Saturday, August 23, 2014

A Grown-up Job: Pt-1.

4:01 PM Posted by Patrick 1 comment
One of the greatest anxieties of my final months at school revolved around a very simple question: What the devil comes next?

I had toyed with half a dozen ideas, but was not particularly optimistic about any of them. The thought of going back to school immediately I had simply written off. I did not want to be forever a student, never moving on to the next thing. I was ready to be productive, and I was weighing my options.

My favourite was sitting the Foreign Service exam and becoming a world renown diplomat. I have not ruled it out entirely in the long run, but in the mean time, I cannot take the exam until February, and even then, only one in every hundred is accepted, and almost no one on their first try. So although it was one of my favourite solutions, it was not a short term answer to what I would do after College. Should I just sit on my keester for ten months? I think not.

I could have stayed on at Penney's. I would have had a good shot at promotion, and it would not have been terrible on my resume. There might have been additional management experience in it, but there would almost certainly have been a lot of soul crushing days ahead of me. In the mall. It just was not an option I fancied.

I thought about looking for a job waiting tables. This was seeming like a much more practical short term solution, and would have been better pay, more likely than not, but it did not satisfy my need for a big boy job.

I will not dwell on the reasons I needed a grown-up job, but I had them and they were compelling, so I started to look at jobs with companies that I did not necessarily feel I was qualified to work for.

The jobs I felt most qualified to apply for were the paralegal jobs,  but I was not actually thrilled with the prospect of getting one, having seen my sister's experience. I did not need anything to make my hair fall out any faster.

I applied for positions with firms that handled logistics, with C.H.Robinson and BAX. Either of which would have been ok, and both of which promised a continuous and heavy load of what my brother in law termed as the white collar equivalent of manual labor. It would have been more satisfying and definitely would have given me a new skill set, but would not necessarily have been my choice.

The last class of jobs I applied for were those for which I felt least qualified. Jobs with Northwest Mutual, Wells Fargo, and--my favourite of the unlikely options--Lincoln Financial. These were jobs that I could actually see developing right into a career. They were all with companies, and in positions, that would surely go to some yappy business major.

But that was not about to stop me. It sounded good, so I took my Resume and my liberal Arts degrees and asked around and put in my applications. In the end, I had a chance for interviews with two of the financial services companies, as the others had not really panned out. I had an interview with Lincoln Financial, and was preparing to set one up with Northwestern, where I had received a glowing reference, for which I am still grateful.

However, the interview with Lincoln came first. How I got to that first interview is still a mystery, and hangs largely with the fact that someone named Sarah Wilson decided she liked me, in spite of the fact that technical difficulties screwed up a solid part of my video interview, at which you got one shot, and which left me a little flustered for the latter half. I did not think there was any way I was getting a call back, but I did, so I was practically giddy the morning before.

I decided to dress casually. Play it cool.  So, after getting up three hours before my interview, eating breakfast, and drinking my coffee, I walked out the front door in my favourite suit and tie, wearing freshly shined new shoes, and sporting a new haircut. No way I was going to blow this again. I got to the Harrison entrance of the Lincoln building, which looks rather palatial. It was just enough to keep my heart rate a touch above normal. Then I walked into the atrium for the first time, which was all sandstone and marble; I had to work there.
You may not be able to see it in this picture, snapped while I was waiting to be summoned for my appointment, but the walls were covered in a hundred years of etched names? I was sitting in Lincoln's hall of heroes, with the names of the most honored forerunners carved into the stone for the perusal of lesser men that came after, but also with space reserved for future heroes.

After a few minutes of sitting, Amber came out to get me.

Amber has one of those dispositions that can make it difficult to know whether she is joking or deadly in earnest. She can deliver, and was delivering, some pretty decent one liners with all the gravitas of a senior undertaker, dispensing with the mask every once and awhile to reveal a warm smile. She led me up through the middle of the busy operations and into a conference room where I sat at a table with a fantastic view out the window of Downtown Fort Wayne. Amber sat across from me, and was soon joined by Heather, who identified herself as a one time English major. Heather was tall, blonde, bespectacled, pregnant, and always smiling.

The interview lasted over an hour and a half, and it was the most fun I have had in an interview. Heather and Amber played off of one another, working to put me at ease, while also clearly just being the way they usually are with one another. The English person and the Math person. Tall and short. Dark and light. Our conversation ranged all over, going from my school and work history, to Amber's new car and how to spend time downtown. It came out that Amber would be my boss, were I hired, and I was totally ok with that thought.

