Trying to Trick

It ain't easy bein' easy.

It ain’t easy bein’ easy.

I would say I’m a whore for work, but whores get paid. So I guess I have to say I’m a slut.

Let me clarify, I’m talking about internships. Since arriving in New York, I’ve found two places that will have me. They’re new internships and basically being invented as I go along, but they give me the much needed experience that anyone who’s starting out needs and the people I’m working for couldn’t be nicer. Really. They treat me just like everyone else. I swear. Well, sort of. Let me be honest; I’m giving it up often, for free, and whenever they ask.

Being an intern is like being a late night booty call. I barely warrant a complete sentence. Mostly it’s akin to “u up?” To which I respond, “I’m certainly excited to hear from you. I’d love to help in any way I can and thank you for thinking of me. I’m happy to meet at a place and time that’s convenient for you.” (I’ve actually written those very lines on more than one occasion…I know, slut.) As an intern you have to respond to everything as if you’re writing back to POTUS. (Actually, complete sentences matter regardless of the matter, but that’s another matter.) And then come running.

As we all know (or those of us who’ve been on one end or the other), this kind of arrangement can only last so long. My internships will eventually leave the casual phase and move into the routine, and my curiosity as of late is how long to let this angle dangle. What does giving it up for free do to the perceived value? Sure, it shows I’m hungry and willing, but, ultimately, who is actually attracted to desperation? (Which is basically the reason anyone takes an internship…no one will actually pay for you.) It’s like old-school mothers warning their daughters: “No one buys the cow when they’re gettin’ the milk for free.” Sure, Mom’s talking about sex, and let’s leave aside for a moment the association of a girl and a cow, but really, why would anyone pay for something they’re getting for nothing? Does my slutty status for work diminish my worth? Some friends tell me it does. That I’m better than that. That I can find someone who will value me for me and show it. But they’re friends. They’re supposed to tell you shit like that.

Do you respect the person you never even had to buy a drink to bed? The one you absent-mindedly give your slush pile to? (That’s a publishing term, I swear.) Probably not as much as the one you took out to dinner. Or the one you pay. At some point your willingness to do anything will take that terrible turn from the experiential (“This guy will do anything!”) to the desperate (“This guy will do anything?”). I’m starting to feel like we need to have “the talk,” where I oh-so-respectfully, and with an earnest hope for everyone’s happiness, ask where this is heading, if we’re ever really going to have a relationship like they have with the others. Or if they’ll at least leave a wad of cash on the nightstand…or in this case, on my desk.

It can’t be too much to ask, after all we’ve meant to each other, to be scooped up and made me an honest employee. Like that girl in “An Officer and a Gentleman.” Or that other girl in “Pretty Woman.” Hell, you don’t even need a uniform or a limo! Oddly enough, it’s Richard Gere who’s the scooper in both films…so I better be careful what I’m asking for. Of course, he was also the “American Gigolo.” At this point, I’d settle to be Deuce Bigolo.

I know I’m not alone out there in the workplace; there are plenty of other sluts too. I’m sure most of us have been there at one time or another. You know, your college years. Your twenties. Now. Happily smiling as we lay down our time for what everyone needs to enter an industry: experience. After all, this is how you get better. This is how you get to know the tricks of the trade, so to speak. I know that most of my fellow sluts are younger and that I’m the somewhat more weathered one at the party. But don’t discount me. I might be a little rougher around the edges, may not be what people are thinking when they’re imagining their next hire, but what I lack in youth I make up for with some moves I learned along the way.

So I’m a slut for work. But hey, at least I’m gettin’ some. Work that is. And one day, soon, I’ll work my way up to being a whore. Dare to dream.

To Tuck or not to Tuck. That is the question.

What part are you playing?

And you call yourself a professional?

It’s Wednesday afternoon and I’m standing in front of the mirror, minutes away from walking out the door to an informational with the most prominent figure in publishing I’ve had the opportunity to get in a room with since I started this whole escapade. And what’s on my mind? I’m wondering whether or not I should tuck in my shirt.

