Sock Puppet

sock puppet

Thank you for letting me borrow this image, Wikipedia, even though I did not ask your permission.  I guess that means I’m joy riding and may be convicted of grand theft sock puppet.  Oh, and thank you to the web series Totally Socks, on which this lovely sock ass is a character.  You see, I nearly always take my own blog photos (Thank you, Apple.  Thank you, OS 8.1.  Thank you, tiny camera on my iPhone, to which I am joined at the hip these days.  And thank you, dear wife, for purchasing said iPhone for me two years ago and for keeping it updated.  And thank you, Lord, for bringing me my beloved some 16 years ago.  Oh, and if I left anyone out, it’s not that I’m not thankful for you, it’s just that I’m getting old and forgetful.  Forgive me?), but I couldn’t for the life of me find a decent sock puppet to photograph.  Perhaps I’m just not cultivating the acquaintance of the right people.

See, there’s this job I want to apply for, but I can’t get the employer’s HR website to cooperate.  Apparently, I have a little sock puppet problem.

I may have to ask my two year old grandniece for advice.

The error message consists of a long string of gobbledygook where the job application should be.  It ends with something about mysql/mysql.sock(2).  Talk about a kiss-off!  I suspect this is just a fancy, high tech way of saying “Ha ha ha!  And you really thought we were going to let the likes of you apply for this job!  Sucker!”

Well, not so fast.  I don’t give up that easily.  Let’s take a minute to break this thing down and figure out what it could really mean.  First of all, I’m not sure what all this folderol about “mysql” is.  I’ve heard of a database program called SQL, but I know that’s not it, because how can I be in the company’s database when I can’t even log onto their blessed website to apply for a job?

So what does that leave us with?  It could stand for “my squirrel,” but I haven’t seen any squirrels around here for quite some time.  Now that the wind and rain here in northern California has finally washed the leaves off the trees, there are no more tasty acorns in evidence.  The squirrels must have all gone into hibernation with the bears.  Or else maybe they’ve flown south for the winter along with the Canada geese.  I saw a flock of them (geese, not flying squirrels) zoom over the parsonage in the pre-dawn darkness as I headed out to work of a recent morning.  Employing the classic V formation, they were hauling it double-time in the general direction of Tijuana, screaming their fowl heads off against the wind and the rain, as if to say “I told you we should have gotten the heck out of here last month!  What were you thinking hanging around so long?!”  You’d think they’d have heard of Interstate 5 by now.

Perhaps this mysterious coded message stands for “my sequel.”  But what would it be a sequel to?  It figures.  I’m always behind the times.  Here I am expected to know all about the sequel when I haven’t even been exposed to the original yet.

Then again, it could stand for “my squiggle.”  This might make more sense, as I see many squiggles as part of statements written in various and sundry computer languages.  I don’t even know much Spanish, so don’t ask me to try to converse with a computer.  I still haven’t figured out how to pronounce those squiggles.

Finally, we come to the part about “sock(2).”  On the face of it, this seems pretty clear to me.  As part of my daily routine, I do indeed put on (2) socks, one on my left foot and one on my right.  I do this by performing a subroutine that involves accessing my sock drawer and then following some good old computer logic.  IF a pair of clean socks is in the drawer, THEN pull apart the paired socks + set my feet up on the ottoman + pull socks over my cold toesies = aaaahhhhh!  I haven’t yet figured out where in the program to put the part about removing the lint balls or doctoring up the blister that has mysteriously raised up on one of my toes for no other reason than to annoy the bejabbers out of me.

When running this subroutine yields error messages, it is generally either because I have been left with sock(1) after the dryer has mysteriously made off with sock(2) once again, or because neither sock(1) nor sock(2) will fit on my big old dogs.  In the latter case, I simply proceed to the next subroutine:  IF we are dealing with ankle socks(2), or IF socks(2) are striped or in pretty colors or are anything other than dark blue, THEN return socks(2) to wife’s sock drawer ELSE socks(2) belong to Pastor Mom.  It’s fairly simple, really.  BASIC, one might say, or possibly FORTRAN.  No need for Java or C++++++ or even mysql.

As for my job application, a little research revealed that I have probably run into a sock puppet.  As a general rule, I don’t like to run into anything (the mere thought of it makes me say “Ow!”), but at least sock puppets tend to be nice and soft.  Sock puppets, I have learned, are a form of false identity, basically going online and pretending to be someone you’re not.  So if I were to create another WordPress account under the name of, say, Tasty Avocadoes, and proceeded to praise to the skies this Uncle Guacamole guy and recommend that everyone read A Map of California, I suppose I would then be a sock puppet (not to mention evil, and stupid, and juvenile, and… oh, well, you get the picture).

I have no idea why my prospective employer thinks I am impersonating myself or anyone else (honestly, you get to an age where you have enough trouble just being who you are).  But this gives me an idea.  The next time I run that subroutine and end up with an error because instead of socks(2) I am left with only sock(1), I can turn sock(1) into a sock puppet forthwith.  I don’t have an artistic bone in my body, so I am certain that it will not look anywhere near as pretty as the lovely donkey in the photo that I stole from Wikipedia.  Perhaps I can find some loose buttons to use as eyes, and some threads that have been hanging off one of my shirts as a mouth.  I would then slip sock(1) over my hand, and voilà, sock puppet!  If I impersonate a high, squeaky voice, who knows what adventures I might be able to conjure up?  I bet I could entertain my little grandniece for hours!

Alright, who am I kidding?  My grandniece is two years old, which means that she can’t be entertained for more than three minutes at a time, and that’s pushing it.  Besides, if it’s not Mickey Mouse or Barney or those darned Teletubbies, she simply wouldn’t be interested.  She’d just ask to borrow my cell phone, please.  Not that she wants to call anyone.  She just wants to entertain herself with videos of people taking apart eggs or singing in Mandarin Chinese.

That’s okay.  She may not have any interest in sock puppets, but at least it’ll be a while before I have to break the news to her that responsible adults use the internet for things like applying for jobs and puzzling over Dr. Seuss caliber computer code about sock(1) and sock(2).

