Back to script!

Back to script!

After graduating from college, I spent almost a year living back at home with my generous and patient parents. Despite their kindness, it was not a good time. I could find no work of interest, my friends were far away, and I was pretty unmoored. My best friend was also spinning his wheels, and my girlfriend was unsuccessfully doing her best to drive me away. As the new year dawned, I did manage to find some work in a call center for Beneficial Bank. It was in the evenings, so it did not conflict with an internship I had at a local advertising agency (full of fun, creative people). I would drive down to the office near the train station and take the elevator up to the call floor, punch in, don my headset, and immerse myself in calls from upset, irate, desperate, incoherent people. It was quite a ride.

Our manager was a man whose name I entirely forget. A frenzied man with a Pakistani flag on his cubicle wall, he would pace the floor for much of the evening. When he was not stalking about, he would sit in his cube and listen in on our calls. If he heard us deviate from the bloodless, inhuman script even the tiniest bit, we would hear in our headset his hissing admonition, “Back to script! Back to script!” I can still hear his chiding words clearly.

130305124038-tax-time-refund-loans-620xaBeneficial and a few other banks had dreamed up a very clever product, and it is one that still exists (give or take). People would go into an H&R Block office somewhere in the country to have their taxes prepared. The person there would tell them they had a refund coming, and they would be thrilled for this free money, not understanding that this refund had always been theirs and that they had simply been extending an interest free loan to Uncle Sam. The preparer would tell them they could wait weeks for their refund (this is ages before electronic filing), or if they wanted, they could get their refund that very day, minus a small fee.

Thousands upon thousands of these people, most living paycheck to paycheck, would happily accept this offer, sign the contract without reading it, and be handed their money. In their minds, the transaction was complete. In fact, it had only just begun. What they signed was a loan agreement, and when one computed the fees on the loan, the interest rates amounted to highway robbery. Yet that is not the kicker.

When things worked as the people expected, they would leave with the loan and when the IRS eventually issued the refund, it would be directed to the bank to pay off the loan, and then the transaction would be complete. Among the people who called in to my bleak call center, this never happened,

The contract they had signed at their tax preparer’s office had stipulated, in teeny tiny print buried under drifts of legalese, that they authorized Beneficial to share with its partners their name, address, employment, and refund information. In turn, their partners represented a large pool of banks across the country. The agreement further stipulated that if any of the partners held an outstanding loan against the person, that the refund would be applied towards that loan, and that the person would then need to repay Beneficial for the tax refund, as the anticipated repayment via the IRS funds had now been diverted.

Please note this was in the dark ages of the early nineties, so that the internet was not then what it is now. Beneficial’s customers were largely poor people who moved around a lot, and many of them had left behind a trail of debt that could not be easily traced back to them in their new location. What this pool of banks had dreamed up was a way of using the H&R offices around the country to serve as hunters’ blinds, and their quarry had been enticed to volunteer their information, in effect waving their hands and yelling “Over here!” to the various banks.

Everyone who called in to our office had spent their refund money within days of receiving it. None of them could repay it, and few of them understood why they were being asked by Beneficial to repay something they had not comprehended was a loan. The other people on the phones with me and I would discuss the ethics of this business on our brief, scrupulously timed breaks, and we all felt dirty being part of something that was clearly legal, but also clearly not being properly explained to the banks’ customers. I gather these loans don’t really fit the term “predatory loan” but they came mighty close, and it was an eye-opening experience being part of the bank procedures that were scooping up these people and shaking them down. I realize the money being collected was legitimately owed, but the process still resembled thievery and clearly depended on ignorance and misinformation.

These days, when I find work feeling repetitive, dull, and dreary, short on meaning and long on inanity, I think back to that nameless man, hissing in my ear thirty years ago. “Back to script!” And all of a sudden, my spreadsheets seem more palatable.

