My Career Sign

October 29, 2009

I’m on the Unemployment Roadshow because I have no idea what I want. Embarrassing to admit, but true. But sticking to the search is tough. I have to continually resist temptation to find a job for the sake of having one–even if it’s totally wrong for me. Because I grew up believing that to be a good person, you have to work. And I’m from a small town where refusing a job meant you were a fool. It’s against my every instinct to not pounce on any online posting that comes my way. So I fight it. But I also find myself seeking other paths of least resistance. And for me one of these false idols is career testing.

Before embarking on the Roadshow, I filled in the petals of my flower diagram. I filled out charts on the pink pages. I answered multiple multiple choice and true or false questions. I discovered my Myers Briggs initials. I made lists and decision matrices. And each time I took a test or did an exercise, there was a tiny glimmer of hope that the results would deliver an epiphany and reveal my perfect job.

Recently, I took one that promised to match my professional strengths and interests to potential careers. I was excited–this was more than just personality type and communication styles. I was going to get automated, and relatively effortless, results. (The tiny glimmer of hope was doing a booty shake in excitement.) Based on my responses to a few hundred questions, a computer was going to tell me what job I was best suited for. Kind of like in Sci-Fi movies when teens come of age and are told what career they will forever hold…but wait, those don’t usually end well…

The Results
So my number one result: Delegative Manager.

So I should be the boss. That’s cool. But boss of what? And how do I go about applying for the position of boss? Should I call up offices and ask if they are looking for someone to run their company? My rationale being “A computer system somewhere thinks I’m qualified.”? Thinking that might not go over so well.

The next profession that came in a tight second? Lawyer. I think my mother would say I scored high as a lawyer because I like to argue and talk back. (Actually, that’s what she did say.) But I’m not keen on going to school for that long, at least not without having tried out the job. Plus I suck at the logic problems in crossword puzzle books. So that’s out.

And profession number three that came in a close third? (Photo finish necessary) Artistic Career. Hmm…kinda vague.

My Career Zodiac Sign
Again, no epiphany. After all the testing and assessments, I feel like I’ve ended up with a description of a career Zodiac sign more than anything else. And I don’t put too much clout into Astrology. In fact, I have a friend who wrote horoscopes for a small local paper. (now defunct) He used to make them up.

I don’t believe my self-assessments are total baloney. Because there is definitely merit to knowing thyself. I get it. But, like horoscopes or Zodiac signs, I do think they are ambiguous and general enough that you can pull out the elements that relate to you, and disregard the ones that don’t.

Career Gemini:
You are a people person. You are at ease with groups, sociable, and outgoing, although you sometimes avoid close personal ties. Be wary of being distant, Gemini! You are an excellent communicator and motivator. You wow others through persuasion and insight. That brain of yours likes to innovate and create. You’re a conceptual and theoretical thinker, driven by designing and planning. You are understanding and insightful when it comes to the feelings of others. But be mindful of tension between you and co-workers who are overly concerned with their self-worth. Gemini, you’re an adapter–you possess an above average resilience to change, but can be impatient and annoyed at delays. Be careful when stressed, as you can become dominating, argumentative, and distracted. You don’t like unnecessary rules and when they are imposed tend to make you over-emphasize independence and too eager to blaze trails. On the other hand, you approach any task given to you with energy, flexibility, and creativity. You seek variety, novelty, challenge, and diversity. Your most compatible employment signs are those that are aggressive and enthusiastic.

Gemini colours: Blue and Green
Communication style: Direct
Work values: Collegiality, creativity, independence
Life Pursuit: Boss, lawyer, starving artist

Does it describe me? In many ways it does. But does it give me what I need to put an end to my search? Not so much. I’m reluctantly realizing that these false idols of mine are just tools. They aren’t going to answer the big questions for me. They’re just going to point me in the right direction. They’ve helped me become more self-aware of my employment strengths and weaknesses. I understand my work and communication styles. And I have recognized qualities and skills that I took for granted, which I can now use to promote and better sell myself. But I think I have to keep on rolling with the Roadshow if I’m going to figure out what I really want.


The Stock Market

October 23, 2009

“My money’s on the red shorts. Who’s in?” Ryan asked as he slammed $0.50 onto Laurence’s desk.

Laurence jumped from his office chair and reached into his jean pocket.

“I’ll take a piece of that,” he replied. “Even odds on the white shorts.”

