Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Exhaustion Physical and Mental

I AM TIRED. No, not the lassitude of a recumbent emperor who has lost interest in the scrambles of his courtiers. I'm talking a molecular weariness in mind and body. A reckoning surely is at hand, most likely with my bed.

It's been a series of late nights. Saturday, the excellent Ratatosk hosted a boardgame night. Another member of the game gang and Amy joined us for dinner, and then the evening turned to saving the world in a harrowing round of Arkham Horror. Despite our best efforts, too many gates opened amid the misty hills and shadowed gambrels of this mythical Lovecraftian town, and Azathoth, the blind idiot god seething at the center of the universe, impinged upon our dimension and cast Earth into a doom of shrieking madness.

Midnight coffee and cookies took the edge off.

I arose late on Sunday. I had gotten Hellboy from the video store, and about halfway through, my friend M. called. She has been sending me pages of her graduate thesis to proofread, and she is under severe time and work pressure with final projects for two other classes competing for her attention. She explained how she was running into problems with some of the older art she had color corrected some time ago. I'm less skilled than she is at Photoshop (don't tell my future employers that), but more important than my technical help was my just listening. I told her how cohesive her work thus far had been, how I was able to understand her hypothesis, and that the prototype she had commissioned would put her far ahead of her competition in the class. I encouraged M. to take a moment to write down her remaining tasks. She reported having trouble focusing from lack of sleep and the stress, but I know she works well from a hard list, so I advocated drawing one up. She apologized several times for interrupting the film, but I wanted to make sure she knew she was doing solid work. She was an excellent supervisor and coworker when we were one cube apart, so letting her know how much she rocks is the least I could do.

I was surprised to see the time when I hung up. I left the DVD for Monday night and hit the hay. I had plans for the morning. M. was going to slide me some more proof PDFs to review. I had a date at WFMU to help get the Marathon mailing out. I actually reviewed one PDF before sleeping, then finished a couple more as the morning sun streamed through my window.

I took the train to Hoboken for the first time since March 30. I had forgotten how much individual train tickets cost. On past FMU visits, I merely used my monthly train pass on NJ Transit and the light rail system in Hudson County. I hung onto the receipts in case my taxes this year actually get itemized. (Normally I don't have enough individual charges to warrant it.)

I always enjoy pitching in at WFMU. I donate to the fundraising Marathon each year, but work often prevents me from donating my labors. Considering I'm much more free for the short term, I answered Volunteer Director Scott Williams's call for help in getting the massive mound of Marathon swag out the door. I appreciated the chance to help, and the opportunity to get the hell out of this apartment for a day.

I couldn't have picked a more beautiful one. It felt like late spring out, in stark contrast to the Monday prior, when the nor'easter was still ravaging the area. With my date at FMU not until 10:30, I got to Jersey City early and took a stroll through the lower leg of the new financial district. I sat on a riverside bench next to the massive Goldman Sachs tower and read the Wall Street Journal as Manhattan ground to full life in the distance. It was tough to concentrate on the paper with such a peerless view.

Work at WFMU was actually more physical than I had anticipated. The mailing comprised bumper stickers, T-shirts, and prizes (mostly CDs) given as mid-show prizes to lucky pledgers. It was the T-shirts that did me in. I learned how to fold a shirt properly, which required me to reach in ways I don't ordinarily reach. By the end of the evening, my lower back was surprisingly sore. The walk back to the train was more of a shuffle. Embarrassing.

I watched the second half of Hellboy after I ate dinner, and then chatted a little more with M. From the previous two days, my bedtime was artificially late, so I wasn't tired by the time I hung up. I read for a while, then finally dropped off.

I forced myself to get up at a normal time, because I had two teleconferences with the career counseling folks. One of them, on interviewing, was actually one of the best ones I've listened in on so far. The other, on starting one's own business, was like listening to a timeshare huckster. Good or less-than-good, both took time, and by 4:00 I was feeling drained.

But the fun wasn't over! Tuesday and Wednesday are gym days, so I got my arse in gear and trekked over. My back wasn't sore any more from yesterday — a good thing, because back muscles get hit today. Hit them I did. I pushed on all fronts, especially my back and biceps, and left the gym feeling like I'd emerged from a spin-dryer. Awesome.

I think I've got just enough oomph to get the DVD back to the store and do some laundry while watching Sunday's Sopranos. After that, I will drop like a dynamited chimney.

Friday, April 20, 2007

Real-Life Banhammer at the Poker Game

IT'S NEVER EASY TO tell someone to get the hell out of your house. Even when it's warranted, most folks are unaccustomed to confrontation and will go to great lengths to get the offender to right his or her course. In cases when the message just isn't getting through, however, sometimes one just has to point out the shortest path between their ass and the door and urge the jerk to use it.

Such a situation arose last night at the poker game. For the size of our player pool, we've had surprisingly few confrontations and, up until yesterday, only one ban. Even that one took several weeks to become necessary, because amid his faults — abysmal dealing skills, being a poor winner, telling annoying stories all night, rubbing his bluffs in people's faces — he was a borderline-retarded poker player and routinely left $300 to $500 behind each visit. (By comparison, the maximum initial buy-in is $100.) We did warn him to clean up his act with declining measures of diplomacy. He shined us on with his irritating chuckle and continued to offend.

Only when he began angleshooting — engaging in actions that bordered on cheating — did the host, Danny, step in. After a night when he deliberately misdealt to confuse an opponent, clumsily colluded with a friend of his at the table, and first denied that he had gone all in, and then attempted to short the pot when we forced him to commit, Danny finally told him not to return. It was in this guy's interest to heed the warning; at least three of the players were as willing to kick his ass as they were to bankrupt it.

The only other player who came close to evoking this much wrath was Craig. Craig was out to have a good time, both in his carefree play and his prodigious thirst. He played hunches, raised heavily with crap to throw folks off, and chattered constantly to those in the hand or, when he had folded, to his seatmates. Craig could easily down 10 beers over the course of an evening, and often showed up already tipsy. I feared letting him leave when I hosted, despite assurances that he was okay to drive. I relaxed when Danny took over as primary game host.

Between talking all the time and getting progressively drunker over the evening, Craig routinely committed a mortal sin of poker: He slowed down the game. We have a system for sending two active decks around the table so there's almost never a time when a new dealer can't pick up a shuffled, cut deck and get 'em in the air. We see more hands per hour than many casino players, even as one or two conversations roll on. But chitchat takes a weak second when a pot gets big or several players are seeing the river card. So when Craig, well into his second six-pack, would begin slurring through a defense of his questionable play while holding the deck, as players are itching to see the last card, there would arise a chorus of, "Next card, Craig," "Let's see a turn, Craig," "Craig! Deal!" like an Apostles' Creed for edgy poker degenerates.

Between his repeated delay-of-game penalties and his nonsensical play, Craig was sinking in popularity fast. An absence of a few months eased folks' ire, though if you slowed down the action, you still risked being called "Craig."

The real Craig showed up uninvited last night, after calling Danny to see if there was a seat available. As we were on the verge of spreading to two tables with 11 people already, Danny — who sometimes has trouble saying "no," said to come over. This put some folks on edge, as for a while we would be playing six-handed. Playing at a short table involves some changes in tactics, and some folks flat out don't like the more aggressive style it requires, nor the lesser chance of getting proper odds for draws. So Craig had already gotten under some skins without even appearing. He finally arrived already drunk.