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The cat poop fairy

Adulthood involves a number of things I never thought I would have to think about. I am not talking here about the big heavies of life – injustice, disease, mortality, and the like. I have a very fortunate life, and those big issues are thankfully not what I am confronting today. Rather, I am talking about the odd things I find myself doing from time to time, tasks imposed upon me by the responsibilities of parenthood or homeownership. Last night, I found myself doing one of these quirky tasks, and while I was completing it, I promised myself I would write it up so that you, dear reader, could compare notes with me.

(Here is where I would normally insert a relevant, humorous image to illustrate this story, but I decided against that, as I could think of no topical pictures that I actually wished to include with this post.)

One of our cats has diabetes. We treat him with daily insulin shots. Although his disease seems to be under control, he still drinks a lot and pees a lot. A lot. While we spent years cleaning out the litter box in our house twice a week, now we find we must clean it four or five times a week to keep the box tidy enough that the cats will use it and also to prevent the job from becoming too unpleasant for the cat box cleaner. As a result, we are generating a lot of kitty litter waste, and it is heavy. We were away for a week earlier this summer, during which time we had some diligent cat sitters, and when we came back and placed the garbage can on the curb, the garbage men chose not to take it, presumably because it felt like we were trying to throw out an anvil.

Now that I think about it, our garbage men are very good at not taking the trash. Inclement weather, plowing duties, a staggering number of recognized holidays, and a very thorough adherence to perfect Public Works rules compliance all contribute to an astonishing number of trash days in a year in which no trash is actually collected. With this in mind, when the next week’s trash day rolled around, I redistributed the trash bags among two trash cans, feeling certain this would be adequate for the garbage men.

Spoiler alert: it was not adequate.

Again, the trash truck drove by our uncollected garbage. While we are not having an especially hot summer, let me obliquely note that both two week old used cat litter and one week old kitchen waste in August are very potent, and well stocked with maggots. Today was the next trash day, and I have spent more time than I care to admit over the last few days pondering my strategy to entice the garbage men to take our garbage. Another week’s garbage means we were now up to three cans of garbage, so I did not have another container to distribute all this stuff. Instead, I pursued an alternative approach.

After midnight last night, I slipped out to the curb with gloves and a flashlight, and started rummaging through our dank, malodorous, and writhing trash cans. I fished out the various Target bags that contained the old kitty litter, and then I began to skulk around my neighborhood, looking for mostly empty trash cans into which I could deposit a bag of cat litter. I encountered one other person, out with their dog, and I cannot fathom what they imagined I was up to. Let me be the first to tell you it is very hard to look nonchalant while strolling around at midnight with a half-dozen bags of cat poop. Fifteen minutes later, I had finished my appointed rounds, and returned home to move around the remaining trash bags among our three cans. I went inside, washed up thoroughly, and went to bed, fingers crossed that this effort would do the trick, because I did not have a promising Plan B.

Imagine my relief this morning when my wife let me know that the garbage men had come by and had actually collected the garbage. Various half-formed visions of illicit dumpster dumping and awkward mugshots evaporated and I could go back to the glorious comfort of not thinking about my trash cans and their contents, which is my favorite state of affairs when it comes to trash cans. Now I will just worry about what the next unexpected curveball life will throw at me, and hope it is as simple as a surfeit of cat poop.

The old screensaver prank

[This is the tenth post in a series. For a little background on the thinking behind this, please read this.]

In tenth grade, I took an art course called Visual Arts 2. The class had only six or at most eight students in it. For the most part, the students were all pretty talented, and our teacher – Ms. Poole – offered us a great deal of latitude about how we chose to tackle the various challenges she posed for us. While I was no sculptor or painter, I could draw a bit, and I also served as the class DJ. The studio was down in the basement of the school, and Ms. Poole had a turntable hooked up to speakers, and I would bring in records we would listen to while we worked. Usually Ms. Poole would circulate around the room, checking in on us and offering suggestions and encouragement. At other times, she would retreat to her office and putter on her cutting edge Apple Macintosh Plus. It was a brand new machine, and the school did not have too many of them, but she was dating the math teacher who also served as the computer guy, and thus on her desk sat this Mac.