I left feeling good, and Sarah called me two days later--right before I went to help Emma feed the poor--and told me that I had the job.

But I guess many of you do not know what the job is. At the moment, I am something of a supercharged customer service person. I will have calls that I answer, some from customers, but mostly from agents, other institutions, and our own internal problem solving. I will also document and process contract changes and withdrawals, I will apprise people of tax and other financial implications of their actions, and do research projects. The way it was put to me, this was a very good place to start--whatever my ambitions within the company--because our licensed annuity dudes and dudettes need to know everything. As I have learned in my first weeks while shadowing people who are working, when financial advisers do not understand the investment instruments their clients own and how they work, they talk to us.

In order to perform these tasks, we are expected to participate in and complete a rigorous training program, starting with an intensive aimed at preparing us to pass a Series 6 securities licensing exam. I was again somewhat nervous when I arrived for the first day of training. I had no idea what exactly was waiting, but I was eager to get started with my grown-up job. I walked into the atrium again, this time to find that there were several people waiting already, and more trickling in as the minutes passed. In the end, 16 of us were seated in the atrium, and Amber came for us shortly thereafter.

There was a little bit of chat amongst the group as we went, but it was kind of quiet. I think most of us were bracing ourselves for what we new lay ahead: processing, and the obligatory corporate on-boarding presentation.

Our fears were met, when minutes later, we found ourselves led down the stairs, deep beneath the sunlit streets of Fort Wayne, and into the department of Human Resources. The processing had come. We were to be filed and photographed. The others were made to sit and watch as each was called, verified, and photographed. You sat for your picture in plain sight of all these strangers who would be your coworkers, and who watched with amusement as each person smiled at the camera; it was slightly awkward.

Thankfully, this whole thing went rather quicker than anticipated, and we were headed back upstairs soon enough. Our elation was soon to be drenched, however, when we walked into a room...with a projector! (Sinister music)

Before any of us had time to slip back through the door, a tall woman in a tasteful--actually, downright cute--skirt and jacket with an abnormally wide, bright smile and expensively styled short blonde hair stepped into the gap. She beamed at us like we were her long lost children and seemed constantly on the cusp of taking us all up into her arms and giving us a good squeeze. Here was one of the chiefs of HR. A person so brimming over with love for mankind and vivacity that they, and only they, can routinely look for ways to 'downsize' without it breaking their spirit. The kind of person who will get a smile out of you, whether you want to give it or not. Who makes you wonder where their draw their energy from, and leaves you with a sneaking suspicion that they suck it from the people around them.

This last hypothesis was almost certainly confirmed when she started the presentation on Lincoln Financial Group. The first part we were all kind of interested, because it was the history of Lincoln, its business profile, and especially the history of Lincoln in Fort Wayne. We made it through just fine. The next segment, which was longer, contained words like Vision, Excellence, Commitment, Synergy, Diversity, Enterprise, and Innovation. As this presentation dragged on she only seemed to get more energetic and excited, even as heads drooped around me.

Things were looking grim, and I was worried that none of us would never leave that place, as our host was practically bursting with excitement as she drained the last of our vital energies, when the door flew open and Amber walked in with four other people trailing behind her.

They were managers, they said, and HR lady could not have us any longer, each of us was to go with our respective managers and never return to that place. HR lady would probably have fought them for us, but their numbers were too many, and Amber can seem pretty formidable, so she surrendered us over to them.

The managers led us back into the light, and we all split up and went on our tours, during which time we found ourselves reminded that Lincoln has the inhabitants of a small town--2,300--and that it houses the amenities to keep them comfortable, including a massive--and rather decent--cafeteria, an equally impressive gym, a convenience store, a coffee shop, and various break and reading lounges spread around the building.

Soon, however, we found ourselves led to a room where we would spend much of our time for the next several weeks. The training room was equipped with desks, each boasting its own impressive computer with dual hi-def LCD monitors, office supplies, projector, white boards, fax  machine, printers, and comfortable chairs.

I was not a bad set-up, for which I am most thankful. The rest of our first day was spent on icebreakers and getting to know each other in that room. We had to fill out questionnaires, just to have in front of us, and then tell other people in the room about our favourite movies, what superpower we would choose, how we like to spend our spare time, a little bit about our family, etc. It was surprisingly effective, and people were not just presenting, but talking to each other by the end.

