An easy life

‘You are living an easy life, aren’t you? You ain’t doing nothing!’

the old man said. I pass his house every day when I walk or run* with my dogs. When he and his dog are out in his front yard, I stop and talk, so my dogs get this beautiful rare chance to hang out with another dog that, albeit a bit cranky, doesn’t behave like an erratic maniac like many other dogs around here.

 
Most of what the old man says is difficult to hear, because his voice is like a soft, mumbling creek of linked words strayed with Aussie idioms, and garden noises in the surroundings zap out some of them too. However, I usually manage to pick up enough key words here and there to estimate what we’re talking about, and make friendly expressions and statements (one syllable is sufficient) every now and again to prove my participation in the conversation.

I like him, and I like listening to him.  He is a bit like my grand mother (R.I.P), and I enjoy seeing his joy about having someone to talk to, while my dogs have a great time relaxing in the grass and pestering their ‘friend’.

The above quote is one of the sentences that I did hear in full, and I’m pretty sure that’s what he said. Slightly insulted, I told him that I work as a research interviewer with variable hours, I ain’t ‘ain’t doing nothing’. ‘OK’, he said, and maybe something along the lines of ‘that sounds like a great job’.

I kept thinking about his words afterwards. Is that what the neighbours are thinking about me? (this guy lives a few streets away – but still). I do have many free hours, especially at times where most other people are away at work. I’m based at home and do the admin part of the job in our lovely home office.

 

living room home office

 
I drive around to the respondents in my own car. My workdays are in principle all days of the week including weekends, but in blocks of just a few hours each time. That gives me plenty of flexible recovery time between each drive. I need that.

A big downside of my job is the income. The job isn’t designed to be a main, stand-alone income, but more like an extra income source for stay-at-home moms. I am not a stay-at-home mom, and not much good at housekeeping and other ‘traditional womanhood activities’.  I do get the basic stuff done – mostly, but see housework as an annoying distraction more than anything else. Definitely not my ‘call’. Also, we need 2 incomes.

 
Job Upgrade Beats Job Search

From time to time I browse lots of job ads on SEEK and similar portals, and apply for jobs I hope I can undertake alongside my current part time job, but so far I’ve got nothing out of it apart from wasted time and depressions. There doesn’t seem to be much relevant/doable work to get down here, but that isn’t the only reason to get depressed. The worst part is to be reminded of limitations and failures when reading about essential job requirements and wanted personality profiles.  It gives me the impression that I’m not viable, overall.

However, not being viable is not an option. Everybody do something for a living… be it a white collar job or cleaning, cashier, or something else. I feel embarrassed about applying for cleaning jobs because I have a master degree, but I have done it recently because the local options are limited. I didn’t get any of them though. Most menial jobs are not doable for me (such as cashier, customer service at McDonald’s, receptionist et.c) because of my sensitivity to noise and trouble operating in distracting environments, poor multi-tasking skills, et.c. So I apply for a variety of slightly unusual jobs. One of the latest was animal carer at an animal research farm** (I didn’t get it).

Then recently, my current employer informed that I’ve been allocated 50% more assignments from the next work period, which starts next week; something I’ve asked and hoped for.  It seems they’ve expanded the area I cover from where I live, which also means longer drives. That helps with the hours too. In addition, I’ve been offered a nice little extra job which involves driving and sampling only. All in all, more work hours and income – Great news!

 
A fairly ordinary work day

Yesterday*** (and today, and many other days), I woke up in the morning feeling shaken, post-nightmarerish and unready to cope with whatever everyday challenges the day may present. That’s normal for me in some periods, and for the last month or so, I’ve woken up almost every. bloody. morning. like that.

I am not afraid of the day and its challenges, just physically shaken in an after-shock kind of way. I feel like I’m uncoordinated, slightly trembling, can’t concentrate on everyday tasks, can’t make decisions. It is as if I just came out of a war, and all I want is to cuddle up and let the rest of the world mind its own business while I slowly and safely recover in the healing cocoon that is my body. Although the day hasn’t even begun yet.

