Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Not Spending It All in One Place

MY SEVERANCE PAYMENTS FROM the salt mine ended some time ago. Or so I thought. When I checked my mailbox this Saturday, I was surprised to find a check mailer from my former employer.

Still mostly convinced the previous check to this one had been my last, I nonetheless shredded it open, never averse to free money in any amount . . .

. . . no matter how small.

That's right, folks. They couldn't have tacked this onto my last severance check. Instead, they had to run this through their payroll drones, stick a 41¢ stamp on it, and mail it out.

With this mentality, now you can see why the layoff didn't exactly cripple me with grief.

Saturday, July 14, 2007

101.1 CBS-FM (Mostly) Returns

NEW YORK METRO AREA fans of oldies-format radio suffered for two years after the unceremonious dumping of WCBS 101.1's on-air personalities and playlist for the vile JACK FM format. For months, the station didn't even feature DJs. They touted it as being like a very cool iPod on shuffle play, calling upon the biggest playlist in the Tri-State Area. They even had the balls to call themselves a "freeform" station. To all this puffery I took great exception: The coolest shuffle-locked iPod, and the hugest playlist, in this area both belong to THE freeform station of the nation, the Fun 91, WFMU. Gagging at the concept of a playlist that could include both Black Sabbath and Jessica Simpson, I removed 101.1 from my car stereo, and many area pizzerias, barbershops, garages, and beauty salons likewise tuned out of the station that had provided their audio background for so long.

In the aftermath, I had to concede that CBS has invited its demise by straying from its core playlist. In an attempt to stay hip, they had added Eighties hits into the mix. Make no mistake, I am a huge fan of Eighties music, but it doesn't belong in the CBS lineup. Think of the first third of Goodfellas. Recall American Graffiti. That's what CBS-FM should sound like. You want to hear things like "Blueberry Hill," "Charlie Brown," "Big Girls Don't Cry," "Shout," and of course, "Then He Kissed Me." The sort of music you'd expect to hear while buzzing the Mekong Delta, mourning Jack Kennedy, or chatting with the Fonz.

These hits were instead replaced by noncontextual audio hangnails like "Abracadabra," "We Built This City (On Rock and Roll)," and a depressing bucket of soundalike retro crap from Billy Joel: "Keeping the Faith," "Uptown Girl," and "We Didn't Start the Fire." I didn't want to hear a listing of the era in which CBS's playlist first got airtime; I wanted to hear the era's actual fucking songs! So when the station, listing and vulnerable, was picked off by a nimble competitor, I had to believe it was complicit in its own decline. Still, I missed what it once had been.

Fast forward two years. The only place I heard anything like CBS's old format was out in Las Vegas, on a Clear Channel station of all things. As we gritted our teeth through the recent heat wave, however, rumors surfaced that the JACK was about to be aced. The news went forth: WCBS-FM would return to its oldies format! Based on the radio spots, it sounded like they were setting the clock back to 2005, because they intended to include Eighties music.

So it was with some trepidation that I kicked on the JACKless CBS FM on Thursday morning, hoping to hear something like "Sugar Sugar," "Oh What a Night," or even the staple "Rock Around the Clock."

Instead, what do I get?


Oy, it's gonna be a long road back from the JACK.

Monday, July 09, 2007

Peculiarly Informal Way to End Unemployment

I HAD THE PLEASURE of terminating my participation in the New York State Unemployment system this Sunday. What surprised me was the lack of any defined, emphatic way to let the system know you're done.

In the manual I received when I signed up for benefits, it merely says, "When you get a job, you should claim credit for the last days you were out of work, then simply stop claiming benefits."

There's no explicit "I'M DONE" button on the NYS Unemployment website. Rather, you need to submit a claim for the week, then, at the end of the survey, you answer "yes" to the question, "Have you returned to work full-time?" I did this, and the system let me know I was ineligible for benefits for that week, but because I had earned more than the claim payout maximum.

For something as important as closing out a financial record, I would imagine there to be a formal procedure, requiring you to sign off specifically for that purpose, to end the benefits relationship. Not that I feel it needs drama that befits the joy of getting a full-time gig again. If I were closing a bank account or switching 401(k) providers, I would expect to sign all manner of forms or click a variety of Web buttons, and have printed proof that the desired result was enacted in case it ever becomes an issue. Not here. All I need to do . . . is do nothing.

It does gall me that I will have to pay taxes on the unemployment cash, though. I'll use the remainder for my 2008 Roth IRA contribution. Tax that.

Sunday, July 08, 2007

First "Week" of Work and Postgame Wrapup

I'VE JUST COMPLETED THE first week in which I worked at the new job. To say "my first week of work" wouldn't be accurate, because I skipped Monday for my Photoshop class, only worked half of Tuesday, was off for the Fourth on Wednesday, and filled out forms over the course of half of Thursday. Still, by the end of Friday — during which I was mostly left alone, as the office was depopulated — I was actually rewriting an article for the magazine on which I'll be exerting my labors. Though I will be absent next Monday for my Photoshop class, the entire office ought to be back from vacation, and I will slide into the regular work cycle for true.