High on the Hog

piggy bank

One of the trickiest parts of the job application process is broaching the matter of salary.  As money has a nasty little tendency to bring out the worst in all parties involved, we often try to hold off mentioning compensation until the last possible moment.  As we glide back and forth through the steps of the interview dance, we pointedly seek to avoid prematurely stepping on that sensitive dollar spot.  Instead, the prospective employee pretends that money is not an issue and that, in fact, it would be a privilege and an honor to work for this employer under any terms.  Often, the employer does nothing to counter this notion, making the most of its superior bargaining power in a job market in which employers can have their pick of applicants.

Some employers use “salary requirements” as a means of unceremoniously culling the daunting stack of applications down to a manageable level.  This part of the application form is often specifically labeled as required to avoid having applicants dodge the issue.  Ask for too much and your application goes in “the pile or the file” (the reject pile or the circular file, that is).

When I first graduated from college, I would ask my father for advice on how to fill in the spot on the application form where the employer would ask how much money I want.  He would tell me to just write “Scale,” an indicator of submissiveness that rises to the level of utter capitulation.  Some aver that this tactic is a clever way of saying “pay me whatever you think I’m worth,” but really it’s just a statement that the applicant needs this job and is willing to roll over and accept whatever paltry sum is offered.

I have read articles suggesting that an applicant that always negotiates his or her salary will, over a working lifetime, earn much more than those of us who simply accept whatever is served up by the employer.  The idea is that an employer has more respect for those applicants who are willing to ask for and justify the compensation that they feel they deserve.  The hidden implication, of course, is that the applicant must be willing to walk away from employers who will have none of it.  This may be possible in an economy that is close to full employment, something we haven’t seen in the United States for quite a while now.

Of course, applicants with sought-after skills will have more bargaining power than those with, say, a liberal arts degree and no job experience beyond fast food and babysitting.  The problem is that it can be hard to know what skills are valued by this particular employer.  I once worked for a small business for more than a year when the owner admitted that she had been so desperate for someone who knew how to work her finicky computers that I could have asked for much more money and she would have gladly paid it.

The fact remains, however, that applicants for many positions have absolutely no ability to haggle over their compensation.  Salaries are often set in stone, either by union contract, corporate policy or employer stubbornness.  Many employers treat applying for job like purchasing a gallon of milk:  The price on the sticker is non-negotiable.

And there will always be employers who take offense at the mere mention of pay.  I recall one phone interview that went swimmingly right up until the very end.  I had answered all of the interviewer’s questions to his satisfaction and he asked me whether I had any of my own.  That’s when I took the opportunity to ask about compensation.  It’s not as if I demanded a particular figure; I simply asked what the salary was.  The employer made it abundantly clear that I had a hell of a nerve to even bring up such a topic.  Obviously, I was more interested in money than in working for the company.  I was shocked, and of course I never heard from them again.

Another land mine that applicants can step on is the “salary range.”  Some employers advertise a range of compensation that leads applicants to believe that the starting salary may be anywhere in that range.  So, if I have a great deal of relevant experience and education, I could potentially start near the top of the range, right?  Wrong.  Most employers hire at the bottom of the salary range as a matter of course; the top number is the compensation to which an employee may work up to over a period of years.

These days, I am employed in government work, where salary ranges for most positions are matters of public record.  It is, at least theoretically, possible to start at a salary above the bottom of the range if you have particular skills that are needed and can’t be easily found.  I didn’t immediately understand how this works, but it didn’t take me too long to figure it out.

After two interviews with my current employer, I noticed that I had a missed call from Human Resources.  When I called back, I was told that they had started to call me but then realized that they would have to do further research and call me back because I had requested ham.

Excuse me?  Now, I am a Jewish boy from New York, and a vegan to boot, and I have never eaten ham in all my life.  Why would I ask for ham?

Well, what a doofus I was.  It turns out that HAM stands for “hiring above minimum.”  And it’s true:  Based on my years of experience, I had asked to be hired at a salary above the bottom of the range.  I ended up getting turned down for HAM, because they don’t offer HAM to unemployed people.  To get HAM, you must have a job which you may or may not leave for new employment depending on whether the compensation offered makes it worth your while.

Instead of HAM, I would have to be satisfied with BACON:  The Basic Agreement on Compensation Of New-Hires.  Oh my goodness, I had totally forgotten!  This is a union job!

Okay, it is what it is.  I very much need this job.  But that doesn’t mean that I have no negotiating power whatsoever.  I knew I had to stand up for myself and get everything I possibly could.  So I demanded the California Retroactive Income Supplement to Paychecks.  That’s right, if I’m going to bring home the BACON, I’m at least going to make sure it’s nice and CRISP.

Oh, and I wasn’t done yet.  I am no dummy.  I know all about the various programs for which state employees are eligible.  The legislature has been good to us and I plan to take full advantage of that.  So for my next move, I insisted upon being signed up for Salary Augmentation Under Senate/Assembly Grant to Employees.  You read that right, folks.  I demanded my SAUSAGE rights.

The poor HR lady sighed.  I could tell she hates dealing with know-it-alls like me.  Well, she informed me that, in that case, I’m going to have to choose one of the two SAUSAGE options.  If I have dependents, she told me, I should select a Partial Adjustment to Taxable Income for Employees of the State (PATTIES).  Otherwise, I’d be stuck with the Low Income/No Kids Subsidy (LINKS).  I ordered up PATTIES and thought that I was finally done with this whole unappetizing mess.

But, as it turned out, HR still had one more course to pile on my plate.  It was my own fault, really.  I stupidly admitted that we provide day care for our two-year old grandniece, and wouldn’t you know, that changed the picture entirely.  I was forced to take an additional payroll deduction for a savings plan based on the state’s acknowledgment of the effects that the Price Of Raising Kids Can Have On Personal Savings.

You guessed it, folks.  I’m stuck with PORK CHOPS.

Employed!

It happened about a week ago.

While I was concentrating intently on something else entirely, I suddenly thought I felt a tickle in my pocket.  Sure enough, my trusty iPhone was vibrating.  I wasn’t expecting a call from anyone and I didn’t recognize the number on the screen.

