Ask the Professor II

Let me begin by thanking all of you for your overwhelming support of Professor Plum’s newest feature, Ask the Professor. The flood of questions she’s received has really made her feel that, although she’s unemployed… I mean retired, her opinions are still valued and her advice is still sought after. So please accept my thanks on behalf of the Professor.

Now, speaking of that flood of questions, on to your latest inquiries:

Dear Professor Plum:
I recently started a new job, and I’m having some trouble bonding with my boss. I feel like he doesn’t listen to me, and isn’t really concerned about whether or not I succeed in the position. Do you have any advice on what I can do to break through these barriers?

- Suzie O., Topeka, KS

Dear Suzie:

Your question struck a real chord in me, because many years ago, I faced a very similar situation with my direct supervisor. We just weren’t able to see eye-to-eye on a lot of things, and I felt he wasn’t really listening to my concerns. It seemed as though he gave no thought to the impact his decisions would make on the people around him.

Like you, I wanted to make the situation better, so I started to do some research. After watching a Dateline NBC special on Russian orphans and how they’re often not able to form true emotional bonds with people as a result of being neglected as infants, I felt certain that this was exactly the sort of traumatic childhood experience that must have made my boss the emotional cripple that he was. Armed with this new knowledge, I decided that I would try one of the controversial techniques highlighted in the program to attempt to rebuild those bonds.

So one evening, I asked my boss to meet me in my office to discuss sales goals, but in fact, I was preparing for a re-birthing ceremony similar to the one I had seen on TV. As he walked into my office, I leapt out from behind the door, threw a giant burlap sack over his head, and wrestled him to the ground. I then held him down for about 20 minutes until he stopped struggling, all the while saying, “It’s okay. You’re okay.”

Once he had calmed down, I let him out of the sack and cradled him in my arms as he wept, thereby sealing our emotional bond and enabling him to finally treat people with respect and consideration. I can tell you that our relationship took a dramatic turn after that evening.

Now, as a condition of my parole, I am required by law to tell you that this was a very, very bad idea, and if I had to do it all over again, I would resolve my concerns through constructive one-on-one dialogue.

But Suzie, I think you’re smart enough to read between the lines here. I’ll give you this one final tip: if you think your boss is a fighter, you may want to solicit backup from a co-worker.

Dear Professor Plum:

Normally I’m pretty articulate on interviews, but last week an interviewer really caught me off guard when he picked up his pen and said, “Sell me this pen.” I wasn’t even interviewing for a sales position, so I guess it really threw me. I know I didn’t get that job, but for future reference, how would you recommend I answer that type of question?

- David A., Sacramento, CA

Dear David:

Ahh yes, the infamous “Sell me this pen” question. It’s an oldie, but a goodie. Personally, I hate this question, particularly if you’re not applying for a sales position. It’s just an opportunity for the interviewer to see you sweat a bit and determine how you think on your feet. The question is not intended to gauge your sales ability, but rather your ability to operate under pressure.

If you are hit with that question again, here’s the type of response I would suggest:
“Sell me this pen.”

“Well, it seems to me that you already have one just like it, so I’d say you’re probably set in the pen department. Now what I would like to do is talk to you a little bit about mechanical pencils. When was the last time you used one, and what was your experience like?”

Trust me – this will completely throw the interviewer, and you will have successfully regained control of the interview. You’re hired!

Foster Files Part II: Breaking & Entering

A few doors down from the house I grew up in lived an old Russian man named Mr. Kozlov. He spoke very little English, lived alone, and had an enormous vegetable garden in his front yard. His house was set way back on the lot, all the way to the alley, so almost his entire yard was garden.

Mr. Kozlov wasn’t particularly friendly, never waved hello to the kids on bikes, and didn’t hand out Halloween candy. In retrospect, we probably just thought he wasn’t nice because he struggled with the language, and wasn’t all that up on silly American customs like trick-or-treating. Because none of us had ever gotten to know him personally, though, it wasn’t exactly big news when we found out that he died of a heart attack at the age of 87.

There really wouldn’t be much more of a story to tell about Mr. Kozlov if it hadn’t been for the total lack of respect for authority that defined my rowdy neighbors, the Foster kids. Apparently, not long after Mr. Kozlov had died, Solomon Foster was riding through the alley when he decided to try to open the side door to Mr. Kozlov’s house.

Surprisingly, it was unlocked. Word spread like wildfire throughout the Foster clan, and before long, Ruth, Sol, Aaron, and I were walking through a dead man’s house. I don’t even remember how long he had been dead – it was probably only a few months. His house smelled kind of like bread, but spicier.

We were shocked to find that all the utilities were still hooked up – we had electricity, heat, stove, everything. It was early summer, yet for some reason we decided to turn the heat up to 80 degrees. Maybe just because we could. We set up camp in his home, walking around barefoot and in shorts, sweating as we explored his house.

The basement was filled with shelf after shelf of cans, jars, and bottles of mysterious blobs preserved in liquid. Solomon claimed that Mr. Kozlov was a former Nazi, and that these jars contained the brains and organs of his victims.

“This is a human liver, I bet! Eat it – I dare you! Just open it and smell it!”

