The rat race is rigged, and nobody knows it like the ones out for their cut of cheese.
By Susan Anspach
Funny story how I got myself a column for this magazine: I quit my job working for this magazine. No hard feelings, obviously. I think I gave something like close to a year’s notice. Because I wanted to let them down gently, you see. As I recall, the conversation went roughly like so:
Me:… and what I’m trying to say is, it’s not you; it’s me. Me and my stupid graduate school. There’s no other magazine, if that’s what you’re thinking, because it’s you, it’s always been you, and please don’t be mad. Oh, God, you’re not mad, are you? Just say you’re not mad.
Publisher: This is your two weeks?
Me: My 10 months.
Publisher: Talk to me nine-and-a-half months from now. Email’s fine. By the way, our columnist just quit, and you’re the first person to have happened to cross my direct line of vision since hanging up the phone. Wanna?
Me: [Breaks into solo rendition of Peter Cetera’s “You Are My Everything”]
Then came nine-and-a-half months; then came grad school, a period of my life I promise never to write about because if mine had school colors they would be gristle and whatever color of KoolAid they fed the Nazis. The long and short of it is: I’m up one master’s degree, out one job. (I guess technically I’m also up one sideline hobby in embroidery/yarn arts, the only release I could come up with that involved both using my hands and a soothing, repetitive stabbing motion.) I’ve landed back in the saddle with interviews, lady business suits and unnaturally long stretches of unbroken eye contact, all of which has to be tailored to convey something to the effect of I want to earn you money and Cubicles are my favorite! and This conversation’s not as uncomfortable as my lady business suit, but it’s close, and thank you for trying. Then you blink with the hope both of your contacts don’t pop out onto your potential future employer’s Berber carpet (or hardwood floor, if you’re one of those fancy school color snob types).
If any of that sounds familiar to you, this is the part where I’d like to smooth my skirts, touch my fictive, prematurely gray bun, and pat the spot on the couch next to me because, baby, you don’t have to tell me. I already know.
That last bit sounded a little weird, didn’t it? It did. Sorry. If I went Frito-Lay package Grandma on you for a minute, it’s on account of my impulse to stuff you silly with sugar cookies and platitudes about “just being yourself” and “90 percent of success” and “everything always working out for the best.” If you’re a little uncomfortable right now (maybe scanning the rest of the text for references to pillows stitched with acrostics? I’m not saying they’re not there), just know that it’s important we got there because these are dire times for us job hounds, and I want you to understand that I can relate.
I can relate to the pressure to use words on your resume like “streamlined,” “catalogued” and “enriched” as if those were real words and actual speech utterances people made with some degree of communicable success. To briefly consider taking interview tips from talking heads on the Internet because it’s 2 a.m. the morning of your first face time in weeks, and you can’t help but think 24 likes on YouTube can’t be wrong. To try, through it all, to keep up appearances by making oblique references in your humor column about owning a full-size couch.
For the record: They are not; they can be; and I possess one secondhand loveseat, nothing more.
The game’s rigged, unwilling grandbaby-friends, rigged like a column you thought was going to be about job-seeking but turns out to contain a suspicious number of references to pillow crochet. Still, unless you’re willing to have the conversation with your mother about quitting the quest for a salary to start your own Etsy shop (where’s the YouTube video on that? I ask you), you’ve got no choice but to play.
I cannot promise things will always be pretty.
I have a friend who recently landed an interview for a job as a graphic designer. We chatted the night before the big day, and I can attest: That position was hers for the taking.Not only was she was closing on 10 years of experience, she’d bought herself a shiny new outfit, plus had an in with someone in the department she’d be working for. Did I mention her recommendations and portfolio were bar none? Did I mention she’s a ray of human sunshine? We both agreed: There was no way any part of this could go wrong.
She called me when it was over. The first thing they asked her, she said, was for a list of her extracurriculars.
“Like karate?” I asked. “Ooh, like yarn arts? What counts as an extracurricular these days?”
“Violin, I guess? I used to play violin, back in college.”
“Did you tell them that?”
“It was 12 years ago.”
“So what did you tell them?”
“I told them I have cats. I told them their names.”
“Oh, God. We can save this.”
As it turned out, we couldn’t, because she’d gone on to discuss her cats’ toys, preferred canned-food brands, and TV shows. She’d stopped short, but only just, of pulling an X-ray out of her bag from when one of the cats had swallowed a piece of the other one’s tooth (that’s true, by the way; it was the tip of an incisor).
Yes, my friend panicked, and yes, she should have reconsidered the path she was headed down as soon as the words “Purina Pro Plan” left her lips. In her defense, though, she didn’t expect to have to talk in a job interview about playing in the pit of “West Side Story” from a time when she still had to wear flip-flops in the shower. There’s no telling what you could come up against out there; beast, machine, or some hybrid machine-beast that can claw through teeth, apparently, and eat them.
The talking Internet heads can’t help you. Frito-Lay Grandma can’t help you. Pillow poetry’s better, in my opinion, but you still shouldn’t bank on any guarantees. The best I can do is let you lord your living room over me (really, no piece is too small! Up until last week, I didn’t have curtains), then suggest you take comfort in the knowledge you’re not alone in this fight and then power forth.
Alternatively, we could make a pact that, in five years or so, we’ll remember having had this talk and show some compassion for the next batch of entry-level employees to come snooping for a cubicle to call their own. As hard as it is to believe now, that’s going to be us someday, peering down from our yarn coverlet-backed swivel chairs, asking questions with the natural facility of people whose homes are outfitted with matching end tables and throw rugs with fringe. There’s no rule that says we can’t decide for ourselves how to run this dog and pony show.
Here are a few sample questions to get us started.
Q: Tell me about your greatest weakness. Just kidding! Tell me about your favorite ice cream flavor.
Q: What are your extra-curricular activities? Cats count. Also, eating. Feel free to blink, by the way. Whenever’s good for you. I’ll look away.
Q: What do you think of this yarn coverlet? Be honest, because I can make you one. This has no bearing on whether or not you’ll get the job, but it can spruce up a living room like you wouldn’t believe.