Thursday, June 21, 2007


JUST GOT AN OFFER. It's the job I've been discussing these past few posts. Official letter to follow via email tonight. I intend to accept. Must step out for victory Friendly's now.

As a certain financial talking head might put it, "BOOO-YAAAH!"

SNAFU Sidetracks Employment-Agency Date

VEXING DIRECTIONAL SCREWUP TODAY led to my missing out on a chance to speak with a recruiting agency, and wasted 2 hours of my life between donning and shedding my monkey suit. By way of reviewing the past few days and getting this agitation out of my system, let me write a spell.

To back up a few paces, I have not gotten an answer from the place I interviewed 2 weeks ago. I did complete an editorial test for them last Friday, but by Wednesday I hadn't received acknowledgment of its quality or even its receipt. I therefore called them to check. (I should note here that this is not the reason I'm agitated.) I spoke to the woman with whom I had the in-person interview (vs. the managing editor of the publications, who was on a speakerphone during the interview). She said they had indeed received the test, and that it looked good. As to an answer on employment, she said that the managing editor and human resources were working on it, but that she had a positive feeling about my prospects. Obviously, she couldn't commit in any more explicit way, especially if HR was performing a background check, suddenly uncovered something (speculatively, of course), and then had to contend with the other person having jumped the gun. She said I ought to receive some sort of answer in the next couple of days. So I hope to hear from them today or tomorrow.

This would be very nice, as I'm hitting another ebb tide of motivation. I did go to the library yesterday to do some job-hunting work, because my Internet service was down briefly (how soon we feel the absence of the cable when it's yanked from the vein). I found the change of scenery most invigorating. Being stuck here during the greater part of the day with no absolute duties was a crusher during parts of May. I can think of one week, after Jen and Steve's wedding, that was an utter bust in terms of motivation. With the start of June and my Photoshop class, I at least had another productive function to perform here. The second week of June, however, was another stretch where I got a lot less done on the job horizon than I would have liked. The final seminar I had with the career-counseling firm warned of such hills and valleys, but still, I need to keep getting my message out there if I want to find the right position and demonstrate amid such activity to NY State Unemployment that I am actively trying to find work.

So about today. I had an appointment to speak with a representative with the creative-talent arm of a major recruiting and temporary-work firm. I had posted my information on their website back in March before departing the salt mine. I called over to set up an appointment with the guy who had been working with my then-supervisor M., only to find he had left the company abruptly. (This was a surprise to M., who had been working with this gent even before we left the company.) The receptionist told me that once my online application was reviewed, I would get a call, which finally came last week.

The woman who called me asked me to come in today, after I completed one or two more tasks (send a resume, references, any samples). I took the opportunity to take my buddy Len up on a favor he had offered at Jen and Steve's wedding. He works for another branch of the employment company that owns this one, and he generously offered to call any contact I made there and give him or her the good word on my reliability as a potential employee. I dropped Len a note with this person's name, along with my huge thanks and a couple of questions about temping and unemployment.

This question had led me to forego contacting temp agencies prior to this point. As a designer-type person, my skill at Photoshop is low. (Thus, the class.) Many of the jobs I've checked out online list Photoshop as a skill. Although any work therein may be limited in scope, more along the lines of altering existing graphics rather than de novo creation all day and (oy) night, I still needed to demonstrate a basic knowledge of the software. Some employment agencies and hiring managers administer testing to ensure the candidate's level of expertise. The agency I was working with in this case wanted me to take a test once I came into the office, so they could honestly inform their clients just how skilled the temps were.

My question: If my lack of Photoshop knowledge was possibly gonna keep me on the sidelines waiting for work, and if I became an employee of the temp agency to become eligible for these placements, would I then have to inform NY State that I was, from their standpoint, employed? If my prospects for frequent temp work with the employment agency were slim due to my qualifications, was I in danger of giving up a base level of income just to be put on the shelf for a while?

This was the primary question I wanted to discuss today. If I was only going to get paid occasionally, but would otherwise still receive healthcare, that might make the deal more equitable. (Staring at a COBRA bill next to my computer inspired that last sentence.) Len wasn't as up on how New York handles this question, so he couldn't offer as definitive an opinion as someone in our area might be able to. So when I arose this morning, I looked forward to at least exploring the temp question, while making it clear that my primary goal was permanent full-time employment.

The only problem was that I stupidly left the directions at home. If you've never been to central Bergen County, the office building management company Mack-Cali owns several complexes in and around the shopping nexus of Paramus. Four of them surround Paramus Park Mall. Without the sheet in hand, however, I couldn't be sure which one I had to go to. I was leaving early enough to drive from one to the other if I needed to.

