Sunday, August 17, 2008

No Future?

I'VE ALLUDED TO SOME GREATER-THAN-AVERAGE discontent with my job in the recent past. Doing so without explaining why is, at best, whiny . . . and frankly this post may emphasize this suspicion. I had started a couple of times during the past week to write up the current conditions there, but I just got sick of what sounded like someone bitching about starving with two loaves of bread under his arms. (Those big, crusty French loaves that take a week to finish. Imaginary simple carbs are OK on my diet.) We're flirting with recession, after all, and I've survived two layoffs there. Nice to be needed. But do I need them as much as they need me? Ah, there's the question.

Let's try this again by describing the office as it now is. We moved internally over last weekend. I'm no longer in an area of the office that was surrounded by empty cubes, abandoned by the former staffers of my magazine; loud assholes involved in marketing and sales (and to show you how this company thinks, after the last move, when my former coworkers complained about the adjacent noise, they were given cheap noise-control earmuffs rather than any disciplinary assistance); and one dingbat, who used to sit to my direct right, and who muttered to herself all day when she wasn't seized with racking, lung-hemorrhaging choking fits.

I am now ensconced among the editors of another magazine — all corpse-quiet, all capable of intelligent banter — and two of the company web team, one of whom I need to bug occasionally, so her placement is convenient. So the atmosphere last week was radically better.

So why did I feel like my composure was going to unravel through most of the week?

I now quote from a long letter to myself I wrote over the bulk of July 25, in lieu of work, to keep me from losing it one day:
I'm wondering how long I'll be able to last in the current work arrangement. The office, which was not even completely full when I started last year, is a ghost town. Entire rows of cubes and several offices stand empty. [ . . . ] The phone list, far shorter in total than when I started, was bumped up in type size, to project the illusion of full staffing. [ . . . ]

There's no "coworkers" here, not in the sense of people with whom you collaborate daily, and, if you're lucky, look forward to seeing on Mondays. [ . . . ] there's nobody to talk to. [ . . . ] I don't have a boss present here to distribute work, nor do I have the autonomy to make these moves myself. (I'd like to think that, as a freelancer, I'd be able to set my day's activities and find interesting work w/o getting into a wandering mindset, but at least I'd be self-sufficient for staff.) [ . . . ]

As regards the remote staff, the top brass on that side, who was picked to replace [my previous managing editor, P.] b/c she drove off the previous staff & became overmatched by the tide of work to be done, hasn't represented a very new direction. He's been out of the office 2½ weeks of the past 5. He had proposed weekly meetings to keep things moving & possibly get the magazine back on schedule, but he hasn't hosted a single one. The 2nd-in-command, my immediate boss, doesn't seem interested in hosting them himself. He does the necessary writing speedily enough, but hasn't stepped up to run the joint as much as I believe he's gonna need to in light of the group editor's current split of responsibilities. I don't think that we're even 25% of his time across 4 publications [ . . . ]

The clinical editor declared herself overwhelmed the last time we actually did have a staff meeting. The review process requires articles to spend a stretch of time in another company's hands, and the need to be liaison for all of the back-and-forth is challenging for her. P. managed to do it all, but she never slept & let stress & overwork destroy her health. I credit the clin. ed. for sending up a signal flare, which led to a bit of scrambling to cover her column duties. At least I was able to do a little more writing for the issue.

The art department is another story. After the in-house artist left [i.e., was effectively laid off], production duties fell to the new person in [Central City]. This person already had layout duties for (at least) all the other pubs of our group editor, plus maybe 1 more. So ours makes 5. Our guy had his hands full w/ 2! And keep in mind that the artist was responsible for hunting down stock photos, commissioning photo shoots for the lead/cover story, working with interior artists [for spot illustrations], etc. At our first art conference w/ the new person, she said she'd prefer to use stock photos for a lot of the inside art, including the spot illos we'd been securing from a graphic artist. So another freelancer gets it in the tail. Worse, she took her sweet time in getting in touch with our old artist (I eventually had to advocate for him @ a staff meeting w/ the publisher present) and has been unresponsive to our remaining artist's requests for information & offers to help. The impression she got is that this new person doesn't want to admit how overwhelmed she is. To which I say, tough shit to the company. They make the genius-level decision to can the vast majority of the NJ art staff, w/o thinking through the consequences of having all of this work fall to cheaper remote labor. Too bad.

I question how long I can endure here w/o the daily exchanges w/ colleagues that advance projects, that foster new ideas, that help to build trust. With the folks out of house, all they'll ever be is clients I meet on rare occasions. Without either absolute control over my work, or day-to-day running contact w/ folks who will see me develop and who can vouch w/ full authority for my worth when it comes to raises, plum assignments, and promotions, all I've got here is the job that comes up next in the rotation, some editing, some writing, and some Web work.

I've got 11 months until I turn 40. Usually guys @ that age are more established in a career or a company than I am here. Valued as an employee, perhaps; trusted and sought after to do good work, maybe; irreplaceable, no. I don't see as permanent the situation of the co. retaining a NYC-area-salaried employee while the rest of the magazine earns [Central City]–level money. Now is my time to make them understand what an asset I am at this price, especially in the face of a recession.

