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R U Ok? Yeah, I am… now

Today is officially “R U OK? Day“. And, as much as I despise the Twitter-gen shortening of two already-quite-short words, this is the first time I feel like I can identify with it. Not that I’m suicidal or anything like that, but I do feel as though I’ve been through the wringer a bit.

What is R U OK? Day?

If you don’t know, R U OK is an organisation founded in Sydney in 2009 that attempts to fight suicide and depression by getting people to ask each other a simple question, “Are you ok?” To really ask, and to listen to the answer, and to dig a little if needs be to find out whether someone is really doing ok, or maybe struggling with some issue or other. One of the critical factors in depression and how people deal with it is a sense of disconnection from others around them. Talking about it can be the first step in the right direction, and as with so many things, we have a dedicated day (the second Thursday in September) to remind us about it, but of course it’s a good idea all year round.

Rewinding

To explain why I can now identify more with depression, I’ll have to go back a few months in time. And talk about my work.

I’m a geek; I write software and websites, server-side programming, user interfaces, Agile development, that sort of thing. Might sound boring to some, but I love it, and I’m very good at what I do. For many years, I’ve successfully worked in the IT industry as a contractor, meaning I hire out my services to companies or organisations who need my expertise. Contracting has its pros and its cons over being a permanent employee (permie). You get paid quite well, and you get paid by the hour – no fixed annual salary – meaning if there’s a deadline and more than 40-hour weeks or 8-hour days are required to meet it, you get paid accordingly. (Quite often in the IT industry, as a permie, you’re expected to work more than the number of hours you’re expected to work as per your work contract.) Of course, if the place you work for runs out of work, you’re among the first that get the boot. You also don’t get paid leave – if you get sick or want to take a holiday, you don’t earn money. So you typically get paid for about 42-46 weeks per year, but the higher rates more than make up for that.

Before my most recent contract, I’d contracted for six employers, and in each case was offered multiple contract extensions, typically in 3-, 6-, or 12-month chunks. I’ve been offered permanency, and in a couple of cases worked for the same company for several years. In three cases I was asked to come back (and did) when they had new work and knew that I was familiar with their systems and could hit the ground running to help out where it was most needed. I had great relationships with those employers, and still keep in touch with several of them (they’re great references when I apply for a new job).

Then my employer ran out of work for me, and I applied for a contract with… let’s call them Company XY. It was supposed to be a one-off two-and-a-half-month contract for a small piece of work with technology I was familiar with. Such short-term contracts aren’t usually my thing, but the timing was right with one week off after the end of the previous one, and I signed a contract with them via a recruitment company. It was a slow start, I had to wait two or three days before I had a PC set up at my new workplace and could log into every system I needed to. I was told that they didn’t have a business analyst (BA) on this project, as the technical architect knew everything there was to know about the business requirements, and had written an extensive document detailing everything.

I got to work, found that the code base was an awful ugly mess written and modified by several different people over time who all had a knack for different anti-patterns. Well, I can deal with that, did some cleanup as I worked my way into the code and became familiar with what it was that they wanted me to do. Until I found that the architect’s document had a logical flaw in it. It had a diagram (a flow chart) with text below explaining the logic, only the diagram and the text contradicted each other. I talked to the architect, showed him the document, and asked – always professional, always polite, at least that’s what I thought – which one was right, i.e. which version to implement. He disagreed that there was even a discrepancy, got confused when I explained my unit tests to him, and told me to just do what the document said.

In hindsight, I suppose the guy felt I’d stepped on his toes, or challenged his authority or something, even though I never brought this up in meetings with the project manager. After two and a half weeks, I’d completed roughly 80% of the work for which they’d allocated two and a half months, and was getting to the point where I really needed a decision on which version of the logic to implement. I tried several different approaches with the architect, finally creating a spreadsheet with a matrix defining all the possibilities and filling it in based on one of the two possible interpretations. He said I had it all wrong, created a matrix of his own, and when I went to his desk to tell him that I now got what the misunderstanding had been, he gruffly told me to “Go away!”

I did, and stayed home the next day due to what I thought was a stomach bug, but maybe it was just a really bad feeling in my gut.

I got a call that afternoon from the recruitment guy telling me that Company XY had terminated my contract effective immediately, and that I shouldn’t come back to their workplace but I should arrange for someone to bring my security pass to their reception and to pick up my private belongings.

