on her.

What I learned last year was to see myself clearly, and instead of subconsciously giving myself a hard time for being that way I would be able to look at how I am with understanding and compassion - not as a failure but as just another human being muddling through. So today I accept that although life would be easier if I were more biddable and able to hold down an ordinary job, or better if I were more confident and able to hunt out the work I'd really like, instead I am this person who cannot be either of those things. Some other way will have to be found, but for now, acceptance of how I actually am, with understanding, patience and compassion rather than contempt, disappointment and frustration, is what I need.

I'll talk about women next time

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