Friday, February 24, 2017

Putting My Cards On The Table

There have been a few interesting developments since my last blog post.

It's been a little while since I've written in here, so to recap:  I turned down a job offer doing desktop support for a knife company in favor of going to a blackjack dealing class at a local casino with the intention of getting a job there doing that.  I had a few reasons for my decision, but ultimately it came down to the fact that I didn't want to make a bunch of compromises over who I am in order to take a job that would just be a watered down version of what I left behind.

A few days after I wrote that post, I discovered two things that made me question the decision.  Like, a lot. The first one happened a few days after I turned the I.T. job down - the teacher of the blackjack class (who is really good at what he does) asked me to stick around after class to have a word with me.  We had done 1:1 reviews with the teacher that day and so I didn't think anything of it, assuming that he noticed a mechanical flaw in my shuffling that he wanted to help correct or something like that.

Selfie taken in between writing this blog post and shuffling shuffling shuffling

So, as one might imagine, I was crushed when he told me that he had been in contact with H.R. and that all signs pointed to the fact that my hair was against the "no extreme hairstyles" policy of the casino.  He had a suspicion that that might be the case but wanted to be sure, so he reached out to the powers that be to make sure and the verdict was that I would probably have to remove my dreadlocks if I wanted to get hired there.

I'm sure that the look on my face (and the tears that I tried and failed to hold back) said it all.  I had just written a blog post about staying true to my principles and turning down a job with a dress code, and it turned out that the casino has an even stricter one.  He was obviously sympathetic to my plight, but at the end of the day rules are rules and he wanted to make sure I understood them if I was going to go any further in the class.

That wasn't all.  As it turns out, I was mistaken about the casino's policy on pot.  If marijuana is detected on their drug test, that's a fail.  All of a sudden, I felt like a complete idiot for turning down a job offer in favor of taking a class that doesn't even guarantee work at the end of it.

I made an appointment with the H.R. representative who had originally sent me the invitation to blackjack class.  I went in knowing full well that they're not going to change any policies for someone who doesn't even work at the casino, but at the end of the day my solution to any problem has always been to communicate as much as I can, and so I wanted to plead my case on the hair thing.

When I left the HR meeting, this is what I saw.  I'd like to hope it's an omen of good things to come?

She listened to me, and I left the meeting feeling like my side of the story would at least be considered.  Part of my case (which is absolutely true) is that I'm a transwoman, and that chopping my hair off would almost certainly leave me looking like a man.  A lot of the policies were made a lot time ago, and I don't really think they were made with someone like me in mind.  Also working in my favor was the fact that she didn't notice my hairstyle when I originally came in to take the test - I had been wearing it tied back that day, and to her I looked like any other person.

I told her the truth:  I really think I have the potential and skillset to be extremely good at the job.  My strategy is basically to be one of the best students there to make it as tough as I can for them to reject me for an outdated policy.  I let her know that I'd be 100% willing to do anything to get me within policy short of chopping it off - tying it back, removing the beads, dying it all back to one color - and that I'd be willing to work with anyone that I need to work with if there's any questions that they might have about me.  I left the conversation with far more hope than I had the night before, and decided to keep moving forward with the class and to see what happens.

That was two weeks ago.  I hadn't written in here since then because, for a long time, it honestly hurt.  All I could think about is that maybe I've been wrong the whole time and that there really is no escaping the fact that I'm never going to find a place in the world where I'm judged solely on my merits.  It's really hard to go so long preaching about owning your decisions and being yourself while simultaneously being broke and unemployed.  It felt like I was being rejected by the world.

Thankfully, continuing to go to the class feels like it's been the correct choice.  With time and introspection, I've come to realize a few things that have helped me cope with the decision to stay.

The first thing I did was to take a long hard look at the things that I didn't think I was willing to give up, and I came to realize that I might have been looking at things all wrong.  When I look at my situation like "going against my principles for a job", it made me feel like a hypocrite.  But once I thought of it as "giving up a good job that I enjoy because my appearance is oh so important to me", I kind of stopped myself and reassessed my priorities.  Isn't that, like, really shallow?

This whole experience has had me thinking a lot about what makes me who I am.