Also simmering with one guy was a confrontation he and Craig had lit at my place several months ago. After Craig got this guy, Greg — himself an often unpredictable and temperamental card player — to call an all-in bet, Craig showed a terrible hand, which hit big on the river and busted Greg out. Greg freaked, yelling, "You are the worst fucking player in the game!" as he slapped his losing cards into the muck. Craig, rather than backing off and letting Greg yell his steam out, instead egged him on, capping his "yeah, yeah" routine with the old Henry Hill classic, "Fuck you, pay me." Greg threw his remaining chips across the table at Craig, leading the guy sitting between the two to wonder if he was about to be trampled in the rush to fisticuffs. I intervened at this point, telling them both to knock the shit off, and Greg took that moment to leave. Craig spent the remaining half hour in complete oblivion of what he had done to make the fight worse.

Despite a later reconciliation, Greg had no particular interest in hearing several hours' more of Craig's boozy ramblings. Naturally, when Craig drew for tables, he got to sit right next to Greg. I watched Greg's face grow steadily redder as Craig blew beer breath at him for a couple of hours, while repeating (as drunks will) his desire to have Greg, a money manager, become his primary investment guru. Greg was an exemplar of placation as he "uh-huh"'ed Craig stoically, his frustration flaring across his features.

True to form, Craig had to be prodded like a reluctant walrus to keep the game moving. He flipped cards face-up while dealing them to players two seats away. He fumbled with his chips while trying to get them all in one of his anesthetized hands for a bet. His cards sat idle as he got up for one beer after another, crashing through two or three forgotten empties around his chair each time. And of course, the dealing delays. He'd put the deck down to babble about something, and the "Deal, Craig!" chorus would begin. Danny joined in with an edge in his voice that stood out against his usual relaxed but firm management of the game. Those of use who heard it knew Dan's fuse was getting short, and we also knew who had lit it.

After three hours of this, Craig knocked a beer onto the poker table. He was the last to notice this, even as his neighbors scrambled to get their chips clear. With alcoholic sloth, he righted the can, and tried to drag the beer back off the table with his fingers, which forced it deeper into the padding. Then with his dripping hands he picked up the cards, soaking them in Miller Genuine Draft. Fortunately, we use casino-grade plastic cards, but that deck was now unusable until dried. I grabbed it and spread the cards over the second poker table, dabbing them dry with toweling as Danny yelled at Craig. Things had gotten hot quickly.

"Danny, you know I don't disrespect you."

"You slow down the fucking game!"

"Hey — look, you know I don't disrepect you."

"You're always drunk. You take a fucking year to deal the cards!"

It ended with Danny telling Craig to count out his chips. "You're throwing me out?" asked Craig. "Why do you keep emailing me if you don't want me here?"

"I didn't email you — you just showed up!"

"All right, I've got other places to play." Craig passed his stack over to Danny, who counted it down and tossed the requisite bills onto the table next to the beer stain.

The rest of us were silent as we watched Craig retrieve his jacket and pick up the cash. "G'night, everyone." We replied in kind, as though we were going to see him next week.

Danny moved from tolerating Craig's bullshit to cutting it off so rapidly that most of us didn't have a chance to react until Craig lumbered out the door. Greg soon breathed a sigh of relief, and the rest of us moved around the table to snatch up the space Craig's departure had created. Play continued, much more swiftly. Sympathy was muted at best.

Thursday, April 19, 2007

Career Exercise

IN THE COURSE OF the career-path materials I have been working through these past few weeks, one exercise had a more speculative nature. It asked the reader to look back on the execution of his or her career vision after 5 years in its pursuit. This was a multiquestion, freeform exercise, allowing more depth in response than the stereotypical "Where do you see yourself in five years?" interviewer chestnut.

I have been answering the exercises in this section from two career-path standpoints: as a graphic designer and as a writer. The latter being more speculative based on my current career path, I chose that perspective. At the risk of sharing proprietary information from this company's methods, I paraphrase the questions hereafter, along with my unedited replies:

Most important contribution you have made through your work:
My essays or informational articles empowered readers to take control and make permanent changes in their lives. I inspired them to pursue their own goals and interests. I became a trusted source of information.

Most productive or exciting aspect of my career:
Most productive was having a weekly column for which I produced short pieces, either on specific topics or personal essays, to a wide readership. This series gave me clips to shop around, to expand into larger projects, and eventually to sell as a book.
Most exciting aspect was receiving responses from readers on how my work has helped them.

Most difficult challenge and how you overcame it:
Getting started! I did a lot of writing for spec early, and sent it to a wide variety of publications. Rejection was difficult, and doing work for no immediate money put a crimp in my spending. I made sure to understand my markets, heed submission requirements, work closely with editors to ensure the suitability of my pieces, and never stopped writing. Nothing was as satisfying as making that first sale, and when I was accepted, others followed in buying my work. Never underestimate the influence of being able to provide solid, engaging copy on short notice and regular deadlines to content managers.

What skills have I perfected in my career?
Writing good copy quickly. Research. Interviewing. Accepting editorial advice gracefully. Finding new, regular markets. Taking inspiration and turning it into powerful results on the page or screen.

What did I enjoy least?
For a long time, I worked a second job as a proofreader and copyeditor, so I had to scramble to earn money for retirement and healthcare. Rejection, even for good reasons. Scarcity of markets. Beginning articles and then realizing there isn't enough content to justify word count. And of course that ancient writer's lament, not getting timely payment.

What awards or commendations have you received that were the most meaningful?
My column is syndicated widely via RSS. I have received recognition for my personal blog. I have been invited to speak on topics of my writing. The Village Voice and Time Out New York have both favorably reviewed my first book.

Either this is a brash, presumptuous list of isinglass fantasies or a series of target at which I need to launch myself. I'm not sure which. All I know is that these words came from somewhere.

Tuesday, April 17, 2007


I HAD THE PLEASURE of speaking with my friend and former supervisor, M., yesterday afternoon. She had some downtime between stages of her final grad-school project work, and we chatted for well over an hour. I miss being able to holler over the cube wall at her.

We discussed a wide range of topics, but the central theme was employment. I have no doubt that she can find work after she graduates. The question is whether it will pay remotely what she is worth. She told me how the salaries today compare to those her friends and classmates were able to snag 10 years ago, and it's a grim comparison.

Both of us could pick up a junior job in some publishing, advertising, or other shop where we could lay out pages, retouch art, and the like — similar to the job I probably could have taken in my first week — but is that the best thing for me right now? I'm no graphic designer. I'm just a page monkey. I understand typography, page layout, the needs of a printer, and how to work fast fast fast with complex work. I have no formal art or design training, I can't tell you anything about color theory, I don't have a historical understanding of graphic design history, and I have no experience outside of periodicals. I am way behind even undergraduate design majors in these respects. This is not to say I can't make an attractive book or magazine. It's just that employers want designers to do more than this . . . and for less.

M. agreed with the self-analysis I offered above, in somewhat different form. I asked her rhetorically if I really ought to take the time to continue at my present level in a design/layout/typesetting position, paying as much or (probably) less than my last salary, work two or three years, learn the software and techniques that I would need to become a full designer, and hope by then I could qualify for the magic "X to Y years of experience in [specialty] design" I see in the ads . . . or start at the absolute ground level in a new field whose focus is closer to my truest, most devoted talent, gain experience, get paid nothing for quite a while, but take a shot at aligning my passion with my career, no matter the cost. Is it worth changing jobs, even careers, and grind my way along for a couple of years, at an age when hiring managers expect candidates to be in senior positions or at least on track toward same, and yet reap the reward of full career satisfaction?

This post comes to mind.

I may be on the threshold of a complete transformation. When I changed jobs in 1999, the functions were different, but it was still editing, still typesetting, and even still training, what with my inept boss at the time. If my hunch is correct, I may need to spend the next several months going in a very different direction than I had been. Even "going" is a stronger stance than the one I had taken at my last position, which was largely stasis. Standing still.