He shoved the jar at Ruth.

“Mr. Kozlov was Russian, not German, you dumb ass! And you eat it!”

When we weren’t daring each other to eat or drink some of the concoctions in the basement, we made field trips to the corner grocery store, pooling our allowances to stock the kitchen with barbeque potato chips, hot dogs, and ice cream sandwiches. It was like having our own summer home. Ruth brought paper plates and napkins from home, I brought a radio. We all danced to Cheap Trick’s “I Want You to Want Me” as we gorged ourselves on hot dogs that had been boiled on a dead man’s stove.

“Ohhh didn’t I, didn’t I, didn’t I hear you cryin’…”

One day, just as we were packing up our things to go home, a man in a short-sleeved shirt and a tie walked in the side door. Stopped in our tracks, we all just stood there silently. I had no idea who this man was – family, realtor, lawyer, police? It didn’t seem like our place to ask.

“What the hell are you kids doing in here?! Do you know what breaking and entering is? That’s a felony!”

Without missing a beat, I wiped the potato chip crumbs off my lips, and in my widest eyed, sweetest girl voice said, “The door was open. Our cat was having kittens and she came in here. We just came in to find her.”

“Yeah, I’ll bet. Why don’t you show me where the kittens are?”

Fortunately, there actually was a stray cat in the house that just had kittens. We found her in the attic on one of our many explorations. I led the man upstairs to the kittens, and he seemed a bit disappointed that he hadn’t caught me in a lie. I just prayed that he hadn’t seen the pot full of hot dogs we had left on the stove.

After escorting us out, the man locked up the house, and our summer swingers’ pad was gone for good. The Fosters and I had many an adventure after this one, but I never recall a hot dog tasting as good as the ones we boiled on a dead man’s stove.

Bright Lights, Big City

“Wednesday, August 11, 2004. 9:15am. We’ve already been to a casino, another state, and a police station today.”
The above is a quote from an email sent out yesterday by my friend Seamus. I’m not really sure where to begin, so I guess I’ll start with where the evening all went wrong.
Tuesday started out like any other Tuesday – 7:30pm, Seamus calls to say he’s going to pick me up for tap class. He arrives a little later than usual, and I immediately notice that Natasha is sitting in the front seat.
I remember thinking, “Huh. That’s odd. Seamus never picks up Natasha first.” It was clearly a sign of the topsy-turvy chain of events that would follow. Seamus seemed unusually chipper and talkative. I asked him if he had been drinking Red Bull, but he said no.
Then he smiled and said, “Today’s my last day of tap. I’m quitting.”
Natasha and I just sat there in stunned silence. I felt like someone had just hit me in the face with a frozen salmon. Once I had regained my senses, I grabbed his shoulder and said, “What in the name of Savion Glover are you talking about?”
“I’m quitting. I’m tired of getting frustrated every week, and feeling uncoordinated, and doing all this girly stuff all the time. I need to hang out with guys more, and do guy stuff like play poker and smoke. This class is holding me back from doing what I really need to do.”
Natasha and I really didn’t say much for the rest of the ride to class. I just kept thinking about what I was going to say to the teacher next week when she asked where Seamus was. Nat and I decided that we’d tell her that Seamus had severed his Achilles tendon in a freak farming accident. The truth would just hurt her too much.
So after a bittersweet class, Seamus suggested we go to a bar for a farewell beer. I should note here that Seamus only drinks non-alcoholic beer, since this will play an important role in the story later on. As Nat, Seamus, and I were nursing our drinks while watching the Cubs lose one more game, we somehow started talking about gambling. I jokingly asked when the three of us were finally going to go to the casino in Indiana, since we always talked about it.
Seamus took one last swig of his Sharp’s NA beer and said, “Let’s do it. Let’s go right now.”
Before I knew it, the Chicago skyline was a blurry memory behind us, and we were on our way to Gary, Indiana to hit the riverboat casinos. It was 11:30pm by the time we got there, and Natasha and Seamus both had to work the next morning, but they didn’t seem to care.
Seamus headed off for the manly Blackjack table where people were chain smoking, drinking, and swearing a lot, while Natasha and I stuck with the girly slot machines where people were… chain smoking, drinking, and swearing a lot.
At around 2:00am, we decided to call it quits, cash in our winnings and head back home to Chicago. As Seamus was zipping down Lake Shore Drive, we saw a police squad car on the side of the road, but unfortunately noticed him just a little too late. Within seconds, the blue glow of the police lights hit me, and we heard the officer over the loudspeaker, ordering us to pull over.
The officer asked Seamus for his license, and then asked if he had been drinking. Of course, Seamus said no, but the officer asked him to get out of the car just to be sure. This is where things took a bad turn. It was 2:30am, we were exhausted, we had been tap dancing for an hour and a half, and had just spent the past two hours in a smoke-filled casino. These are not the best conditions under which to take a sobriety test.
“Okay son, I’d like you to start out by saying the alphabet backwards for me.”
When I heard him ask Seamus to do this, I thought – are you nuts? I couldn’t do that on my best day if you let me write it out! Is this to determine if he’s drunk or if he’s dyslexic? This was ridiculous! Seamus doesn’t even drink alcohol, but he’s going to fail this test due to sheer fatigue and smoke inhalation!
Seamus got hung up somewhere around the letter U, at which point the officer decided to try another test.
“All right. Now I’d like you to stand on one leg, put your other leg straight out, and count to 30 like this: one thousand one, one thousand two, one thousand three, and so on. Okay, go.”
Natasha and I just watched helplessly through the rear windshield as Seamus struggled to maintain his balance. This was about the point where Nat started to freak out. I don’t know – maybe it was the $100 in quarters that was weighing down her pockets, maybe it was the sugar high from her dinner of Kit Kats and Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups, but she started to talk crazy.
She turned to me, clutched my hand tightly, pointed toward Lake Michigan and said, “Let’s just keep driving, Jenny. What if we just kept on driving?”
“You mean…?”
“Yeah, let’s just go. There’s nothing back there for us anyway!”
I threw the last of my Diet Coke in Nat’s face to snap her out of this and said, “Look – we can’t leave Seamus behind! Besides – neither of us knows how to drive stick!”
No, I knew that running wasn’t the answer. We’d been running from this for too long already.
“You know what we need to do, Nat, so let’s just do it.”
We both slid our tap shoes on and stepped out of the car, like two gunslingers at high noon. All you could hear were the waves of Lake Michigan gently lapping against the shore, and the steady click, click, clickety, click of our shoes on the pavement as we approached the officer.
Seamus was sweating as he valiantly tried to hold the swan pose and continue his countdown, but I could see in his eyes that he was a broken man.
Nat just started steadily snapping out a beat on her fingers, and I yelled, “Five – six. And five – six – seven – eight!
As Nat and I dove into the routine we had learned earlier today, Seamus slowly lifted his head, a look of fierce determination sweeping over him. He put his right leg down, turned to face the officer, and started to grin as I shouted, “Show me the Cincinnati, Seamus! Show me what you’ve got!”
The three of us pulled off the impossible: a flawless Cincinnati leading into the soft shoe essence with break, ending with a sugar combination. As Nat, Seamus, and I sidestepped and jazz-handed our way back to the car, the officer grabbed Seamus by the collar.
“Not so fast, son! I’m citing you for driving under the influence. Under the influence… of excessive rhythm! Ha ha ha! In all my years on the force… whew! That was really something. All right, all right. So you’re not drunk. But you were still going 15 miles over the speed limit, so you’ll have to follow me to the station to post your bond if you want to get your driver’s license back.”
So there we were: 2:45am. Sitting in a police station downtown waiting for Seamus’ paperwork to be completed so we could get back to some much needed sleep.
I’d like to have a happy ending to this story. I’d like to be able to say that Seamus saw the error of his ways, and realized that tap wasn’t holding him back, but in fact it was tap that had set him free. Unfortunately, as of this writing, he is still resolved to give up tap forever. I can only hang onto the thread of hope that he will realize that if he does that, he will regret it. Maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow. But soon, and for the rest of his life.