As it was new, and computers were new, I mean no criticism of Ms. Poole to say she knew very little about how to use the Mac at the time, and since the computer guy was also her boyfriend at the time (they later married), she had extra reason to run for help quickly when she was stumped by something the machine did or didn’t to. While Macs were new to all of us, the kids in her class had been using various Apple II and TRS-80 machines for long enough that we snickered at how quickly Ms. Poole would run for help.

macplusMacs back then, with their 9″ black & white CRT screens, usually ran some sort of screensaver to prevent “burn in.” Screensavers these days are elaborate, Technicolor programs built into the OS and run more for aesthetic purposes, but back when a Mac shipped with one megabyte of RAM, screensavers were purely functional add-ons. My school used a control panel that waited until a certain idle time had passed, and then turned the screen to black. No flying toasters, no animated clocks, just black. If one opened the settings panel for the program, one saw nothing but a text field where the desired idle time could be typed in, and an okay button. The delay was measured in seconds, and the default was three minutes, so the field started out with a 180 in it. At some point, I realized that there was no minimum, and that the program would accept a delay of zero. Thus when one typed, for example, ok, the machine would be dark, then as you typed o, the screen would light up, an o would appear, and then the screen would go dark. Then the k would prompt the screen again, the k would appear, and dark again. If you moved the mouse continuously, you could get the screen to stay on, too.

Armed with this knowledge, an idea dawned on me and I headed to art and waited for the right moment. One day while Ms. Poole was getting more coffee, I changed her screensaver delay to zero and returned to my seat. Ms. Poole returned, checked on us, and sat down at her desk. All of us chewed on our lips and stared at the floor as murmurs of confusion gave way to annoyed grumbling from around the corner as Ms. Poole confronted her screen’s desire to be solidly black. After a minute at most, she announced she was off to get the computer guy, and hustled down the hall. This was my cue to change the delay back to 180, which I did quickly before resuming my work. Sure enough, a few minutes later we heard Ms. Poole and the computer fellow coming down the hall, and she marched him into her office, pointed at the wayward Mac, gestured grandly, and said “Watch!” She tapped the space bar, the screen flicked on, and then of course it stayed on. The computer guy looked at the Mac, looked at the art teacher, looked at the Mac, and finally offered a cautious, “It’s working now.” Ms. Poole looked flustered and made some comment about machines always working when the repairmen are around, and apologized for dragging him down on a fool’s errand. The whole time, all of the students in the other room were struggling to stifle any fugitive guffaws.

In the coming months, I think I managed to pull this little stunt a half-dozen times, always being careful to have the timing seem random enough so the connection between the Mac and the VA2 class was not clear. Each time, our undeserving art teacher would scowl at her computer, vow not to seek help, give up, and summon the computer guy. And every time, once he arrived, the Mac was fine. I know this is a dumb waste of time to inflict on someone, but at fifteen it seemed mighty funny, and I guess I have some fifteen year old in me still, as I still laugh thinking about the look on her face when the machine would behave for her boyfriend having refused to behave for her. No lessons or morals to today’s story, just the petty pleasure of a proper prank from the dark ages of personal computing.

Wasn’t there twenty years ago

[This is the ninth post in a series. For a little background on the thinking behind this, please read this.]

I am fortunate to have grown up knowing three of my grandparents well, with them all living close by. I spent a lot of time with them growing up, and am very grateful both to have known them and for the glimpse this has given me into my parents’ upbringing. My father’s father was a terrific gentlemen, old-fashioned in the best of ways, and a wonderful husband, father, and grandfather. Other than loving to wallop me in Parcheesi, he was always gentle and generous and patient.

stop

When I was fifteen, I was with my grandfather one afternoon, driving around town on errands. I remember my age because I was nearing the time when I would receive my driver’s license, and I paid very careful attention to everyone’s driving as I was preparing for the day when I would be behind the wheel. As we drove down a street this day, approaching an intersection I pass several times a week now, I could sense my grandfather was not slowing for the stop sign, and sure enough we drove right through it. He was a careful, cautious, law-abiding man, and this astonished me, so I blurted out, “What about that stop sign?” Without missing a beat, his even-toned reply came back: “It wasn’t there twenty years ago.”