Standing still is for statues. Right now I need to move. Let them build my statues when they capture me accurately — after I'm dead.

Sunday, April 15, 2007

Career and Fitness Roundup

IT'S BEEN BUSY AROUND here. I spent Thursday and Friday in all-day seminars at the career-counseling office. On Saturday, I ran errands and entered my sixth week of thrice-weekly weight training with a newly revised routine. Between the two, I was capsized by a weird and intense wave of nostalgia for the greatest city in the world. I'll touch on all of these.

I woke up on Thursday grumpy. I'd just spent three days at home working through the career-center materials. This program will leave me more prepared and confident in my job search, so I am not knocking it. The prospect of two more full days of the same, stuck in an office without the local park, library, gym, or even walking path for an escape, was not encouraging.

I got to the office early and found most of the other participants had done the same. Only two empty seats remained. Everyone had already written their names on the cards provided, so I took this as a sign that folks were willing to contribute. My grumpiness began to lift somewhat, if only from seeing other people.

The instructor showed up right on time, and we began with an introductory exercise. She asked each of us to give our profession and describe our last position, our reason for departing, one good thing that's happened in our lives (in work or outside), our hopes and concerns over the process, and what we would truly like to do next in our career. I was fourth in line, so I had some time to think of answers. The "one good thing" stumped me at first; the lingering funk I was in clouded my objectivity.

By the time they got to me, I had recalled a piece of advice from P., the career coach who had visited our office shortly after the layoff news. When speaking on the phone during our job hunt, he said, stand. You project more forcefully when speaking in a standing position than when sitting. Taking this cue, I said, while rising, "I feel more comfortable talking to a crowd when I stand, so I'm gonna stand." I tried to hold everyone's gaze for at least one sentence while I said my piece, which I managed to deliver without my usual storm of "uh"s and "y'know"s. As for the "one good thing" example, I briefly summarized my successful writing devotion.

Hearing the others gave me a sense of their optimism. Aside from one guy who was a salesman and seemed like a bluff-hearty bullshit artist, the others varied from tentative to shellshocked. Putting folks on the spot to speak in front of 10 strangers is rough for some folks. When I learned that two of the most reticent people were also in the business of corporate communications and executive-level event planning, respectively, I wondered how this had affected their work. These professions require effective speech and confidence, both of which seemed muted in their body language and projection. As far as optimism, their manner and tone conveyed more of a "what choice do I have?" attitude toward the learning that lay ahead.

The class that day and next alternated through enlightenment, pulling teeth, and contrariness on the part of some of the participants. The instructor was not forceful enough in keeping the people on track. They easily diverted into areas inessential to the course materials, or even the job hunt. The instructor had a bad habit of engaging folks on these points, rather than diverting the course firmly through its many stages. Worse, when she tried to return to the materials, she would often think of something at the last minute to offer the person who was diverging — a website, an humorous rejoinder to the person's point, a reference to another person's wisecrack earlier that sparks said person to sound off for a minute — and delay our return to the defined path.

I understand it's important to have a dialogue in these events. I know how helpful it is for folks going through the often lonely effort of job hunting to know there are others enduring the same quest, and how others in meetings like this can not only provide advice, but actual leads on jobs. But when the instructor mentions an online networking tool, and the conversation diverts for 15 minutes because the class is split on whether it's a pay service, whether you have to be invited like Gmail, et cetera — I had a strong feeling that we would give the final stages of the process short shrift. One of these stages was the interview, no small part of the process.

The inability of some of the participants to let the instructor help them was disturbing. I know being thrown out of a long-term position is demoralizing and leads one to question one's worth. But the attitude of some of these folks went from submission to surrender. This includes the corporate communications person and the event planner. The former was responsible for producing award-winning annual reports —writing, collating financial data, working with legal departments, contracting artists and printers, and quality control. She claimed she wouldn't be of use to an organization these days simply because she had been doing this one thing, in addition to her other daily duties, for so long. The event planner, who surely had contact with caterers, florists, event halls and staffing agencies, and the executive staffs of the bigwigs throughout her own firm, said she had no connections. The instructor tried to pry some details out of her on what she did, but could not get this 18-year veteran of corporate event planning to do so or even realize the value of her network. This went beyond shyness or poor speaking skills. This was a failure to let a skilled professional help. Few things make me angrier.

Add to this a microbiologist who contradicted several pieces of advice or research-tested techniques that the company had developed. Sometimes he wouldn't even offer evidence, just saying something like, "Are employers really going to accept that?" or "Does [technique] really apply to people in my industry?" At one point, after grinding my teeth through a day and a half of this guy's shit, when the instructor took a moment to describe the details of corporate-recruiter compensation, he said, "Do we really need to know this?"

"Excuse me." I halted the instructor. To him: "I find this useful. I've registered for a recruiter conference that [the firm] is offering on April [X]. [Firm] thinks it's important enough to invite recruiters to tell us how they do their job, so I want to hear what [instructor] has to say on this point too."

That was his last interjection.

I had a break between these classes when my friends Jen and Steve held a dinner party Thursday night to give me, Felix, and his girlfriend a chance to see their new house. It was very relaxing and gave me a chance to speak about anything but the job hunt for a few hours. I confess, I woke up Friday morning even more grumpy than Thursday, faced as I was with another full day with these jokers.

It was a grind. The incident I mentioned earlier with the online networking tool occurred Friday. We were just about to enter the networking chapter, which is one of the areas in which I am weakest, and it was all I could do to keep from screaming as the instructor kept letting herself get diverted from the coursework. I had 2½ weeks left to exploit the services of the career counselors. Any distraction over useless bullshit took unrecoverable time from that total.

I went home Friday feeling very drained. I had taken lunch across the street to avoid contact with any of the students (though I wasn't able to avoid the salesman, who unfortunately came into the men's room where I was trapped and kept asking me questions about myself, despite the implicit signals of my one-word answers to fuck off). I knew there was great value in the course materials, and I had been hoping to explore them in greater depth with a career expert and willing students. Instead, I found that this path, like many in my life, would most profitably be followed solo.

My guard was sufficiently down by bedtime to feel deeply nostalgic about not going to New York City each day. I couldn't get the various experiences of the past 7 years out of my head. The Manhattan skyline capped with dense, low clouds from the vista of the Lincoln Tunnel helix. Neon reflecting on wet Times Square pavement. Empty avenues barely lit with dawn and free of cars when I came in before 6 a.m. to bust out a newsletter on tight time. The cannon knocking down the toy soldiers atop the Radio City Music Hall marquee each Christmas season. The steps of the Treasury Building downtown, where traders, bankers, and the statue of George Washington watched a presidential hopeful address the creche of world capital. The feeling, wherever in the city I was standing, of being in the center of the universe, which I have not felt in Boston, Los Angeles, Chicago, Philadelphia, or Las Vegas. I know I can return there with a quick dash down to the Hudson, either via tunnel or ferry, but 2 weeks without walking on its streets hit me at a vulnerable moment, and I felt sad to have lost the daily opportunity.

Eight hours of sleep set my mind right. I had other matters to worry about. Saturday marked the beginning of my sixth week of devoted gym visits. Though the close of my last job and the need to launch my career search led me to move the specific dates around, I still got to the gym for a full-body weight-training workout three days a week. I also used the aerobics floor at least one day on top of those each week. I've added a little muscle, and my weight dropped by a few more pounds.