Ask the Professor I

My friend Natasha is always coming up with get-rich-quick schemes, and last week she came up with a really good one for me. She said that since I now have so much job-hunting and interviewing experience, I should try to share that knowledge with others. To that end, I’ve decided to start what I hope will become a recurring feature in this blog: my new job advice column called Ask the Professor.

I have created a new alter-ego named Professor Plum, who has a PhD in Jobology. Professor Plum is a welcome addition to my other alter-ego, Colonel Catmeister, who has his Masters in Felinguistics.

Professor Plum will be using her vast expertise to help provide sound advice to individuals who, like me, are on the never-ending hunt for new and better employment opportunities. Professor Plum also has extensive managerial experience, so she may occasionally provide advice on how to coach and motivate employees.

I have provided Professor Plum with several job-related questions that people have asked me over the years, so she’ll begin by responding to a few of these. I can make no guarantees that the Professor will actually respond to your questions, or that they will even make it past my spam filter, but please don’t let that stop you from trying.

So please join me in welcoming Professor Plum to the blogosphere:

Dear Professor Plum:

With the business casual dress attire becoming so commonplace nowadays, it almost seems silly to wear a suit to an interview. Is it necessary for me to wear my black interview suit, or should I dress a little more casually in nice slacks and a sweater set?

- Aggie M., Brooklyn, NY

Dear Aggie:

I’m very glad you raised this issue, because I hear it quite often these days. Whenever I struggle for an answer to this type of dilemma, I think back to the sage advice my father gave me when I was just a young pup, fresh out of college. My father told me that when going into an interview, you should always dress for the job you aspire to have.

So on my first interview, I walked in wearing a sequined unitard, ruby colored rhinestone tap shoes, and an elaborate feathered headdress. I didn’t get the marketing research internship, and quickly realized why my father was self-employed.

But to answer your question, yes, you should still wear a suit to an interview, even if the company has a casual dress code. That way, when your interviewers walk in wearing khakis and polo shirts, they will subconsciously feel inferior to you, making for a less intimidating interview.

Dear Professor Plum:

If I interview with a large group of people all at once, is it acceptable to email a group thank you?

- Penny J., Haydare, WI

Dear Penny:

Only if you are interviewing with the Hare Krishnas.