We learned at the end of our day that our training would begin in earnest the next day, We were given a text-book, the codes to access a bunch of online materials, including texts, videos, and thousands of sample questions, and a schedule of what our next two weeks would be; it was going to be busy.

(To be Continued)

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Happenings of the Early Summer: T-Day.

5:28 PM Posted by Patrick 6 comments
June is a long time ago. Since June, a great many things have happened. Some of these things have been major landmarks, others have been silly little things of no significance to anyone but me. Nonetheless, their passage has left me feeling as if this June were as removed from me as the distant past.

I always tell myself, upon writing a blog post, that it was fun, that I always enjoy it, and that certainly now I will do it more often. I make a liar of myself. Writing is work, and no matter how well I enjoy it while I am in progress, the inexorable pull of my own laziness always makes itself felt when I next think about writing.

Indeed, if you wonder where I found the strength to overcome my laziness and procrastination to start writing today, you may thank--or else blame--Emma. She is making me confront my inane excuses and get to it; good women do stuff like that, you know.

The first minor event since I last wrote was that Andrew, Jenna, Emma, and I went to an Arctic Monkeys (A band, not literally monkeys. I know, I was disappointed too) concert in Indianapolis. Like I say, a minor event, but great fun. We drove from Fort Wayne to Indy in Emma's car, which is pretty nice to drive most of the time, but redlines it and accelerates wildly when one reaches a hill and the cruise control is on. So aside from a couple instances when I suddenly felt like I was in the Grand Prix, the trip went smoothly. On the way down, Jenna went to work trying to scandalize Andrew--and may have succeeded once or twice--and also told all manner of Emma stories.

Our first stop was at Keystone Mall, largely because they have an Anthropologie store. We were only there half an hour, when a tornado warning was declared, and they started herding us toward a designated shelter. When they redirected us, we were in the middle of the mall, on the ground floor, away from all windows, and right next to a couple stores that were recessed back beneath the rest. In order to move us to safety, the proper authorities herded us up to the second floor, down a walkway, which was all glass, through a hotel stair, which was also walled by glass, and finally down into a large ball room, where we interrupted a CDC conference on biological and chemical weapons. They locked us in the ball room until half an hour later, at which point they decided that it would be okay for us to leave.

Unfortunately, there was no more exciting part of that adventure. I wish I could tell you that some of us got sucked out, or that we inadvertently released a bio-weapon, or that a KGB agent was unmasked in our midst, but no such thing happened. We merely sat in an ugly ball room with a bunch of fake blondes for a while. The shopping spirit was not entirely smooshed out of us, and we did manage to haunt Crate and Barrel for a little bit, but we left soon after and continued on to our main goal.

(Note: I entirely skipped over the part where I realized that I had forgotten the tickets, and spent 5-10 minutes panicking and getting a hold of my provider to get them re-issued at will call, because I am way to smooth and organized to make an oversight like that.)

We got downtown, parked in a garage that doubled as the worlds largest easy-bake oven, and set off to find food. After eating, we returned to find the entrance to the park, and discovered a line that was roughly three quarters of a mile long. I left the three girls to hold our place in line, and went off to find our tickets at the will call desk. What they did while I was away, I know not. As I was trotting along to the booth, I could not help but notice that this was perhaps the most interesting crowd I had ever seen. It was like an index of current fashion trends, taken to the extreme. Never have I seen such a consolidation of high wasted shorts, combat boots, and crop tops; flower headbands also abounded. Many of the had, or were trying to grow, facial hair. Emma later remarked--with what seems like insight--that it is crowds like these, and pictures of them, that give us skewed ideas of what a crowd of people would have looked like in the seventies.

Anyway, White Denim came on to open, and I doubt they will probably show up in Indy again. When they came on, I thought at first that it was a sound check or something, or maybe a local band which was added at the last minute. They got no intro and no fanfare. The crowd stayed seated during the performance, and White Denim did not help their own cause. Their live performance could be summarized as suburbanite white-boys, just standing there and playing their instruments. No style. No flair.

There was a long break between the two acts, and we took advantage of that to try and score some tee-shirts. However, the same people who take 5 minutes to order in the coffee shop were also in the T-Shirt line, and there were more than a few of them. Because of the delay, we missed the Monkees Intro. So sad.

The rest of the concert, however, was  really good. They displayed some pretty serious showmanship, and played a long encore; I was happy. The trip back was uneventful, and being in the dark, was with people who were largely sleeping. We got home safe, and the whole thing was a triumph.

