Why Getting Fired From Alberta Education is the Best Thing That Ever Happened to Me

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NOTE: This piece was originally published on my other blog, The Blaed on July 13, 2011

I have a Bachelor of Arts degree, am in Grant MacEwan’s Applied Communications in Professional Writing Certificate program (going into my second year). In my past I have guest lectured at the University of Alberta (for 10 years running), ran a local theatre company, produced plays, written as a regular contributer for local magazines and been the primary caregiver for my parents. I tell you this so you’ll have an idea about me.

So I was excited to be able to work for the Government of Alberta’s Ministry of Education (the specific department shall remain nameless). Here was a chance to step up my career. I had blocked out the trauma of working for the Government of Alberta three years ago and decided this was my chance to shine.

I pride myself in my ability to produce quality work quickly. This blog, for example, will go through one edit before it hits the line. Normally I’d do a couple of them, but I feel this is important. So, I can produce quality work quickly. Let me qualify that; I can produce quality work quickly if I know what it is I’m writing about and the style I’m writing in. I’m fairly adaptable, so I’m comfortable working in a number of styles but this easy, laid-back manner you see here is the one I like best.

So I was hired in June by the Ministry of Education to “tell Education’s story”. Specifically, I was hired in June to use my own laid-back writing style to “tell Education’s story”. “We want *you* to tell Education’s story,” I was told by the man who hired me. All right. I can do that. A week before I was hired I went online and tried to get a sense of what I was getting into. What I saw didn’t comfort me.

Go to the Ministry of Education’s website sometime. It’s chaotic, drowning in government-ese and dry as hell. It says little and what it does say is pretty useless…. in my opinion. However, I’m not one to look a gift horse in the mouth. I needed this job and I needed to shine. I could do this.

Problems arose in the first week of my employment. I raised the possibility of doing a story on Mr. Bob Maskell, an incredible educator who’s made an impact on so many lives. That was shot down. Good try, I was told, but we couldn’t feature just one educator (who is retired), it’d look like favoritism. No, I thought, it’d look like we appreciate those teachers and educators who dedicated their lives to being the best they could. Never mind, they had another idea.

My boss plopped a document on the table; the “Framework for Action“. This was what they wanted me to write on. This document has been in the making for years and is extremely intricate. There are subtleties and nuances that would take years to decipher. Okay. In my own style, huh? I could do this.

To give you an idea of the task at hand, open the document and read it. I had two days, tops, to learn each section, its history and where it was going then write a 250 word piece on it. Factor in to that I’m not getting to talk to the managers who’s responsible for each section. No. I get documents in legalese and whatever I could find on the Internet. Still, I managed. I thought. First meeting with the boss I found out I didn’t have a clue. Back to the drawing board.

When you work as a journalist, you need to have a feel for your topic. It isn’t necessary to read every document written on it so long as you get an idea of what it’s about. It needs to be accurate, but you don’t have to know every aspect of it. For example, you don’t need to get a pilot’s licence to write about flying for a big airline . Not so with the Ministry of Education. I had to know these things inside and out and they are complicated. So, off to round two.

Between round one and two my mentor decided he was too busy for me so he passed me off to someone else in the office. Was I okay with that? Perspective time; I’m a summer student. I don’t have a lot of room for opinion. Keep your mouth shut and your head down. That’s the summer student’s motto. Even if it means being passed off like a bad date to a co-worker who’s first language is not English. Yes, she had a doctorate in research, but I’m a writer doing writing in English. I’m not a researcher translating my writing. That’s like a penguin trying to teach a duck to swim.

At this point I felt confirmation of my role was needed. My writing was too bland and needed more colour and excitement. I needed anecdotes and examples, my original mentor (still my boss) said. Okay. I can do that. So I let myself go and brought out my writing crayons, so to speak. Time for colour.