And while I have strong feelings about drug tests - mainly that they're a legal excuse to discriminate against people - I actually think that this job might be worth it.  I like smoking marijuana, but it's not "stay unemployed instead of taking a job I think I'd like" good.  I mean, I first started smoking it back in 2003, so it's not like there's any magic or mystery behind what it does anymore.

So as of last week, I've quit smoking it.  At least, for the foreseeable future.  And while it's a little bit frustrating to not partake, given that I live in a state where it's legal in a home with roommates who grow it, it hasn't been the end of the world.  Much like I do with any other tough choice in my life, I'm looking at it as a quest - a test of willpower and a reassessment of my priorities.

The fact is, it's been more than a year since I left Boston and my life has completely changed since then.  I'm still young at heart and I think I'll always come off as a little bit eccentric, but more than ever I've been taking a long hard look at myself in the mirror and seeing someone who's almost 40 years old.  My priorities and point of view are never going to be the same as they were when I was living in Boston, and I think I'm finally starting to make peace with that.

At the time of this writing, I've completed four weeks of dealer school.  So far, it's been a lot more challenging than I originally thought it was going to be.  I've been playing table games on and off since I was legally old enough to do so, but I never really appreciated just how many things dealers have to keep track of.  Literally everything a blackjack dealer does or says has a reason behind it.

Goals for the near-future: get this cloak made + learn how to do that with cards

It's basically like being a combination of a bartender and a banker.

On one hand, ultimately the casino exists to provide entertainment to its guests, and so being able to deal with people (especially drunks) is a large part of the work.  My teacher has gone out of his way to prepare us for the fact that card dealers end up having a lot of abuse directed their way - as he says it, "when your job is to take people's money for a living, ultimately a lot of them are going to blame you for it".  That's fine. I have enough life experience to have developed a reasonably thick skin, and all I can do is try and focus on the people who have a good time and to take more pleasure (and tips) out of them than I do negativity from the haters.

That said, casinos are also financial institutions.  There is a lot of money on any given card table, and ultimately the number one responsibility of a card dealer is to protect it.  It's been drilled into our heads that, while we're working, we really aren't allowed to ever turn around or take our eyes off the center of the table.  After almost any transaction that involves handling money or chips, it's absolutely required that we turn our hands up to the sky to show the cameras watching that we're not palming money or doing anything shady.  It's not that they don't trust us - it's that they don't trust anybody.

At the end of it, to be successful as a dealer requires a few different skills.  You need to be able to do all the mechanical tasks (perfect riffle shuffling without exposing any cards, stacking and counting chips, dealing cards quickly) while doing lots of math in your head quickly and correctly, while interacting with people and making sure they have fun, all while keeping an eye on the table at all times to make sure nothing shady happens.  The tests that we need to be able to pass in order to qualify for the job are no joke - unlike regular school, I've been practicing and studying pretty much every night because I don't think there's any way in hell it's possible to pass them without putting a lot of effort into it.

To me, it's been a lot like practicing an instrument.  Four weeks ago I was pretty much terrible at everything (other than math) and the only way to get better has been to immerse myself in practicing.  But, much like with music, I can tangibly see myself improving as I keep at it, and feeling my skills improve has kept me motivated to keep at it.  That's the main reason that I'm willing to make compromises to try and do this for a living in a way that I wasn't willing to do it for an I.T. job - ultimately, the main reason I'm trying so hard is because I genuinely find it to be fun.

Part of the reason that I've been holding off on this blog post is that I'm not done with school yet, and there's still no guarantee that there's a job at the end of it.  I'm genuinely scared of putting all this work into it only to fail a test / not be offered a job.  If that happens I'll be right back at square one - in the same broke and unemployed situation that I was in when I started going to class.  There have been certain days of class where things just don't flow right, and I've spent those days at home in tears at the thought of putting so much into all of this and ultimately failing at it.

On a positive note, my teacher told me he recently heard about the military loosening their restrictions on dreadlocks, and that he was happy because he felt like it might set precedent for how the casino might look at me.  Even if things don't work out, it felt good to hear him say that because it shows me that he cares.