As it turned out, it was an employer to which I had applied sometime in the past few months.  They would like to invite me to travel hundreds of miles to their out-of-state location on Friday to sit for testing.

Hmm, I know how this song goes.  The angst-ridden lyrics include a mention of “I’ve been down this road a time or two,” perhaps as a rhyme for “and this is not the job for you.”  Let’s see:  First, you spend hundreds of dollars in gas, restaurant and hotel money to sit in a training room with 20 or 30 other wannabes in various stages of unemployment discomfort.  I went through this twice down in Orange County this past spring.  Either you type insipid essays in Microsoft Word or you bubble in your multiple guess answers with a Number 2 pencil.  Then you go home and a couple of months later you receive a congratulatory email along with notification that you have now been added to the list of candidates for any management position for which the organization should happen to open recruitment within the next year.  About a month after that, you receive another email inviting you for an interview.  You make more hotel reservations, take gas money out of savings, drive hundreds of miles again to get dressed up, shake hands and tell a lot of stories about your management style and a time when you disagreed with your employer’s decision and how you implemented it effectively among your subordinates anyway.  After that, who knows?  You might receive a call inviting you back to a second interview (now that you’ve already blown through $1,500 in travel expenses) or you might receive a form letter informing you that a better qualified candidate was selected and better luck next time.

All of this flashed through my mind in the ten seconds I had to respond to the employer on the phone.  My answer tasted delicious on my tongue.  “Oh, I’m so sorry,” I burbled in my most sympathetic voice, “but I’ve already accepted another position.”

You read that right, folks.  After nearly a year of unemployment, Uncle Guacamole is once again gainfully employed in a full-time job.

It gave me great pleasure to be able to turn down this offer to spend a lot of money on nothing.  This pleasure was enhanced immeasurably by uttering it from my own cubicle at my new job on a very quiet floor of an office building from which several dozen of my nearby coworkers could hear my heartfelt rejection.

About six months ago, one of my readers asked that I be sure to inform her when I finally find a job by uttering “Hooray!” and “Yeehaw!” in this space.

Hooray!  Yeehaw!

Never say that I’m not a man of my word.

I have now been on the job for one week and, I’ve got to tell you folks, I am loving it.  I was a supervisor for years until I made my way up to manager.  This job is neither of those and thus represents a significant demotion.  Also I had to take a big salary cut from my last position.  But then again, it’s a big raise from the zero dollars and zero cents I was earning as an unemployed person.  And I will unequivocally assert that it is a heck of a lot better than standing in line for three hours waiting for a food handout.

I am also now a commuter.  My job (ooh, it sounds so lovely to say my job) is in downtown Sacramento, which is 36 miles away, nearly an hour’s drive in rush hour traffic.  Also, there is no parking to be had without paying a monthly fee to a garage and then hiking from there to the office tower in which I work.  Thus, my wonderful wife drives me to work each morning, then returns at 5 p.m. to pick me up.  At two round-trips daily, that’s about 144 miles, which works out to well over $150 in gas.  And we will certainly have to purchase another vehicle sooner rather than later.  Our old trusty isn’t going to last long at this rate.

It is truly a blessing from God that my wife is willing to do all the driving.  The rush hour traffic as one approaches downtown on Interstate 5 reminds this New York boy of his romps of yesteryear on the Long Island Expressway.  It is enough to fray the nerves of one stronger than I.  My wife, however, has it down to a science.  She has memorized every lane change from Arco Arena to Q Street and manages to execute this automotive dance with balletic aplomb.  I’ll say it again:  God has been very good to me.

As if that weren’t enough, I have a boss who is an answer to prayer.  His kindness and patience humbles me.  And if, someday, I make it back into management, I want to be like him.

Free Parking

FreeParking

(c) Hasbro… please don’t sue me, I’m unemployed.

God is watching over us. Of this I have no doubt.

We drove down to the Central Valley yesterday to appear at the first of six job interviews (yes, six!… can you believe it?) I have scheduled this week and next. The employer was located in a huge office building downtown, which can only mean one thing: No parking!

In the name of honesty, we could have left the car in a nearby parking garage and paid by the hour for the privilege. The plan, however, was for my wife to drop me off and come back for me in a couple of hours. I had to take a written test and then attend a panel interview, so I knew this would take a while.

The problem: Where should she drop me off? The information that the employer sent via email instructed me to use the entrance on a side street. This seemed relatively straightforward until we drove around the block four times before finally verifying to our satisfaction that there was in fact no entrance to the building on the specified side street! We saw a woman unsuccessfully attempting to use a locked side street entrance to what appeared to be the building next door. We had no idea what to do and I started to worry about being late. I knew I had to get out somewhere and look for an entrance. The wind was blowing and, remember, I have been battling agoraphobia for years. As you may imagine, I started to panic.

Finally, I agreed to be let out at the main entrance in front of the building. Although most of the area was a “red zone” (no parking or standing any time), we found the loading and unloading zone. I figured that I’d hurry up the steps, duck inside the building, do my breathing exercises and find someone who could tell me where the hell I was supposed to go.

I took the elevator to the second floor, where the interview was supposed to take place. Having no idea how to navigate the maze of corridors and offices, I stuck my head into the nearest doorway and asked how to get to HR. The young lady at the desk didn’t know and had to ask her superior. Make a left, walk all the way down to the end, turn right, walk all the way down to the end again, then pick up the red phone and someone will talk to you. Clearly, this was not going to be a good day. For this I got dressed up and drove two hours down the freeway? I was a nervous wreck before I had even arrived at the interview.

Walking the long corridors, I passed a series of floor-to-ceiling windows that showed me that I had in fact crossed over to the other side of the street on an interior bridge and was now in another building. I located the red phone, over which was posted a notice to dial 2 for HR. The human resources representative who answered the phone did not recognize my name and had no idea what interview I was talking about. She asked me to hold on while she checked with someone else — and then promptly disconnected me. I dialed 2 again and spoke to a different HR rep who said that someone would be out to talk to me. Sure enough, here comes the HR lady from the locked door at the end of the corridor. Don’t you know that you are in the wrong place, young man? Interviews are being conducted in another building on the next block.

