12 November 2008

Big pearls and cashmere

I think job interviews are possibly the only experience worse than the British Driver’s Test (which I failed twice). Notably, I failed my first Driver’s Test before we even left the Testing Centre. I will never forget it. My Driving instructor, “The Saint,” drove me to the Testing Centre, gave me a hug and said, “You’ll be fine.” I failed that test so quickly, he hadn’t even sat down properly with his cup of coffee, before the Examiner, “Satan,” and I had returned into the Testing Centre. At best, I had failed that test in under 5 minutes. I stalled the car in the Testing Centre parking area. We didn’t even make it to the road. I was crestfallen. But, my instructor assured me I would have my day.

On Attempt No. 2, I actually made it out of the Testing Centre Parking Lot, a miracle, and felt that the only way was up. Up and down, all around the traffic nightmare that is Stratford-upon-Avon. I managed the “Up hill start,” the “Down hill start” and (my personal favourites) the Three-point turn and the Reverse parking between two vehicles. (I can do these maneuvers now, blindfolded in my sleep!) Just when I thought “Success!” I panicked during my “Emergency Stop” maneuver on the Clopton Bridge. I had failed the test at the painful, bitter end.

My friend, Catherine, will be taking her Driver’s Test Attempt No. 3 in two weeks time, and she is sure of success. I have assured her, too. There is something to the “Third Time Lucky” phenomenon when it comes to the British Driving Test, and even romance, but job interviews? No, you only get one shot at those to Pass or Fail.

Wouldn’t it be helpful if job interviews were more like the Driver’s Test? You have a go, have a chance to get some critical feedback from your examiners, then you go away, have a think and a cry, practice, practice, practice, and then come and try again. And again, until you get it right. To be sure, this would hardly be the most cost-effective or time sensitive way of screening applicants, but how much more humane then the “Act now!” shot-in-the-dark approach we all have come to accept and endure.

To their credit, the English are at least very efficient in their interviewing processes.  I recall an interview I had for a Drama Lecturer post in Chichester several years ago. I was still a lowly Ph.D. student, and considered myself quite lucky to even get the interview. The letter I received informing me of my selection, also informed me that I was one of three candidates being invited along to interview. I was even informed of their names. (!!!!) Imagine that, I thought. (Alas, that this happened in those heady days before Google, so I was unable to ‘google’ my competition, as one could now.) What I could never have imagined was the shock I encountered when I arrived in Chichester at my designated interview time, only to find the other two candidates arriving as well. Yes, the three of us were in fact being interviewed together. And believe me, it was as much the nightmare scenario as you imagine. A situation I would not wish upon anyone. Any-one.

The significance of three keen seekers being forced to cat-fight for the golden egg was not lost on me, Shakespearean that I am, I knew immediately that I had been woefully miscast as "Cordelia" in a low-budget production of King Lear. And like the ill-fated Cordelia, I had hoped that my grace, charm, (and my big pearls and cashmere) would see me through, and win the day, whilst my competitors “Goneril” and “Regan” clawed out each other’s eyes. 

Chichester is 102 miles/165 kilometres from Stratford-upon-Avon.  That’s over 5 hours, 37 minutes, and four changes/transfers via train on British Rail. Anyone who has taken British Rail anywhere in this country will agree that train journeys, however enjoyable, are quite often a saga in themselves. One finds one’s self waiting (and waiting and waiting…) on cold, windy platforms, for trains that are inevitably and often indefinitely delayed, and then endlessly transferring from one train to the next, and the next, because getting wherever it is you want to be can’t be accomplished by traveling in a straight line.

Eventually, bone tired, battle-weary, and emotionally drained, I ambled home from the Stratford-upon-Avon train station. As I walked through the door, I noticed my answering machine’s angry red light blinking in the darkness. With my last ounce of energy, I dashed across the room and pressed the button. From the machine came the sonorous tones of the Chichester Department Head who had (gleefully) enjoyed the role of King Lear all day. Efficient to the last, his message was short and direct. No “Hello,” “Thank you,” or any other customary niceties, just simply: “We’ve given the job to Jessica.” Keys and Gucci briefcase still in my hand, wet raincoat still hanging about me, I just sank and wilted onto my settee (couch), and didn’t bother to turn on the lights.