Let's backtrack a bit, to let those few kind folks who've bookmarked this blog in on events since I added my exultant, if brief, "I AM EMPLOYED!!!" entry and my catch-up entry in which I described my first interview, which evidently I aced.

I got a call between four and five in the afternoon on June 21 from the HR manager. I'd been told to expect some sort of communication soon, so I'd been hovering by the phone while distractedly hunting for the next position. By this point in the afternoon, I figured I wouldn't hear anything, but when my cellphone rang I nearly snapped an ankle racing across the room to grab it.

The HR person led by saying, "I think this is the call you've been waiting for." I tensed in anticipation, still retaining enough wits to imagine that same quote coming, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas–style, from a uniformed dwarf with a telephone on a tray. She extended the job offer, gave my potential starting salary, and proposed a starting date. I pointed out that I was taking classes on Mondays in the city, so we revised it slightly to July 3. In effect, I was getting about a week and a half of freedom, including my birthday, before heading back into the job market.

When I requested an offer letter, she said she would email one, thus sparing me a call to my parents to get the fax machine hooked up. The salary came in above the range I had stated in my cover letter, and very close to what I was making at the previous job. Between getting 90 to 100 minutes back per day with the considerably shorter commute (15 minutes by car), not paying for monthly train tickets (which recently got hiked by 10% in price), and having more freedom to return home when I need to, it's more like a raise. As my friend Matt has said, he can always make more money, but he can't make more time.

Naturally, I began calling and emailing folks to let them know my job hunt was over, beginning with my parents. I had just seen a bunch of folks from my first job at the fantastic wedding of Amy and Ratatosk the previous Saturday, and now I was able to tell some of them, including the bride and groom, that the job I had hoped to get was in fact mine. I'd hedged when describing my chances, saying that I was considering myself still in search mode until I got an offer letter. With said letter siting in my inbox, I could now contact them to tell them their good wishes and hopes had paid off.

I had schoolwork to do that weekend, which, sadly, was of heartbreaking beauty and cool, breezy weather. I did sneak out now and again to enjoy it, but Photoshop was my prime concern through Sunday night. Monday was class, but once I split out of SVA, I began a week-and-change of pure sloth. Tuesday saw an extended binge in Atlantic City, where I managed to win at both casinos I visited. I finally sat for a session at the renovated and expanded Borgata poker room. I eked out a small win there, then booked a substantial win after dinner at the House of Blues poker room at Showboat. This began a streak of poker victory in the home games that has not yet ended.

I spent my birthday last Wednesday lounging about, then relaxed for the remainder of the week. Saturday saw a double-shot of good Samaritanism: I helped Matt move out of his apartment, then, later that evening, drove out to Totowa to rescue Felix and his fiancée from a dead car battery. I wasn't able to jump it, but I did help by transporting them as needed for the cables and to the dealership, for which Felix was kind enough to spot me dinner at a diner next door.

I didn't do anything for the actual job until Monday, when (with class suspended for the July 4 holiday) I placed a call to the office to get a sense of the dress code. This turned out to be the nebulous catch-all of "business casual," for which I was already well supplied. I gave up on button-down shirts and slacks in January, when I decided not to burn dry-cleaning money on a job that was ending anyway. So I had a whole rack of ready rags. Still, I picked up some new slacks with a coupon that fortuitously had arrived from Mens Wearhouse the previous week.

I thought frequently about my three months of unemployment during this final week of "freedom." I didn't really begin searching with dedication until the beginning of May, after my complimentary month with the career-counseling firm. The timing of the job offer couldn't have been better, as it came just before I received my final severance check, and at the three-month point of my unemployment benefits, under the terms of which I would have to begin applying for any job, not just those in my field, to remain eligible.

Getting right into the career counseling was the smartest thing I could have done. Despite occasional twinges that I should have taken one hedonistic week for myself before plunging in, I felt at the time that I ought to begin learning the skills needed to shorten the job hunt as early as possible. I didn't know how often I would have to attend classes, or whether I'd have to travel into the city for them. As it turned out, the office was 15 minutes away (coincidentially, right next to the office where my new job is located), so I wouldn't need to devote 2 hours per day just to get to and from the seminars. But I knew I would need a comprehensive, well-written resume as soon as I could craft it. The solution? Dive right into the coursework.

This proved wise. By the beginning of May, my resume, interview skills, and ability to pitch myself were all much stronger. Even with this head of steam, I still found working on my own, with no supervision, difficult at first. On average, there was at least one day per week on which I simply didn't achieve anything productive. I also had two weeks in which I was considerably less motivated to continue the hunt. I tracked my time in Excel, noting letters sent, networking calls made, and the like, as per the career center training, and those two weeks stand out shamefully. Still, one of the last classes I took offered the wisdom that occasionally, we would need some time away from the hunt — maybe a morning, perhaps even a day or more — to refocus and pursue our broader interests. I felt it was a little early in the hunt for me to take a break, but I rode it out, kept searching, and made an effort to keep reviewing my course materials. I am fairly certain, though, that freelance work at home would carry the same risk as the job hunt did, that of falling into the time-sink that is the Internet to detrimental extent over the day.