There are six Mack-Cali Centers in Paramus, four of which were at my destination. I had a 2 in 3 chance of finding the proper building in that area. I lost that bet. After checking two of the building directories, I called the office to get an update from my contact. One of her coworkers indicated that the office was in fact near Route 4, rather than on the eastern side of Route 17, which is where these four were located. I asked him to convey my apologies for the delay to my contact — to which he said it was no problem — got back in my car, and headed in the direction of this other office building.

I never found it. The landmarks this guy gave me over the phone were not to be seen. By this point I was pissed at myself for fucking up with the directions, and I realized I was going to need more time to at least stop at a Barnes & Noble and check out a map for a better idea of where the hell they were. I called again, but was told everyone was in a company-wide meeting. This struck me as odd. I had been told the discussion and testing could take as long as 2 hours. Assuming I got there at 9:00 as planned, I'd at least spend 15 minutes or so getting the opening discussion with my contact or one of her colleagues underway. Now suddenly they're all in a meeting?

I am attuned to the quiet messages the universe often issues. In this case, I was becoming convinced that this meeting was not to occur today. Even if I did somehow get better directions to the place, by the time I got there I still would be wound up from the whole process. So I called the office one more time, and told my contact via her voicemail that we would have to reschedule for early next week. By then, I hoped I would know one way or the other my situation with the publishing company where I'd interviewed.

I am sincerely interested in at least hearing what they would say about my unemployment question, so I am hoping to hear from them again soon. I'll call them again later today or first thing tomorrow to see if next Tuesday is good. For now, though, I will concentrate on my Photoshop work, which is ongoing. New assignments every week. Just the thing to ingrain new reflexes.

I can report that the Happy Massager went over well. The instructor commented favorably on the wood-grain detail and the highlights, saying that these were the aspects that distinguished this model from being a two-dimensional sketch. Last class, which came on a day of such heartbreaking beauty it was tough to board the bus for NYC instead of for Atlantic City, we got acquainted with the scanner, in preparation for a collage/portrait that is to express something about ourselves. The instructor had asked us to bring in items from our environment ("found" items, vs. photos or computer-generated images) to integrate into a collage or other arrangement that would demonstrate our skills up through that class.

I brought a ton of poker-related gear: cards, chips, a couple of books, and some index cards on which I'd typed some of my more useful pieces of acquired wisdom over the years. I scanned many of these in class, but I realized I probably would want to modify these further later in the week. With no plans to return to Chelsea before next class, I acted on an impulse that had been floating around for some time and bought a scanner. I'm glad this class has no apparent need for a camera, else I might be out snagging a digital model next week or something.

Friday, June 15, 2007

Where the Hell I've Been

BIT OF A GAP there, the longest in recent memory, if memory is worth a damn. I've been busy. Here's a rundown of what's been up with me.

Interview: I was lucky enough to have an interview two Thursdays ago. It's a specialty magazine publishing company that also runs trade shows for consumers and professionals in the magazine readerships' areas of interest. I snagged their ad online and dropped a note to them, and to my great surprise, I got a call back within an hour or so. The location is about 15 minutes away from my house — in fact, it's next door to the career-counseling office I visited through April.

The ad matched several of my skill sets, so I had a good feeling going into the interview. Two people, one live, one over speakerphone, conducted the company side of the discussion. I have to say, the career counseling was of inestimable value for this interview. Although I went into the place somewhat nervous, I felt relaxed by the time I began answering the first query. I was able to answer every question directly, most of them with a story that depicted how I solved a similar problem at a previous job. At one point, they listed the various roles a person in the position would have to fulfill; I jotted them down as one of the interviewers spoke, then, saying, "I can address several of these areas," gave them parts of my work history where I was able to succeed in those realms. At no point was I fumfering for an answer; moreover, they never expressed any displeasure or sarcasm at any of my responses. No trick questions; no lectures or anything demeaning; just a relaxed discussion about an opening that we all hoped I might be able to fill.

Once we wrapped up the three-way chat, I took a brief layout test in Quark. It seemed deceptively easy, but after triple-checking for bad breaks, widows/orphans, and overflow text, I let my contact know it was all set. Frankly, it felt good to do some layout again.

I exited that day with a strong feeling that, whatever happened, I got this one right. This was my first interview out of the training, and I felt like I represented myself well. I took myself to Outback that night as a reward for passing this first test.

Bachelor dinner with Ratatosk: My esteemed fellow blogger and excellent friend, having found himself a fantastic woman whom he shall have the privilege of marrying tomorrow, received his official sendoff from the menfolk the Saturday following my interview. His brother, brother-in-law, three of the gaming gang, and I gathered at Kiku, the Japanese hibachi/sushi joint on Route 17, to stuff him fulla stir-fry.

