Category: Working

The lot that got away

Is that an Interstate Highway I see before me??

Some time ago, around the time that I was optimistic enough to think I could pack up and move to Vermont and still somehow support myself, I found this vacant lot for sale. The fact that it was affordable should have tipped me off.

It was a wooded lot (as advertised) but it was a wooded lot:

  • On the end of a private gravel path. The future owners of the house next door used the lot as a driving range. This made my dog very happy — not to be hit by incoming golf balls, but in finding about three dozen of them where our living room would have been.
  • Above but still next to (I mean really, really next to) Interstate I-89.

On a brighter note, the architect I spoke with was very cool.

Life is but a…game show

Photo credit: Wikipedia
Photo credit: Wikipedia

I am amused by the naive attitudes of the members of the social media site for job seekers known as LinkedIn. You’d think there is some magic formula to finding rewarding work. The pundits tell us: “Do as we say and your life will be complete. Format your resume this way… Answer interview questions that way and you will find your dream job.”

To which I reply “Baloney!”  or some such dismissive retort.

Gather round, college seniors about to enter the job market. I am about to tell you how it really is.

The Interview

I do strongly advise that you get dressed up for the interview. You may not see the point, but it does matter. It shows you have respect: for yourself, the company, and the position for which you are applying. Trust me on this one: dress far better than you did under your graduation gown. The interviewer is looking for a reason to reject you; don’t give him one before you even cross the threshold.

Yes,  you should be positive and appear engaged during the interview. Yes, you should appear to take notes, even if you are only writing down items to pick up at the grocery store after the interview.

Still, doing these things does not mean you are a shoo-in to be hired. No, it only means that you won’t be dismissed within the first five seconds of the interview. But the sixth second? Well, that’s another matter.

You can be the absolute best candidate to ever walk into their conference room. You can be sent-from-heaven-above to save the company and become its next CEO, but that does not guarantee you anything. You can be rejected for any number of reasons. To wit:

  • You look like your interviewer’s ex-spouse.
  • You are wearing green and your interviewer hates that color.
  • You have an extra space on you resume (somewhere between the words Rhodes and Scholar, perhaps), so how could they possibly consider you?
  • The interviewer spotted a tattoo peeking out beyond your collar or shirt sleeve.

Lesson: Do your best but you are dealing with who-knows-what as you wend your way through the HR/interview maze. Rules of logic do not apply. Just make sure you don’t have any food caught in your front teeth before you go in.

The Salary and Benefits

I consider the discussion of benefits to be a well-needed comic interlude during a job interview. As they toss out the benefits associated with the job, consider this:

  • Bonuses are called that because they are not–by definition–guaranteed. I once started at a company the day after the last applause-worthy bonus was paid. This was done in spite of (and no doubt contributing to) the fact that the company was losing $18 million a year. And no, they did not mention the losses in the interview, just the fact that my sub-par salary would be enhanced by the forthcoming bonuses. As I recall, my largest bonus was $57. We referred to it as the tank-of-gas bonus.
    Lesson: If you don’t get the salary you want going in the door, you’re not ever going to get it.
  • Paid time off. Here’s a myth that I want to dispel: Just because a company gives you a paltry two weeks’ vacation does not mean that you will be paid for two weeks that you don’t actually work. No, you will work twice as hard during the weeks preceding and following your vacation to get all your work done.
    Lesson: I consider four or five weeks’ vacation to be an actual benefit. I might get a week or two to relax during that time.
  • Company outings. This is one of the dumbest ideas to ever be hatched. I spend 40-60 hours a week in the office or working from home. Then, as a Thank You for all my hard work, the company wants me to climb aboard a boat with my co-workers and Management as we eat bad food and drink (well, that part might be OK) and cruise around some harbor and get home at 11:00 PM on a work night. (It’s always on a week night because it’s cheaper to charter the boat during the week.) Meanwhile, my manager has gotten drunk and is snapping the elastic on my friend’s bra as he talks to her–and I am here to tell you that HR was of absolutely no help when she reported this to them.
    Lesson: How can this possibly be considered a benefit?


Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha!

Lesson #1: Those days are gone. Not going to happen. You will be fired or quit. Or the company will be sold or file for bankruptcy within 5 years.

Lesson #2: Keep your resume updated. Always.

Lesson #3: Start saving on your own now. You’ll need it later.

Meeting notes–February 10, 2015

meeting notes 02-10-15

There is 6 feet of snow on the ground, with more in the forecast. Public transportation is shut down for the day. The state government is encouraging everyone to stay home today.

