Monday, September 1, 2014

Reflections on Labour Day, 2014

Labour Day, 2014, finds millions of well qualified workers without work, and millions of qualified workers underemployed, in an economy that is shifting to find the  least expensive way to produce products and/or generate services with the fewest regulations for worker safety and environmental protections at the lowest cost possible. Short-term profit is the goal regardless of the impact of such short-sighted policies and practices on the human component of the enterprise. This approach has become the norm in spite of protests of loyalty to workers and Employee Assistance Programs that abound.
(As an aside, ask someone who has sought support from those EAP "counsellors" and discover just how insignificant and trivial is their treatment of workers in the middle of personal trauma. The phone calls are received by a different "case worker" every time, with the client having to re-tell his or her story from the beginning, wasting valuable time, and delivering the indisputable message that there is no one "home" at the EAP phone number who is consistently monitoring and coaching the client through the trauma. And this is a service for which the employer is paying serious money seemingly more for the purpose of saying they have such a service than for the quality and the depth and the professionalism of that service.)
For sixty years, this scribe has found work of various kinds in the employ of large companies, and individual entrepreneurs, in both public and private sectors of the economy. Wandering over to a nearby house under construction, I found the contractor, a middle-aged man very receptive to a "foundling gopher" for the project. At twelve, what did I care about being paid. I felt valued, useful and engaged and those experiences have provided a template and a lens through which I have viewed every other opportunity for the next six decades.
Cleaning dirty pop bottles for a family business, a franchisee for Pepsi showed just how filthy were the bottles returned for their two cents of recycling rewards.
Stocking shelves, packing bags and carrying out grocery orders for Georgian Bay tourists in the 1950's was an introduction to retail commerce, customer service and worker high-jinks, including the kind of good-natured ribbing about weight and the panting it caused from co-workers.
Measuring cottages for provincial land tax assessments in unorganized townships proved that government employees in the late fifties and early sixties were not above pilfering left-over gasoline from the province when the day trips on lakes and rivers ended and pouring it into their own gas cans for their own outboard motor boats. It also demonstrated the difference between the cultures in the large corporations like the national grocery chain and the provincial government where, if I were to return for a second summer, I was asked "not to work so fast" if you can believe that.
An invitation from the local sales representative to join Canada Packers as a summer salesman, following a miserable few weeks attempting to sell nursery stock for  what I remember as Caradoc Nurseries then of Strathroy, when delivery of the product would not occur for twelve months, prompted an immediate, "When can  I start?" as I loaded the bread shelves in the local Dominion Store.
Selling sides and hinds of beef, pork rinds, bologna tubes and various forms of cooking oils and margarines took me into both independent retail grocers as well as summer tourist resorts whose clients paid dearly for their T-bone steak dinners on the shores of the Muskoka Lakes. Learning the various levels of business success or survival, as well as how to negotiate customer complaints, through a lens that kept both parties' interests equally in play was one of the more valuable experiences of all the opportunities I have enjoyed in any workplace.
And then there were four summer stints as a law student in a one-man law office, under the guidance and tutelage of a serious and generous and compassionate mentor who seemed to enjoy breaking social conventions, while complying strictly with the detailed requirements of the legal profession.
Client interviews in jail cells, will preparations, deliveries to other law offices and judges chambers, listening to the employer while driving him to appearances in the Supreme Court of Ontario in Toronto, preparing statements of adjustments on real estate closings, searching titles in both land titles and registry offices, and even preparing and conducting cross examinations in traffic cases....these are just some of the memories that remain, along with the gestalt of an experience of the significance of the profession as well as its tedium.
And then there were decades of teaching and coaching....first in Appleby College, in the private school world of the recently affluent aspiring parents to those of "old money" who sought the status of an education for their young boys (in the mid-sixties, the schools were mostly dedicated to male students) as well as the  connections that resulted from an old boys network for those entering business and the professions. Here I learned mostly how much a misfit I truly was for their world of the affluent. My attitudes, hopes dreams and world view were so completely detached, in fact alien, to the world of those on the "inside" that the dietician dedicated herself to a project designed to convert me to "conservative" politics. Clearly, in the long run, her efforts, however determined, failed.
