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.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Going Greyhound

In my experience, it’s best to pick a seat near the front of the Greyhound. That way, people tend to walk by you, in hopes of finding an empty pair of seats farther back. And if you’re unlucky and someone does sit next to you, at least you’re close enough to the driver to alert him if your seatmate turns out to be unusually sketchy.

My problem is that I don’t look sketchy enough, and despite my strategizing, I often end up with a seatmate. Unfortunately for me, I look like the kind of person you want to sit next to, apparently sane, recently bathed, no visible neck tattoos. On the Greyhound, obvious derangement is probably an asset.

This evening I’m feeling optimistic. The driver has taken our tickets and closed the doors, we’re due to depart, and I have the seat to myself. Then, at the last second, two more passengers appear. I sit up and make a half-hearted attempt to look like an escaped lunatic, but to no avail. Inevitably, one of the latecomers plunks himself down next to me. Ah well. It’s only a four-hour ride from Seattle to Portland. How much can possibly go wrong?

My seatmate is exceptionally quiet. He seems exhausted, closes his eyes and apparently drifts off to sleep, completely upright. So much the better, I think. I immerse myself in an Outside article about a war veteran gone missing in Montana’s Bob Marshall Wilderness.

My seatmate jerks upright with a sputter, and I am jolted out of the Bob. A fresh glob of puke covers my neighbor’s lap, and a thick purple smear coats his orange goatee. We both take in this change in circumstances. I consider tearing up my magazine to help him clean up, but realize its glossy pages might just succeed in further spreading the puke around, perhaps onto me. He’s wearing an absorbent plaid shirt; I suggest he take it off and use it to mop up. The smell is revolting.

“I turned 21 last night,” he offers in explanation, chunks of puke dribbling out of his mouth.

“You know, there’s a bathroom back there,” I prompt, gesturing towards the back of the bus. “Maybe you should go clean up.”
Happily, he concurs, and heads to the bathroom, where he remains for the next half hour.

I have been going Greyhound ever since I started paying for things myself. I actually appreciate the window into the very particular slice of American society that rides the bus, and often emerge at my destination with spectacular tales of lechers, drunks, acid-tripping poetry slammers and, during one especially sobering journey, an obese southerner off her meds who was inspired to remove her pants in the middle of the night, before collapsing at the rear of the coach, forcing the driver to drag her, mostly naked, to the stairwell atop an emergency blanket. The bus ain’t always pretty, but it serves as a reality check of sorts. And it’s by far the cheapest way to travel.

These days, it seems excessive to pay double the price for the luxury of the train. Although I have made some strides forward, I’m still unemployed and uninsured, and struggling to live within my very limited means. I’m getting there – it looks like one of my internships may soon morph into paid and career-building contract work – but it seems prudent to avoid unnecessary expenses when I can.

The director of the organization where I’m interning talked to me about health insurance today. “A rock climber without insurance? Hmm…you know that you can buy it online for not too much money, don’t you?”

I had resolved to forgo insurance, like trips on the train, until I was more settled and secure. But the conversation got me wondering. Perhaps I am going about this backwards. Maybe my spartan tendencies are contributing to my sense of insecurity. If I invest a little more in myself, go out on a limb and “indulge” in health insurance and a few other luxuries, I might feel more confident and settled, and other elements might start falling into place.

The guy behind me taps me on the shoulder. “I don’t wanna start playing footsie with you, but I dropped my Gatorade. Would you mind grabbing it for me?”

I bend over to retrieve the errant bottle, dipping dangerously close to the puke-splattered jeans of the 21-year-old next door. As I hand over the bottle, a passenger two rows back who sounds as if she’s got 50 years cigarette tar in her lungs starts hacking uncontrollably. An obese granny walks by, shouting to her grandson, “No, you CAN’T use the bathroom. It stinks! You’ll just have to wait ‘til Portland.”

I buy my seatmate a bottle of water from the Tacoma station. He seems to be feeling better. A Greyhound employee instructs us to cover our orifices as he walks down the aisle, coating us all with disinfectant and air freshener. The fetid odor of regurgitated alcohol is mostly gone. Maybe the tides are turning. Maybe I’ll go ahead and buy insurance.