Look, no one likes to be lumped together into a big impersonal cluster, and potential employers are no different. Write individual letters (if it’s an old-school company) or emails (if it’s a more modern, hi-tech company) to each person thanking him/her for all the valuable insight that was shared. But also be aware that they will all gather together upon receipt of your thank you’s and ridicule you for writing the exact same thing seven times.

Well, it looks like that’s all the time we’ll have for Ask the Professor this week. But keep those questions coming in, and hopefully the Professor will find the time with her hectic schedule to impart some of her wisdom to all of us.

A Cautionary Tail

I like to think of myself as a somewhat culturally aware citizen, so every so often I need to engage in an activity that stimulates me in a more intellectual capacity than say, watching a Real World/Road Rules marathon at a friend’s house. So to that end, I decided that it’s high time I made a trip the Chicago Historical Society. The Chicago Historical Society has been developing a new exhibit that will remain in the city for the next three years, and it finally opened to the public a month or so ago: Teen Chicago. According to the CHS website, the goal of this exhibit is “to study how teenagers affect Chicago’s history, and how growing up in Chicago affects the way people think, act, and feel.”
Now, aside from a few particularly provocative murals spray-painted on the El, I personally don’t know much about how teenagers have affected Chicago’s history. What I can tell you, however, is that from the moment I saw the huge advertising billboards on the city busses with Andy Warhol-esque pictures of teens sporting mullets and mohawks, I absolutely could not wait to see this exhibit. After much schedule rearranging with some friends of mine (people with jobs are very difficult to pin down), I eventually found a date that worked for all of us.
So finally, next week Sunday, my friends Chris, Cultural Attaché, and I (Note to self: do not allow friends to select their own pseudonyms anymore) will be packing our brown bag lunches and heading off on our field trip to see teen angst in all its glory. [Remember to check back next week for exciting details of our hilarious romp through time.]

Of course, my primary motivation for attending this exhibit is to perhaps help me understand my past, because in the immortal words of Carlos Santana, those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it. And I cannot, under any circumstance, allow that to happen. I’m sure you all know the story, you’ve seen the ABC Afterschool Specials – it was 1984, I was young, a little rebellious maybe, seeking acceptance, and finding it with the wrong crowd. It seemed like everyone cool was doing it, and it was my body, right? So I did it. I got a tail. No, not the kind that might land me a job with a traveling carnival, billed as “Jenny the Amazing Monkey Girl,” but the hairdo kind of tail.
It seemed like a good idea at the time – Sheena Easton had one, the guys from Menudo had them, I think Ricky Schroeder might have even had one. But I was no Ricky Schroeder. It was disastrous, and I knew it from the moment I stepped out of the hairdresser. The breeze on my neck felt strangely unsettling, particularly when combined with the gentle flapping of my newly braided 4” long tail. One factor I hadn’t weighed into the tail equation was that I have naturally curly hair, and even the tightest of braids couldn’t stop the tail from curling up like a little corkscrew. I thought that maybe if I damaged my hair enough, it would lose the curl, so I bleached the tail white blonde. Now I was left with a platinum pig’s tail dangling from the back of my head. At that point, blending in with the crowd was no longer an option.
I think the tail (and the humiliation) lasted about six months before I could no longer stand it and had my mom cut it off. I would gladly post a picture of me with my tail here as a warning to those who might follow in my footsteps, if only one existed. It seems that my family and I had an unspoken agreement to never, ever allow photographic evidence of this hair disaster to exist. When people would ask why I was conspicuously absent from all family photos from summer 1984 to spring 1985, my parents would tell them that I was studying in Mexico that year.
The hairdo may have long grown out, but a mistake like that lingers on. It works its way deep into your follicles, somehow altering your DNA forever. I still live with the pain of that fateful decision every day. But sometimes in life, we’re given second chances, and I feel strongly that this Teen Chicago exhibit is my opportunity to reach out to youngsters who are struggling with the same types of decisions that I agonized over at their age. If I can use my own experience to help other teens get their lives back on track, and not go down that same road that I tumbled down for years, then it will all have been worth it.