I kid you not. This seemed to be the most pressing issue to deal with at the time. Not reviewing her career history (long and distinguished), not reviewing the company’s accolades and breakthroughs (many), not even looking at their careers page. I’m staring at my shirt. Even in that moment as I’m alternately tucking and untucking, I know it; this is one of the dumbest fucking issues I’ve had so far.

For those of you who don’t know the unemployed-job changing-career shifting lingo, an “informational” is an informational meeting. In essence, it’s where you sit down with someone in the industry and pick their brain about their work, how they got to where they are, and see what kind of insights they have for someone in your position. You’re basically hoping they see intelligence behind the inquisitiveness and don’t see all the way through to the fact that you’re really hoping that they or anyone they know might have work for you. Essentially it’s like sitting down with a girl you meet in the bar and asking her for tips on how to sleep with her friend.  You’re not asking her to take you home, you’re just, you know, wondering how you might get someone like her to take you home. Of course, in order for this to come off right, you’re supposed to be “dressed for the part”.

And now we’re back in front of the mirror. In. Out. Tucked. Untucked. It’s going on for longer than I’d care to admit. Why am I so uncharacteristically worried about this sartorial conundrum? Me, who hasn’t tucked in a shirt since…since…well, you can come up with your own hyperbolic phrasing but rest assured it’s been a long time. I’ll tell you why. It’s because when you’re hungry for a shot, when you’re trying to find your way into any open door (even the back door), when you’ve had so many of these that you start to wonder if you’re somehow impaired and don’t actually realize it (you’re that impaired), you start to think that your chances of someone letting you in might actually depend on something as ridiculous as whether or not your shirt is tucked in. You see, right? It’s not that different from the bar.

Standing in front of the mirror, furiously debating this hot topic with myself, I’m considering the woman’s position in the company (she runs it), her age (not polite to ask), the period in which she got into publishing (when it wasn’t “dying”), what was expected then versus now in regard to appropriate informational wear (this could be a thing…anyone out there a fashion designer?), considering the fact that this was a digital publisher and people in digital tend to be a little looser when it comes to this sort of thing (you know what they say about digital), that we’re meeting in her office and not for coffee (does this mean it’s serious?), that it’s Wednesday (hump day), that it’s cloudy (things could get wet?), that the sun rose five minutes earlier today (getting a jump on things), that it’s cold (that can’t be good), that it’s the 333rd day in the year (symmetry? palindrome? midget devil?). All of this over my shirttails and what to do with them. It’s madness I tell you, all the variables and the uncertainty of what lay ahead seemed to come down to this one insane issue. And I’m feeling pretty damn crazy. In. Out. Tucked. Untucked. Fuck.

But the uncertainty of life is what makes it worth getting up in the morning. It’s the beauty and the madness with which we’re gifted.

I was stuck in the manic madness of that moment. Thinking that anyone at that office, especially a woman who has built a hugely successful and diverse career in publishing, gave a rat’s ass whether my shirt was conservatively confined in my pants or casually hanging out was mental masturbation. While I worried whether the choice might convey respect or lack thereof, what really mattered was what I did to get in the room with her and what I did once I was there.

The notion that we need to “dress for the part” is a little ridiculous. Sure, I know not to wear my speedo and bowtie to the informational (that’s for the job interview) or show up looking like Travis Bickle (that’s for the last day at work, when you’re talking to me), but this nagging feeling that what I wear is an approximation of who I am or what I’m capable of is absurd.

It’s about as absurd as the fact that I proceed to tuck in my shirt even though I feel like a banker—yes, when I tuck in my shirt I feel like I banker; you should hear how I feel when I put on a tie—and leave for my meeting. I walk uncomfortably to the office building, rise awkwardly in the elevator, and stand stiffly at the giant grey office door.