And next time, what the hey – I’m taking the train.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Down and Out in Hipsterville

It may come to this...
"So one day Jimmy brung his wife inta work, and man! Was she ever ugly! Next day, when Jimmy come in, I let him have it: 'That's some wife you got there! She's a real dog, Jimmy! D'you put her on a leash when you take her out? You keep her in a kennel while you're at work?' He didn't talk to me for maybe a year after that."

Darlene, my comrade at the reception desk, is recounting her days as a sawyer at a lumber mill in rural Oregon. As the mill's only female laborer, and only black employee, she tells me, it wasn't easy to prove herself and gain the grudging approval of her colleagues. With her skill for acerbic verbal jabs, steady work performance and willingness to punch out the odd good-ol'-boy who got a little too fresh with her, she eventually earned their respect. I'm pretty easygoing by nature, and the reception desk where we're sitting is light years removed from the mill, but I'm taking the story's message to heart: I definitely want to stay on Darlene's good side.

So far, so good. I don't seem to have offended her yet, though it appears she hasn't quite made up her mind about me one way or the other. The job is absurdly easy; aside from the occasional administrative task, I mostly just sit there. All Darlene asks is that I organize my breaks so that she can leave in time to catch her bus. She doesn't appear to care if I do anything else at all. As soon as I sit down in the morning, she encourages me to go upstairs and fix some coffee, or to peruse the goods at the grocery store across the street.

It's excruciatingly boring, but I don't care. It's work, and I'm broke. While the quest for a rewarding, meaningful, benefited job continues, in the meantime I'll take whatever the temp agency throws at me.

Which, so far, has not been much. Even though I try to reduce my expenses to rent, food and the occasional, modest social outing, the money I've earned temping so far has not come close to covering these costs.

I've never had much money, but I've rarely felt as aware of my relative poverty as I do right now. Which is perhaps not surprising, since up 'til now I've (sometimes unwittingly) managed to adopt the following strategies:

Free housing, South Sudan style
(1) Isolate yourself somewhere where there's almost nothing to buy.  I recommend South Sudan, small-town Michigan and the Canadian Arctic. That way, when the consumerism bug bites, at worst you'll drop two bucks on a pair of cheap flip-flops, a root beer float, or a bowl of caribou soup so bland you'll never be tempted to order one again.

(2) Work for food (and a place to crash). The digs might not be stylish, nor the grub gourmet, but hey- they're free. Get rid of housing and food expenses, and even the stingiest stipend starts sounding pretty good. 

Low-budget entertainment

(3) Surround yourself with people who are at least as reluctant to spend money as you are. In Missoula, some students I knew tried to survive for a week off of food scrounged from dumpsters, just for kicks. (Though they gave up after four days of nothing but bread, I was inspired by their dedication.) Our compound guard in Uganda, meanwhile, spent nothing. He lived off the harvest from his home village and was saving all of his earnings to begin to replace his family's livestock, which had been pillaged during the war there. After a chat with him, I felt guilty leaving the compound for a $5 dinner out in town. 

Alas, such techniques are not so readily employed in Seattle. First, there are plenty of pretty tempting ways to spend money here: on roller derby tickets, Asian foot massage, artisan beer tastings, writing workshops, trapeze classes, ski weekends, indie film fests, home canning lessons. I haven't been able to find a job that offers regular compensation of any kind, let alone room and board. And my friends here, lovely as they are, enjoy expensive cocktails and ski vacations and Groupon deals for rowing lessons. I can't blame them, but I can't always join them, either.

And so it's a relief when, before clocking out on Wednesday, Darlene tells me, "We'll miss you tomorrow." I'll be back on Monday for another three days at the reception desk, and apparently I've earned Darlene's approval. It ain't much, but these days, I'll take anything I can get.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Not what I had in mind: How I found Seattle for the first time (Part II)

This is the second installment of a two-part series. You might want to read part I first. 

"The distinguishing mark of true adventures is that it is often no fun at all while they are actually happening." 
-Kim Stanley Robinson

Early in my second year at McGill, I discovered a book that would change my life. 

I had returned to Montreal with some reluctance. I felt like a sheep being herded along some safe, established path, without really knowing where I was going or why. I wanted to strike out on my own, but didn't really know how, and was afraid of what might happen if I didn't have some kind of plausible alternate plan. For one, my academically-focused parents might possibly disown me. I needed to convince them that I could fend for myself outside the confines of school, and maybe even do something worthwhile while I was at it. 