We turned to watch one of the many T.V. screens suspended in the corners of the office. It was tuned to TSN. And it was airing a table tennis match.

It was a slow day on the stock market.

They were bored. It was a Friday before a long weekend and not much was happening. Little was selling. Little was being bought. And they were missing the thrill of the gamble. So they created their own. Ryan and Laurence watched eagerly as their players rallied the ball back and forth across the ping pong table. They cheered raucously when their player scored a point. There was trash talking. Manhoods were questioned. Preferences and tastes were taunted. And like the language of the kitchen, it would make an HR director run screaming. Their excitement attracted a small crowd as other brokers turned to watch the action. It was game point. Red shorts nailed his serve flawlessly and sent White Shorts into a futile dive for the ball. The game was over. Ryan victoriously swept up his winnings.

From across the office, a voiced boomed: “Here we go. Here we go. Here we go.”

Everyone dashed to their computers. Hands were poised to pick up the phone. Breath was held. Eyes were intent on the climbing stock keen to see if it would rise enough to make a significant profit. It didn’t.

People flipped their monitors back to the quote screen, which displayed rows of numbers and letters, each row representing the current value of a stock. The numbers on the screen flipped and changed. Some rows were in red. Others in green. (Which is the preferred colour.) The information displayed looked like the Matrix but with an expanded vocabulary. My mentor for the day, Laurence Bucca, clicked on a chart to show me the stock’s trajectory. He explained the stock’s pattern and how the tops and bottoms (the peaks and valleys) on the graph could indicate what would happen next. It was demonstrating what’s called a rising flag pattern–each day the top of the stock stops at the same value. It won’t break above it. But each day the bottom rises a bit, hitting a higher bottom than it did the day before. Visually, the chart looks like a flag. With this pattern, Laurence can get a good sense of when the top will break and start to climb. But of course, nothing is a sure thing.

Grow a Pair
Before each roadshow gig, I research the job or the company I’m about to work for. I read up on the organization. I check out trends in the industry. I dig up what I can find on the employees. But for this roadshow stop, I also decided to look for a little inspiration. I figured if I was going to be a stockbroker, I should grow a pair. (metaphorically speaking, of course.) I wanted to awaken inside myself something cut throat and unscrupulous. So I watched Wall Street, the 1987 Oliver Stone film starring Michael Douglas. Sure there’s a lesson in morality at the end, but the best part of the film is the unapologetic swagger and sleazy corporate cowboy confidence of Bud Fox and Gordon Gekko doing their modern day (or I suppose, eighties) version of raiding and pillaging.

This film is not an accurate representation of stockbrokers. Most brokers are not unethical, lawbreaking scumbags cheating, lying, and swindling to turn a quick $100G. I’m sure there are some out there that fit that description. But it’s not the majority. And not at all who I met on my day as a broker. Quite the contrary. The brokers I met work hard. They do research. They obsessively follow stocks. They do things legally. They have ethics and compliance departments to ensure everything is done by the book. And in Vancouver, they get up early. The market opens at 9:30 am Eastern Standard Time, which is 6:30 am here. So late nights out with easy women, cigars, and single malts are not on the agenda.

Bull and Bear
They also don’t have ridiculous slick hair dos (much to my chagrin) or wear power suits. At least not in the office I was in. The majority of the brokers and traders were dressed in jeans or khakis. Most of them looked like they could be selling World Music CDs. But appearances aside, they do know money. And in economic climates like the one we experienced from last October to this March, they don’t panic like the general public tends to. They’ve seen it before. Many times before. Just like the current bull market (yes, we’re in a bull market) has its opportunities and advantages, so did this past bear market. Bear markets don’t have as many big win days that are charged with elation and adrenaline. But they still happen.

Unfortunately, my day in the office wasn’t a big win day. But it wasn’t a lose day either. So it gave Laurence time to explain how the system worked and what everything meant. And to my surprise, I understood it. Laurence seemed convinced that I could be a pretty successful broker. Gekko and Fox’s cavalier and confidence must have rubbed off on me. And maybe I could be a decent broker, but the accountability would eat me up. Being responsible for losing people’s money, because no matter how good you are it still happens, would keep me up at night and make me miserable. I couldn’t forgive myself if I lost a client $1,000, let alone $10,000 or $100,000. And I don’t think it’s regular practice among stockbrokers to send “I’m sorry” cards or bake cupcakes when they lose a client’s money, which I would feel compelled to do.

