Poisonwood and Politics

For women like me, it seems, it’s not ours to take charge of beginnings and ending…I only know the middle ground where we live our lives….To resist occupation, whether you’re a nation or merely a woman, you must understand the language of your enemy. Conquest and liberation and democracy and divorce are words that mean squat, basically, when you have hungry children and clothes to get out on the line, and it looks like rain.”

Barbara Kingsolver, The Poisonwood Bible

Current events, civics – we used to have whole classes dedicated to what’s going on in our country. What happened to them? I was a substitute teacher in two vastly different school districts, but the one thing they had in common was that neither seemed to spend much time encouraging students to be informed citizens of the USA. I know that “Government” is covered in Social Studies class, but without connecting the concepts to what’s happening in real life, any learning becomes instantly forgettable. Why should students care about branches of government or political parties or ideologies or elected representatives?

Did you see the late night talk show hosts interviewing random people on the street about politics? I did, and their responses were…well, I was going to use the word hilarious, but in fact, I think it’s rather alarming. One round of questions had to do with whether people preferred the Affordable Care Act or Obamacare, and nearly everyone said they liked the ACA better. Ha Ha, we smart people are supposed to think. What a bunch of idiots! For me however, the laugh was half-hearted, as I realized that these people are actually encouraged to vote. I’m guessing that a lot of the people watching the show had no idea that those average Joes were being punked either, and their votes count just as much as the pundit who does homework and makes an uber-informed decision at the ballot box. Is it that we as a society have deemed current events unimportant? Should we look deeper into the quagmire from which our education system spurts to find out why our populace is so ill-informed? Maybe we should just admit that government and politics has become little more than entertainment akin to reality TV and sports, if it’s followed at all, and leave it at that. Or maybe there’s another point of view to consider.

I admit, that during the 90’s I had enough on my plate to keep me busy enough to ignore everything, and I mean EVERYTHING that was going on in Washington. I was working part-time from home as a freelance writer, but the rest of my life was filled with crafting Barbie hair-dos, searching for twirly, size 4T dresses at yard sales, and trying to keep the refrigerator stocked with food my two little girls would actually eat. I washed clothes, settled arguments, occasionally vacuumed, and watched way too many episodes of Barney. I also quit drinking and bid a traumatic good-bye to my first husband. In those years, I could have easily confused Afghanistan with the blanket tossed over the back of the couch; I absolutely would have been one of those people exposed on late night TV for the know-nothings that they were. It wasn’t that I didn’t care, and it certainly wasn’t that I had no strong opinions. My world was simply full.

We all live in our own worlds, don’t we? We function as best we can with what we have, and there’s a limit to how much we can fit into the minutes and hours and days through which we drag or march or dance our lives. We make a thousand choices every day that affect our immediate circumstances, while politicians drone on about taxes and wars in faraway lands that we’d never set foot in. Nobody cares about exactly the same things you care about — how could they? Although I do recall a couple of animated discussions over whether Hillary should leave Bill because of Monica, that’s about as deep as it got for me. In retrospect, I can’t help feeling a little ashamed. What idiots did I help to elect without having the foggiest notion of what I was doing? It’s actually rather miraculous that we, as a species, can agree about anything at all! At the end of the day, we all go to sleep.

I had the privilege of hearing President Obama speak at the commencement ceremony of my youngest daughter at the Ohio State University last year. Love him or hate him (and it does seem to be one or the other), he hammered on one very important point: he encouraged the graduates to become educated citizens, to study up on the issues, and to know exactly who and what they were voting for when they exercised their right to be heard through elections. He told them to follow the money, to know who was supporting the candidates and proposals, and examine their motives. My daughter was slightly disappointed — she was hoping for more of a cheezy, go-forth-and-conquer-type pep talk, but I loved it. I can’t think of anything more important for the future of our country than to encourage everyone to do the research and KNOW what they’re getting into when they vote.

It won’t be easy. There seem to be as many political organizations on-line as there are keyboard letter combinations, but it can be done. I’m with the president on this one. Don’t just vote because your friend or your mom or your pastor or your boss tells you to do it. Get to the bottom of the issue, find out as much as you can about the people you’re voting for, and follow your own conscience. Do a little homework ahead of time so you won’t be blindsided by a ballot asking you to say yea or nay to an issue you’ve never even heard of.

Maybe it’s because my children are grown and I have more time to look up and pay attention to a bigger world outside of my own life that I feel compelled to speak up now. I think that tunnel-vision focus on our own little lives is the reason why so many old white guys end up in congress doing absolutely nothing to help this country thrive. Elections are coming right up. Let’s go get ’em!

Wishing you a well-informed day!

Mrs. Midlife

The Poisonwood Bible is long, heavy, and wildly worth the time to read.  That’s all I can say.

The Fascinator

 That day, a lovely young girl walked into the weed patch and magically emerged carrying a beautiful yellow flower on a long stalk. She tied the stem around her neck so the flower was dangling in front like a costly piece of jewelry. The members gathered around her and told her how lovely she looked and what a wonderful selection she had made. All day she received the compliments…

  …At the end of our desert day, the girl of the Real People tribe laid the flower on the ground and returned it to Mother Earth. It had served its purpose.