So I often start the day a few hours later than planned, after trying to sleep off the shock sensation with the big dog snoring on my chest, a hot bath, clowning around with the dogs, and other silly little antics until the shock-sensation has worn off, and my normal sense of how it feels to be me re-establishes itself. Then I’ ready to take on the day. But it is not really morning any more.

First task Yesterday was to untangle data inconsistencies in 3 – 4 inter-related interviews. It was the last task of my current assignment due for submission, and a bit out of the ordinary. Most cross-referencing contradictions in interviews are small, few and quickly fixed on the spot. Sorting out the data was a frustrating puzzle, as I had to re-interview several people via the phone, some of them for the second time, to sort out new contradictions that kept popping up because these respondents had memory difficulties, a slippery sense of logic, and basically didn’t care.

I hate phone work for a variety of reasons, but managed to keep the good tone and restrain from exploding. After saying the last friendly ‘All right, thank you very much for your time – See you later****!’ and hanging up, I was exhausted and shaken, although I had been perfectly confident and in control during the conversations.

That’s when I did the daily walkie with the dogs and had a chat with the old man where the ‘easy life’ remark fell that I’m writing this blog post in response to.

 
Out in ‘the field’

In the afternoon, I started on a new assignment. To start an assignment means to approach unknown properties, knock on stranger’s doors and present the survey to the sampled households in a way that secures their participation. I never feel like taking this first step, I force myself to go and combat my anxiety by being very well organised, scripted and well structured. I usually get decent results, so I know I can do the job well as soon as I get my professional act on.

The new current assignment is in the countryside. I checked the area with Streetview in Google Earth beforehand (as usual), and what I saw made me a tad nervous. I like the countryside, but rural areas are much more unpredictable than the typical outer suburbs.

 
rg1024_country_landscape_

 
I saw pastures with cows and goats, industrial farm buildings and cosy Bed & Breakfasts (or something), huge affluent-looking fenced properties with gates and houses withdrawn behind long internal driveways and ‘acres’ (almost guaranteed to have free roaming dogs), dodgy shed-like properties on tiny blocks of land, cheap wooden quick-assembly houses, enterprises; all sorts of potential surprises.

 
I armed myself with my Nexus and pocket Wifi (to find the addresses with the Navigator app), dog treats (to bribe surprise guard dogs), extra conservative dress code (to stay safe in dodgy shed areas), work equipment, and went off, preparing mentally as I followed the Navigator’s instructions to the destination(s).

 
To put on The Act

‘To put on the act’ of professionalism and keep it running requires big amounts of energy: for readiness, for social rapport building, paying attention, presenting the items in the right order and not drop anything or forget anything, ongoing behavioural adjustments, processing of face expressions and eye contact, talk, self control, coping with surprises, rejections and resistance, and for preventing emotional reactions and overcome instinctive reluctance to entering other people’s territories.

When I’m rested and relaxed, then I can do most of that almost automatically without spending much energy. The more tired, the harder it gets to keep track of all the aspects of the communication, and the more energy it takes.

When I undertake interviews, I follow a memorised script word-for-word, except when I need to improvise and recombine the sentences to match the order the respondents’ say their scripts in. The respondents have scripts too, they just don’t know it. I have heard most of what they say many times before, and have a solid mental data bank of appropriate verbal and non-verbal responses.

 

lady interviewer blue background - clipart
The illusion of professionalism is hard work

 
The non-verbal side of the communication is the biggest challenge. I usually prefer to look at a respondent’s mouth rather than the eyes***** when talking – to preserve energy, prevent tension and protect my ability to concentrate and remember the script (!). Also because I want to be as non-intrusive as possible to the respondents: they haven’t called for my visit, and there is no reason to bother them with unnecessarily intense contact, since all I want is data.