The day was coming to an end. Only a few more minutes before the market closed and it was slowing down even more. Ryan sauntered back over to Laurence’s desk. He glanced up to the T.V. This time it was Tennis. “Want to raise the stakes a bit?” he asked, pulling out a dollar. This time I lept from my chair, pulling a Loonie from my pocket. I may not be cut out for making or breaking people’s wealth, but this type of gamble I could take.

“You’re on,” I said slamming my dollar down on the desk.

Note: In order to work a day as a stockbroker, I was required to sign a non-disclosure agreement. (And of course, I was not permitted to actually do any trading or see any client information.) To protect the best interests of the firm and its clients, I have chosen to not mention its name, and have changed the names of the brokers I worked with. Sensitive stuff, this money business! However, if you want to get in touch with the gentleman I worked with, I would be happy to pass on your information. Just email me.

My mentor: Jason Potter
My mentor’s details: Transportation Planner, Bunt and Associates

A few years ago, I wrote a souvenir coffee table book on Los Angeles. In the course of my research, I was amazed by the amount of traffic factoids that I came across. I suppose it’s no surprise that L.A. and traffic are synonymous. But the tidbit that I found most interesting was the story of A.W. Ross. In the 1920s, Ross developed the stretch of Wilshire Boulevard that is now known as Miracle Mile. What was so special about this little stretch of road? What made it miraculous? For the first time, the area was developed to accommodate and attract automobiles, not pedestrians. The sidewalks were narrowed. The streets widened. Left turn lanes were created. So were timed traffic lights. Even the businesses lining the streets were redesigned to attract cars. Stores were required to provide parking spaces. Storefronts and signs were refashioned to be seen through windshields and at driving speeds instead of walking speeds. This stretch of road, which had previously been a dirt track, became the model for the linear downtown that now exists throughout most of North America. The European template that focused on wide-open, pedestrian only squares and boulevards never had a chance. It became all about the car.

When he first started, a lot of people thought Ross’ plan was crazy. They thought he would fail. I wish he had. I know it’s probably naive to think that another developer wouldn’t have just sprung up in his place, but I wish that the redesign that fueled, and still fuels our car-obsessed society had never happened. I’m not anti-car. But I am pro-pedestrian. And it’s a point of contention with me that Canadian city centers don’t have more pedestrian only spaces for people to congregate. That each neighbourhood doesn’t have a small square lined with food markets, cafés, bars, and shops where old ladies in black dresses sit on park benches gossiping while barefooted kids play soccer. Okay, I clearly spent too much time in Europe this summer. But I think it’s a legitimate pipe dream.

The Pedestrian’s Champion
With this car bias in mind, when I started my day as a transportation planner, I figured it would be all about the auto. That, like Ross, transportation planners existed to facilitate the needs of drivers and their vehicles. But I was mistaken. Because it turns out that they are actually the pedestrian’s champions. When they make assessments and recommendations on urban development, they first consider the needs of the walkers, then cyclists, then public transit, and finally, the cars. At least, that’s how the planner I was shadowing, Jason Potter, sees it.

Jason works for Bunt and Associates, which is a transportation planning and consulting firm that helps developers get the green light for their projects. Here’s how it works: When a developer, business, or an organization wants to make a structural change to their facility, or build something brand new, they have to apply for a city permit. Before the city will approve the application, it needs to know, among many things, whether or not the transportation network surrounding the area can accommodate the change. Developers hire the services of firms like Bunt to provide this assessment. Then planners, like Jason, go in to carefully study the existing needs and conditions of the area and produce a report on how the development will affect the community. This report is then submitted to the city.

Counting cars
To create the report requires a lot of data collection. And that means getting outside and counting cars, pedestrians, parking spots, bus stops, cyclists, and more. For bigger projects, Jason will put together a team of counters to collect the data. The day I joined him, he was working on a smaller project, and in an effort to keep costs down for his client, he was doing the counting himself.

Of course it was pouring rain. But in Vancouver, that represents an average day. And data collection needs to be done on an average day to best represent traffic patterns. So conditions were perfect. We combed the streets block-by-block counting, and then did it again every fifteen minutes. At peak times for passenger pick up and drop off at the intended development site, we paid special attention to any increased vehicle or pedestrian traffic coming in and out of the building. And did more counting.