And then public high schools became my workplace for two decades plus, during which I found a surprising level of insouciance from some staff members and administrators balanced by genuine caring from others who served as educators to several student populations. It is a highly concentrated "people business" this business of educating young men and women. They wear their emotions on their sleeves, and their foreheads, not to mention in their wardrobes. They rise and fall like leaves in a fall wind storm, as their emotions elevate and slam their psyches and their actions. They aspire, conspire, preen and roll up their sleeves in hopeful anticipation whatever the requirements of the moment,,,,a new basketball drill or offense or defence, a new riff in a new piece of music, a new poem or an extra-curricular activity....whatever it takes to seek and to find their "interest" and their passion. And then to nurture, coach, mentor and add a few twigs and puffs of encouragement to the fire that seems to have been ignited by whatever spark that found its way into their consciousness and eventually into their unconscious....in order to evoke their unique passion....This two plus decades were the most intense years of what seems, on reflection, to have been a process akin to gardening young hearts and minds and bodies into their flowering. Sometimes, it required weeding out the self-sabotaging habits, distractions, associations, or even inhibitions that were getting in the way of healthy human development. Sometimes, it was necessary to get out of the way of the energy and the passion and the determination of the young person's perceived immediate goal. And sometimes it was intervening when another staff member was inserting a personal agenda into the process that was clearly not in the best interest of the student.
Being dubbed "too liberal" and "too close to the students" was a familiar critique of my approach to the messy business of educating young men and women. It came from those more conservative staff members who saw their primary role as that of disciplinarian, I did not share their view of our  professional responsibility. It always seemed more important to provide opportunities for new experiences, for new insights, or new perceptions or new insights often through the words and insights of writers whose work had been included in the curriculum. Decades after leaving the profession, I heard that parents had complained about my having had discussions in  class that "went too far" for their comfort zone. I can only assume that points of view were raised by students that were incompatible with the views they were hearing around their dining room table and parents fears for the loss of control of their child's world view. Well, duh....since when did any parent have control of his adolescent's mind?
And then there were a few years in a community college bureaucracy, where political correctness, and a kind of walking on eggs seemed to characterize the culture, at least in the college administration. No raised voices, no tall men or women, no eccentric attitudes or wardrobes, and clearly a dedication to the power structure and its wishes, attitudes and expectations....all of these seemed to be much more important that whether or not students were learning, and were learning what they would need to succeed in the various workplaces they would eventually enter.
A few years in grad school and then out into the field of the practice of ministry were like walking naked into an Arctic blast, so painful and so mean-spirited were the experiences, that I have often been heard to utter: local politics was never as nasty as life in the Anglican/Episcopalian church where my capacity and willingness to "fit" into the straight-jacket of conformity to both the power and the structure of a culture embedded in archeological "digs" blind to the present and the future, both having been sacrificed long ago to the tentacle (even the barnacles) of tradition left me dangling naked in that Arctic blast. A decade plus later, I am beginning to thaw out from the cryogenic slab I became while attempting to serve as a deacon, then priest and then vicar.
I can only reflect on how ill-prepared I was to embark on a stint in the church, both by my own experiences and through the highly incomplete and inadequate training and formation I received from Ontario theological colleges. I respectfully warn any who might be considering such a career path to ask as many people for their honest perceptions and opinions before embarking on a course that is so fraught with landmines, generated both by the church hierarchy and by the people in the pews.
Labour has been a defining component of this scribe's life path, sadly to the default of a broken family, and a bent spirit.....however bent but not broken, thanks to those many helping hands along the way, culminating in one very firm and loving hand in my life partner and wife, Michelle.

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