Saturday, September 8, 2012

This Little Hipster Went to Freetown

When I went to meet a friend who came in on the train from Portland the other day, at first he didn't recognize me. Not until I removed my newsboy's cap and giant sunglasses did he realize who I was. "Sorry," I quipped. "I'm wearing my hipster costume."

"It's very convincing," he replied.

Which made me think, I've actually been wearing this hipster costume kind of a lot lately.

There have been other somewhat suspicious developments. For example, a few months ago, I moved into a housing cooperative. I went out for ten dollar cocktails at a Capitol Hill speakeasy the other night. Though I still probably don't scream "hipster" to the innocent passerby, I've become increasingly comfortable interacting with hip stuff on a regular basis.

This isn't a bad thing, I suppose. Seattle's a hip place, and I'm starting to really feel at home here. That was my idea in moving here - to build up a home base, of sorts - so I guess that embracing some of Seattle's hipness indicates progress on that front.

Of course, the real draw of coming here was not the chance to enjoy local microbrews and curry popcorn over six dollar 70s films at indie cinemas (although, admittedly, that doesn't hurt). It was the easy access to mountains, the outdoorsy culture, the diversity, the connection to global goings-on in what often feels like a small, safe, extremely livable city. And Seattle has come through on all of these fronts. I've gotten outside quite a bit this year, participated in some pretty memorable foot races, connected with a couple of refugee families, rekindled my love of the North Cascades, built up a pretty awesome social network.

The only problem is that I don't feel particularly useful here.

It's early days yet. I only moved here eight months ago, and it's been an indisputably rough year for job seekers. I've been lucky, as these things go, having found part-time work related to my degree that's paid more or less enough to cover my bills. But that work has involved a whole lot of time alone in front of my computer, doing research and analysis that I rarely get to connect with actual people or on-the-ground realities. Coming from a series of humanitarian positions in East Africa, where it was impossible to ever escape the reality of my surroundings, no doubt has compounded my sense that my work here in Seattle is largely abstract. I've gotten increasingly frustrated as the months have passed, so much so that I recently decided to inject a bit of reality back into my life by heading back to Africa for a short gig.

And so, I'm leaving tomorrow for Sierra Leone, where I'll be conducting an assessment of poverty in the Freetown slums, in hopes that it may help humanitarian organizations better target and design livelihood-improvement projects in urban areas. It's a short-term position, and though I'm very excited about it, I'm fully intending to return to Seattle when it's finished, at the end of November, to take another stab at a career path there.

I even packed my hipster cap.

Once I settle in, I'll be blogging from Freetown. Check for posts at

Sunday, July 15, 2012

The Im-Por-Tance of Giving

A few days ago, someone asked me if the housing co-op where I live has a doorman. "We're way too poor to have a doorman," I laughed, "though there is a homeless guy who sleeps in the entrance to the furniture store downstairs. Does he count?" 

When I pull my bike up onto the curb tonight, the homeless guy is nowhere in sight, but there is a large black lady sitting on the sidewalk right next to my front door, rocking back and forth. It's hard to know what she's doing - praying? holding back vomit? In any case, I pause a good distance from the door and look for my keys, not sure if I should engage or not. 

I've just come home from volunteering at a fundraising dinner for a local non-profit, delivering trays of miso butter-glazed turnips, cabbage-apple-chard slaw, massive salmon whose tender flesh was nearly bursting out of the charred cross-hatching on its skin. "It is very im-por-tant," the volunteer coordinator has instructed us, enunciating each "t" like the star from the companion CD to an English language textbook, "to keep everyone's water glass filled." And so, responsible volunteer that I am, I've spent the past five hours looping from kitchen to dining hall, carrying water pitchers, platters and plates,  lurking now and then out front to catch a bit of the keynote speech, an emotionally-wrought fundraising pitch or a couple of eight year olds leaping about on stage to Native American hand drums, or lingering in the back to sneak a bite of leftover turnip pie. I've tossed at least 20 pounds of uneaten salmon and gourmet brown rice into the compost and sipped down a complimentary glass of Sangiovese, and have fled before I'm tempted to sample the remains of an array of decadent desserts scattered among the tables. 

The streets are mostly empty, and the cool evening air is very welcome. I pedal a peaceful four dark miles home, and am greeted by this apparition on my doorstep.