At the time, his answer made no sense to me at all. On the surface, it made no difference how long the sign had been there. Beyond that, the idea of twenty years was beyond my ability to imagine, and so I could not fathom the idea he expressed. Now that I am old enough for my children to have decided I am old and boring, I have an adequate sense of time to grasp what he was saying that day. I even know of certain intersections in town where the stop signs are of a recent enough vintage that I must make a very deliberate effort to stop, as those signs have not taken their places in my mental map yet. I suspect they will not do so for almost another twenty years.

• • • • • • •

Age is a tricky thing. Very few moments trigger in me the thought “I am aging”, although a few will spark a fleeting “I have aged.” I watch my children grow like some time-lapse on the internet, with the oldest now taller than his mother and the youngest uncomfortably learning about being an individual, and I think about how little time has passed since they were babes-in-arms, innocent and ignorant of the big world. Before I know it we will be tackling high school, driving, college, and who knows what next. As a kid, I imagined that one day I would feel grown up inside, admittedly with no clear sense of what I meant by that or how I anticipated that to feel. My grandmother (married to the driver mentioned above for more than fifty years) said to me about twenty years ago that on the inside, she still felt sixteen. I knew as she said it she meant it, I knew she was not teasing, and I knew she had all her wits and this was a heartfelt observation, but like that missed stop sign, I could not make heads or tails of what she was trying to tell me. Now as I look ahead and as I glance behind, I know what she means about feeling the same inside. There is comfort to that, of being yourself in a way that endures through age and time, but it is also unsettling to realize that there may be no moment when feeling like a grown up settles over you, despite having a lovely wife, a comfortable house, wonderful children, an approximate career, and many other props associated with adulthood.

• • • • • • •

On occasion, I try to offer my kids some advice that builds on a longer perspective than their tender years permit, and I almost always feel like I cannot express what I am trying to in a way that might be helpful to them. My question to you then is how do you convey the passage of significant time or the perspective of maturity to someone young? Have you even tried? Did they hear you?

College admissions, part three

[This is the eighth post in a series. For a little background on the thinking behind this, please read this.]

When I started writing about college admissions, I did not think the topic would spawn three separate posts. If you have heard too much about this sliver of life, then let me assure you this is the last one I contemplate writing for the foreseeable future, so you will soon be safe. I learned via Facebook that my college counselor read my last two posts, so here is a hello to him if he make his way here a third time. I promise to leave your profession alone soon enough, Don.

I ended my last post with the promise (threat?) of one further story about college admissions, and that is what this is, on its surface. Like so many stories in life, this is also a vignette about perception and historiography, and a reminder of the differences between hearing and listening.

• • • • • • •

One of the many schools I visited as a prospective student was Haverford College, in Haverford, Pennsylvania. Founded by Quakers in 1833, this school of about twelve hundred students provided me with a wonderful tour (no sparkling sidewalks here) and a very positive interview that both contributed to a great deal of interest on my part. It would be too strong to say I had my heart set on Haverford, but I was genuinely excited about the school, I admired its character, and I loved the campus. It very closely fit the picture I had in my head of what college should look like and, more importantly, feel like.

My interview was conducted with a gentleman named Dana Swan. If you google this man today, the first thing you learn is that he passed away in June 2008, and that he was a highly regarded football and lacrosse coach. By all accounts he was a wonderful coach, but I met him seven years into his career as a wonderful Associate Director of Admissions, a position he filled for twenty years. When I spoke with admissions people at various colleges, I made an effort always to sound positive about the school I was visiting, but I also made a real effort never to feign more enthusiasm than I really felt. Since I was deeply impressed with Haverford the day I visited, I suspect I gushed on the topic while speaking with Mr. Swan, and I have no idea how much he believed me when I expressed how much I had liked the school, the students, the campus, and the whole environment while I was there. I guess I made my point, as Mr. Swan spent the last ten minutes of the interview telling me how much he liked my record and my comments during the interview. While I cannot vouch for the exact words he used, I know the closing sentiment was along the lines of “I am sure there’s a place for you here at Haverford.” If you had asked me that day if he had promised me a spot, I would have said no, but I am certain in retrospect that he was substantially more encouraging than any other college representative I ever spoke with before or afterwards, excepting a few deep safety schools.

