Failure #22: Hold full-time employment

Some people believe that if you haven’t worked a legitimate 9-to-5 workaday Average Joe kind of a job, you should grow up and stop wasting time on that “hobby.” Those people are called “relatives.” And they have not been burdened with an ever-present creative muse—a fast-talking Idea Man who can’t be bothered with things like career advancement and glass ceilings and steady paycheques.

Throughout my professional life, I have been a freelancer, a temp, a part-time associate, an intern, independent contractor, a volunteer, and an hourly wage drone. That full-time steady job complete with benefits and vacation and co-workers and cubicle space has eluded me. The dream of creativity with stability remains pillow fodder. When I was at the bargaining table with the cosmic forces, haggling over the details of my adult life, some of my ambition may have been compromised. Silly me thought it would be enough to find a passion for something and learn to do it well. The cosmic mediator neglected to mention that by doing so, I was forfeiting any chance at improving my social status, income bracket, and prestige.

My parents—separately and in different stages of their respective careers— experimented with entrepreneurism with varying levels of failure. Neither of them settled into the role of small business owner or were able to wear all the hats one must when starting any sort of solo business enterprise. They were both diligent workoholics but they both overdosed on their jobs. From them, I inherited a double dose of the “be your own boss” gene. Unfortunately, the DNA was deficient in “be your own bookkeeper,” “be your own efficiency expert,” and “be your own sexy secretary” genes. Our common link is the belief that we’d be content being someone else’s worker drones but not really wanting to answer to that someone else. At least my entrepreneur endeavors haven’t ended in arson or tax blunders.

I started my career by jumping in as a freelance writer. I was a young go-getter and eager to snap up whatever assignments I could. I went. I got. I burned out on trying to keep up with researching things of which I knew nothing to write 1,500 moderately clever words every week. I hoped for a full-time writing gig that would allow me to nestle up to one broad topic. Then I had my heart broken when one client strung me along with a job offer, only to snatch it away without explanation. Never one to leave me stranded, my muse popped up and introduced me to a little blue robot who took me on a different path for a while.

I am not opposed to the idea of working for The Man. Freelancing (and its sometimes extended droughts) is lonely work. There are no incompetent co-workers to loathe. There are no lovely, completely competent co-workers to befriend. There is no daily commute. There is absolutely no reason for me to wear any of my nice, mostly business-appropriate attire. After ten years of setting my own hours and working at my own pace, am I too old and set in my ways to jump into a steady daytime job? Would it be a bit like telling Peter Pan it’s time to grow up? When potential employers look at my resume and see so much independent work, are they worried that I’ll be too independent for their office?

Today I am over 30 and the job market is dry. I live in a city full of colleges and universities that are cranking out younger, more energetic graduates who can be easily molded into good worker drones. As a designer, I’m competing with 20-year-olds with flashier portfolios and 45-year-olds with more job experience. As a writer, I’m up against everyone with a blog and a flimsy grasp on grammar rules. Frustrations abound. My muse reports in daily with a fresh crop of big ideas, some of which overreach my talent and technical prowess. While I wait for the opportunity that allows me to wear fancy pants, I am tackling my list of fancy plans and putting my muse’s more accessible ideas into action.

Failure #21: Run afoul of the law

Throughout life, we have to deal with other people’s perceptions, stereotypes, and snap judgments based on our own appearances. If you had known me during the rougher moments of my life and heard that I’d been imprisoned or arrested, you wouldn’t even bother to feign surprise. I have not been arrested. I have not been imprisoned. Sometimes perception is not reality.

By no means do I think myself a specimen of saintly behavior. I am a woman of loose morals and questionable ethics. My personal judgments and life decisions are deemed suspect by those with slightly narrower world views than my own. I have tested the elasticity of laws, as youth are wont to do. But my inner Jiminy Cricket always turns up and shows me right from wrong via his magic chalkboard. He’s a nag, but he’s kept me out of the clink.

I have two perceptions of the criminal life. One is full of romanticized notions of law-breaking and flouting authority, mobsters living the high life and attractive people pulling off complicated heists. The other is populated with unfortunate looking people who feel beaten down by The Man and have developed no discernible life skills, like the thug who rips people off just to be able to put food on his own table. Neither lifestyle holds much appeal to me.