The second time around wasn’t as nice as the first time. What on earth was I thinking using anecdotes and examples? That’s not government style of writing. Also, I still had some tense issues (due to actions in the past affecting the future) but that’s easily dealt with. For example, I might write “the report he wrote yesterday will be discussed in tomorrow’s meeting.” Perfectly sound sentence, but not strictly grammatically correct. Also, I didn’t have enough examples and the writing was bland.

By this time I got the help of my new mentor and a co-worker to edit the pieces. I wasn’t seeing something, perhaps they’d see it. We’d edit two or three times before I was comfortable and then I headed for round number three. Oh good lord.

One of the pieces I’d worked on was particularly delicate so I went to the person who’s project it was and asked them to make sure everything was correct. When it was returned to me, this person had thrown out one section completely, two others were deleted (this person and the boss decided they weren’t needed. Was I asked? Nope. I was informed by e-mail) and another was so heavily edited it didn’t resemble anything I’d written. Okay, I thought, I had it wrong. I can do this.

I reworked the pieces and showed the boss who promptly got angry because they were unusuable.  They had no factual information and said little about the actual program. So, digging through my garbage, I got the original I’d written, retyped it and prepared to hand that in.

Now we get to round four. Understand that by this time I’m going home shaking, in tears and becoming dangerously depressed. If it wasn’t for the amazing support of instructors, friends, family and fellow writers, I would have either wound up in the hospital from a suicide attempt or from severe trauma. I could no longer look at my co-workers, let alone talk to them. I thought about giving up writing completely. It was my support network who held me up during this time and told me I could get through it and keep going. Several said I was too good a writer to quit. Even as I write this I’m crying. I can’t help it. I think of that time and can’t function.

By this time I was going to work not with the idea of producing anything quality, I felt like a hostage to a sociopath. All I wanted to do was give them what they wanted so they’d let me go. From 7 am to 4 pm, working through lunches and breaks, all I kept thinking was, “they said I could leave at the end of August.”

So, now I was given the instructions to “write in Government Voice.” Let me back this truck up a minute. There are classes dedicated to learning this style. There are writers who specialize in this style and take years to perfect it. Government writing style is very precise and there is an art to it. I have never written in this style in my life. This style is not interesting to me, it’s very bland and like chewing on drywall. However, those who can do it well have my utmost respect.

Let’s toss in here a round of computer problems that took three days to fix because the IT guys forgot to hook me up to the right network. Oh, now let’s add the fact that none of the people in charge of the projects are allowing me to talk to them. Instead, I’m handed documents in legalese that outline the project. I’m supposed to decipher these and make them understandable in government style. I leap over tall buildings in a single bound and dress in leather as a bat and stop crimes in my spare time, too.

So, back to round four. My boss walks into my office and informs me I’m texting too much on my phone. I text to keep me in touch with people who keep me sane, by the way.  He then spends the next hour and half to two hours asking me if I’m “supported” (I felt like we were talking about me needing a jock strap). Talk about turning up the pressure. Yes, on the surface he was asking me if he could help me. Yet, in the same breath he’d say things like, “I need results” and “I expected more.” This “chat” let me know I was on my last legs and yet I still had no clue what they wanted.

I called up my doctor, a wonderful man who knows me and knows I don’t ask to see him often, asking to see about medicating me for stress. I may not do well with most psychiatric drugs (learned that while trying to deal with my sleeping disorder), but maybe there was an herbal remedy he could recommend.

Yesterday I gave it one more try. I gave my boss work I wasn’t proud of, work I’d never admit to doing, work so sterilized of any life I didn’t recognize it. He hated it. No, not the sterilization. He liked that. What he pointed out was places I’d missed a comma (I got 15 minutes on that) or places he felt were unclear (three other people had read them several times. He was the only one that thought those places were a problem). In other words, he was looking for trouble and found it. By the time it was over, he looked at me and said, “if you can’t give me what I ask for, you’ll never make it as a writer in any corporation.”