After that night I went back to my ordinary routine, for a little while. Okay, I guess there were some additions in there; like Emma and I hanging out and doing exciting things like baking, but you don't want me to bore you with all of that. Just so you know, though, pastry cream only requires 2-1/2 tablespoons of flour. Trust me on this one.

H'anyway. It was only shortly thereafter that I did indeed serve out the end of my sentence at JCPenney. My only regret is that I left some of my friends and brothers in that place, and that I did not get to take them with me. My final shift was with some of my favourite people, and that was nice too.

My last shift was a Wednesday, the 9th. The Next day was Thursday, the 10th. T-Day.

I left the house fairly early on Thursday, because I really preferred not to get there late. When I got there, early though it was, this entire part of the day had been blocked off for my use, so he did not make me wait, but we got right to it.

The first thing I had to do was sign the forms, and confirm indeed that I was in good health of mind and body, not under the influence of alcohol, and that--to the best of my knowledge, I was not not allergic to certain topical anti-septics. Upon signing off on the appropriate forms, Nick brought out the trace paper.

And that is when I got to see my tattoo.

It was better than I had imagined. He had incorporated all of the imagery that I wanted, but brought them together with remarkable and striking cohesion in his own style. Up to that moment, I admit that I had been nervous. What if it was not right? What if there was something missing?

But it was right, and it was better than I could have imagined.

The easy part was over; it was time to do some tattooing.

The first thing he did was clean and shave my arm, to make sure there would be no dirt or hair getting into things. The next step, was to lay the trace paper into place over my arm--the tattoo had been designed to my dimensions, and coat it with iodine, which cause the ink from the trace to bleed the outline on to my arm. When the paper was removed, the outline of my tattoo was ready to trace.

While sitting and waiting to get ready, he talked to me about his process and equipment again. He was using two different tattoo guns. One was set up for doing lines, the other for coloring and shading. The tracing gun had an attachment of 7 long sinister looking needles, which, when the gun was active, all came together in a very tight area. The coloring and shading attachment had 9 needles, which all fanned out to cover a broader area. They would strike about 140 times a second; I was thrilled.

The anticipation was really worse than the pain...most of the time.

He started tracing toward the base of the tattoo, and it was not nearly as bad as I thought it would be. Granted, it hurt. If I had not been paying him to do this to me, I probably would have been mildly homicidal toward him, but it still was not as bad as stories had led me to believe.

Sitting there as he worked, I had ample time to take in my surroundings.

The walls of the inside of the shop are covered in art and concept art. There are five different primary artists at the shop, so the collections on the wall also had a great deal of variety. If the walls seem cluttered to my eyes, it was not in a bad way. It was a thousand picture frames full of distractions and escapes from having to dwell on pain. Nick Fabini does a lot of fish and faces and birds and flowers. The others specialize in more classic topics, like skulls and flames and naked ladies.

If the walls were cluttered, everything else is immaculate; from the glass of the front window, to the countertops you can see you reflection in. If the walls were messy, everything else was in good order, and exactly where it was supposed to be. All personnel wear surgical gloves while working, and if their hands touch anything other than the gun or your arm, they grab another pair. The bathroom was also quite clean and pleasant, although its walls were also completely covered in art.

There were two other people getting tattoos at the same time I was. One was female, probably in her mid twenties, with shoulder length black hair, a coach bag, and quite dressed-up for a tattoo parlor; she was wearing a long maxi-skirt and had on a little white jacket over a black shirt. She was quite tall, and fairly elegant. She also, however, wore the face of a person who is either perpetually bored, or else displeased. The basic set of her face was petulant, and she did not talk much with anyone. She was getting a butterfly on her foot, of course.

The other person was probably in his early forties, a biker, who was getting a big ol' tattoo on his calf. What it lacked in originality, it made up for in adherence to classic tattoo iconography: skulls, flames, naked ladies. He was friendly, however, and quite genial for the amount of time he had been poked with needles that day.

My artist, Nick Fabini, looks like someone's dad. Someone who you would trust with your taxes. If any of you know Michael Frese, I would not hesitate to say they had certain similar mannerisms. He could have been any friendly, professional, young man...if ones eyes were not drawn away from his bright eyes and neat blonde fade to the intricate sleeves that wound all the way down to the back of his hands.

He was friendly and casual while he worked, but I was amazed by his attention to detail and the deftness of his hands. He improvised as he worked, and added much of the best detail as he went.