I enjoy these places, especially when we have a chef who's into the act, and in this case we did. He kept us laughing with corny jokes, added a dash of trivia questions (most of which I buzzed in correctly on), and of course, executed the Dance of the Flaming Onion Volcano. The food was quite tasty, and didn't seem like a heavy load, even though we had soup, salad, rice, shrimp, and a protein along with veggies.

As for the afterparty . . . well, the soon-to-be Mrs. Ratatosk reads these pages, so I must be circumspect as regards the Guy Code on the off chance she wasn't briefed on our second and final destination. Rest assured, she will receive tomorrow a man as pure as the one she sent out that evening for a hootenanny with his friends. How pure that was to begin with is anybody's guess, but we didn't get him into any trouble aside from some errant wing sauce and cholesterol.

NYC Daily Double: Monday and Tuesday felt like workdays, in that I went into New York on both. Monday was my usual Photoshop class at SVA, for which I needed to bring an object. I thought this was to be scanned and manipulated in the software, but it turned out we were actually going to draw it using various shading, gradation, and manipulation tools to familiarize ourselves with the most common implements of the trade. I had brought a $5 Bellagio chip, a royal flush in hearts, and a Krusty figure (she had said to bring something with a little dimensionality, which — aside from his act — suits Krusty all over). We will indeed do some scanning for next week, but this time around, we just needed to draw. She emphasized that we didn't need to duplicate the objects perfectly, but when I saw some of the samples from other classes, clearly drawn by students with underlying artistic talent, my heart sagged a little.

Still, I was there to learn, so during the 90 minutes we had in class to get cracking, I did my best to draw this schmaltzy clown. The challenge of using the tools for the first time in any useful fashion, combined with the irregular curves of this irregular Simpsons character, began to get me down, and when I left, I was wondering if I would ever get past this phase of the class to the areas of Photoshop I felt most would be needed to answer ads that called for proficiency in the software. This, combined with an extended wait for the bus (I need to take the train on the way out in the future for this class), left my mood fairly low by the time I returned home.

A good session at the gym the next day, combined with an additional communiqué from the place where I had interviewed (see next heading), picked up my spirits Tuesday morning. Also adding promise to the day was a trip I had planned to attend the InDesign Users Group in Manhattan that evening. At least one of my former teammates from the salt mine was scheduled to be there. She had attended previous meetings of this group and had good things to say about the presenters. With no job at the moment, I had committed to attend, and that afternoon found me back on the bus to Midtown.

This presentation connected with the company where I had interviewed in two ways. First, they were beginning to move into using InDesign, and as someone who had assisted with such a transition at my previous job, I had experience in making the jump from Quark. Also, they were investigating the possible role of using XML to repurpose text. This was something I had narrowly missed learning at the last job, and by coincidence, an XML specialist was scheduled to speak at the users group meeting. I still feel like I would need some intensive, one-on-one training in exploiting XML's potential before calling myself qualified to get someone up and running on it, but the demo taught me a few things, and there is apparently a downloadable guide to be had on the users group site.

Interview Part Deux: While I was in the city on Monday, I got a call from the coworker who I met at the IDUG meeting, as well as from M, my former supervisor. Both told me that they had gotten calls from the company where I had interviewed as part of a reference check. I was pleased to hear that they both had praised me to the rafters. The reference check gave me some hope that I had a fairly decent shot at getting the job. Had they not liked me in the interview, they wouldn't have bothered.

Tuesday morning's email brought a note from one of the two folks who emailed me with a proposition. Based on my experience in editing along with layout, would I be interested in taking an editing test to gauge my abilities as a developmental editor? They had an article that needed some direct editing on the beginning and end, but that also needed an outline of guidance for the author on how to ready it for the audience and tone of the magazine. Although this isn't something I've done formally, I have made recommendations to folks (e.g., M with her thesis project) on how to address text for a certain audience or purpose, in a couple of cases to the point of rewriting the text. I had the option to decline and be assessed for the position I had discussed the previous week. But now they were asking me if I'd want to recast the focus of that position, in essence soliciting my opinion on what I might be able to do there. Figuring that saying "no" to such an opportunity was worse than just letting them judge me on what we had already rapped about, I said by all means send it along. I had until Friday/Monday (their words) to return it.