Then, at the last minute, I remember something: I’m just not a shirt tucker (not that there’s anything wrong with that). Not today, anyway. And if I’m going to walk into that office and meet a woman I very much respect and want her respect in return, I was going in as me, not playing some “part”. So I untuck that shirt, turn the handle, and stride into the office.

And it was a good thing I did. I realized later my fly was down.

The Pollock of Procrastination

It looks like nothing, but it’s most definitely something.

Maybe it’s a weekend of turkey and tryptophan talking, but sitting here while in one ear flows the tinkling piano accompaniment of a silent movie and in the other my conscience screams an internal whisper of “Do some work, jerkoff,” I can’t help but think about the joys of procrastination and how wonderfully good I’ve become at putting off that which should be done now but can be done later. (You know what I’m talking about because you’re doing it right now, reading these ramblings instead of getting on with what you know you should be doing…yeah, YOU!)

I know I’m not the only practitioner. There’s two other trained professionals sitting here with me as I write this. And I’m certainly not the only person to think that I’m accomplished in this particular work-style, though I have gained such a level of proficiency in it that writing this post, which I also procrastinated doing, is itself a form of procrastination. But I know I’m really good. I should be working on some copyediting, reviewing the freelance assignment I got on Friday, writing a cover letter, updating my resume, requesting references for my LinkedIn profile, and scouring job posts, all in preparation to apply for that job that will lead me to the promised land of the permanently employed. In actuality, I’m watching a YouTube video of Kyrie Irving dressed up as an old man dominate a blacktop b-ball court in Jersey (watch it because it’s fantastic), eyeing my inbox to see if someone wants to distract me with an email, staring at the ceiling, wondering if a different color palette would more properly accent this blog, and thinking this is just about the perfect time to sweep the floor and flip my mattress.

Procrastination isn’t just about the job hunt, either. It could be a school paper. Could be an email you don’t want to write but know you have to. (I’m not talking about the email to the annoying drunk at Thanksgiving dinner you never liked and now have an opportunity to scathingly berate for their inappropriate inebriation and not-so-subtle groping, because I know you’re just dying to write that one; I’m talking about the one you have to send before the start of the work/school day tomorrow that will color the rest of the week a turd brown if it’s not done just right.) It could be anything that falls into the category of what must be done, and because it must be done the whole order of prioritization changes, often placing it last on a long list.

As a teacher, I had the opportunity to witness some of the most practiced procrastinators in the profession. Artists really. People who could look intensely busy for an entire class block dedicated to project work and when the period came to a close had only managed to open a Word document, get their first name and half of their last name down on the page, and decide on a perfectly fitting title like “Essay.” These young Pollock’s of procrastination were different from the students who were simply jabbering on with their friends, surreptitiously playing games, looking at Facebook, and texting. (Yes, I saw you. Yes, I knew. Two words about “Hamlet’s inaction” when I walked by didn’t hide the fact you were talking about how drunk you were Friday night. Minimizing the window on the Mac didn’t hide what you were doing anymore than texting underneath the desk, which, by the way, made it look like you were inspecting yourself for body lice.) The true procrastinating pros were the ones who felt that looking like they were doing something was akin to actually doing it. And they believed it. (Don’t feel bad, I procrastinated grading the same essay you procrastinated writing.)

From years of personal practice and careful observation, I have identified three main styles of procrastination. You may see your style here. Though often the artist will switch between styles, or mix and match as is needed to create the perfect combination of postponement, the following are the base elements, the primary colors if you will, of procrastination:

  • The Pretender: The practitioner goes on about his daily business as if nothing is pressing in upon him, as if there is no looming deadline. Also called denial.
  • The Creator: The practitioner of this style will find (or invent) other tasks that absolutely must get done before work can commence on what should be done. It’s like a degenerating orbit that slowly circles closer and closer to the task at hand.
  • The Planner: The practitioner is always “thinking about it.” This is otherwise known as “mental outlining” or “cognitive preparation.” It is invisible to the naked eye, but is, as he will swear, part of his process (though results in no physical evidence of work).

