Monday, December 21, 2015

The Working Life - Part 1

As I begin thinking seriously about retirement I have been reflecting back over all the jobs that I have done in my life time. I've done a lot of different things and learned a lot in the process. 

My mother started me in the working life at age 11 by arranging for me to babysit the next door neighbors' infant while they went out for an evening each week. Her intention was to enhance my childcare and nurturing skills, but what she did was created the desire in me to earn money and be financially independent. By the time I was 13, I had multiple regular babysitting gigs that kept me occupied and earning money every weekend. I continued to do babysitting work until I was 30 years old, although in latter years it was primarily only for good friends who were single parents and needed the occasional release time. 

In junior high school (grades 7 and 8) I added five day a week employment in the school cafeteria. The cafeteria paid in free meals, but my parents said that they'd give me the money they would have had to spend on my meals: 35 cents per day.  I worked a total of 2 and a half hours a week and earned $1.75 each week. I also earned small amounts of cash working in the school library filing book cards. 

On my 16th birthday I applied for and received my social security number...this was long before numbers were routinely distributed at birth...and began working for the high school library. The summer between sophomore and junior year, I had my first regular job in the high school library with a time card to punch, minimum wage, taxes and a bi-weekly pay check. I spent my time typing the pockets and cards that went into books for circulation. 

My earning capacity as a babysitter increased after age 16, as I became capable of driving myself to jobs. I had been sewing almost all my own clothes from age 12, now I was able to pay for the fabric and patterns myself, and to purchase other clothing items such as a camel hair coat that were beyond my sewing skills. 

At 17 during the summer between junior and senior year in high school I got a paid position at a two week summer day camp for disabled children at a local park.  It was difficult and stressful, but interesting.

At age 18 I began working for the San Mateo Public Library after school and on weekends. As a "page" I reshelved returned books, and kept the books orderly in my assigned area (the 600's and 700's of the Dewey Decimal system).  I spent 8 months working in the public library until I left home for Oberlin College in Ohio. 

Part of my financial aid package was a part-time job working for the college...we didn't call it "work-study" back then, but that's what it was. I was assigned to be a waitress in a large dining hall that still served "family" style meals where the food had to be carried out to tables, coffee and tea fetched for diners, and dirty plates and glasses removed from the tables.  I was a disaster as a waitress. The first night I worked I dropped two different filled trays of dishes and glasses, breaking nearly everything.  I survived four more months of that job without breaking anything, but it was nerve wracking. I was so pleased when the dining hall shifted to cafeteria style service after Christmas, and I was shifted to stocking and maintaining the salad bar. I continued in the job of "salad girl" in my sophomore year as well. 

I also eagerly substituted for other student workers "sitting bells" which involved answering the central dorm phone and ringing students rooms to alert them to a phone call. I also worked in other cafeterias and other shifts than my own substituting for other students who got sick or had conflicts. I also typed other people's papers for 10 cents a page. My freshman dorm directors were a young couple with a five year old, and I became a regular babysitter for them, plus two other families associated with the college that lived within walking distance of my dorm.  I earned all of my own spending money for books, long distance telephone calls, clothing, laundry and entertainment. In the four years that I was in college I never asked my parents for any money other than the lump sum the college required them to contribute (about $700) at the beginning of year and in my senior year, I actually paid my parents share myself. 

During the two summers after Freshman year and Sophomore year, I returned to California and my parents home, and found a job as a field hand in the commercial horticulture industry growing chrysanthemum plants (not the flowers, just the plants).  For three months each summer, I spent 8 hours a day in steaming, hot greenhouses, picking and planting, getting muddy, and (unfortunately) becoming heavily exposed to pesticides. I learned that the minimum wage for agricultural work was lower than the minimum wage for office/factory work, AND that the minimum wage for female agricultural workers was lower than that for male agricultural workers. My first real awareness of systemic, institutional, and, at that time, legal sexism. I also learned to speak Spanish fluently, as my coworkers were almost all immigrants (both legal and illegal) from Central America and Mexico. 