Now that I've established the habit, I want to return to one of the more successful routines I used when I was still going to work. It is a two-day split of body areas, done twice per week with a day separating the visits. Rather than using one long set per exercise, this one broke it into three shorter sets, with more weight each time. In the past, I allowed schedules, mood, or other distractions to pull me off of the program, but when I stuck with it, it worked well. This time, I have clear early mornings and late afternoons — the perfect time to push the advantage. I've taken a break from the Thursday night game to keep my sleep cycle on track (work or not, and winning or losing, recovering from a 3 a.m. bedtime is rough).

I wrote up a sample routine and hit the gym late yesterday afternoon to try it out. I found my intro circuit, useful as it was in establishing a habit, missed some areas I wanted to cover, like my lower back. (Whatever else I did at the gym, I always made sure to work my back muscles, to avoid the problems many of my friends were now encountering in their late 30s.) I lowballed the weight so I could get my form down, as I hadn't performed a couple of these exercises in a few months. I got a good start, hitting abs, back, chest, and biceps. Today is legs, shoulders, and triceps. Once I get the specific exercises chosen, I'll make up a new chart and get my progress on paper.

One useful tip: I left space on my last chart to jot notes. Nothing too complex; little hints for the next visit, like "Strong throughout. Move up," or "Weak form past rep 12." Just something to keep my progress steady but forward. If I've been stuck on a certain resistance or even a whole exercise, I want to know. I've also been writing down what aerobic work I've done between weight-training visits.

I am hopeful that my job hunt and my fitness work will mesh. Success in one field has to build confidence in other areas. Plus, if I have a frustrating day searching for work, I can always dash over to the gym for 30 minutes on the elliptical trainer or take a long walk. And I am documenting all of my work in finding a job, not unlike the records I'm keeping of my gym visits. The program actually mandates that you track your time in searching, all the contacts you make, the volume of correspondence you send out, and other tangible markers of job-hunt work, so if you're lingering uselessly in one area, it becomes evident, and you can correct course.

I have solid notes from the seminar on what to do next, despite the distractions. I will let the other students inspire me to dig deep into my abilities and to inquire constructively, rather than hide behind my achievements and let cynicism paralyze action. As for the gym, well, completing a long walk up and over a tall hill yesterday without stopping or losing my wind was solid evidence of my progress. I have a long way to go, but at least I can see results.

If I can still fit into my interview suit when the time comes to dust it off, I know I will have passed major milestones in both fields.

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Still Balancing "Work" at Home

I'M GETTING A LITTLE vexed with my home workspace. My whole apartment, really. There's no barrier between the two worlds any more. I feel like I'm still adapting to being here full time. This feeling is matched by my speculation about the direction my career should take. My roots are loose and I wonder how best to tighten my grip on the familiar soil.

To begin with, I have a big heap of shit from the office that I need to integrate into the existing mounds. I grabbed sample issues of newsletters with a bias toward taking more than I might need, figuring I could throw out those I didn't use. I have three plants floating from desk to table to chair, depending on which I need to clear. I also have several days of the Wall Street Journal to catch up on. The 45 minutes I used on the train to read it has not found a niche in my morning schedule just yet.

I want to clean, but I am also conscious of the limited amount of time I have to progress through the stages of the career-transition program I'm taking. I only have a month's worth of their services, as the coach I've been assigned has reminded me a couple of times. I'm nervous about missing out on some of the training by taking some time for myself to get the place in order, but if the piles of crap are getting in the way of my well-being, I can't see how reducing or eliminating them is bad.

The career work itself is a bit of a seesaw. I'm still trying to see where I fit, seeing as I am considering changing careers. Some of the materials look like they'd guide me to make a resume that would keep me in my current profession. This would be effective if I want to find another graphic design position, which I might have to if I need to take very basic retraining courses in another career. I'm just nervous about standing still, which would impress neither the future potential employers in graphic design or production, nor those looking for a body of relevant writing clips for a job in that field. At my age, I can't burn too much time in appearing to be idle.

The career program has been productive thus far, but because of my career indecision, I suspect it will take me longer than a month to complete all of the materials. There is a set of textbooks, an online learning track, and a series of conference-call seminars, in addition to in-office visits. I have 2 days' worth of those coming on Thursday and Friday. As long as they are packed with information, it should be very worth it. The online courses have thus far been informative, though I'm a little worried they mimic the content in the books. What does definitely follow that content are the conference calls. Sitting through these has been murder; folks not muting their phones, proctors asking questions and seeming surprised when nobody answers (you asked them to mute the phones!), and the numbing inertia of sitting for 60 to 90 minutes holding a phone to your ear. I buckle down and take notes as best I can, but if I had to do these every week, I'd invest in a headset so at least I could type my notes and not nurse a dead elbow after the call ends.

I know these problems are quite minor on the scale of global human misery, and even on that of layoffs of middle-class suburbanites. I have no dependents or debt to tend, and the means to survive without a job for quite some time. What I don't have yet, though, is balance. Ratatosk providentially wrote earlier with some pointers on how to make a stretch of joblessness more productive, and I was happy to see that some of my mental list matched his written one. I want to stay busy, but rounded, and as much as I can be snail-like and curl up in my house, I need to get out now and again.

It's all very new and I'm caught between not wanting to waste the chance to get it right this time, and my tendency to dig in so far I lose sight of the sun.

Monday, April 09, 2007

Hopelessly Devoted to Writing

BACK IN FEBRUARY, I made a comment on the blog of my college friend, Pete, aka komos. Camera newly charged, he felt he had "started seeing again," but was feeling like his results wouldn't meet his expectations or that he would not be inspired by any worthy subjects.

I felt he was letting standards trump action, and, conceiving an exercise that might bust through his concern over imperfect results, brashly posted the following:
As usual, Emerson said it better than I ever could: "Every artist was first an amateur."

An experiment: Shoot 20 pictures a day, every day. Of anything. Don't wait for inspiration, proper light, weather conditions, or the right human subject. Just shoot anything. Don't think about it too deeply. Keep them all, perfect or imperfect. (Download them daily; don't let them pile up.)

Do this for a month. Notice common patterns, colors, interests, techniques, times of day, faces. Select those that are more "successful," those that stand most strongly on the terms they set. Feel good that you were able to develop a theme or style.

Now, it gets interesting. Next month, 20 more a day, but in the theme or style that stood out most strongly from the first month. In poker, players who confine their play to starting hands with strong winning potential more frequently find themselves in possession of the pot. (Sounds intuitive, but there are many so-called pros who bet crap cards to the end and wonder why they lose millions.) What you are doing is determining your photographic "best starting hands." Shoot the subjects for which you have an affinity, and you will succeed more often. Some might say this makes one reliant or limited in range, but I don't recall anyone taking Ansel Adams to task for not photographing classic cars, nor William Wegman for not portraying cats. Find your focus and master it.

I am ripping this idea off from the 100 Words site (down for some reason), on which users write 100 words per day, no more, no fewer, for a month. It jarred me into action and picking up common threads from my writing. This exercise may do the same for you and build confidence. In reading your early entries when I first found your blog, I found your rising assurance in throwing clay and glazing pottery deeply inspiring. I actually wanted to spin a wheel to see what I could create, even as I knew your success was the result of practice, discipline, and unique inspiration. Same with your beer-making and baking artistry. Don't let perfectionism keep you from testing and expanding your photographic limits.

Lent is coming. Maybe bump the first month I mention above up to 40 days?
Pete didn't comment, and in truth I was beginning to feel like I had offered a buttinski sort of hollow solution in which I had no investment of effort. All talk and no action. A week later, I was stunned to read, quoted in a new post of his, the second and third paragraphs in my post, followed by 20 striking photos. He dubbed this the first 20 of "the 400."