And then came Work Your Way Around the World, perched innocuously on the "careers" shelf of the University Bookstore. Continent by continent, it detailed work and volunteer opportunities for the aspiring vagabond, from freelance blueberry picking in Norway to vegetable gardening at remote Andean orphanages. The book provided contact information for thousands of organizations and testimony from actual people who had dived in and lived to tell the tale. 

There was enough in that book to keep me busy for several years, at least. It was just the boost that I needed. I made two rules for myself: (1) Do only things that you find interesting and exciting; and (2) Earn your keep. No crawling back home to ask for money. At the end of the school year, I informed the registrar's office that I'd be taking some time off, and all of a sudden, I was free.

Six months later, when the Greyhound bus spat me out in downtown Seattle after a delirious 24-hour ride up I-5, freedom didn't seem so sweet. I had blown almost all of my summer savings on a police car that had burned to a crisp in the Sierra foothills a week after I had bought it. My plans to farm my way up the coast were bust. I no longer cared if I found something "interesting and exciting" to do; I merely wanted to recover some of that money, before the holidays if possible.

I landed a minimum wage job running the register and washing dishes at a pizza joint in the University District. Besides my sister and her small social circle, I didn't know anyone in town. This was okay, as it meant I wasn't tempted to spend money. But I was miserable. Occasionally, through a break in the autumn skies, I'd catch a glimpse of Mount Rainier, hovering phantom-like on the southern horizon, or the jagged Olympic range to the west. I felt that I would really like it here, if circumstances were a bit different. As it was, I simply observed, wandering from the library to the supermarket to the waterfront. My bank account slowly filled up again. I chipped in for rent. 

The fact that this was only temporary kept me sane. I bussed over to Missoula to check out its Forestry School, and felt more at home there after one weekend than I had after two years in Montreal. I also completed an application with Frontiers Foundation, which sent volunteers to indigenous communities in the Canadian Arctic to help in schools. To my great relief, it was accepted, and I'd be leaving for Tsiigehtchic, a tiny Gwich'in town at the confluence of the MacKenzie and the Arctic Red Rivers, on February 1st.

So I tried my best to enjoy the present. At the pizza joint, we competed to see who could fold pizza boxes or assemble a respectable pie the fastest and shared stories about the odd characters who came in off the Ave. But I felt slightly guilty the whole time. It was a huge release when I finally turned in my notice and caught a plane home, armed with plans for an adventure in the Arctic.

Had I been a bit more shrewd, I might have added a third rule to my list, one that would have saved me a good deal of grief in the future: Avoid expectations. Nothing is ever what you have in mind.

Friday, February 24, 2012

Not what I had in mind: How I found Seattle for the first time (Part I)

Zoom to a two-lane highway on a glorious day in the western foothills of the Sierra Nevada in October 2000. I am ecstatic. For the past month, I've been sleeping in a cramped camper in the backyard of a dysfunctional family in a broken-down town in the middle of nowhere. A rooster struts underneath the camper at five-thirty every morning to wake me with an ear-shattering crow. I am ostensibly here to learn how to make goat cheese, but there are some problems. First, I have discovered that I absolutely hate goat cheese. "What flavor do you like the best?" would-be customers constantly ask me at the weekly farmers' market. I try not to flinch, then reply, "Well, uh, most people seem to like this one," demurely offering them a sample of the spreadable herb-garlic. When some folks cringe at their first taste of that distinctive goat-y flavor, I have a hard time disguising my sympathy.

Also, the farmer I'm working for isn't the most disciplined in her profession. She rarely emerges from the family trailer before 9:30 am, and even then she only puts in a few hours of work each day. I'm beginning to wonder if she has a trust fund somewhere.  Her husband is on disability leave after taking a bad spill from a ladder during a roofing project. He's told me he wants to brush up on Auto-CAD and go to school for architecture, but every time I go in the house he's sprawled out on the couch eyeing the television with mild disgust, and menacingly wielding a fly swatter. Every visible surface in the room is covered with fly carcasses. Including the ceiling.

There's more. It's breeding season, and the farmer's friend has generously loaned us one of her horniest billy goats. From the tiny slit of a window by my camper bunk, I can see him repeatedly mounting the females, who want none of it. He's not in the least discouraged. Watching his efforts, I consider giving up males altogether. As part of the mating ritual, he pees on himself and then smears the urine all over his shaggy brown coat. Pheromones fly and permeate the property with a putrid stink. The farmer's eight-year-old daughter comes home from school with a teacher's note: Alexis has smelled a little ripe lately. Could you please give her a good washing? I would worry about my goat-stink too, but it seems inconsequential, since I never leave the farm.

