Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Job Hunt

When I was a freshly-minted graduate with an opportunity-rich history degree, I applied for a job at my hometown’s museum. The Otago Museum is about what you’d expect from something that serves a college town of 100,000 – it’s no Smithsonian, but it’s certainly not terrible. But let’s be honest – it’s not really anything special.

But a job’s a job, and I was quite pleased to be offered an interview. A thirty-minute slot on a warm January afternoon was assigned to me; I shined my shoes, tucked in my shirt, and drove my mother’s van to the museum.

It was a panel interview, a variety of interview I’ve only seen in New Zealand. Three middle-aged women were gathered at the other end of a long table, staring me down and bidding me to have a seat.

The usual questions were asked – why do you want this job, what kind of pay do you expect, yahdayahdayahdah. I negotiated them fairly well, I think, but then I tend to assume the best of my performance unless I’m presented with overwhelming evidence to the contrary.

Which makes the next events – presentation of said evidence – rather fortuitous. They asked me what I liked about this particular museum and I, all smiles and naiveté, said in what I thought was a charming fashion that I couldn’t say because I hadn’t (ha ha) actually been there.

Wrong answer.

“How,” a panelist breathlessly stammered through her rage, “do you expect to work in this museum if you’ve never even been here.”

I began to suspect that this interview wasn’t going as well as it possibly could, but I couldn’t for the life of me imagine how I was going to dig myself out of this hole. This would become a theme.

“Well, I have been to a lot of other museums that are about the same size as this one, and to be honest I’ve never found them to be that different from one another.”

Silence, as she gripped her pen so hard that I feared for its health, and furiously scrawled some notes. Something tells me they weren’t positive.

“Well,” another panelist intervened, “it’s been great meeting you and we’ll. Be. In. Touch.” As she showed me out the door, I glanced at my watch – it had been ten minutes.

It will be clear by now that the interview process has never been easy for me. The above example is a particularly egregious one, but similar examples positively (or negatively) abound. Which is a shame because, if I say so myself, I am quite employable.

The vast majority of this blog’s meagre fanbase will know this, but it bears repeating. Entry-level job interviews are almost always conducted by a low-level manager, occasionally backed up by an HR rep. HR reps, with their contagious anxiety and perpetual looks that can only be described as existential, don’t deserve an internet-lambasting; they’ve got it bad enough as it is.

Lower-level managers, on the other hand, are quite the opposite. For one, They tend to have an enormous chip on their shoulder. I suspect that this is because of a similarly-sized insecurity on their part – their place on the employment ladder is the kind is acquired not by skill or aptitude but instead by simply paying dues. This creates the type of person who has an incredible amount of expertise on the minutiae of their section of whatever organisation they work for, but very little capacity for big-picture thinking, or even, more often than not, basic social skills.

I’m substantially, and quite obviously smarter than these people, and please don’t take that as arrogance. You probably are too – it’s a really low bar.

I recently interviewed for a job at a call centre at a large Australiasian bank. It went okay, I thought – they asked me all the questions I expected, I fielded them all fairly well, and I’d even done some research beforehand to back up my answers. I didn’t mention that I actually do my banking with someone else, and nor did I tell them that I can’t really tell the difference between banks.

In short, things were looking good – they even had me come in and listen to some calls to “get a feel for the job.”

However, in the very final few minutes, after I’d put on my jacket and said my goodbyes, the lower-level manager showed me her sleeve’s final trick. Out of nowhere, she whipped out a copy of my cover letter. Shock and horror – in my application process, which involved responding to more than one job ad, I had put the name of a different employer on top of the letter.

And that is pretty bad, I’ll admit. It shows a certain unprofessionalism, apathy, and inattention to detail, three attitudes I would certainly bring to a call centre role, but which I had until now managed to hide.

“Well?” she said, shooting daggers at me.

I explained myself – that I had applied for more than one job and this mistake had fallen through the cracks. She nodded and let a smug smile pass her face at my recognizance of her authority as “team leader.”

“But to be fair,” figuring that now that we were friends again we could be honest with one another, “you did have me in for an interview anyway.”

The cogs in her assistant manager's brain ticked over once or twice while she processed what had just happened. Then it was back to the all-too-familiar tight-lipped smile and ice-cold handshake. “You’ll be hearing from us.”

Luckily for everyone involved, I never did.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Loin Fruit

I’m fairly sure I did not enjoy my own birth, but I am lucky enough to not remember it. Everyone else involved, however, does remember this momentous event in my parents’ Manhattan apartment, unencumbered by frivolities like electric lights or pain meds.

This experience sounds wholly unpleasant, especially for my mother. But giving birth was just the first hassle she underwent for me and her subsequent two offspring, and it was nowhere near the most severe.

