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February 27, 2007

Take this Job Interview and Shove It!

By Sarah

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 Snow 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."

Newspapers 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 myHothead  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."

Plaid_pants 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,Barbie_unbound  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.



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Living well is the best revenge.

I get to interview law students for intern jobs every year. Can you imagine the trouble I could get into?

First of all, if any of you have not had the absolute delight of reading "Barbie Unbound", you owe it to yourself to find it.

I've had Head Honcho interviews where the jackass actually said something like: "Don't you want to have children? This may not be the right career for you." (That was a law firm, and the HH found himself answering some tough questions from his other partners, one of whom was my Tax Law Prof.)

It's like the redneck jagoffs in high school who end up being local cops - a little power and these nutjobs think they run the universe.

Sarah- congratulations on finishing Sleeping Beauty - cannot wait to read it!

And even bigger congrats for turning little red fireballs into a set of stones for yourself.

Sarah, you brought back some amusing memories...:) Josh nailed it dead on. George Herbert knew this 500 years ago; I just figured it out in the past four years. (I'm a little slow sometimes....)

Congrats on finishing Sleeping Beauty--can't wait! I hope you do another book tour and come near wherever I am living.

About the vacation horror--I personally would like to find the person who invented "Inservice Days" and do something incredibly violent to them. At least be honest enough to call them, "We can't get a thing done with all these damn kids around, so you deal with them for a day so we can catch up on our paperwork, or drink in the teachers' lounge or whatever, Day." That, I would respect a little.

I did a round of job interviews a few years ago when I decided that writing wasn't doing it for me. All of the face questions I got focused on how to handle conflict in the workplace. Not conflict with the patrons, mind you--conflict with co-workers. I thought that was very interesting. In the end, I decided to battle my inner writer conflicts rather than conflicts with other people.

Hey, Ramona, it's those inner conflicts that lead to great literature, right? My sister in law the teacher - who's also trying to write a book (hmm, wonder if there's a pattern here) - also thinks we should be honest about these in service days. I can see the reason for them - just not the timing. It's this blood trimester system. Really screw things up.

Very interesting that job interviews are all about conflicts. I think knowing how to interview is almost as hard as being interviewed - maybe harder.

Now that I think of it - that interview in Burlington was my last. (So far.)

But all of it pales to a guy I used to date. He actually said to his editor, "Why don't you drop your pants and suck my d*#k." Last I heard, he was writing for Star Trek.

Oh, Sarah, if inner conflicts were ALL it took to create great literature--I'd be Shakespeare's sister.

My worst interview ever was for Harvard. I had something the size of a Mack truck stuck in my contact lens. My eye was tearing up throughout, but I was too nervous and intimidated to say anything to the interviewer about it. Instead I just gutted my way through and answered her questions like nothing was wrong. I saw the report -- she said I "seemed uncomfortable"!

My favorite interview story of all time is not my own. A good friend was interviewing for a summer associate position at "the" law firm in town as a first year student. Not having much in the way of resume material he put the standard line "excellent communication skills" on his CV. During the final big group interview the silver back of the firm asked him what that meant. With out skipping a beat my friend said "You've... understood... everything... I've... said... so... far... haven't... you?". He never did practice law, he runs a fabulous B&B in San Miguel de Allende. Some folks have all the luck.

I was interviewing for a low paying, but fun job as a master of ceremonies for a large condominium. During the interview, the lady interviewee asked if she could smoke -

I was possessed to say "No."

I knew then that I did not get the job. It was a healthy choice however.

Sarah - I wasn't going to go there, but bankers and lawyers deliver the same message - they just do it more artfully.

Sarah, if that's the kind of grief civilians go through, I was lucky to be an actress. I've had prospective employers answer the phone in the middle of auditions. Me having to pour out my heart to my scene partner (the casting director's assistant) while some creep discusses his dinner reservations with his secretary.

But I never had to describe myself. In Hollywood, they do that for you.

I went for an interview with a consulting firm back in 1997. After waiting for 45 minutes past the appointment time, the HH deigned to give me an audience. I went in to his office and sat down. He swung his feet up onto his desk, passed a very loud amount of gas, looked me in the eye and said "So...what do you bring to the company that I want?" I paused, smiled flutely and replied, "Manners". Then I stood up and walked out.

True story....

That's awesome, William.

1997 must have been the Year of the Dickhead. I'll have to check my calendar.

And we have another bumper sticker for the TLC catalog:

[1997]: The Year of the Dickhead

Other memorable events of The Year of the Dickhead, that I just looked up:

First Harry Potter book published.

Princess Diana died.

The term "weblog" was coined.

Some days, I'll do anything rather than write.

That is SO awesome, William.

Sarah just called. Our kids are down the hill, in the woods. Oh, and apparently they found a skunk. Ah, for the innocent days of school vacation.

The HH's paper never won, and never will win, a Pulitzer. Perhaps that is because its minions, including the HH, are too stupid or self-satisfied to appreciate the value of a straight question from a real reporter.

When I think of HH and the way he dissed Sarah, ohhh I get so mad!!!

I went to an interview for the job I have now, told the manager that if there is a flu,a cold, anything sick, I will catch it. If there is a thing to trip over, I will trip. That I am an outspoken Texan who hates shopelifters, liars, and stupidity. But.... when I know a job, I DO IT. There will be noone better if given a chance.She hired me! LOLOL So far I have caught everything going around, things happen to me like, assistants have dropped suitcases on my head, they have broken my arm, and they have broken two ribs so far. LOL I told her the other day,SEE I DIDNT LIE! Now after having a trauma to my left shoulder I have something called adhesive capsulitis,and have to tell her today.Good Grief! LOL I bet you would never think working in a drug store could be so dangerous!She took a chance with me, even if the interview, as she puts it, "One of the scariest she had ever had" God Bless Her!
BTW Mr Simon, I will look forward to learning about Abberline and the connection. I always though he got a rotten deal.

Go on, Charlie. Rattle that saber, baby.

BTW, baking soda works better than tomato sauce. For skunks, I mean.

Thanks for the baking soda tip, Ramona. To which skunk should it be applied?

Any and all, Charlie.

My genius of a dog has been skunked THREE times. I assume that your children are way smarter.

We, too, have a dog (with thick unmanageable hair) who has been skunked every spring of his life. Each time he seems baffled.

I love the people of this blog.

I'm just saying.

We love you too Nancy!

Please, can we have an alternate Year of the Dickhead? Because 1997 was when I got married.

tomato juice bath will kill the 'skunk' smell, too.

Happy Ten Year Anniversary Harley!

1997 was not a bad year, 1998 was more of a "dickhead" year given the conduct of Bill Clinton.

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