On paper

Everything looks better

Right now, at 3am, I can’t sleep.

I can’t say my body needs it. I’ve been getting over a cold, so I spent the evening napping. I’ve been restless physically and restive emotionally.

It isn’t often I post on personal matters, which is odd when you think about it: this is my personal blog. Social media’s omnipresence, its commodity, compels me to redact my personal life and instead post content which makes a case for my smarts.

But here I am, writing about my personal life.

A consequence of a converged social media reality, in which a digital permanence is no longer elective, is how the totalizing of one’s commodified social media fingerprint constrains the very qualities which realize us as complex beings worthy of a complex presence. We have all been conscripted as products. We, however, are not the product of our digital profile, nor should we be. Yet, we tacitly regulate our profile as a reducible avatar of ourselves, because we know it will be picked through by companies and utter strangers (many who frankly should remain strangers).

Is there any way we can realize ourselves digitally the way we are realized organically (in our carbon-based flesh)? I’m pretty sure there isn’t — between the pressure to produce content which others may want to consume and the pressure to present oneself authentically and consistently. Consistency is the roux which strengthens a brand’s integrity. For a lot of people, realizing oneself digitally can open closed doors, but doing so can close others organically. It’s why I’m sceptical of the singularity, that thing Ray Kurzweil talks about glowingly. The win-win these days is to realize both realms, still separate, on your own terms, provided your terms are desired by people who will want to consume either. Or both.

(Having both tends to happen only when exceptional privileges are present.)

I’m being charitable when I say that 2013 has been difficult. It’s November. I’ve lost seventeen months trying to secure work in my field. I’ve had one callback and only a couple of email rejections. The rest have gone unanswered.

To say this has disrupted how I see myself and my own convertible worth as a commodity of (specialized) labour is to damn the experience with pale candour.

What seventeen months of unemployment does to someone who is no less bound to the demands of paying bills and debts is it forces one to question whether she really knows anything at all; whether she is experienced at all; whether she demonstrates the aptitude to grow at all; whether she is worth anything.

If, she reasons, she was genuinely talented, well-read, and experienced, then by now she would be giving over her commitment, dedication, and labour to an employer who compensates her for these. And if she was truly all of these things, doubled or trebled, then she’d be crafty enough to go her own way and be an entrepreneur.

I am bound to limitations of a work permit granted as a graduate of a Canadian university: the work, if it exists, must be relevant to what I studied if I wish to become a permanent resident. (I do.) This is a constraint, an elective tradeoff I made to make Toronto my home. While I could work elsewhere in Canada (and have applied to postings in other cities), the cost to move exceeds what I can afford. For areas which demand owning a car, that’s another cost beyond my reach (or, frankly, my desire). So those areas aren’t really practicable, either.

On paper, I’m an urban planner with a master’s degree. This doesn’t seem to matter. Even though my degrees were conferred by two of the continent’s most lauded schools, this hasn’t really mattered with my job search.

On paper, I have twelve years of professional experience in marketing and technical communications — as a principal, a manager, and a specialist. This doesn’t seem to matter.

On paper, I seem to be knowledgeable about several disparate subjects — a consummate generalist, as demonstrated by content I compiled for this, my personal web site. I’ve tried being an entrepreneur by selling my own designs as shirts and buttons (total earned in three years: south of $500), and my own photography as numbered prints (total sold: 0).

When I began my planning education, my instructor, Paul Bedford, explained how an urban planner must be a generalist, even as the profession itself is highly specialized and thusly professionalized. Being a generalist fit my breadth of knowledge and experience, so entering planning school to research topics which are important as an urbanist seemed a wise plan.

On paper.

In the last few years, I’ve taken the best strides I know to network locally. I’ve attended public meetings, participated in seminars, have come to know several city councillors, and have spoken on active transportation advocacy.

None of this appears to matter.

When we discuss raw labour figures as a superficial index of macroeconomic health — say, for a city — we disregard that any labour requiring no specialized schooling tends to skew toward the lowest wages. At the same time, we are urged to improve our education or vocational training to specialize our knowledge and skills.

When that education (which is getting much more expensive and inaccessible) ends up being for naught, more of us get pressed from that specialization into generalized labour — these days, the service economy. Worse, when one is coerced into generalized labour, it ends up being insufficient to pay down that debt from seeking higher education.

Seventeen months without work have pressed me into extreme risk-aversion. It has also made me rusty.

I have over $115,000 of student debt — $70,000 of it from planning school. My forbearance ends in three weeks. If I knew in 2008 how I’d not find work as a city planner in a city so direly in need of urban planners (even during the Great Recession, it was a conservative assessment given Toronto’s astonishing rate of growth), I wouldn’t have bothered to apply to planning school. This is my sunk cost. I mustn’t dwell on it.

My aversion to risk dictates what I write about (or whether I decide to write at all). It halts projects — essays, book chapters, manuscripts on Kodachrome Toronto or maybe on intersectionality and geography. These become expensive indulgences. With that, my dream to be a teacher halts along with it.

Whereas before I expressed some confidence with my writing, I’m now terrified to post anything which could make an employer believe I’m completely stupid or that I’ve genuine convictions — especially where social justice is concerned. Social justice work is reduced as a selfish indulgence in this climate — not the hallmark of a loyal employee who will be forever obedient but never bold.