The interviews go quite well most of the time, and some are even very enjoyable for all parties, I think. I rarely get more than one or two rejections per assignment, and the ones I do get are usually polite. Generally, people are friendly and cooperative. However, it often only takes a few interviews to get to become exhausted. It isn’t that the interviews are bad experiences (they can be, but are mostly neutral or good experiences); they can just take heaps of energy.

 
Post-workday overload

I finished the last interview that day sitting on a lovely lady’s veranda with her little old dog at my feet. I liked her, and surrendered my last guard dog-bribes to her dog (he wasn’t dangerous at all, but knew all about how many treats I still had in my hand). I had only met friendly people.

Despite that, when I drove home, I felt shell shocked and depleted. I might as well have just survived a grenade attack or been mistakenly washed in a washing machine for hours, rather than driven around in my car and talked with friendly people for an hour or two.

So when I came home ‘my cup was full’, to use the cup-metaphor. I crashed on the futon with my laptop, headphones, and a big invisible ‘Do Not Disturb Sign’ next to me. But I was hungry. I asked my husband if he was hungry too, but he said no. While I was still contemplating how to solve that problem as quickly as possible, I realised that he was cooking in the kitchen. The aroma was fantastic, so I felt lucky – Apparently he was hungry anyway.

Apparently not so. The food was for me only, and he was angry. He said ‘Next time you are hungry, you make food for the whole family, you don’t just say you are hungry, so I have to cook while you’re hanging out in your little computer world, doing nothing!’. I was baffled. ‘But you said you were not hungry?’ and ‘I didn’t ask you to cook for me?’ But I could hear how it sounded like empty, selfish arguments.

A few more little frictions happened before the situation escalated into a crisis and I finally snapped and lost it, retreated to the bedroom and fell into pieces for a while. Later, recovering, the issues were worked out and the relationship was sweet again, but I chose to sleep alone on the futon anyway, incompatible with any sort of social presence, needs and frictions; no matter how benevolent. Just. Leave. Me. Alone. (until my mind has finished rebooting)

 
sand hills, retrostyle artified

 
No… While I am grateful that I live a privileged life in many ways, I don’t at all find my life easy.

 
 


* I prefer to run, but that is part of daily negotiations with the dogs, who don’t like to miss out on opportunities by speeding past them.

** Background info: I do have experience with animal care: 6 -7 years minding farm animals, mostly grower pigs (and privately, I’ve had countless pets). However, I also have asthma and had trouble minding pigs in indoor production systems most of the time (can’t work in there without a mask), and I suspect animal care in a dusty and hairy indoor environment could get complicated too.

*** ‘Yesterday’ is no longer literally Yesterday, as the post got ‘stuck in the pipe’ for a few days before I managed to finish it and hit the Publish button. Everything else still applies.

**** Politeness script used in Australia to round off conversations in a friendly manner, also when the probability of ever seeing that person again is minimal.

***** People perceive to have eye contact if the person they talk with looks at any point in the vertical middle of their face (usually)


Illustrations: graphics from OpenClipart.Org and landscape photo from Morguefile.


 
 
 
 
 
 
 

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6 thoughts on “An easy life

  1. musingsofanaspie

    I once had a neighbor tell me that I “come and go too much” and should settle down. This was when I had a young child who had to be driven to and from school and I was working both at home and part time outside of the home. It made me laugh that she seemed to think I had nothing to do but randomly flit around town to entertain myself.

    Also, I recently was informed that asking someone if they want to do something is actually often thought of as an expression of the speaker’s preference for doing the thing. So when you asked your husband if he was hungry, he perhaps interpreted that as “I’m hungry” and when you didn’t go make yourself something, he thought you wanted him to do it.

    I ran into this recently when my husband asked if I wanted to visit a certain place on an upcoming vacation. When I said, “no, that was the worst part of our last trip to that area” he got really mad and I had no idea why. It turned out that he especially wanted to visit there for a very specific reason and I was supposed to infer this from his question and engage him in a discussion about his desire to visit the place. It took hours to untangle and repair that mess.