I was flabberghasted. I was gutted that this sort of thing could happen.

I explained to the recruiter what I thought had happened, and asked to talk to the project manager and other people, to at least tell my side of the story, but the company refused to communicate with me, except to tell the recruiter that their decision was final. I received an email from the recruiter where he’d copied-and-pasted the reasons they had given for the contract termination, and they were all bogus. It seems they weren’t confident that I could complete the required work in time (I was close to done, with plenty of time left), and something about a lack of communication that didn’t register enough for me to even remember it now. I guess the project manager had bought whatever the architect was saying about me, and some other factors played into it as well that I’ll get to later.

In a daze, I arranged for a friend of mine (who still works there; I’ve known him for years) to get my security pass and to tell him what stuff I’d left on my desk. I was sick of it all, sick to the stomach, literally and figuratively. I decided I needed a bit of time off, didn’t feel like looking for other work right away. I binge-watched some series, played computer games, read some books – anything to keep my mind occupied, keep it from having to figure out what I’d done wrong and what I should do about it.

On the way back up

More time passed than I’d intended, and by the time I started browsing job opportunities again, I had so little enthusiasm for a job that’s always been my passion that I didn’t put as much effort into it as I should have. It took about three months before I found another job – as a permie now for the first time in many years, because I’m too scared to sign on as a contractor where they can do that sort of thing to me. I feel much better about myself again, but I can’t deny that it was a pretty dark time. Part of that shadow still hangs over me somewhere, and will take longer yet to shake off completely.

I’m a very lucky person in that my wife is the most wonderful, most selfless, most loving person in the world. Without her constant encouragement, without her support, I would’ve become lost in my darkness. She knows me so well, knows when to let me sulk or lick my wounds, when and how to cheer me up, when to let me know with a quiet look that she’s always there for me. I can easily see how someone’s downward slide could continue without that type of support.

The occasional rejections from literary agents to whom I’d submitted my work didn’t help during that time, but I’d sort of accepted that that would happen (that glimmer of hope is friggin’ hard to kill, though!).

Today

Of all days, today (even if I technically posted this just after midnight…), on R U OK? Day, I had a chat with a colleague at my new place of work. Guess where she’s worked before? Yep – Company XY. Guess which architect once made her cry at work, and made a former colleague of hers almost have a nervous breakdown? It’s a small world. I learned from her that said architect has six children at home and a wife who is seriously ill.

Damnit, I really wanted to hate that bullying bastard, but now I can’t.

I’m glad I talked to that colleague today, though. I’m glad she didn’t just say, “Oh, that’s nice,” and changed the subject when I told her I’d briefly worked for Company XY. She was really curious, and concerned, and sympathetic when I told her my story. I’m glad I opened up to someone I normally would not have opened up to.

A few weeks ago, I finally reached out to my Dad, who lives overseas, about what I was going through. It wasn’t easy, telling him that I wasn’t doing so well, that I was struggling with something. But I’m so glad I did. It was another pillar of support, and he gave me some great advice, part of which was that I should write about what happened. Even if no one ever reads it, he said, it’s important to get things off your chest, if nothing else, then to simply be able to put a mental “The End” under that chapter of your life. Wise man.

Oh, and the other thing I heard about Company XY today (from that other friend) is that by now almost their entire IT staff have been sacked – yay, outsourcing!

And you?

If there’s anyone in your life, even if they’re on the fringes, who might be struggling with something, who doesn’t seem to be their cheerful self – don’t hesitate to offer a friendly ear. It really can make a difference.

If you’re struggling yourself, reach out to someone, even if it’s hard to overcome your misgivings. It really can make a difference.

Fitz and the Fool – A to Z: F

F is for Fitz, for FitzChivalry, for Farseer, for friendship, and of course for The Fool. If you don’t know, please go and have a quick read of three trilogies by Robin Hobb (Farseer, Liveships, and Tawny Man), then come back here (oh, fine, read the Rain Wilds Chronicles as well, while you’re at it, what’s another four books between friends… I’ll wait). Otherwise you’d be missing out. Plus, there may be spoilers.

You’d be missing out on knowing and understanding what I consider to be the best-written friendship in literature. No, I don’t mean just in epic fantasy. In literature. Ok, maybe that’s overdoing it a bit – after all, I haven’t even read more than two gazillonths of what’s out there. (Do you think you know one that’s better? Let me know in the comments… but have you read those three trilogies I mentioned?!?) Personally, I can’t think how any friendship of which anyone has ever written could compare. I set no boundaries on my adoration for this friendship. None at all. Do you understand me?