• • • • • • •

mysteryIt will not surprise you, discerning reader, to learn that when the college letters came out that spring, a thin envelope arrived from Haverford telling me how they wished me every success in my future endeavors, but that in their efforts to craft the perfect class of incoming students, they had seen fit not to extend me an offer of admission. I was terribly surprised by this, and it took the wind out of my sails for a spell. Fortunately my story has a happy ending, as several other schools sent me thick envelopes, including the wonderful school where I wound up, and spent four very happy years. Thus I relate this story with no regret or rancor, as I am confident that the endless, mercurial, and arbitrary college admissions process actually matched me to a great place.

Having said all that, I did nurse a dull, lukewarm grudge towards Mr. Swan for a time after the rejection. He had been so encouraging, so welcoming, and so assuring that I had permitted myself to imagine myself as a student at his school, and I was offended at how he could have offered such hope to a kid so adrift in the college search mælstrom. Still, I would never have remembered his name were it not for one additional development.

• • • • • • •

During my Sophomore year, I lived in a mouldering pit on the edge of campus called Park Place (any wizards out there eager to guess the name of the neighboring dump?). My three roommates and I had enjoyed such a sumptuous room Freshman year that our lottery number did not secure us any place to live, and we managed to sneak off of the waiting list and into this room just a week or two before the start of school. It was fine for what it was, and let me assure you it had all sorts of stories waiting to be told about it (remote control pranks, crazed Freshman co-eds clambering at the windows, pet fungi, the appearance of future spouses, and the mystery neighbor among them). One of my roommates was a fellow known to us all as Lurch, and I very much enjoyed his company. Easy going, contemplative, full of warmth and humor, and not a mean bone in his body. He introduced me that year to Daniel Lanois‘s magnificent album Acadie, and we would sit in the common room early in the year and listen to music and chat and ignore our work as Sophomores are prone to doing.

One afternoon while we were working our way through Acadie, The Caution Horses, and Rust Never Sleeps, Lurch and I meandered onto the topic of college admissions. He and I were both enjoying our time at college, and so we could address the topic without any anguish. Still it was interesting to compare notes about how he had navigated the process that brought him to that moment. We talked about various schools and visits, and about where we had applied and that led us to talk about other places we had considered attending. Soon we realized we had both been interested in Haverford, and we laughed to think about an alternate universe where he and I might be hanging out in Pennsylvania, listening to music, and discussing our former thoughts about Connecticut schools. Then Lurch mentioned how he had met with a kind, enthusiastic gentleman at Haverford who had raved about his chances and all but promised him admission, and he recalled how disappointed he had been when his letter had arrived in all its thinness. So I asked him if he’d spoken to Mr. Swan since then, and Lurch looked at me funny, and I related how I had had a nearly identical experience as him.

• • • • • • •

Please believe me when I say I am not telling this story to criticize Mr. Swan. I only met him that one time, and his long tenure in his position speaks volumes to the care and credibility he brought to his work. I am sure when he spoke with me and with Lurch that he chose his words carefully, that he offered encouragements carefully calibrated to our records, and that he meant every word he said. While I will not presume to speak for Lurch, for my part I am confident he spoke a sequence of words which promised nothing and obligated him and his school to nothing. I am also sure that the college admissions process for me was so bleak, so endless, and so fraught with failure and oblivion that when one of the very few kind people I met in the process offered warmth and support that I latched onto it and magnified it all out of proportion. I suspect admissions is like so many jobs where one deals with people in bulk, and it is difficult for most people to treat masses of humanity as individuals, to meet with them in an interview where formulaic replies must surely be the norm, and still manage to hear enough of the actual person inside to reply to that kid with such immediacy that they know right away that their words and ideas had really been heard. The sadness is that while I was listening to his words, I was hearing them through a filter of hope and anxiety that apparently stripped them of their qualifiers and left me with a memory of assurance. Learning always to listen accurately to what I am hearing is a skill I am still attempting to master.

