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May. 25th, 2014

Something has to change. Me, my reality, or the way I perceive it. Something must change or I do not know how much longer I will be able to function. I am tortured by my past and can see no livable future. Just a dead end reality where I never again make enough to live on.

I go on for the sake of people who care--for those who would be damaged by my absence. I'm not sure how long this will continue to be a successful means of motivation. Perhaps I should be checking myself into a psychiatric ward.

I really shouldn't post this, since it will only cause concern in those who read it, and there's nothing any of you can do to help. And what could anyone say to this?

I'm in mourning. My favorite place in the world is burning--Oak Creek Canyon, north of Sedona. About a thousand acres have already been charred and the fire is not at all contained.

I have visited the canyon many times over the years and feel deeply connected to it. I want to have my ashes scattered there when I die. I hope the damage will not match up to my fears. I imagine a blackened ravine where once there was such beauty, and my heart aches with the thought.

I hope that those who have been evacuated from the area will have homes to return to. My heart goes out to them as well.

I keep thinking of things I could write here, and then I don't actually write them. It's as though I've grown tired of my words, tired of my own thoughts. Committing them to words and typing them out to be read feels...I don't know really. Too much effort, I guess.

But a lot of things feel like too much effort these days. It doesn't help that most of the time that I'm having thoughts I would consider writing down, I'm nowhere near a computer or paper and pen, and I'm not likely to be so for hours. By the time I get home from work I'm weary from the day's efforts and still have to think about dinner, washing the piled up dishes in the sink, bills, laundry, the usual. Writing down my thoughts is way down the list, and when I do get time I just want to veg out. Sit down with my SO and his son and watch anime or something.

I feel like I've grown boring. Nothing feels worth the investment of time. All my projects, drawing, writing, crafting things with my hands, making music--it all feels empty to me. Maybe I will find the ability to care again in future. I don't know. In the meantime, I am here, eating breakfast, typing this on my phone because it's too much effort to get out my laptop (haha!) and making myself commit these thoughts to words, because I said I would try to do that.

Also, to those of you who expressed interest in my photos, I have two Flickr accounts, one at celebrian_3, and another at mnemonicdreams. I don't know if I can link to those galleries directly here, and haven't time at the moment to experiment, but a Google search seems to locate them effectively.
Since I posted the last entry of my saga, things have been moving fairly quickly. yonica contacted me about her house remodeling project. The contractor's draftsperson was unable to put together the necessary drawings within the desired time frame of 1-2 weeks, and she asked me if I would be willing to take the project.

When I decided that I would return to LJ to post and to read again, it was with the intention that I was opening myself up to whatever the universe would send me, in whatever form it would take. So, when this opportunity arose, I accepted the challenge, knowing full well that it would mean the equivalent of working two full time jobs to pull it off. It would not be the first time I've started a project, not knowing how I would finish it.

That does not mean that I face this challenge fearlessly. I'm frankly terrified. Already, I find myself bumping into a number of core issues: self-doubt, lack of confidence, fear of failure, fear of looking stupid, fear of asking for help. I've had to contact my old consultants after over two years of silence, asking them to assist me with the project. It's been so long since I made professional phone calls, that I'd forgotten how much I hated and feared them, even after ten years of doing it. People are often busy, and I hate to feel like I'm bothering someone in the middle of something important. Sometimes this will cause me to short change myself when it comes to getting answers that I need, especially when my fear of bothering someone and my fear of appearing stupid come together in the same interaction.

I'm trying to take this one step at a time, trying not to attach to the outcome, trying not to listen to the doubts. I want to show up and do the next right thing. I figure that moving forward will require me to face a lot of fears, and there's no way around it. Hopefully, I can figure out how to effectively detox at the end of each day. I'm thinking of this as a test. Can I do this? Do I want to?
I’ve been having a difficult time with the last installment of my chronicle, for the reason that this part of the story is ongoing, and I do not have emotional distance from it yet. I’m still processing, and lack the detachment to filter. Everything feels pressing—thoughts and feelings are entangled with physical and financial difficulties and the stresses of the job. I have edited and rewritten quite a bit of it, but still find I’m unsatisfied with it. Regardless, I’m posting it, such as it is, if only to complete what I started.