I directly contacted fewer hiring managers than the course recommends. (Briefly, the key to their strategy is to call or meet with hiring managers before they have a job ready for you, via regular networking, so you are at the front of their mind when they do need someone.) Networking is not a deeply ingrained habit of mine, though I knew I would have to develop it swiftly to shorten the job hunt. As it happens, I found my current job online, which the coursework advises has a considerably smaller success rate than is popularly believed, so job seekers should assign it correspondingly less effort in favor of networking and direct manager contact.

Despite moments of ebbing motivation, I kept a positive attitude through the entire process. By the time I left the old job, I was emotionally reconciled to departing, so I felt neither regret nor rancor upon departing. I tried not to speak of it negatively with friends and potential new network candidates. You never know who might have the chance to pass your information along to a hiring manager, and you don't want them to say that all you do is bitch about your former bosses and coworkers. At any rate, I did learn a lot from my previous job, and I left my managers and work friends on fine terms, so I had several skills and potential references on deck for the new job.

The best thing I can do now is to begin building a network at my new job. Rands in Repose offers a guide for the first 90 days at a job, and a few of them relate directly to forming, or becoming part of, a network. I've already spent some time at the new place looking through my predecessor's Rolodex, and wishing she had left notes on what each contact's importance will to the tasks at hand. I hope to have just such a matrix of names and functions up and running by the end of my first 90 days (October 1), both to help me fulfill my job tasks and to help speak for me, or even employ me, when the time comes to look for another job.

Statistically that is inevitable. This is my third postcollegiate job. These days, members of my generation are told to expect several changes in employment. With my average length of employment at around 7 years, I can expect to begin sniffing out the next position around the age of 45, in 2014. And there's no guarantee that said search will begin voluntarily. The last one didn't! The time to develop a flexible and living network of colleagues is now. No honeymoon; just enact the lessons I learned in April and begin learning names and calling numbers. I may not be quite as single, healthy, or flush with emergency-fund cash by then. Anything I can do now to shorten the next job hunt will be literal money in the bank.

Cash-wise, I fared well during my time out of work. I cut spending to the bone long before the last day at the salt mine. I had already deferred my usual summer trip to Las Vegas, so I didn't have any major travel expenses popping up on my credit cards. I did a little freelance work during April for M. to earn some small coin while taking the career-counseling classes. I cut my weekly poker night back to every other week until I had a sense that I wasn't risking serious financial damage by playing on the usual schedule (and at any rate, I went on something of a tear as spring ended and summer began, which never hurts). I redid my cell contract to get more minutes, for the potentially larger number of prime-time calls I would make to the city and to avoid overage charges. I was prepared for a long siege, if necessary, the only unavoidable expenses being the brutal power bills I would face if I had to run the air conditioner all day during July or August. Thankfully, this will not be an issue.

My primary duties at the new job will be editing, writing, and trafficking. Whither design? Although I will be doing copyfitting and layout of minor items in Quark and eventually InDesign, I will be no more of a graphic designer there as I was at the last job. I took the Photoshop course to improve my skill set for what I imagined, around Memorial Day, would be a long job hunt. Now that I am working, and don't have all day to conceive and craft the projects — and in fact may not even need Photoshop at the new place — my urge to complete the course is waning. I have a project due on July 16 that I need to get a move on. Though I have learned a lot, the final project, due on the last day of class (July 30), finds me at an utter loss for ideas. Would it be an expression of surrender if I were to bail on the final project and take the considerable boost in knowledge I've gotten out of the classes thus far . . . or mere pragmatism?

I do want to retain this Photoshop knowledge, in case this job somehow falls through. But I know now, after seeing the sort of work my classmates have been doing (and the even more stunning work that recent Pratt grads displayed at a show I attended in May), that I will never have the creative spark in a visual arena to be a true graphic designer or artist. At most I'll only be a technician, a person with slightly above-average skill with the individual tools, which may be enough for a lot of the employers I will ever have. If I refocus my talents on the editing and writing that the new job will require, should I accept reality and push in the direction where my deepest talents lie?

I am reminded of my musings my musings on a new direction and the results of my career exercise, as well as my success at the Lent writing devotion. While working on my first article at the new place, I could feel myself rising to the challenge, integrating the material I had gleaned from my phone interview with the existing copy, crafting an intro and a coherent flow, and it was right, even though the final product may be revised by my boss, or cut back by 90%, I was actually writing for an employer.

This question can be settled in the coming days. The biggest question looming over my life, and one of the most important goals I set for myself at the beginning of 2007, has been resolved. I could not be more pleased and relieved.