    Your job sounds very interesting. Can I ask what general subject matter you interview people about or would that be too personal to reveal? I’ve been curious for a while. I think it’s the economist in me that’s so drawn to knowing what sorts of data is getting collected and why. Not a big deal if you’re comfortable answering though!

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    1. Mados

      Thank you for you insights!

      Also, I recently was informed that asking someone if they want to do something is actually often thought of as an expression of the speaker’s preference for doing the thing. So when you asked your husband if he was hungry, he perhaps interpreted that as “I’m hungry” and when you didn’t go make yourself something, he thought you wanted him to do it.

      I think I also said that I was hungry. But I didn’t mean that I expected him to cook, I just thought that if he was hungry too, then it was worth looking into cooking (either of us), while if not then I’d work something else out.

      In Australia, asking someone if they want to do something is actually an order. Especially if it is one’s boss who asks. ‘Do you want to have a look at the presentation?’ is not a question about preferences, it means ‘Please review the presentation and make adjustments/provide your feedback/whatever is expected. But ‘Are you hungry?’ is a question.

      I ran into this recently when my husband asked if I wanted to visit a certain place on an upcoming vacation. When I said, “no, that was the worst part of our last trip to that area” he got really mad and I had no idea why. It turned out that he especially wanted to visit there for a very specific reason and I was supposed to infer this from his question and engage him in a discussion about his desire to visit the place. It took hours to untangle and repair that mess.

      Aw, that is tricky… It does sound like a question about preferences. I would have fallen in that trap too:-)

      Your job sounds very interesting. Can I ask what general subject matter you interview people about or would that be too personal to reveal? I’ve been curious for a while. I think it’s the economist in me that’s so drawn to knowing what sorts of data is getting collected and why. Not a big deal if you’re comfortable answering though!

      It is interesting in many ways, I learn a lot from talking with so many different people and see how they live et.c. And I have a script:-) I love that.

      With the subject matter, I totally understand why you are curious! I would be too:-) I carefully make sure to not mention the subject matter though, and other information that can be used to identify the survey, in order to protect my own anonymity and the confidentiality of the project. There are not that many surveys of this kind around, so I have to be careful.

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  2. gavinpandion

    I’m glad you shared these anecdotes, I’ve been thinking about blogging about disability stigma issues with AS-related work issues and other things I deal with like not being comfortable driving at all, and I really liked the way you framed these experiences to reflect on the sources of frustration and confusion. I tend to be oversensitive to tone conversationally and easily confused about how people mean what they say, and once I got to the point in my studies where I felt qualified to know what I was talking about, I found it totally unacceptable to be told what to say on a supervisor’s authority without an explanation I could understand. This is a huge problem with being a research professional with my qualifications – to function within a team I would need to learn to be far more flexible and accommodating. Plus when things are stressing me out at home, I don’t feel up to facing interpersonal stress for a job.

    What you say here about professionalism amazes me, because it sounds perfectly reasonable, but I have a strong feeling I don’t know how to juggle those challenges at all; I’ve spent my academic career coasting on the power of the written word instead of improving on my oral communication skills, including the nonverbal element.

    “‘To put on the act’ of professionalism and keep it running requires big amounts of energy: for readiness, for social rapport building, paying attention, presenting the items in the right order and not drop anything or forget anything, ongoing behavioural adjustments, processing of face expressions and eye contact, talk, self control, coping with surprises, rejections and resistance, and for preventing emotional reactions and overcome instinctive reluctance to entering other people’s territories.”

    And driving by itself is a huge issue. I don’t live in an area with user-friendly public transit at all; my home is in the suburb, and even the city center has only limited public transit services, with a lot of emphasis on how to get from one tourist attraction to another rather than other parts of the city I think. A lot of bus stops are unshaded, and this is not a part of the country where you want to be waiting around all day due to bus transfers in full sun. And getting to know people socially is quite difficult if you would be relying on their good graces before they’d gotten to know you, for help arranging your own transportation to social events. You think twice about mentioning it when you’ve noticed the hassled reactions people get if they realize you were hoping they might volunteer to give you a lift themselves.