My Life as a Prep Cook

In mid-September, one of the managers asked me if I would be interested in working weekends in the kitchen as a prep cook. I said that I would be interested, though I expressed concern that I may not be physically strong enough to perform well. A few years ago, I had toyed with the idea of pursuing a career in the culinary arts, and to test the feasibility of the idea I took a non-professional 24-week course in French cooking at a small local academy. Though I loved the course, I quickly realized that I did not possess the physical strength to work as a line cook or a chef, since I could not really lift the large pots and pans that are found in a typical restaurant kitchen. When I was first interviewed to work at Joe’s I was asked if I was willing to work in the kitchen, and I explained my prior kitchen experience and the conclusions I had reached. I wonder now if I would have had been given more hours if I had not eliminated the possibility of kitchen work at the outset.

So, it was with some excitement and some trepidation that I began working in the kitchen a week or two later. My first job was standard kitchen lackey work—peeling and cutting potatoes. Then I cut salads. Then I was shown how to make the giant pots of cheese sauce used in the macaroni. I was shown a few other basic tasks that day that I don’t remember now. The next day was roughly the same. This continued for a couple of days a week for roughly a month. It was around that time that the Tiny Prints opportunity fell through and I began working 40 hours per week in the kitchen. Day after day I would come in to work and spend about 2-3 hours cutting and peeling the bakers for the cheesy potatoes. Then I would mix these and put them into pans. Then I would cut the lettuces for salad. Peel a box or two of apples on a rotary peeler. Clean head of cabbage and shove them through the shredder on the Hobart mixer for cole slaw.

The tedium and monotony was and is not necessarily terrible. The time I spent in Zen practice taught me that the most menial tasks are not intrinsically better than ones that appear ‘more interesting’. But the repetition began to wear on me physically. My forearms, wrists, and hands began to hurt. I began to suffer issues with my grip, and wake up in the morning with fingers that felt numb and thick like sausages. I started to worry about carpal tunnel syndrome, and went to see my doctor. He recommended large doses of ibuprofen, steroids, and physical therapy three times a week for a month. I knew I could not afford this, and wasn’t sure how I would proceed.

On the financial aspect of things, I was barely making it from paycheck to paycheck. The amounts I was making had increased due to the additional hours. My food expenses were largely covered by the nutrition assistance I was receiving from the state—about $130-140 a month at the time—and the one free meal I would get per shift. I had no money for emergencies however. No funds for the expenses that invariably crop up. I nearly did not have money to buy cleaning supplies or basic toiletries like shampoo and deodorant. I could barely cover my monthly bills and the rent.

The psychological toll of working such a physically demanding job for so little pay, and not making enough to thrive, is admittedly grueling. I have not always been at my best in these conditions. The physical strain, the emotional stresses of working in a kitchen, the financial worries have all taken their toll. I have grown quieter, my heart has grown colder, my world smaller. Some days, I have put on my headphones and chopped vegetables to the sound of Radiolab podcasts, because that’s the only way I can keep my mind off my troubles and focus on my work. Thus far, I have not mentioned my dips into dark depression, verging on suicide. I have not related how completely I have disappeared from the world, how I cocoon at home because even to visit a coffee shop seems extravagant. I try not to think about these things if I can help it, but it’s difficult not to become obsessed with worry because of the isolation and loneliness. The lonelier I have felt, the less likely I have been to reach out to others, because I feel I have so little to offer. I feel anger perpetually bubbling just below the surface, sometimes taking it out on my SO, or the others around me. The anger sometimes eclipses the little things that make life bearable, causing me to forget that the world is not unremittingly horrible and evil.


Mounting Financial Worries

A few weeks ago, I visited the Department of Economic Security to have nutrition assistance benefits renewed. I spent over six hours on my day off sitting in their waiting room—a dingy, purgatorial space with long lines of chairs occupied by scores of other desperate people. When I was finally called back to interview with a social worker, I was informed that the 12 or so extra hours per week I had picked up by working in the kitchen meant that my benefits would be cut from $140 to only around $15 per month. This left me in virtually the same financial position I was in when Tiny Prints left me in the lurch in October. Now I had to figure out how I was going to afford food after paying all my other basic living expenses.