He crossed a line. I reached past all the crap I’d been handed in the past month and stopped listening to him. The corrections he wanted took only a half hour to make but I drew it out all afternoon. I was going to quit at the end of the month. I kept hearing his words in my head over and over and got angrier and angrier. Over and over again I’d produced quality work that he’d told me he wanted. Over and over it wasn’t good enough. I had to spend three and half hours listening to Ministry of Education employees pat themselves on the back and being paraded around instead doing the job I was being paid to do. I had to listen to my bosses “are you being supported” speeches over and over instead of getting clear instructions. Now I was being told I was a mediocre writer and never going to be a professional. Yes, I was angry.

By the time I was fired this morning I didn’t care. I cried tears of relief as I packed up my things and left. Here’s what the boss who was so concerned if I was being supported did; he read my termination from a letter then walked out. He didn’t have the decency to ask me if I had anything to say or even say to me “don’t let the door hit you on the ass on the way out.” He left and went on his way.

I feel better now being without a job than I have in the past month. I’m free and I can go back to doing what I love; writing. I don’t know what will come of this blog, probably nothing. I do know this; I wrote this on the fly and it’s not bad and it feels so good to just write again.

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Angry

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Today I got angry.

There are a thousand reasons in a day why I will get angry. Pick one. Racism, homophobia, body shaming, poverty, bad Hollywood movies… take your time. I’ve got a while. It’s not as though I go through my entire day angry at the world. I think about the battles I choose to fight very carefully and some of them do make me angry.

Today I got angry.

One of the battles I choose to fight is poverty. Let me reword that. One of the battles I choose to fight is the distribution of wealth because I live in a nation that has an embarrassment of riches while this winter homeless people will freeze to death. It’s a battle I choose to fight because I live it.

Recently I wrote a blog about Edmonton’s housing situation and another on the problem with wealth distribution. Both of them vent my anger rather nicely and I’m rather proud of them. However, they did raise some eyebrows and criticism from someone I respect and admire.

Don’t get me wrong. I don’t mind criticism. I cut my teeth as a writer with some editors who I swear lived on writer’s tears. This, though, made me angry.

This person told me that I should tone down my anger because people don’t want my anger. To be fair, they’re right. People don’t want my anger but it’s not going away because the situation that made me angry isn’t going away. Long before those posts ever saw the light of day I took steps to try to alter the situation through polite discourse and reason.

That worked oh so well.

This person then fixated on a comment I made about people in power using the poor for photo ops. I stand by my statement and I’m not taking it away no matter how uncomfortable it makes people. People in power stay there because they do things like this to fool the populace into thinking they give a shit about the little folks. They don’t. It’s smoke and mirrors and those of us on this side see it for what it is. However, this person told me that “lots of people don’t see poor people that way.”

And that’s when I saw red, Your Honour.

If there is one person out there who can tell me the difference between this statement and #NotAllMen or #NotAllWhites, I’d love to hear it. Start the discussion with a whip and chair, though, because I’m not really in a listening mood.

This person could be right. It’s possible that not all people see the poor this way. However, enough do and if you find yourself using any version of “not all” in any way then you’re part of the damn problem.

So today I got angry and I put on my Don Quixote personality and politely told this person I would keep getting angry at a situation that deserves nothing but my anger.

Tomorrow I will get angry too.

Tarot and Writing – Part 3

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So in the first two parts of this series, I gave a basic understanding of what the tarot is and what it does. In this part I’m going to give a breakdown of the various parts of the tarot. It’s a general overview of what’s to come. I will explain what the tarot is comprised of and a general understanding of its importance to the overall system. No, you don’t actually have to know this to use the tarot in your writing. I’m simply giving this information so you can use it in the future if you like.

Major Arcana

The Major Arcana of any tarot are the heart of the system. Consisting of 22 cards, they speak about life events.

