Like a used car…

I had another interview this afternoon. Different job. Different organization. Still in roughly the same geographic area I’m in now. It seemed to go well enough, though I may be a spectacularly bad judge of that sort of thing. I generally count not tripping myself on the way in the door as a personal victory.

What I’ve found in interviewing for positions in the local area is that you tend to run into some of the same people. Repeatedly. In both recent occasions, I’ve known at least one of the other people interviewing for the position. Some people would find that awkward. Maybe I should be one of them, but I’m not. One of the helpful skills I’ve developed over the last decade and a half is that I just don’t take any of this stuff personally. And for the most part it really, truly isn’t personal – because the bureaucracy just doesn’t have the time or inclination to care about you the individual. That may sound negative, but with hundreds of thousands of moving widgets it’s generally just a function of trying to find the one that appears like it would mesh best with the other cogs that are already in motion and then cramming it into the available opening.

Look, I’d rather get offered one or both of these jobs than not. I mean I wouldn’t have bothered putting on a tie if I wasn’t at least interested. What I’m not doing is giving these decisions a lot of life or death credibility no matter which way they break. I’d like the chance to do some different work and if neither one of these pans out it seems like I’ve at least cracked the code on getting my resume in front of the people making decisions. Having sent out hundreds of resumes in my time with Uncle, I’m secure in saying that’s easily 95% of the battle.

The other 5% is about selling yourself like a used car. If you’re feeling a little dirty when you’re done, you’ve probably done it right. Talk about life skills no one ever bothers to teach you.

Customer service…

Often enough I’ll put companies that fail to deliver even basic customer service on blast here online. More rarely I get to give the good word when a company does something right. Tonight, fortunately, is the latter.

Last week I stopped by Wawa for a sandwich. That’s not unusual. It happens about once a week. Their consistency is one of the biggest reasons I like the place. I know what to expect when I open the wrapper. Creature of habit that I am, that means a lot. Last week’s sandwich was an outlier, which was why I ended up Tweeting at them in the first place. I didn’t expect anything to come from it other than making myself feel a little better about the lunch I threw away because it reeked of banana peppers.

Thirty minutes later though, I got a note from one of Wawa’s social media team who quickly gathered up my information, appologized, and offered me a sandwich on the house. Again, I didn’t think much about it and didn’t expect anything to come if it. Sure enough, though, this evening there was a letter containing a Wawa gift card in my mail box and they were good to their word.

It’s the one bad experience I’ve had with Wawa in four years of being a regular customer and they made it right without arguing, or elevating it to a manager, or making it seem like the hardest thing in the world. They’re doing customer service right and I just wanted to take this chance to say so.

The family business…

In most parts of the country maybe people don’t really think of government as a family business. Here in the greater DC-Baltimore area – and in many small towns who find their employment life’s blood tied inextricably to dams, prisons, or other federal projects, it’s just one of those facts of life. In my last job it wasn’t at all unusual to find three or more generations of a family who have worked at one location since back before we had to go liberate Europe the second time. I have my own share of family who spent time working for or who are still on the payroll of their elderly Uncle.

I don’t know why it always comes as such a surprise to me when someone in the office mentions meeting a colleague’s wife, husband, mother, father, sister, or brother in the course of flailing around trying to get something accomplished. Jobs are competed, personnel specialists live for making sure the rules are followed, and still often the “best qualified” are those who were raised from birth hearing about the Byzantine intrigues, conference room power struggles, and petty office politics the place seems to engender. We might be the single largest employer in the country, but sometimes, aside from marathon meetings, epic delusions of grandeur, and billion dollar operating budgets, it does feel like we’re running the average mom and pop shop.

But then you get out to the parking lot – which would make the biggest of big box stores blush with inadequacy – and realize, no, it’s not at all mom and pop. It’s not the family business. And you really are located somewhere deep inside the belly of the beast.

Skin isn’t in…

Sometime next year you’re going to be able to walk in to local quick stop and pick up a copy of Playboy magazine and not have to worry about your eyeballs being offended by what most would consider some of the most tasteful and understated nudity in the business. The skin-is-in revolution that Hef started in the early 50s has finally overwhelmed his old fashioned publishing company.

That makes me a little sad. I can still very distinctly remember my first look between those storied pages – of tattered magazines wrapped in plastic, stashed in the woods, and passed between half the neighborhood. Within a few days of my 18th birthday, there may or may not have been a fundraiser among some of us to pay the rental for a post office box in the next town over so we could have the latest edition delivered with some semblance of discretion. If I remember correctly, Jenny McCarthy was Playmate of the Month way back when. All these years later I’ll probably still catch three kinds of hell for admitting that out loud.

That was right at the beginning of the internet – that diabolical, always available peep show that blasted a wide swath of destruction through the “dirty magazine” business. No matter what you’re feelings about the industry, venerable Playboy going the way of all the other men’s magazines is a milestone. It’s another reminder of why I seem to hate the 21st century just a little bit more every day.

I was raised in a world where “be a man,” wasn’t considered a derogatory or inappropriate thing to tell a boy. It was a world where problems were solved with fists just as often as words, but no one ever really seemed to take it personally. We were the last who saw our formative years in a world where being a man didn’t have to mean touching your feminine side. I can’t help but think I’m so uncomfortable about the future because it’s going to bear so little resemblance to the world in which I grew up and for which I still have such fond memories.

Reading is fundamental…

I currently have the great joy and high honor of planning a “not a conference.” The requirement to talk to people is an unfortunate and unavoidable consequence of this situation. I can usually struggle through making the best of it, but today is special. Today we opened registration. Because we are who we are, there is a very specific way that has to be done in order to ensure there isn’t the impression that one group of attendees is being given preferential treatment over any others. Essentially, once the “registration open” sign starts flashing, it’s like firing a starter’s gun – all interested parties are off to the races.