 Mutant Message Down Under

 Marlo Morgan

 

I’m a sucker for royal pomp and circumstance, so when Prince William and his Lady Catherine got married in 2011, I was all over it, watching it on television, and Googling it for all the pictures I could find. The big attraction for me was…hats. I love hats, and nobody does them better than the Brits. (Oh, we can try to defend American millinery honor by mentioning the Kentucky Derby, but I’m not sure there’s much of a defense for some of the monstrosities called hats at that horse race.) The trend for this particular mandatory-hat ceremony was called the Fascinator, so named, I believe, for the way their odd shapes perch on the head in such a way as to make onlookers squint and wonder what the hell is that, and how is it not falling off her head? I have to admit, a few of them had me literally howling with laughter. (I’ll never forget the crack Joan Rivers made about Princess Beatrice wearing her IUD in the wrong place!) On the other hand, some of them were actually pretty cool: an alternative to the usual frippery one sees at such affairs, but still elegantly appropriate for the occasion.

Still, I would never expect to see such a thing around here. I am a city girl, but I also live in the American Midwest, and we just don’t do hats like that except maybe at Easter, and only for church; so I was somewhat surprised to find bona fide, Fascinator hats on sale at my favorite department store one afternoon while shopping with one of my young adult daughters. Just for giggles, we tried them on. I had picked out one with a four-inch bouquet of black feathers waving flirtatiously from the center of an eight-petaled straw flower the size of my hand, and attached to a thin headband that all but disappeared when I clapped in on my head. I was fiddling with it in the mirror, when my daughter said, “You know, mom, that actually looks kinda good on you.” Hmmmm. I had already rather dared to think so, too, but where would I wear it? More importantly, would I have the guts to appear in public wearing feathers on my head if the occasion did arise?

Well, as it happened, Easter was coming up, and my brother-in-law is a priest at a church with a mostly African-American congregation and a rockin’ gospel choir. That we would be expected at mass was a foregone conclusion anyway, and I was pretty sure I’d be in good company as far as headgear was concerned. A mere $25 for a little fashion fun, right? I bought it. Once home, I tried it on for my husband, who wisely has no opinion on fashion, and he responded with his usual, “Sure! Looks great!”

It seems silly to agonize over the wearing of a little hat, but that’s exactly what I did whenever I thought about our plans for Easter. Would I embarrass my priestly brother-in-law in his own holy house of God? Was I trying to grab some cheap attention, feeding my ego by playing the fool? Would people gawk in horror? Or worse, make fun of me behind my back? And then it dawned on me that this was the old, younger version of me worrying about committing a crime of fashion that could get me banned from the lunch table where the cool kids eat. Really? If age has done anything for me, it’s relieved me of that anxiety, and besides, I was never really one of the cool kids to begin with. Wonder of wonders, those days are gone, and the thing is, I really did like the way that Fascinator sat so happily, in-your-face, on my head. So Easter morning I slipped it on, and off to church we went. Apart from being amused, I think my husband was also just a little bit proud, not because I was such a sweet piece of arm-candy, but because I had showed the courage to have a little fun, and he got to be in on it with me. As it turned out, I did get a number of nice complements at church, but it wasn’t until we arrived at my husband’s cousin’s house for dinner did I realize the true value of my silly hat.

The invariable reaction as I stepped through the door was wide eyed surprise followed by huge grins and then laughter. They seemed, in a word, fascinated. And I laughed right along with them. I offered to let all the sisters and cousins try it on, and at first all I got was, “Oh, no! Not me! You’ve got to be kidding!” Then one brave soul, Annie, went for it:

“Whoo-hoo, look at Annie!” We are laughing again. “Where’s a mirror?” We are all delighted to admire her. “Hey, Larry, look at your wife!” and Larry obliges with a big manly grin. We ladies are girls again, running up the steps to look at ourselves in different mirrors, loving what we see in every room that offers us a reflection. “Now Cathy. C’mon, Cathy, I bet it looks good on you!” She puts it on her head shyly, and is instantly turned into royalty, head held high, chin up, waving as if she were born with a silver spoon in her mouth. Oh, the joy of playing dress-up! When was the last time? “Sherry, your turn. Oh yeah, girl, you rock that thing!” She becomes the princess she was always meant to be. We are the cool kids! “Sure, give it to Joe. Seriously, Joe, you’re adorable!” We are roaring!

And on and on until everyone had taken a turn posing a guest at a royal wedding.

That evening, as I put my Fascinator away in the closet, I knew I’d probably never wear it again, but it didn’t matter. For all the joy it brought to the day, not just for me, but for everyone who shared the power of a silly hat, it was worth it. In the words of the outback, it had served its purpose. Tra-La!

 Wishing you a bold and fearless day!

Laura

It’s been awhile since I posted anything new…I got that new job, and if there’s any downside to it all, it’s that it leaves me with very little time to write. 

Mutant Message Down Under is a great read by Marlo Morgan — off the beaten path, (no pun intended), about a middle-aged white woman who is guided through an unexpected walk-about in the Australian outback by an Aboriginal tribe.  If you’re looking for some relatively light summer reading, this might a good choice.

 

 

Just Some Thoughts Before I Go

 Sooner or later it would have ended, we both know that. The funny thing is… I’m not that upset. What does that mean?