Whatever, though.  That fear is always going to be there, and rather than let myself be ruled by it I'd rather just put everything I got into pushing past it.  My teacher has prepared the class for the fact that the next two weeks of class are the hardest ones yet, which is scary but also kind of exciting.  I'm very much the type of person who likes to throw myself into things that I find interesting, and so I have confidence in my skills.

And so, with all that said, it's time to end this blog post and go back to practicing.  Wish me luck!

Saturday, February 4, 2017

Deal or No Deal

When I first moved out to Oregon, I did so with the intention of finding something different to do with my life. For the better part of a year, I believed that what I wanted to was to write for a living while supporting Cody with Misfit Cords.  But with time comes perspective, and eventually it became clear that I was missing a few fundamental things that I need to be happy:
  • feeling like I'm contributing financially to me/Cody's future
  • a place outside of the house to go and interact with people
  • an outlet by which to learn new skills
I've been taking the hunt for I.T. work pretty seriously over the last month or so.  I feel like I make a pretty strong case to be hired - I have a decade's worth of work experience with positive references from every job I've worked over that time period, I interview well, and for the most part I enjoy the type of work (Desktop Support) that I've built my career on.

I got a reply from a company that manufactures hi-grade knives, requesting a phone interview with me for an open Helpdesk position.  I left the phone interview with a really positive impression - their user base was roughly the same size as Gentle Giant, and from the way they described it it sounded like a comparable job to the one I left behind in Boston.  They replied back a week later asking me to schedule an in-person interview, and I was happy to oblige.

Me in my natural habitat, testing out the webcam on my laptop.
Meanwhile..

As mentioned earlier, I've been playing poker on Wednesday nights at a local bar here in McMinnville. There are about 20-30 people who play there regularly, and as the weeks have passed I've feel more and more like "one of the crew".  It's a good group.  They told me about a free poker tournament that happens at a nearby casino every Monday, and so I started checking that out as well.  Why not?

I have plenty of experience around casinos - I've always lived close to Foxwoods and Mohegan Sun in Connecticut and went there a handful of times per year.  I played at a blackjack table for the first time at Foxwoods on my 21st birthday, years before I ever tried alcohol.  Thankfully, I caught on quick to the idea that I shouldn't gamble money that I don't have, but still managed to enjoy trips to play cards a few times a year.

One night a few weeks ago, one of the players at the bar mentioned that the casino near my house in OR is offering a school for blackjack dealers.  As it turns out, he's one of the people who helps run the poker room there.  I asked him for more information about it - apparently they only run one such class per year, and he felt pretty confident that I'd do well there.  I applied for the class on the website, passed their admission test, and started my first day of class last week.

I actually like it a lot!  I think I have a lot of "soft skills" that suit me rather well.  I'm extremely good at doing quick arithmetic in my head, I have no problem bantering with strangers, and when it comes to handling chips and cards I have a lot of life experience just between playing Magic and poker.  There is a ton of information to take in and skills that need to be practiced, but I've never been the type to shy away from throwing myself into learning new things.  The teacher is really good at what he does and I've had nothing but pleasant interactions with my classmates.

The idea of working at the nearby casino holds a lot of appeal to me.  The commute is a 25-minute straight shot down a highway with no traffic and beautiful scenery.  The pay is minimum wage plus tips, but after factoring in tips I think it pays just as much (if not more) than I was making back in Boston.  Since I know a lot of the regulars who play in the poker room (including two of the people who help run it), I feel like I'll have the ability to move over there if they're ever looking for someone.  And I actually think I would enjoy the job!

Of course there's a catch - succeeding in the class doesn't necessarily guarantee a job.  The teacher said that, on average, they hire roughly half of the class who can succeed at a dealing audition after six weeks of training.  I went into class knowing this - my strategy is just to put as much effort as I can into being one of the best students and becoming someone they can't say "no" to.

With that said, I was more excited at the prospect of the I.T. job.  Sure, I was enjoying dealer's school, but it was still in its first week and my preference was to take the guaranteed paycheck over the calculated risk.  A desktop support job would be well within my comfort zone, so in my mind it was the choice that would eliminate the most stress from my life.

Spoiler alert.

On Wednesday, I went to a class at the casino and then immediately to my second interview at the knife company so that we could all meet in person.  They asked me a few more questions (including a fun technical one that I managed to solve) and it felt to me like there was good rapport in the room.  I left feeling reasonably confident that they were going to call me with an offer.  I was right.