In a humbled reply, I congratulated his start, asked some questions regarding my favorites, and said the following: "You have a knack for evocative subjects that make one ask how the scene came to be. . . . They made me want to write, which, for my part, is the creative exercise to which I really need to get back to in force. (Hmmmm . . . 500 words/day for a month?)"

And the glove with which I challenged Pete to create fell right at my own feet.

I am not a religious man, but I respect the discipline it takes to make a change in one's life. The 40 days of Lent, just short of 6 weeks, is enough time for a dedicated person to ingrain a new habit. The last few times I attempted to follow a Lenten devotion, I eschewed the usual "giving up" protocol and instead took the time to improve myself. I recall the last attempt in the 1990s having something to do with weight loss. This time, however, I chose something more dear, and just as neglected: I decided to write 500 words per day and post them on my blog.

I began on Ash Wednesday with "Kid Without a Candy Store." I typed it in TextEdit, dropped it into Word for a quick count, and posted it without fanfare about my goal. In many cases, I exceeded my goal considerably. I wrote as long as the words supported themselves. Not all of the finished pieces were awesome examples of literature; it was more important to sustain my rhythm and prove to myself I could write every day, about something, either myself or some daily issue. Writers write, and not always about things they love. I wanted this to become like a muscle, able to move at will in a wide range of motion.

My first skipped day was because I was carried away with the landmark "Tips for Fair Workplace Compensation" post, and wrote well into the morning of the next day. When book designer India Amos quoted from and praised my piece on her blog, I all but did a pee-dance of joy. It made the previous several entries — hell, going back to my first post, not just the ones in Lent — all worthwhile.

As March got insane, and the end of my job loomed, I did miss a couple of dates. By this point, I was regularly cruising well past my 500-word minimum, and in a couple of cases, I was simply writing at work and emailing the posts home after a couple of days of boredom. I missed making a full-scale post on Holy Thursday, the traditional end of Lent, because of my dad's visit to the hospital. But I did manage to make 38 posts for a total of 36,253 words, or 906.325 words per Lenten day.

Back in college, I tried to keep a diary. It was sporadic, and mostly consumed with various downer episodes. The journal therefore has a depressive tone that doesn't accurately reflect the moments of genuine joy and discovery I felt while in school. This was unfair. My life was not, as this diary seemed to document, one suicide note after another.

Nor did I want this blog to be. I could tell I was slipping out of the habit of posting, with only nine entries in January and a mere four in December. When I took up the challenge I had posed to myself, via Pete, I realized I needed to record my thoughts more consistently, especially during this critical time before my layoff. If I was upset, I wanted to make note of it. If I felt victorious or jubilant about something, I wanted that recorded as well. I didn't want to look back years from now and see no continuous line of thought, only scattered entries and thin wisps of memory. I wanted to exist.

In completing — and extending — this challenge, I am noticing something in my career-training materials too. I'm working on an exercise to determine the best match for my skills, talents, and passions. I've had to make lists of these a number of times for this section. In each one, writing has come out of my pen first. Not graphic design, not editing, but writing, my most developed, but least potentially lucrative, ability.

Could this all be pointing me in a new direction in my career? Have I been neglecting this for far too long? Could this be the answer to the questions I posed in my post about motivation and my career? Is it worth taking an almost certainly massive pay cut to work my way up a new career ladder, one that might take me higher than any I've ever ascended?

I will have to figure these questions out for myself in the coming weeks. For now, I congratulate myself on succeeding in my exercise. I am happy to have built the writing muscles that for too long lay idle at my last job. I am also quite proud to have documentary evidence that I exist.

Sunday, April 08, 2007

Two Very Busy Days

IT'S BEEN A CHALLENGING pair of days, and not due to the ongoing job hunt. My father had another visit to the hospital on Thursday. He is home now, and seemingly well, with outpatient follow-up care the next step through midweek. Here's the scoop.

Thursday morning at six, my phone rang. I awoke instantly. Calls between 10 p.m. and 6 a.m. are never good. My heart rate accelerated as I heard my mother reply to my hello. She said my father was having chills. For a half hour, he had been shivering, with his teeth chattering, and despite checking to see if the window was open and adding a blanket to the bed, nothing warmed him up. He was in no pain, had no numbness or tingling in any extremities, had a normal heartbeat, could speak and move well, and was fully aware. I began to relax at hearing no signs of stroke or heart attack were present.

I was more concerned about my mother. Her voice betrayed her anxiety, and I wanted to keep it from accelerating. I told her not to worry and that I would get dressed and come over right away. I knew they wanted to go to the hospital to get this checked out. We agreed that an ambulance would probably make both of them more anxious, so I told my mother I would drive us all over.

As I dressed quickly, I thought about what this could possibly be. My father hadn't had a cold in some time, had showed no sign of illness Wednesday night when I had had dinner there, and had gotten a seasonal flu shot. A blood test and perhaps a chest X-ray seemed like the logical next steps.

I dressed swiftly and raced over. My mother was dressed and ready to roll. My father was still in bed. She said his chills had stopped. From his bed, swathed in extra covers, he said he was feeling better. This is never the last word on any given illness of my father's. It takes a few attempts to get the full story out. He does this to spare my mother stress, but in fact this heightens it.

He asked for 15 more minutes before he got dressed and joined us in the car. I assented. What else could I do? His symptom had abated, he was clearly conscious (if tired), so I wandered back into the dining room and read the paper, while my mother shotgunned a cigarette.

We finally left the house at 7. He grabbed another 20 minutes of sleep beyond the first 15, then rose, dressed, and joined us. The hospital is about 4 minutes away, so we were in the emergency room in no time. Admission was swift, the room being empty. My mother filled the time before we were allowed to visit my dad by sleeping. At least this let me know her anxiety had receded.

We got the OK to enter a half hour later. My dad, feeling no further chills, was in a hospital robe, lying uncomfortably on the bed. He had pulled a muscle in his back two weeks prior, and the position to which the bed had been raised was hitting him where it hurt. I eased the bed down to horizontal, which seemed to help. The attending physician had ordered X-rays and taken samples, so now it was a matter of getting some detailed results.

This took the better part of 4 hours. Although my mother and I stopped at the hospital coffee shop for a much-needed breakfast, for the duration, we stood or sat by my father's bedside, waiting for further news on the results. All we knew at that point was he had a mildly elevated white cell count in his urine. This could mean anything; the blood would be more informative, and we would need a culture if there was in fact an infection. His primary-care physician did visit, though, to examine him, and he was leaning toward keeping Dad at least overnight to get some antibiotics or merely to be observed, depending on results. An infectious-disease specialist was incoming to make this read.

Dad was finally admitted to a room at 1:00. I had two career-counseling teleconferences arranged for the afternoon, the first at 2:00. I would have skipped them both, but my parents urged me to go. With Dad stable and asymptomatic, my mother felt comfortable staying on her own and returning home via taxi. I kissed them both goodbye and raced back home, in time to catch the first call from the beginning.

As part of the career counseling program, one can attend teleconference and web conference seminars. I took the introductory one earlier that week, and I had signed up for two more to keep things moving (we only get a month's worth of services). I have to admit, though, that my mind was not on the details, and I was more scribe than student.

Back-to-back teleconferences in my mental state was murder, made worse by the participants' inattention to repeated proctor requests to mute their phones. Every time I heard someone walking around their house, shushing their children, or shifting the phone in their grip, my blood pressure mounted. I just gritted my teeth and kept writing, hoping my notes would make sense when I was clearer of mind. What I recall of the classes seemed helpful.

