Prov 17:22

A merry heart doeth good like a medicine... - Proverbs 17:22

Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Jobs that Taught Me About Life, Part 4: The Amway Representative

I’d have done almost anything to get out of driving a tractor, especially after the fiasco of the Hydro pole. My parents-in-law had signed on as Amway representatives and figured it was a great opportunity for us, too. Their up-line directors were a pair of persuasive, strikingly attractive optimists who assured us Amway was the answer to our prayers and would see us through the next several years of university not only hunger-free but set for life. They showed us the program and how to go about signing up the rest of the planet so all could enjoy the financial freedom to determine their own paths.

Of course, all of this was before I really knew what made me tick. That I basically craved alone time more than my daily bread. That I couldn’t sell my way out of a paper bag. That I’d rather slide naked down a thirty-foot razor blade than convince somebody else they could succeed at something few others had.

I loaded my green Dodge Dart with product and set out to conquer the world one box of laundry detergent at a time. I started with Amaranth residents I’d known since childhood and made my presentations from the handy carrying case containing a variety of household and personal products. Most folks were kind-hearted enough to order a bottle of dish soap or a can of mosquito repellent or some vitamins. But we all knew the big money was made in signing new recruits who could then sell the product while I continued to sign more new recruits. Some listened politely, giving me a chance to rehearse my spiel.

My one memorable moment of those days has little to do with Amway. I called on Mrs. Cooper, my Grade One teacher from 13 years earlier. She seemed thrilled to see me and we sipped tea while she sorted through her cookie recipes.

“Do you know a good recipe for gingersnaps?” she asked. “I like the soft kind.”

Of all the crazy things to be carrying in one’s purse, for some strange reason mine held a recipe card that day. Only one. It was for gingersnaps—the soft kind. She copied my recipe in her beautiful penmanship as we laughed about the crazy odds.

(I figured Mrs. Cooper was about ninety-nine years old at the time. I couldn’t have guessed that over thirty years later I’d enjoy the privilege of preparing a letter to her from the Mayor of Portage la Prairie on the occasion of her one hundredth birthday.)

Somehow, I sold enough product to convince Hubby and his parents I was a natural at Amway. At least it kept me off the tractor.
We returned to Texas for the next school year and began spending evenings and weekends trying to convince our fellow students that they, too, could take advantage of this amazing opportunity. We began attending regular pep rallies with other Amway people in a neighbouring town and I began to wonder whether the cost of gas was worth the weekly shot in the arm. More money was going out than in. Rent came due and our cupboards stood bare. Weeks went by and we hadn’t signed up a single person. I was almost hungry enough to swallow the sample products in my handy carrying case.

One day I decided I’d had enough of selling and it was time to put my waitressing experience to use. I would apply at every restaurant and not stop until somebody hired me. By the end of the day, I’d landed a front-counter job at McDonalds where I figured I’d never again have to convince anyone to buy something they didn’t want.

But that’s a story for another day. Here's the cookie recipe:

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Jobs that Taught Me About Life, Part 3: The Farm Hand

I was a farmer’s daughter who’d never driven a tractor. But when I married into a farm family with all boys, they assumed I brought this skill with me and would be an asset to the operation. Turns out I proved more of a liability.

Remember "Green Acres?"
The first summer after Hubby and I tied the knot, he looked forward to working on his parents’ farm between university semesters and having his bride join the crew. I started off enthusiastically, too. I really wanted to personify the good little wife and impress my in-laws. Besides, it sounded like a great chance to work on my tan, seated atop that open tractor like a queen on her throne, warbling the theme song from Green Acres.

Hubby gave me a quick lesson on the tractor and got me started plowing a field with an offset disk. Then he went off to work another field and I drove round and round, proof that I was not “out standing” in this field. 

It wasn’t too bad. At first. I kind of freaked out when a dead goose became tangled in the prongs of my plow, but I recovered. Once in a while I’d turn too sharp and the plow would start riding up the rear tractor tire toward me.

“I don’t think that’s supposed to happen,” I thought.

Somehow I turned the wheel in the right direction to correct the problem, oblivious to the fact that farmers have died that way.

The hours dragged into days and the days into weeks. I began feeling increasingly trapped in my new career. What had I done? I was nineteen years old and stuck in the middle of a hot dusty field all alone, muscles aching, sweaty, and covered in dirt. I remembered the invitation to work on Parliament Hill in Ottawa that I’d turned down for love and marriage. Good thing there was no “undo” button or I might have pushed it that summer.

One gorgeous morning while pulling a deep tiller, I determined to make the best of my new life. This really wasn’t so bad. I could enjoy the outdoors with plenty of time to think. I probably should have been thinking a little harder about what I was doing.

Suddenly my tractor stopped with a jarring jolt, the engine silenced. I heard a sickening crack and noticed wires dangling menacingly overhead. I looked behind me. The cultivator jutted out to the side further than I had estimated, and I’d driven too close to the edge of the field where the power lines were strung. My plow had hit a pole, cracking it in half. Once again unaware of the danger I was in, I could only think about what a mess I’d made and how stupid I felt. One name rose to my lips.


But it wasn’t a curse. “Help me.”

And he did. Like an angel that appears out of nowhere, a neighbour happened to be driving by. This man had been part of our church since I was a little kid and in that moment, I needed a daddy figure. He quickly instructed me to stay put and not touch anything until it could be determined it was safe to dismount without electrocuting myself. 

The equipment was okay. I was physically unharmed, but shaken to my core. I went home and yanked weeds out of the flower garden with a vengeance. And to this day I’m not certain whether my father-in-law reimbursed Manitoba Hydro for their pole or not. I know I didn’t.