Some friends and I were talking recently about physical traits we find attractive, and oddly enough, several of us agreed that we find scars to be somewhat appealing. Now, I don’t mean the Mel Gibson Man without a Face type scars, but more like the Indiana Jones ruggedly mysterious variety.
I don’t know, maybe my affection for slight facial disfigurement is genetic, because my mother has always had a strange attraction to men with eye patches. Unfortunately, my dad still has both his eyes, so I just pray every night that she can see past that and somehow find a way to make that marriage work. My mom has a cool scar on her cheek from a fall she took as a baby. She used to tell her co-workers that she got it in a knife fight, which I find funny since she was a legal secretary in a small Wisconsin town. What’s even funnier is that some of them believed her.
I have a couple scars on my face, but the one I’m most fond of is about an inch long above my left eye. I got it in a knife fight. With my mother. Okay, okay – actually I got it in first grade at the zoo. I was on a class field trip to the Milwaukee County Zoo, which was always a treat since it meant a day away from school, and most likely a trip to McDonald’s on the way home. But the true highlight of any trip to the zoo was always the opportunity to buy one of those grey plastic molded elephants, or a penny stamped with pictures of giraffes and the words, “Milwaukee County Zoo” on it.
After wandering around the reptile house, and the primate house, and the big cat house, we finally made our way down to my favorite exhibit: the kangaroos. I remember that the kangaroos were kind of far away, so I stepped up onto the ledge to get a better look. As I was hanging on to the wrought iron fence and standing on my tip toes, my foot slipped out from under me. First, I fell forward and gashed my eye on the fence, and then I fell back and hit my head on the concrete, knocking myself out for a minute.
When I came to, the first face I saw was Kelly’s – she was the 16-year old daughter of one of the teachers, and was helping out that day as a chaperone. I vaguely recall there being a lot of noise and commotion as my classmates were yelling for the teachers, and other zoo-goers were wandering over to see if I was okay. But the only thing I remember clearly was Kelly asking me repeatedly, “Do you want gum? Jenny – do you want gum?!”
Of course I did. Who wouldn’t want gum after almost losing an eye on a rusty fence, and suffering a mild concussion?
I guess the bleeding must have stopped pretty quickly because my teacher never took me to the hospital, and my mom never brought me in for stitches, which I suppose is why I still have the scar. This was clearly long before the days of the ubiquitous “Were you injured in a car accident? We can get you the settlement you deserve!” sleazy lawyer commercials on TV. If that had happened to me today, that zoo would now be known as the Run Jen Run County Zoo and Tap Dance Academy. Has a nice ring to it, don’t you agree?
The best part about that day, aside from all the attention and free gum, was that I suddenly had earned a scar story to rival that of my mother, and I owe it all to my teacher, Miss Frank. Miss Frank was this tall, beautiful Southern woman with a slight drawl who always called me “Jinny.” Once we got back from the zoo, she told everyone in the class, and for years later, that as I was watching the kangaroo exhibit, one of the kangaroos challenged me to a boxing match and punched me in the eye. I just smiled proudly, and happily let this rumor spread throughout the school. Even though I never got my grey plastic elephant, that was definitely my favorite trip to the zoo ever, and I am reminded of it every time I catch a glimpse of the faded scar above my eye.
So what’s your best scar story? I’d love to hear it. But please, please. Nothing that’s going to creep me out, give me nightmares, or incite me to alert the local authorities. Thank you!

It’s My Blog and I’ll Lie if I Want To

Earlier this week, as I was driving to tap class with my friends Seamus and Natasha, Natasha asked me how my trip to New York went. No sooner had I started to relate my story about seeing Joan Allen at the diner, when Seamus piped in and said, “If you had read her blog, you’d already know all this stuff. Geez!”
That got me thinking: maybe I have been spending too much time in my day-to-day life rehashing stories of things I’ve already done. Maybe I should only use conversation as a means to convey either my present needs and desires, or future goals. If anyone wants to know about the past, I’ll simply refer them to my blog. This could save me a lot of time by avoiding unnecessary repetition.
It’s kind of like in college, when you first learn the hard way that you actually had to read the material on the syllabus before coming to class. If people ask me about things I’ve already written about, I’ll just shake my head and say, “Why don’t you call me back after you’ve read my July 2004 entry on my job search? I mean it, Grandma. I’m sick of having to tell you this! You’re holding the whole family back.”
When I meet new people at parties, or eventually when that long-awaited day comes and I actually get a job, I’ll hand out business cards with my blog address on them. Then, before wasting any time discussing the past, I can just give people reading assignments:

  • For Jenny’s job history, please refer to July 2, July 15, July 21, July 22 entries.
  • For Jenny’s hobbies and interests, please refer to June 22, July 16, July 27 entries.
  • For Jenny’s subtle neuroses and fears, please refer to June 23, June 29, July 9 entries.

This strategy is not without its risks, of course. I am occasionally hit with a nagging fear that I will make myself obsolete by revealing every layer of my personality in this semi-public forum. I mean, what if I’m talking to someone on the street and I want to share a story about something I did in the past, like tap dance classes? Will it seem like I’m plagiarizing my own life?
“Uhh, hello? We already read that story, like, months ago. Don’t you have any new material?”
Let’s face it, charm is comprised of 40% mystery, 30% humor, 20% likeability, and 10% winning smile. If all my stories are published online, there goes my mystery, and the humor will seem redundant, which shoots me down to a Charm Factor Level 3.
I can’t take that risk.
I have no choice but to stop talking about my own life, and start talking about your lives. If I appropriate my stories from other people, I will have a never-ending supply of clever anecdotes, while still retaining all my original charm. Of course, my integrity will most likely plummet to a Level 4 or below, but I’m willing to take that chance.
Having said that, I’m apologizing upfront to all of you if you begin to read things that sound vaguely familiar, like perhaps they are things you have done yourself. But I know you’ll understand that I wouldn’t do this unless I felt it was totally necessary. I really appreciate your support on this – and it really is the sincerest form of flattery, honestly.
COMING SOON: A gut-busting account of my madcap experiences as the keynote speaker at the 2004 Democratic National Convention – what a hoot! Here’s a teaser: “Growing up in Hawaii as a skinny kid with a funny name was rough on me at times, but it forced me to become much more outgoing. In fact, that’s really how I got started in politics…”