Once this was done, I rummaged around the place for food and returned to my parents' house to pick up my mother for a second visit. We found my father finishing dinner and watching the Yankees. He had an antibiotic drip leading into his hand, but he was otherwise alert and feeling well. The surroundings didn't seem to be getting him down, but my father has a reputation for stoic endurance, especially when it comes to keeping my mother's mind tranquil.

We had a visit from the infectious-disease specialist while we were there, a petite, cute Jewish doctor who, sadly, was married. Too bad; she had tended to my mother on a visit for cellulitis years earlier, and she got high marks all around. She confirmed that they were culturing the blood sample to determine the precise reason for his chills, and that in the absence of specific or continuing symptoms, they would continue the broad-spectrum antibiotic until they had a culprit.

Said culprit came early the next morning: septicemia. Something had been brewing, and it had created the inflammatory response and chills that are part of the symptoms of that blood affliction. My mother called me with this news and sounded just as upset as she had the previous morning. I told her if he had no fever, further chills, or other signs of illness, then we probably got in front of this disorder early enough to keep it from progressing into the full septicemia syndrome. Considering all septicemia indicates is a bacterial presence in the bloodstream, the doctor or nurse could have picked a less charged term.

The doctors wanted more tests on my dad, including a bone scan to find any hidden osseous infections, and an ultrasound on his heart and kidneys. Return home prior to Easter Sunday was up in the air. No skin off our asses from a religious standpoint, as we don't celebrate it in any sense. My mom just wanted to know precisely what was up. If it was full septicemia, my dad could be looking at a few weeks in the joint. My mother doesn't get around well on her own, and has little recent practice in driving the big retirement-mobile my dad bought a few years back.

During our Friday visit to my father's room, I got a call from my former supervisor, to whom I shall refer in this blog as M. She called to take a break from working; she is racing to finish her thesis presentation and two prototype projects for extremely picky professors. All three have her just as anxiety ridden as my mother, it seems. I tried to calm her down, to let her know that taking breaks from her work and getting enough sleep would pay off in the long run, as they had when I had massive term papers at the very end of my own college career. I gave her the full story on the flower adventure, not having wanted to interrupt her work earlier in the week with details. We covered all manner of subjects from our former teammates at the job to my early impressions of the career-coaching firm. Talking with M. was my first contact with the outside world, so to speak, since Wednesday, and I sensed she needed as much of a break as I did; also, she is an excellent conversationalist and I dearly miss having her on the other side of the cube day to day. By the time my call-waiting cut in, 45 minutes had passed, and my mother was ready to leave; Dad had been taken upstairs for testing. I bade M. a happy Easter, urged her to take a break at some point later that day, and hung up.

I took Mom shopping and over to the hair salon for a visit deferred from Thursday. I stole a half hour to visit the gym and blow off some tension on the elliptical trainer. I had been idle for nearly three days, and eating less programmatically, and I was feeling it. The rest of Friday was a downer blur; I didn't want to commit to anything too distant from home in case I was needed, but I was too disorganized to rejoin the course materials from the career joint.

Saturday brought good news. All tests were negative. The doctors were happy with the results and decided to remove Dad's IV dock and let him come in for treatment from home for a few days. I was relieved, both to have Dad home and Mom more relaxed. When I drove over, Dad was all but scratching at the door to be let out. The hospital has eliminated the checkout procedure, so I was able to escort him down without hurdling a mass of paperwork.

I was pleased to be home, rather than tied up in the city, during this whole adventure. Naturally, had I been employed on Thursday when my mom called, I would have taken the day off; Friday, too, would have been negotiable; no sense sitting there and worrying when I could be helping them both.

The challenge now is to establish the daily pattern I was trying to put together last week. With visits to the career center on Monday and Wednesday, and a mass of reading material and online courses to take, it proves to be a busy month — and that's not even counting the job hunt itself. I need to stay busy at this. I also need to keep a list of any job contacts I make, to present to New York State if there's an inquiry into my unemployment insurance. I've got two contact so far in the first week, so I am definitely able to prove I have been looking. I need more than looking, though; I need finding.

In what field, though . . . ah, that's the real question. Another post perhaps. For now, I'm just happy to have my father back home and my mother relaxed again.

Thursday, April 05, 2007

Unconsciously Influential Priest Album

WHILE SCANNING THE PORTFOLIO part of design firm Pentagram's site, I came across this signage example. This is an entry to the Minnesota Children's Museum:

The design immediately called to mind the cover of Judas Priest's British Steel:

With any luck, the kids entering this museum will do their best Beavis and Butt-head imitations while singing, "Breakin' the law! Breakin' the law!"

Hopefully without doing that thing with their shoulders like Halford.

Wednesday, April 04, 2007

Less of Me to Love

ONE OPPORTUNITY THAT UNEMPLOYMENT has presented is the ability to visit the gym at hours previously inaccessible. Before this week, the only reasons I might go over there at, say, 11 a.m.would be that it's a Saturday, or it's the third day of my fighting off a cold and I'm getting well enough to feel cabin fever. Granted, my main job right now is finding a job, but amid this quest, I'm still pursuing the goal of redressing my eating and exercise habits. So far, I have succeeded.

I've been away from some of the food options that I exercised while employed either out of sloth or boredom. I haven't hit the bagel shop across the street since Friday. The Balducci's in Chelsea is a tourist attraction for me now, not a source of imported cheese and crusty loaves from the Sullivan Street Bakery. The dark hours of boredom and underwork are gone, no longer to be etherized with cheap treats from the candy machines. And platters of cookies and sandwiches, left over from catered all-day meetings, no longer pass by my cube on the way to the kitchen, where inevitably I will be dragged to survey the swag. Yeah, that's all I'll do. Survey it.

As long as I can fill myself with wholesome food on a regular schedule, stay laborious, and keep hitting the gym, I should at minimum keep my fitness level rising. I'm aiming at dropping a pound a week. I know I will be building muscle slowly during this whole process, so the drop may be slower than this at first. Once my frame has a few more pounds of muscle, though, my metabolic rate will rise, as resting muscle burns more energy than fat. Postworkout caloric burns also last for hours, so it's best to hit the weights early.

At the beginning of this year, I weighed 238. I downloaded Jeremy Zawodny's weight loss/diet spreadsheet to make my progress graphic. In my case, I modded it to include two automatic moving averages, instead of just the 5-day one on the original:

Weight loss since 1/1/07, with 7 DMA and 30 DMA. Click to enlarge.

The light-blue line is a 7-day moving average, and the cream line is a 30-day one. Today I weighed 229, and my average for the past week has been 228.9, close to the 7-day average for the week prior, but a pound less than the week before that. Slow, but sure.

I've been doing the same routine for 4 full weeks now. I feel stronger. My knees in particular are more sturdy. Around the holidays, they were beginning to — if not hurt, then to make themselves known. I can't afford to lose knee function any earlier than deep old age. Having been fat the better part of my life, I know I've run through their warranty faster than I should have, but it's never too late to take some of the load off. I was getting signals around late December that I was pushing it, not only from my knees, but my feet, which were killing me after my holiday party weekend. My feet hadn't hurt like that since a Saturday in March 2000 spent running around, in crappy sneakers, on a paintball range. Now, both knees and feet are feeling much better. I accredit this to losing 9 pounds and strengthening my muscles and support tissues.

I am by no means done. I plan to do my current routine for at least another week. The Iron Online site of bodybuilder Dave Draper has a follow-up routine, which I shall adopt when the time comes. As long as I can keep the good food flowing in, and hitting the gym, I'll keep getting healthier, and my base mood will also stay high. Last time I visited my dry cleaner, the manager immediately said I'd lost weight. It wasn't as apparent to me, and I knew he was the type to notice differences in the fit of a customer's clothing, but still, it was an important endorsement that I'm on the right path. Because like my job hunt, nobody is going to do this for me. I've got no choice.