I thanked her, turned around and began to retrace my steps. I texted my wife: “Please come back!” By this time, she had already gotten way down the road, completely out of the downtown area. Back down the elevator, out the door, down the stairs. Time to wait on the street and have a staring match with the guy selling hot dogs, chips and Skittles from under an umbrella. At least he had a canvas folding chair to sit on. A prominent sign warned NO SITTING ON STAIRS, so I compromised by leaning on a railing. Finally, hot dog guy deigned to speak to me. “Some wind, huh?” Yeah, rub it in, why don’t ya?

Meanwhile, my poor wife, who was somewhere on the freeway, got off at the next exit and somehow turned around and headed back to where she had left me. Both of us were entirely frustrated by the time she arrived, and she kindly drove me over to what I thought was the building that the HR lady had specified. “Please wait until I text you that this is the right place,” I asked. My wonderful wife is long-suffering and I have no idea how she puts up with me.

When she let me out of the car, I had to climb two half-flights of stairs. Unfortunately, bushes had overgrown the hand railing. Did I mention that I have bad knees and have to use the railing? Back in New York City, we used to call it “the bannister.” I did my best with the foliage, arriving at the door with leaves and stickers all over my left sleeve. A kind woman appeared at the door just as I approached. This entrance is locked, she explained, but I saw you coming. She didn’t know anything about an interview either, but directed me to Human Resources. Now, I knew that HR wasn’t going to be able to help me, as this building was occupied by a different company than the one with which I was scheduled to interview. These days, however, I’ve learned to take it as it comes.

The nice HR lady at this company also had no idea where I was supposed to go. Here’s our meeting schedule for the day. See? We have nothing scheduled for 1:00. I thanked her and asked for directions to the elevator. I’ll just head up to the second floor and see if I can ask someone up there, I said.

On the second floor, I noticed a couple of people sitting in a lounge area way across the atrium, past the splashing and whooshing fountains. Not knowing what else to do, I walked over there and heard a woman calling my name. Yay! I had finally found the right place! I texted my wife to let her know she could be on her way (again), then sat down to write essays.

Next came the ubiquitous panel interview, during which it became highly apparent that they were looking for someone with many years of experience in their very specific type of work. That person, by the way, would not be me.

My wife returned to retrieve me and we started to look for somewhere to have a late lunch before we headed home. We settled on a restaurant a few miles up the road for which we had a discount coupon. Unfortunately, when we arrived, we discovered that they aren’t open for lunch. So we headed north toward home and decided to stop and eat in Stockton.

If you’re familiar with Stockton, you know that it’s a big place and has many exits off the freeway. We kept looking for the exit we needed, but never found it and drove right out of Stockton. Forget about it, I said, let’s just go home and save some money. We can’t afford to be eating in restaurants anyway.

Later, we learned that the precise street that we had been looking for was the scene of a bank robbery, a shootout and a high-speed chase. Two of the three robbers and an innocent bystander were killed. Let’s just say that never in my life have I been gladder to have been unable to find my exit. Glad to have avoided an exit of another type entirely, my wife and I both thanked God that He continues to take such good care of us. In the grand scheme of things, it makes the little inconveniences of job hunting look small indeed.

On Thursday, I am scheduled to return to the employer in Sacramento at whose office I recently dropped off my application after learning that they never received the one I had mailed. I am scheduled to take a written exam; days or weeks later, the employer will call the high scorers back for an interview. This is also a downtown location where there is no parking and at which I must walk across a lengthy plaza to reach the building from the street.

In the meantime, however, I have applied for yet another job in a different section of Sacramento. As an apparent incentive to lure applicants, the job announcement prominently indicates FREE PARKING!!!

Anyone want to play Monopoly? I fully plan to land on that little orange car in the corner and pick up all the booty dumped in the middle of the board. You can be the top hat, the wheelbarrow, the thimble, the shoe or the racecar. I’ll be the cat, Hasbro’s newest token.

Meow!

Eggs Eggs Eggs Eggs

eggs

It must be the mushroom harvest here in California.

We attended food distributions yesterday (the county’s) and today (federal), and each had at least a dozen heaping, overflowing boxes of fresh mushrooms on display. “Cream of mushroom soup tonight!” proclaimed a guy a few places behind me in line.

Pastor Mom sautéed some of the delightful fungi in vegan margarine and garlic for me tonight. Then my wife got out the rice cooker and also baked some tofu in the toaster oven. As you can see, they spoil me rotten. The mushrooms were positively heavenly, and we still have a big pile of them. A large portion of this bounty has been washed, packed into plastic bags and frozen, to be added to spaghetti sauce in the near future. The irony is that I had been craving mushrooms and we had just purchased a small package the day before!

We also visited Mother Hubbard’s Cupboard this week. This is the food pantry at a church located two towns up the freeway. Those in need are eligible to receive food here only once per month. This was our second consecutive monthly visit. The volunteers at this place are so kind that they may have the ability to restore one’s faith in human nature. Last time there was a bit of a line, but this time I was the only customer. There were four volunteers sitting around just waiting for someone to come by for help. The woman at the computer appeared to be about 70 years old; the other woman and the two men had to be in their eighties. While they looked up my information, I related how much I enjoyed the loaf of vegan blue cornmeal seed bread they had included in my bag in June. I explained that I had frozen it, defrosting two slices at a time and making it last all month. They didn’t seem quite sure what I was talking about, so I provided the brand name. They seemed genuinely sorry that there didn’t seem to be anything like that around. How about a loaf of dark rye? Scanning the ingredients for eggs or dairy and finding none, I accepted it. Wait! They had this other loaf of bread in the back of the freezer. Could this be the seed bread that I had enjoyed so much? Yes! Uncle G lucks out again.

During our June visit, I was pleasantly surprised to receive half a dozen eggs. Although I don’t eat them, I know that Pastor Mom enjoys them boiled. At that time, the volunteers warned me not to get too excited, as this was unusual. They don’t typically have any eggs to hand out. So imagine my surprise when they gave us a whole dozen this time around!