Rap Session

This entry will have to be somewhat brief, because I’m a woman on a mission. Sometimes life’s lessons can be learned in the most unlikely of places. Take, for example, last night. I was out with some friends at a karaoke bar, and somewhere in the middle of a guy’s spot-on performance of Kid Rock’s “Cowboy”, I was struck by an idea. I had just finished telling the story of the job interview I secured for this week Friday, and jokingly said that it seemed like I was always singing karaoke shortly before going on a job interview.
Then, I started thinking back to all my job-search efforts this summer, and cross-referencing that with my karaoke experiences. The results were nothing less than startling. I haven’t figured out how to create graphs in HTML, so I can’t attach my complete findings in this blog, but let me share with you the one major conclusion: the more challenging my song selection was, the more successful I was on the interviews that followed.
Here are some brief highlights from the study: earlier this summer when I chose easy crowd-pleasers like “Copacabana” by Barry Manilow, and “Mickey” by Toni Basil, I secured very few first interviews, and was not asked back to any second interviews. As I studied the months when I selected more difficult songs like “Me & Bobby McGee” by Janis Joplin, or “Bohemian Rhapsody” by Queen, I realized that I had landed far more first interviews, and had a much higher percentage of second interviews as well.
I’m sure some of you naysayers are going to say, “Nay.” And then you’ll probably say something like, “Don’t you think it’s more likely that as you go on more interviews, you’re getting more confident, and that confidence is spilling over into your song selection? And don’t you also think that as time goes on, and you send out more and more resumes, it’s just logically more likely that you’re going to secure more interviews?”
See, this is why naysayers annoy me so much. You’re always trying to rain on someone’s parade. Here’s an idea – why don’t you come up with your own theory, and then I’ll tear it to pieces. How’s that for a change?
Anyway, I don’t want my theory getting clouded by facts, so I’m sticking to my guns on this one. With that in mind, I am going to undertake what will quite possibly be the greatest karaoke feat ever attempted. A feat so unbelievable that it will all but guarantee me a new job. An amazing new job. I, along with my brave friend Natasha, am going to learn all the words to the Sugar Hill Gang’s “Rapper’s Delight” and perform it later this month.
If this doesn’t land me a job, then I’ll concede and throw my theory out the window. But if I’m right, and I feel certain I am, then I may have just stumbled upon what will perhaps prove to be the 21st century’s greatest discovery to date: we possess the ability to alter the course of our destiny through karaoke song selection.
Now, I’m a big fan of American Idol, so I know that song selection is critical. Heck, that’s been Paula Abdul’s greatest and only advice to contestants for the past three seasons, but I never dreamed it could have such far-reaching and major implications. Having said that, I must go now. I only have a few weeks to change my life forever. Wish me luck.
“I said a hip, hop, a hippie to the hippie, the hip hip a hop, and you don’t stop, a rock it to the bang bang boogie, say up jumped the boogie to the rhythm of the boogie, the beat…”