My junior year in college I became a "floor counselor" (what most schools call an RA or resident adviser), a paid position that was challenging and interesting. I was the sympathetic ear for freshman on my floor and helped settle roommate disputes. I was awaken in the middle of the night for personal crises.  I still did cafeteria work, that year in German House where I picked up a bit of basic German, and I continued regular babysitting jobs for two families that I had been working for since Freshman year. I  also had the opportunity to work as an artist on a mathematics faculty member's project.  The mathematician was attempting to enter what had not yet been labeled "distance learning" by filming his lectures and needed clear, crisp diagrams and equations that would show well on a screen.  It was interesting and it provided me with my first marvelous Koh-I-Noor Rapidograph pens that became my favorite tool for pen and ink drawings for many years. 

Summer after Junior year, I accepted a job as a nanny with a wealthy family in Greenwich, Connecticut, giving me the chance to see a whole new part of the country, and the whole different lifestyle from what I'd grown up within. The job was hard, 12 hour days of child care, and more housework than I had expected. The pay $100 a week plus room and board. I had several opportunities to go into New York City, where I spent almost all my time in art museums and Central Park...NYC was a great place for a person with no money to entertain themselves. 

My final year in college, my employment was as "senior resident", the student head of a college dormitory, who was suppose to be responsible primarily for activity programming and counseling. But due to the last minute retirement of the paid, non-student dorm director, I ended up with management responsibilities that were overwhelming. I stuck it out for five months, then resigned and demanded that the college replace me with two students, so that no one would be stuck with the 24/7 responsibility that had nearly done me in.  

By this point I had such substantial savings so that between my babysitting, substituting for other students in cafeterias and sitting bells I did not need to have another formal work-study job, but I did find informal jobs in the college anyway. I didn't like not working. I spent some time working as a lab assistant for friend who was doing an honors research on the effect of learning on RNA in rats. The research itself was interesting, and it was useful to learn about the various measurement tools and centrifuge. 

My plan for post-graduation was a graduate program in College Student Personnel Administration which carried with it a paid assistantship working in a university student services area such as housing, financial aid, etc. But just before graduation that plan fell through when that university's state legislature cut their funding for assistantships (recession of 1973). So instead I went home to San Mateo, California, and looked for work. Despite the recession, it took only two weeks of looking to land a secretarial position with a small charter airline. They were a do-everything type of operation called a fixed-based operator: their primary business was flying charter flights, but they also sold aviation fuel, had a maintenance operation, a flying school, a parachute school, , and a plane sales division. I started out typing letters and answering phones.  Economic times got tighter, and many employees were let go, but my job expanded.  I learned to do the company's bookkeeping and some accounting work on payroll and taxes.  I learned to wash planes and fuel them. After nine months however, the recession took its toll and the company closed down. 

During this period I took a number of the pen and ink drawings that I had made with my Rapidograph pen and found a printer who would turn those drawings into cards.  Most of the pictures were of buildings at Oberlin College and I entered into an arrangement to sell my cards in the Oberlin College bookstore. I didn't make a lot of money selling the cards, but enjoyed the feeling of being an artistic entrepreneur. 

One of the aviation company's clients immediately hired me to take over as accounts receivable bookkeeper in his small manufacturing business (March 1974). I learned double entry bookkeeping on the job. And learned about the business of headers for automobiles and motorcycles. Not only did I keep the accounts, but I ran the order desk, as car and bike shops around the country called us to order headers. I finally learned what that "duce coup" the Beach Boys sang about really was!

After 6 months of deepening recession, that business too felt the bite.  I moved both on and back to work for the San Mateo Public Library, but this time in the circulation department, where I had the fun of interacting with everyone who checked out books. I was hired as a part-time worker, but because I was hired late in the year (August) they could actually let me work full-time, because I wouldn't accumulate more than the maximum number of hours by December 31. 

And that is all the paid jobs that I did between the age of 11 and 23!  More in future installments. 