This was the second challenge I would receive this week. The instructions asked the candidate to edit for a more colloquial, less academic tone; to recommend additions or cuts; and to prepare a guide for how, if at all, the article should be revised. I'd only have to copyedit the beginning and end (good thing, too, as the article was fairly dry and technical in the middle and I lack the medical-writing experience to tell them if any of the facts were wrong). I concentrated first on the copyediting, letting the ideas I had for any major reworking simmer. I was at a loss on Wednesday morning, until a solution came to me that night, and I spent Thursday jotting notes and shifting text to enact this plan. By Friday morning, after spell- and grammar-checking the shit out of it, I sent my revisions and outline along. I very delicately said that if I still needed work in this field, I was more than happy to be considered for the original position and to work with them in developing this skill in case I was needed later on to help with this aspect of the job. Again, I didn't want to let any sense of negativity creep in. I wanted all doors to be open, preferably the one to HR in which I signed my "welcome aboard" forms.

I haven't heard back from them yet, though I believe they do flexible time and I might have gotten it to them at the end of their "day." I remain hopeful, and the search continues. I am trying not to stake too much hope on this, not from any sort of self-deprecation or anything — I know I did swimmingly in the interview — but because I know it will be more than a stunning blow if for whatever crazy reason, they decide not to go with me. I don't know if it's because of the proximity of the workplace, or the close match to the job description my skills represent, or what. I am just trying to get any potential disappointment framed properly in case it gets triggered.

So that is where things stand. I watched Ratatosk and Amy rehearse their wedding this evening, and they were kind enough to bring fruit, sandwiches, and cookies to the church so we could chat, eat, and help put them both at ease for the Big Day. I will be reading at the ceremony (Shakespeare's Sonnet 116), so I've got a role to play in making the day a memorable one. After this, I will spend Sunday assembling the materials for the next Photoshop project.

Oh, I did manage, over the course of this week, to find a new, more geometrically regular subject for the drawing project. Once I got the biggest part done, I felt more comfortable with the tools we had been shown, which was the whole point of the exercise anyway. The rest flowed quite easily. Herewith, my rendering of the Happy Massager, or as my friends call it, the Molecule:

Tuesday, June 05, 2007

Taking Photoshop From the Ground Up

I RETURNED TO THE student life yesterday, even if for only one 8-week Photoshop class at the School of Visual Arts in beautiful, rain-slicked Chelsea. I awoke early to square away a few job-hunt activities here and pack. After 2 months out of the workplace, I am beginning to lose the instinct to ready a work bag the night before. A little unnerving.

The class is at 1:00, hours after the passage of the last Hoboken-bound train. This leaves the bus. I chose the second of two potentially timely buses, which ended up getting bogged down in tunnel traffic; next time, I'll just go with the earlier one. I had contemplated taking a train down and making a day of it in the city, but insomnia the previous night cut that plan down. I leave the option open for the future, though.

Between the delay at the tunnel, and the time it took me to navigate downtown, I arrived at SVA a couple of minutes late. Fortunately, I've taken a class there before, so I knew the way around the building. The instructor had begun, but I was able to sneak into the classroom without causing too much of a stir. I noted with pleasure that SVA had upgraded its Macs. I had visions of using the same ones I clunked around on back in the fall of 2001.

The instructor began by reviewing some general academic and syllabus guidelines, then gave us an intro to the Photoshop tool palette. My Photoshop skills are so pathetic that this intro already paid off in terms of skill acquisition. I alternated frantically between taking notes and trying out the various functions. Mastery of the basics was one of my prime goals going into this course.

The instructor addressed another goal of mine: building a book of samples via our homework. I've got practically nothing worth a damn to show potential employers. The work I did at my last company is barely worth bringing along on interviews. I need hard evidence that I can use Photoshop in a broad variety of ways, so I was happy to read the curriculum, in which the instructor listed the skills and functions she wanted us to exercise in creating each piece.

Each session includes an hour or so of classroom-based project work, but the teacher advised us to come up with a way to transport files back and forth if we wanted to back up our work. She advised a flash drive or a CD; she said the process of using an iPod as file storage was, in her experience, more unstable than Apple lets on. I had problems when I gave it a try on mine once, so I gave up on using it as a form of backup. Considering I had already been thinking of securing a flash drive, I am going to take this as my final kick in the ass.

I plan to spend some time this week getting acquainted with the tools in Photoshop and rereading the notes I took. The instructor recommended a couple of books as further reading, which I may try to get from the library. We do have to bring in an object to scan for next week's class, which will form the basis of our first assignment.

So finally, I will get to do some purely creative work. Now I get to see if the long purgatory of my last job, with its rote design duties and few opportunities to stretch the mental muscles, has done any permanent damage to my ability to learn and apply such lessons practically. I do understand that various jobs will require different levels of Photoshop facility, and that some shops will be more lenient of crosstraining in deficient areas, but knowing it well, and being able to create tangible work in it, will get my foot in a lot more doors. As much as the job hunt itself, this course is my quest for the next several weeks. At the end of this course, I'll be just a little bit close to being able to call myself a graphic designer without insulting those already in the profession.