Shortly after this financial blow, I noticed that my cat Clyde’s looked odd. On closer inspection, I could see that one of his lower canines had shifted from inside to outside of his mouth, deforming it into a permanent snarl. Other than the strangeness of his appearance, his behavior seemed unusual—he seemed skittish, and more reclusive than normal. I guessed that something was quite wrong and called the vet to inquire. However, they had no way of answering my questions on the phone without examining him. Knowing that I did not really have the money, but concerned for his well-being, I made an appointment. The vet looked at him and concluded that both his lower canines were bad and would either need root canals or extractions. The overall bill for the initial visit and the subsequent surgery to extract his lower canines amounted to around $400. I had no choice but to put this on my credit card, increasing my balance from around $800 to $1200. Since I’m currently able to pay no more than around $20 a month on this card, this debt will be around for quite a while.

My SO had also been unemployed since around mid-September. At the end of December the check he wrote me for his portion of the rent bounced. I had deposited the check, and written the rent check to our landlady with the money apparently present in my account. However, she cashed her check right around the same time his check posted bad, which not only wiped out both my checking and savings accounts, but took all but $125 from my paycheck which had just posted. Additionally, about $50 in fees for the bad check and the overdraft from my meager savings account were assessed to my account.

Upon discovering this, I must admit I did not handle things well at first. I went to my local branch bank and asked to speak with someone regarding the fees. When I was seated with the banker, I expressed that the $12 fee for the bounced check was unacceptable and amounted to penalizing the victim. After a minute or so of discussion, she brought her manager to the desk. I attempted to relay my story and my objections to the fees in my agitated state but knew that I was not really coherent because she seemed perplexed. Frustrated, I then started to berate her on the business practices of banks that extract fees from people who already clearly don’t have money, an admittedly unwise move. Unfazed, she tried to explain to me why it was my responsibility if someone else bounced a check they wrote to me, and why I should be assessed a $12 fee. I countered that I refused to understand her logic and very nearly had her remove what little money I had left from the account, but this weak threat did nothing to bolster my position. It was apparent to me that I had bungled the negotiation and was to receive no satisfaction. I left shortly thereafter, feeling foolish and ashamed of my behavior.

A few days later I was able to go to another branch and state my case more rationally, which resulted in a much better interaction with the banker. She was able to refund me nearly all of the fees to my account, to my great relief. My SO was also able to give me around $400 in cash to deposit, which was not the full amount of his portion of the rent, but was enough for me to cover my bills until my next payday.

For the last two years, I have been unable to make any payments on my student loan. While I was unemployed, I was allowed to put it into deferment status, which minimized the accrual of interest on the principal. The loan officially came out of deferment in late January. My options now are to select one of two different payment plans offered that are income sensitive. One of them would set my payments at around $100 per month. The other would not have me pay anything, but neither plan will prevent the interest from accruing on the principal. This looming reality has been, and is still, a difficult psychological barrier for me to accept. I faithfully made payments on that loan for a little over 10 years, putting over $16,000 into it, but only decreasing the amount of the loan from $34,000 to $28,000. To watch the principal rise again, after so much financial investment, feels cruel.

Final Musings

The painful reality of my educational debt has caused me to question altogether the efficacy of a college education that is funded by loans. It has certainly made me reluctant to pursue any course of re-education or skill upgrade that would require any further financial investment from me. At the same time I realize that I cannot ever expect to make very much working in the restaurant industry or food service, whatever form that might take. And I simply do not know how long my body will hold out, as I’m fast approaching 40. For now, it appears that difficulties I was having with my forearms and hands have subsided as I have become more used to the work; but the physical demands of the job leave me so drained at the end of the day that I barely want to cook meals or clean the house, much less attempt the kinds of creative pursuits that would feed my now undernourished soul.

I feel stuck in a loop. I cannot get a job in my career field, but cannot really transfer my intelligence and abilities to another design field, such as graphic design or industrial design, because those skill sets are associated with their own specific training and degrees, and competition for those jobs is equally fierce. I cannot seem to transfer myself over to an administrative type position either, as it seems that most employers find me lacking in experience for those roles. At least this is the inference I make by the silence I’ve received in response to resumes I have sent for such positions. Never mind that I am intelligent and versatile, my resume says I’m trained as an architect, and therefore I must want a position in architecture. Why would anyone take the time to train me for a position they believe I would leave when an architecture job appears? For that matter, why would anyone take the time to train me for a position for which they can find numerous ‘already qualified’ candidates? I feel as though I might as well have gotten a liberal arts degree.

