There's a lot to be said for the writer's life - especially once the manuscript that kept you chained to a desk for months is off to the printer's. (And THE SLEEPING BEAUTY PROPOSAL is. Yippee!) If nothing else, it allows me - in theory - to be a better mother. I said in theory. I ain't making any claims.
Right now the kids have seven days off from school, not counting weekends. One whole week plus two extra days for "town meeting" smack in the dead of winter. They don't return until March 7th. Then they're in school for eight whopping days before they have another two days off for teacher whatever.
No wonder my newspaper editor regularly threatened to fire me every March.
Between this horror of a vacation (there'll be another week-long one in April), teacher in service days plus snow days and, of course, sick days, managing to get into the newsroom used to be a feast of scheduling time off, begging for mercy and interviewing confused officials while my elementary-aged kids, crazed with cabin fever, tried to lick off the wallpaper. It wasn't any easier for Charlie, then a state-employed lawyer. Frankly, I don't know we survived. I don't know how families still do.
Now, however, I barely think about this cruel vacation - except for when the occasional child falls face first onto the floor with boredom. I simply step over him or her and bless my stars that I bombed that job interview.
People tell you this when you botch a job interview or find yourself abruptly laid off or fired. "It will be the best thing that ever happened to you," they say. Though naturally you don't believe them. You're too worried or pissed to see beyond their annoying platitudes. It's not until years later when you've found your true calling (ideally), that you can look back and say in all honesty, "Shoot. I'm damned lucky I didn't get that job."
The interview I screwed up wasn't any job interview- it was an interview with the only newspaper in Vermont that paid. Which meant it belonged to a chain. (I am, unabashedly, no fan of newspaper chains.) It was in 1997 and I was panicked for money, tired of being paid little more than minimum wage at a small New Hampshire daily after working for fifteen years in a business where I was expected to report for duty on weekends and holidays, dash out to cover an airplane crash on Christmas Eve, and possess a full spectrum of expertise on everything from municipal budgets to the biological basis for Mad Cow Disease. Plus, I had worked for the Cleveland Plain Dealer so I'd tasted a decent salary. I wanted it again.
The process had been ongoing for two months. First, I met with the statehouse bureau chief - several times. Then I submitted a formal application. Then I went out to lunch with a higher editor in Burlington and took a drug test. Never mind that I had worked at a newspaper ten times the size of this that had hired me after one day of interviews and a pretty measly test. I had two more interviews to go before this bunch would even think of putting me on the dental plan.
When it happened, it happened very fast. I was up in Burlington, at the main office, sitting in on an editorial board meeting when the Head Honcho blew in. I pegged him as the kind of newspaper executive who would have done us all a favor by never seeing All The President's Men. He suffered from serious Jason Robards syndrome - reading half-glasses on the head, feet on the desk, shirt sleeves (neatly) rolled up. After his poor impersonation of Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee, he left and, surprisingly, I was summoned into his office.
The bureau chief told me I was a shoo in. I might even have the job by that afternoon.
Okay. I was not ready for this. I had at least two more interviews to go and I was not wearing my ultimate interview suit. (I was too freaking poor to own one!) Nevertheless, I went in, spied the fishbowl of Atomic fireballs on his all-too-messy desk and sized up the situation. This was Defcon 5 Dickhead.
"Tell me about yourself," he said, not looking up from my file.
A standard but boring question hallmarked by its meaninglessness. I answered in the way any normal person would answer, meaning that I told him about myself. I told him that I was a mother, that I had worked on newspapers since I was sixteen, that I had been editor in chief of my college newspaper (didn't mention the part about being brought up before the disciplinary committee for that), that I'd interned at Newsday and started my first-full-time job thirteen years before covering a Rutgers graduation less than twenty-four hours after my own....
"No, no, no," he scoffed, his face reddening for no reason. "You're reciting your resume. I said, tell me about yourself."
I was stumped. Immediately, the worst personal ad came to mind. I like long walks by the beach and sand between my toes. I like crisp cotton sheets in the summer and cinnamon apple tart in the winter. A warm fire, hot chocolate and someone to share it with. Making love in a spring rain...
"What does that question mean?" I asked.
"You don't know," he said, "do you?"
"Know what?" I knew he was a dickhead, for example, so clearly I knew something.
"Yourself. You don't know yourself."
Before I could respond, he closed my file and added, "This isn't some bullshit corporate question. This is a real issue. That's it. This interview is over."
I was befuddled. Worse, I felt as if I'd been set up. Being the plucky newspaper reporter I was, I asked outright, "I didn't get the job, did I?"
"No, no," he lied. "You did fine."
I took a quick mental snapshot of his facial features figuring it might come in handy someday either in the Post Office or when I needed a character description. Balding. Red faced. Plaid pants. Got it.
That night, on the way home in the car of the bureau chief, smoke started blowing out of his heater duct. The car was on fire. I got out and watched him climb down the snowy embankment to call AAA and thought of my grandmother who'd died two weeks before. She had sent me a sign. That was just the kind of stunt she'd have loved to pull, setting an engine ablaze.
The next day I got the call. The bureau chief said the Head Honcho "went off" on me. I didn't know what that meant - had he ever been on me?
"You know," the bureau chief said in frustration, "I agree that was a bullshit question. But you don't tell him that. You say, 'Gee. That's a tough one. I'll have to give it some thought.'"
I stared at the phone.
A few weeks later, a small lesbian feminist press, God bless 'em, agreed to publish BARBIE UNBOUND. Not that that was going to save my financial situation. (Au contraire). Still, Geoff Hansen and I spent a fun-filled spring shooting the photos and the next I knew I was on national television and in the national press and big New York publishers were asking me if I had anything else to offer. We had a blast.
Two years later, I got my first contract for Bubbles and promptly quit my newspaper job. That summer was the first summer I got to spend with my children, playing and revising BUBBLES UNBOUND. Proofreading the manuscript, I took special delight whenever I came across Bubbles's newspaper boss, the irrational jerk Dix Notch whose fishbowl of Atomic fireballs was as red as his often irate face. Not that there were any other similarities between Dix and the Head Honcho. Hey - it's fiction.
The thing is, I never would have had the time to write Barbie, to promote her or, more importantly, to write Bubbles (did it every night after work - thank you Charlie!), if I had known what to say when Dix Notch, er, Head Honcho asked me to tell him about myself.
So trust the universe. Sometimes, it's not as stupid as it looks.