The Story of “M”

I am annoyed, and the annoyance starts with this image:

I ganked this image from this blog entry, where a total stranger made some fairly offensive generalizations about a very broad spectrum of people, and upset me so badly that it’s taken me four days to finally figure out how to say what I want to say about it.

WBY (and everyone else), I would like you to meet M.

M was born in 1986, and thus falls smack dab in the middle of the “Generation Y” WBY is talking about. M was lucky enough to be home schooled by a  ridiculously intelligent (actually, Absolutely Freaking Fantastic In Pretty Much Every Way) mother. She also grew up in what was basically the lap of luxury due to the one thing WBY’s post got right- her Baby Boomer father did indeed have a great career, and he was remarkably open to his family living however the hell they wanted to while he worked his butt off far away. She owes him a lot for that experience, because without it, she would not be who she is today. Not only did he provide for her and allow her to grow up in a great environment, he set an insurmountable example of what it means to be a hardworking parent.

M is one phenomenally talented individual. Oh God, you’re thinking at this point. Another egotistical artist. You might even be tempted to close the window.  But wait- there’s more to this story. M is phenomenally talented…but for many, many years she had zero understanding of how important her talent is. That giant ego demonstrated in the first sentence of this paragraph did not exist.  You see, even though M grew up in an incredibly nurturing environment where she essentially got anything she wanted, could ask any question and get an answer, got to teach herself at her own pace and ignored the subjects she disliked in favor of constructing tiny replicas of Stonehenge out of found objects, M’s potential was stymied by social expectation. It started very, very early.

The social pressure went something like this:

Who do you think you are? You are not a unique and special snowflake in ANY way. If you acknowledge you have special aspects to yourself, you are an arrogant jerk and no one will ever like you. You are a failure if you do not focus on and succeed at practical skills. You deserve to be unhappy because you are a silly girl, and there are at least eight million people who are better at what you do than you are. Your place in life is to work, and to keep your mouth shut.  You are a terrible person for wanting to do something different.

It felt like the entire world (except for her family) had something bad to say about her creativity and passion.  The pressure came from her friends; from books and magazines; from the radio; from the internet, and from TV and movies. Artists were not successful people. Artists got mocked and lived in attics and never had enough to eat.

When M was 14, her mother started pushing for her to go to Art School.  Their conversation went something like this:

You see, M had a dream in her head. It was pretty simple, and it looked something like this:

That dream trumped everything else. Being a smart cookie, she knew that the unstable lifestyle and income of an artist would not allow that kind of dream to come true. She didn’t dare acknowledge that for some exceptionally talented people it can come true. The social voices in her head wouldn’t allow that kind of arrogance, after all.

In order to achieve her dream, she reasoned, she would have to find the same kind of job security that her dad had.  With this goal in mind, she studied hard until she turned 18, and then she got her GED. She passed the tests in the 99th national percentile (in case you aren’t aware, that’s Really Effing Good), and proceeded to field a lot of Random Junk Mail from prospective college while trying to figure out how to move forward in life.

M spent the next nine years of her life trying to figure that out. She worked a lot of different jobs, most of them at or just over minimum wage because that was all anyone was willing to pay. She always did fabulously; in fact, in all of her adult life, M has only “lost” one job. Oddly enough, the job that seemed the most secure and promising lead to complete disaster, while the job that seemed the most like a slacker Dead End Job ended up being her closest ticket to what the world would recognize as “Success”. Here’s how it went:

M decided to change her major from Business to Web Development, and went to school for several years. She did that because she felt that would be a more practical and focused career in today’s internet-based world. When offered a job as a junior developer for a small local business, she took it with glee. Here was her key to success! Finally, she could be a Real Life Web Developer!

9 months later, the economy crashed. As the least-tenured employee, M found herself laid off. To add insult to injury, because she was attending college, she did not qualify for unemployment. She did not find another job….for a very….long…..time.

In that time, she broke up with her boyfriend and had to move back home. She was extremely grateful to her parents for allowing her to do so- after all, she truly had no other option. She stayed at home for five years. For a year of that time, her entire life was crammed into a space smaller than a twin bed. At some point during that year, she also had to grin and bear it when people she had thought were her friends chose to publicly humiliate her…multiple times. She didn’t think it was very funny, but they sure did.

A few months after she moved back home, her brother told her “The pizza place you worked at a few years ago is hiring again.” She had liked that job a lot, but had left it when she became a Real Life Web Developer. M had nothing to lose, so she went in for an interview. Of course she got hired, and six months afterwards, she finally achieved her very first TRUE reward for hard work: She got promoted to supervisor.

M worked there for the five years she lived at home, and in that time she learned a lot. She learned about cost analysis, labor control, and other important aspects of running a restaurant. She learned some Spanish –a great skill to have in the restaurant industry- and how to keg carbonated beverages. She also learned how to lead by example, keep her mouth shut, and maintain focus on a goal. Unfortunately, despite all she learned, there was some truth to the idea that she had a Dead End Job, even as a supervisor. Her employer could not afford to pay her very much, and because it was a family-owned business there was no room to move up. She could not afford to live on her own while working there, no matter how hard she tried.  She was trapped- and despite applying for hundreds of jobs, she never got a call back.