The All But Not Quite Most

I  have been a college teacher for 36 years. It has, for the most part, been a very rewarding career. Seeing the faces of students when they "get" something is the biggest "high" in life. Continuing interaction with students in and out of the classroom is very gratifying. Some of my students even became life-long friends. As rewarding as the experience has always been I have still hankered after some formal recognition. I occasionally wished that at least once I could receive a teaching award.  Every college I've worked at has given teaching or faculty awards, and every few years I'd think it would be nice to receive one.  About six months ago, I finally made peace with the idea that I was never going to get a plaque or a certificate and that the only teaching reward I really needed was the intrinsic  positive value that comes from making a true connection with a student. 

Then suddenly a month ago I got an e-mail telling me that my college president wanted to nominate me for a prestigious, state-wide teaching award, one that came with not only a plaque but a significant size check. The downside was that there was a lot of work to be done on the applications - two different essays to write and a detailed accounting of everything I'd done for the past 20 years to demonstrate my commitment to teaching and to life-long learning. I was thrilled just to be nominated. It didn't matter than I was going to be one of a dozen nominees. Just to know that my own college administration acknowledged my contributions was enough. It took me six days to pull together all the materials for the nomination, but once I did, I set the entire matter aside and did not think of it; being nominated was more than enough. 

A couple of weeks later, out of the blue, I receive an e-mail from my college dean issuing me congratulations on winning the teaching award.  Not only did he send these congratulations to me, but he copied them to every single person in our entire five campus college organization.  His congratulations incorporated an entire e-mail conversation from the community college system office and the leadership from other colleges.  As I read over the previous e-mails, it seemed to me that my dean was incorrect, that I had merely been chosen as the community college system's nominee to be forwarded to the state-wide selection committee, not an actual winner of the award. 

I sent some queries back up the hierarchy, wondering if perhaps I was merely a nominee rather than a winner. What I got back restated that I was the "winner" of the award.  I still didn't trust this fully, as the information I had received about the award said in several places that one requirement of a "winner" was to be physically present at the awards ceremony in September, which suggested that the final decision was not announced until that ceremony.  But over the next ten days I was barraged with congratulatory messages from colleagues who had received the initial e-mail. I slowly began to think of myself as a "winner" rather than a nominee - a shift in expectations - and even began to think about ways that we could use the prize money. 

I was still cautious enough not to accept an invitation to do an interview about the award. I explained to the reporter that the award was not official, and that I was uncomfortable doing publicity until I was officially notified. I copied my e-mail to the reporter to the chair of the selection committee in hopes that I might get some clarification of the time table. 

The word I got back was that my caution was warranted. I was indeed a "nominee" for the award - I was my community college system's top nominee, but they were required to send three names to the state organization making the final selection.  So I carefully began to dial back my expectations. By the time that the final decision was made, selecting the third ranked nominee because she taught in a "technical" field, I no longer expected to win. But I was still having to deal with dozens of congratulations from work colleagues as the misinformation of the original announcement spread after the semester started. 

In my personal life catalog 2015 will go down as the year that I almost, maybe, not quite, did not win the teaching award that I had craved for my entire career.

The More Beautiful World Our Hearts Know is Possible

It resonates so strongly for me.

The More Beautiful World Our Hearts Know Is Possible - Charles Eisenstein.

What happens when...

I do not think that the complex, capitalist, industrial society in which we Americans now live is sustainable - neither environmentally, nor socially. Moreover, I believe that it will not be sustained, and that it is already in the process of collapsing (I have been documenting elements of that collapse in my blog Sociological Stew under the heading "Zombie America" for several years). I do not know how long it will take, whether I will live to see a total breakdown in political and economic systems, or whether those will occur more than 25 years from now.

These ideas of decline and collapse form the backdrop to my life these days, and I often find myself worrying about little things;  such as how will we take temperatures of our ill when all the batteries have run down and there are no more factories to make the compact batteries in digital thermometers?  I wonder if anyone have preserved some glass and mercury thermometers somewhere that can be distributed to healers? Will the knowledge of how to make glass and fluid thermometers be retained somewhere.

I understand why people might prefer digital thermometers (less ambiguous to interpret, less risk of breakage and poisoning), but it makes me nervous that one can no longer find mercury and glass thermometers in the stores in my area. It's a technology that, if protected from breakage, can last and continue to be accurate for decades without any energy input.

It's often the smallest things that matter in the long run...