Um, there is too much of a good thing, however. I have to ask: What is going on with the eggs this month? At the USDA food distribution today, each person in line was given three dozen eggs! Are the chickens working overtime or something?

If this were a year ago, I’d be happily eating scrambled, fried and boiled eggs morning, noon and night. Now that I’m a vegan, I’m just happy for the mushrooms. And I know a homeless guy who lives in a tent who will be frying eggs on his Coleman stove this week.

Meanwhile, my job search efforts have gone weird on me. Several weeks ago, I applied for a job with a state agency about 40 miles from here after one of our church parishioners who works for that agency informed me about the opportunity. He was even kind enough to agree to put in a good word for me. When he mentioned me, however, the hiring people indicated that they had never received my application. Say what?!

Either my application got lost in the U.S. Mail or, more likely, somewhere in the agency’s mailroom. If not for my friend and his inquiry, I would have known nothing about this. I would have assumed that the application was received and that the agency, like so many employers, simply chose not to respond. One cannot help but wonder how often this situation has occurred with my other applications.

My friend recommended that I drive to Sacramento and physically hand my application to the agency’s HR person. Okie dokie. Gas up the car for an eighty mile round-trip. And now I have to reconstruct the application. Applying for vacancies at a state agency is not a simple process in California. First, you have to take an “exam,” which may refer to a test given to hundreds of people at a time at a hall in Sacramento or may refer to an online assessment or may refer to a series of essays that the applicant must write. Once you qualify for a particular job classification by passing the test, then you can apply for specific vacancies. The application process generally involves writing a Statement of Qualifications (SOQ) and a cover letter and filling out the standard state application form. The notice of vacancy specifies what subjects must be discussed in the SOQ and how long it may be. The SOQ requirements were fairly complex for this particular position; it had taken me three hours to write it. Fortunately, I had it saved on my laptop and was able to print it out. The state application is another matter entirely, however. The web version of the form allows the user to fill in information online but not to save that information. The instructions suggest printing a copy if you need to save it. Therefore, I keep a filled-out form on hand in hard copy. All I had to do was fill out the first page again, since it contains information specific to the position applied for. The rest of the pages I could just photocopy. Collate, staple, fold. Let’s get on the road.

It came as no surprise to me that the agency turned out to be located in a downtown skyscraper without a parking lot of its own. Fortunately, my wife was able to find a parking spot on the street. Still, I had to walk across a long plaza to get from the street to the building. This would not be a problem for most people, but it stretches my limits or, as my wife says, takes me “out of my comfort zone.” When you’ve been fighting agoraphobia for years, and have entirely too many physical issues to boot, walking across an outdoor plaza with the wind blowing in your face requires a combination of will power and luck.

I did it. Somehow. Turned in the application to HR. Walked back to the car.

Don’t ask me how I would ever be able to work in this building. Where would I find a handicapped parking space close enough for me to “do the walk?” Calling the Americans with Disabilities Act… Hello? Hello?

As for the job in Washington State that we drove 1,600 miles to interview for last week, I have heard exactly nothing. At the interview, I was told that the employer needed to hire someone as soon as possible due to an impending retirement. I was assured that a decision would be made within the next week. More than a week has gone by. And I know what that means. They always take their time sending out the rejection letters.

Whoever said that no news is good news was never an unemployed person hunting for jobs for nine months.

Three Interviews

In each of the past three months, I have had to travel out of town for job interviews.  There was Orange County in April, Eureka in May, and Oregon this month.

The Oregon interview ended at three in the afternoon, at which time we immediately headed home to California.  At 11:00 the next morning, the employer called to inform me that another candidate had been selected to fill the position.  Wow, that was fast, I thought.  Although the vacancy was advertised to the public and drew applications from all over the western United States, who would have believed that the perfect person for the position was right there all along?  Amazingly, it’s true.  And so it was that the employer happily promoted one of its long-term employees into the managerial position.  Still, the employer felt the need to speak to me personally to let me know that I provided such excellent responses to the questions posed to me by the interview panel.

At the end of the Eureka interview, which was held on a Friday, the panel assured me that they expected to make a decision by the following Friday.  A week passed and I heard nothing.  Then two weeks passed, then three weeks.  Finally, just this Thursday, nearly a month later, I received a rejection letter via snail mail.  The purpose of the letter was to inform me that I have not been selected to move on to the oral interview, which would have been the next step in the hiring process.  Huh?  If I have not been selected for an oral interview, someone please tell me what all that talking was I did with the panel last month and why I spent all that money to travel to Eureka?  Clearly, one of us is losing our minds, and in this case, for a change, I don’t think it’s me.

As for the Orange County job, it would be correct to say that I have yet to be treated to the unmitigated pleasure of an oral interview.  We made the 16-hour round-trip in April so that I could take written examinations for two different vacancies advertised by this employer.  I did this with full awareness that, if I performed well enough on these tests, I might eventually be asked to lay out the funds for another trip to sit for an interview.  I took one test on Friday and the other on Monday, meaning that we had to pay for a hotel room over the weekend.  That little trip cost us more than five hundred dollars.  Now that two months have elapsed, I am pleased to report that I received an email from this employer two days ago:

Thank you for your recent participation in our Operations Manager I/II (Deputy Manager) recruitment.

Congratulations!  We are pleased to inform you that your name has been placed on the eligible list of qualified candidates.

The eligible list established from this recruitment will be used for current and future vacancies and will remain active until the list is exhausted or a new eligible list is established due to a new recruitment.  Please note that placement on the eligible list does not guarantee an interview.  Candidates will be referred based on the hiring department’s specific needs and requested criteria.  Should your name be referred, you will be contacted by the hiring department.

Again, congratulations!

So what do you think, folks?  Should I just pack it in and retire now?  I’ve been getting my ducks in a row, you know.  After all, I have my application in for Food Stamps, I’m obtaining some excellent experience standing in line for drought relief canned food and I am pleased to report that I recently earned five dollars by writing a 400-word article about packing moving boxes.

I think I’ll book my reservation for that beach villa in Aruba now.