Also during that time, M suffered from a series of severe stress-related breakdowns that resulted in abject academic failure. In three years of school she had maintained a 4.0 GPA no matter what else was happening….and that term she just couldn’t keep up. She got Fs in 4 out of 5 classes, and a D in the 5th. She was put on academic probation, which she successfully fought, but then decided not to go back after all. Instead she went on medication for her “depression” and decided to transfer to a different college –and a different Major- to see if that would help. Despite all her efforts, she couldn’t make it, and she failed again.  For the first time in her life, M “gave up”: she never went back to school.

There were times in that five year period when M struggled hard to even make it through the day, and it was impossible to see a future that looked like anything other than this:

In those times, M found herself turning back to her talent for comfort. She produced more art in those years than she had in the entire decade before. She explored new areas, discovered new processes, and covered the walls in her room with a visual map of her state of mind. She donated hours upon hours of graphic design time to a nonprofit organization she was part of, as well. Once again, her mother started asking her “Why don’t you make art for a living?” Once again, she responded with her old practical arguments, and tried to re-focus on her restaurant career.

Of course, at that point something rather unexpected happened:

The Occupy movement happened, and M’s life changed forever.

Seriously.

If you’ll remember, WBY, you said that “GYPSYs” expect not only a green lawn, but also flowers and a unicorn. When M got involved in Occupy, she came to the sudden realization that despite working herself to the point of a mental breakdown, she had yet to see a single green blade of grass in her future. More importantly, she realized that it wasn’t selfish depression making her future so barren.

It wasn’t barren because of unrealistic expectations. It wasn’t barren because of laziness. It wasn’t barren because she was a bad worker. It wasn’t barren because of poor career choices. It was barren because of the subconscious messages she had been receiving from society at large since she was very young. It was barren specifically because she had so single mindedly focused on what society expected of her, rather than what she expected of herself.

M came away from Occupy with a new resolution in her heart: She would prove them all wrong. She would succeed in her own way, and she would be happy! Riding that wave of confidence she updated her resume, applied for more jobs….and shortly had her choice of opportunities. She accepted a position as a Real Life Manager of a regional dining chain. She made a salary. She got married to the man of her dreams.

Although things seemed to be getting better on the outside, nothing changed on the inside. Her futurescape remained barren, and she was no happier than she had been working at the Dead End Job before. In fact, it was worse. She was now in the position she was supposed to be in according to society’s expectations and she had earned it honestly. Despite what the outside world thought of her success, inside she knew that she had simply played right into their game again, and in terms of her own happiness had gotten nowhere. Despite dreading her work days, she did what she had done at every other job before: she dazzled her managers with her competence, dedication, and ability to learn new skills and conform, chameleon-like, to any new environment or process. She had to support her family, after all, and M does not believe in doing less than her best.

Then M discovered she was in danger of getting cervical cancer. She had to have an extremely expensive procedure done to remove the high-risk cells, and the surgery required that she have her birth control removed.  Six weeks later, she saw this:

M and her husband were fabulously excited! They had both wanted a baby, though they both knew that “now” was not exactly the best time. They knew having a child was expensive and difficult even at the best of times, and that they had a lot of hard work ahead of them. They got to work right away.

Unfortunately, M had to learn the hard way that She Is Not Superwoman.

The ten hour days on her feet that she was required to work as a manager were difficult even before her pregnancy… and over the course of the next six months became so terrible that she spent hours of each shift crying in the bathroom.

The six, seven, and eight day weeks they started scheduling her for once they learned about her condition were impossible. They did not honor the work restrictions her doctor placed on them.  For six months, she went to work, came home, ate, slept, and went back to work. Each day was a blur of pain, tears, and stress-spawned fights with her husband who only wanted to help. Her midwife grew more and more concerned about the possibility of serious complications or miscarriage if she did not get a break.

M began to recognize the signs of what had happened the last time she got this over-stressed. She started forgetting conversations, losing track of priorities, and making crazy decisions that she would never have made in her normal state of mind. She cut herself off from her friends rather than allow herself to pick fights with them, and spent hours each day staring mindlessly into space, crying.

It was right around that time that M started to seriously think about what her mother had been asking her all those years. Why didn’t she make art for a living? What was actually holding her back? She had sold art before, after all. Expensive art! Why was it so far beyond the realm of possibility for her to continue to do so and make a living?

Do you know what happened next?

A unicorn walked into M’s life. That’s right. A fucking unicorn. A unicorn walked into her life, waltzed around her house planting flowers she hadn’t even known were missing, and then knocked on her door and said he would do all her chores and give her a foot rub if he could just crash on her couch. Naturally, M wasn’t quite sure how to respond to that.

The “unicorn” was otherwise known as M’s big sister, who had made a successful career out of her ability to sell pretty much anything. She was now the creative director for a very prosperous group, and she wanted M’s help. Specifically, she wanted M to work from home, part time, making more money than M had ever heard of…

…making art for her clients.

It couldn’t be real, could it?

Oh, but it is. It’s very, very real.

I am M (and that’s my husband E on the right).