There was just one issue, though.  They're a manufacturer so they follow federal OSHA standards, so I was going to need to take a drug screen.  My party days are long since over so I knew it would be clean of everything except for pot (legal here) and Adderall (for which I have a prescription).  And a quick Google search of the situation told me that since pot is federally illegal, it would mean that I would fail the drug screen.

To quote an one of my first blog posts regarding how I feel about that:

"A few years ago, I was in the process of interviewing for a new contract position with a technical recruiter.  It was a simple six-month job for a pharmaceutical company where my job would basically be to remove old computers and replace them with up-to-date ones.  At that point, I had roughly eight years of IT experience under my belt - this was a job that I could more or less do in my sleep.

As soon as the recruiter saw my resume and talked to me for a few minutes, it was clear that he thought I would be a good fit for the job.  He faxed my paperwork over to the client and I began the process of filling out tax forms and signing paperwork.  I was told that I would hear back from him later that day, but I could probably assume that they would want me and I should prepare to start working as early as the next day.

Later that afternoon, I got a call from the recruiter.  As expected, the client was excited to have me on the job and wanted to know when I could start.  Sweet.  I confirmed to the recruiter that I could start whenever they needed me.  We went over some details, such as what day and time I should start and who I should report to.  I was then asked if I had time to stop by a lab that afternoon to take the requisite drug test.

I specifically remember being put off that he waited so long to bring up a drug test.  What drug test? He never mentioned one to me until the very end of the hiring process.  Looking back on it in hindsight, I think he had a feeling that I was going to object to taking a drug test and so he was trying to wait until the end of the process so I would be less likely to say no.

I told them I wasn't going to do it.  The recruiter told me that I had to if I wanted the job, for two reasons.  The first was that the insurance plan offered by the temp agency required it if they were going to cover me.  The second was that since the client requesting my services was a pharmaceutical company, they needed to make sure that I don't do drugs as a security measure.  He said it was standard operating procedure.

My answer was still no.  He asked me why not, and I told him that I didn't feel like he had a right to that information.    He tried applying a "Cool Guidance Counselor" tone of voice and told me that his office knew that most people smoke marijuana.  It was cool.  It would be all right if pot showed up on the drug test as long as it was the only thing that turned up.  To me, that was completely beside the point. 

It didn't matter to me if I would have passed the test or not.  I didn't want to work for a company whose default stance was to not trust its employees.  If the client thought little enough of me as a technician that the results of a drug test made a significant impact on their opinion, I probably wouldn't have been happy working for them anyways.

I didn't spend decades of my life in the closet, followed by years of my life transitioning, to be judged on anything other than my merits.

I could hear the anger in the recruiter's voice as our conversation continued.  He had spent all day doing the new hire dance with me and was probably looking forward to making commission on a position successfully filled.  We ended the phone call with nothing to show for it except a wasted afternoon and a lesson about being upfront with important information.  One week later, I was hired at a far better company for more money.  I've been there for over four years, and as far as I'm concerned, that was positive karma for standing up for my principles."

My opinion hasn't changed.  If anything, it was even more offensive to me that pot is legal in this state (it wasn't back in MA) and that I would be disqualified because of it (I wouldn't have back in MA).

It wasn't so much that I was afraid of the ramifications of failing the drug test.  The problem was that I was no longer sure if I wanted to work there.  I definitely got the impression from visiting them in person that the company was more formal than I was expecting and it was setting off alarm bells.

Dress code for my current place of employment.  Also my Facebook profile picture.

The second red flag came in the phone call where I was offered the position.  The recruiter went out of her way to mention that their dress code was business casual and she wanted to make sure that I was o.k. with that.  She sent me a copy of their dress code, and long story short - I wasn't.  I don't actually own any clothes that would be in accordance with it.

Once again, I'll refer to a snip from an earlier blog post:

"When I wore normal clothes, I kept things pretty safe.  I shopped at Kohl's and Macy's and Marshall's and stores like that, and basically did my best to fit in with other women at my job.  Meh.