I couldn’t go to work anyway. The office too inaccessible–50 miles away, off a country road, then down a winding driveway through a woods. It’s not just an office, it’s a campus with four buildings. Nearly everyone has a long commute getting there.

Except Doug, the CEO.

Doug had the offices built on land just a half-mile from his house. Some days he walks to work. So, even though the parking lots at work will be empty, the offices are open because Doug doesn’t have a problem getting to work.

This means that we all had to dial in for our meeting. Usually, this is not a problem because people know how to use the video conferencing equipment.

Except Doug, the CEO.

Doug had to call his secretary to set up the meeting and e-mail the invitations to us. Then Doug had to call his secretary again to have her explain what he needed to do to host the meeting. We could hear the conversation on the conference call but no one could offer any advice because the speaker phone in the conference room is broken. We all know this.

Except Doug, the CEO.

Meeting notes–February 3, 2015

Before I started working, my friend’s mother told me to always be sure to carry a pen and paper with me when I was in the office. “It makes you look like you are paying attention,” she said.


I’ve followed her advice for many years. I depend on my pen and paper to get me through these meetings — not because I need to take notes, but because I need to doodle and vent my frustration with this incredible weekly waste of time.

Highlights from today’s hour-long meeting:

  1. Debby, our bookkeeper and lover of all things feline and Disney, brought in her new calendar for 2015. We suspended the meeting to look at it and discovered that it features kittens. We all make the appropriate ooh-ing  sounds.
    For the record, I like cats. I just don’t see why we have to devote meeting time to paging through the calendar to see the especially cute calico kitty for October.
    Fifteen minutes lost.
  2. Joe, our manager, brings up a touchy subject. We need to cut back office expenses. He suggests cutting out the truly awful coffee in the lunch room, which is free and appropriately priced. Since I don’t drink the coffee anyway, I don’t have a dog in this fight, so I sit back to listen.  The pro-coffee coalition is adamant: they want their coffee!! The discussion turns to the over-sugared packets of hot chocolate. Can we stop providing these for free? Hot sugar chocolate drinkers are not so vocal, apparently. This may be a weaker link to attack. Still, objections are voiced.While the discussion heats up, I look around the room and try to estimate the annual salary for each of us sitting around the conference table. What would the average hourly salary be? I come up with a conservative number: $52.00/hr. There are 20 of us in this meeting, which means we’ve just wasted $1040.00 salary to sit in the meeting.
    I think we can afford the hot chocolate and even upgrade the coffee as well.

    The discussion drones on.  We are tabling the discussion until next week. 45 minutes lost.

  3. The hour’s up. Meeting’s over. Back to what passes for work around here.

5 things I learned about business from Junior Achievement


I’m not a practical business person by nature. My mind tends to follow a more creative track, or it would if I didn’t have to spend so much time working. But I do like to sit back and observe while I work, so I appreciate businesses who do things right.

My first business experience (not counting  the dreaded door-to-door Girl Scout cookie sales) was through Junior Achievement (JA) in high school. This is the non-profit organization that brings volunteers from the local business community to mentor students in leadership, financial, and business skills.

Our town had a very active organization, where volunteers helped us set up businesses and learn about manufacturing and sales. I joined not because I was interested in business but because it seemed like a good way to meet boys. Plus, I actually got to leave the house on a school night.

When we arrived for our first meeting, we were each assigned to one of six fledgling businesses. I noticed that both the local utility companies had brought in appliances and set up working kitchens. One company made chocolate fudge and the other made salad dressing, which they created and bottled right on site. Oh, how I wanted to switch to that company! Then I looked around my company’s area. Our little manufacturing site consisted of band saws, sanders, glue pots, and wood varnish. This might be interesting, I thought.


1. Find investors

It’s important for any start-up company to have some cash on hand from the first day. This money  keeps the lights on and covers a company’s overhead until it can generate revenue on its own. I had no idea what stocks were until we started selling them. I was too shy for sales. I had the lowest sales of Girl Scout cookies in my troop and I did not step enthusiastically into my role as a wooer of investors.

It was easier than I thought, however.  Even my uncle Gerry, who rarely parted with a dollar, handed me five of them for five shares of our stock. I was warming to the concept of capitalism.

2. Keep the quality high and the production cost low

Our town still had a company called Fisher Body that produced auto bodies and interior parts for automobile manufacturers, largely General Motors. If you or your father owned a General Motors car in the 1950s or 60s, there was probably a medallion on the door sill plate that said “Body by Fisher.”  Our JA volunteer worked at the local Fisher Body plant. He arrived with a car trunk packed with scrap foam rubber from car seats and brushed aluminum “punch outs” that were left over from dashboards. An opening would be punched out for the radio and our industrious volunteer gathered up all the scraps so that we had the (free) component parts for our business.