–  “Melissa,”  from the movie, “Twister”

Happy Dance!  I got a new job!  Maybe there was something magical about the idea of “letting go of hope” in order to move forward. Still, as Leonard Cohen says in his song, “Closing Time,” every new beginning comes from some other beginning’s end; which means I had to break up with my old employer, the Cleveland Metropolitan School District.  So rather than telling my story all over again, I thought I’d just share with you the letter I sent to the superintendent:

“Dear Mr. Gordon,

First and foremost, let me say thank you to the CMSD for allowing me to work as a substitute teacher for the past 5 years. You hired me while I was still in school earning my license, and I can’t begin to tell you how much I’ve appreciated the support and encouragement I received from the teachers and administrative staffs in the schools where I worked. I am finally fully certified, HQ in Language Arts 7-12, and I would have loved to continue my teaching career in Cleveland, but alas and alack, I did not “shine” on your screening test.

I think it’s a damn shame.

You are struggling to find qualified teachers, and I come to you with years of experience in your own district, a glowing letter of recommendation from one of your principals, references from your current staff, a newly-minted teaching license, and an excellent, post-bac, academic record from CSU; but no one will ever be allowed to see or consider any of that, because a 20-minute computer quiz concluded that I don’t have the “heart” for urban education. As if that weren’t demoralizing enough, I was ALREADY WORKING in a long-term sub job, filling one of those vacancies, and every time I logged on to my computer, I got to see one of those pop-up screens in front of the CMSD home page, advertising for “star” teachers, inviting applicants to job fairs, and enticing candidates with the worst of all possible come-ons: “Walk-ins Welcome,” a sign usually reserved for the window of a beauty parlor. (Really? I’m lower on the food chain than someone looking for a cheap haircut?)

So today I quit.

I start a new job on Monday, and although I will still be working with some CMSD teachers and counselors once in awhile, I will no longer be in a classroom situation. Perhaps it’s all for the best; however, I don’t think I’ll be recommending any other teacher friends of mine looking for a job to apply in Cleveland. As a sub who’s worked daily and in many long term assignments at over a dozen schools, I’ve been able to observe quite a bit about what goes on in your district. I disagree with the conclusion drawn from my screening test, but I’m not going to argue; I know I’m not the only one who was both disappointed and bewildered by their results. On the other hand, letting great teachers slip through your fingers because of a testing instrument that measures nothing more than a probability for retention makes me think you are not looking for “stars” so much as you’re looking for sheep. Based on the number of teachers I know with more than 10 years of service, and the number who are retiring with over 25, it doesn’t seem like retention has been that much of an issue anyway. Unless your ultimate goal is to cry to the public, “we can’t find anyone qualified, so we have no choice but to turn to Teach For America,” thus lowering your expectations and your investment to the lowest point possible, your methods seem unlikely to help you get what you want… but I hate to be that cynical. At any rate, no hard feelings from me, Mr. Gordon. I gave it my best, and you kept me from having to live in box for the last 5 years. As I look forward to a new beginning, I wish you good luck, because in fact, I really do care about the students of the CMSD, and I think you’re going need all the goodwill you can get.

Incidentally, I hear the teacher who was hired to do the job I had my eye on got her license the same time I did, but her experience is limited to student teaching in a very small district, plus one year of teaching in a virtual classroom. It will be interesting to see just how accurate the Haberman test turns out to be in her case. It would be even more interesting to see if she could pass it again after she figures out what she’s gotten herself into a couple of years from now!

Best Regards…”

Wishing you a brave new day,

Mrs. Midlife

Although CSN’s , “Just a Song Before I Go” kept running through my head as I was writing, I didn’t think that lyrically it was entirely appropriate to this particular situation, so I changed it a wee bit for my title…it’s always been an old favorite, along with “49 Bye-Byes,” which didn’t seem appropriate either.  The movie, “Twister,” on the other hand…what a perfect metaphor for what it’s like to be a sub in Cleveland…or a full-time teacher, as I’m sure some would agree…

The Dreaded Silverfish

 

There’s always an alien emergency on Earth; the only way people remain happy is because they don’t know about it.

— K, Men in Black

Clearly, the silverfish, with its fluttery fringe of long legs, was either lost or insane. It crept out into the open and stopped, unnoticed by the twenty-six, fourth-grade students who were quietly absorbed in the math games that were teaching them to do fractions in the computer lab. Only the teacher caught the motion of the bug.

At the age of 56, with 12 years of teaching under her belt, this teacher had seen enough of the world that she was no longer squeamish about such things as insects with an excessive number of legs, and she had learned not to react. She also had a Buddhist friend who was adamant in her belief that all life was sacred. In fact, she herself had come to believe that all God’s creatures had a purpose and a place in the grand web of life; a unique destiny to fulfill in relation to every other creature on earth. Even the silverfish. Somewhere in the back of her mind she was sure she had read something about silverfish eating spiders, which she thought was a very good thing, since it kept the spider population in check. Or maybe it was the other way around, and the spiders were the ones getting fat. As long as teacher didn’t interfere, the circle of life would continue to take care of itself. Basic fourth grade science.

The silverfish restarted its silent skitter, aiming itself directly at the shoe of a nine-year-old girl with braids. The teacher watched impassively as it smacked into the shoe and bounced off as if startled by the sudden encounter. Had it actually crawled up the child’s leg, all hell would have broken loose, but instead it crept back towards the teacher’s desk.

