Saturday, October 15, 2016

Spring (Poem)

the arctic cup flowers hold a native bee apiece
a fragrant tenement, open to the sun

upside-down honeyeaters excavate the stiff bottlebrush
their neon-splashed wings fanning out to brush the seedpods

near the doorway, a white and green speckled spider spins quietly in the lavender
building a shimmering net to catch mosquitoes by the dozen

the cat that doesn't live here, and the dog that does, loll on their backs
a little breeze lifting the soft vulnerability of their belly fur

the fruit trees are ferocious with buds, while the wattle paints the sky canary-bright
white butterflies investigate the weeds by the compost pile

the rose trees, thorniest of all the weeds, are glorious in triumph -
sunset-gilded, ivory and deep pink, red as the reddest love

the wind stirs the branches and flaps the sheets on the line, and says:

Monday, October 10, 2016

The road not taken

When I was 23, I was working part-time (initially 0.6, later 0.8) at a small education industry support association while completing my Master of Arts by thesis part-time. My job at the association was primarily around sourcing, editing, publishing and marketing a range of teacher-support booklets and student resource books. I found teachers who were willing to write them, commissioned the work, hand-held it through to delivery, copy-edited the product, sourced images and handled the permissions, arranged printing, marketed and sold the publications at conferences and events, and even packed and posted the mail-ordered products. About the only thing I had no touch on was the money bit (I didn't invoice or bank or pay bills).

I'm not sure whether it was just because this was my first professional job, or because I still had it in my mind that I wanted a "writerly" career and I didn't have the bredth of experience or imagination to think about other possibilities, but I assumed that my career path was one of two options from there: an academic career (which was already losing shine as an option as I watched the convulsions in the academy) or a career in publishing.

By the time I got engaged to be married in the December of that year, I had pretty much ruled out an academic path; in my discipline (American History), a PhD in the US would've been essential, and my life was taking me down a different road, with a partner who was committed to remaining in Australia. So I thought I had it worked out. I'd finish my MA, get married, and move into a job with a more mainstream publishing house. I'd work my way up through editorial roles. I'd build skills so that when the time came to have a family, I might be in a position to freelance those editorial skills from home for a while.

In the year following, I applied for six jobs in publishing, and was interviewed for four of them. In two cases I didn't make it past first-round interviews, but I was one of two final candidates for a job with Oxford University Press, and I was actually offered a job with Pearson Education.

With the Oxford job, I missed out to a person with just a touch more experience - that job I absolutely would've taken had it been offered. The Pearson job was a key decision point for me, though. It was an entry-level position, and the salary they were offering was lower than the fulltime equivalent of my 0.8 job; not massively lower, but when you are earning less than $30,000, $2,000 less is a significant chunk of change. And so, after agonising over the issue for three days, I reluctantly turned down the offer, even though it was likely to be a great path into the industry I thought I was decided upon.

After turning down the Pearson offer, I got so busy with wedding and honeymoon planning that I didn't apply for anything else, and when I got back from my overseas honeymoon, a postgraduate friend asked me to do some freelance publications work in the government agency she herself worked in. I took that option, left the industry association, and spent eighteen months doing publications and event work there while finishing my Masters. From there I went to another government agency to manage in-house publications, then to an online news aggregator service. It looked like I was sticking with publications-related stuff, if not traditional publishing per se.

My next job, though, turned that on its head. I went back to the government agency I'd first worked for to take a job developing policy and training systems / programs. This felt like a weird step - after all, although I had some training skills, I had never actually worked on policy before. I honestly thought it was a transitional job, that I'd do for 12 months to get back on my feet after the horrors of the night-shift news job, before going back towards publishing.

I was there for almost 10 years, and when I left, I was established as a policy development professional.

I don't regret any of my professional decisions to any great extent, although, with hindsight being 20/20, I can observe a tendency to stay longer in poor situations than I really should have. I do wonder sometimes, though. How different would my life / career be now if I had accepted that Pearson job? How would it look if I hadn't been just slightly edged out for the Oxford role? Would I, now, be a senior publisher at a big trade house? Or would I have abandoned the field and moved into something else?

The work I do is still "writerly" - of a sort - but it isn't what I imagined my future looking like, back when I was 23.