This was just the first step in data collection for Jason’s report. He would then work with an architect to establish things like whether or not the proposed change would affect access for trash collection or emergency vehicles. He would also discern if it was necessary to make changes to the existing infrastructure, such as converting parking spots to a designated passenger pick up and drop off area. While examining all of the data, he would first put the best interests of the pedestrian into consideration before making his recommendations.

After four hours of collecting data, we were done. We were drenched and cold, but we were also intimately familiar with the transportation flow of the area. And this chilly discomfort seemed a small price to pay to ensure we were looking out for the best interests of the walkers, the cyclists, the bus riders, and lastly, the drivers.

I do wish Jason had been around in A.W. Ross’ day. Maybe if he had, our existing city plans wouldn’t be dictated by the automobiles. Maybe cities across North America would be a pedestrian’s paradise, free from traffic congestion, exhaust, and angry drivers. But of course, this is just wishful thinking. It is reassuring to know, though, that as our cities grow and evolve, that there is a profession that puts pedestrians first, even if it is only one development at a time.

My Mentor: Andrew Petrozzi
My Mentor’s Details: Staff Reporter, Business in Vancouver; Editor, Employment Paper

I imagined a lot of smoke and whiskey. And way more yelling. I obviously watch too many movies, because before experiencing it first hand, my fantasy of a news pit was a chaotic room with people dressed in black suits and skinny ties wielding long cigarettes and highballs. I was way off. Because it’s 2009 not 1952. While most of my mental picture was entirely unrealistic, I did expect the environment to be bustling. And in this, I was spot on. Business in Vancouver‘s news pit was busy and abuzz with the energy and ideas of its staff.

Reporter is a profession that has been romanticized countless times in novels, film, and television. (I’m a perfect example of someone who’s been taken in by this.) But it reappears in our entertainment media for good reason. The news is exciting, compelling, and essential to society. And reporters work really hard to make sure this is true. They dig, explore, prod, poke, research, and investigate to discover the latest, most relevant, and most interesting stories to communicate to the greater public. They certainly don’t make the news. But they work hard to find it.

Not a dull boy
I’ll confess another misconception: I thought business news might be a bit dull, or at least duller than other news. Because when reading the newspaper, the finance section is my last stop. I skim over it quickly, and if in a rush, I sometimes don’t even bother clicking on it. But my short tenure at Business in Vancouver showed me how wrong I was. Because business news IS interesting. It’s not just numbers and investments. It’s also about people and relationships and risks and adventures. This may seem like a naive realization, but my focus tends to be on food, politics, and the arts, and sometimes a busy schedule necessitates I’m selective in what I read. I know I’m not alone in this. But after job shadowing a business reporter, my news consumption habits have changed.

My mentor for the day was Andrew Petrozzi. Andrew’s a staff reporter for Business in Vancouver, and editor of the Employment Paper. He’s worked at BIV for more than four and a half years. And what he loves about his job? No day is ever the same. Each day holds something new: an exclusive interview to chase, a story to break, a shady business venture to expose.

Much like my day as a line cook, an extra set of hands on a newspaper do not go to waste. As a deadline driven industry, there is a ton to do. I was asked to write the “People on the Move” section, which highlights recent hires, fires, and retirements in Vancouver. It’s not a complicated section. But most of the information is buried in emails and has to be extracted and rewritten and then double checked. Writing it took most of the day. It was straight forward work. And by no means hard-hitting journalism. But it proved to be a great resource for the Roadshow. Because part of my motivation for doing this is to learn about what kind of jobs are out there. And the “People on the Move” section is essentially a big list of jobs and it comes out every week. It’s a good tool for the Roadshow, but it’s also great for people looking for new work. Because it lists what jobs have recently become available, and in turn, which companies might be hiring. In fact, the entire paper is helpful for job seekers. It features industry trends, mergers, new directions, and endeavors that companies are taking on. It gives job seekers an inside scoop about potential employees and companies that isn’t found in an online job posting.

Writing my small section wasn’t exactly breaking a story that would expose a corrupt industry or take down any world leaders, but I did get to contribute to the action. And while I didn’t play out my personal Investigative Reporter fantasty–which would have involved butting out a smoke (even though I don’t) while I swirled a glass of whiskey, and signed my name to a Pulitzer prize winning headline–I did get a glimpse of the excitement and charge that buzzes through the office of a newspaper.