I've gotten very good at saying no to people. If I learned nothing else in Africa, I learned to be hard, to not take every plea for help personally. Everyone there is needy, to some extent, and it's hard to tell  who's really in trouble, and who's just hoping for a handout from you, a white westerner who probably has something to give. I made it a personal policy to never give out money to people I didn't know. 

Here in Seattle, poverty and homelessness are again much more than anything I can singlehandedly address. And although lots of us, myself included, are struggling to some extent, the truly needy stand out - you wouldn't be living on the streets here unless you were really in trouble. And although I know that what's needed here are systemic changes, and not a few crumpled bills from my pocket,  I still don't feel comfortable ignoring people living on my doorstep. Especially not when I've just devoted my evening to the very im-por-tant task of greasing wallets at a feast of excessive abundance. 

And so, as I step up to the co-op door, I make eye contact. "D'you have some macaroni and cheese?" the woman asks. 

How specific, I think. "No, but I do have some peanut butter. Do you eat peanut butter?"

"With jelly?" she asks.

"Yep, I can do jelly. I can put it on a bagel for you. Would that be alright?"

"Oh no, I don't like bagels. Don't you have some bread?"

I shake my head no. "Sorry."

"Well, can you bring me some ice water? Some grapes? Apples?"

I shrug, a little put off. "Sorry, ma'am. This isn't a convenience store. It's my house." And wheel my bike inside.

A few minutes later, feeling like a jerk, I emerge with a paper cup of water and some cherries, with a bag for the pits. "Here you go," I say. "You can put the pits in this bag."

She starts wolfing down the cherries, and when I try to chat, she asks me for money, not much, just a few dollars. "I'm sorry," I say, "I can't give you any money." 

"Well then, I don't wanna talk to you," she says.

It's clear there will be no profound breakthroughs this evening. "All right, then. Take care of yourself," I say, and head inside. 

Monday, June 25, 2012

Scaling Mt. Doom

If you generally think of yourself as a fit and athletic person, Seattle just might liberate you of that notion. It's a town where college students think nothing of kicking off their shoes for some barefoot ultimate frisbee when the thermometer dips below 40 and an icy rain starts to fall, where commuters routinely pedal 20 miles to work, each way, as an alternative to testing their patience in endless traffic or indirect public transit, where everyone knows someone who's training for a marathon, if not a 50-mile adventure race or a Seattle-to-Portland bike ride. Surrounded by so many rabid cyclists, earnest competitors, yoga instructors, paddle boarders, extreme alpinists and aerialists-in-training, you'd be hard pressed to make your athletic achievements stand out. If you want to maintain your athlete's ego, you should probably move to Arkansas (sorry, J.S.C.).

Unfortunately for my ego, I do think of myself as an athlete of sorts. I've run my share of long-distance footraces at a respectable clip. During my trail crew summers, I packed sledgehammers and 18-pound rock bars, three at a time, and rolled 300-pound boulders down trails for a living. When a friend invited me on a 30-mile day hike through the North Cascades, I didn't hesitate to go along, and when it somehow morphed into a 43-mile trek, I was psyched. I'd joined the ranks of Howard Blackburn, of Bob Marshall, I thought. I might not be fast, or exceptionally strong, or even very coordinated, but maybe I was bit tougher than most.

Or so I thought. Then I went to Africa for 16 months, where I sometimes went for days without leaving the walls of my expat compound, with colleagues whose idea of physical exertion was a 5 minute walk across town to the watering hole, where they would recover with a few gallons of Primus. (I wrote all about them here. Cheers, fellas.) 

When I finally arrived in Seattle, I felt like a shadow of my once-mighty self. As I peered out of the number 13 bus at a blissed-out couple sprinting up Queen Anne Hill,* I did not think, as I once might have, "Huh, that looks like a perfectly reasonable and enjoyable way to spend a morning." Instead, it was clear that these people were certifiably insane. Never mind that I'd conquered far larger hills in the past; now, that well-heeled slope  resembled something straight out of Mordor. 

*For those of you who have never seen Queen Anne Hill in person, the picture above is an extremely accurate rendering. Honest.

I've carried that image with me since last summer: Me, in the bus, agog at these foolhardy superheroes defying gravity, humbled and meek. Since then, though I've rediscovered pull-ups, bicycles, snowfields and hour-long runs, this feeling of mortality has stuck with me. 