Wednesday, October 5, 2016

Sunday, October 2, 2016

Work and non-work and how the narrative creates the form

“For instance, on the planet Earth, man had always assumed that he was more intelligent than dolphins because he had achieved so much—the wheel, New York, wars and so on—whilst all the dolphins had ever done was muck about in the water having a good time. But conversely, the dolphins had always believed that they were far more intelligent than man—for precisely the same reasons.”

― Douglas Adams, The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy

David Frayne has a very interesting article in Roar Magazine at the moment called Towards a Post-Work Society. In it, he posits, among other things, the notion that we are, as a society, over-engineered towards paid work as the centre of meaning in our lives.

Work is, of course, the mechanism through which most of us (well, the workers of the world, not the owners of the means of production) exchange labour for the means to live, enabling us to pay for our necessities as well as some of our desires. But it is also "the main and certainly the most culturally approved way that people live out a public existence". There is a strong tendency to define identity at least partially by not just what we do in general, but specifically, what we do in the public labour market. Unpaid labour, particularly domestic, caring and nurturing labour, has no horse in this race, and neither do the passions of most people's hearts (unless they are marketable).

Frayne argues that this makes for a miserable, and sick, social environment when it coincides with the death throes of the neoliberal project, in which there are fewer and fewer jobs available, and only a small percentage of them are meaningful: "we are steadily becoming a society of workers without work: a society of people who are materially, culturally and psychologically bound to paid employment, but for whom there are not enough stable and meaningful jobs to go around."

To me, it's all tied in to consumerist culture as well. Past survival, and then laying in a store for harder times, what drives people to work so hard and so long? It's the impetus to consume - to eat more ostensibly pleasant (and therefore more expensive) food, to have more costly experiences, to purchase 'better' housing, to own more goods and accoutrements. Naturally people are prey to this to different degrees and it manifests in different ways, but the small (or large) bursts of pleasure that luxury purchases afford are addictive for almost everyone.

We are programmed to see achievement and success (and therefore value) as tied to not who we are, but what we do (in a paid labour sense) and what we have (not necessarily in terms of gold limousines and Armani suits, but certainly in terms of comforts of living and level of freedom from financial stress). And that? That is a failing project in the 21st century, for almost all of the 99%. Most of us cannot even achieve a modest security, let alone any real sybarism in daily life (beyond, and I'm not downplaying the importance of this, the enjoyment of micro-luxuries - there's a reason fancy cheeses and decadent ice creams sell better in recessions than in boom times).

In my own life, I have always seen paid work as an ultimate good, and struggled a lot with a sense of self-worth and identity when at home for brief periods with each child (9 months, 6 months and 8 months respectively, and then for 6 months more when my youngest turned 2). I've put serious thought into how I can work - settling, after much experimentation, into freelance contracting in a professional services field, where I work uneven amounts but average about 4 days a week - but it's never really been a question as to whether I should or would work.

Partly, of course, this comes down to money, but when I step back to analyse it, that isn't the complete answer, or at least it isn't anymore, given that our financial position is much less precarious overall than it was even 5 years ago. The reality is, I do work for money to enable us to consume the things we value at the level we want to - for us, that's paying off our housing, good education for the kids, holidays and trips, great food, and community support via donations. But I also work so I can participate unquestioned in the public sphere, and be licensed to have a public identity in a way that those who don't perform paid labour are not automatically granted by the current status quo.

The work I do is meaningful-ish - some parts of it more than others, but that's life - and I 'own' my labour to a greater extent than most wage-earners. The transaction between me and my clients is an unvarnished exchange of skills and time for cash, a business-to-business matter, with no pretence of any mutuality of obligation beyond what is explicitly spelled out in the contract. I can't be 'disciplined' or pressured as an employee can; I don't deal with organisational politics and glass ceilings and restructures anymore. I am, let's face it, much better positioned in most ways to weather the storms of the changing world of work than most. And yet. And yet. I still sense the emptiness at the heart of the project sometimes, and it darkens me, at least for a while. How much worse must it be for those whose skills are less idiosyncratic and (possibly temporarily) in demand?

I think about this a lot for my daughters and the lives they'll live. I wonder if I am part of the last generation for which paid work will be able to serve as a shorthand for "who I am and what I'm worth" - and I think that if so, that might be a good thing, if painful to achieve. For us, it might be too late to fully detach from the hegemony of work, not just materially, but psychologically. Perhaps by the time my daughters are old women, though, the dolphins' attitude might be seen as the best one.