By contrast, my experience of American academic job interviews has been the opposite extreme. Once, I interviewed for a post in a small town in Michigan, and I was there on site for nearly a week! And it was five days too long. I mean, of course after five days you would indeed have a “real sense” of a place, and its people, but really, oy vey! I mean, five days? That’s long enough to meet people, get to know them, fall out with them, and draw battle lines.

Of course, that’s an extreme example, but it does seem to me that American academic job interviews go on (and on, and on, and on…) in a tiresome parade of meetings, handshaking, and endless meals wherein the job candidate is the beggar at the banquet, or the fool at the feast, forced to talk and entertain, whilst everyone else digs in and chows down. It’s almost as if American academic interviewing committees have developed some strange strategy wherein, the thinking goes, that the longer they keep you smiling and tap-dancing in one place, depriving you of food and sleep, the more likely you are to reveal yourself to be a raving lunatic, homicidal maniac, or both.  Given the choice, I think might prefer the more brutal, English “King Lear” approach. Sure, it’s lacerating, but at least it’s swift.

Thankfully, my interview yesterday at The Shakespeare Institute, another big pearls and cashmere day, was neither a “King Lear experience,” nor a “Five Day Sojourn.” I would say it was more like facing a friendly Firing Squad. It was an utterly surreal experience for me, having been a graduate student there years ago. I kept hearing that Janis Joplin quote in my head: “You can never go home.”  And a homecoming it was in many ways, but I tried not to focus on the metaphysical, full circle-ness of the moment, but rather deal with the task at hand as best I could.  The Institute has changed significantly since my days there as a student. And perhaps, for all my youthful exuberance, I may indeed to be too much of a harbinger of the past, too “old guard” to meet their present and future needs. The Shakespeare game has changed a lot since I was a grad student, and The Shakespeare Institute now has far more competition than ever before. Notably up the road in Warwick. Everyone is striving to have “the edge,” the upper-hand. 

The other “sticky wicket” in all this is my own indifference. On one hand it is everything I have ever hoped for, trained for, prayed for, dreamt of; while at the same time, I am terrified of losing the new found and hard-won freedom I now possess. I fear that I am only erecting yet another obstacle to fulfilling my dreams of writing. Perhaps, I don’t even believe I can cut it as a writer. So, I faced yesterday very torn. I wanted to do well, of course. But I’m not sure this is something I really want. I mean, of course it is! But, it also isn’t... Not the best state of mind to be in when one is trying to make a good showing at an interview. The way I see it, let the fates decide. It will be a “win, win” for me either way.

The D.E.B. is as loving and supportive as ever. He just wants me to be happy, and wants me to do whatever will, in his words, “fulfill” me. I just don’t know what that is anymore.  Some days, I relish the idea of being just another “country wife,” as it were, here in Barford: doing laundry, quilting, gardening, etc. I went to my first Barford “Coffee Morning” at the Machado Gallery last Friday. And there I met two lovely women from the village, and we started hatching a plan to create a Barford writers group. I don’t want to miss these organic, spontaneous life opportunities, opportunities that may in fact lead nowhere, professionally, but offer moments of connection. Moments that don’t require big pearls and cashmere, but would be all the more enjoyable in them.



Spike 1 said...

Goneril and Regan... I almost spit out my lunch... crass I know, but the the hell here... Do you remember our other reference for these two characters.

The fool at the feast... Did you wear the hat?

Big Pearls and Cashmere always have a place--- classic just like you!

Brittany said...

I've recently come across your blog and I love to read your stories. I'm an undergrad in FL but am also a military brat. I lived in England for 3 years prior to college and loved every second of it. Stratford-upon-Avon is gorgeous...definitely one of my favorites!

An American Girl in the UK said...

Thanks, Brittany. Wish we had some Florida weather here! Cheers!!! :)

The Driving Instructor UKADI said...

I wish you the best on your 3rd attempt at the driving test.

I enjoyed your story about the UK academic interview, as it remnded me of an interview in leeds for a post graduate course which I never got.

G said...

I liked your blog! :)