It occurred to her that if just one child noticed the little silverfish, he or she would let out a scream that would set off a chain reaction similar to what happens during a nuclear event. There would be children scrambling to stand on chairs, or crowding each other to see, point, and run. Someone would no doubt try to prove their courage by stepping on it; tapping towards it like dipping a toe in cold water, with a hasty recoil to avoid contaminating themselves with cooties. The teacher would then have to lead the way to hunt the creature down, while the children clamored behind her as if they had pitchforks and torches to back her up. Of the two possible outcomes, the death of the silverfish would definitely be preferable, since at least with the creature’s demise comes closure and a permanent end to the threat. Escape on the other hand, guaranteed the possibility that the silverfish could return to torture them with its presence at any moment, and whichever corner of the room harbored the fugitive would be deemed unsafe for human habitation for the rest of the class period, if not for several days henceforth. But even the total obliteration of the insect, proof positive provided by wet guts smeared on the bottom of a shoe, would not really restore peace. At best, the room would be treated like a crime scene, and students would spend the rest of the day getting over themselves, re-living the drama, telling each other every last detail of what they said, heard, and felt. Basic fourth grade social skills.

To live and let live, or ruthlessly kill: the entire argument took just a microsecond’s worth of brain activity before the only person in the room who noticed the threat made a decision.

The silverfish had found refuge under one leg of the teacher’s desk. Casually, the teacher stood up and softly tapped on the desk. Then, as the silverfish skittered silently out onto the field of open linoleum, she crushed it under her foot as if she hadn’t even noticed it was there.

The girl with the braids turned around and complained she was bored. The teacher nodded sympathetically…

 Wishing you a drama-free day!

 

(I know this format is a little different. But don’t you ever wonder about how close you might have come to a catastrophe without ever knowing about it? This one’s for my teacher friends who do more to maintain a calm, peaceful environment so students can feel safe and learn than anyone would ever guess.)

Mrs. Clean in Chicago

 My dad believed in two things: That Greeks should educate non-Greeks about being Greek and that any ailment from psoriasis to poison ivy could be cured with Windex.

 Toula Portokalos, “My Big Fat Greek Wedding”

  It wasn’t that her place was so filthy I couldn’t bear it. On the contrary, my daughter’s new apartment in Chicago was as neat as a pin, and even though the El came roaring through her backyard every five minutes, the place had a peaceful, homey vibe. I was completely charmed, and, OK, I’ll say it, relieved, because after all, this was my little girl on her own, and I know what her room used to look like. It was early, and I was drinking my coffee on the little deck just outside her kitchen door. Lovely morning. Even with the train and the ten-thousand wires criss-crossing through the air behind her building, I could still look up and see some blue sky. I had totally supported her move here, and I was feeling really good about my grown-up daughter, so obviously able to take care of herself. Wasn’t this just the ultimate blessing, to see my child so happy and independent? I was literally basking in satisfaction by the time I went back inside for a warm-up; but because I didn’t want to leave all my coffee dribble on her nice, clean counter, I started looking around — and that’s when I found the Windex and paper towels under the sink.

Wiping up the coffee spills led to chiseling some paint smudges off the cupboards. Then I noticed the window on the back door looked like someone had sprayed open a can of pop on it, so I went to work on that; and when I finished there, I noted that the inside walls were painted with some sort of indestructible white enamel, so I started making fingerprints and other bits of schmutz disappear. I squirted my way down the hall and into the dining room. Scuff marks vanished. Dust melted away. I was creating a clean slate, and in my mind I was…decorating! I was Christmas shopping for wall clocks and knick-knacks and picture frames. I was filling her home with stuff, trying to figure out how we’d get the big things like mirrors and bookshelves back here without a car. I cleaned all the way through to the dawning realization that none of my plans for her apartment were ever going to happen — nor should they. My daughter has her own style, her own good taste, and I have to respect that. Wasn’t I just thinking about how happy and independent she is? There’s always a gift card for Christmas, and that little bit of cleaning I did? Well, it was the least I could do for her.

I didn’t give my Helpful Activity another thought until a week after I got home, and was regaling a friend with the details of my excellent adventure. She laughed when I told her about the cleaning, and said her mom had done the same thing when she moved into her first college apartment: gone around with a bottle of Windex and a roll of paper towels, scrubbing down every surface in sight. Really? Come to think of it, my own mother used to come over and do dishes, and sometimes went so far as to fold laundry, too. I started to wonder if this behavior was some new kind of instinct that kicks in after our children have finally moved out; sort of like the way we grew eyes in the back of our heads when they were little. Had something happened to me at some deep, subconscious level that compelled me to fight dirt on behalf of my perfectly capable child? Why would I do such a thing?

I know that a lot of young adults can’t stand it when their mothers come over and clean. They believe it implies that they’re slovenly or lazy, and I must say, that if the cleaning comes with nasty remarks about the way they live, or mom pays more attention to their grout than to them, then they’re quite justified in feeling annoyed. I’ve also heard about moms who actually rearrange things like dishes and furniture, and for that, the only recourse might be a firm request to NEVER DO THAT AGAIN! At my daughter’s apartment though, it was just me and the Windex and the paper towels; and after hearing what some other young adults were thinking, I was a little worried that I might have insulted her, so I asked; but no, she said she was fine with what I’d done. My friend said she didn’t mind when her mom went nuts with the Windex at her apartment either. So it would seem that whether our efforts are met with a smile or a scowl depends on how far we go to impose our best intentions, and the spirit in which we wield the spray bottle.