I did not wish to end this piece on such a depressing note. In the previous version I attempted a summing up which looked on the bright side of things, but it seemed saccharine and disingenuous upon re-reading. My reality looks quite sobering, really, and sanitizing it for public consumption feels false to me. I will say, however, that the fact that it has driven me to reach out again to all of you is itself a positive thing. I cannot say how regularly I will post, but I will be reading and commenting. As I said to someone recently, I must take interest in others again before my soul shrivels. And all of you are some of my favorite others that I have ever met.
Holiday Madness, Round Two?

That’s when I got the call from Corestaff. When I was dismissed at the end of the season, I was informed that I should maintain contact with Corestaff weekly by email if I wished to be referred to other job opportunities. Diligently I sent my weekly email to Corestaff, occasionally checking their website for positions, but nothing came up. In September, I received a call from the recruitment staff inviting me to a ‘job fair’. At first, I was reluctant to attend—they had been so peculiar about their termination process with me that I wasn’t sure what to expect. But for some reason, I made myself get up that day, get dressed, print out some resumes, and drive to the site of the job fair.

The job fair did not live up to the expectation. It wasn’t really a job fair where you got to speak to a number of different employers offering different positions, so much as an opportunity to talk to Corestaff recruiters about seasonal positions with Tiny Prints. I was mildly disgusted, to put it lightly. I had spent money I didn’t really have to print resumes to give to prospective employers, only to realize that they were not necessary. I perfunctorily filled out their paperwork, since I was already there, and sat in a brief interview with the recruiter. She told me that I was the smartest person she had talked to all day and that she hoped they would hire me. I mentioned to her that I had actually worked for Tiny Prints the previous season, and so had a lot of experience with the job. This naturally impressed her more, and she told me to go home and take the assessment tests, which I did that evening. She contacted me shortly thereafter to let me know that I had done very well, and she would be scheduling me for an interview, specifying a date a week or two later.

I went home, and apprehensively went to work updating my portfolio I had created the previous year. The recruiter had mentioned that this year they expected to see certain things in the portfolio such as before and after photo touchups. I spent a number of hours on this portfolio, and again, spent some money to have it reprinted. On the day of my scheduled interview, while I was still in bed, but just about to get up and get dressed, I was called by the recruiter. She apologized for the confusion, but since I had performed so well for Tiny Prints the previous holiday season, there would be no need for me to be interviewed. She then congratulated me on being selected to return to work for this holiday season.

Imagine my mixed emotions. I was reluctant to return to this high-stress work environment—a veritable sweatshop for graphic designers. I was also mildly concerned about the money I had spent on the portfolio, now as fruitless as the resumes I had unwittingly printed. However, I was determined to think positively about the situation, and think of ways to lessen my stress. The previous season, I had been so determined to try and earn a permanent position with the company that I had tied myself into knots about not meeting my quota and fear of early dismissal. However, since they were willing to have me return without so much as an interview, I knew that my performance could not actually have been that bad. Even if I knew that I would never meet my quota, which was likely, I could simply look at this as a totally temporary experience. I would simply accept that I would be dismissed at the end of the season, so it would be grueling, but short. I could try to make some contacts, have some fun. It wouldn’t be so bad. I could lessen my schedule at the barbecue to one day a week, just to keep my job there so I could return to it at the end of the season. I had already proven that I could live off the amount I would make for most of a year. Maybe I could do this once a year and sort of be okay.

I talked to the managers at Joe’s, explaining my situation. I did not have a start date at the time, but informed them that if things went as they had done the previous year, I would expect to start early to mid-October. They were very cooperative and willing to have me work one 10 hour shift per week just to keep me on staff, with the expectation that I would return in late December or early January to a normal work schedule.

A week passed, and I didn’t hear anything from the recruiter about a start date. Two weeks passed, and still nothing. I called the recruiter, leaving a voicemail explaining that I would need to know my start date as soon as possible, because I needed two weeks’ notice for my current employer to coordinate the schedule change. I heard nothing back. By the third week, I sent an email, requesting the same information. Finally, she wrote back, at first to say that she was going to coordinate my start date with the Tiny Prints hiring manager. Then she finally gave me a start date for late October. I was disappointed, since it was much later than I expected, which meant less money for me overall. But, at least I had a start date I could take to my managers at Joe’s. We got my schedule changed to one day a week, and I worked my last week of regular shifts for what I expected to be a while.