Oregon

Mount Shasta

I always have a hard time sleeping the night before a job interview.  This is particularly true when I am in a motel room rather than in my own bed, and even more so when the motel bed is hard as a rock.  I ended up watching a Weather Channel documentary on the solar system and another about rain until the wee hours.

In the morning, I made the mistake of bending over to put on my socks.  My back was having none of it.  Not after a night stretched out on a concrete rack.

I began my day on a positive note by checking my email and finding three rejection notices from employers awaiting my perusal.  One job was in the Midwest, one in the Northwest, and one here in California.

Today’s interview was conducted by a panel of four supervisors and managers.  Each candidate interviewed was asked the same eight questions so that the panel could compare and rate each person’s responses.  Pretty standard stuff for management positions.

At the end of the interview, someone on the panel always allows the candidate to ask any questions that he or she may have.  As usual, I had a few questions about the business.  As my questions were answered, it quickly became apparent that the position for which I was being interviewed was nothing like the job description advertised online.  I was convinced that going to the expense of this trip was worthwhile for a solid management position.  But it turns out that the employer is just looking for a first-line supervisor.  This is at least the third time that I have run into this problem.  Either employers are not being truthful in their advertising or I need to go back to school and bone up on my reading comprehension skills.

I doubt that I will be offered this position, but I will face a real dilemma if I am.  Is it worthwhile to relocate 250 miles away to take a demotion and a $20,000 pay cut from my previous position?  My initial reaction is that anything is better than churning out more and more job applications and standing on food lines.  But moving away from family to take a difficult job that I won’t enjoy for not nearly enough money doesn’t exactly bring a smile to my face.  At this point, however, I have no right to be picky.  I know I’ll have to suck it up and do whatever is necessary to support myself and my wife.

On the bright side, we enjoyed the cooler weather in Oregon.  As this particular location was up in the mountains, the temperature was about thirty degrees lower than it has been here in northern California.  It’s been many years since I lived in a place that has snowy winters, but I believe that change is a good thing.

And although the long drive up into the mountains was terribly boring, at least we enjoyed a lovely view of Mount Shasta on the way home.

This evening, I received an email from yet another employer regarding a managerial position that I had applied for online several months ago.  I’d like to share the majority of this email with my faithful readers:

Congratulations!  You have passed the test/competitive evaluation of your qualifications for DISTRICT MANAGER.

You have been placed in Group 3.  Your name will remain on the eligible list for one (1) year unless it is removed in accordance with our personnel rules.

Group 1 (95-100%)
Group 2 (90-94%)
Group 3 (85-89%)
Group 4 (80-84%)
Group 5 (75-79%)
Group 6 (70-74%)

We thank you again for your time and interest in our employment opportunities.

I may need your help in deciphering this memo, particularly since it appears from information gleaned at my interviews that my understanding of employer notices bears no resemblance to the facts of the situation.

It seems to me that I scored a grade of B on the online exam, meaning that two other groups of candidates get first dibs on this job.  Should all the candidates in the A+ group and the A group turn down job offers, I would then have the privilege of competing for the job with my fellow B-listers.  Should a year go by without the employer reaching us down on the B list, my name would fall off said list and I would have to start the process all over again.

Am I close?  Or do I have it all wrong?  It’s okay, you can show me the error of my ways.  I can take it.

Moving to Oregon for a demotion and a pay cut is starting to look better and better.

 

Eureka

An elderly gentleman and I, walking from opposite directions, arrived at the door of Denny’s at precisely the same moment.  I could see through the window that the place was fairly crowded.  My job interview was just down the street, and with more than an hour to kill, my wife and I had planned on a leisurely breakfast.

I reached for the door, intending to hold it open for the old man.  “No, let me get it for you,” he insisted in a gravelly voice that I could barely understand.  He wore a dirty jeans jacket and sported a long white Santa Claus beard.  I could see that his mouth no longer had much in the way of teeth.  It was obvious that he was homeless.

My wife and I entered the lobby of the restaurant and the old guy followed behind us.  Immediately, a server flew out from behind the counter and began shouting at him.  “Get out!  Get out!  I mean it!  Get out of here right now or I’ll call the cops!”

“What?  Why are you gonna call the cops?  What did I do?” protested the man.  The server was so upset that it seemed she was about to physically push the guy out the door.  Hearing the ruckus, a manager walked up behind the server and began yelling “Just go!”

The old man turned around and left.  My wife and I were aghast.

As we passed the table nearest the door on the way to our own booth, a breakfasting gentleman snickered, casually offering “Maybe they didn’t like his after shave?”

After we sat down, my wife suggested that the man may have been in the restaurant earlier in the morning, perhaps bothering patrons.  It’s possible, I responded, but more than likely he’s been around many times before and is well known to the staff.  The main thing, I said, is that the guy obviously has no money.  The restaurant, I added, has no use for anyone who is not a paying a customer.  We agreed to buy a to-go breakfast and take it out to him after we ate.

We sat at a window that looked out on one of the city’s primary thoroughfares.  As we sipped our tea and waited for breakfast to arrive, we had a good view of quite a few people hanging out on the sidewalk, leaning against buildings and occupying the doorways of businesses that had not yet opened for the day.  It was easy to see that homelessness is a big problem here.

In Greek, the word eureka is an exclamation meaning “I have found it!,” most notably attributed to the ancient scholar Archimedes, who legend tells us ran down the street screaming the word upon making one of his mathematical discoveries.  But for many dwelling in the city that goes by so inspiring a name, the only thing found is a profound sense of hopelessness, coupled with agonizing efforts to merely subsist from one day to the next.

Although Eureka is located within the borders of California, it seems far more oriented to the Pacific Northwest.  Located near the northwest corner of California, about two hours’ drive from the Oregon border, the climate of Eureka reminded us more of Portland or Seattle than it did of Los Angeles or even of our own hometown, about 300 miles south.  Although it wasn’t raining, the sky was overcast and a chilly breeze blew through the streets.  It was at least twenty-five degrees cooler than the weather we had left at home yesterday.

Many of the homeless we encountered were bundled up in layers.  I could not help but wonder how they ended up stuck outdoors, where they slept, what their stories are.  The one encouraging sign was that we saw no police harassing them  or chasing them away.

