the art of unemployment

'Look at all the poor bastards, who got to go to work while I sleep." These are the lyrics to Everytime, a song by Canadian singer songwriter Sarah Harmer. I will be performing Everytime this weekend at Capilano College Theatre in North Vancouver.

‘Look at all the poor bastards, who got to go to work while I sleep.”

These are the lyrics to Everytime, a song by Canadian singer songwriter Sarah Harmer. I will be performing Everytime this weekend at Capilano College Theatre in North Vancouver. JR, my teacher, whose dedication to his students is reminiscent of Jack Black in the film School of Rock, will be playing the acoustic guitar while I sing on the open black stage. This will be my first time singing in front of an audience, after beginning lessons three months ago.

When JR introduced me to the song Everytime, I didn’t fully appreciate its meaning. But now, as my performance edges closer, Harmer’s lyrics feel more like my own thoughts. To me the lyrics are irreverently symbolic of a person (perhaps an artist), who struggles to maintain a sense of self-esteem, motivation and sanity while pursuing an alternative career including music, acting and other forms of freelance and self-employment.

Harmer sings, “I can’t throw away my fears, up into the atmosphere, they float away at the rate of the smoke and rust. Look at all the poor bastards, gotta go to work while I sleep….”

There’s a mixture of melancholy and cheek underscoring the theme of the song. She pities the “poor bastards” and “drivers” who “got to go to work while she sleeps,” however, she struggles to diffuse her own anxiety as an observer of society, excellently defined in prose by Colin Wilson in his classic work The Outsider.

“We,” standing outside, looking in, trapped in our isolation, marvel even as we mock the nonchalant ease of the insider. Paradoxically, who doesn’t feel the isolation of the “I” even while part of the “we.” Such alienation is often the case for artists, freelancers, stay-at-home parents, the unemployed and retirees.

Within society, this ambiguous relationship between the spectator and participant is underscored by the role of money. The spectator wants it but willingly lives miserably without it. The participant has it but unwillingly lives miserably with the cost (unfulfilling labour).

Who has chosen the better way?

According to the Screen Actors Guild records, only six per cent of the almost 120,000 actors who are already in the union make what the guild defines as middle class earnings (between $30,000 to $70,000 a year) and only two per cent make over 100,000 annually.

Almost 60 per cent of the members of the guild worked five days total in a four-year period. Over 80 per cent of Screen Actors Guild members made fewer than $10,000 a year. Nearly one-third made no money.

That places me uneasily among the majority, wrestling long dormant insecurities. As a freelance writer and unemployed actor, phantom monsters lurk around every corner.

“Am I talented enough, worthy enough, pretty enough, business savvy enough, bold enough or diligent enough to suffer the lack of money for a nobler goal?”

Conversely, even the most monotonous job can give a sense of competence and completion. When I worked at the Yukon Motel in Teslin sweeping, mopping and washing the floor, the shining floor filled me with satisfaction. Cleaning the public bathroom bestowed me with deep heroic pride, like Joan of Arc scrubbing the inside of a urinal in a men’s bathroom, holding my breath for extended periods of time. Before I was fired (unethically) from Starbucks (in my grandmother’s presence while visiting), I derived a similar satisfaction from unstintingly communicating a playful attitude as if in a theatrical production for Taming of the Shrew. Suffering the slings and arrows of a day job, even when its not my passion, has proven invaluable.

Being unemployed (or self-employed) takes courage and considerable discipline.

When nothing demands your attention at any given moment, (besides needy pets) solid daily structure becomes a faithful companion. The best antidote to late night reruns of Ghost Whisperer, or worse … daytime soaps, and other empty attractions of the abyss is a strictly enforced bedtime and alarm clock.

Discipline is not a simple matter when there is nobody taking account. Motivation is self-generated when unemployed. Who, but I, will scrub behind my ears, pluck between my eyes, clip nails, brush teeth and take a stroll outside the house? No one else will.

And when the will is weak, if the little voice in my head cajoles, “… why shower today?” It’s time to pull out the heavy artillery, I stand in front of the mirror naked and run my hand through my long unwashed hair and laugh aloud. I raise my arms, sniff my armpits, and laugh louder. Within five minutes, I am standing humbly in a freezing cold shower. Call it boot camp for the soul—it works.

Full time employment has many positive effects on mental health.

A nine-to-five job provides structured times for eating, arriving, leaving, smoking—even urinating. There are specific duties to be performed, friends to converse with, enemies to ignore, authorities to resent, and biweekly, a piece of paper notifying me I am richer. There is a dress code to abide by (that my messy side ponytail, bra-less and polyester/spandex attire violates I am sure). All of these things give a person an external purpose; a reason to brush their teeth, a reason to shower and a reason to smell like Satsuma.

Unemployment is bound to find everyone at one time or another. It is the frog sitting on your left shoulder waiting silently. Artists, freelancers, stay-at-home parents, retirees, the elderly and the ‘deliberately malcontent’ experience it more regularly.

But unemployment is no respecter of persons.

Be wary the croak of the silent frog. It is an art keeping that web-footed amphibian mute.

Ashley Hunking grew up in Teslin.

She is now a freelance writer and actor

who lives in Vancouver.

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