My research on neon lighting; mesh-networked adaptive street-lighting infrastructure; best practices for lighting design; applied intersectionality; urban history; holistic arterial design principles; or designing public spaces which people will actually be excited to use rather than walk past? These lie fallow. Writing on prescriptive labour relationships or on the philosophy of courage won’t happen, either.

Employers claim they want creativity, but they don’t want ideas which would provoke them to do business differently, ways which would benefit both them and a plurality of people — many of them engines of creativity, yet driven to marginalization. Truth: employers are necessarily conservative, even when they brand themselves otherwise.

A well-spoken, blue-haired lesbian woman with a putatively creative mind on her shoulders is not compatible with that brand orthodoxy.

I’ve become risk-averse to volunteering, because volunteering isn’t going to pay my rent or feed me, no matter how dedicated I am. Throwing myself into volunteerships without an income means I’ll end up homeless, when instead I should have been using that time to apply to cold-posted jobs.

I spent my first year after graduation on intensive networking. I found this doesn’t yield results. If one is read as too eager, it makes them appear obsequious. Cold-response applying doesn’t work. At least the latter can be demonstrated in writing should anyone question my commitment.

My aversion to risk disrupts the courage to begin research or take chances on new projects which promise no financial gain. It even includes the act of game-playing — an aversion I’ve tried to break of late by playing a collaborative, social game which gets me out of the house to explore the city (because exploration and observing urban morphologies can be useful in urban planning). I’ve rationalized the first game I’ve played earnestly in 25 years to my vocation. Otherwise, I wouldn’t play. It’s why I don’t know the first thing about Minecraft or World of Warcraft or whatevercraft people are into these days. I was taught that games are time-wasters, despite contemporary cogsci research showing it’s healthy to play.

My life has become reducible to “income, yes or no? No? Then it must die.”

Every time I begin to work on something, this little mental subroutine plays out. It doesn’t matter whether I’m attending a workshop or deciding to do the laundry: “Is this taking me away from the search for paid work, lest I be told that if every waking moment I’m not doing something which could translate into paid work, then I’m [expletive] lazy?”

Most of my actions, including whether I can make time for people socially, are shaped by this subroutine: if in some way I cannot connect what I’m doing to something utilitarian, then I don’t have much business doing that activity. An intense guilt takes over. I’ve passed on many experiential opportunities to do fun things privately and socially which, ironically, are the meaningful experiences employers seem to claim they want. It means incidental skills I could get from those fun things don’t happen.

It’s funny: this isn’t the first time I’ve faced these impasses. The last time was before university. What I’d learnt after eight years of working in marketing communications was I’d always be paid less than half of what my degreed colleagues earned (sometimes less than one-third, when they were white, straight guys holding that degree, often in some unrelated field). I’m certain several contracts happened only because recruiters knew they could sell me to companies at a steep discount. This is partly why I burnt out badly about ten years ago.

I’m aware these seventeen months have reduced me to a shell of myself, of what I’ve learnt and what I’d hoped to achieve. I know logically I shouldn’t index my self-worth to my demonstrability to secure an income, but that horse has left the stables. I now realize that the riskiest thing I’ve done in the last fifteen years was choosing university. It was something I had wanted to do ever since grade school. Now that I have, I can’t seem to convert it into a bulwark for security.

Early this year, when I slipped into a deep depression brought on by external factors (like not having paid work), I’d run out of my antidepressant medication. By the generosity of two friends, I was able to get back on them — at first, on a reduced dosage so to stretch the supply. Now at my regular dose, I am functional again. This functionality has reminded me how antidepressants can increase the risk of suicidal thoughts.

Until last month, this always seemed counterintuitive.

With murkiness removed and my ability to think restored, one night in the shower last week got me to ponder the several ways I could complete suicide decisively, minimally painfully, and (the hard part) done so to minimize any trauma for the person(s) who might find my body. I don’t want to traumatize other people. This alone is probably why I haven’t tried to take my life since I was 13 (after I was institutionalized for being queer).

Actuarially speaking, suicide makes sense: student debt would be a tax write-off for creditors. It would ease demand for employment and reduce the human impact on an ecosystem which can’t sustain the people leaning on it. The thought process all becomes remarkably rationalized.

When my friend and cohort Maks ended his life in 2011, he was found reportedly in a peaceful state of rest out in a forested patch of suburban Ottawa. I’m pretty sure he deliberately planned the same steps to minimize any harm to others who found his remains. This is what planners do, after all: we think ahead. We plan. I’ve been idly curious of late: what method did he use? And more importantly, what arrangements might I need to prepare things the way he had back then?

Since last month, other difficult things have happened. The most obvious one is that my bike, my primary mode of mobility, was stolen. What I haven’t led on to is how the theft constitutes about 30 per cent of what I’m dealing with emotionally. The futility of not finding paid work and feeling two important clocks run out bumps that up to about 70 per cent. The other 30 per cent? I can’t really expand on it, other than I was violated recently and am now scared to death.

I’m aware that addressing my mental health in a social media setting may facilitate future discrimination and mental ableist doubts about my stability. That of course isn’t cool, nor is it right. As a personal posting goes, I’m not going to give much too time to editing this. There’s no wise takeaway to glean from here, to share with other people.

tl;dr: 1) There have been better times. 2) On paper, this isn’t a note.