So here I am in my jacket and tie, ready to face a panel interview for a middle management position.  As my wife and I ate breakfast, we discussed our finances for the month of June.  What was left of my unemployment checks is now gone.  We need to begin digging into our meager savings immediately.  I agreed to visit the food bank two towns over to see what they can give us to stretch our funds a little longer.  We marked our calendars for a local food distribution scheduled for the end of June.

For now, at least, we still have money.  After being unemployed for eight months, we are not broke yet.  And if we’re frugal, we know we can stretch what we have for another six months or more, through Christmas and even into 2015.

And we counted our blessings.  After all, we don’t have to dress in layers to stand in the cold wind and be chased out of any place where there is a chance of scoring a bite to eat.  Everything really is relative.  It is difficult for us to feel sorry for ourselves when the suffering of others is manifest right before us.

We paid our bill and prepared to order a to-go breakfast, hoping that a bite of hot food might cheer up he that is turned away from every door, from any hope of succor.  We looked up and down the street for any sign of the bearded old man in the dirty jeans jacket, but he was nowhere to be found.

… thou shalt not harden thine heart, nor shut thine hand from thy poor brother.  But thou shalt open thine hand wide unto him, and shalt surely lend him sufficient for his need, in that which he wanteth.  –Deut. 15:7-8 (KJV)

If At First You Don’t Succeed, Apply, Apply Again

Today is Memorial Day in the United States.  Banks and government offices are closed, but most of the shops are open, draped in red, white and blue bunting and hawking BIG, BIG sales on every kind of garbage.

My wife does not like national holidays because her beloved mail is not delivered.  I don’t care for them for a different reason — because there are no new job openings posted and hence nothing to apply for.

When you’ve been unemployed for a long time, applying for jobs becomes a way of life.  Looking for a job is your job.

I have my résumé plastered all over the internet.  I generally start out my daily session by checking Career Builder, indeed.com, CalJobs, the federal government employment website (usajobs.com), govenmentjobs.com, the California state jobs site, the websites of several corporations in which I am currently interested, the federal courts site and the jobs websites sponsored by several other states (Oregon and Washington have been particularly productive).  Once a week or so, I do a pass through the county employment websites of each of the 58 counties in California.  About once a month, I do the same with every county in Arizona.

Most employers accepting applications for middle management positions require the applicant to write a series of essays on diverse topics ranging from your theory of management to your experience in developing department budgets to your methods of handling disciplinary and performance issues to how you go about implementing orders from senior management when you don’t agree with them.

Then there are the application forms themselves.  Some are interactive forms that can be sent directly to the employer at the click of a button, others become fillable PDFs only when saved to my hard drive, while still others must be printed out and completed in my chicken scratch handwriting.  Some of these are hybrids.  Just because a form is fillable, for example, doesn’t mean that all the fields will contain enough room to type everything.  Some forms automatically reduce the type size to fit, but others either truncate your text when you exceed maximum characters or cause a scroll bar to appear for the purpose of reading text that is now off the screen.  The latter situation is totally unhelpful for forms that must be printed and sent in hard copy format.  You can’t scroll a sheet of paper!  So the fields in which I can’t fit everything are left blank, to be filled in by hand after printing.

Application forms can be quite lengthy, some literally requiring the details of “all employment since high school.”  When you get to my age, this means writing a book.  I must indicate the name of every supervisor I have ever had, including the one from my first job out of college on the night shift in my hometown and the ones who were my bosses at employers that are no longer in business and the ones who are long dead.  The sad thing is that some of the places to which I apply actually try to contact employers that I worked for thirty years ago.  As if anyone there would remember me at this point.

Of course, every job application requires a cover letter.  I have numerous templates saved on my laptop, but these nearly always must be tweaked to highlight the particular qualifications that the employer claims it is looking for.  If I’m lucky, this will mean changing the wording of a couple of sentences.  If I’m not so lucky, I’ll have to rewrite the whole darned thing from scratch.

Then there are the supplemental materials.  Some employers want to see my college and grad school transcripts, some want copies of my diplomas, some want a recent typing test certificate and some want an unedited writing sample (sometimes two of them, “one short and one long”).

Some employers will only accept documents in Microsoft Word, others require that all the application materials be combined into a single PDF and attached to an email, while still others will only accept hard copies sent through the U.S. Mail.  Following a lot of frustration and more than a few cuss words, I am now familiar with the ins and outs of converting documents from Word to PDF and vice versa, including how to combine, separate and rearrange pieces of things in Adobe.

A very short, straightforward application takes me about an hour to complete.  But let me tell you about the doozy that I worked on Friday night.  It took me five hours.

I will start by saying that this application was for a Fortune 500 company that I would just love to work for.  I applied to them once before and wasn’t given the time of day.  Recently, however, I heard through the grapevine that they’re hiring again.  I went on their website, created my little profile, uploaded my little selfie, posted my résumé.  I bet my wife that I would never hear from them.  I lost that bet.

They sent me a pile of application materials via email.  I was shocked to learn that they are actually interested in considering me as a candidate for possible employment.  Not as a middle manager, mind you.  Not even as a first-line supervisor.  And, no, not as a floor lead or as a quality control technician. They would be happy to review my application for an entry-level position.  Now, this job is not in commuting distance from my home.  Nay, it is not even in the state of California.  I would have to move hundreds of miles away to another state in order to accept a full-time 40 hour per week entry level position that requires working nights and weekends and pays an hourly wage that would not be sufficient to buy toilet paper to wipe my ass with, much less pay rent on.

And the real punch line to this joke?  I am actually thinking about it.

When you have been unemployed for a long time, the descent of your employment standards becomes a little like dancing the limbo.  How low can you go?  After being out of work for eight months, I think it’s safe to say that I no longer have any standards to speak of.  So here I am working through the application materials, grateful that anyone has expressed any interest at all in employing me, while in the back of my mind I am thinking:  Will I have to stay in a flea-bag motel and fight the cockroaches?  Should I start stocking up on ramen noodles?  Will I have to live in my freakin’ car like Homeless Guy #2?