At this point I have to make a distinction. In our lives there are different kinds of events that occur. One type is “life events.” These events are those moments when our lives are at a pivot point. We all have them and we don’t always recognize them because sometimes a life event can be a small, seemingly insignificant, moment. It can be a simple as making a left turn instead of a right and bumping into a friend you haven’t seen in years. These life events cause your life to alter its course and take you in a new direction. They happen all the time and that’s natural.

Major Arcana talk about life events or people that cause life events. These cards have an effect on how the cards around them are read. They impact everything around them.

Minor Arcana

The Minor Arcana are significant in a different way. These cards talk about influences and events that happen around you. Think of them as the supporting cast. When you watch a movie, for example, you never think of who is taking care of the props yet without them the movie would suffer a great deal. The Minor Arcana are similar. These are events and people moving in and around your life in a more subdued way than the Major Arcana. The Minor Arcana are divided into four groups.

Cups

The suit of cups talks about emotional issues. It corresponds to the heart and water is its element.

Wands

The suit of wands talks of passion and creation. It corresponds to the stomach where your instinct dwells and fire is its element.

Swords

The suit of swords is about the intellect, logic and reason. It corresponds to the head and air is its element.

Disks/Pentacles

The suit of disks or pentacles, as it’s sometimes called, talks a lot about money. However, it also talks about physical needs and more concrete elements in your life. It corresponds to the root chakra or the base of the spine and its element is earth.

Next time I’ll start to break down the tarot even further. If you wish to have the individual card meanings, then I will recommend some books and websites at the end of this series. For now, this surface level understanding is really all you need to use the tarot in your writing.

 

Tarot and Writing – Part 2

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Okay, so part one was all about learning that the tarot can be used for more than just telling the future. In fact, the tarot doesn’t actually help foretell anything. I’m going to let you in on a little secret that tarot readers understand but they don’t generally tell you. It is impossible to foretell the future. Doesn’t happen. Instead, what the tarot does is tell you likely outcomes given your situation and state of mind at present.

Wait a minute. You mean nothing mystical’s going on?

Nope. All that’s happening is that the cards present to you possibilities given where you are at present which depends on what has happened in the past. So what does that mean and how does it pertain to your writing.

There are 78 cards in a standard tarot deck (I understand there are some non-standard tarot decks but for my purposes we’re cheerfully ignoring them). This is comprised of 22 major arcana and 56 minor arcana. Each of those cards embodies an archetype of some form or another. What that means is that those archetypes are going to ring with some aspect of your life. This is where many dismiss the tarot as being without merit or a fool’s game. If that’s where you leave it then you’ve missed the point of the tarot and I’m going to let you in on its secret.

The tarot’s images are meant to speak to the reader. The reader then interprets them based on a number of factors; your reactions, the cards surrounding it, questions they’ve asked ahead of time. There are many readers out there who are very good at what they do and they have my deepest respect but the tarot is meant to be a personal device, not mediated through another.

When you see a tarot card, there is something in the image that speaks to your inner self. You may focus on a color or how the image is placed. At first you are probably unaware of how this image rings with your deeper self. However, it is there and it is this inner awakening that makes the tarot ideal for helping you to generate ideas.

As we go in this series, I will show you how to take that unconscious recognition and make it conscious. I recommend you get a tarot deck for yourself. As I’ve said in my previous post, I recommend the Thoth tarot deck as the images are ideal for this sort of work. However, you can choose another if you’re more comfortable with them. The problem will be that when I get into the individual cards, you will get lost as Aleister Crowley altered the Thoth deck significantly. The closest to this deck would be the Rider-Waite deck but I still recommend the Thoth deck.

Next time I will delve a bit deeper into the connection between the self and tarot and how to use that connection.