[One final aside – one thousand internets to the first person to explain the illustration above and its relevance to this rambling account.]

College admissions, part one

[This is the sixth post in a series. For a little background on the thinking behind this, please read this.]

I have the good fortune to be an only child. I have always seen it that way, driven largely by the fact that I enjoy my parents, so growing up in a three-person household was a happy experience. That is not to say I loved every moment – any child will lock horns with their parents at various times, and never having a sibling or two to distract my parents from me was tedious at times. When those mild shortcomings intersected with the complications of adolescence, I know I frequently felt like I had a bellyful of my parents, and I am quite certain they felt the same way about me. We managed all of that pretty well for the most part, and most of the time I think that my lousy math and erratic French were my biggest faults.

As I alluded to in my last post, I grew up fascinated by aeronautics, and had always imagined myself pursuing engineering. When the time came to start looking at colleges, I was surprised and dismayed to see how many engineering programs distanced themselves and their students from the humanities and liberal arts, as I very much saw myself engaged in both realms. When I learned more about these programs, I increasingly saw myself pursuing a liberal arts education and my interest in engineering waned, orphaning my love of aircraft to become an eccentric hobby, and not the organizing passion of my life. I often wonder about the wisdom of that choice, but that is water under the bridge by now.

Thus at the age of seventeen, I was contemplating attending some nice college and studying some nice things with some nice classmates, but I was very uncertain about the where and the what and the who of those statements, and really unclear about the why. As my parents and my school’s college advisor worked diligently to help me determine where I wanted to apply, I found it excruciatingly hard to narrow down the choices I faced. I saw the appeal in small schools and I saw the depth of large ones. I loved the thought of a rural campus and I savored the cultural attractions of an urban setting. And on and on. North and south, east and west, independent or Greek, I dithered and waffled and prevaricated and drove my college advisor and parents crazy.

Since I had barely narrowed down what schools interested me, my brave, patient, and crazed parents decided we would visit a lot of schools. Dozens, in fact. This did not seem like a kindness to me then, but in retrospect I can hardly imagine the work and time that went into these trips. Using the internet, kids today can download information, watch videos, take virtual tours, and Skype in their interviews if they wish. Not so in the Stone Age of my youth, where one called each school, received viewbooks in the mail, called them again to schedule a tour, an information session, and an interview, and then actually trekked to each campus. I have a few years before my oldest child begins this process, and I am sure it is difficult today (I know admissions is much crazier now than then), but I cannot help thinking that the new digital approach must surely be a vast improvement over the old analog methods.

As the various visits, tours, and interviews loomed ahead of me, one good suggestion I received was to pick a good school that you were not interested in and make that your dry run visit. I rummaged through the stack of viewbooks that towered in my bedroom and fished out one which fit the bill. I will not name it here, as it is a good school with lots of great alumni, but it did not speak to me and it was pretty close, so it would make a good rehearsal venue. My mother and I embarked in our old ’84 Buick Century, which was a lemon if there ever was one, and drove there one pleasant afternoon. A nice kid gave us a tour, another kind recent alum conducted an enthusiastic information session, and then I sat in the waiting room as the time for my first College Interview ticked closer. I had read books and article about this, I had engaged in mock interviews back at school, I had been coached and prepped and reminded, and now it was time. The receptionist signaled to me, and I headed back to meet the admissions officer. A sparkly lady greeted me with a cheerful handshake and as we took our seats I noticed, because I am clever like this, that she was quite a few months pregnant.