Until this weekend. I'd spent half the day in a medical tent, saran-wrapping ice packs to weary marathoners' knees. I'd come home, exhausted, chugged a couple mugs of coffee and promptly collapsed into bed (as superheroes are wont to do). When I awoke two hours later, I knew that it was time. I donned my cape, strapped on my running shoes and pranced fearlessly to the base of the hill. I did not stop, but continued upwards, gathering speed. No one looked up from their cell phones, but this did not deter me. I ran all the way to the top, winked at the spot on the horizon where Mt. Rainier should have been, and blazed home in silent, satisfied glory. 

It's nice to be back.

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Quittin' Time: How to Survive in the Modern Workplace

"No one can make you feel inferior without your consent."
-Eleanor Roosevelt

"Evidence suggests that even Gandhi was a jerk to work for." 
-Stanley Bing, Throwing the Elephant

"Gooooood! Goooooood! I like the way you make the toilet squeak!" 
-Horrible boss #27
The people have spoken, the results are in, and at long last I present to you the wisdom of your collective experience in the hard and often cruel world that is the modern workplace. Names have been changed to protect the innocent (and entertain the wicked). Thanks to all who filled out the survey. Here's what jumped out at me from your responses.

1. Bad bosses are (almost) everywhere. Almost everyone has a bad boss tale, and from the sounds of things, a lot of bosses are shockingly bad. You had all kinds of words to describe them - erratic, micro-managing, irresponsible, manipulative, angry, uncommunicative, egotistical, unfair. One of the most frequent themes is the malevolent influence of authority. Though more than a third of you actually liked your bosses as people, you all found them stressful to work under as employees. Not everyone's cut out to manage other people, and some react to power in strange ways, like holding themselves to separate standards as everyone else or holding up projects because their personal sense of authority has been threatened. 

2. Bosses can get away with a lot of crap. During his short-lived stint working at a movie theater, 14-year-old Walt had a boss who would stand over my shoulder and embarrass me in front of customers. (He) actually told me that I was the last person he would hire who wasn't an athlete because I was moving too slow for him (I was serving popcorn). Gretchen's boss once asked me if allowing 3 sick days a year was being 'too generous.' When someone called from the ER to say she needed emergency surgery, he told her it 'wasn't a good time' and brought her work to do as she recovered in the hospital. Says Phoebe, I knew things weren't right when (my boss) told me I had to dangle her small infant over the toilet while making the 'pssssss' sound so that he would pee in the toilet instead of into his diaper. This involved me straddling the toilet...and dangling...his bare little 6-month-old bottom (over it) for indeterminate amounts of time.

3. You can't approach the boss as your equal. The sad reality is that trying to stand up for what's right and fair can get you into trouble. Several of you tried to approach the situation as mature professionals and address your bosses directly with feedback and suggestions for how to improve your working relationship. Doing this got at least one of you fired. 

Others, like Pippi, took a slightly different tack and lodged a complaint with your boss' supervisor or other potentially sympathetic colleagues. After her boss wrongly accused her of something, Pippi spoke to a managing director...(who) advised me to grow some thicker skin, and, whatever I did, to not try to talk to (my boss) about the issue. He said he would never change, and my job would be potentially at risk.  Desiree had a similar experience when she asked a more experienced colleague for advice about whether or not to take a stand against her increasingly abusive boss. To her dismay, he told her there's little you can constructively do without making yourself look like the problem. Can't imagine you'd get anywhere with HR. In fact the best advice I can give is not to go down that road. HR approach could stain your reputation, regardless how many months notice you give. (Not to mention the 'reason for leaving' discussion in the next interview with the next employer.....)

4. Your boss might be a human being, just like you. Then again, he might not. Either way, it doesn't really matter. The main thing is to not care. If your boss is generally rational and likable with some flaws as a manager, putting yourself in her shoes might provide you the perspective necessary to tolerate her less-than-ideal traits. If you know that your boss is facing a lot of pressure from the higher ups or a stressful home situation, for example, it might be easier to forgive her periodic bursts of anger. However, many bosses seem to come from outer space, where your code of ethics does not apply, and no amount of rationalizing will help you understand the reasons for their behavior. In these cases, the best way to preserve sanity seems to involve detaching yourself somehow from the situation, accepting what you cannot change, not taking anything personally and remembering that a job is pretty insignificant in the grand scheme of things. As Pippi noticed, the angrier or more timid I became, the worse my relationship (with my boss) became. The more I pretended to let things roll off my back, the more I killed him with kindness, the quicker he moved on from whatever daily rage he was in. Of course, the ultimate goal is to not have to pretend, to really just let things roll off your back, without caring. 