When you straddle the poverty line, it takes very little to turn someone else’s perception into your own reality. People who live in brick houses tend to not fraternize with people who live in tin boxes. I admit that living in a trailer park on the side of a major highway does seem unsavory. It reeks of cheap beer and stale cigarette smoke and rotting human dignity. You get the sense that these trailer dwellers have been on the wrong side of the law, though not entirely by their own doings. Shunned by the normals, I tried desperately to channel the cool “wrong side of the tracks” aura but my giant thick-lensed glasses betrayed me every time. And the Billy Joel songs blaring from my cheap knock-off Walkman.

These days no one mistakes me for a nogoodnik. I’ve long given up the wrong-side-of-the-tracks-tough-girl persona. It’s difficult to be tough without coming off as borderline trashy. The dangerous denim-clad delinquent is one of those things that only men can pull off effectively. Similar to the “sexy professor” and “cranky curmudgeon,” the “lawless stranger” is a persona that doesn’t translate well across genders. Maybe it’s the testosterone. Maybe it’s the bushy eyebrows.

Even in my wayward awkward pre-teen years I never raised the suspicion of law enforcement officials. I haven’t been accused of wrong-doing or taken downtown for questioning. Surprisingly enough, socially-awkward Caucasian girls aren’t subject to much profiling. My ability to abide by laws does not prohibit me from feeling awkward when cops are in the vicinity. I never know how to behave, aside from avoiding the obvious rude behaviors. I’m not going to spit in one’s face or make veiled bacon references behind their backs. But…what can I do? Is it okay to make eye contact and nod politely? Or is it proper protocol to keep your head down and avert your gaze? Am I confusing police officers with gorillas? (Note: I am not suggesting that officers and gorillas are the same. Gorillas are much scarier and more likely to go on a murderous rampage if you wink at them.) Does everybody go out of their way to avoid police interaction because they’re all doing something just a little bit wrong? How is this impacting the collective self-esteems of uniformed police officers? These are questions.

I have had exactly one experience with the police. Six years ago, my boyfriend and I were trying to return home from our first Great Canadian Adventure. Hurricane Jeanne had different plans. Rather than stay holed up in a cheap Montreal motel until it was safe to fly back to Florida, we took a little side trip to New York City, where we stayed with one of his best friends. I was tired. I was bloated from all the vacation eating. There was some residual giddiness from seeing Kid in the Hall Mark McKinney at a posh Toronto eatery. I was hungover from all the fun and was ready to crawl into bed with my cats for three weeks. Instead, we went on a whirlwind sightseeing tour ’round NYC. The city didn’t sleep and neither did we. While we were taking a roundtrip on the Staten Island Ferry, the cosmic forces decided to have a bit of a giggle. By sending over the NYPD to interrogate me for unspecified purposes. Two uniformed officers approached me while my boyfriend was on a snack hunt. What did they ask me? My brain was sounding alarms and running through all the worst-case scenarios while they were looking at my ID and asking me about the guy I was with. They escorted me over to my boyfriend, who was having a chat with two other officers, and determined neither of us were allegedly involved in criminal activity, leaving us to puzzle over the event.

Even though I have no immediate plans to flout authority and go on a crime spree, I don’t believe the law is always correct. Some laws should be defied. Some should be overturned. Some just need to be gently massaged. Red buttons are meant to be pushed, boundaries redrawn, perceptions altered. But those are tasks for people who don’t mind spending a night or two without internet access. If you need me, I’ll be writing a letter about police etiquette to Miss Manners.

30 Failures (one year later)

In June 2009, I was facing down my 30th birthday. As I was approaching this milestone, I decided to compile a list of things I had either failed at or not attempted in my first twenty-nine years.

This was not to be a list of simple activities like sky diving or kissing a foreign ambassador. This was a list of common life experiences that had eluded me and perhaps impacted the course of my life. Most of the list items are things I had neither the desire nor the opportunity to pursue but have contributed to my overall failure to assimilate into normal society. Some I have no control over. Some I have no intention of doing. But someone somewhere considers these items to be a failure.

Over the past year, I have been writing essays about each list item to examine why these things are failures and what I have learned from them or myself about them. Now I’m two months from turning 31. None the failures on my list have been rectified. I remain colorless, childless, godless, friendless, bosomless, and teamless.