Being a worldly and polite young man, I congratulated her on her pregnancy and learned it was her first. Moving past the small talk, we engaged in the foxtrot of all college interviews – tell me about your grades, about your interests, about your goals, about what you want to do when you grow up. I trotted out the various answers I had rehearsed and she dutifully wrote down notes about me and my scintillating virtues, my compelling worldview, and my deep desire to matriculate at her school. The trick was that the baby in her belly had just started vigorously kicking a day or two prior to the interview, and she was utterly bewitched by the energetic stirrings of new life within her. Resting her hands on her belly, she would tilt her head with a faraway look in her eyes and coo appreciatively. So enamored in fact that she could hardly be bothered to listen to a word I said, and that makes perfect sense. Motherhood was a brand new, powerful thing for her, and hearing some kid prattle on about community service and extra-credit physics labs pales in comparison. I was deeply tempted to offer up nonsense replies to her questions, but I was much too intimidated by the situation to pull a stunt like that. So instead she threw one fastball down the middle at me after another, and I hit back single after unremarkable single back at her. Before long she reached the end of her questions, looked up from her paper, thanked me for my interest, and showed me the door.

I returned to the waiting room, where my anxious mother was waiting, and she asked me, naturally, how did it go? I replied fine, I guess, and as we walked to the car I explained how the lady had been distracted by her baby. Since I did not in fact have my heart set on attending this school, there was no harm done, but I realized immediately how frustrating it would have been to break through her reveries and really make the sort of powerful impression I imagined was necessary to secure admittance to a school. I was lucky that day that this snag had not influenced an interview that mattered to me, but I knew that all of the upcoming visits that might matter a great deal to me could be subject to their own snags and surprises. This dry run visit was meant to make me more confident, but I came away from it more anxious about the process unfolding before me.

I will wrap this up here for the moment, but please tune in to the next episode when you will hear about further college admissions memories, including fierce Connecticut feminists, public transit in New Hampshire, wardrobe issues in Virginia, and the poor geography of a Georgetown alum.

A job interview like no other

[This is the fifth post in a series. For a little background on the thinking behind this, please read this.]

As my senior year in college rolled around, I attended a series of well-intentioned sessions hosted by the school’s Career Services Center. We discussed job hunting, resumé writing, and job interviews, among other topics. The nice people who worked in the office even offered mock interviews, and I duly signed up for one. In the course of that awkward conversation, the lady asked me what my greatest strength was, and I could not even begin to fashion an answer that seemed compelling in any business context. I had no work experience of any value, and while I was an enthusiastic History major, I was not looking for work as a historian. The woman kindly coached me through pasting together an answer about my tenacious curiosity and my analytical rigor, and we left it at that, but it did not inspire any confidence in me. Her next volley was to ask me what my greatest weakness was, and without even pausing I answered, “Self-assessment.” We both laughed over this answer, and agreed that as funny as it was, there was really never going to be a moment in life when one would ever dare to offer such a sarcastic reply to that question asked in all seriousness during a professional job interview.

I should also note that I have always been a plane buff. As an infant, I chewed the wings off of a 1/144-scale North American X-15 model, and I just went from there. For most of my youth my heroes were aeronautic designers like Kelly Johnson, Ed Heinemann, and Joe Sutter. While I ultimately shied away from engineering, my love of aircraft remains, and any friend of mine can tell you about my inability not to look at every plane that flies over, identifying all of them no matter how mundane or exotic.

• • • • • • •

In 2005, my job was to manage capital acquisition contracts at a time when my company had run out of capital and was acquiring nothing. I feared this might lead to a dire outcome, but fortunately the oh-so-independent inspector general hired on an old pal with extensive experience reforming other companies in our sector. When this consultant arrived on the property, he decreed he needed staff, and there was a flurry of activity while the muckety mucks shook the trees looking for staff to fall down to the ground, stunned and eligible for a new assignment. My boss and I did indeed land in this trap, and soon learned we were to be assigned to jump through the consultant’s hoops for an indefinite tour of duty.

I had been present for the consultant’s first department-wide-all-hands-on-deck meeting, and we had all noted his condescension, his arrogance, his disinterest in safety, and his certainty in his ability to do the same things he had done elsewhere here in our company, with no regard for the odd quirks that are inherent to our unique legislative genesis. You can imagine how excited I was to become the deputy assistant for this fellow. When he learned two warm bodies had been conjured up out of thin air, he demanded to interview us to make sure we met his minimum lackey requirements. I am sure you can further imagine my interest in competing for the right to be seconded to this guy against my will.