The biggest things I gained that summer were a keen appreciation for those who spend their lives performing hot, dirty, back-breaking farm work—and a conviction that it was not for me. Surely an alternate way to make a living would present itself. 

And it did. I spent the remaining weeks of that summer suffering a new kind of torment: selling Amway.

But that’s a story for another day.

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Jobs that Taught Me About Life, Part 2: The Secretary

A few days after high school graduation and with my hands filled with sparkling resumes I’d worked out on my Selectric typewriter, Portage la Prairie was my oyster. I left copies at the brand new Provincial Building (no idea which department I might like to work in, but back then they had a central reception desk at the main doors), the Portage Mutual, and the Portage Co-op. 

The next day, I received three job offers by phone and figured that was just how the world worked. The reality check would come later.

Monday morning, I showed up at the Co-op by 8:00 a.m. where I would work in their offices for the next seven months. Having learned shorthand in high school made me a bit of a novelty, and the personnel manager who hired me was eager to play the role of dictator. Turns out, dictating a letter was harder than he imagined. After fumbling around to come up with his first sentence, he sat back, took a drag of his cigarette, and said, “read that back to me.”

It also turned out that taking dictation in a real office situation was more challenging than taking it in Mrs. Wangsness’ shorthand class, where she stood at the front of the room, stop watch in one hand to evenly time her speaking as she read from carefully prepared text. Even her “no, scratch that’s” were scripted.

We stumbled through one letter, I typed it up, and I never took dictation again. But I do recall typing a lot, sorting piles of invoices into alphabetical order, operating the switchboard, and breathing my chain-smoking co-worker’s second-hand offerings.

It was an interesting time in the life of our Co-op. The old store was being torn down and a brand new one built (which has since been demolished. Yes, I’m that old.) By fall, we had moved our offices into two temporary mobile homes at the rear of the building. I shared the kitchen/living room space of one trailer, while the bedrooms became managers’ offices and the copying room. The second trailer included a makeshift customer counter where more staff worked, and the two trailers were joined to each other and to the main building by plywood hallways that grew increasingly colder as winter set in. Not the most pleasant of working environments, but everyone looked forward to moving in to our new space.

One November weekend, a massive snowstorm left Portage buried up to its nose. When I returned to work Monday morning, I learned one of our trailers had collapsed under the weight of the snow. The roof had come down right on my desk, destroying my typewriter and cracking my desk in half. Had I been sitting at it, I’d have been a goner.

We heard later that the trailer had been made in California and should never have crossed the Canadian border. It was not designed to hold that much snow. 

I remember little about what followed because I left shortly thereafter to start my new life in Texas—far from the ice and snow. But I gained work experience that would prove valuable in the years ahead and the memory of that smashed typewriter assured me God was not done with me on this planet yet. I suppose there’s some irony in the fact that I would later live in a mobile home for 26 years.

When our Co-op demolished the old store and opened its current building in 2008, I felt both sad and bewildered as to why they’d destroy such a “new” building. Maybe that’s why I now work at City Hall, built in 1898 and still standing strong. 

But that’s a story for another day.

Tuesday, July 5, 2016

Jobs that Taught Me about Life, Part 1: The Waitress

What small prairie town would be complete without its mom-and-pop café? Known for good home cooking, their menus offer the basics: roast beef dinners with pie and ice cream, burgers with fries, and hot turkey sandwiches on white bread and swimming in gravy. A jukebox in the corner, a long counter with revolving stools covered in red or black vinyl, and a wide array of candies, chips, and cigarettes lined up behind.

The summer after Grade Eight, I was hired to work at the Amaranth Café. A road construction crew had come to the area that summer and stomped in every day for lunch and frequently for supper—not exactly a disinteresting scenario for a teenage girl. Rose ran the bustling little business and taught me how to wait tables, make milk shakes and ice cream cones, and operate an ancient cash register. I learned to distinguish the roast beef from the roast pork and keep the serviette dispensers filled. I remember washing a lot of dishes, sweeping floors, and cleaning ashtrays. The smoking section was the entire place.

I must have done all right, because by mid-summer, Rose was leaving me in charge after the supper rush so she could go to Bingo. At the mature age of 14, I became solely responsible to close at 9:00, sweep, mop, lock up, and put away the cash. Though it boggles my mind now, I never thought about it then. But after my time there ended and I went off to boarding school, I wrote Rose a letter thanking her for the opportunity. I learned a lot, not just about work but about human nature.

One rush hour, I got yelled at and called stupid by a grouchy old customer (in hindsight, he was probably 40) for forgetting to bring bread with his meal. I apologized, served his bread, and blinked back my tears for the next half hour, not having seen enough movies to learn the spiteful things restaurant staff can do to get revenge on nasty patrons. As the construction crew paid their bills and filed out, one of their young and quite handsome members handed me a two-dollar bill and apologized for his mean co-worker’s behavior. Two dollars! Unheard of. Tips at the time were dimes and quarters, not dollars!

Suddenly, my day went from horrible to wonderful. 

I never learned that young man’s name, but I learned how much power our words hold—especially over the young. 43 years have passed and I still remember his kindness to me. Never underestimate your own power to make or break someone’s day, and in those moments of frustration and impatience, ask yourself, “what do I want to be remembered for?”

I wrote the date on that two dollar bill and kept it, folded in my wallet, for years as a reminder that we always have a choice to behave rudely or kindly. I would probably still have it if my wallet hadn’t been stolen several years later. But that’s a story for another day.