Each style has its own ancillary benefits but also comes with its own unique drawbacks. The Pretender gets to enjoy time to its fullest, but accomplishes the least of the three styles (unless watching football and drinking the afternoon away is an accomplishment, which I think it is). The Creator, while not actually getting done what should be done, still manages to get some much needed tasks knocked off his to-do list (a to-do list engineered specifically to avoid the real task at hand). This is often in the form of cleaning dust balls out of the upper corners of the room or getting lint out of his belly-button. The Planner, in contrast to the first two, actually does make some progress on the task, though I have yet to see mental progress be made available as a means of proving the completion of a paper, report, or cover letter. The downside for The Planner is that he is constantly preoccupied with the task and can neither fully enjoy his day like the Pretender nor walk around with a sparking bellybutton like The Creator.

The problem that arises for me, someone with this highly honed skill set, is that the intern, the unemployed, the new kid on the job market, theoretically can’t afford to procrastinate. Can’t waste a second getting on top of and completing the assigned task; the whole idea is showing the powers that be that you’re the shit. I can’t waste a second applying for that job or examining that meta-data because someone out there is thirstier, hungrier, and that’s who I’m up against. So how do I deal with my penchant for procrastination? How do I go against years of training in the field and a work style I’ve utilized effectively for many years?

Embrace it. Accept the fact that I binge. I binge work. I binge play. It’s my style and procrastination is my Armani.

I don’t miss deadlines. I don’t make excuses. But how I get it done is my business, for now anyway. So I’m not going to go out and buy that book that tells me how to fix my “bad” habit. I’m not going to twelve-step my way to a planned and timely life. I’m going to roll how I’ve always rolled. I’ll get it done and I’ll get it done right. And when am I going to do it you ask?

I’m not sure yet, but I’m thinking about it.

What kids know, I forget, and parents remember…blah, blah, blah

And another thing…

I was walking down the street today and passed a little girl playing with a word. Wrapped in her scarf which muffled her voice and her winter jacket which muffled her movement, she was literally “blah blah blahing” in songlike discovery. Exploring what it was like to say the “b” with pursed lips that exploded or to say it with a protruding pucker, to hammer hit the “l” or softly roll by it into the “a,” to open her mouth wide to the “ahhhhhh” like the doctor would tell her or cut it off like the word had been severed. Or to simply let the “ah” flow right back into the next “bla” as if it all were one. Blahblahblah…

There seemed no end to her joy, toying with the variations of the sounds she was capable of imagining or vocally discovering by accident. The word itself, its form and meaning, meant nothing to her. She wasn’t critiquing her parents’ pointless conversation (that was me, they were talking about politics); wasn’t commenting on the bland, uniform color of the vintage dog shit she almost stepped in when compared to the bright autumn leaves now decorating the ground (that was me too); or trying to express some sense of ennui (again, me). Only the way she contorted the sound was of interest to her. And, stripped of its form, the sound became interesting to me too. Like her play had pulled something completely new out of the old everyday “blah.”

It’s easy to forget, as I get older (no, that’s not an Alzheimer’s joke), the developmentally important stage of play and experimentation, the boundlessness of a world without rules. As children, the wonder with which we approach the world is how we later understand it and ourselves. The innocence and ignorance of the child is their beautiful brilliance.

I mentioned these thoughts to my partner in crime on this Sunday morning stroll, though it came out as a slightly less formulated thought, something like, “Huh. That’s cool.” A far smarter, more creative artist than I could ever hope to be, and one who knows much better than I the importance of holding on to the child inside (I wanted nothing more than to be older when I was younger and am now looking to the young as I’m older), she informed me with a wistful smile, “That’s how kids are when they’re young. They play. They want to scribble and squeeze clay between their fingers. Form comes later.”