Lookin’ good

October 10, 2009

My Mentor: Kyla Day
My Mentor’s details: Freelance Designer and Developer

Looking good isn’t easy. Sure, there are a few natural beauties that can spring out of bed perfectly quaffed–every strand of hair in place, looking dewy fresh with breath smelling like hibiscus and roses. But I’m guessing most people’s blank palette is closer to mine–roll out of bed with hair that could be mistaken for a glam band from the eighties, pillow wrinkles on the cheek, a faint stream of dried drool on the chin, and breath that makes you wonder where the cat came from that defecated in your mouth some time during the night. It requires some effort to transform that into something even remotely attractive.

And this doesn’t apply to just people. Making things look good also takes a lot of work. More than most people realize. And this is particularly poignant with the everyday things we see. Websites. Newspapers. Magazines. Logos. Brands. Books. Blogs. And who is responsible for all this hard work? For keeping print and web from looking like this? Graphic designers. These often unsung heroes are responsible for preventing the assault on our senses and infusing art into our daily lives. They give so much to our visual world and we don’t even realize it: order, beauty, simplicity, vibrancy. And unlike a visual artist, who gets to dictate their own vision or inspiration, a graphic designer has to answer to someone. They have to fulfill the needs of a client or a boss or a board. And that’s tough. Because most people have no clue what they want until they see something they don’t want.

The Language of Tact
So a designer needs to gently coax out the desired direction from their client and lead them to an appropriate aesthetic. It’s harder than it sounds. And usually requires figuring out what a client needs and not necessarily what they say they want. After a lengthy discussion intended to decipher these needs, a designer then visually translates it, and hopes that she creates something that is both effective and pleases the client. Since mind reading is not an option, designers have to speak a lot of different languages, and perhaps the most important is the language of tact. Because a surprising number of people like ugly design. Or at least they think they do, until a professional gives them something better.

For this leg of the Roadshow, I got to witness a designer in action: Kyla Day. Kyla’s been a designer for ten years and a freelancer for the past year. Her clients range from political parties to musicians to doctors to marketing firms. On the day I shadowed her, she was doing a layout for a friend’s blog. And as usual, her client had no idea what she wanted.

For this particular client, Kyla didn’t get to go through her usual routine of research and questions. It was a rush job. And the client claimed to not care what it looked like, as long as it was ‘cool’. According to Kyla, this lack of direction usually doesn’t forebode well. While it sounds like free-range artistic license, it usually just means more work to try and decipher what exactly it is the person unwittingly desires.

Indecisive and Difficult
Kyla had put together three thumbnails, each representing a visual direction the blog could take. I sat in on the meeting where she pitched the looks. Normally, Kyla would organize a more formal encounter but since this was a rush job for a friend, things were more casual. But certainly not any easier. As soon as the client looked at the designs, it was clear she was going to be difficult. She was enthusiastic about them all. But unwilling to commit. She waffled. Back and forth. Twenty minutes passed. Still indecisive. She turned to Kyla for advice. “Which one do you like?” she asked. Instead of choosing for her, Kyla diplomatically and patiently pointed out the strengths and weaknesses of them all. It was clear the client was in agony. She was wrought with worry because choosing meant committing to something that would become her brand, her visual representation, her face to the online world.

After another 15 minutes of flipping back and forth Design Two was rejected.

Design Two

Design Two

Another 15 minutes: Design One was rejected.

Design One

Design One

But with conditions. The client wanted to combine parts of Design One into Design Three.

Design Three

Design Three

Revisions are more work than you would expect. It’s not a simple click of the mouse. It’s labour intensive. It takes time. Some changes, regardless of how minor they seem, might involve hours of work to achieve. But Kyla maintained her calm and professional manner at the requests. At this stage in the design, revisions are expected and encouraged. And can be done quickly. It’s when the client begins making revisions to the revisions that things get sticky.

Again, because the client was a friend, things didn’t follow the normal course of action. Kyla would usually take the client’s feedback and then rework the design on her own. But in this case, the client sat in on and directed the changes. But since she didn’t know what she wanted, her directions were vague and indecisive. She made suggestions and then second guessed herself. She wanted things changed back, and then changed again.

“I’m just not sure about the colours,” she said. “What if we change the yellow?”

“And maybe a different font?”

“Okay, no. I like the yellow.”

“I’m not sure. Which one do you like?”

“I hate the yellow. Can we change it?”