In any case, examining my attitude about cleaning my adult kid’s digs still doesn’t explain why I did it. After much scientific research, which entailed calling several of my friends and reading lots of comment sections online, my theory is this: cleaning is one of the last “momly” things we can do for our grown-up children. Ironic isn’t it? The minute they hit puberty, we start dreaming of they day they move out, and when they finally pack up half their stuff, (because the other half is still in their rooms), we show up at their doors like the maids we always claimed we weren’t! It has nothing to do with them. It’s all about us trying to wiggle into a role that doesn’t fit anymore. We have virtually no say in their lives; there is no equivalent to the parent-teacher conference if they screw up at work, and their doctors and credit card companies won’t violate their confidentiality by talking to us. So we squeeze our eyes shut and pray for them, which just doesn’t seem like enough. It’s always been tricky trying to figure out how to push them away without pushing them away. I have no wish to invade the independent space my children have worked so hard to carve out for themselves, but I don’t think the mommy in me is ever going to go away completely. So cleaning my daughter’s apartment was not the result of some new, dirt-fighting instinct that kicked in as soon as her change of address card arrived at the post office; I was simply acting on the instinct that’s been there since the day my baby was born: I was taking care of her.

Yes, I know. I can still listen to her, give her advice if she asks for it, and always “be there” for her when she needs moral support. I can make sure her favorite red seedless grapes are in the fridge when she comes to visit, and send her home with plenty of snacks when she leaves; but the bittersweet reality is that she really doesn’t need me for much anymore. All relationships have to grow and evolve, including the ones between parents and their children. I feel extremely fortunate to count my daughter as a friend now, but that’s in addition to being her mom, not instead of it. We can continue to redefine the parts we play in each other’s lives, but the mommy part of me is always going to want to assert itself some way, somehow. If I can’t hold it all back, then at least it’s easy enough to fix the leaks with a little light housecleaning. I’m adding compulsive motherhood to the list of ailments that Windex can cure.  Maybe Gus Portokalos was right all along.

Wishing you a squeaky clean day,

Laura

 

“My Big Fat Greek Wedding” is one of my all-time favorite movies, with more funny quotes than I can count!  Written by Nia Vardalos, it was nominated for numerous awards, including the Oscar, and won a number of honors in 2003.  Toula Portokalos is the main character.  If you haven’t seen this, you really should.  It’s hilarious!

 

 

 

 

 

 

You Hired Someone Else?

“…I will diminish, and go into the West and remain Galadriel.”

JRR Tolkein, The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring

I didn’t get the job.

It may be too early to look on the bright side — and there’s always a bright side somewhere, I think — since I just got the news a couple of hours ago, and my eyes are still puffy from crying about it. I’d sent an email on Friday, and this morning received the reply that, “unfortunately, I have recommended another candidate…” blah, blah, blah. I replied back, and asked how I could have done better in the interview, and got the response, “…not a matter of anything you could have done better…found a candidate that matched our needs best…blah, blah, blah.” All very nice and politically correct, but the thing is, I really do want an answer. I want to know what that candidate had that I didn’t. Youth? Experience? Education? Gymnastic ability? There’s a piece of me that wants to push this, not only for my own sake, but also to report back to you, my dear readers; to help you discover anything that might propel you to the top of the heap when it comes to getting hired. However, I will probably still be working for this district in some meager capacity, and I don’t want to screw myself up by backing this guy into a corner and demanding to know why I got passed over. Instead, I’ve decided to net-surf again, and look for answers from the many experts swimming around online.           (See? I have skills.)

On the TV show “Chopped,” the judges will tell you that your chicken was overcooked and your remoulade lacked flavor, and for these reasons you will not be continuing on to compete in the dessert round. I think it would be nice if hiring managers could adopt a similar, helpful attitude, but they won’t, and here’s why: lawsuits. It’s much safer for them to tell you they’ve offered the job to someone they felt was a better “fit” than to say they hated your earrings, couldn’t deal with your tattoos, or only interviewed you because your brother works in  Accounting. According to many of the “experts” online, it is acceptable to ask why you didn’t get hired if you frame it in a way that makes it sound like you want to improve your   interviewing skills; just don’t be surprised if employers aren’t willing to be specific about why the job went to someone else. The most sensible recommendation I found is to ask to speak with your interviewer for a few minutes by phone. You might get someone to actually come out and say something useful, as opposed to an email where you’re far more likely to hear some version of the we-chose-a-candidate-that was-better-suited-to-our-needs routine. Just be sure you’re set to listen. Calmly. No arguing, no cussing anyone out. You might be wise to wait a day before you start pressing buttons.

Among the other tips and tidbits I found was the interesting idea of writing a thank-you note for the interview after they tell you they hired someone else. Apparently, some managers are surprised that they don’t get more of these. I’m not. I am more surprised that many employers will interview ten people, hire one, and never bother to tell the other nine that they didn’t get the job. Extra niceties for companies like that seem like way too much to ask; but upon further reflection, and because I think courtesy is becoming a lost art that I don’t mind bringing back, I actually like the idea of writing a letter that not only expresses your disappointment, but also graciously thanks your interviewer and acknowledges their difficulty in making the right decision. You don’t have to do it immediately; give yourself a couple of hours to get over your initial heartbreak, and edit out any knee-jerk reactions that mention alcohol, guns, or a long, heavy rope with a noose at the end. You’ll stand out, and could be remembered or referred if another position opens up. That’s what they say. It could happen.