 

The Tarot and Writing

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Thoth Tarot Deck

Thoth Tarot Deck

When I first began writing fiction, something happened that I didn’t expect. I hit a wall. A big, steel, high as fuck wall. I’d been writing articles for years before having to take a hiatus to care for my parents. I still kept writing but it wasn’t fiction. Small things; poems, true stories, weird events; things like that. Writing fiction, though, is a different horse. It has six legs and can be a mean mother fucker. Rather than give up, I did what any writer would do and tried to write past the wall.

Every writer has encountered that wall. Whether you’ve been at it for a day or for 50 years, that wall is big and dark and it has your name written all over it. When it happened to me, I had an ally I didn’t expect; the tarot deck.

As it happened, I was using the Thoth Tarot deck at the time. Designed by Aleister Crowley, it was fundamentally altered from the traditional Rider-Waite deck in some very significant ways. It was these alterations that helped me fight that wall.

Crowley believed that the tarot decks used up to that point were flawed. He believed that to keep the whole magick system secret, the designers of the decks changed things. So, he changed them back. Typical Crowley, really.

What Crowley understood, and I came to learn, was that the tarot was a tool but a flawed tool was useless. Because of it’s unique quality, I came to use the deck to blast through that wall known as WRITER’S BLOCK. It’s the very changes that make the Thoth deck uniquely designed to do just that.

In this upcoming blog series, I will show you, my faithful readers, how to use the Thoth Tarot deck to blast through your own walls. No, you don’t actually have to be a writer to get use out of it. I will show you how to use the deck to generate ideas that will enable to you to move forward on projects, ideas or just in life. This isn’t mysticism, it’s just common sense that anyone can use whether you use the tarot or not. You don’t need any special skills or knowledge. You don’t need crystals or know how to meditate. All you need to do is learn how to look and see what’s in front of you.

As I will explain later, I use the Thoth tarot deck because it’s uniquely designed. You’ll come to learn (and love) this design. I recommend you use the same deck and if you choose to change to another deck, do so after the series which I will post once a week.

Welcome.

 

Riding the Black Horse

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This is the first time in years that I’ve used my writing to work out what’s going on in my life. Right now I’m so overwhelmed that I feel I have no choice.

See, that’s the biggest problem right now. I’m helpless. I’m poor and that doesn’t give me a lot of options and I have a whole list of disabilities that limits me as well. I have this fantasy about living a life where I’m allowed to make choices that benefit me instead of being forced into situations that benefit some faceless government.

I just got a notice today that my rent is going up $265 in two days. Yes, you got that right. Two whole days to come up with $265. Looks like groceries are optional now. See, I live in a low-income building and let me give you a few facts.

  1. There is no definition as to who can live in a low-income building. There’s no regulations stating that you have to make under a certain amount to live here. I could be a millionaire and still rent here.
  2. There’s no regulations stating what they can or can’t charge for their apartments. Legally, they could raise my rent to $1000/month if they wanted to and still call themselves “low-income.”
  3. There’s no regulation stating how they determine my rent. A common practice in low-income buildings is to have tenants hand in their tax assessment and base rents on that. However, that’s not the law. It’s just common practice.
  4. They’re under no legal obligation to give me any notice in rent increases. Yes, folks, you read that right. Two days is completely legal.
  5. I can be kicked out at any time if I can’t pay that rent.

Yes, that’s the life I live as a tenant of a low-income building. Sometimes low-income buildings will evict tenants they don’t like on very spurious reasons. When you’re poor, you learn to live with this reality. You are always one step away from being homeless and everyone knows it.

That’s not all I’m dealing with this week, though. I’m finding out things about myself that leave me feeling at odds with myself.

Back in 2011, I had an assessment done. At that time I was given the diagnosis of Non-Verbal Learning disorder. I did my research (for which I’d like to thank both the Edmonton Public Library and the University of Alberta library) and felt more in control knowing more about what it was. Once put on the Asperger’s spectrum, it’s been given its own diagnosis. However, it exhibits a lot like Asperger’s.

