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Archive for August, 2008

There are two ways of going into business for yourself: The way described in books, and the way that it really happens.

On the surface, the standard advice sounds sensible in its caution: Do your research before beginning, build up your business on the side, and don’t quit your regular work until you have at least $100,000 in business lined up. Follow this advice, and you’ll never do anything rash or ruinous.

You will also, very likely, never go into business for yourself at all. The chances are, you will always find the moment not quite right, and decide to wait until you have a little more work in reserve, or finish paying off a particular debt.

While I applaud the standard advice in theory, I don’t think that any of the self-employed people I know – and I know dozens – ever followed it. Instead, most people seem to follow one of two paths.

On the first path, people find themselves unemployed or under-employed, and figure they have nothing to lose by starting their own businesses or setting themselves up as independent consultants. Sometimes, they have wanted to work independently for years, but never had the courage to do so before. Other times, they seize on the idea in their current crisis. But, however they reach the point of decision, they have reached a point at which they are desperate, and, perhaps, tired of working for other people who seem no smarter than them. Having nothing to lose is a wonderful motivator – even better than deadlines – so people on this path set out to do whatever it takes to establish themselves, working hard and borrowing money if they have to.

On the second path, people never make a conscious choice to work for themselves; their career just works out that way. Maybe contracting is the easiest way to break into a line of work. Or maybe they start taking on extra work in the evenings and the weekend to help pay the mortgage or to bring in a little more income. Slowly, their regular work becomes less important to them, and their sideline grows until, suddenly, they realize that it means more to them than whatever they’re doing for their regular pay cheque. They discover that they like the independence, and, at an opportune moment, they consciously choose it.

My own route to becoming a freelance journalist is an example of the second path. I don’t think I ever had a moment when I consciously decided to be a consultant. Nor do I seriously believe, as I sometimes joke, that I avoid full time employment because companies I join have a tendency to have financial crises six months after I come on board. Being a communications consultant was just the easiest way to break into technical writing and marketing when I shifted from academia. Before long, I had the experience and the income that I didn’t need to look for full time work – in fact, a permanent position would have meant a reduction in income. I wavered a bit because of a personal crisis and the excitement of the dot-com era, but I eventually found myself doing more and more journalism, and being more and more bored with office work. Eventually, I had an epiphany about which I enjoyed best, and I never looked back.

But, whichever your path to working for yourself, I think that what matters is that you are most comfortable with independence. Desperation drives many other people to take small consulting contracts or even set up their own businesses, but most flee back to the security of full-time employment as soon as it’s offered. Rather than sensible planning, what unites the self-employed is that, when they stop to think, they really would prefer to do things for themselves.

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The other day, I was just finishing breakfast when I heard something crash to the floor in the bedroom. I didn’t think much of it at first, supposing that the curtain blowing in the wind had swept something from a counter.

But,when it was repeated again, I found a gray squirrel sitting on top of an armoire. Somehow, it had freed the screen on the window enough to slip through.

I wasn’t very surprised, even though the bedroom window is on the equivalent of the third story. I’d seen squirrels scrambling vertically on the building’s stucco, and heard them at the screen more than once.

However, like most people, I don’t take appreciate disturbances to my morning routine. Nor did I want the little B& E artist getting into the rest of the townhouse, where it would be more difficult to catch and might upset our parrots. All this went through my mind in a second or two, and I quietly stepped into the bedroom and closed the door.

Just then, I remembered hearing that squirrels often carry rabies, and I wondered if I had done a smart thing. Visions of the rabbit from Monty Python and the Holy Grail flashed through my head, and I wondered if I’d be found with my throat torn out and the little gray monster chittering a song of triumph on my chest.

If there were any hunters in my immediate line of descent, I decided, they were a long way back. Probably, I was more a gathering type.

Moving slowly and steadily, I drew the curtain and took the screen from the window. I decided I was going to give the intruder every chance to exit on his own. The alternative would be to try and catch him in a bucket.

Again, my imagination sprang into action, imagining me trying to find something to cover the bucket with and racing to get to the door before the squirrel chewed through the bucket.

What happened instead was that the squirrel was panicked by my motions. It leaped down on to the headboard and across to the other armoire.
I decided that the screen would keep me a good ways from the squirrel and waved it in the squirrel’s general direction.

It responded by leaping down on to the bed – closer to me, then to the floor.

I waved the screen, and it leapt back to the bed. I was envisioning spending hours trying to deal with the squirrel, but this time it caught site of the open window and made a leap for it – apparently forgetting that it was high up.

For a moment, I swear, it hung in mid-air, its feet scrambling for purchase as though it was in a cartoon, then plummeted.