I’d like to think that although I was an excellent candidate, there was only one position open, and someone else really did turn out to be a better fit; that it wasn’t because my thank-you note arrived a few hours after theirs, or that they asked the one good question I forgot. I’m pretty sure I was wearing the right shoes. I hate to admit it, but it made me feel just a little less bitter when I was reminded that I wasn’t the only one who didn’t get that job. Several other souls felt diminished today, too. Let’s keep them all in our prayers.  I’m not sure how I’ll feel if I ever get called in to sub for the person who actually got hired, but I’ll cross that bridge when I get to it, and wish him or her well in the meantime. I will go into the west — the lower west side of the city, that is — and remain Mrs. B, a great sub who is well-thought-of by other teachers and students alike. It could be a lot worse.

Wishing you a day with all the answers,

Laura

 

 I read through a lot of online articles with a lot of repetitive advice, but I’d like to give credit to Lisa Vaas at theladders.com. for her advice to write a thank-you note after you’ve been rejected, and to Alison Doyle at About.com for discussing ways to frame a question about why you weren’t hired. Someday my Inner Techno-Weenie will discover how to embed a link that will take you directly to the site, but for now, telling you that I Googled “can i ask why i didn’t get hired” will have to suffice.

 

 

 

“Tell Me About Yourself” and Other Trick Questions

 

“My first thought is always wrong, guaranteed. Some people were born with no limbs, or a speech impediment, or sightless, I was born first thought wrong.”  

Mark Lundholm, comedian

 I admit it: I’m one of those people who suffers from “First Thought Wrong,” a term that describes the tendency to do or say things without running them through the appropriate filters first. Although I have become much more disciplined over the years, there are still certain conditions under which I am likely to give a wildly off-topic, or smart-ass response to a perfectly normal question. It usually happens when I’m caught off-guard, or when I find myself in a situation that makes me nervous, like meeting an Important Person or sitting in a Job Interview. Last week I wrote about letting go of hope, and giving up on the idea that I’d ever become a real teacher. Wouldn’t you know, I got called for an interview a couple of days later! (Evidently letting go of hope doesn’t mean there’s no such thing as a miracle!) So I decided to do a little checking around to get some tips, and hopefully stave off the “FTW” factor.

One of the most feared and frequently asked questions in any job interview is, “tell me about yourself,” and I know without even looking that the wrong answer is, “what do you want to know?”  I would also like point out for the record that I’m aware the phrase “tell me about yourself” isn’t technically a question; it’s a command, which only makes it more intimidating as far as I’m concerned. I thought it would be a good idea for me to prepare an answer ahead of time so I wouldn’t have to worry about blowing a hole in my filter right off the bat. Google took me to The Ladders website, where I found a really great article by Lee E. Miller, managing director of NegotiationPlus.com and an adjunct professor at Columbia University. Here are the best pieces of advice that I took away from it:

1. Focus on what most interests the interviewer. A very sensible order, which does not mean initiate a conversation about the last movie they saw or where they got those darling shoes. Filter! The person you’re talking to wants to know how you’re going to fill the shoes of the person that just left the job you are trying to get. I know. It’s still a guessing game, because no matter how qualified you think you are, you can never be sure that what you’ve got is what they want; and HR people seem trained to never, ever reveal the tiniest clue as to whether you are scoring big or striking out completely as you go through your spiel. The point is that nobody cares about your emotional childhood, the bartending job that put you through college, or the 500 pigs-in-a-blanket you made for your daughter’s graduation party, (unless you are applying for kitchen work at a catering company). I’m taking this advice to mean that you should stick to talking about the stuff you can do in the environment where you want to end up, and hope you don’t shoot yourself in the foot.

2. Highlight your most important accomplishments. “First Thought Wrong” suggests that fixing the door handle on my dishwasher by replacing the screw that fell out with a piece of wire snipped off a coat hanger was a pretty impressive accomplishment, and displayed a remarkable amount of creativity; but apparently this is not the type of information that hiring managers care about. Look around. Note that there’s a desk in the room. What wonderful things did you do the last time you sat at your own desk? Start there. You can tell a story as long as it’s relevant to the position for which you are applying, and it makes you look like a star. I’d pick one out and practice telling it in the mirror, maybe even go so far as to write it out just to make sure I’m not a) lying, or b) letting unnecessary details sidetrack me. An unfocused anecdote is babble. We’ve all been there.

3. Be Brief. This seems obvious, but “brief” is a relative term. Longer than a tweet, but shorter than a speech by Bill Clinton, right? The idea is to come up with things that will highlight your experience, not run down a list of every ability you possess. Think about highlights when they’re in your hair: a few carefully selected strands of brightness will make you stand out attractively, but a bunch of clunky chunks that make you appear weirdly striped…let’s call that less-than-appealing. In your quest for brevity therefore, once again I recommend practicing. You can edit out a lot of those distracting chunks and detangle your thoughts for a smooth, shiny performance no matter how nervous you feel.  I know my words will come out more confidently and automatically if I’ve already repeated them out loud several times beforehand.

In my title, I referred to “Other Trick Questions,” so, not including the trendy, stupid ones about what kind of tree you would be if your skin suddenly turned into bark (which is already happening on my heels and elbows), here are my top three scary interview questions, along with my current answers:

1. “Where do you see yourself in 5 years?” (Who cares? I just want benefits until I can apply for Medicare.)

2. “What are your greatest weaknesses?” (Chocolate and small dogs.)

3. “Why do you want to work here? (Because you are hiring.)

Obviously, my filter needs some maintenance.

Here’s wishing you a perfectly stated day!

Mark Lundholm is a famous and very hilarious comedian whose act centers around addiction and recovery. Some say, if you don’t have experience with drugs and alcohol, you might have a hard time getting the joke, but I think his ex-wife’s name, The Plaintiff, is funny no matter what!

