(pictures also by Donna, but they may or may not have anything to do with the text)
Yesterday I was watching the nine-year-old nephews for a while, and one of them kept asking me if there were any chores he could do to earn some money. He wants a fancy new bit of sports equipment, and his parents have told him he needs to earn the money for it. I’m trying to exterminate all the pachysandra in my yard, so I offered him what I thought was an exorbitant fee per bag for pulling up pachysandra. He only lasted three bags—it was rather muggy out, and he kept angling for indoor chores. Coming up with indoor chores that he could do, safely and satisfactorily was harder, but I managed. I have a lot of clean windows and mirrors today and he’s a lot closer to his goal. Maybe we’ll get after the pachysandra again when it’s cooler.
Reminded me of one summer, back when I had a day job, and my department was assigned an intern. An intern whose parents were on the board, or friends of someone who was on the board, so she got her pick of departments. I can’t even remember if we’d even requested an intern, or if we were just informed that we’d be getting Jennifer—which was not her name, but was almost certainly the most popular name in the country the year she was born, so let’s call her that. I suspect Jennifer thought the Marketing Communications department would be a lot more glamorous than it was.
In the days leading up to Jennifer’s arrival, we were all asked to be thinking of projects on which we could make use of her services. At the time, at least half of my work consisted of computer stuff. I kept track of the department’s budget using Lotus 1-2-3 spreadsheets and macros. I used the SAS programming language to pull mailing lists from our corporate marketing information system. And while it wasn’t my primary job, I had such a reputation for making WordPerfect macros sit up and do tricks that I did a brisk business in helping secretaries from other departments figure out how to automate repetitious word processing tasks. I also wrote copy, saw it through the editorial process and worked with designers to produce finished documents. But that summer, we were doing a lot of business-to-business direct mail, so I was happily immersed in my tech work. And since Jennifer’s resume showed no usable tech skills, I didn’t see much of her at first.
And then my boss suggested that it was time for me to avail myself of Jennifer’s skills. Actually, the way I remember it, my boss told me that it was my turn to keep Jennifer busy, dammit! If she doesn’t know how to do anything for you, teach her something.
Teaching people how to do things always takes longer than doing it yourself, though it’s worth doing if you’re training someone who you hope will be a longtime coworker and trusted asset to the department. Training someone who was already counting the days until she went back to her Ivy League campus . . . arg. But I try to be a good team player. So I went through my project list and imagine my surprise when I found something I could easily teach Jennifer to do.
So bright and early at nine the next morning, I handed Jennifer a printout of one of our most important mailing lists, a list of some eight or ten thousand college and university administrators. We were about to make a big, expensive mailing to this list, and we realized we’d been getting complaints that some people weren’t receiving information we’d been trying to send them, or that it was outdated by the time it finally was forwarded to them. We’d occasionally get letters complaining that “so-and-so died five years ago; will you please take him off your mailing list.” We were getting more returns than we liked. So my boss and I had determined that we would save a lot of money and hassle in the long run if we called all of these institutions to verify that we had the right information. I had started doing it, keeping a printout of the list by my phone, and making a few calls whenever I was waiting for a program to run, or at the end of the day, if I was too tired to start something requiring more brainpower.
It looked to me like the perfect job for Jennifer.
She studied the printout. She listened, with an attentive but puzzled look, to my explanation of the importance of this project. And then she leaned forward with an earnest expression, as if about to ask me a question about the meaning of life.
“Just one thing,” she said. “What am I supposed to learn by doing this?”
For a split second, I almost gave her the answer that leaped into my mind: “That not everything you do to earn your living is going to be fun.”
Probably not an answer that would go down well with her, or with Mommy or Daddy on the board.
“Well,” I said instead. “When I do it, I like to pretend I’m a spy or a detective, and I see how much missing information I can add to the printout.” Not entirely a lie.
That didn’t impress her, though, so I added a few words about the enormous cost benefit to the company of having this list accurate, and how mission critical it was to charm people, not annoy them, in doing this. Convince them that we cared about them, our customers and potential customers.
I could tell she wasn’t sold. I gave her half the list, keeping the other half for myself. She actually made a few calls, at least until she thought of an Important Project she could do for the corporation. Preparing a report about something. Whatever it was didn’t seem like something the corporation needed a report on , and I don’t recall anyone actually doing anything with it after she left, but it kept her busy, and happy, and mostly out of our hair. Completely out of mine, in fact. Every time I saw her I asked how her calls were going, so she soon learned to avoid me at all costs. Eventually our secretary took charge of Jennifer’s half of the printout and helped me finish up the rest of the calls in time for our mailing.
I have no idea what Jennifer did in later life. Politics is my guess. At any rate, I’m pretty sure she didn’t become a writer. It’s a career that may look glamorous from the outside and turns out to be a lot of hard work. Especially if you are, like me, in the middle of a book and suffering from the usual nagging doubts about whether it’s ever going to come out right. And when I’m in that stage, I do have the occasional day when I remember how, back on the day job, I could always mosey into my boss’s office and say “I have no idea what I’m supposed to be doing. We need to talk!”
But only occasionally. And there are far more days when I remember what my friend Tracey—owner of the original Spike—said when I asked her how she felt about having left corporate life to run a business with her husband, Bill.
“You know what I like best?” she said. “If management is doing something really stupid . . . we can just stop doing it.”
Which reminds me of one of my favorite of the late, great Elmore Leonard’s writing rules: “Try to leave out the parts that renders tend to skip.”
Off to make war on skippable sentences.
On my own schedule.