When I wore concert clothes, I went all-out.  Colorful ponchos, silk scarves, tye-dye shirts, patchwork pants, and velour clothes in every color.  I hated shopping for work clothes and loved shopping for festival clothes - this grew inconvenient given that I only went to a handful of shows a year while working five days a week.  It was frustrating and expensive to find new cool outfits that I wanted to wear, given that I had so few opportunities to wear them.

I thought about it and made a decision - I got rid of all my clothes, except for all of my most favorite stuff.  I stopped worrying about fitting in altogether, focusing only on "what types of clothing do I like wearing the most?".  I stopped worrying about whether or not I looked "professional", put my hair in dreadlocks, and focused on dressing the way I would if I could wear whatever I wanted.

It feels like a natural progression.  The more my life grew towards that of my idealized self, the more my clothing choices reflected the type of person I want my fashion to convey."

For reference, these old quotes that I'm using aren't just things I wrote for the heck of it.  They're things that I've put a lot of thought into and feel strongly about.  But after months of not working full-time, my perspective had changed a lot, which made it a lot harder to take a principled stand on potential employment. The job offer was there if I wanted it, but I couldn't help but think about all of the reasons I didn't want to take it.  The ever-growing list overshadowed any sense of excitement that I previously had at the thought of accepting the job.

On top of the list was the fact that if I took the offer,  I'd have to drop out of the blackjack class.  The more I thought about it, the more I realized that I really didn't want to do that - not for a job where I'd have to make so many compromises.  It would basically be a carbon copy of my five years at GG, except strictly worse (for me), in multiple ways.

I spent Thursday night in tears over this.  It's hard to be excited for something for so long, only to be offered it, only to realize that you're no longer sure if you want it.  Thankfully, I've been keeping a blog for more than a year now, so I had the perfect thing to read to get some perspective on how I feel.  

I can't stress this enough:  everyone that I met at the knife company seemed really nice and I feel like I would have gotten along with them.  But company cultures are a real thing and I knew I wasn't going to fit in there in a way that I wasn't going to be comfortable with.  The casino job requires slight compromises on my part - there's a uniform instead of a dress code, and there's a drug screen but they don't fail for legal pot.  In those cases, what they require seems fair given the huge amount of people/money card dealers interact with. And that job offers higher pay, more interesting work (to me), lets me use and develop new skills, and is in an environment where I feel incredibly comfortable in.  I'd be a fool not to take that.

Me, walking away from the I.T. position after reading about the dress code.

One last quote from past-me:

So what advice would I give myself here?

"Dear Shelly,

Motivation and success go hand in hand.  When you're motivated to do good work, you're more likely to experience the success of a job well done.  That, in turn, will motivate you to go on to the next step.  What you're feeling is the opposite - you've gone too long without a tangible improvement in what you're doing, and that's subconsciously sending the message to you that if you get too invested, you'll fail.  Your sense of motivation has been replaced with a fear of failure, and you can't let that be the dominant thing driving your decision-making progress.

I want you to make two lists.  The first will be a list of all the things that you want to happen - this will be the list that you use to motivate yourself.  The second will be a list of all the reasons that you feel like you're not succeeding right now.  That will be the list of problems that you're going to need to figure out so that you're more likely to experience success.

Write those lists, and then cut out all the bullshit.  No more excuses, no more distractions.  No more talking about the things that you want to accomplish that you'll probably get around to doing tomorrow or next week.  You have to take responsibility for making the things you want to happen happen, because no one else is going to do that for you.

Force yourself to make moves even if you don't feel like doing it, and trust that once those first few things pay off, it will only get easier to improve.

You got this!

~Shelly"

When I left blackjack school on Thursday afternoon, I said my goodbyes to everyone, assuming I was going to accept the job.  I woke up Friday morning and called the H.R. rep from the knife company to tell her that I didn't feel comfortable ignoring my gut on this one.  The vibe I got from the conversation was that she saw it too - I was more than capable of doing the work, but there was a chance I wouldn't be able to fit in or be happy in that environment.  Neither one of us would want that.

It wasn't an easy call to make, and will likely go down as one of those "Butterfly Effect" style decisions that I'll possibly end up regretting.  That's fine.  I've made the decision and I feel like it was right, so I'm willing to own it and move forward doing the things that I think will make me happy.