3. Find a need and fill it

Our product would be lint brushes! Who couldn’t use one or two lint brushes? It was a brilliant idea, especially because our manufacturing costs would be ZERO. Even I, as right-brained a person as they come, could see the potential for this business. I was giddy with greed.

We made our lint brushes in two sizes: a 1 x 3-inch piece of foam glued to one of the aluminum pieces and a 2 x 3-inch brush with a varnished wood handle. They turned out to be very good products. I occasionally still find one, forgotten, in the back of a drawer. The foam is dried out, but that glue really holds!

4. Pay your sales staff well but spread out their territories

Once we built our inventory, we were set loose to go out and sell our product. My parents, of course, bought several but my eternal gratitude goes to those kind and patient families who lived within a three-block radius of our Junior Achievement building.  Theirs were the first door bells we rang and they bought it all: the salad dressing, the pegged coat racks, the chocolate fudge…whatever we were selling, they were happy to buy.

Our confidence buoyed, we fanned out to new sections of town. We sold so many lint brushes that we received some paychecks. This was way better than babysitting.

5. Learn from your mistakes

After a few weeks, however, our sales volume started to decline. We had saturated the market with our trusty brushes and we began to see the flaw in our business plan. These brushes were too well made. Unlike the companies that sold salad dressing and fudge, we would not find any repeat customers, which meant that we needed a new product.

We looked to our volunteer for new ideas, but he was tapped out. The foam and brushed aluminum scraps were perfect for lint brushes, but what else could we do with them? Were there other scraps from the Fisher Body plant that we could recycle into a new product? (I believe we may have coined the term “recycle”! Too bad we didn’t patent it.)

We brainstormed (another patent opportunity missed). We talked. We briefly tried making bean bag ashtrays because nearly everyone smoked in those days, but there were too many of them on the market already.


It seemed nothing could top our lint brushes. We met one week, then two trying to decide what to do. The paychecks stopped.

Soon I learned a new word: Bankruptcy. We had managed the dubious achievement of being the first company in our local JA organization to ever file for bankruptcy.  But we were not mocked by the students in the other companies. That’s because they never noticed. They were all too busy making their fudge and bottling that damn salad dressing.

Another Mother’s Day Behind Me

Daughter Giving Mother Kiss Relaxing On Sofa

Despite all the talk about women making their own decisions to work or not work, to marry or remain single, to have children or remain childless, there’s not much discussion about the women who never had that choice to make.

And there is still an assumption that most women will have children. If you didn’t, there must be something wrong with you. (more…)

“These peaches are the wrong shade of peach”

"Still Life Basket of Peaches" -- Raphaelle Peale, 1816
“Still Life Basket of Peaches” — Raphaelle Peale, 1816

Many years ago, I used to own a frame shop. I primarily did custom framing, but also framed some art to sell in the shop.

I ordered a print of the above art and decided to treat it like an oil painting. I framed it with a linen liner and a wide, dark cherry molding. I used non-glare glass on it because it makes simple prints look more impressive.

I put a $75 price tag on it and hung it on the wall.

A week later, one of my better customers came in to pick up her order. As I was wrapping it, she noticed the still life and commented on how nice it was. “Oh, that would be perfect in my dining room, but I can’t spend any more money on framing for a while,” she said. “My husband will have a fit.”

“Well, we can’t have that,” I said.

She went back to take a closer look at it.

“I’d love to have this for my dinner party this weekend,” she said.

“Why don’t you rent it for a month?” I asked, making all of this up as I go along.


“Sure. How about ten dollars a month? I’ll apply whatever you pay towards the purchase price if you want to buy it later.”

She thought that was a fine idea. She gave me the money and took the print home.

A few weeks later, she returned the print.

“Did you decide you didn’t like it?” I asked.

“Oh, no,” she said. “I love it, but I just had my dining room chairs upholstered and the peaches in the print don’t match the peach fabric on the chairs.”

Let me pause here and clarify what is commonly thought to be a law of retail sales: The customer is always right. They seldom are but business owners pretend that they are because they need the sale.

I needed the sale, so I asked, “How about if I change the color?”

“You can do that?”

“Sure,” I told her, having no idea how I could accomplish it.