Shoe York City

One of the reasons I was so excited to visit New York City, aside, of course, from hanging out with my friends, is that New York is the fashion capital of the US. Although I could hardly be considered a fashionista myself, I do have a severe weakness for nice shoes. I only own one pair of jeans, but I somehow have amassed over 24 pairs of shoes in my closet. The funny thing is, almost all my shoes look alike: clunky, masculine, thick soled, square toed, and unbelievably comfortable.
As a child, I must have missed the section in home economics that taught little girls how to walk in high heels without looking like they were stepping on broken glass. Apparently, it’s not seen as “chic” to walk with your arms out on either side for balance, with your body hunched forward, and your brow furrowed with intense concentration as you walk down the street in Manolo Blahniks.
Look, I’ve seen America’s Next Top Model, and I know that not everyone was born with the ability to walk in high heels. But barring a surprise visit from that guy on the show who has trained all of our most famous supermodels to strut down the catwalk with attitude, I’m probably going to have to be content to just schlep along in my comfortable shoes for the rest of my life.
And fortunately for me, New York is a city that truly understands the need for comfortable shoes. No other city on earth (yes, I’ve visited them all) has as wide a selection of shoes that are made to endure intense walking, yet still look hip and trendy.
The problem with buying shoes, or any clothes, in a city as fashion-forward as New York is that you may return home only to find that they now look absurd when placed in your small-town, country mouse setting. My friend Kim and I found this out the hard way during our first visit to New York a few years ago. During one of our many shopping expeditions in Greenwich Village, I somehow convinced her that suede fire engine red platform tennis shoes with a giant number “8” on the side of them actually looked cute on her. I mean, we saw the sales clerk wearing a similar pair, and she looked ultra cool in them. Of course, it didn’t really hit us that this woman was at best, 5’2”, and probably wore a size 6. Somehow, when you explode that same shoe up into a size 9, it loses its charm, and my friend ended up looking like she had two boxes of Special K on her feet.
Nevertheless, we were convinced that Kim was going to be ahead of the Milwaukee fashion curve (which isn’t all that difficult) and everyone in the Midwest would be chasing after her to find out where she got these amazing shoes. Now, aside from the size 9 issue, we also had to contend with the credibility shift that happens when you cross over from the Eastern time zone back into the Central Standard time zone.
Magically, as the plane passes somewhere over Indiana, your lose your fashion Spider-sense, and you realize that, although these clothes looked completely hip on New Yorkers, you will look absolutely ludicrous when you try to walk down the streets of Milwaukee in them. Call it mob mentality, if you will, but in New York when you see five other people wearing fire engine red shoes, you feel like you’re part of something cutting edge. Back in the Midwest, when you see thousands of people wearing brown Bass penny loafers and you are the one person wearing fire engine red shoes, you feel like Frankenstein’s monster, and start checking over your shoulder for signs of people carrying torches and pitchforks, screaming “OUTLANDER!
Needless to say, shortly after our plane touched down at General Mitchell International Airport, the red clown shoes took up permanent residence in the back corner of Kim’s closet, where they collect dust to this day, unopened.
I don’t want to give the impression that New York is some sort of utopia for shoe lovers. Although it comes close, there are definitely some downsides to people being obsessed with looking hip, and I can sum that up in two words: flip-flops. I will never understand it, but for some reason, young people living in big cities think it is a good idea to wear beach flip-flops as normal street footwear. I run into this same frightening phenomenon in Chicago as well. Aside from the fact that flip-flops are just plain homely, it’s not exactly sanitary to have your bare foot only millimeters above all the grime and filth that is a big city street.
My aversion to flip-flops was never as apparent to me as it was last Saturday while I was having coffee with my friend Penny in a little grungy café in the East Village. A couple of hipster gals were hanging outside and drinking their cappuccinos, letting their flip-flops dangle off their toes in the mid-day heat. Suddenly, I looked up from reading The Onion to see one of these women walking into the café barefoot. I thought maybe she was just going to grab a newspaper, or a pack of sugar. But she kept walking. Toward the back of the café. I thought, “No. There’s no way she’s going to do what I think she’s about to do.” But then she did it. She went into the bathroom of a bustling New York City coffee shop – barefoot.
Now, New York is known for a lot of things, but sterile bathrooms are not one of them. I visibly shuddered at the thought of this girl’s feet being attacked by all sorts of weapons of biological warfare that were breeding on that bathroom floor. I couldn’t look as she walked back to her table, for fear that her feet had become gangrenous from the sheer toxicity of the bathroom floor.
Even though I wanted to just forget this entire scenario, I felt like I had to do something. This girl was in crisis, and clearly needed some guidance. On my way out, I handed her a napkin with my email address on it and said, “Honey, have I got the shoes for you! How do you feel about fire engine red?”

A New York Primer

How can I sum up a city as vibrant and diverse as New York in only 1,500 words? Actually, fairly easily, thanks to my highly efficient strategy of forming broad opinions about an entire group of people based on limited experiences with a few individuals. So for those of you who have never visited New York, you can consider this a sort of Cliff’s Notes version of the city. If you like what you read, I say pick up the whole novel, or just move to Manhattan and see for yourself.
Based on a long weekend spent with my dear friends Penny and Aggie, and the people we interacted with throughout my trip, I can confidently make the following assessments of New Yorkers as a whole:

  1. New Yorkers are solely responsible for America’s severe umbrella shortage.
  2. New Yorkers sweat a lot.
  3. New Yorkers have lunch with celebrities all the time.
  4. New Yorkers do not deserve cable television.
  5. New Yorkers do not like to tap dance.
  6. New York bike riders want me dead.
  7. New Yorkers are ill-equipped to handle the emotional swings of Midwesterners.