When the day came for us to sit down with the man, he kicked my boss out of his office, seated himself behind my boss’s desk, and called in my boss to sit in his own visitor’s chair and justify himself. This was done one-on-one, while I cooled my heels out in the hallway. A half-hour passed, then forty-five minutes, and finally, the door opened and the consultant summoned me into the room. My boss had moved to a chair in the corner, and so I took my spot in the chair immediately across from the consultant. This man is a big fellow, brash, often impatient, and clearly starting from the perspective that anyone idling away at my firm must be soft in the head. My desire to impress him hovered near absolute zero, and the urge to yank his chain was overwhelming.

He began with a standard array of questions, including the always popular, “Describe how you came to be in your current position.” The proper answer to that one is worthy of a long blog post all of its own, but I stuck with something short and sweet. We continued on for a while more, and then he paused and looked down at the paper on his desk, which seemed to be a series of suggested questions which he had presumably googled that morning. And then he asked, “What is your greatest strength?” I looked at him for a moment that stretched out in my mind. I considered several replies, but none seemed appropriate to the moment. Analytical rigor? No. My tenacious curiosity? Nah. My rugged good looks? Sadly, no. My spooky ability to recognize music from a note or two at the most? Probably not all that impressive. Then inspiration struck me, and I replied: “Long-range military aircraft identification.”

B-58 HustlerA curious silence filled the room, although I could just make out the sound of my boss trying not to swallow his tongue while he stifled a guffaw. The consultant looked at me steadily, and asked, “Really? Then describe to me a B-58.” (Later I learned he had served in a B-58 unit during his service in the USAF.) Without any hesitation, I told him the Convair B-58 Hustler is a large, supersonic low delta-winged plane with four GE J79 turbojets, the inner two of which were slung under pylons and the outer two were mounted flush to the wing. I also noted that the aircraft almost always flew with a large centerline pod which served as a weapons carrier and a fuel tank. It had three crew and a remotely operated 20mm GE Vulcan cannon in its tail. The consultant took that in and agreed that was so.

With no additional comment, he looked down at his paper and then back at me, and asked the inevitable follow-up: “What is your greatest weakness?” Having mustered the nerve to sass the man over the previous question, I saw no reason not to continue down the same path, and I answered him: “Self-assessment.”

Shortly after that exchange, the interview concluded and I was ushered into the hallway to await the pre-ordained outcome. It may surprise you, dear reader, although it should not, to learn that I was accepted for the position.

• • • • • • •

To make this assignment even more of a plum, we learned our time with the consultant would be spent almost entirely on the road. If you knew how low our per diem was, then you would understand what a grim prospect this would be even in the company of people you enjoy. Trying to imagine myself visiting railyards in the middle of third trick so I could help the consultant justify how he would later eliminate those facilities loomed ahead of me. Yet circumstances evolve in curious ways. My lovely wife was pregnant with our third child at this time, and the poor woman was throwing up all day long. I did not want to leave her alone with two small kids nauseous and suffering, and so I spoke up to the muckety mucks at work and explained that I simply could not embark on the endless field trip of doom. Surprisingly, they all agreed, and my role vis à vis this consultant was changed to back office support and analysis. My poor boss headed out on this assignment, and was kind enough never to lambaste me for abandoning him to his solo fate.

The postscript to this story is that I wound up working with the consultant, on and off, for several years, and came to know him pretty well. It did not take long to realize that while he was an acquired taste, he did have a genuinely impressive record in the industry and much of his opening act was in fact just that – an act. He was smarter, kinder, and far more patient than he had led us to believe, and while many of his proposals succumbed to the politics of my weird company, he did work tirelessly to make things better. Truth be told, if I had the interview to do over today, I do not think I would engage in the same sort of snark that I did eight years ago. Having said all that, I am still oddly glad I found the chance to answer the greatest strength and weakness questions as I did. I also suppose it is fortunate that my twenty-two year old self did not know what an absurd interview lay before me twelve years down the road.