Design Four

Design Four

After an hour the original thumbnail was no longer recognizable. It was amazing to watch the transformation. Kyla created something brand new from the ambiguous suggestions. She had managed to piece together the client’s cloudy vision and give her not only exactly what she wanted, but also what she needed to look good.

Looking good isn’t easy. But with a professional’s artistic eye, even a pillow-wrinkled, drool-covered mess can emerge into something attractive and dewy-fresh.

Final Design

Final Design

To contact Kyla Day, you can email her or check out her website at

Day 1: My life on the line

October 2, 2009

My mentor: Kristine Kittrell
My mentor’s details: A chef with 10-years experience in the kitchen. Also happens to be my sister
Office/Organization/Business: A four diamond restaurant in Austin, Texas
Catch phrase: colourful language, but heard with frequency “F*ck a duck.”

‘It’s hot, noisy, and the pay is shit. But you do it because you love it,’ said Dave, the line cook standing next to me. Dave was working the grill, flipping a recently killed soft shell crab for a crab and bibb lettuce salad. I had been the harbinger of death for the little guy–mercilessly hacking off its head and penis with a huge cleaver. It still twitched with its last pangs of life while grilling to perfection.

This was day one of the unemployment roadshow. I had jumped feet first into the kitchen fire as a line chef at a four-diamond restaurant. And I was nervous as all hell. I had seen the battle wounds on my sister’s hands and forearms–the scars and burns mapping out the menu of her career. I didn’t know much about working in a professional kitchen, but I did know that it was hot, fast-paced, loud, and dangerous. For someone who is regularly soft-spoken, slow moving, and clumsy, this didn’t seem like a likely pairing.

The Piracy
Anthony Bourdain once likened the kitchen to a pirate ship. It’s such an apt description. It’s hot. Space is economized. People cuss. People drink. They wield sharp knives and bang around hot metal objects. They break the rules. When things go to all hell, they call it being ‘in the weeds’. And there is a strong sense of camaraderie that these people are in it together. They even look like pirates. They have lots of tattoos and wear bandanas and loose-fitted pants perfect for squash buckling. And the topics of conversation would make a Human Resources Director faint. The most colourful from the evening was an argument regarding what the term Spiderman-ing meant. I won’t elaborate, but it was sexual and nasty.

Of course, kitchens vary from restaurant to restaurant. Some are run militantly, with no allowance for tomfoolery or nonsense. Others are a den of mischief. My sister came home from one job to tell me she had been waterboarded. It had been a slow day so the chefs decided to do it to one another just to see what it felt like. Another kitchen she worked in allowed almost no interaction during dinner service and every morning they had to polish their cookware and plates with gin. Any screw ups, even the slightest in nature, involved a violent 20-minute reeming from the chef de cuisine. Kitchens also have to constantly adapt to deal with whatever crisis is thrown at them. And there are many. Walk-ins break. Dishwashers stop working. Pipes burst. One shift, my sister and her fellow chefs all had to stand on stacks of cardboard boxes because the floor was flooded with an inch of water. But meals still get sent out. And a successful restaurant will ensure that the diners have no clue as to the chaos that ensues on the other side of those swinging doors. Much like the occupants of a passenger cruiser unaware of the advancing band of marauding pirates, the patrons eat in ignorant peace.

The Guillotine
Since I was job-shadowing, I expected to do just that. Shadow. Stand out of the way and watch the culinary mastery unfold. Not a chance. The kitchen was keen to have an extra set of hands, regardless of how blundering and inexperienced they were. I was immediately put to work on a mandolin slicing potatoes for the pomme frites. Mandolins are terrifying. They look like a miniature horizontal guillotine with multiple blades. Chefs make them look easy, like they will save a homecook hours of labour. But they are really instruments of torture designed to remove flesh and bone from the user’s hand. And like all blades in a professional kitchen, they are extremely sharp. This one was missing its safety. The only protection between my hand and the razor sharp row of blades was a flimsy terry cloth rag. I had horrible visions of my fingers julienned, but managed to push through the ten pounds of potatoes without drawing first blood.