This isn't exactly what I had in mind.

I'm taking a year off from school. After two years at a highly reputable Canadian university, I've had enough. I feel like I've just been doing what's expected of me without really knowing why. I'm tired of classrooms so large I can't even see the professor or dare to shout out a question, of professors who look at me blankly despite my repeated visits to their office hours. More importantly, I'm craving some genuine experience, beyond the confines of the classroom. I'm inspired by Into the Wild, by a recently discovered passion for mountains and wild places, by a few charismatic vagabonds who've crossed my path. I'm 19 years old, and I've been in school my entire life. I know there's a lot more out there, and I can't stomach another semester until I get a taste of it.

My plan for the fall is to volunteer my way up the coast on different organic farms. For a very reasonable ten dollars, the organization Willing Workers on Organic Farms (WWOOF) has sent me a listing of West Coast farms that will provide room, board and informal training to people willing to work a very manageable average of four hours a day. There are dozens of listings, from hippie-run healing centers in the California desert to tiny market farms in the foothills of the North Cascades. I tell myself I'll start in California and slowly head north to Washington, arriving in time for the apple harvest. My parents are not thrilled that I have dropped out of school, and seem anxious about my farm-hopping plan. The house is full of tension, and I want to get out of Massachusetts as soon as possible. So when the goat dairy farmer offers me a month-long stint on her farm, I don't hesitate. I jet across the country with a friend who's Tahoe-bound and am settling into the camper within a week.

After a mere couple of weeks among the goats, though, I'm going stir-crazy. The camper, the flies, the inactivity of this sleepy town are driving me nuts. I solicit the help of a depressive yet mechanically-savvy Deadhead who's friends with the goat farmer and buy the first car he presents me with. It's a 1985 Dodge Diplomat, a retired old-school police cruiser complete with searchlight and decal. Again, it's not what I had in mind, but the price is right, and it appears to run. I fork over $800 of my summer savings and prepare for a backpacking weekend in Tahoe with my cross-country conspirator.

So back to that highway in the foothills. I have escaped, temporarily, and freedom is in the air. My tenure at the goat farm is almost over. This weekend, I'll finally get a taste of the much-anticipated Sierras, and in a week or so, I'll be making my way to a new farm, which in my mind can only be better, much better, than where I am now. And if it's not, I can always sail away in my cruiser.

I have escaped the shrub-covered foothills and am climbing into the mountains. My heartbeat quickens as I pass the 2000 foot elevation marker. The road begins to twist and turn. For the first time in a month, I enter an honest-to-god forest. The trees tower over the roadway, creating a cool, shaded tunnel through which I hurtle upwards. I have just passed the sign announcing 5000 feet when thick grey smoke starts pouring out of the vents in my hood. I pull over and pop the hood. When I step out to survey the scene, I'm alarmed to note that my engine is actually aflame. Armed with overpriced organic cider from this morning's farmer's market, I douse the blaze, to no avail. I am in the middle of nowhere, northern California, and the car that I bought a week ago is on fire.

I remove my belongings from the car's trunk and stand back. To my astonishment, cars continue to drive by for what seems like a long period of time. Finally, a concerned citizen comes to my rescue, but his fire extinguisher is no match for the veritable inferno emanating from my hood. Eventually, the fire is too impressive to ignore, and traffic stops in both directions. People emerge from their vehicles and join me in spectating. The windows explode one by one, and the flames surge upwards, dangerously close to the canopy of this dry western forest. One of my newfound pals snaps my grinning image in front of the blazing car. All things considered, I feel like I'm handling the situation pretty sportingly.

Forty minutes later, when the singed remains of the cruiser have attained a fairly uniform grey hue, the volunteer fire department arrives on the scene. I answer their questions.

What make was it? 
A Dodge Diplomat. was grey, right? 

Well, miss, you should be able to get a ride into town with the tow truck driver. 

I call the insurance company to report the loss, and they tell me they're going to send an agent out to confirm that the car is, in fact, totaled. After surviving an unexpected snowstorm in the Sierra backcountry, I return to the goat dairy and call the insurance company yet again. You got the car in storage? Good, we're gonna send someone out there sometime this week. The next time I call, they are indignant. Your policy didn't cover fires, they tell me. We're not sending anyone out there.