  I have been channeling my inner techno-weenie, trying to find information on how to correctly cite my sources, but I’ve had little luck finding a clearly defined format to use IN a blog. Since this is not a professional site, does not solicit, and does not appear to call for specific or uniform APA or MLA style citations, I’m just going to throw it all out here:

 Mark Lundholm’s quote is from the article,“Ex-addict Lundholm hooked on humor,” by Kristen Browning-Blas, dated 04/19/2010. I accessed it on 8/1/13 at Denverpost.com.

  Lee E. Miller’s advice is from http://www.theladders.com/career-advice/how-to-answer-tell-me-about-yourself-interview-question, and I accessed the information on 8/1/13.

I hope these credits will do.

 

To Gray or Not to Gray

 

” By asking Mitt Romney how he feels about an issue, you unavoidably affect how he feels about it. More precisely, Mitt Romney will feel every possible way about an issue until the moment he is asked about it, at which point the many feelings decohere into the single answer most likely to please the asker.”

David Javerbaum, “Schrodinger’s Candidate,” New York Times, March 31, 2012

Holy cow, maybe I do have something in common with Mitt Romney! My issue is a little more mundane, but the concept remains: ask me how I feel about my dishwater blonde hair going gray and my mind takes off like a super ball frantically searching for the center of a maze: What do you mean? Is that the first thing you see? Is it really that noticeable? Do you like it? Do you think it makes me look old? Regal? Smart? Feeble? Are you thinking I should dye it? What do you want me to say? Why do you ask? I was feeling pretty confident about the way I looked until you asked!

I’ve been fooling around with my hair color for over 40 years, ever since I got my first bottle of Sun-In at Gray Drug back in 1969. Thanks to that little experiment, I spent most of my adolescence as a strawberry blonde, but my hair has been every color in the aisle, from that ashy-green blonde to very dark brown (which prompted one co-worker to quip, “Witness protection?”) My last dye job was by far the worst: my hair turned out dark pink, like the cellophane wrap around an Easter basket, and although it was supposed to wash out after a couple of shampoos, it never did. I tried to color over it, but that didn’t work either, so I went to the salon. My stylist told me I looked tie-dyed, and I told him to just amputate what he could, and I’d let the rest grow out. And that’s when I discovered just how much gray had been creeping in under all those years of chemical enhancement.

If my natural hair color had been dark, I might have looked like the bride of Frankenstein. Instead, I appeared to have been caught in a dust storm. Mind you, under certain lighting, like the kind I have all over my house, I thought I just looked especially fair-haired. In dressing rooms, maybe not so much, but nobody looks good in a dressing room anyway, right? Natural light, though –you know, outside — is a completely different story. Who looks in a mirror outside? I hadn’t been truly aware of how “mature” I had become visually until we started taking pictures at a family cook-out. When I saw the little images on our cousin’s phone, my first thought was, who’s that old lady standing next to my husband? OH MY GOD!

Now, I know there are plenty of women who love their gray hair. They’re called “Silver Vixens” or “Silvery Belles,” and they’re the latest group of trend-setters to slink down the runways, light up the airwaves, and cruise down the highways in sensible cars. Blogs like Terri Holley’s “Going Gray” feature photos of gorgeous women who make gray hair look gloriously regal. There are books, articles, and even Facebook pages that sing the praises of gray hair, and there’s page after page on the internet offering advice on how to “rock silver locks” at any age. I admit, I admire the sentiment that gray-haired women are authentic, natural, strong, courageous; that every sparkling strand was earned in some horrific struggle for survival, and that we should look up to our steely-haired sisters as the wild women who run with the wolves, grow vegetables, read serious novels, earn boatloads of money in upper management, or win Pulitzer Prizes for journalism. I also feel for those who simply got sick of running to the salon every 6 weeks for root touch-ups.

Whether or not “going gray” is considered a harmful side effect of aging for the working woman is still up for debate. I’ve found anecdotal evidence that seems to prove it doesn’t matter, but I have the feeling that for every successful, gray-haired lady climbing the ladder of success, there’s a hiring manager who instantly eliminates any woman who reminds them of their grandma. I think it’s one thing to be a “silver fox” if you have great eyebrows and plenty of job security, but it’s quite another if you have to compete with 30-somethings going after the same position you have your eye on. And let’s face it, some women would look amazing no matter how many shades of gray have sprouted on their perfectly-shaped heads. In the end, to gray or not to gray is a personal choice that might or might not affect your position in the workplace or your ability to grow vegetables. I think you should do whatever makes you feel attractive and confident. Don’t let anyone tell you that faking your hair color means you can’t run around with wolves if you want to, and by all means, if you can’t recognize yourself standing next to your own husband, you have every right to take your drab little self to the beauty parlor.

So back to how I respond when someone asks me how I feel about my hair going gray, I’ve reached an authentic conclusion. I resolved the whole issue last night with a quick trip to the drugstore, and 40 minutes of breathing the “fumes of transformation” in my living room. My hair is now an unassuming shade of light brown that will fade at various rates of speed over the next couple of weeks until it looks expensively highlighted.