I was a sad, depressed, crushed little girl who watched herself getting more sad, depressed, and crushed with each passing year, and could never understand why I couldn’t find happiness.  I was doing everything the world told me I should do (including having an abysmally low level of self-respect that infuriated my family and drove my poor husband bananas) and I still wasn’t getting anywhere.

Five weeks ago, I admitted that I simply did not ‘fit’ in society’s views of what I ‘should’ be doing. Three weeks ago, I got the job offer of all job offers, and I achieved a dream so far beyond my wildest expectations, so much sooner than I had ever hoped, that I am still reeling in shock.

The sad part of my fairy tale is that if I had stood up for myself as a teenager and said “NO, I am doing what I love and the rest of the world can just deal,” I could have skipped thirteen years of misery.  My mother tried to get me to go to art school over a decade ago. I pushed that fantasy in the mud because society –comprised of people like WBY- had been telling me that being an artist was a waste of time. I had been told so many times that it was sheer arrogance to expect to make my living on my talent, that I actually believed it. I truly believed that I needed to focus on having a secure career rather than focusing on what brings me joy. On top of all of that, I believed that it didn’t matter how hard I worked, I didn’t deserve to get anything in return but more work, and that is why I never spoke up for myself.

In retrospect I have wasted an alarming amount of my life pretending that I am just another lemming simply because it might offend someone that I had something they didn’t.  The truth is…I AM special. I do stand out. I have an unusually high level of creative talent, and I can now finally admit that I  am proud of my skill. I will never again sit by and let another human being degrade my ability, or tell me that my life choices are wrong.

I don’t know if what I have to say will get through to WBY, or if that person will even read this post. All I can hope for is that maybe somewhere out there another sad, depressed, and crushed human being who has been stomped on by society at large will read my story and realize that they, too, are special…and they, too, deserve to be happy doing what they love.

We all do.

Cheerfully Yours,

M

Hindsight is 20/20

Last night, my arachnophobic lottery attendant asked me if she HAD to clean out the drain where a two-inch spider lives. I looked at her for a second, then told her I didn’t give a **** if the drain got cleaned, I was far more concerned that she stayed comfortable and happy. Someone else could clean the drain- just do something else to make it fair for that person. She gave me this weird sideways look like she didn’t believe she had heard me properly, and then she started to grin. A little while later, she found me and started pouring her heart out about the things that bug her about working for this company (to my surprise, none of them were my management style). The rest of the shift was spent in easy companionship. In fact, despite being absolutely dead in terms of business, last night was the most comfortable shift I have ever worked there.

I am absolutely stunned at the number of people who have come out of the woodwork since I gave my notice, specifically to talk to me about how much working for this place sucks. I have heard story upon story in the last week about how they not only feel like our employer has failed them, but also feel like certain members of upper management have gone out of their way to stomp on any hope of advancement or improvement.  Blatant sexism and racism were both common factors in these stories, as was blatant and unnecessary favoritism. None of them are satisfied with their pay rate or the benefits offered.  Most of them only keep their job there because they truly feel they will not be able to find work elsewhere. Although I have had similar concerns in the last year, I have never heard other employees complaining about it so directly. I had no idea they were as upset as I was!

Corporate policy requires managers to remain aloof and distant and we may never become friends with any of the staff. However, I only have six shifts left at this job, and I can no longer even pretend like I believe that corporate profit is my primary concern.  I passionately wish that I had been more open about how firmly I side with the staff when it comes to worker’s rights. I wish I had initiated more conversations with them about what it actually means to work in a “respectful workplace”- that it doesn’t just mean they respect each other, it also means they should expect respect from those who are above them. I wish they could have known how many times I have stood up for them and protected their rights when other management wanted to take advantage of them. I wish they could have known -long ago- how completely messed up it is that no one there makes (or ever will make) more than minimum wage.  I wish I could have fostered an environment where they had felt comfortable telling me their concerns while I was still in a position to make a difference.

Instead, I let my walls drop too late. I have spent the last week listening to their whispers of discontent, and feeling profoundly helpless. The worst part is, I know it is my own doing. I could have helped them, and instead I focused so much on my own discomfort that I ignored the signs of trouble that surrounded me. Now I am leaving, and the hard-working people I had a responsibility to take care of have to start all over again. Some of them may never even know they had a chance at achieving change, and it’s because I didn’t speak up and stand up for myself, and thus empower them to do the same. How sad is that?

My closing thought:

At our last staff meeting, the GM told the staff “We must reach [projected profits in dollar amounts] for the month, or there will be consequences.” It was understood that he meant people would get written up for inadequate performance and their hours might get cut if the goal was not met.

When he said that, it struck me as profoundly unfair in pretty much every way. How is it the staff’s fault if the restaurant doesn’t get enough business to hit a goal that was generated by an algorithm? How is it their fault if our non-existent advertising program doesn’t pull more new customers in? Why should the staff suffer consequences for what other people do? Isn’t that sort of like telling someone “If that group out there that you can’t see or interact with doesn’t do this specific thing I want them to do, I am going to hit you with this stick?”

If that happened to you, wouldn’t you be upset, too?