The recruiter had informed me that I was to attend an orientation to fill out paperwork for tax purposes and such the Friday before my start date. Thursday was my last regular day at the barbecue, and I expected to go home, make dinner, take a shower, and pick out my clothes for the next day’s orientation. On my way to the parking lot, I took out my cell phone to send a text message to my SO, letting him know I was on my way home, and noticed I had received an email message from the recruiter. Getting into my car, I opened my inbox and looked at the message. The recruiter had written that she regretted to inform me that they had already hired too many people and would not be able to hire me at that time. She apologized and said she was sure I would find the perfect job for me.

I got out of my car, completely flummoxed, and dissolved into tears. My work schedule at Joe’s had already been changed so I had only 10 hours the following week. I was nearly out of money and could not afford the lost time, not to mention the lost opportunity with Tiny Prints. I was furious with the recruiter for her slowness—if she had been more responsive, I might have had an earlier start date, and not be left in this state. And I berated myself for not having been more insistent and for not putting enough pressure on her. After a couple of minutes, I came to, found myself sitting on the asphalt, dried my tears and returned to the manager office at Joe’s. I explained my situation and the email from the recruiter. The scheduling manager said that she believed the kitchen manager could probably give me a full schedule the following week. I had already been working prep shifts on the weekends, since the kitchen needed additional help, and it was a good way for me to get a few extra hours.

to be continued
A Job in Food Service

When I was dismissed from Tiny Prints, I knew I would not have long before my resources would dry up again. The hefty overtime checks I received from that three-week marathon would only go so far. I applied for Nutrition Assistance again. Knowing that I would probably not be able to find another office-type job paying at least $15 per hour quickly, I lowered my sights to jobs in food service. I thought I could apply as wait staff at a restaurant, perhaps work my way towards bartending. My first attempts at applications were of the online variety, and were fruitless. My applications were dismissed out of hand because of ‘lack of experience’. The sad irony started to sink in that I was both over and underqualified. Two degrees in architecture, and ten years work experience in the professional world, and evidently I was deemed not smart enough to learn how to wait tables. Or, at least, no one was willing to train me.

I talked on the phone with my friend T, and she mentioned that Joe’s Real BBQ in Gilbert was hiring counter servers. It wasn’t the same as waiting tables—I would be taking customer orders at the counter at a cafeteria-style establishment and serving side dishes, so I wouldn’t receive tips, but they paid better than minimum wage, and had good benefits if you were hired full-time. Her brother was a manager at the establishment, and I could mention her as a reference. It was worth a shot. I found their application online, printed and filled it out. That evening, I completed an online course in food safety, took the test, and passed. The next day, I drove to Joe’s Real BBQ, stopping to pick up my newly minted food safety card on the way. I was lucky. T’s brother happened to be on duty that day, and he sat down with me when I brought in my application and interviewed me on the spot.

A note in passing. I’ve learned by experience that nearly every job I have ever landed, with the notable exception of Tiny Prints, was acquired by my knowing someone and getting to speak directly to someone in charge of hiring. Nearly every job for which I have applied via online job boards or applications has not resulted in so much as a call-back, much less an interview or a job offer. It has become clear to me that bypassing these protocols is the only successful way to be hired.

My first interview at Joe’s went well, and the owner called me up a day later to request that I come in for a second interview. The interview with the owner went equally well, and he offered me a job. He was kind enough to realize that my situation was somewhat dire and offered me $9.50 an hour, instead of the usual $8.50 an hour. January 29, 2013 was my first day.