She left the art and a sample of the fabric. The next day, I went to an art supply store and bought some oil pastel crayons. Whispering a prayer for forgiveness, I did a respectable job of coloring the peaches to match her stupid seat cushions. I sprayed the print with a matte spray to mask the changes, framed it, and called my customer.

She was delighted. I collected the money from her and sent her on her way. It took about a month but I finally had the full retail price.

Mercifully, I don’t work in retail any more. But I did learn something invaluable from that experience.

If I see a piece of art that I like, I don’t ask the artist if he or she could make another one just like the one on display, but make it two inches taller, or change the shade of red, or any other insulting request. I certainly don’t ask them if they could come down a little on the price.

They have spent months in their studios to create the art to sell at shows and galleries. It is not necessarily the type of art they want to make; it is what they think will sell.

If I can, I pay the asking price and compliment them on their work. If I can’t afford it, I still compliment them.

What I try to never do is insult them.

Why being your own boss is not always the best idea

NOT Barney! Photo credit:
NOT Barney! Photo credit:

I have contractors in the house this morning to add insulation in my attic. The city and state where I live are promoting energy efficiency and I applaud them for that. Much of the cost is paid for by the state, so why wouldn’t you want to change your light bulbs, add insulation, and just try to save money on your bills?

The one thing about construction, plumbing, and home remodeling jobs is that no one has figured out a way to outsource them. Most of the contractors I’ve hired have been very nice people to be around, but also very independent, with the type of personality that one needs to work on their own.

I was reminded of Barney, a neighbor’s brother-in-law who thought that working for himself was the only way to become financially secure. He tried many things over the years: drywall installer, house painter, landscaper, general contractor.

The problem was, Barney wasn’t very good at any of them. He tried installing wood burning stoves for a while until the Fire Marshal threatened to have him arrested. (more…)

Makers and Takers: I pitch a new reality TV series


As a one-time minimum wage earner in America–even with a college degree, I’ve been listening to the comments pro and con on the topic with a sense of bemusement. President Obama wants to increase it to $10.10 an hour and, according to those opposed to it, it will lead to less work for all.

I’m not sure how they arrived at this factoid; all I know is that I earned roughly the equivalent of the proposed amount in 1985 and it wasn’t very much money even then. I had to live at home.

Then I found a job that paid $650 a month (before taxes) and we all celebrated, but this is what I dealt with every month:

  • $200 rent
  • $30 heat and electric
  • One weekly tank of gas for the car: $20.00 x 4 = $80
  • $100 health insurance

So long, groceries. Maybe I’ll see you next month. I couldn’t have survived without my parents.

Now, take the $10.10 amount and plug your monthly expenses into the budget. Where I live, the average rent for an apartment is about $1000 per bedroom per month.

But I’m not here to argue the point. Instead, I’d like to suggest a fun reality show based on the minimum wage. That last sentence would be cruel except for who I want as contestants: members of the United States Congress. How much fun would that be?

The rules are simple:

  1. Each contestant is given $200 cash, a pair of jeans, a pair of chinos, 2 shirts, a jacket, and a pair of shoes.
  2. In the first episode, contestants are given new identities and a high school diploma. They must surrender their cell phones and any access to their previous lives. They are warned that they will lose $20 for each infraction of the rules.
  3. Contestants are then blindfolded and driven to a small town in America where they are dropped off and told they will be picked up in 90 days.

Then gather the family around the television and watch the fun as our camera crews follow  “John from Ohio” and “Paul from Wisconsin” as they try to find food, shelter, and work.

John might get an early start hitchhiking to Wal-Mart the next morning because he overheard a conversation in the Dollar Store (where he went for underwear and a toothbrush) that they are hiring.

Paul heads right over to Denny’s restaurant where he hopes to parlay his experience as a dishwasher into a job.

Hopes are raised; hopes are dashed. And the money is running out. How will this end?

Someone gives John the address for the welfare department, which he keeps in his new vinyl wallet. Paul just heard about a men’s shelter outside of town but he doesn’t have a car and the county did away with public transportation during the Reagan administration. John thinks of seeing if there is work at the local Post Office, which he helped to name. He loses $20 of his cash when he tries to tell the Postmaster who he really is.

John and Paul might consider pooling their resources except for the most fun rule of all: the winner is the contestant with the most cash after 90 days. The winner is flown home to his or her old life and the loser is taken to another small town where he or she must compete against a new contestant for another 90 days.

Who might it be? Maybe “Eric from Virginia” or “Ted from Texas.”

I, for one, will be glued to my television all season long.

In the meantime, if you are a producer, have your people call my people (that would be me, actually).