From there I was given a list of tasks: slow roast the tomatoes (which I burned), de-membrane and blanche the sweetbreads (de-what the what?), peel the sunchokes (the what chokes?), stack the sheet pans of blanched pomme frites in the walk-in (stack the what where?). I had no idea what I was being told to do. It was spoken in a language that was foreign to my non-chef ears. And there was no time for explanations or demonstrations. Everyone was busy setting up their mis-en-place–preparing the ingredients they would need to cook the foods assigned to their station. They moved with efficiency, precision, and confidence to get the seemingly insurmountable list of things done by only four people. Without explicit instruction, I somehow managed to stay out of the way and still get through my list of duties–with the exception of the tomatoes that were so slow roasted they resembled astronaut’s food.

My last prep task was to scrub and debeard an 18kg bucket of mussels. It took forever. Their beards are securely attached and often have to be pried off with an ice pick. And they are covered in sharp, impossible to remove barnacles that leave tiny razor cuts all over your fingers. It’s a crap job and one that’s given to the person at the bottom of the kitchen hierarchy, which was me. I felt like I had been told to swab the deck.

The Hot Oil
After four hours of prep, dinner service started. I was given a 2-minute lesson on how to use the deep fryer and was assigned it as a station. I was responsible for cooking all the deep fried items on the menu. And since the restaurant’s signature dish was deep fried oysters, I was busy. The deep fryer is scarier than the mandolin. It holds almost 20 litres of boiling hot oil–190 degrees Celsius to be exact–just waiting to indiscriminately crisp, bubble, and burn whatever slips into its golden bath. But I didn’t have much time to conjure up the worst-case-scenarios involving me and the vat of bubbling oil. I had too much to do. Before I could get one order into the buttermilk, then flour and then into the grease, I had yet another order called out to me from across the kitchen. There was no time to think or do anything but fry. Soon my grease vat was full. Four orders of oysters. A rabbit confit. Three kids of potatoes. A dozen anchovy-stuffed olives. The hot pantry cook called for her pomme frites. The executive chef called three new orders of oysters. The cold pantry chef was demanding her olives. A barrage of ‘need’, ‘now’, ‘what’s the hold up?’s were slewed at me. Waiters hovered impatiently.

Before I could toss myself into the grease to end it all, Sarah, the pastry chef, showed up. She slipped in, refilled my vats of buttermilk and flour, tossed some pomme frites in sea salt and then slipped away again before I could shower her with my gratitude. But I had a feeling this was just what cooks do–they look out for one another so the whole operation can run smoothly. Sarah didn’t just help me because I was the new guy; it was because I was for that day, part of their crew. With just that little extra help, I was back on track. I got the food fried and delivered. I could yell back with confidence that the orders were up and ready.

Cooking attracts all sorts–restaurant cooks are a motley crew of illegal aliens, former lawyers and doctors, transients, teens, ex-cons, foodies. But while their backgrounds might be diverse, they take care of one another. Teamwork is crucial to their success. But with that loyalty also comes an equally fervent revenge when betrayed. One of my sister’s co-workers, who did a no-show for a busy weekend shift, found all of his belongings–knives, clogs, and pay cheque–frozen in a solid block of ice as pay back.

By 10 pm, dinner service was done. I was exhausted and covered in a thin layer of grease and flour. But I also felt great. I had successfully cooked food that was served to high-end diners. And no one sent anything back. They bought it–both in cash and opinion. They bought that their ‘signature’ oysters and other deep-fried dishes had been prepared by a trained professional. I felt like I had duped every single one of them, a pirate in my own right, stealing their credibility as discerning diners. It gave me a bravado and a swagger that lasted all night because Day One of my tour was over, and I felt ready to man the helm.

Early retirement.

September 15, 2009

Early retirement. Funemployment. Work holiday. It has many monikers–my favourite being Freedom 35–and I joined its ranks on April 1st. (No fooling.) At first I was shocked, horrified, tearful. I couldn’t believe that I, like so many others, was now a casualty of our economic state. But mostly, I was embarrassed. Because I was good at my job. And I possessed the misconception that only people who were bad at their jobs got laid off. I learned the hard way that this wasn’t true. It was a sad day for my employer to see me go, because I was competent, well-liked, and a hard-worker. But their hands were tied. The decision was driven by the credit crunch.

My first instinct was to find something new, immediately. I was panicked. I had started working when I was 15–serving up popcorn and potato chips at my community pool’s canteen. And I had worked ever since. I had never been unemployed. And in a need to define my self-worth and boost my recently bruised ego through my ability to successfully land another job, I applied for the first one I found on Charity Village. Within a week I had an interview. It was a respectable job with decent pay doing more fundraising for a not-for-profit. It seemed likely that I would be hired. And this prospect alleviated my building sense of dread of being unemployed in a recession.