The application form itself asked for the usual education and employment history, plus a series of essays on topics that made me laugh.  I was grateful for the comic relief.  I won’t risk a copyright violation by revealing the essay questions, but I will say that I actually had a good time answering several of them.  They were unique.

Upon completing the application, I had to fill out a survey that seemed to have the purpose of determining whether my personality would be a good match for this position.  Then came the online typing and grammar tests.  Finally, I had to turn on my webcam and do a video interview, presumably for the employer to get a feel for my demeanor and how I would interact with customers.  I really wanted to say “b-b-but I’ve spent years teaching others how to properly interact with customers!”  Oh, right, this is for an entry level position.  (Sorry.)

Well, this was the first time I’ve ever used the webcam on my laptop.  I’ve always known that this is the function of the little eye that sits above my screen and darkly stares at me while I’m pounding away at the keyboard.  But since I’m not a vlogger and have no need to create perky video profiles of myself for dating websites, I’ve just kind of ignored the camera function of my computer.  Perhaps this in itself is an indication that I lack the technological savvy needed to succeed at even an entry level position in today’s world.

I had no idea how to even access the camera and start recording.  But I figured it out.  After all, that’s what a manager does all day:  Figures things out.  It would be an understatement to say that my video interview was bloody awful.  I hemmed and hawed, went over my allotted time on every single question, found myself still talking after the camera had shut off.

After that little debacle, I realized that I have absolutely no chance of snagging this job.  And although that fact saddens me, I know it’ll be okay in the end.

At least I won’t have to live in my car.

The End is Near

I don’t remember what’s it like not to have a regular paycheck.

For the most part, I’ve been gainfully employed since I finished college more than thirty years ago.  The first time I had to apply for unemployment was in 2009, and I had to go online and figure out how to do it.  It took me eight months to find another job, and I had a steady stream of (reduced) income during the entire period thanks to federal unemployment extensions.

Then came September of last year, when I was laid off by my broke employer.  This time, I knew how to apply for unemployment.  The funds that the state direct deposits into my checking account constitute only a small fraction of the income I had been earning as a middle manager.  But you know what?  I’m grateful for them.  They allow us to put food on the table and gas in the tank.

A week from tomorrow, I will receive the last one of those precious checks.  The lifeblood that keeps us going will stop, much like the last heartbeat of a life that has come to an end.  The last grain of sand will have passed through the hour glass.  Time’s up.

The state will keep you going for 26 weeks.  After that, the baton passes over to the feds.  But they’ve refused to take it, resulting in an early finish to this relay race.

I know that I’m more fortunate than most.  It’s been more than 26 weeks since I was laid off; I’ve been able to delay the inevitable by doing a few weeks of temporary work in between.  And we have the benefit of the economic and emotional support of extended family.  And we don’t have children to feed.  Hundreds of thousands of my fellow Americans don’t have these advantages.  They’re just plumb out of luck.

Still, it is going to be a strange experience indeed to not have any money coming in.  I imagine it must be something like the sound of one hand clapping, an odd sort of economic silence.

The state gives you a finite amount of time to find another job before it cuts you off.  Beyond the argument about limited government resources and a fair distribution of tax dollars, the implied philosophy is that six months should be more than enough time to secure gainful employment (and if it’s not, then it must be your own fault).

When this theory doesn’t work out so well due to a lack of jobs in a sluggish economy, the federal government considers it an “emergency” that warrants a temporary extension of unemployment benefits.  At the moment, however, our elected representatives appear convinced that the economy has improved enough, and that the unemployment rate is low enough, that no such extraordinary measures are needed.

The fact that I have applied and applied for jobs doesn’t seem to matter.  There aren’t as many jobs advertised in my field as there were the last time I found myself unemployed.  Still, most weeks I am able to find several to apply for.  And then I go apply for several more in other fields, or for which I am overqualified, or which pay a quarter of my previous field, or which are located two or three thousand miles away.

The rewards of my efforts are mostly in the form of silence.  Occasionally, I receive a form email containing such encouraging words as “Although your skills and experience met the minimum requirements for this position, we have had a strong candidate pool and you have not been selected for further consideration.”

I started out reacting to these kiss-offs with abject disappointment, then moved on to anger, and now have reached the stage of stoic silence.  Like Diana in A Chorus Line, I feel nothing.

When I admit to be sick of writing insipid essays that are supposed to convince employers that I am qualified to be a manager in their companies, my mother helpfully reminds me that “applying for jobs is your job now.”  And so I take yet another packet to the post office and pull out my stash of change while the clerk weighs the envelope.

This week, we are taking a longshot gamble.  Tomorrow we will hit the road so that I can attend a pair of cattle calls 450 miles away in southern California.  In order to avoid the necessity of making two trips, I was able to schedule one on Friday and the other on Monday.  This means we must hang out all weekend and pay for four nights in a motel.

I expect scores, if not hundreds, of applicants to show up on Friday morning.  But to really obtain a good picture of the scope of what is going on here, you must realize that this is one of six such sessions that the employer is holding.  That’s right, folks, for one job.  In total, I’m sure there must be thousands of applicants.  As I said, it’s a longshot gamble.  But what else have I got at this point?

I have already passed the first part of my application; after emailing a series of essay responses to the employer’s questions and sending off my résumé and references, I received a “congratulations” note inviting me to this cattle call.  At least it’s an interview, right?  Heck no!  I will be sitting in a room full of computers writing still more essays, my “written assessment.”

In the unlikely event that I am lucky enough to be among the handful called back to interview, we will have to pay to make this trip again.  It’s enough to make a person unsure of whether he wants to be selected or not.  Believe me, my wife and I discussed the situation over and over again, analyzing it inside and out, in an effort to decide whether it’s worth going at all.

So we lay out my white shirt and tie, pack the suitcase, fill the gas tank and say goodbye to another $500 out of our dwindling savings.  The trip involves eight to nine hours of driving, and I do hope that we are able to arrive back home at a reasonable hour on Monday evening.

I need to be up early on Tuesday so that I can dress up again, put on a smile and engage in firm handshakes as I pass out résumés at a job fair.