5. Not caring is tricky. Most of us aren't very good at it. Many of us - male, female, old, young - are conditioned to want to please our bosses; their approval makes us feel valued. When we don't get it, or when the work environment doesn't meet our expectations in other ways, the ensuing stress takes a serious toll. We have a difficult time separating ourselves from the negative experiences we're having at work. As Frodo shared, (I) kept thinking if only I were a better person his behavior wouldn't bother me. Aretha, meanwhile, became more anxious and nervous at work, then gradually (took) those feelings home with me. I had no energy to go out or do things with friends. Rock bottom was when I found myself crying in front of co-workers as I ran from a meeting. Another time...I locked myself in a storage room and called my parents, sobbing and inconsolable. 

Many of you reported psychological ailments, including deflated self esteem and anger that manifested itself through emotional breakdowns, unusual bouts of temper, self isolation, brooding and anxiety attacks. For most people, the stress took on some kind of physical form - chest pains, difficulty sleeping, nausea, weight gain, allergic reactions, and even heart palpitations that put one person in the hospital. Knowing that we shouldn't take work too seriously is clearly one thing, while acting on that is another matter altogether. There's some good news, though.

6. Sometimes we can learn not to care. Looking inwardly, perhaps with the help of a good professional, can sometimes help us understand why we're responding to a work situation in such an unhealthy way and give us the awareness we need to change. After two years of therapy, Marilyn realized that I was recreating my relationship with my parents and expecting a different outcome, when in fact my boss was meeting her own needs in her relationship with me. With the understanding that she was not my parent, I was able to divorce myself from her and from the job. Self awareness and emotional control are hugely important, not just at work but in all aspects of life - in reality, all we can really control in this world is ourselves, so figuring out how to stay sane in an imperfect work situation should theoretically help us to manage other relationships better, too. 

7. Sometimes bad work situations actually improve.  After enduring four shifts at the movie theater, Walt had seen enough, and left his toilet scrubbing days behind. Quitting is a sure ticket out of a crappy work environment, and is a pretty ideal solution, as long as you can afford it. Unfortunately, sometimes we feel a lot of pressure to hang onto our jobs, at all costs, especially in the current economy. Bad bosses do get fired sometimes, so a carefully placed complaint to the right person can eventually pay off, especially if you work in concert with other dissatisfied and respected colleagues. One of the best strategies may be to avoid getting into poor work situations in the first place, by doing some research on any potential new bosses and paying attention to red flags that come up in the process before you accept a job. We can definitely learn to mitigate bad situations, but if we can avoid them in the first place, why on earth shouldn't we?

Monday, June 11, 2012

The Bad Boss Survey

If you've ever had a boss who was in some way difficult to work with (and if you haven't, you're among a lucky few), please consider filling out this quick, anonymous survey.

And please pass this on to anyone else you think might be interested. Thanks!

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Calling All Horrible Bosses (and Ye Masses of Horribly Bossed)

My old boss used to make me puke. Literally. The last two times he came to my site for a visit, I became suddenly and violently ill, alarming my Congolese colleagues and prompting me to head to the hospital for a slew of tests. I was so shocked to discover that boss-inspired anxiety could make me sick that I blogged about it, as some of you may recall.

Probably I'd been extremely lucky, but I'd never had a boss that had made me puke before. Far from it, in fact. Many of my previous supervisors had gone out of their way to be, well... awesome. When I started working at a hiker information desk in New Hampshire, my boss sent a coworker and me on a paid fact-finding hike so that we'd be better prepared to answer visitors' questions, and he frequently dropped by our late night shifts with a few pints of Ben and Jerry's. Towards the end of my season as a native plant restoration volunteer in the North Cascades, my boss there demonstrated his remarkable generosity by scoring me a free flight down the Skagit Valley in his friend's ultralight glider.

There were a few exceptions, like the pastry room supervisor who, when I showed him my purple and balloon-sized hand following a near-tragic incident with an industrial dough mixer, said only, "Did you get any blood in the dough?" and an overly intense youth corps manager we nicknamed "Bipolar Billy" for his ability to transform from sensitive steward of personal growth to unapologetic drill sergeant in the blink of an eye. But always, in those cases, I had the comfort of knowing that the job was only temporary, and that in a month or so, I'd never have to deal with their antics again.