But as the interview approached, I questioned whether or not I wanted the job or if I even wanted to be a fundraiser. I wondered if applying for the first job I found was just a knee-jerk reaction to my lay off. But, in these tough financial times, it seemed irresponsible to turn down work. I was brought up to believe that to be a good person, you had to be a contributing member of society–and this meant possessing gainful employment. And I grew up in a community in Northern Ontario where work was scarce–people were desperate for employment. Hundreds of people would apply for a single cashier’s position at Tim Horton’s. If you had a job you were one of the lucky ones. And if you turned down a job, you were an idiot.

But I wondered if it was equally foolish to take something just for the sake of having a job. Did I like direct market fundraising? Yes. Did I love it? Hesitation followed by a reluctant no. But it seemed self-indulgent and childish to think loving a job should be criteria for doing it. It just didn’t fit with what my parents raised me to believe: you worked because you had to; if you didn’t work, you were a deadbeat.

My parents were happy with their careers–but both say if they could do it all over again, they would do it differently. My mother would have been an elementary school teacher instead of a nurse. My father would have been a carpenter instead of a teacher. But loving their jobs wasn’t part of the decision matrix when choosing a career. (In fact, the word decision matrix probably wasn’t even part of their vocabulary.) You took a job because the pay was good and you didn’t mind the work. End of story.

It seemed so selfish and Gen-X/Gen-Yish to think I needed to love my work. But it is true that you spend nearly 1/3 of your adult life at work. And people who love their jobs, seem, I don’t know, so happy and productive. But I think the decision for me was made harder by the fact that I didn’t even know what I wanted to do. If I had a clear and defined dream of “I want to be X”, then it would be a no brainer. I would become an X. But I was never one of those kids who knew from age six what I wanted to be when I grew up. As a result, I’ve had a lot of jobs. And a lot of weird jobs. I’ve robbed baby billy goats of their manhood. I’ve lathered my hands in tubs of margarine to pick spruce cones. I’ve taught six-month old Japanese infants how to speak English–or at least I tried. I’ve written books on places I’ve never even set foot in. The list goes on. And I came by most of my employment accidentally–it just fell into my lap or I stumbled upon it and thought, “this might be kind of neat to do”. But now that I’m in my thirties, it seemed a little immature to keep up this employment bouncy castle of haphazardly flailing from one career to the next. I felt by now, I should know what I wanted to do with my life.

So I called the potential employer, thanked them for the opportunity, but told them that I was withdrawing myself from the candidacy. And then I freaked. Because if I wasn’t going to be a fundraiser, what the hell was I going to do? What kind of jobs were even out there? So I made lists. I took aptitude tests. I scoured through career transition guidebooks. All in the hopes that if I looked hard enough, one of these tools would reveal to me what my secret career desire was.

My family was no help. My mother did what she always does and suggested I work for the government or the Olympics. My sister told me to run away to Europe. My father just said, “You’ll figure it out, kid.”

I realized I needed to answer two things: What kind of jobs were available, and what kind of work would I find fulfilling, challenging, stimulating. But how do you answer that question without actually doing the job? And how do you make yourself known to employers when you don’t have experience in their particular field? With the bigger decisions in life, such as buying a car or a house, people shop around to find what best suits them. So I decided to do the same with my job—in a sense, I decided to go on tour, or unemployment roadshow as I like to call it. I’m shadowing people at work to find out what they do, what sort of skills they need to do it, and whether or not it would be a match for me. In a sense, I’m still hopping around in the employment bouncy castle, but this time I’m looking before I leap.

I’ve come up with a few rules for myself to ensure the most diversified Unemployment Roadshow experience possible:

  1. I will do any job I’m invited to do as long as it is legal and doesn’t require me to remove all of my clothing
  2. I will work for any amount time between 1 and 24 hours consecutively.
  3. I will do whatever menial or mundane task that needs to be done (a.k.a. that pile of stuff on the corner of the desk that you’ve put off for weeks or that stack of dishes that needs to be washed) in turn for a 20 minute conversation about your job.
  4. I will work entirely and completely for free.

It’s like a new kind of networking, except with free labour. I’m happily accepting all job invitations here and as I mentioned in rule 1, I will do any job I’m invited to do. It’s kind of like bring your daughter to work day, but it’s bring your 33-year old jobless friend to work instead.