I set no boundaries on my love. None at all. Do you understand me?

— The Fool, in The Golden Fool

Here’s your chance to go away if you don’t want to read any spoilers… [cue elevator music while you scroll down].

Fool's Errand cover

The cover of Fool’s Errand, Book One in Robin Hobb’s Tawny Man trilogy

The reason I say it’s the best friendship ever written is that it is not really a romance, nor a bromance, nor yet is it entirely platonic. (Well, one of the reasons. I can see I’m making myself very clear here.) I suppose it has a lot to do with the question of the Fool’s gender, an issue that is never fully answered*. It is exactly that lack of a definition of what the Fool is that leaves the nature of his/her/its friendship with Fitz open to the reader’s interpretation. Fitz and the Fool, Catalyst and Beloved… it’s a complicated relationship, to say the least. Fitz has a brilliant mind, but he can be thick as a plank at times. Yet you can’t entirely blame him for wanting to define what the Fool is and what their frienship is, or could be.

You are confusing plumbing and love again.

— The Fool, in Assassin’s Quest

Had the Fool’s gender ever been fully revealed by Robin Hobb, I doubt my memory of it would be as positive, or my joy at re-reading the series as great (I do hope this won’t be revealed when the next book comes out later this year). If you’ve read all three trilogies, I’m sure you’re aware that the Fool’s appearance and persona as he presents it in the Six Duchies (i.e. the Farseer and Tawny Man trilogies), changes significantly, though not completely, when she (I don’t think there’s a way of doing this without mixing pronouns) becomes Amber, the mysterious carver of beads (I’ll never forget that “OMG!” moment when it finally clicked after so many hints). The Fool is a masterful actor and can slip into any role without much effort. The only thing the reader knows for sure is that the passion with which the Fool fights for what he believes is the destiny that is best for the world, is unfeigned and constant.

As a White, he is not the same as a human, although he appears much like a somewhat feminine man, or a somewhat masculine woman. Unlike Fitz, the Fool considers “plumbing” to be unimportant, often teasing Fitz about his fixation with it and about wanting to know the Fool’s gender. Only towards the end of Ship of Destiny do we get to see an expression of Amber’s love (however that is defined) for Fitz, when she carves Fitz’s features onto the Paragon, including the earring that is laden with such meaning throughout the series. My interpretation is that she is choosing between carrying out what she believes is her duty as a White Prophet, to guide the “wheel” of the world into a better rut, and giving in to her love for Fitz. She is very young for her kind, but always chooses the former, yet a part of her is always considering the “what ifs” of the latter.

Love isn’t just about feeling sure of the other person, knowing what he would give up for you. It’s knowing with certainty what you are willing to surrender for his sake. Make no mistake; each partner gives up something. Individual dreams are surrendered for a shared one.

— Amber, in Assassin’s Quest

Later, as the Tawny Man and Lord Golden, he is more mature, but being reunited with his Catalyst also brings back the dilemma. Fitz is also more mature and seems more willing to accept the friendship without fully understanding it.

Beloved, I have missed your company.

— Fitz, in The Golden Fool

The friendship even endures after Fitz carries the naked, unconscious Fool to safety in Fool’s Fate. Does he find out the Fool’s gender (or lack thereof)? You would have to assume so. Yet he has the class not go blabbering about it to the reader, nor even to reveal it tactfully. I sincerely hope Robin Hobb’s upcoming trilogy, The Fitz and the Fool, will continue not to spoil my ignorance in this matter*. Sometimes, not knowing can be more delicious than knowing.

I have waited patiently for many a sequel to finally be published. I have cursed George R. R. Martin for making excuse after excuse and delaying publication of a book that was supposedly “almost finished” for years. (At least now he has the TV series to prod him along to finish the books in time.) I have lamented Robert Jordan’s passing and fretted to find out whether his epic series would ever be completed. Never have I anticipated any book anywhere near as much as the next in the story of the Fitz and the Fool, The Fool’s Assassin.


* Update: See my post “Thank you, Robin Hobb!” for the great answer the author gave me when I told her I was hoping she wouldn’t reveal the Fool’s gender in the upcoming books…