I also deal with anxiety. Nothing new to anyone who’s been reading this for any time. I talk about that black horse a lot. What is new is something I failed to read in the assessment; I have ADHD. It’s at this point my brain stops and I have no words.

Coming to grips with the reality of the link between NLD and Asperger’s is enough of a blow. Realizing I have ADHD on top of it…. how do you add that information into your life? Yes, it’s a diagnosis and shouldn’t mean much but those four letters stun me. I’ve always known my brain works more like a blender on high than the functioning computer it is but that didn’t bother me. I worked with it. But ADHD? How do you add those letters into your life?

So I’m particularly vulnerable right now and want to feel like I have some control. The truth is that when you’re poor and disabled, control is taken away from you. The Powers That Be believe that, somehow, you’re unable to handle control so you’re treated like a child. I don’t know where anyone got that idea but I’d really like them to get it out of their heads.

Right now I’m scared because something new has come down the pipe and this infantalization of me as one of Alberta’s poor and mentally ill has left me with few tools to deal with it. So, in a desperate attempt to gain some control, I grasp at the only thing that has ever made me feel powerful; my words. Right now, they’re all I have.

 

Employment and the Mentally Ill

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Back in the summer of 2011, I worked as a writer for Alberta Education. It was such an absolute nightmare for me that had I not had the good fortune to be fired, I would have found myself in the psych ward in the hospital within a week. I wish I could say that is an exaggeration but it isn’t. As a result of this nightmare, two things happened; I began to have panic attacks. These attacks were triggered when I tried to write or when I was working in a job and had to talk to the boss. Just thinking about it is enough to quicken my breathing and make a panic attack seem imminent.

Yes, I tried to work but the anxiety got the better of me and I simply couldn’t anymore. The idea, just the simple thought, of talking to a boss still makes me want to shut down. However, I’m not one to give up without a fight so, recently, I thought perhaps I could work part-time somewhere. A couple of days a week shouldn’t overwhelm me and would give me time to recuperate for the next shift.

See, aside from the anxiety, I’m actually a great worker. In an office I’m versatile and creative. Show me what you need done and I’ll get it done. In retail, I’m actually very patient with the customers and like to help. I understand what it’s like trying to find something and needing some help. So, with that in mind, I applied to some local businesses. Like Walmart.

There is a new trend in corporations to use psych tests as a means to thin out the resumes they get. The belief being that they can get the type of person they want without all the hassle of actually talking to people. It’s cookie cutter thinking and it’s dangerous.

Anyone who’s been trained as a psychologist or psychiatrist will tell you that without the proper training and proper testing methods, these tests are, at best, useless. A true psych test such as the MMPI has very specific questions that answer questions that the psychologist or psychiatrist may face. However, these tests are meant to be a tool, not a means to weed people out.

Think of it this way; a hammer is a tool that can help a person with the right experience and training to build a house. However, that hammer cannot build the house by itself. These big corporations are relying on these mini psych tests to do their job for them. A job they were never designed to do.

Further, these tests are not full psych tests. There is a great deal missing from them. A true psychological test done by a trained professional has multiple questions dealing with the same or a similar issue. This is done not only to determine who’s trying to fake something but is also a means to gauge how deep an issue may go. These mini tests don’t have the follow up questions. Therefore, the corporation is only getting a very skewed picture of the person.

There is a very real human rights danger here, though. Those tests can reveal any mental health issues such as, in my case, anxiety. Suddenly the person with a mental illness finds themselves and their illness exposed to strangers without their knowledge or consent. I find that frightening. It goes deeper, though. Once exposed, the corporation will red flag that person so that any subsequent resumes they send in are automatically rejected without even being glanced at.

What does that mean? That means that those with mental health issues are being denied jobs based on their disability. Yet, most of the time they don’t even know this is going on. That the human resources department has red flagged them because their mental illness showed up on a test they neither have the training nor experience to administer.

I find all of that terribly, terribly frightening. Don’t you?

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