‘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.
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.
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.
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.
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)
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)