Tuesday, April 03, 2007

Job Hunt: First Steps and First Interview

I RELAXED THIS WEEKEND. Aside from an unnecessary parley with an inept florist, I did very little requiring mental effort. I knew I would have an eventful Monday.

My company provided those laid off with a month of services from a career-development firm. I signed up last week to have my first visit, and I learned that they had an office not 15 minutes from my home. At least this saved me a trip into the city. I chose this past Monday to stop by for an orientation seminar, because I wanted to set a structure to my week as early as possible.

Monday morning rose dim and grim under cloudy skies. I felt a bit congested, and I hoped it was allergies and not the cold of one of the poker regulars from last Thursday. On the chance that it was a cold, I deferred my scheduled gym visit and instead got a little more sleep. This seemed to help, as did eating and a long shower, and as I got dressed, I wondered if I would instinctively leave the parking lot for the transit stop two blocks away, as I had done for the past 7+ years.

The appointment was at 10 a.m., well past rush hour in my neck of suburbia, so my drive was short. I'd long been curious about the large office building where these offices were housed, having passed it numerous times. It turned out to be a clean, multi-suite affair surrounding an atrium with well-tended houseplants. I envied a giant Monstera, and I wished my environment were either brighter or more tropical so I could raise one of these titans to its full scale.

The agency's offices themselves were rich with new-carpet smell and, like the building, very tidy. Most of the employees I saw were wearing suits. The invitation had requested business casual dress from participants, with which I had complied. I signed in up front and was led to a conference room. As often happens, I was the first one there. I am such a geek. At each seat was a hefty stack of reading materials, including a cellophane-wrapped bundle of trade paperbacks containing course material that, I assumed would comprise our homework.

A total of seven "students" were in attendance for the orientation, and the speaker began promptly at the appointed hour. Like P., the man who had visited our office in November, E. was of retirement age but still fueled by passion for what he was doing to continue to assist others who had endured a layoff. In his case, he was a lifer salesman at IBM, laid off shortly after his sixth (!) child was born, and even though he continued to consult for Big Blue, he had lost his passion for the business. A desire to help people in transition led him, as it had P., to his current position.

We filled out a short sheet of cues for our current profession, duties, career interests, and objectives, and then went around the table to read these out. E. jotted down a few points as we went, and I was gratified to see that my points about securing a position more resistant to outsourcing, and the possibility of freelancing, made the board. Unlike the seminar that P. ran, this one was only scheduled to last part of the day, because E. and one of his colleagues planned to set dates for one-on-one meetings with each of us. The main point of today's meeting was to introduce us to the written and online materials available through the plan. With only 30 days of service, I appreciated a dive-in philosophy.

The books turned out to hold a 12-phase (I don't want to call it a 12-step) program that worked closely with online seminars and conference calls to position a candidate more securely in every aspect of the job hunt. The books referred to tools available through the website, such as doing company and industry research, answering frequent interview questions, developing networks and contacts, and the like. This clearly took into serious account the fact that most folks don't constantly probe the market, put out feelers, or contact hiring managers before they need the next job. As a culture, we're still weaning our way from the idea that we will work a job for decades until we retire, and the materials seem to offer tools to keep this complacency from hamstringing candidates in the clutch.

We also took some time to log into to the system and register. I signed up for a seminar to teach us how to use the system itself, figuring it would save me some time flailing about in search of the tools I really needed to proceed. I do feel very aware of the clock ticking on this opportunity, a point E. stressed with me when we sat together to set a consultation. This was originally going to be Friday, but as I was typing this, he called to reschedule, and now I'll see him tomorrow afternoon. I actually prefer to get his input earlier rather than later, as it may determine the sequence in which I take some of the online courses.

While taking a break at the facility, however, I got a call from my boss at my old company. She said she had received a note from a former member of the department, now with a prominent professional science-journal publisher, who was looking for a production editor. I told her I certainly would be interested in speaking to this person, and to send the information along to my email address.

Upon returning home (not before detours to the Panera Bread and the Apple Store outlets in the strip mall next to the office park), I read the forwarded note. The candidate in this position would assist the second-in-command of production in that department, doing multipage layouts in InDesign, using Illustrator and Quark, and interacting extensively with other departments (presumably for copy, ads, art, cover design, and the like). I also noted that they wanted to fill this position by the end of this week. Not sure what sort of leverage this would give me, but it was good to know. I emailed the person who used to work at my company to let her know I would send my resume to the production person to whom I would report. She sounded excited in her response, citing the fact that she would get a finder's fee were I to be hired. I felt mentioning this was a bit unprofessional, but I let it slide.

The hiring manager emailed me back and called to say she was interested in speaking to me. As it was 5:30 by that point (I didn't take the call; I was having dinner at my parents'), I simply emailed to say I would be in touch this morning.

I did some research on the company, including digging into the details of their publications, checking the job listing to see if there were any more details of the prospective position not covered in the email (the position wasn't even listed, so I indeed got the inside skinny on this — a fact that would please E.), tracking down their full ownership (I figured it had to be a division of some megacorp, and I was right). It was too late in the day to call another former coworker who had jumped over there in 2005 for some inside information to wow them during the interview. I did have a comprehensive list of questions for the hiring manager, some from a sheet a coworker had kindly given me shortly after learning of my layoff, some I came up with on the fly.

I was fairly calm this morning when I called in. The blurb had requested a salary range, a point I had danced around in my reply email. I had a feeling this was not going to meet my departing salary from the last job. Granted, I had been promoted, so I had reached a higher pay grade. But at this point, can I afford to put in two or three years of service, then hope for someone to leave the company? On the surface, the job looked like a step back. I had become complacent at my last position, neither being given any career-pertinent training nor seeking any out. Merely doing the same function for the next 30 years is no longer a realistic prospect. I need to be one step ahead of the next tectonic shift in hiring and retention patterns. So I called in with a sense that I was going to explore the possibility of working there, but not that I was going to take the first job that popped up.

The hiring manager described the position as spanning the production cycle from receipt of copyedited MSS to putting the jobs on press. InDesign would be the most frequently used application. Art was submitted by the copyeditor as conduit for the out-of-house editors and authors. I asked if this art was submitted according to any house specifications, and she said that although such specs existed, different sources heeded them to varying degrees. This is when Illustrator and Photoshop would be most commonly used; in the former, to add captions, modify color, or recreate art; in the latter, to verify image quality and to color-correct. It sounded like my relative inexperience in Photoshop versus my confidence in other Adobe products would not be a barrier.

What would be a barrier was the proposed salary range. She asked me directly what I was looking for. Seeing no way to dodge it, I told her a range $1,000–$5,000 above my last rate. This gave her pause, so I asked what the range was for this position. This turned out to be $15,000–$20,000 less than my departing salary. Even accounting for the position not being a senior or management slot, this was a crippling difference. With 401(k), taxes, healthcare, housing costs, and transit expenses taken out, less than a grand per month would remain. Out of this in turn would have to come car insurance, registration, holiday expenses, maybe some kind of vacation. . . . I had to decline.

The hiring person did say they offered transit assistance, as well as three weeks of vacation to start, 401(k), and so forth, but I told her this was unfortunately going to be a sticking point in my taking the position. It was a little nerve wracking to do so, because I could have had this position with little effort. Think of Vincent Vega in Pulp Fiction:

". . . So you're gonna go out there, drink your drink, say, 'Goodnight, I've had a very lovely evening,' go home and jack off. And that's all you're gonna do."