I did not get to note as much about their handiwork, but the other guys working were Alex and the other Nick (who I had met before). Alex and other Nick had beards; that is the only detail that really comes back, probably mostly because their beards were large enough to cover over every other detail.

It took about an hour and a half just to get my lines done. None of it was too terrible, except for the moments when the lines got up to the edge of my armpit...closer to the elbow also was no fun.

The filling part was much worse than that lines, as it often required him to go back over the same area repeated. In some cases, a square inch of my arm would receive his attention for 5-10 minutes to get the color deep enough and the shading right. There were a couple times when I had to fight to keep my arm from tensing up, but otherwise, I did not flinch, or cry, or do anything to bring shame on myself.

By the end of the process I was ready to be done. I asked myself, probably 7 times in the final minute, "when will he make an end." He finally told me that he was done, and left me to peruse the work.

Here it is:
There are other things that happened that afternoon, like me getting a flat tire on the way back from the tattoo shop, but those are not important.

I healed super quickly and did not have to have my arm amputated, neither was I fired from my new job (stay tuned for an upcoming blog post!) when they discovered that it was there. I had survived an estimated 15,000,000 needle strikes, and I felt great. (Ok, probably did not feel that great that afternoon. I was pretty out of it).

I have also been pleased to note that the feedback has been largely positive, and even in some cases that it wasn't, it has since grown on some people. But there are still those on whom it has not grown at all. We could immediately dismiss them, saying that these are haters, and that they gonn' hate, but that seems unfair to me, and I rather like some of the haters.

A majority of the haters are worried that I am doing this on a whim, and that I will hate it soon enough.

My dear, my very dear Haters: I have thought this out and wanted it for some time, and you might not even appreciate my reasons, but allow me to give them to you.

First, and most important, I enjoy the art form. I went looking for a tattoo that I would consider to be beautiful. Moreover, the idea of getting to wear a work of art also intrigued me. I had seen it executed well by various people, and executed poorly by a far larger number. But I thought that, done well, a tattoo was quite aesthetically pleasing. Yes, I realize that it is permanent and will degrade when I am old and my skin is old. But when I am a wrinkly old man, I don't think I'm going to spend much time regretting the adventures of my youth.

Second, and somewhat embarrassingly,  I did it because there were people who did not think I would. There were some people, not many of them, who implied that it was all talk. That made it a dare. There are probably many stupid things that I would still do on a dare...not that this was one of them.

Third, it is a senseless taboo, but especially amongst homeschoolers. I do not feel the need to violate all taboos, but some of them are patently idiotic. Tattoos now have widespread social acceptance, but not really within our circles yet. I did this to push myself further outside the homeschool stereotype in the eyes of others--and so take another step to expanding/weakening/destroying the stereotype--and also to try and reconcile the practice to some of my fellows. I am generally what you might call a good kid. I love my family, am active in church, graduated summa cum laude, work hard, respect others, participate in politics, and floss my teeth. I am as far from perfection as the rest of us (no, it's true!), but at least I show all signs of being a thinking, moral, productive member of society. In this respect, I have the tattoo to show that good kids can have tattoos too, and that the taboo is ridiculous.

That last bit may not have made any sense to you, but if you know why I read Harry Potter the first time--and how important that book was for me--you my understand why the paradigm carries so much weight for me.

But why Aesop?

A valid question. I love Aesop's fables, and I think that is part of it. Another part is the nature of the fables. If I am going to wear something for the rest of my life, I wanted it to be something timeless. I also wanted it to be something that tied back to the greater canon of Western culture. Aesop appealed to me because of the simplicity; it is written for children, but still wisdom to old men. Also, it lends itself so well to the style of art which appealed to me, which was illustrative; more like children's literature. To me, christian symbolism is unappealing. We worship and confess with our tongues, with our words, with God's words which we confess back to him. And furthermore, God has already permanently marked me as his own--I do not require phylacteries.

I chose the fox and the crow, partially because of the imbedded moral and caution against vanity, but also because of a secondary moral that I have always read into it. The crow forgets who he is, gives up the good that he has, all in order to gain some illusory glory which was never something that could be his in the first place. The crow is every adulterer and false friend, who does not think he is going to lose his cheese, and blindly he goes after something else that seems sweeter to him in the moment, but it all ends in ugliness and humiliation and hunger.

That is the other lesson I get from the fox and the crow.

Perhaps this whole episode was nothing but silliness. Could be, but I hope I may be allowed the liberty of doing something silly every so often.