Gray? What gray? I wouldn’t know…

Know When to Fold ‘Em

 

You got to know when to hold ’em,

Know when to fold ’em,

Know when to walk away,

Know when to run…

  Kenny Rogers, “The Gambler”

 I heard a woman say once that in order to move forward, she had to work on letting go of things she never had. Funny, right? What was that supposed to mean? The more I thought about it, the more her words struck me as rather profound, but it took me awhile to get to the bottom of why they resonated so deeply with me. At the time, I was mourning my divorce from the father of my two young children. I kept wondering if there was anything more I could have done to save my happy family, and then it struck me that the reason my husband and I were splitting up was because we were not happy — not at all. I was the one needing to put away a vision I had cherished with all my heart in order to swallow the bitter reality that our survival as people and as parents depended on moving forward separately. I had to let go of hope.

Now, I’m not saying that all hope is bad. After all, where would the world be without all of those plaques, posters, wood carvings and dancing china angels encouraging us to “Never give up!” “Hold on to Your dreams!” “Have the Courage to Succeed!” or that perennial favorite, “Believe?” It’s just that there comes a time when all those relentless inspirational messages banging around our brains need to shut up for a minute, and take a back seat in the car we’re driving down the road of life, so we can get a clear look at where we’re going — and pay attention if the check engine light comes on.

A couple of years ago I was working in a long-term sub assignment, and I invited a rep from a trade school to come in and speak to my 11th grade English class. His first question to the students had to do with their plans after high school. You know, half the boys said they were going to be professional basketball players! Bless that man for telling them it was never going to happen, and dashing their little dreams to dust. As I watched the shock and dismay register on their faces, I did feel a little sorry for them. I know how awful it is when the truth seeps into the future, like water that runs into the cracks of a rock, and then freezes and shatters everything. You feel so suddenly icy, so blind and light as if the wind could just pick you up and whirl you away. It’s like that any time a reality check lets you know you need to let go of something you never had. But let’s not get all soggy here.

  At 56 years of age, with graying hair, fascinated by the Lifestyle Lift commercials and tips on how to get rid of belly fat, I think it might be time for me to let go of my dream: the job I never had as a full-time high school English teacher. My check engine light is flickering, and I can feel the rock beginning to break apart over that particular future. Yes, I know: you never know, and so I’ll fill out a few more 25-page applications complete with my psych profile, references, college transcripts, and paragraphs explaining why I am the perfect candidate to teach Chaucer to teenagers; and I’ll ignore the fact that I’ve only gotten two interviews in the last three years. But this is Mrs. Midlife here, and I don’t think hope is going to do me much good. In fact, letting it go just might be the best way for me to move forward, figure out where my next adventure is going to take me, discover what I’m supposed to be doing next. Could be fun — at least, I hope so!

 

 

In Which I Start the Laundry

 

…There is this woman here, Lulu Lamartine, who always had a thing for Grandpa. She loved him since she was a girl and always said he was a genius. Now she says that his mind got so full it exploded.

How can I doubt that? I know the feeling when your mental power builds up too far.

Louise Erdrich, Love Medicine*

A friend of mine once said his mind was like a washing machine where you put stuff in, and it goes round and round, but nothing ever comes out. Boy, could I relate! Mrs. Midlife, the blog, is my attempt to finish the laundry, so to speak; to take things out one at a time, tumble them dry, hang ’em up to let the wrinkles out, and, if necessary, pitch them if I wouldn’t pay a quarter for them a yard sale.

Before I even started writing, I did some research to find out exactly what might be expected of me as a “blogger.” The one piece of advice that seemed to come up over and over again was that I should settle on one area of expertise, and write about that. For me, however, there are two things wrong with that approach: One: I don’t have one area of expertise. I can do lots of stuff, but I hesitate to call myself an “expert” at any one thing. Two: Picking just one subject to focus on defeats the purpose of “finishing the laundry.” Still, I suppose there’s something to be said for pulling a bunch of random thoughts under a single umbrella and tying it all together with some kind of common thread. Name the machine, if you will. For now, I’ve settled on the idea that I’ve finally become a woman “of a certain age,” and as such, I’ve earned the right to draw upon all of my experience to inform, entertain, and reflect on any damn thing I please. (Coming soon: My Love-Hate Relationship With Rules!) You could say that my area of expertise is continuing to breathe while maintaining a sense of humor.

My hope is to reach out to other women, and maybe even a few men, who suddenly, unexpectedly find themselves about to go over the proverbial hill. I’ll be looking back in order to see a way forward, writing about the view, celebrating, poking fun, and maybe, just maybe, sharing whatever bits of wisdom have made their way into the washer.

Wishing you a day where you’re head doesn’t explode,

Mrs. Midlife

*I was introduced to Louise Erdrich’s work a couple of years ago when I was forced to take a class in so-called “Multicultural Literature” to fulfill a one of my teacher licensing requirements. As I had already earned a degree in American Lit from a better university than the one I was attending, I resented having to take the class at all; but I was particularly teed off because they wouldn’t accept any of the credits I had previously earned reading 300-level Spanish literature in translation, and the only choices they offered were African-American Masterpieces or Native American Literature. (They should have just called the requirement, “Literature From Cultures Most Oppressed by White People.”) At any rate, I chose the class on Native American Lit, and thoroughly enjoyed it. Ms. Erdrich’s writing (Love Medicine, The Beet Queen) is beautiful, raw and poignant; Sherman Alexie, (my favorite: Reservation Blues, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-time Indian, and the movie, “Smoke Signals”) is funny, thoughtful, and flirts with Magical Realism like Gabriel Garcia Marquez; and Black Elk Speaks is, in a word, awesome. I highly recommend them all.