He knows that right outside that bathroom door, a tall, gorgeous, crazy, somewhat high brunette might fall into bed with him if he pushes in just the right places. The only problem is, said brunette also happens to be married . . . to Vincent's boss, no less. Vincent's touchy, patient-about-extracting-revenge boss. He realizes that, on several levels, this is the wrong move.

I know deep down that this is not the right job for me. I want to exploit the career-assistance program as much as I can this month, to determine exactly what I want to do for the rest of my life, not just for the next job. This is a golden opportunity, fully paid, and I won't get another like it. If it means declining the easy solution here for the right solution down the line, so be it.

Will I kick myself over this two months from now if I still haven't found something? Oh hell yeah. That's why I'm writing what I'm thinking now, here, where I can return to it and know I was right . . . especially if, in three months, I can say the same thing from the vantage point of the right job.

Sunday, April 01, 2007

Want a Job Done Right?

I'M SURE YOU CAN offer the traditional rejoinder to that opening. In my case, it would have ensured that a good deed actually got done Saturday morning, and a wonderful supervisor would be admiring a fresh bouquet of flowers. Here's how this went awry.

Back on March 22, I slithered out of the office and took the train up to the Flower District in Manhattan. I had decided to get flowers for my supervisor on the Saturday following our last day. I knew she would be cooped up that weekend to work on her graduate thesis, so something to brighten up the joint might lift her spirits and cut her stress. For everything she's done for our crew and me in particular, some flowers are the very least I could do to thank her.

I entered the shop that had come up in my Internet search. I stood at the front counter for a minute until the guys busily assembling arrangements directed me to the back. There, a flustered, pear-shaped clerk took down all pertinent details, including the card. I never have this text cued up when I order flowers; next time I need to write it beforehand to spare myself the homina-homina act.

The clerk put the info into the computer, then ran my credit card through, only to have the system freeze up. The card wasn't rejected, but whatever was supposed to have happened clearly wasn't. The clerk tapped various keys on the antiquated box in a mounting panic, then went into the back to seek help. A second employee managed to get the receipt to print, which I signed. With the first clerk's card in hand, I headed back to the office, my secret plan for March 31 smiling in my chest.

Despite there being a confirmation number on the receipt, I neglected to call and verify the order earlier during this crazy week. I've never had problems with flower deliveries in the past, so I don't have the instinct to mother-hen this sort of thing. I figured I would hear from her sometime Saturday morning, and as I went to bed Friday night, I looked forward to her reaction.

Said reaction never came. The delivery time passed, then receded hour by hour into the past, without any call from my supervisor. This was odd. She is a gracious and conscientious person, and I was sure I'd at least get an email, a good option considering how busy she might be. Earlier in the morning, I had sent her a test PDF to see if we could exchange marked-up files (I do copyediting for her), so I called around 2:00 to see if she had gotten anything. If her reaction was deadpan, I'd just refer to the files, and assume the flowers were late; if they had gotten there, I'd definitely know. Unfortunately, her phone was off, so I left this info in a message that may or may not have gotten through.

By 4:00 I was dying. What the hell? Even if, for some bizarre, planetary-alignment mischance type of reason, she had somehow misinterpreted the gesture, she would have called to let me know it wasn't appreciated. But that's not the relationship we have — I knew she wouldn't read anything into it — and I knew deep down if she had gotten the flowers, she'd have called to say something. So I called the florist in a mounting wave of frustration.

I got a different clerk than the one who had taken the order. I calmly explained that I wanted to confirm that flowers had gone to such-and-such a person. There was still a chance that somehow they had reached her apartment building while she had taken a brief, ill-timed stroll around the corner or something, and I at least wanted to rule that out.

The clerk looked up the number and found nothing. I gave him her name. No hits. My name — zero. Further, he couldn't find the receipt I had signed. He asked repeatedly to confirm that I had ordered the particular arrangement, took my name and that of my friend several times, but he couldn't locate the white credit slip. I asked if I would have to haul ass from Jersey to show him my yellow copy, but I stopped short of a boiling rant when he put me on hold to search again. No luck. The clerk stammered an explanation for the odd absence, but the message I was getting was that my order had never made it from that shop to the place in my super's neighborhood that would assemble and deliver the bouquet.

My anxiety of earlier that day was replaced by building fury, but I knew yelling was going to solve nothing. When I get angry, my reaction is to speak slowly in short, terse sentences. I say less rather than more. I force the other person to speak. Partly to put them off balance at my silence, and partly to stop myself from shrieking at them — and most problems are genuinely not worth that sort of surge in blood pressure or the energy that could be devoted to finding a solution.

I did want to verify the facts first. "So the upshot of all this is my friend never got her flowers?"

The clerk danced around confirming this. "There's no record of this order going to the florist I would usually send them to in [neighborhood]—"

"What is the number of that florist?"

The clerk gave me the name and number, and volunteered to put me on hold while he called them. I agreed; I also wanted to verify the lack of transmission before going to the next step. Keep in mind that I've already been on the phone for 20 minutes here, with several on-holds while this guy searched through a kludgey computer system that, as I observed on my visit, was running — barely — Windows 98.

The clerk returned and said his satellite florist had no record of either the order or the recipient's name.

Deep breath. Repeat. "What is our next step?"

Here the clerk offered to make up the order and send it ASAP. I told him the impact would have been greater had the order gone out earlier, and that I would like the charge removed from my bill. I know this was the moment when my bargaining power was greatest, but when people fail me like this, I want nothing more to do with them. He could do nothing more for me. The next course was already set.

"You've failed me for the last time, Admiral."

This began another 10 minutes of the clerk searching for the white copy of my charge slip, finally locating it, my being on hold, and eventually being called back to give my full credit card info — and meanwhile I'm trying to get on with my life by changing into my gym clothes — during which the clerk contacted the credit service through which all of their charges were processed. He said they would be able to remove the charge by the end of the day. Later consultation with my credit card cust-serv line revealed that the service has 14 days in which to do this. I will give them through the weekend and then have my card delete the charge. No rest for the wicked.

The clerk was sincerely upset that this order had not gone through. "I know we're not your favorite people right now," he said, but he offered an upgrade to a future order placed with them. It crossed my mind to have them up the order I had tried to place by 50% and let them eat shipping and handling, but honestly, I couldn't justify giving them any of my money at this point. Denial of service is the only recourse a small consumer like me has against a vendor. "It's nothing personal, Sonny," to quote Michael Corleone, "it's strictly business." I thanked him for his kind offer, and told him I would start by having the charge removed and proceed from there.

At this point I was standing next to my car in the parking lot. I drove to the gym, bashed my way through an anger-venting monster workout, and, upon returning, placed the same order through the satellite florist in my super's neighborhood for delivery before Monday at noon. If I couldn't beautify her apartment during a long week of homework, I could at least make her first Monday of unemployment a little sweeter. Plus, I like the inscription I gave on this order better than that on the aborted one.

I suppose I shouldn't phrase the situation like this, seeing as I have routed around it, but I am thankful that this was not an order for a wedding, or worse, a funeral. I could have cancelled this and my super never would have been the wiser. I did briefly consider not doing it, thinking this might have been a sign that it was not to be for some good reason. Pure fancy; I'm of a realistic, Han Solo–type mindset when it comes to that shit. Sometime tomorrow morning, while I am receiving my orientation at the career-planning firm, I very much hope she will receive this order. Failing that, I suppose I'll be doing some driving on Tuesday and do this job myself.

UPDATE: The flowers arrived on time on Monday. She dug them. Mission accomplished.

UPDATE 2: The charge has been removed from my card. Back to DEFCON 5.