But now that I've (ostensibly) moved beyond the world of seasonal employment, horrible bosses are no longer entertaining characters to blog about a couple months down the road. Get stuck with one, and you might be stuck for a very long time. They're also everywhere, or so it seems. The more I talk to friends about their work situations, the more stories I collect - of week after week of 12-hour workdays with no overtime compensation, only the implication that "if you don't prove yourself, I'll find someone who wants the job more," of managers who hired you to develop and implement technical programs  but treat you like a secretary, of grown men "puking their guts out" every morning before work because they so dread coming into the office each day.

What's even more discouraging is the fatalism with which many people seem to accept how badly they're treated. I understood this attitude in Congo, where humanitarian jobs are precious and life-changing for locals, but it's harder to stomach here. Jobs are hard to come by here, too, but the idealistic American in me wants to believe that when something ain't right, we should go about trying to fix it. Even if it means taking the potentially awkward and frightening step of confronting your boss.

I'm becoming more and more interested in this topic the more I talk to people about it. And so I'd like to invite you, or someone you know, to get in touch if you have a horrible boss story of your own.  What it is that makes people, often very nice people in any other circumstance, turn into bullying ogres when they're granted supervisory powers? What's the effect on the ones being supervised, and how do they try to cope? And what have you tried to make a bad work situation better?

If you're interested, shoot me a quick message and we can set up a time to chat. I promise not to divulge any private information, and I plan to share the interesting bits in future blog entries. Contact me here. 

Monday, May 21, 2012

War Zones Have Never Sounded Better

Sometimes, between the shuffle from internship to part-time job to rock climbing gym to hardware store to happy hour to African restaurant to Craig's List run to shower to grocery store to running trail to bike shop to library for Season Three of The Wire, it occurs to me that I'm supposed to be looking for a job.

Somewhere along the way, the job search lost a lot of its appeal. Maybe it was five weeks ago, when I received the following email shortly after having interviewed for a position for which I'd thought I was pretty obviously overqualified: 

xxx and I sat down to review the xxx Manager candidates this afternoon. There were a large number of applicants, and we regret that your experience was not great enough to move your candidacy forward.

Really? I thought. Really? Experience "not great enough?" The market is so bad that we overeducated masses are scrambling for positions that don't even require an undergraduate degree, let alone an advanced one? 

I was pretty perplexed after receiving this response, and so wrote back, asking about what I could have done better. The reply:

Both your application and interview were impressive.  You are among a select few that we pulled out of a competitive pool to speak with over the phone and, though you hesitated in answering a couple of the more difficult questions I asked, your responses were intelligent and thoughtful.  The simple fact is that some other applicants came to us with a lot of experience working specifically with xxx in the region.  That being said, I think the primary thing that could have made you a stronger candidate is if you were more familiar with and knowledgeable about our area’s unique xxx and the Seattle xxx world.  That will just take some time.  I can sympathize with any frustration you might be feeling about the fact that most employers want to hire new people with a lot of experience – so how, then, do you go about acquiring that experience?  Just keep applying for jobs that interest you, remain confident in your abilities and, in the meantime, continue to explore your community.  You’ll land on another great thing soon.

At moments like these, I sign onto Skype. Often, from the cyber wires of East Africa, comes a welcome greeting (hello emily long time?). After the niceties, Joseph, or Emmanuel, or Peter, asks me how the job search is going, and I joke that if nothing better comes up soon, I'll be heading back to South Sudan, or Congo, where the job market is more reliable. A mistake, of course. Sarcasm and dark humor don't come across very well on Skype. Especially not with language barriers. And so they'll say, in their typical, flowery, East African way:

Really? What a joy it would to have you among us once again! 


Africa will be a place for every things you may want. 

Or even

How are you? For us, things are fine. It's been a long time since we've had news from you. What's going on? It's as if you've forgotten us. Our hearts are with you. Take care of yourself.

Or the most wrenching of all:

Hello Emily its a Flesher to have some words from you...remember the said saying: Only Mountain don,t meet but Human being does. Other wise we shall meet again. Have a nice time.

And I will start thinking to myself that maybe going back to South Sudan or Congo isn't such a bad idea after all, that the job market there is more reliable, that at least over there I know what I'm doing and people seem to like me and life is consistently interesting and I'll get more stamps in my passport and many more stories to write about, and I'll tell myself that giving up exercise and relationships and anonymity and mountains and the opportunity to attend friends' weddings and having a physical home base of my own isn't really that big a deal after all. 

And then I'll remember that it is kind of a big deal. And then I'll decide that the best option is probably to forget about jobs altogether, and get back to The Wire.

The job search can resume after Season Four.