Of course it wasn’t a long leap to connect this thought to what I’m trying to do these days: to form a new frontier in my life. If I am the child now, coming to this experience all innocence and ignorance (okay, I doubt anyone who knows me would ever classify me as “innocent” though a boatload would definitely say I’ve been “ignorant” once or twice…oh, wait, that’s not the same as being a dumbass), then I should take a cue from this little wandering poet-philosopher of the street and her bountiful “blahs.”

This life is punctuated by beginnings and endings. Each beginning bearing the seed of its end, and each end the seed of another beginning. If the beginning is faced with the child’s irreverence for rules and form, taken on with innocent joy and an ignorance of that which can’t or shouldn’t be done, who knows what dreams may come.

I ended one life when I moved and with that end cultivate a new beginning.

So I need to remember: Play. Experiment with a little reckless abandon. Scribble. Squeeze clay between fingers. Discover. Don’t be so fucking concerned about the “right way.” I need to set aside the form of the life I think I want and let my (figurative) child reign. After all, not knowing where I was going led me around the world and back again.

I’m sure, listening a little more closely to the voice behind the scarf, that little girl was saying, “The child is the father of the man.” Can you hear her too? “Blllllllllaaaaaaaaaaaahhhhhhhh.”

The Challenge

Aren’t you a little too old for that?

 

On the further side of thirtysomething and gray hairs starting to add salt to my pepper, I have decided to begin again. Personally. Professionally. I’m lucky though. This isn’t the kind of situation where I was perp-walked out of the building in front of colleagues and into involuntary vocational re-evaluation. I wasn’t laid off. I wasn’t  “let go” or “downsized” or “reassigned” or the victim of “market trends” or “organizational restructuring” or “unavoidable economic cutbacks.” I’m not a member of the new “white establishment minority” (seriously O’Reilly?) who’s getting theoretically screwed over by Obama’s election or re-election. I’m just a guy who wanted a challenge. Needed a change. I wanted to remind myself what it is like to start out with nothing, to build a life and career in these times. And I’m not alone. College graduates pour out of institutions of higher education every semester and are facing the same situation. Successful professionals with years of experience are being forced to face it too.

So, late one Kuala Lumpur night, staring bleary-eyed into the bathroom mirror, here’s the challenge I issued to myself: After ten years living abroad working as an international school teacher in Venezuela and Malaysia, you’re going to move back to the US at one of the most problematic economic times in recent history and try to create a career in publishing, an area many consider to be a “dying industry” (I don’t agree with this at all, but more on that later).  Oh, and you’ll do it in New York City, not only one of the most expensive cities in the world to live in but also a city that draws the best of the best in every industry to vie for work in a job market that’s experiencing George Costanza-style shrinkage. Your experience in teaching will basically be considered worthless since most people have no idea what teachers actually do and yet because they have gone to school feel they know exactly what teachers do (more on this later too, as I feel a rant coming on), and you know all of about two people in the city, neither of whom works in publishing.

Now, you may be thinking what many of my teaching colleagues actually said in the same tone of voice that Merlin uses near the end of Top Gun when Maverick says he’s going to bring the Mig in closer, “You’re going to do what?”

Yes, I’m beginning again. I gave my notice to the boss (a fantastic Australian who smiled at the news I was leaving and in typical Aussie fashion told me to “fuck-off”), put all my belongings into storage in Malaysia save what could fit in a duffel bag and a suitcase, and came to New York. Please refrain from picturing me throwing my hat into the air Mary Tyler Moore-style upon arrival, that was Minneapolis anyway, or associate me with any song about making it in New York, that includes both Frank and Jay-Z. The whole situation sounds cliché enough.

So here I am, starting over. And that means going at it like I’m starving and fresh out of college (or starving and fresh out of a job…which is actually more accurate). I may have a few more years of experience, a few more stories to tell, but, like every other rube around, I’m still the new guy. I’m still begging for work. I’m still saying yes to anything, and I mean anything, because whether you’re starting out or starting over every opportunity is a chance to grow.

And that’s how I’ve become…the gray-haired intern.