At first, it was completely bewildering. The manager on duty got me a shirt and a paper hat (awful paper hats . . .), gave me a tour of the restaurant, pointing out salient details like fire extinguishers—on the locations of which I would be tested, according to him, three months later—then took me up to the counter, and dropped me off there with another employee. A customer asked me a question, and I had no idea what to say. No one had even given me the slightest detail on how to begin. The other employee, a girl named Katie, began training me. I was expected to serve side dishes, and not much else. She showed me the various meats so I could recognize them on sight and hand the correct plates out to customers. She showed me how to restock the side dishes in the cold and steam tables we were standing in front of, and how to restock the condiments to par for the end-of-shift duties. The manager pulled me aside a couple of times to show me training videos in the employee break room—a tiny, dingy little space with a round portable table and chairs, a bay of lockers two feet away, the doors to the manager office, employee restroom, and supply closet all opening off of it. The videos were corny and pedantic, as could be expected, and many of them repeated details from my food service safety course.

For the first couple of months, I worked mostly evenings. December through March is peak season at the barbecue, so the customer line would frequently be out the door. I learned to work under pressure and smile at the same time. I gradually learned that smiling so much, whether I felt like it or not, seemed to be good for my mood and good for my health. After a couple of months, they trained me to run the register. And then, I was able to run the counter during the day shift, opening and putting everything in place for the day. Things were going as well as could be expected, but I wasn’t getting enough hours. The most they were able to give me consistently was about 25-27 hours per week. This was simply not enough for me to live on. For months, I used the money I made from Joe’s to stretch the money I made from Tiny Prints as far as possible—and that amount wasn’t very much. At the end of the holiday season, I had about $3000. The day after Christmas, I had to spend $400 of that on a new computer, because my old one was dying and I would need something to write resumes and search for jobs. I had my nutrition assistance money from the state, and the free meals I would get on my shifts at the barbecue. And I got a decent tax return in March. Miraculously, the money stretched for nine months. This despite the fact that I was bringing home around $800 a month and my rent alone was costing me nearly $600 monthly. I could only continue like this for so long.

to be continued
Tiny Prints

I was still putting out the occasional job application, spreading my net wider than architecture, but was receiving no replies. In August of 2012, I came across a job position for a Production Designer from an agency called Corestaff. The position required skills in Adobe Illustrator and Photoshop, proofreading, and photo-editing, as well as customer service. It paid $15 per hour and looked like a good opportunity, so I put in an application. I received a reply from a recruiter a few days after, requesting that I take their assessment tests. I was not actually expecting a reply, and very nearly missed the opportunity entirely. After a week had lapsed, I found the recruiters email and took the assessment test, concerned I had waited too long. Evidently, I performed well on the test, and they requested that I come interview with them on site at Tiny Prints at their Tempe location, and to bring a portfolio of my work. I didn’t have one that was pertinent to the skill set they were looking for, so I had to cobble one together in a few days. My first interview, however, the interviewer did not even glance at my portfolio; it was more of an opportunity for me to meet the recruiter face-to-face and for them to screen me as a viable candidate. I also learned in this first meeting that the position was not for a single candidate, but for 75 candidates for the holiday season. The job was to be a temporary position, but could be converted to a full time position if a candidate’s performance was excellent.

I passed the first interview and was called back for the second. I passed the second, and was informed that I would be hired. I started a couple of weeks later.

Things started well enough. Tiny Prints has a youthful staff with a sense of fun. The dress code was ultra casual—you could wear just about anything decent and it was considered acceptable. The staff break room was stocked with free snack and coffee machines. The first week was a training program where they taught us about the online system and how to process orders and call customers whose orders have issues that need resolution. The training program was lively and fun, and it was easy to get the idea that I could really enjoy working there.

The second week they put us out on the floor under supervision. We processed orders at a pace of about four orders per hour, while our trainer would oversee the orders before they were sent to print. At this pace, I was performing fairly well, and my trainer had to tell me to slow down a couple of times.

Some background: Tiny Prints, if you didn’t follow the link, is an online stationery company specializing in invitations, birth and graduation announcements, and holiday cards. During quarters one through three, Tiny Prints’ order volume is something around 1000 to 1500 orders per day. During the fourth quarter this rises significantly, and in the period between the day after Thanksgiving and about a week and a half before Christmas, increases to about 10,000 orders per day.

By the third week we were on our own, but still expected to process only about four orders per hour. This was late October, before peak-season, and order volumes had not yet increased. Often we would be sent home after about half a day because there weren’t any more orders in the queue to be processed. I was performing fairly well, but was nervous about every order I processed because of the possibility of it having to be reprinted due to an error on my part.