My coolness is starting to dissipate. I call the storage folks and tell them to destroy the car, and learn that they have been charging me $100 per day to keep my wreck of a vehicle in their lot. It's been there for ten days. My summer savings are all but exhausted, and I'm only a month into my gap year adventures.

I'm not about to crawl back home this early in the game. I call my sister, who has just completed a summer of volunteer work with the Forest Service in rural Idaho and is in the process of moving to Seattle with her boyfriend. They're currently crashing on the couch of a friend's friend, but if I'm really desperate, I could crash on the floor temporarily.

I'm as desperate as I've ever been.

Looks like I'm moving to Seattle. 

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Sweater Vest Smackdown

I am seven miles into an eight mile run when I encounter the first stoplight of the afternoon. I sidle onto the curb beside a well-dressed young lad who looks like he's straight out of a Land's End ad, sweater-vested and khaki-panted, and toting a scrunched-up paper lunch sack, to patiently wait for the light to change. I have learned to wait, semi-patiently, for the light to change. This does not come naturally. I am from the Northeast, after all. When I first arrived in Seattle with the intention of staying, I was amused and slightly disconcerted to note the serenity with which pedestrians waited at traffic-less crosswalks until the signal turned green. Didn't they have somewhere to be? Couldn't they see that NO ONE was coming? I did, and I could see, and I wasn't going to idly stand by while valuable time slipped through my fingers. I crossed the street as I damned well pleased.

But several months have passed since then, and I, ever flexible, am trying to adapt. I stand politely next to Mr. Sweater Vest and wait. A minute passes, the light turns green, and I am off for this run's final mile.

A few seconds later, I catch an argyle-patterned blur. The sweater-vested one zooms past me on the sidewalk, lunch sack still in hand. He darts ahead with surprising speed. My ego protests, and I give chase, but there's no catching this one. He cruises into the distance, and I bemusedly make my way home, wondering at the contents of the magical sandwich bag.

Don't get me wrong; I chose Seattle. After a geographically stable childhood in small-town Massachusetts, I spent my 13 post-high school years roving from Montreal to New Hampshire to California to Washington to the Canadian Arctic to Montana to West Africa to Vermont to West Virginia to France to Michigan to Oregon to East Africa, with lots of to-ing and fro-ing in between. My backpack is worn out. I sold my skis, and my beloved road bike, after hauling them from temporary home to temporary home five too many times. I don't know who my mayor is, and have missed just all about all of my friends' weddings. For a good while the adventure of all that movement was worth the inconveniences, but somewhere along the line I realized that there might be advantages to a bit more stability (it might have been the night when the miniature bed on loan to me from the French school district collapsed beneath the weight of an unsuspecting houseguest).

My adventures are by no means over, but I'm increasingly feeling the need for a semi-permanent "place to hang my hat" (à la Bruce Chatwin) - a place from which to base my exploits, where I can store not only my headgear but also my new bicycle and my eventual skis, where I can invest in a bed that won't fail me at crucial moments, around which I can build the sense of community and self that I realize more than ever is important for my sanity. Chatwin was a bit cavalier about said place, but I was pretty deliberate about Seattle. First and foremost, it's ringed by exceptional mountains and glacier-green rivers, the most beautiful landscapes I know. It's full of ambitious, active, outdoorsy folks who aren't afraid of a little rain. It's an internationally-minded place, home to some of the most diverse neighborhoods in the country and a significant refugee contingent, including a sizable population of "Lost Boys" from one of my beloved former homes, South Sudan.

I did not come here to be a hipster. In truth, I make a pretty pathetic hipster. If you have a hipster mustache, I am probably already laughing at you. I do like cupcakes, but damned if I'll fork over three-fifty for one. Don't ask me to swing dance, even if I do look kinda cute in my decidedly unhip jeans and sweater combo; my stumbling and fumbling will totally mess up your hard-earned hipster moves. How do you pedal so effortlessly by me on that unforgiving Seattle uphill stretch - are your hot pink knee socks turbo-charged?

Maybe I'll adjust in time, but meanwhile, please join me as I gape and gawk at all that I am not, and reflect on the long and winding path that brought me here, the fabled land of hipsters - Seattle.