As of this writing, twenty failures have been documented for your entertainment. I have reorganized the list items from their original order to the order in which I have written about them.

The List (reordered):
1. Successfully drive a car
2. Develop an ample bosom
3. Master the art of conversation/small talk
4. Ride a bicycle
5. Failing to procreate
6. Stick to a fitness regimen
7. Join organized religion
8. Keep a best friend
9. Participate in public nudity
10. Join team sports
11. Attend overnight camp
12. Exercise patience
13. Move to NYC
14. Obtain healthy glow
15. Master nice penmanship
16. Learn/speak a second language
17. Develop drug addiction
18. Ride a roller coaster
19. Stay in hospital
20. Win a prestigious award
21. Run afoul of the law
22. Hold full-time employment
23. Contract chicken pox/measles
24. Get married
25. Visit a strip club
26.Defend myself
27. Own property
28. Perform in public
29. Leave North America
30. Be truly selfless

Failure #20: Win a prestigious award

Some people aspire to achieve greatness, to be the best and the brightest of their generation. I am not some people.

I don’t have an amusing childhood anecdote about awards. I can’t tell you that I’ve been harboring a dream of winning some highfalutin honour that would bring me the respect and riches I so desire. As a creative person, I should possess a smidge of ambition to garner some form of prestigious recognition for my work. How else will the world know how great I am? Well. I’m not, really. I am not the best at anything. I have no delusions of being the Wittiest, Prettiest, Most Perfect Thing Ever. Do I need some contest to confirm what I already know to be true?

The trouble is that in order to be considered for an award, I would first need to enter a competition. I am not competitive. Oh, I used to be when I was younger. But it was unbecoming and made me behave in most unladylike fashions. And I lost. Often. Many a board game was upended. Many a video game control thrown onto the floor. Curses everywhere. So I do my best these days to remove myself from most potentially competitive environments. I cannot resist the siren song of the shaking Boggle cube.

Even if I could muster up a healthy dose of good sportsmanship, competitions still have two deterrents: entry fees and submission guidelines. So many writing and design competitions have ridiculous entry fees. Let’s see, would I rather pay $50 for the slim chance that someone will view my work and form some sort of opinion about it or buy groceries? At least food doesn’t judge my work and make me feel like I’ve made horrible mistakes in my career choices. Maybe it’s just to weed out the riff-raff and hacks, but it always feels like the organization sponsoring the competition is saying, “If you were really serious about your work, you wouldn’t blink an eye at paying this entry fee. But I guess you’re not a serious artist.” No, I am a starving artist. Or I would be if I paid you $50.

Then there are the submission guidelines—the arbitrary criteria agreed upon by a committee which may or may not possess any relevant creative experience to draw from in setting competition requirements. After spending most of my life not quite meeting society’s standards, I find that I also do not meet the criteria for these competitions. There’s not much demand for Caucasian women who write plays about anthropomorphic shampoo bottles, poetry about kitchen appliances, or squiggly robots donning silly hats and sipping martinis. My work lacks the edge and emotional grit that judges are looking for. Perhaps if the shampoo bottle were used in a graphic sexually violent act, I might stand a chance as third runner-up. As it stands, I just don’t tick a lot of boxes. Sure, I could create work specifically for a competition. That could also turn into a lot of spec work that never sees the light of day. And that’s time that could be spent drawing robots or writing a sitcom about whimsical USB devices.

Winning is not a life goal of mine. That isn’t to say that I would refuse an award if offered. On the contrary, I would snatch it up, clutch it to my non-existent bosom and scamper off into the KatCave. Where then I would discover that, once again, my name had been misspelled. Such is the life of a Katharine.

The goal of this Katharine is to amuse people with her silliness. Every positive email or review I get from a random stranger about my book, that’s my reward. Whenever I’ve got my little table of crafts and someone giggles at Boris in a funny hat, that does so much more for my pessimistic little soul than any foil-stamped parchment ever could. I don’t make things to withstand the harsh criticism of my peers. I make things to get away from the stress of life, to create a tiny oasis of joy that someone can carry with them and gaze upon and say, “Tee hee.”