As an adolescent, I was an underachieving little snot. I never did homework, rarely did classwork, and, if I wasn’t disrupting others with one delightful shenanigan after another I was looking out the window, forming elaborate fantasies in my brain unrelated to the task at hand.

Report cards reflected this charming personality year after year. Comments were seldom positive and grades were never high. At the conclusion of one particularly memorable semester, I got a 0 in art – I hadn’t turned in a single thing.

Watching me attempt to assemble Lego structures was enough to ensure that I was clearly never going to be a carpenter – if my success wasn't academic, it would be nonexistent. What’s more, I was a voracious reader in my spare time, a paradox that no doubt drove both my parents around the bend.

So they tried everything. They tried grounding me for bad grades; they tried rewarding me for good grades. They tried helping me with my homework, they tried keeping in constant touch with my teachers. At every turn, I dodged and weaved their efforts and every six weeks my report card would indicate exactly to what extent I had done so.

At long last, they decided that the education system simply wasn’t teaching me in a way that I could learn, and they opted to homeschool me. It wasn’t really “they,” though – my father works full-time, so the brunt of my homeschooling rested with my mother.

And this is what I mean when I mention the effort she goes through for me. Not only did she elect to stay at home and teach her seemingly unteachable son, she also opted to do it not in elementary school, not in high school, but in those atrocious, puberty-ridden years of middle school.

Twelve-to-fourteen is a terrible age. It’s an age of squeaky voices and obnoxious attitudes. It’s an age where kids start to develop opinions but lack intelligence to actually back them up; in this regard I was no exception. In short, early adolescence is when school is the best thing the public service has to offer, as a full day with these "people" comes close to meeting the definition of cruel and unusual punishment.

But, like a champ, my mum took on her very own snotty twelve year old, spending every day in its entirety with me, trying her damndest to shape me into an educated person.

The reason I share this extended anecdote is because today is my mother’s birthday. And, as I take tentative steps into a well-adjusted adulthood, I’m starting to realise that I didn’t become this way on my own. I have my mother to thank, for her advice (solicited or no), for her constant support, and for her unconditional love.

Even from afar I know that she’s constantly thinking of my best interests. These manifest themselves in endless positive comments on my blog, messages with safety tips, and, probably unbeknownst to my father, offers of financial assistance.

So happy birthday, Mum. Thanks for giving birth to me and raising me. Thanks for always looking out for me and tolerating all manners of rubbish from me. You have done and are doing a great job, and for that I love you.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Where It's Due

I thought getting a credit card to pay for my flight from the US to New Zealand would be easy. For one, my credit history is a rich tapestry of on-time payments and clear balances. More importantly, though, this is America. Financial crisis notwithstanding, isn’t access to credit a God-given right around here?

I was halfway there already. I’d recently opened a bank account and was overjoyed at its internet banking services. I gleefully logged in and became even more gleeful when I saw that I could apply for a credit card online. I didn’t even have to fill out much in the way of forms – they had all my information on file, so it was just a few mouseclicks before they assured me that my credit card would be in the mail shortly.

I quickly texted my aunt and uncle, whose house I get my mail delivered to, and told them to be on the lookout for my contribution to the American economy. A few days later, I received an unexpected and embarrassing reply letting me know that my application had been declined.

Bummer. Not only had a bank deemed me too large of a financial risk, but my own overconfidence had caused this information to be given to me secondhand. Through family. It was a fairly profound loss of face.

Perturbed, I called the bank, certain that it was some kind of misunderstanding. Of course, I first sat through transfer after transfer from one monotonous, distracted call-centre employee after another. While Americans tend to be absurdly friendly – indeed, so much so that this cultural feature arguably offsets the negative things like the lack of socialised medicine or the presence of pro-lifers – call centre employees are an exception to this rule.

Fair enough, too. They’re hourly workers who are asked the same few questions over and over again. They get paid whether they’re on the phone or off it, so it’s in their financial interests to make calls as short as possible. That was my philosophy when I worked in a call centre, which is possibly why I don’t work in one anymore.

I must have gone through five or six of these drones before I was put through to the holy grail of customer service: someone on commission. Not only is it in these people’s best interests to help you they also tend to be people who genuinely enjoy interacting with other people. Of course, by “help” I mean “sell something,” but I’ll take what I can get.

Bonnie was a pleasure to talk to for ten minutes or so. I told her that my credit history was entirely in New Zealand, and she responded with “Oh, what’s New Zealand like?” I told her a few choice anecdotes, she told me about her friends travelling through there, and I offered them my parents’ place to stay, an offer which she graciously declined. All in all, it was a very nice conversation, although it concluded with “sorry, I can’t help you, my job is selling identity theft insurance.”