Horrified, I rushed to the window, expecting to see a dead or badly wounded squirrel below, but there was nothing to be seen, then or a few minutes later after I had replaced the screen and gone out for my morning run.

In retrospect, considering my imagination and lack of heroism, I think I’ll tackle a few more squirrels before contemplating a career wrestling crocodiles.

Better yet, I think I’ll practice with something smaller, like field mice or lady bugs – but, first I’m going to dig out my old Society for Creative Anachronism armor from the bottom of the closet.

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Having finished my quota of articles for July early, I took yesterday to run errands and browse a couple of book stores downtown. I took most of the afternoon, and had worked out most of the kinks from spending too much time in front of the keyboard when the relaxation was undone in a moment by seeing someone beaten up by three members of the transit police. In fact, until I read the first comment (see below), I thought I had witnessed a tasering. I’m still not sure that I didn’t, considering the source of the comment. But what I did see was bad enough, whether a taser was involved or not.

Understand that I have little use for cops of any kind. The small-c conservatism of the average person in the police fits poorly with my anarchistic tendencies, and I have seen and heard enough that I view the seige mentality of the typical cop with a skeptical eye. While I have known some decent cops, too often they seem a kind of of government-sponsored street gang. And the transit cops are worse than most. One or two in particular seem to take far too much pleasure in picking on Asian teenagers for my liking. But what I saw yesterday was even worse than I had come to expect.

As I got off at my stop, I saw three transit cops taking aside a man for questioning. The cops were typical of the transit forces: each was a few years past his prime, and a little paunchy. The man they were surrounding was much smaller and thinner, and possibly Vietnamese. He had a glazed look about his eyes that suggested that he was stoned on something.

“You poor bastard,” I thought, and continued on my way.

A few minutes later, I was at my bus stop when a scream caused me to look up to the Skytrain platform. Now, the small man was trying to run from the three cops, dodging behind a pillar without much success. As I watched from twenty meters away, two of the cops wrestled him to the ground. I could hear him pleading with the cops as they tried to handcuff him, promising at the top of his lungs that he would cooperate with them if only they left him unrestrained.

They didn’t listen. Clumsily, they continued to wrestle with him. Suddenly, I saw a flash. (naturally, I thought it a taser). The man screamed even louder than before, and went limp. After some effort, they pulled him to his feet. He was crying and cursing, but in a lower voice than before. I heard another scream, which was probably his arms being twisted behind him as a cop put him in handcuffs, but could possibly have been a taser being applied directly to his skin.

I’ve just seen someone tasered, I thought dumbfounded. Even at the time, I supposed that I could have been wrong, but what I saw certainly resembled the videos I’ve seen of tasers being used. The only difference was that watching a video has a distancing effect. This was all too real.

As I watched, I told myself that I should go back on to the platform and see what I should do. I knew that could be unpleasant for me – to say the least – but I hated to think I was the kind of person who would watch such a thing and do nothing. Nor was I the only one; about half a dozen others gathered around the scene on the platform, being held back by a couple of other cops who had suddenly appeared from somewhere. I imagine that most of the other spectators were having as much trouble believing what they saw as I was, but I like to think that, like me, some might be bearing witness to what was happening.

To my own self-criticism, I was still deciding what to do when the police dragged the man away and my bus arrived. But my day of leisure had already been spoiled, partly by my own internal debate about what to do, but mainly because of the unexpected brutality I had seen.

Ever since Robert Dziekanski was tasered to death at the Vancouver airport last fall, I have been against the use of tasers by police. I have been angry, too, that the various investigations into other recent taser deaths were obvious white-washes that exonerated the police involved and never even considered the possibility of banning tasers, calling instead for better training and guidelines. It seems obvious to me that tasers kill, and that they are especially likely to kill precisely the sort of people on whom cops tend to use them.

However, what I hadn’t really absorbed before was that tasers are being used to torture people in public. Can anything be so contrary to the alleged purpose of the piece, or more humiliating for the victim and horrifying for both him and passers-by?

I may have been wrong about what I saw, but the insight is not wrong for all of that. Even if no taser was used, what I saw was brutal and shocking, even from a distance.

And what was the man’s alleged crime? Probably nothing worse than fare evasion and failing to show the proper respect for the cops when questioned, then trying to run. These are hardly acts that deserve such a reaction from people who are supposed to be in authority.

I wish now that I had shouted something, or run to the platform and urged others to act with me – although what we could do, I’m not entirely sure. Chant, “The whole world is watching” in hopes of shaming the cops? Probably, that would have only resulted in us being arrested or assaulted ourselves, assuming that I could have found anyone else who shared my outrage. As things were, all I am left with is – once again – the melancholy conclusion that the civil society on which we pride ourselves is a lie.

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