    It’s the little gestures sometimes that make a functional disability seem stigmatizing, and if your expectations are low enough you might accidentally read the wrong thing between the lines just by expecting discrimination. One time I got the impression that a security guard who works at the University library was openly making fun of me because of a prior meltdown I had on the premises that attracted attention (not that I made a scene, exactly, I had just been staring into space all day as if catatonic), by saying something seemingly to herself in a sing-song voice about a spoiled little rich kid relying on daddy’s money. That seems paranoid, right? But I can imagine her having meant me by that, having just assumed I was only able to attend university on the generosity of a parent (I had actually been working my own way through school for the most part with research positions, sometimes covering all my own bills but certainly covering my own tuition).

    Being inclined to think people make those kinds of assumptions about you does get quite demoralizing, and it’s still hard to think of something constructive to say about it. Certain things that make me a dependent right now don’t seem at all likely to change any time soon, especially with dogs who need a back yard I could never afford. I would recommend a look at Martha Nussbaum’s Frontiers of Justice for the way she frames “the social contract” that we associate with moral obligations under the law in modern democracies, adding a neoliberal twist that makes quite explicit the expectation that nothing is given that isn’t paid for, that every citizen must earn his or her own keep, that privatization is better than public administration, etc. She highlights some serious limitations to that model of social justice, like the way it diminishes the importance of treating children, the elderly, the disabled and animals with real consideration, since they aren’t in a position to negotiate good treatment for themselves based on ability to pay for the services they need to thrive.

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    1. Mados

      Hi Gavin.

      Thank you for your reply and positive feedback. I have read your post as well (and replied via email). It shed some more light on what you write about being oversensitive to tone of voice et.c.

      I tend to be oversensitive to tone conversationally and easily confused about how people mean what they say, and once I got to the point in my studies where I felt qualified to know what I was talking about, I found it totally unacceptable to be told what to say on a supervisor’s authority without an explanation I could understand. This is a huge problem with being a research professional with my qualifications – to function within a team I would need to learn to be far more flexible and accommodating.

      Yes, I can imagine that would be a problem. What is the typical constellation of the teams? (size – specialisation of people you need to work with – ranks etc)

      I have been forced to work in groups all the way up through the Danish school system. I found it awkward and useless back in the early school days, but have had some successful team work experiences from later on, so I am glad that I learned it. It depends a lot on the team, of course – both people’s qualifications, their team work skills, and their enthusiasm. It is a pleasure to work with someone who is enthusiastic and willing to share the enthusiasm!

      Team work can also be very frustrating, but I think the potential rewards exceeds the frustrations. Such as:

      – Perspectives & development. Even in the case where I’m the most knowledgeable and skilled person in the team in that particular topic, others’ thoughts will get me to change and develop my perspective (even if they are wrong!). See weaknesses I would otherwise have overlooked, trigger new ideas, realise how other people (e.g. ‘end users’) may see something I thought could be only be seen one way.
      – Access to specialised skills I don’t have, knowledge I don’t have
      – Appreciation of what I can contribute to the team = self esteem bost
      – When it is going well: team spirit and the energy it creates, a sense of synergy. Actually that is my favourite kind of socialising, much better than unstructured socialising
      – Team work success feels fantastic. In a team with 5 members, the pleasure of achieving a great result is 5 times as high as achieving the same great result as an individual!

      I find the most fertile attitude to team work is to consider the team a vehicle or an organism, rather than an assembly of individuals. That is useful because interpersonal friction is then like a wheel in the machine that needs gentle repair rather than an interpersonal matter to take personal. I try to see myself as owned by the team, as a versatile available resource (including with leadership) and see the others the same way – as banks of resources, knowledge, strengths (and annoying weaknesses too, always… but that goes for myself as well)

      Another team work ‘rule’ I have for myself is humility and awareness of blind spots. I know that I’m prone to misunderstand people, so I try to avoid relying on presumptions and keep open & observing, to ‘map’ peoples’ typical behavioural habits, social identity and likely drivers/motives (can be e.g. prestige, group cohesion, professional perfectionism, laziness and many other things). I try to see the social functioning of the group as some sort of dynamic puzzle rather than something to dominate with my opinions (Well, I TRY…).