“Oh. Well, I don’t need that.”

“Are you sure? Identity theft is....”

I listened to her spiel, then pointed out that an identity that can't get a credit card isn't particularly lucrative to anyone, including its original owner. To this she started to pitch again, and I regrettably had to hang up on her.

I started over at square one, this time asking for a credit card salesman right off the bat. I was put through to Dave who, while friendly, would probably not enjoy a friendship with me like Bonnie did. He was a tad smarmy.

I shouldn’t be too hard on him, though, because he quickly answered my question. Due to my entire credit history being through New Zealand banks, it meant that it was effectively nonexistent. My favourite American habit of unapologetic ethnocentrism was alive and well in the credit industry.

Like Bonnie, he was a shrewd salesman who knew that information doesn’t come with a commission. “We could get you something called a SecureCard.”

“What’s that?” I asked, with bated breath and sinking expectations.

“Well, you give us money - $300 minimum – and then you spend it through your SecureCard”

“Not to be ungrateful, Dave, but if I had money, don’t you think I’d just spend it?”

“Yes, but . . .”

Even for someone with very low sales resistance, I recognised that this card was little more than a wallet with a monthly fee, so when I hung up on him I felt zero remorse.

I pondered my situation, and decided that, unseemly though it may seem, I was going to have to restrict my spending to money that I have.

How very novel.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Global Warming

I used to be a global warming denier. A very vocal one, at that. Every time it would come up at
the tiny liberal arts university I attended (which, it goes without saying, was a lot), I would pipe up with the insightful comment “oh, that’s not real.”

Did I believe it? Who knows. I had read Michael Crichton’s book that outlined, through murder mysteries, steamy romance, and gunplay, exactly why those who believed in global warming are not just misguided but criminal. More to the point, though, I just enjoyed people’s reactions to my statement. Global warming (or climate change, whatever) is the religion of the 18-24 demographic. Its existence is not just an opinion – it’s fact, that must be prosletised. The misguided must not be tolerated, but converted.

So, needless to say, it was pretty fun to contradict people when it came to global warming. Their reactions were perfect; the only other place I’ve encountered such vehemence is when I use my flatmate’s Xbox Live connection to stand in front of my teammates in first-person shooters, thus blocking their shot and reducing their all-important win/loss ratio. Sometimes I think people would be less upset of I were a Holocaust denier, but I have never had the stones to find out. Hopefully I never will.

At any rate, it’s been a couple years since then and I’ve mellowed a little. However, as I read the newspapers and browse the internet, I’m starting to notice a resurgence of my old opinion. This especially true now, as places like Europe and Florida experience record low temperatures, which is bringing all the deniers out of the woodwork. “SEE?!” a cacophony of columns, blogs, and Facebook statuses (statii?) shout, “we told you!”

Being a low energy person, I have arrived at the same conclusion regarding climate change as I have almost everything else – who cares? And I don’t mean “who cares if the climate is changing,” because I have to say that I do care, especially considering how I plan on returning to New Zealand in the near future. A not-very-large island in the Pacific Ocean is hardly the place to be when the waters start to rise.

What I mean is this, and I address it to all the smug deniers: why do you care if the climate is changing or not? More important than climate change, real or imagined, is a lifestyle change – one that every single one of us would benefit from. Running our air conditioners and heaters less often, hanging out our clothes, and taking the bus now and again is not going to kill anyone. Indeed, it would be a massive improvement in a day and age where obesity is on the rise, cities are designed to make walking not just inefficient but downright dangerous, and huge parts of the world are still in the recession brought on by people living beyond their means.

It’s Pascalle’s wager, but with real life as opposed to mythical conjecture. Let’s say we all make a change, get rid of our cars and bike to work, eliminating the pesky costs of fuel and maintenance and developing strong hearts and thighs that could crush someone’s head. Less radically, let’s say just half of us get rid of our SUVs and trucks and take the revolutionary move of buying a 4-door sedan. Let’s say that happens and global warming turns out to be nothing but collective delusion. Will we look back and say “god, what a waste, I’m healthy, financially solvent, and it was all for nothing?”

Somehow I doubt it.

But look at the alternative. What if global warming is a very real threat and we do nothing? Not only will the waters rise, we’ll be too fat to outrun them. So we’ll pile into our SUVs and try to outdrive them, but we’ll run out of gas before we reach higher ground. So we’ll get out and push to the nearest gas station – but when we get there our credit cards will decline because we maxed them out on our beast of a vehicle’s warranty last month.

So to the deniers: shut up. If you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem, and if you’re so fixated on global warming (or lack thereof) that you can’t see the bigger picture, you don’t have the analytical skills to have a valid opinion anyway.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to find my MasterCard and book a transpacific flight.