This was everyone’s fear. Too many reprints on the part of a Production Designer would eliminate them from the possibility of permanent hire. It could also mean early termination. We watched as some people who came through the training were let go before peak season because they were incapable of performing the work as expected. They were replaced by others as each week brought in an additional team of 20 or so people fresh out of training.

By week five, our quotas were increased to seven orders per hour. By week six, they were increased to nine. By the week before Thanksgiving, our official quota was eleven orders per hour. Eleven orders per hour doesn’t really sound like a whole lot—it amounts to about five to six minutes per order, which seems generous. However, it’s not—that five to six minutes goes pretty fast when you have to look at the order on the screen, proofread all the text, verify that all the photos are of decent print quality, and probably, have to call a customer when one of these things is somehow awry. Some photos can be easily corrected in Photoshop, but this takes time, and then the photo has to be imported into Illustrator and the order sent to proofing instead of being processed through the web application. The customer may have more than one item in the order, using the same photos, with different crops, requiring that the same edits be performed multiple times. And on what seemed at least forty percent of orders, customers would have text issues involving misplaced or unnecessary apostrophes or other issues. All of these required a phone call to the customer. Some customers would be easy to work with, while others would insist on keeping you on the line for extended periods. I regularly had customers with photo issues that could not be corrected, who would keep me on the line for fifteen minutes, a half-hour, or longer. When this happens, that five to six minutes per order begins to look impossible. And to most people, this seemed to be the case. An informal survey of the people around me revealed that most people were struggling mightily to meet the eleven-order-per-hour quota, and most of them were failing. The stress was mounting.

Starting the day after Thanksgiving, we began to work six days per week. At first we worked ten-hour days, and then that was increased to 12. For about three weeks, I spent twelve hours a day in front of a computer, often near tears as I would struggle desperately to meet my quota and still be friendly and helpful to the customers on the phone. Customer service representatives would frequently interrupt with instant messaging, expecting instant feedback because of customers they had on the line. Supervisors would send us warnings by email about failing to meet our quotas. It was dark when I got to work, and dark when I left. I rarely bathed, struggled to sleep, and when I did sleep it was only to dream about work. I’d find myself processing orders and performing corrections on photos in dreams.

During this frantic period, my father called me one day to inform me that my grandmother was in hospice and very unlikely to live long. She died a couple of days later. I was unable to see her at the end, though I’m not sure I would have wanted to, as she had dementia and had forgotten most of the people around her, including her son and her husband of over seventy years. It would have been too sad.

The work load finally lessened. We had our first ten-hour day in three weeks. And then an eight-hour day. And shortly thereafter I received an email inviting me to a meeting, along with about thirteen or so other people. I knew what this email meant the second I received it. The first round of end-of-season cuts were beginning.

On Monday morning, I went to the meeting. It was as I expected—a meeting of dismissal. We were to continue working until Thursday, and then be terminated. Though I had known it was happening, I was still in shock. It was only a few days before Christmas, and I was looking at being unemployed all over again. The next morning, I was called just prior to work by the recruiting office. They were sorry but had to inform me that my last day would be today, Tuesday. I was surprised, and yet not entirely. I went to the office for the last time, expecting to do a few hours of work, pick up my personal effects from my desk and drop off my key card. After I had been there for a few hours, the queue cleared and the management informed us that we should go home. I collected my belongings, and wrote a few thank you cards to the staff members who had trained me, dropping them off at their desks, as most of them were not there. The last person I left a card for was there, and I struck up a conversation with her about the preceding weeks of work: the work load, the ways in which I could have improved my performance, etc. During this conversation, one of the recruiters hurried up to us, and asked me in a perplexed manner why I was there? I replied that I had been informed that today was my last day. She said that I was not supposed to be there, that when they informed me that today was my last day that meant I wasn’t supposed to come into the office. Confused and baffled by this logic, I went and clocked out for the last time, dropped off my key card with the recruiting staff and left the building.