The problem is, I don't feel inspired to do so. Like a lot of my friends, I feel under-challenged, unmotivated, at this job. I'm not sure what else I might be able to do, but I'm sure it's more than I can achieve here, especially if they need to cut more employees as the economy continues to flounder. [ . . . ] I feel very easily distracted when facing tasks here, barely able to keep my attention on one task w/o hitting the Web for some diversion. Clearly a sign of disinterest.

What does rivet my attention? Doing a rigorous edit. Copyediting. Proofreading. Writing things. Can these things be done freelance and have any chance of earning enough $ to pay for insurance, to say nothing of 401(k)/retirement money? Or rent, even? At 40, will have to start a new business in my parents' basement?
I followed this letter with a long walk around the building and parking lot, a daily escape that has helped keep me on an even emotional keel.

Since, then, I've gotten a bit of perspective. Let's face it, jobs are usually self-inflicted, and if one's not in so much debt that any stable job has to be kept no matter what, and one can walk away, better to invest one's energy in finding that next job than in rhapsodizing about the pain it's supposedly causing. I don't think I was that whiny, but it wouldn't be the first time if I was. So allowing for the fact that this piece was written while I was in a bit of a trough, some points:
  • There's certainly nothing wrong with starting a solo business, or with doing so in the most economical site you can find for it. Basements, garages, and attics have hosted many efflorescences of American genius, especially when the creator's getting a little help with the rent. So I got hyperbolic at the end here.
  • The situation with the artist has, no hyperbole intended, gotten worse. My boss in Central City has confirmed that she is unresponsive to input from editors. She doesn't pay attention to deadlines until you remind her of them. And I had to get some graphics from her for the monthly website upload, all of which came back wrong despite my extensive directions. What do you do when you send someone Photoshop masters of some web graphics, ask for them to be saved as flattened JPEGs, and then keep getting .PSD files back after repeating this request thrice? (In my case, I stopped asking for the fix, briefed my boss on her failure, made the fixes myself, and put my head between my knees until hyperventilation ceased.)
  • It took me one full day to find the name of a contact who could answer my questions about setting up a trip for this week, because the employee orientation manual is better than 2 years out of date, and another half a day to get an account opened with our online travel system, because the instructions fail to inform the user that you need various bits of obscure employee data to complete it. This was the same stretch when the artist was fucking up. I spent the next day wondering when the chest pains would begin.
  • I finally took back the job of updating the magazine's website after handing it off for 6 months due to the staff crunch. I confess it felt good to do this myself again, and I remembered nearly all of the procedure. (If I'd truly not given a shit about it, I'd have forgotten it in total.) Future of the web work is unclear; writing ab0ut what's in store here is tough without ID'ing the whole shebang, but let's say instructions on how to do things are simultaneously in flux but being codified in a written guide. Lots of fun.
  • More alarming, I learned that the magazine's editors all got a formal lesson in updating the website. Partly this will allow them to place content on the fly, between the monthly print publications. But it also makes my knowledge less unique, and me more replaceable.
Now ahead of a big editorial review meeting this coming week, which I have to attend in person out at the other office, I have the ace in the hole of proposing some ideas for setting up a proper blog for the magazine. The one we launched a year ago died after two entries when the previous clinical editor left. Good thing, too; going with the company ethic of "pay for shit, get shit," they did it as a series of HTML pages on our site — rather than on a blogging platform — which took four clicks to reach from the "Blog" button on the front page. My ideas more or less boil down to, "Find out what [successful blog another magazine runs] did to launch theirs, and copy it," and "Give me the company policies on setting up new domains, buying a blog-platform license, commenting, linking, graphics, etc., etc.," for which I'm fully expecting to get blank stares.

More on that meeting: We're supposed to set up the 2009 slate of articles, and then hear from two higher-ups their opinions of how the past 12 months have been for the magazine. The period coincides exactly with my tenure there and the lifespan of our most recent redesign. So all of these things will be examined for how successful they've been, and they'll be looking for on-the-scene testimony from that period. Unless someone else is going to be there from that era, that leaves me as the sole survivor. We do have some market research to help figure how we've been doing too, which came in the form of an inch-thick sheaf of paper I will probably end up reading during the delays at Newark and the actual flight to Central City.

This whole process could reignite my enthusiasm for the title and the job. If I'm pulled more into writing again, which I had to set aside at the beginning of the year as our staff evaporated. Should I somehow become a key to the blog project, or sucked deeper into the management of the website, I could request formal training for these things, which would fulfill one of the goals on my first performance review, or become a negotiating point if they fail to assist me in staying current with tech and software. At minimum, I'd get a couple more qualifications on the résumé.

I'm just hoping the feeling of hopelessness that the above letter expresses doesn't return amid this trip. When I shut down on an idea, I find it damn near impossible to fake enthusiasm for it. I may just have to smile through some of this shit and then try to make sense of it when I'm away from these folks. By the time I return on Thursday, I'll either have a greater sense of my direction at this place, or just go to work on Friday and write myself another rambling rumination on trying to amend years of indolence with a plan to find fulfilling work for the rest of my functional days.

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