I’m not going to go into great detail on each of these points – I think you’ve come to trust me by now – but I do want to share a few specifics that led me to each of these major conclusions. I feel that this is really important information for non-New Yorkers to have. And frankly, I have high hopes that this blog will make its way across Mayor Bloomberg’s desk, so that he may begin to repair the great divide that exists between his fine state and the entire Midwest. I’m building bridges, one state at a time.
Some of you may be asking, “Is there really a shortage of umbrellas? Why haven’t I heard about this before?” Simple. New York doesn’t want anyone to know about it, lest the rest of the country start stockpiling all the umbrellas they can find. I personally wasn’t aware that there was a shortage either until I walked into my friends’ apartment, tossed my suitcase on the floor, and immediately noticed that they had nine black umbrellas sitting in a box near their front door. I’m not kidding. Nine umbrellas.
A few probing questions later, I discovered that including the umbrellas they had by the door, the ones in their closet, and the ones they had left at work, they had 23 umbrellas between the two of them. Twenty-three umbrellas for two people. If you assume they are typical New Yorkers, that’s 11.5 umbrellas per capita, multiplied by the population of New York City of 8,008,278, equals (I’m doing this in my head, so bear with me) approximately 920,765,230,475 umbrellas for the city of New York alone. Conspiracy?
You really don’t need any fancy statistics to prove this one. Just go there yourself and see. It is perpetually 89 degrees with 100% humidity in New York City, except when you’re waiting for the subway, when the additional body heat adds 24 degrees and 50% more humidity.
Penny and I were shopping for new jeans, and I actually had to buy a pair of jeans that didn’t even fit me because I couldn’t get them off. I had to walk out of the store with the legs dragging on the ground, pools of sweat rapidly forming in the cuffs. I’ve been politely asked not to return to the Levi’s outlet in SoHo.
Within 15 minutes of my arrival at Penny and Aggie’s apartment, I had my first celebrity sighting. We went to eat at a diner down the block from them, and who walks in, but Joan Allen! Much taller than I would have guessed. She ate a tuna melt with no cheese and had an iced tea mixed with lemonade. As I walked out, I stole her straw and the lemon rind off her table, and am now selling them on eBay in case anyone’s interested.
The next day, we saw the Asian guy from Smashing Pumpkins. Don’t know his name, but I never forget a face. He has bad hair and is much shorter than Joan Allen. Nice shoes, though.
Finally, on my last day in New York, Aggie swears that the man who passed us on the street was the guy who played Grady on Sanford & Son. Now, I realize that show has been off the air for about 20 years, but this guy looked nothing like Grady, who by my calculations would be about 103 years old. And as I was searching the web for this picture of him, I found out he died in 2001. Sorry, Aggie.
Cable Television
I’m actually going to hold off on this one until we get to Number 7, when I will discuss New Yorkers’ inability to be sympathetic to Midwesterner’s emotional needs.
Tap Dance
I walked all over that crazy city, and didn’t find one single tap dance nightclub. Not one. I didn’t even find a tap-dancing street performer. What a colossal disappointment.
What I did learn, however, is that Aggie’s sister Cheryl used to date a guy whose ex-girlfriend dated another guy whose cousin worked with the son of the late, great tap legend Gregory Hines. So really, through the six degrees of separation theory, I am actually now dating Gregory Hines’ son. And no one can take that away from me. Not even his wife.
We counted seven unique incidents where bike riders were clearly trying to kill me. Because traffic is so horrendous in New York, many people bike to work and to get around the city. Part of the reason that bicycle riding is such a fast means of transportation is because bikers completely ignore all traffic rules. I tried on numerous occasions to assert my pedestrian rights, only to have a near-miss with an errant biker, who then gave me a dirty sneer. Never trust a man with padded shorts, I always say.
Okay, here’s where the trip got a little touch-and-go. After spending three days of nonstop activity in overwhelming heat, we needed an evening to simply relax. So Penny, Aggie and I decided to just hang out in their apartment and watch TV. They have digital cable, so that gives them 745 channels. As some of you may recall, I don’t have cable TV, so it’s a rare treat for me to actually be somewhere with that many viewing options.
After Penny flipped through no fewer than 275 of the 745 channels, I saw at least 142 shows that piqued my interest. But would she stop flipping? No. I know I’m just a farm girl from the Midwestern cow pastures, but where I come from, we accommodate our guests’ every whim, even if it means letting them watch a hot dog eating contest on Spike TV.
And it wasn’t just the hot dog eating contest. Here’s a VERY short list of the shows she refused to let me watch:

  • Aforementioned hot dog eating contest
  • Plastic surgery mishaps
  • Behind the Music – Justin Timberlake
  • Footloose, starring Kevin Bacon
  • Flatliners, starring Julia Roberts and Kevin Bacon
  • A Few Good Men, starring Tom Cruise and Kevin Bacon
  • The Bacon Brothers Live In Concert, featuring Kevin Bacon
  • Cops – Uncensored

So after tempting me with all these glorious shows, do you want to know what we ended up with? A PBS special on the construction of the Brooklyn Bridge.
I don’t know, I guess it was a combination of fatigue, dehydration, heat exhaustion, and Kevin Bacon withdrawal, but I just snapped. When I get in that emotionally delicate state, I become prone to hyperbole, so a lot of what I said to them was slightly exaggerated. When I recap it below, I’ll put the actual figures in parentheses. It went down something like this:
“Okay, you have got to be kidding me. The Brooklyn Bridge?! PBS!? Listen, ladies, I don’t want to look a gift horse in the mouth, but I did not spend $1,000 ($215) on a plane ticket to fly halfway around the world (900 miles) just so I could walk 45 miles a day (4) in 104 degree heat (89) only to come back and watch some lame-ass documentary on PBS (PBS) that I could have watched for free back in my centrally air-conditioned apartment (window unit)!
Do you know what the ‘P’ stands for in PBS? PUBLIC, as in FREE! Like public bathrooms or public schools – they’re crappy because you don’t have to pay for them! You’re paying for cable, but you don’t even deserve it. If I had digital cable, I would use it!”
At that point, I fell off the couch and started convulsing. When I woke up, I had a cold towel on my forehead, a wallet shoved between my teeth, and the latest issue of People Magazine clutched tightly in my hand. I guess Penny and Aggie saved my life that evening. No, actually New Yorkers saved my life.
So now that I’ve had a day to reflect on this experience, I’ve gained a new perspective on New York City. For all its heat and pigeons and renegade bike messengers, for all its excessive umbrella consumption and cable neglect and singing crazy folks, I guess I learned that New York is filled with people who just really care about each other. We’ve all heard the expression that a picture is worth a thousand words, but in my case, a picture is worth closer to 1,500 words.