The Aftermath

I was tired, frustrated, and sad. I was again unemployed, with no real prospects. To work at Tiny Prints for those two and a half months, I had left Bundu Gear and Pioneer Africa, and had found it nearly impossible to put in any time at Chow Locally, though it had been my intention to continue my one day per week with them. This proved impractical through all the training, since they insisted on having us there Monday through Friday (Fridays were my Chow Locally days), and when the six day weeks began, I needed to have at least one day off to do laundry and grocery shop and catch up on other life duties. By the time I was able to return to Chow Locally, the position I had been working had been given to someone else. They began scheduling me to come in only once or twice a month instead of once a week and reduced my responsibilities. I suppose I should have considered myself lucky that they had been so flexible with my erratic schedule. By March they determined that I was no longer a good cultural fit for the company and they asked me not to return.

This devastated me far more than the dismissal from Tiny Prints. I had been with Chow Locally since before they were a formed company. I had excitedly watched them through the startup weekend event where they pitched their concept, and enthusiastically offered all the help I could give them when they started up. I put a year’s worth of totally voluntary service to their cause before they paid me a dime. But, it was time to move on, and I had already begun.

to be continued
When I commenced this piece, it was with the intention of telling at least part of the story of what I have been doing over the last few years since I disappeared from this forum. Despite my attempts to state things in the plainest terms, and with minimal detail, my story grew in the telling, and became an article of over 7,000 words. For that reason, I'll be posting it in several parts over the next few days.



In October of 2011, the architectural firm for which I had been working for 10 years went out of business, leaving me unemployed and in a long line of job seekers in the profession. By the time my job disappeared, the economy had decimated the building industry, particularly in Arizona, and I had been watching and hearing of firm closures, building suppliers and contractors going out of business, and the general downsizing of anything building-related for about three years. My appearance in the job market was only one of probably over a thousand similar stories in Arizona alone. As far as I can tell, from research I have since done, the data from that year show that the market for architectural services shed approximately 1200 jobs in the state of Arizona, where there had previously been over 4400 jobs.

The following months were therefore not surprising. I collected unemployment (a meager 200 dollars a week after taxes), and survived on my savings and the two weeks’ severance and two weeks’ vacation pay I received from the firm, for about a year. In the meantime, I was applying for the few jobs I could find in architectural services, without ever hearing anything in response. I tightened my belt, and learned to live on less and less, cutting as much of the excesses of my life as could be managed.

Volunteer Work and Other Pursuits

I tried to make myself useful and be a positive influence in the world. Shortly before I lost my employment I had begun volunteering for a startup food hub called Chow Locally. At first, I went weekly to the Phoenix Public Market, working out the back of a converted U-Haul truck, sorting vegetables, and passing orders out to customers. Eventually, when their business model changed to a box program, I helped build boxes from cedar wood planks, packed the boxes with produce from local farmers, helped generate the weekly pamphlet insert illustrating the produce included in each box, and assisted in distributing the boxes to customers.

After about a year, I could no longer consider merely volunteering. I was running out of savings and my unemployment funds were on the verge of being cut off. Chow Locally offered to pay me for my time, but because they were a startup on a shoestring budget they couldn’t offer me much. I came in and worked for once a week for $10 an hour for several hours. I desperately needed to supplement this income. One day, while I was working, a man walked in from the office next door, returning the cedar box that someone in the warehouse had given him as a trial gift. I talked to him for a few minutes, and he mentioned that he had just moved into his office and needed some help. I said that I could use some employment and could offer him a few of the things he was looking for.

This was how I ended up working for Bundu Gear and Pioneer Africa for about two months (this one man is the owner of both outfits), in addition to my time at Chow Locally. I helped move him into his office, going with him to purchase office furniture and give him advice on furniture and layout. I cleaned, did a little graphic design work, fixed some of his billing documents, created current inventories of his merchandise, generated packets for prospective product reps, and performed some research for him for a couple of months. He paid me $12 hour for about 15-20 hours of work per week. The work was not decent, but like Chow Locally, he simply couldn’t afford to pay me enough to survive. I had to find other employment—more lucrative and steady employment.

In the meantime, realizing what I should have much sooner, I applied for Nutrition Assistance (i.e. food stamps) with the state. This was a difficult decision, and an idea that I had a tough time wrapping my mind around. I had always forged my own way, using my own resources, and now I was officially going on welfare. Illogical though it may be, I had never considered the unemployment benefits to be welfare. In any case, I began to receive around $120 a month for food, and this took a small amount of pressure off, but I was nonetheless struggling.

to be continued . . .