      My key team work strategy in uni was to spot and team up with 1 socially & ‘professionally’ competent person, and leave it to that person to select the rest of the group (since I am not particularly well connected, I don’t know that much about who would be good to have on board), and then support that person as the sort of social leader with me trying to fill in the more technical gaps. Of the strategies I have tried, it tended to work best!

      Ps. This is team work too! Sort of. Any communication is… it is about give-and-take, exchange and negotiation of ideas. and it goes fine!

      What you say here about professionalism amazes me, because it sounds perfectly reasonable, but I have a strong feeling I don’t know how to juggle those challenges at all; I’ve spent my academic career coasting on the power of the written word instead of improving on my oral communication skills, including the nonverbal element.

      Do you have a specific strategy for improving oral communication skills (including non-verbal), or specific ideas about how to do it? and for how much you need to improve the skills? (a benchmark of sorts?)

      And driving by itself is a huge issue. I don’t live in an area with user-friendly public transit at all; my home is in the suburb, and even the city center has only limited public transit services, with a lot of emphasis on how to get from one tourist attraction to another rather than other parts of the city I think. A lot of bus stops are unshaded, and this is not a part of the country where you want to be waiting around all day due to bus transfers in full sun. And getting to know people socially is quite difficult if you would be relying on their good graces before they’d gotten to know you, for help arranging your own transportation to social events. You think twice about mentioning it when you’ve noticed the hassled reactions people get if they realize you were hoping they might volunteer to give you a lift themselves.

      Yes, I can see how that would be a social problem in your context. What is your problem with driving? Is it cognitive (like: lack of overview, tendency to overlook important details, too high risk for accidents), psychological (anxiety, discomfort), about availability or something else?

      It’s the little gestures sometimes that make a functional disability seem stigmatizing, and if your expectations are low enough you might accidentally read the wrong thing between the lines just by expecting discrimination. One time I got the impression that a security guard who works at the University library was openly making fun of me because of a prior meltdown I had on the premises that attracted attention (not that I made a scene, exactly, I had just been staring into space all day as if catatonic), by saying something seemingly to herself in a sing-song voice about a spoiled little rich kid relying on daddy’s money. That seems paranoid, right? But I can imagine her having meant me by that, having just assumed I was only able to attend university on the generosity of a parent (I had actually been working my own way through school for the most part with research positions, sometimes covering all my own bills but certainly covering my own tuition) […].

      Yes, it does seem a bit paranoid. It sounds more likely that she was saying that about herself, or maybe someone else (but I don’t know her, or the context she is in) rather than someone who was present (you) unless she deliberately targeted you to bully you. In any case, whatever peoples’ opinions are about you, is not really worth considering unless in the cases where you 1. Can do something about it (and find it worthwhile), 2. You are in a socially highly toxic environments, and slight insults are likely to grow quickly and lead to harassment, and you might need to be highly alert until you get out of there asap. Your academic environment sounds fairly normal, so I think it might be primarily a thinking-problem rather than a people-problem, but at the end of the day you are the only one to make that judgement.

      I haven’t heard of Martha Nussbaum’s Frontiers of Justice – a book? I am currently reading the other book you recommended: ‘Prisons we choose to live inside’ by Doris Lessing, it is interesting. The perspective is somewhat similar to ‘The Psychology of War’.

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      1. Mados

        Your academic environment sounds fairly normal

        I mean based on the available information, which is very little so maybe I shouldn’t comment on that (just let me know)…

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  3. Pingback: Aspie meltdown personal record | Many fandoms, one love

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