The problem there, of course, is that all interested parties are not equal. Apparently some are gifted with the ability to read and understand the written word, follow instructions, and achieve their heart’s desire. Others most assuredly lack that particular gift. I know this second group can’t possibly be able to read because my in box fills up with a metric shitload of questions that were very plainly spelled out using real English words directly underneath the flashing “registration open” sign.

So please, ladies and gentlemen, I beg of you, if you are a regular attendee of conferences, workshops, training events, not-conferences, or any other meeting of multiple hundreds of people, please for the love of God, His saints, and all things Good and Holy, please read the registration material. Read it. Understand it. Consult it a second time to ensure full understanding before firing off an email to the poor planner who’s going to be on the other end of that message. You’re saving him or her from answering the same question for the 328th time and you’re saving yourself from his everlasting judgment and damnation. Believe me, it’s a fair trade.

Capitalism doesn’t work…

I’m never quite sure how to respond when someone tells me “capitalism doesn’t work” or that it only works for the uber-wealthy. I generally deflect the issue, because even in a well-reasoned discussion there’s virtually no chance of them changing their position – and there’s absolutely no chance of me changing mine. I’m not a philosopher and I’m not an economist. I’m just a guy from coal country who got a decent public school education and has had some life experience. I accept that my experiences are different than others, but I don’t consider them particularly unique to me in any way.

Growing up I was never in danger of being described as ultra-wealthy. I’m not in that position now, either. Thirty-seven years hence, that still doesn’t seem likely to be the case – though I do still buy a weekly Powerball ticket in case the fates have declared otherwise. At best I’m part of that vast swath of people who consider themselves middle class. I’m somewhere in the middle part of the curve of income distribution.

I made about $30,000 as a first year teacher. That first year I put $25 every two weeks into my IRA. That’s $50 a month towards what was then a very distant idea of retirement. Some months that $50 was painful – and in that first year as a “professional” I still ate a hell of a lot of ramen and lived in an efficiency apartment way off the beaten path because that’s what I could afford. Still, over that year I was able to scrape together a very modest downpayment. I found a mortgage company who was willing to take a risk on someone with little real credit history and bought a condo for $72,000. It was a 742 square foot, ground floor bunker of a place, but it was mine. Instead of paying rent I was building equity and paying 5.25% (which at the time was a real sweetheart deal) interest for the privilege.

A few years later I took another job (another risk), and rented out my little condo for $200 more a month than I was paying on the mortgage. Some months got awfully lean while I was waiting for a new tenant or the refrigerator needed repair, but you see, that’s capitalism. I used my own money to build value over time. I still have that little place and today it’s renting out for more than twice the mortgage payment. That’s capitalism… and I hardly feel like I’m taking advantage of the person who’s paying the rent. I’m still the one taking the risk that the air conditioner won’t conk out or the building won’t burn down.

I’m still making twice a month deposits into my retirement accounts. Planning for that part of my future is my responsibility. Despite the “correction” of the last few weeks, all told those accounts are still doing well over time. The growth of those early deposits, driven by overall increase in stock prices and the beauty of compounding interest is simply staggering. Some months are obviously better than others. Risk is a real mother like that. Sometimes she gives and sometimes she takes away. Even so, I don’t blame JP Morgan, or Citibank, or GM for doing what they do. There’s a reason we have the phrase “it’s just business.” They all seek to maximize profits at the macro level the same way I do on the micro level with my small rental property.

Populism and distrust of big business and big banks has a long history in this country stretching back to well before William Jennings Bryan’s cross of gold. Socialism hasn’t had it’s roots here quite as long, but it’s no spring chicken in America either. I’ve done the reading. I’m not sold on either model.

I choose to believe in my own experiences – of every time Amazon sends me a check for selling a short story and every time the rent is deposited into my account and every time a stock pays out a dividend. So I have no idea how to respond to someone who says capitalism doesn’t work. I’m seeing it work every single day.

The last half of the week…

48 hours is how long it took me to coordinate, fix, spindle, mutilate, and otherwise jump through my ass to accommodate an out-of-nowhere demand to move an event that’s been on the calendar for months. Upon getting that finished and then getting back to doing actual productive work towards making this event a reality, I hope I’ll be forgiven if I seem less than thankful when told minds have been changed and to go ahead and plan for the original dates. There’s no morale building activity quite like being directed to spend the last half of your week undoing what you were directed to do at the week’s beginning. It’s absolutely stupefying that this is how any organization actually tries to operate.

Want to know why I feel like it’s a job instead of a career or a calling, well this would be a prime example. For an organization that prides itself on being committed to “decisive action,” I have very serious doubts that we could decide to leave the room if someone set the damned thing on fire. I’m just a cog in the machine. I’m a tool – and a particularly blunt and ineffectual one – under circumstances where planning and logic find no purchase. I’ve recovered the same ground so often that I couldn’t tell you definitively the last time I made something that might accidentally be considered progress. While I might catch hell for it, my planning isn’t to blame. If you’re interested in finding fault took to the great and the good at echelons higher than reality who for some unknown reason have been allowed to imagine, unchallenged, that the sun both rises and sets directly into their 4th point of contact.

I’m a simple guy and I’ll do my best with whatever ash and trash I’ve been told to work with. Know this, though: Even though you can technically polish a turd, all you’ve got at the end of the experience is a shiny turd and really dirty hands. If the gods on Olympus can’t figure out what in the hell they want, I have no idea why they think we mere mortals will be able to divine the secret meaning behind their endless grunts and fluttering eyebrows.