We all know that most Canadians are polite. I now know why. They sublimate their fury. Canadians drive like enraged Mongols. They walk through public places like they were electrons pinging around in a supercollider. I can only confirm that’s true for the ones in Montreal, of course, and only for some of them, but evidence is evidence.
Our hotel in Montreal sits next to the largest mall in Quebec. I mean I could spit on it from my window if I wanted to, and if my window opened. I was surprised, since I had only been looking for a reasonable rate at a hotel that was still inside Quebec. We had gotten into town right in the middle of the Montreal evening rush hour that lasts from 2:00 p.m. to 7:00 p.m. We were tired and snippy, and we just wanted to eat something cheap and fast, then go to bed.
At the mall I realized that only one in fifty or so Canadians is overweight. I now know why. Fast food at the largest mall in Quebec was not a double cheeseburger with super-size fries. It was a small bowl of tortellini that cost the same as a double cheeseburger with super-size fries. I wasn’t getting the same dollar to calorie ratio that I do at home, but I didn’t feel cheated. I felt kind of smug and superior. I drove around and cut people off in traffic for a while, and all the nastiness went away.
These Legos have nothing to do with anything except I saw them in the mall and thought they were cool. The Midgard Serpent is just out of frame to the left.
I’ve learned how to derive an extraordinary amount of self-esteem from washing dishes and scooping cat litter. That’s because we unemployed people have to seize our ego-boosts wherever we find them. Folding laundry may not seem like something to celebrate, but after a certain number of fruitless job applications your self-image is dragging behind you like toilet paper on your shoe.
Like every good 21st Century American, I wrap a lot of my identity up in my occupation. Everybody does to some degree. You’re a teacher, he’s a bricklayer, she owns a frozen yogurt store. That’s who you are. Even a crack dealer can say to himself, “Hey, I sell crack. I sell people something they want until they die sprawled in the gutter with antifreeze and rat shit.” He has an identity.
It may take me some time to find work, because my skills are rather eclectic. I don’t want to get specific, but by way of analogy it’s as if I were a great fry cook, a fine goat farmer, and a pretty good loan shark. I’d need to find a bookie operating out of a greasy diner that serves gourmet goat steaks, raised on the premises because you can’t trust a commercially produced goat. Only in that environment could my full range of skills be employed.
During this jobless time I’m leaning a bit on my identity as a writer, but that’s been battered by a recent salvo of rejection notices, leaving my writer image structurally unsound at the moment. Some of the rejections said nice things about my work, but they all ended with the familiar phrase, “not for me.”
However, I’m tempted to write an etiquette guide for the unemployed. There’s a real need. For example, when you go to a party or funeral or something, people will ask, “What do you do?” Kicking that person in the knee is bad manners, especially if the dearly departed is nearby. What’s the proper response?
You could say, “I’m looking for a job.” It’s direct and truthful. But there are only two responses. Your questioner could raise his eyebrows before saying something sympathetic that fails to conceal his searing contempt. Or he might ask what kind of job you’re looking for. That leads to an awkward conversation about goats and loan sharking that goes nowhere good or even tolerable. Forget that.
You could lie. You might say, “I’m a hedge-fund manager.” That’s perfect because no one knows what it is, but it sounds good and people know you make lots of money while screwing everyone on the planet, including orphans and kittens. Or you could say, “I create computer icons. Every time you start up Internet Explorer, I get a penny.” These lies are pretty satisfying, but two minutes on Google will reveal your prevarication, and then you’ll look like a bigger loser than ever.
The appropriate response to the, “What do you do?” question is a combination of the truth and a lie. You first say, “I’m looking for a job.” Then, as your interrogator raises his eyebrows in snide sympathy, you show a smile that implies someone’s given you a puppy that drools 30 year-old whiskey. You add, “I have enough savings to go two or three years before I have to get a job, so I’m taking my time and being selective.” Just watch as envy devours every bit of his face. That is how to handle that question.
We unemployed folk face a lot of similarly awkward social encounters. How to get people to take you to restaurants you can’t afford and not look like a deadbeat. Creating believable and marginally truthful business cards even though you don’t work for a business. Managing social media statuses so that you don’t appear to be a hobo. Yes, writing a book about unemployment etiquette is just what I need to pump up my self-esteem. I only need a title:
Jobless but Genteel: You may lose your job, but you can keep your dignity.
Quick, count the number of computing devices within six feet of you right now. For me, that number is four. It would be five if I counted the laser printer, which does contain more computing power than Apollo 11. But there’s really only one criterion when determining whether a device deserves to be called a computer–can you play Solitaire on it?
Here’s a peek at my office:
How did it come to this? I remember the day I got a pager. It seemed like science fiction, just one step away from having a Star Trek communicator three inches above my left nipple. I thought, “No matter where I go, now they can always reach me. My life won’t be worth living.”
My life was still worth living, at least most of the time, but I had no more excuses for not coming when my bosses called me. I was like a circus tiger perpetually crouched on a pedestal. I couldn’t rest because the jump-through-a-flaming-hoop command might come at any moment. It’s an imperfect analogy, since I was unable to leap onto the VP of Marketing and bite his face off, although if I’d been able I feel certain I’d have done it.
Cell phones made this worse. Suddenly I couldn’t dawdle before I answered a page, pretending I was at the movies or in church. When the phone rang someone was right there on the other end demanding that I talk to them immediately no matter what I was doing. I could have let it go to voice mail, but nothing curdles my happy face like sitting on an un-checked voice mail that I suspect won’t be much fun to listen to. Might as well answer the damned call and get the misery out of the way.
I perform at a themed festival set about 500 years before cell phones were invented. It seems like half our paying customers are on their phones at any particular moment. I have to treat those phones as something other than cell phones. So, I tell people they have enormous, hideous leeches pressed to the side of their head, sucking out their brains. No one’s ever been offended. Almost everyone has laughed. Lots of people have voiced their sincere agreement with my premise.
Cell phones are wonderful devices that we cherish, and upgrade, and trick out with Lady Gaga ring tones, but on some level we despise them. They chain us to those who would steal the minutes of our irreplaceable lives.
I love computers though. I remember the day I bought my first computer, and I remember the day I first built a computer. I remember the day I swore I’d never build another computer because a Japanese assembly line could build them cheaper than I could buy the parts. There’s nothing bad about computers. Except that they enable our own poor judgement to steal the minutes of our irreplaceable lives. I go on the internet to look for shoes, and five hours later I’m staring at animated, dancing muskrats in fishnet stockings singing “The Boys Are Back In Town.” I don’t remember how I got there. If I did, I might not be able to stand the shame.
Now all the devices have been combined. Every cell phone has Solitaire. You can make phone calls from your computer. Each device links you to people and information all over the world. Each device enables you and every person in the world to waste your time like your life was just an all-you-can-eat buffet with endless shrimp fried rice.
If all this new-fangled modern computing is like Star Trek come to life, I’d like to report that it has great promise but is somewhat flawed. I’d expect better from an advanced, utopian society that seems to have no problem with inter-species sex. Maybe we should have started with different technologies, like those steaks that pop out of the walls.
Photo by Josh Semans. www.flickr.com/photos/joshsemans